Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: This piece started as a response to Liz's story challenge way back when we first took on the un-produced script, "Love, Pain, and All That Stuff". (Arianna already did a novelization of the piece, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it.) There's practically nothing recognizable from that script here, either in characters or plot concepts.
Because of the concepts involved, it proved more challenging than I anticipated. Perhaps I should have listened to my gut instincts and avoided the subject altogether but, in the interest of completeness, here's my very belated first entry to the challenge. It's set in the period right after "Chip Off the Ol' Milt" the final episode of the series.
Thanks, Cheri, for a note you posted several weeks ago that explained why the 'Love Interest of the Week' can be so annoying in a buddy show, and thank to both my tenacious betas for putting up with this.
by L.M. Lewis
It wasn't exactly that he'd been given the bum's rush, Mark thought in retrospect, but Hardcastle had been pretty adamant that he should take Barb Johnson up on her invitation to come to San Francisco for a couple of weeks. It'd made sense, hadn't it? Her studying for the bar exam and him signed up to become a full-time, day-time, out-of-the-closet student of the law.
So he'd gone, all the time feeling a little guilty about accepting Hardcastle's largesse—the whole freight for his law school tuition—and then ducking out on him first thing. It hadn't boded well for a relaxing visit, his vague sense of guilt and Barb's obvious tension. She was mired in a swamp of notes, case outlines, and endless precedents. It wasn't pretty. It was almost enough to make a guy reconsider his career choice.
But after only a few days it had become obvious that his company was a burden. What she really wanted to do was be alone with her various copies of Emanuel and her overworked espresso machine. There was only a perfunctory protest when he mentioned he'd be leaving early.
He hadn't informed Hardcastle. He didn't really want to explain his friends to the judge. So he'd headed home on Friday morning unannounced, thinking, if he thought at all, that it would be a pleasant surprise.
A surprise it was, at any rate, though that part came before he'd even gotten all the way home. He'd stopped at the grocery store a few miles north of the estate, figuring the judge would have probably been reduced to eating beans right out of the can by this time. The least the prodigal could do would be return bearing the fixings for meatloaf.
He was juggling a full bag of groceries and fishing in his pocket for the keys, when his eyes lighted on a familiar midnight-blue 'Vette in the lot across the highway. It figured: leave the man alone for too long and he'd be driven to desperation, a late lunch at a very nice seafood place that Hardcastle always carped was too expensive. Mark grinned down at his emergency food supplies.
He thought he'd run over there for a sec, let the guy know he was home and tease him about his indulgence. He'd already set the bag in the passenger side of the Coyote and turned back toward the street when he saw Hardcastle himself, emerging from the canopied door. He grinned and was opening his mouth to holler a greeting.
But the judge wasn't alone. Mark's hand, already raised to wave, froze, and then dropped slowly to his side with his greeting unshouted. There was a woman with him. Most certainly with him—his arm encircled her shoulders as he ushered her out to the car. Mark squinted slightly. It was definitely Hardcase, but he was speaking a foreign body language.
The woman was of indeterminate age with a trim figure and roan red hair. Mark couldn't make out her features with any certainty except enough to know she was a stranger to him. He stood there, still frozen, feeling like an awkward intruder even at this distance.
Under any other circumstances he figured he would have been spotted—the Coyote was a dead giveaway—but this time it appeared that Hardcastle only had eyes for his companion. He squired her to the car and got her seated. It was a slow process with, Mark cringed, a parting kiss. For God's sake he was only going 'round to the driver's side. This was clearly besotment.
Still, intruder or not, Mark couldn't take his eyes off what was going on. It was a complete violation of the laws of nature as he'd come to know them.
On the other hand, he pondered woefully as the 'Vette finally pulled out of the lot, quite a few other things made sense with this piece of the puzzle finally revealed. He'd been away from the estate for quite a while before the big showdown in the Sunny Acres Retirement Home. And hadn't the judge been more than willing to send him off to San Francisco? Besides, Hardcastle always crowed about his way with women.
But it was all talk. You practically had to push him in the pool with Jane Bigelow and he let her walk out the door.
Mark frowned. He supposed that was true, but, let's face it, he'd only known the man for a few years and most of the time they'd been pretty busy busting bad guys. Maybe Hardcastle was different when he wasn't preoccupied with the damn files.
And this is safer than being the Lone Ranger . . . maybe.
It had to be. After all, wasn't an occasional broken heart better than a hollow point .38 through the right ventricle? Mark shuddered.
Still, even if it was safer for Hardcastle, it'd be damn dangerous for Tonto if he stumbled into camp a week early and threw a wet blanket on the fire just when it was getting up a good blaze. The 'Vette had taken off going south, toward the estate. It might mean anything, but it definitely counseled proceeding carefully.
Mark gave them fifteen minutes, then climbed into the Coyote and headed in the same direction, driving with all due care. He went no further than the side of the road just before the Gull's Way property line. He pulled over carefully and killed the engine.
He was vaguely aware that the sensible thing would be to simply continue on up the driveway—proper introductions and all that. There'd be a moment or two of awkwardness, no doubt. The lady might not even know Hardcastle had a pet ex-con underfoot. Maybe she was allergic to ex-cons, though he thought he could hardly be blamed for something like that.
A half-dozen scenarios spooled out in his mind, and in at least four of them it ended badly on account of him not having given Hardcastle a heads-up from San Francisco. Bad odds. On top of that, he was still unnerved by all the mystery. Had he ever kept any of his girlfriends secret from the guy? Not hardly—even when the judge had expressed a preference for being uninformed.
He sighed and climbed out of the Coyote, making his way down the fence line to a spot that was on the to-do list for repairs. He squeezed through, just like the neighborhood kids undoubtedly did on a regular basis, and approached the main house from an unexpected direction. There was an unfamiliar BMW in the drive, a champagne-colored late model. He sneaked past that, now fully aware that he was acting just plain silly.
Silly, and sneaky and—oh, crap, he'd only given them a fifteen-minute head start. Seeing them necking by the pool hadn't been one of the scenarios he'd come up with. Obviously law school was already stunting his imagination. Barbara had warned him about that.
There were limits to his curiosity. He made an abrupt one-eighty turn and skedaddled silently.
He was back in the Coyote, already driving, before he consciously considered his next move. He couldn't head back up to San Francisco and he was tapped out financially by his recent adventure in independence—a couple weeks in a low-rent motel waiting for a paycheck that would never arrive from his now-busted former employer.
He had friends, to be sure, but a significant number of them would, under these circumstances, tell him he was nuts and send him back to the judge. Frank definitely would.
Teddy Hollins, on the other hand . . . Mark thought currently the accounts were definitely in his favor between Teddy and him, not that true friends ever looked at the books that way. But it didn't hurt. And he'd checked one other thing just a week ago during a slow morning when he'd been in the law office library. As a successful graduate of the State of California parole system, he was no longer forbidden company for the not-quite graduated Teddy.
Mark checked his watch. Teddy was still working second shift. If he hustled, he could make it over to Hollins' apartment before he left for work, maybe even before the hamburger spoiled. He put the pedal down, though fast driving—with one eye out for the usual speed trap personnel—didn't quite take his mind off the situation. "I thought I was cramping your style . . .not that there's a lot of style to cramp." He cringed at the recollection of the words. They'd been uttered in a moment of mutual revelation—the kind that arises when two guys land unexpectedly in a holding cell. Hardcastle hadn't said anything about his new romance then, and nothing since Mark had moved back into the gatehouse, either.
"It must be serious," he muttered.
He wondered if such a thing could ever not be serious for Hardcastle. It wasn't like he'd had all that much practice falling in and out of love. Mark was still contemplating the implications right up until the moment when his knuckles struck a sharp rap on the door of Teddy's half-basement apartment.
There were uncertain noises from within—someone stumbling around in a way that seemed inappropriate for nearly two-thirty in the afternoon. The door opened only a crack, with the chain still on and one bleary but familiar eye peering out. The eye widened in surprise and then shot a glance down at its owner's watch.
"Oh, man, I overslept." The door briefly closed again with another rattling as the security chain was unhooked. Then it opened wide, with Teddy there in boxer shorts and a t-shirt, running his fingers through his tousled hair. "Thanks for waking me."
Hollins squinted slightly; maybe it was the bag of groceries, or something in Mark's still-perturbed expression. It finally seemed to dawn on him that Mark hadn't merely shown up to keep him out of trouble with his boss.
"Whatcha got there?" he asked.
"This?" Mark gazed down at his bag. "You like meatloaf?" he asked with an air of preoccupation.
Teddy nodded solemnly.
"I think maybe some of this stuff needs to go in the fridge."
Hollins stepped back. Mark wandered past.
"You and the judge have a fight or something?" Teddy asked cautiously.
"Nah," Mark opened the refrigerator door, sniffed once and leaned back, closing it carefully. "I dunno, Teddy, you work in a restaurant and all, and your fridge is, like, a biohazard area." He carried the supplies to the counter, stacked a few dishes to the side and made space for his burden. He frowned into the bag. "Maybe I should just go ahead and make it."
"Wait a sec," Teddy stepped into the kitchen shaking his head, "You're always telling me I'm kinda weird but now you come over, out of the blue, and start knocking out a meatloaf. What gives? Hey, I thought you said you were going up to Frisco this week."
"Yeah, well, turns out Barb wasn't in the mood . . ."
"For a visit, I mean," Mark amended quickly. "You know we're just old friends."
"Uh-huh," Teddy nodded sagely, "so you came home early and you don't want the judge to know you struck out. Sure, pally, the sofa's yours. How long were you supposed to be gone for?"
"That's not it at all," Mark said wearily. He took a slow breath. He'd always been pretty level with Teddy, but this was different; it wasn't really his business to share. Still, he felt like he had to talk to somebody about it.
"Does the judge seem like the romantic type to you?" he asked suddenly.
Teddy had half-turned away. Now he cast a puzzled look over his shoulder. "Hardcase?" he asked in a bemused tone. "Well—"
The dam burst and the afternoon's occurrences came flooding out. Mark wound down with ". . . and there they were, out by the pool like, like—"
"You and Vonna Westerlake," Teddy suggested helpfully.
"Not quite that bad." Mark winced in recollection. "But still—"
"That's how it is," Teddy interrupted, in a surprisingly insightful tone, "nobody ever thinks their folks did stuff like that—"
Mark drew himself up a little straighter. "It's not like he's my dad or anything. It's really none of my business . . . except that if he thinks he has to sneak around, or even get me out of town before he can have somebody over, well, maybe I am cramping his style."
Teddy ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head slowly, then he jumped slightly and glanced down at his watch again in alarm. "Shit. Late. Gotta go." He turned on his heel, bounced off the wall and was gone, with only some banging noises as drawers were opened and shut.
Mark let out a long sigh and turned back to the counter. He scrabbled though some cupboards in search of a clean mixing bowl, finally deciding he'd have to start from scratch and work his way up to the actual cooking. Sometimes life was like that.
By the time he'd cleaned out Teddy's fridge, washed his dishes, and made the meatloaf, he'd also made up his mind. Clearly he'd overreacted to the events of the afternoon. He'd been taken by surprise, that's all.
On calm, mature reflection, it was obvious to him that Hardcastle was going through some changes. Weren't they both? Anyway, it was spring, and nobody said a retired widower had to be a monk. Most likely he hadn't shared his new-found interest with Mark because he was still getting used to the idea himself.
The important point, Mark decided, was to give the guy a chance to bring the topic up, and to be as nonjudgmental as possible about the whole thing. This was no time for kidding around or finding fault with the lady. And if Hardcastle kept quiet about it all, well, that was his right, wasn't it?
Mark cut off a slab of meatloaf and set it, steaming, on a plate, then searched through Teddy's bread bag for two slices that didn't have green spots. Step one would be calling home and giving the judge a heads up that he was coming back early. He checked his watch. It was almost nine. Surely the guy had run out steam by now.
He reached for the phone and dialed. He didn't even need to close his eyes to imagine the other end of the line. Most nights found Hardcastle ensconced in a chair by this hour, watching something from John Ford's classic oeuvre. The ringing started. He wondered if the judge had broadened his tastes these days to include Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany's.. He squinted and tried to imagine Hardcase munching his way through a bowl of popcorn and An Affair to Remember. He gave up after eight rings.
He lifted his meatloaf sandwich then put it down without biting into it. He sat back in his chair. He tried to shake the notion that there was something very wrong about what was going on. He failed completely. He was frowning down at the sandwich and then he was on his feet, without being entirely sure what his motivations where. Probably best not to look too closely at those, he decided abruptly.
He grabbed a piece of paper and the stub of a pencil from a jar Teddy kept near his phone. The note was succinct: he might or might not be back and he didn't know exactly when.
This time he hid the car more carefully, not knowing when Hardcastle might return. It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution. On first approach it was obvious that the judge was home and still had company. There were lights on and the same BMW in the driveway.
He barely had time to duck back into the bushes when he heard the door opening and the sound of voices—one familiar and one female. There were endearments and farewells. Mark tried to remember his earlier thoughts on the subject of not finding fault, but the saccharine quality to the woman's side of the exchange set his teeth on edge.
At least she hadn't moved in. The good-byes were finally concluded and Hardcastle had her settled in her car. There was one more kiss through the open window, and she turned the key in the ignition as the judge slowly moved back.
Mark realized he'd over-stayed. He wasn't sure if he could make it back to his car before she cleared the gate and was gone. He crossed his fingers and hoped they had a few more forget-me-nots to exchange as he took off for the fence.
Somehow it didn't surprise him that he was right. He had the Coyote in position well before the Beemer made its appearance at the gate. The lady turned right, heading into town, and Mark gave her just enough of a lead so that the tail wouldn't be obvious.
It wasn't much more than a half mile, though, before the reality of what he was attempting to do struck home. He wasn't sure exactly when he had started to see every mystery as a portent of evil. All he knew for certain was that what he was doing was tantamount to stalking someone whose name he didn't even know. He eased his foot off the accelerator and pulled over, watching the taillights of the woman's car drop out of sight over the next hill.
Go home. He thought that was the first good idea he'd had all day. He frowned. The hill past this nearest drop-off was higher still, yet the BMW had not reappeared. Another mystery. He figured his motives were pretty pure this time. He edged the Coyote back onto the highway and accelerated, still frowning.
The mystery was only partially solved as he crested the rise. He saw the woman's car on the ocean side of the road about a hundred yards ahead. There were two other vehicles—heavy, late-model sedans. He supposed one had come out of a crossroad and the other most likely from the shoulder. The woman's car was between them and a burly guy in a suit was out, alongside the BMW. It was all body language, mostly the way the cars were angled—he couldn't see the woman at all—but the encounter didn't seem like a very friendly one.
"Hey," he shouted, pulling up behind the rearmost car, "accident, huh? Is anybody hurt? I already called the cops on my car phone."
The guy in the suit had straightened up from his threatening hulk over the driver's side door of the Beemer. It was obvious that he'd been on the verge of shagging him off, but the mention of the mobile phone seemed to tip the balance suddenly. Mark made no further moves, waiting to see how it would play out. The man shot a look in the direction of the Beemer, then made a gesture to the unseen driver of the other sedan as he climbed back into his own. It was only a moment more before both had pulled out, spraying gravel as they careened back onto the roadway.
Mark let out a breath as he levered himself out of his seat. He was pondering how far to take his good Samaritan persona as he headed for the BMW. It only took a glance at the intended victim and he heard the real concern in his tone.
The woman nodded. Now he could make out her features clearly and it was easy to see why Hardcastle was smitten. She was by no means a great beauty, though perhaps she had been early on. Her age was somewhere about halfway between his and the judge's and her hair was auburn with the first hints of gray scattered through it so evenly that they might have been touches of gold.
It was her eyes, though, that were compelling: gray and even. Even now there was a calmness there that was steadying.
"I should thank you," she said.
"What did they want?"
"I don't know." She might have been lying, but if so, she was good at it. "Are the police going to be here soon?" There was a hint of concern there, but it was hard to figure the trajectories.
"Sorry," he said, "I don't have a car phone. Just made all that up—spur of the moment."
He'd pried loose a smile from her, though once again he wasn't sure which direction it had come from.
"But I did get the one guy's license plate number and a pretty good look at him," he added.
She gave a quick, light laugh that had an edge of nervousness to it and then said, "You sound a lot like someone I know."
"Someone you like, I hope."
There was a moments pause and then she nodded. Her smile faded somewhat.
"Really. I ought to get going."
"You don't want to make a police report?" he asked more directly.
"No," she said sharply. "It's all over now. What's the point? Thanks, though," she said again hastily. "I must get home."
Her smile faded further to something wan and she was rolling the window up. Mark leaned back out of the way as she started her car and pulled past him. He hadn't even gotten a name out of her.
He trudged back to his car, only glancing over his shoulder once toward her quickly diminishing taillights. He supposed he could return to Teddy's, but that seemed pointless now.
He did a tight u-turn and headed back toward Gull's Way. He hadn't gone very far and the gate still stood open. He hesitated a moment and then turned up onto the drive. He was in his usual place a moment later, though there didn't seem to be anything else usual about the situation.
He clambered out and, in a desperate try for the routine, hollered, "Hey, Judge, I'm home."
It was a minute or so before the kitchen door opened—a puddle of incandescent light spilling down the back steps. He strolled over to it and looked up at Hardcastle's silhouette. He couldn't make out the man's features against the back light, but his tone was clear as he said, "Whatcha doing back so early? I thought you were gonna stay up there till next week sometime."
Mark leaned against the railing and scratched his head. "Barb needed more space than she realized," he said casually. "I was in the way."
This got him nothing more significant than a grunt and a beckoning gesture. "Well, you might as well come on in."
He did, squinting in momentary pain at the brightness of the kitchen lights but otherwise seeing nothing amiss. Maybe things were a little tidier than usual.
"You eat yet?" Hardcastle inquired mildly.
Mark thought about that one for a second, realized he hadn't and said so. "You?"
"Had a big lunch," the judge replied. Then he checked his watch. "Wouldn't mind some pizza, though." He reached for the phone. "You've probably had your fill of driving today."
Mark nodded absently and listened as Hardcastle placed an order for delivery. Suddenly, what had happened over the past few hours all seemed unreal. The more he thought about it, the more embarrassed he became.
By the time the judge had placed the phone back in the cradle, Mark was fighting down a sheepish grin and an urge to confess.
"What's the matter with you?" Hardcastle frowned.
"Nothing." The urge had fortunately passed. He wasn't crazy enough to imagine all the bad vibes he'd gotten out by the roadside tonight. Those guys, whoever they'd been, had been up to no good, and Hardcastle's mystery woman had bristled at the notion of getting the police involved. Was any of this going to be welcome news to the Lone Ranger? Would he even believe it, since it definitely came under the heading of 'finding fault with the lady'?
No. Absolutely not. Further investigations were indicated.
"It's gonna be a half-hour to forty-five minutes," Hardcastle muttered. "Might as well see if there's something on TV."
He headed down the hall. Mark followed, half-wondering if they'd wind up watching Rebecca.
It wasn't that bad; the judge had apparently missed the Dodgers game and was looking for the late scores. When the doorbell finally rang Hardcastle was already dozing. Long day, Mark supposed, takes it out of a guy his age. He fetched the pizza in.
By the time they'd knocked back a few slices, it was obvious that Hardcastle had no plans to impart any news. Mark wasn't in the mood to trap him in a lie of denial.
"Guess I'll see you in the morning," he said casually. And with not much more than a grunt of agreement from the judge, Mark departed for the gate house.
He'd worked it out sometime during the night. Hardcastle's behavior the next day just made it all that much easier. Over breakfast there hadn't been much conversation and while Mark was tackling the few dishes they'd dirtied, the judge said, "Got some errands to run. I might not be back till late."
No doubt Hardcastle had thrashed some things out during the night, too, like making alternative arrangements for his next rendezvous with the mystery woman. If he was giving the impression of shopping for lawn fertilizer, at least it couldn't be called an out-and-out lie.
Mark kept that notion to himself and merely responded with, "I have to pick up some textbooks." He did, too, and the bookstore lay conveniently in the same direction as a different chore that he didn't mention.
With that they parted. It was the 'Vette again, Mark noted. It might be a beautiful day for a ride in a convertible, but it wasn't Hardcastle's usual choice for errands. He climbed into the Coyote but waited a careful interval before pulling out. He didn't want the guy to feel like he was being crowded and there was no way he was going to attempt to tail an old pro like Hardcase.
On the other hand, his alternative plan was nearly as risky. He certainly couldn't come straight out and ask Frank to help him get the goods on the judge's new squeeze—not that he was actually trying to do any such thing. He thought his idea was a lot more subtle than that.
His visit to Frank's office was unannounced, with every effort to appear spontaneous—just in the neighborhood. He'd even made the requisite stop at the university bookstore to cover his tracks in that regard. He didn't go so far as to stuff a volume under his arm before he strolled into the building, but the receipts were in his pocket if anyone cared to inquire why he'd happened to be passing by.
Frank didn't seem surprised to see him—after all, he'd been in and out the past few weeks, talking to the investigating officers about the Sunny Acres investigation. What was one loose end, more or less? There might have been a slight frown of confusion—no Hardcastle jockeying for the spare chair in the office—but Harper had apparently gotten used to seeing the two of them apart.
"I thought you were up in Frisco this week."
Mark sighed. He didn't remember having told that many people about his plans.
"Came back early," he said cryptically. "Just last night."
He settled into a chair without waiting for an invitation. One of Frank's eyebrows went up.
"I was just passing by, you know, and I thought maybe you'd check something."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper with a hastily scribbled license number on it. Frank's questioning look remained in place but he reached for the paper.
"No, and . . . well, I'd rather have it stay between us."
Both eyebrows were up now and Frank's "How come?" was freighted with suspicion.
"He'll just say I'm crazy—"
"What else is new?"
"Yeah, well, maybe this time I am." He could see Frank was still waiting for an explanation. He launched himself into it slowly, as though he hadn't spent a lot of time ironing out the details of this particular story.
"I was on my way home yesterday evening and I saw something—a couple cars parked on the road just outside Gull's Way. They took off when I slowed down."
Frank gave him a hard stare.
"Probably nothing," Mark shrugged. "But . . ."
"You didn't mention it to Milt?"
"I'd sound paranoid."
"Only if they aren't out to get you," Frank rebutted philosophically, glancing down at the paper with more apparent interest. "You two haven't got anything cooking right now, have you?"
Mark shook his head.
"Okay," Frank stood up, "gimme a sec."
It was more like ten minutes, long enough for Mark to experience several waves of regret, but the look on Frank's face when he returned hardened the younger man's resolve.
"You said there were two of them?"
Mark nodded. "But I only got the one number."
Frank looked down at the printout in his hand. "You sure you two aren't up to anything right now?"
"Us two, no," Mark said impatiently. "What the hell did you come up with?"
"It's an '85 Olds registered to a company called Red Circle Imports."
Mark looked at him blankly.
"No bells, huh? I've never heard of it either, but the feds must've dug deeper. We got a little asterisk here with a note to contact the nice folks down at 11000 Wilshire before 'attempting to apprehend'."
Mark let out a long breath and uttered a very sincere, "Damn." He got a puzzled look from Frank and his resolve collapsed. "It's worse than you think," he muttered.
Mark's head lifted and his gaze was drawn sharply left with the shock of the familiar. The face matched the voice, of course. It was Hardcastle who'd appeared in the doorway at the worst possible moment.
Frank didn't seem surprised to see the other half of the duo show up. For one horrible moment Mark thought he might have somehow summoned the judge but, no, this was all happening way too fast. It was just rotten timing, that's all.
Harper was already handing the printout to Hardcase and Mark heard him forking over the particulars as well. This might have been fortunate, because he didn't think he could repeat his lie verbatim right now. Frank doing it for him bought him a moment's time. He spent most of his reprieve with his eyes on the judge's frowning face and only a second or two figuring out how he was going to answer the next obvious question.
Now Hardcastle had lifted his eyes from the paper and was staring directly at him. "Why the hell didn't you mention this to me, sport?"
Mark managed a shrug. "'Cause you always say I'm paranoid when I come up with stuff like this. You would have told me it was a couple of meter readers or something—maybe some guys out surveying for the county."
He left it at that, increasingly glad he hadn't had time to unburden himself fully to Frank. Let Hardcastle confess first and then maybe they could start getting to the bottom of this. He watched the man's face screw up into a look of serious displeasure as he went back to studying the piece of paper in his hand.
But the explanation, when it finally came, wasn't full disclosure. "It's one of the holding companies the feds think Martin Cherney might have been using for some of his arms deals," Hardcastle said, his expression barely unfolding.
"But Cherney's still awaiting trial," Mark protested. "He's not out on bond, is he?"
"Nah," Frank said emphatically, "ordering a murder and then framing an ex-judge for it is pretty bail-proof." Then he turned to Milt. "This company, though, the FBI must not have anything solid. Looks like the place is still open for business."
Mark shook his head, muttering in frustration, "So, even behind bars, Cherney has men and money at his command."
"Why would he be making a move now?" Frank frowned, and then something else seemed to occur to him suddenly. He flashed a look at Hardcastle again. "You've been talking to the feds?"
The judge gave a slight shrug. "They got in touch with me a while back, let me know Cherney might still have some 'resources', That's what they call 'em, these days," he added with more than a hint of bitterness. "Resources." He spat the word out a second time as though it tasted bad.
It occurred to Mark that maybe the judge hadn't connected the dots on this one. Maybe he didn't realize that a solid black line could be drawn between his departing visitor and the guys from this 'import' company.
No, he almost shook his head to emphasis his internal disagreement. Even in what looked like a besotted condition, Hardcastle was still one of the sharpest guys he knew. At this point he ought to be at least asking if Mark had seen anyone else. Anyway, he must have talked to the mystery woman already this morning, otherwise he'd be pouncing on Frank's phone to make sure she was all right.
So maybe it did all look like mere coincidence to Hardcastle. Maybe love had dulled his naturally suspicious nature to the extent that he thought the woman's departure and the thugs' arrival were separate events.
Mark tried to keep his sigh inaudible. Having not mentioned her up to now, bringing that element into the story now would be damn awkward. Hardcastle seemed to be slipping into pensive thought as well. It was Frank who was attending to more practical matters.
"I already sent a heads-up to the Bureau," he said. "I can let the local guys know—see if they can give your place a little extra surveillance. The DA ought to hear about this, too. They're not going to be too happy about being out of the loop. You're the lead-off man on their witness list."
The judge reached out abruptly across the desk, intercepting Frank's arm as he grabbed for his phone. "Wait a sec. Calm down. Nothing's happened. All we got is a guy in a car parked on the highway."
"Two guys," Mark reminded him. "Two cars."
He got a sharp glance from Hardcastle, who looked as though he'd heard more than had been spoken.
"Okay, a couple of guys in a couple of cars," the judge sighed. "Look," he added brusquely, "the feds already know Cherney's people are fishing around. But that's all that's happened. If they were gonna make a move, they would've made it, and if they do, I'll be ready for 'em. I don't want babysitters crawling all over the place and I'm sure as hell not going to a safe-house. You saw the list of pretrial motions Cherney's suits cooked up? This thing could take years."
Frank nodded glumly. "But I already let 'em know about the sighting. They're probably gonna want to talk to Mark about it."
Hardcastle scowled in McCormick's direction. "Okay, 'spose there was no way to avoid that. You know where to find him."
Mark took that as a sign that they were departing—both of them, it seemed, even though they'd arrived in separate cars. He was on his feet and offering a silent nod of thanks to Harper before he'd even processed more than the tone and its meaning, and he was halfway out before the other thing occurred to him. The judge hadn't known about any of this before he'd shown up at Frank's office.
He was a step behind Hardcastle and halted suddenly, the judge proceeding on.
"Hey," Mark said.
The older man looked back impatiently before pausing.
Mark cocked his head quizzically. "Did you forget something?"
Hardcastle frowned and glanced toward the office then back at McCormick.
"I mean," Mark hooked a thumb in the direction of the closed door, "You musta come down here for a reason."
"Nah." The judge's frown deepened but the word denied everything. "Just a social call. Me and Frank, we talk sometimes. It's not always about cases."
He turned away without further comment or explanation. Mark followed along dutifully, still pondering it all. Down the stairs, through the lobby, and out the door, all without so much as a sideward glance.
"You got your books?" Hardcastle asked, standing on the curb.
"Yeah." Mark glanced down at the 'Vette, a further reminder that things were still out of whack. He scrabbled in his pocket for the receipt and handed it over. "Sorry, it's a lot. I tried to get 'em used but—"
"It's okay," the judge interjected, giving the piece of paper a cursory inspection and then folding it into the other sheet from Harper.
Mark had the strangest sensation of having just been bribed. He shook his head once, briefly, to dispel that thought. It was nonsense. Hardcastle gave him a sharp glance.
"You're not gonna start apologizing every time a law school bill comes due, are ya? That'd be a lot of apologies. I already said I'd do it and I meant it. Can't have you hanging out on street corners; you need an honest trade." The man frowned. "Not sure if the law qualifies sometimes. I hope you're not gonna wind up being able to spin a tall one using bigger words."
Mark twitched a bit at this last sentiment, though, really, this was more like it—a little banter before parting. He dredged up a self-effacing grin and quipped, "That'd be gilding the lily, huh?" His eyes hadn't quite met the other man's and he was suddenly glad they were going home in separate cars.
He shifted gears suddenly. "You finish all your errands?"
That was dangerous ground, too, he realized belatedly, and Hardcastle wasn't making eye contact either.
"One more," the older man said vaguely. "Might not be home for lunch."
"S'okay. I was gonna stop off and see someone."
Mark was ready to offer Teddy's name if further questions arose, but Hardcastle didn't seem to be in an inquisitorial mood. He was already climbing into the 'Vette and offered Mark's vague plans no more than a nod.
"Later," he said, and his tone wasn't particularly ominous, Mark noted with surprising relief.
He wasn't visiting Teddy, although he would have squeezed that in if it had been necessary to stay honest—maybe even a leftover meatloaf sandwich and a beer to keep it company. But now he had carte blanche, though he was pretty sure that if Hardcastle had known what he was up to, he would have thrown a fit.
He headed toward Bauchet Street and Men's Central--the current residence of Martin Cherney and his henchman, Alan Granger. Mark had been privy to most of the preliminary maneuverings of the case, mostly by keeping his mouth shut and managing to stay in Hardcastle's shadow. He knew there'd been a motion from Granger's attorney for severance between his client's case and Cherney's, so far unsuccessful.
It was conveniently visiting hours, and he was conveniently known to quite a few of the jail staff as Hardcastle's factotum. His request was met with nary a raised eyebrow. It was all up to Granger, now.
Mark spent the wait—nearly an hour by the clock—continuing the debate with himself concerning his motives. What he was doing closely resembled an investigation—the very thing he'd persuaded Hardcastle not to undertake solo. Of course they'd never discussed the same rule as it might apply to him. He wasn't the guy who was always sticking his nose in where it didn't belong . . . much.
He frowned. He wondered how Hardcastle had managed to overlook that angle. Maybe it was because the man had been otherwise preoccupied during their discussion.
The desk clerk called his name and assigned him a spot in the visiting area. "Twenty minutes is all I can give you; we're packed today. The interview rooms are all signed up." He was almost apologetic. Mark merely smiled and silently hoped this wouldn't get mentioned to Hardcastle the next time he passed through.
He found his place—the one unoccupied slot in the bustling room, and it was only a minute or two before Granger was escorted in on the opposite side of the partition. The man's expression was puzzled and suspicious as he sat down and fumbled for the receiver on his side.
Mark picked up his own and greeted the man jauntily. "How's the severance going?"
Granger grimaced. "Ask your boss—he oughta know."
"Now, now," Mark admonished archly, "we all know Hardcastle is only a retired superior court justice. The guy you have to worry about is the one who's actually sitting on the bench for your trial." He paused and let his expression harden into something that could no longer be mistaken for a smile. "But you better hope your lawyer is persuasive."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Mark shrugged nonchalantly. "Ask your boss—he oughta know." He eased back and gave Granger a long, considering look.
The man's eyes narrowed and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I don't know what you're talking about, and Cherney's not my boss anymore."
"Okay, play it like that if you want," Mark said soothingly. "How I figure it, it can only go down one of two ways. Either Cherney fouls this up just like the last time he tried to hit Hardcastle—in which case it'll be one more attempted murder rap to add to both your tallies—or he finally gets lucky and knocks off old Hardcase."
Mark leaned forward—his face only inches from the glass barrier, his smile evaporated. "And if that happens, the trail will lead straight back from Red Circle Imports to you two, and the charge will be first degree murder." He eased back again. "Now with Ashley Austin's death, your lawyer might be able to put some distance between you and that—hell, at least you weren't dating her—but this, man, one way or the other, it'll have your name written all over it."
It might have been the mention of the holding company's name. It had to be obvious that whatever McCormick knew, the authorities would be aware of as well. Granger had gone a shade paler.
"I have nothing to do with any of that," he sputtered.
"You mean you're just sitting back and waiting to reap the benefits?" Mark speculated. "A pesky witness gotten out of the way. Only you didn't know the FBI was onto all of those little shell games Cherney was playing with his assets."
"I'm telling you, it's none of my business. Not any more."
"Convince me," Mark hissed.
"How?" Granger shot a nervous glance right and then left. Then he leaned in toward his side of the glass and dropped his voice slightly, as though even that one word might have been dangerous. "I'm telling you, Cherney doesn't trust me, not since my attorney made that motion to separate our trials. He's thinking I might rat on him."
"Are you gonna?"
"Hell no." Granger stiffened. "I might get life for what happened to that Ashley broad, but Cherney's still handing out death sentences."
"Hardcastle's gonna pull his fangs. You know that, don't you? That's what the man does. By the time Hardcase is done with him, Cherney won't have two nickels that aren't in escrow for back taxes and everyone who knew him will be lining up to jump ship. Are you gonna be the last one off?"
Granger pressed his lips together. It might have been one last physical attempt to stave off the inevitable.
"'Severance'—hell," Mark had already heard the DA bemoaning the lack of direct evidence implicating Granger in the Ashley Austin matter; he bestowed a benevolent smile on the man, "Hardcase could talk the feds into taking precedence on your charges. Some nice white collar beef—a couple of years in Club Fed and you're out before you turn forty-five."
The man on the other side of the glass blinked once. Part of Cherney's problem was that he was so scary that people in his sphere of influence tended not to think straight after a while. Mark could see that effect now. His unsupported arguments were drawing Granger along.
"I'd . . . I have to think about it."
"Don't think too long . . . and the DA and the federal investigators will want to see some evidence that you're not over on the dark side anymore before you can expect things to happen for you."
"It'll take some time," Granger protested. "I'll have to get my lawyer to back off."
Mark sat back, satisfied. The other man was obviously already writing his own script. This was good because, glancing up at the clock, he realized his time was nearly up.
"Two days," he said. "I wouldn't take any longer than that, if I were you."
The guard was signaling him. Perfect.
"Gotta run," he said cheerily. "Hardcase is expecting me. Can I tell him you've made the right choice?"
Granger's brow furrowed deeply. He said nothing but dipped his chin once quickly.
Mark nodded back, smiling sharkily as they both hung up their phones.
It was well on toward late-afternoon before he was in the Coyote and away from one of his least favorite places. In his momentary relief—back out in the clean sunshine—he'd almost forgotten that the threat from Cherney was only one issue in this whole mess. He was half-tempted to head back over to Teddy's, but the second shift would have already claimed his friend and he didn't think a slab of cold meatloaf would do much for his present disposition.
Instead, he headed east, bucking the start of the rush hour until he'd finally wended his way onto the PCH. If the judge was playing smash face with Mata Hari by the poolside it'd be his own damn fault, Mark figured. There was only so much you could do to protect a guy from himself.
He drew in a breath though, as he passed through the gateway to the estate, and didn't let it out again until he realized the driveway was empty. He pulled up and dragged himself out of his car, feeling as if he'd put in a full day of conniving and scheming. He was out of shape.
He trudged up to the front door and let himself in. He gave an all-purpose holler, just in case he was wrong about there not being any company.
Hardcastle responded in kind, shouting "Down here."
That meant the file room, unless he was finally inventorying the wine cellar. Mark continued his reluctant trudge in that direction. As expected, Hardcastle had pulled his familiar and comfortable office chair up to the table. There was a file open before him. From its thickness and the well-thumbed look of it, Mark would venture it was Cherney's.
Hardcastle put his finger down to keep his place in the topmost document of the stack. He studied his sidekick for a moment and finally drawled out, "Got your errands done?"
It sounded rhetorical and Mark didn't grace it with much more than a half-shrug as he slumped into the second most comfortable chair in the file room. "Looking through the Cherney stuff again, huh?" he asked.
"Um-hm." Hardcastle's nose was back in the file, but then unexpectedly he added, "Which one did you talk to?"
Mark snapped out of his gloomy reverie. For a moment he almost thought he'd imagined the comment—like something out of "The Telltale Heart"—but, no, the judge had raised his chin and one eyebrow and the question obviously referred to Cherney and Granger.
"How'd you know I talked to anyone?" Mark asked with a tinge of nervous disgruntlement.
"I know," Hardcastle explained patiently, "because I know how you think. Frank went and waved that notice from the FBI in front of you like a bullfighter with a red cape, then I let slip the Cherney connection." He shook his head with surprising ruefulness. "I dunno what I was thinking."
"Maybe you were distracted," Mark suggested.
The judge looked up at him sharply. The expression didn't hold for long, though. His gaze drifted off a little to the side and he nodded once thoughtfully.
"I went to Granger," Mark said abruptly. "I figured with all this talk about severing their trials, he probably wasn't on Cherney's dance card anymore. I was right, too," he added with very little satisfaction. "Anyway," he sighed, "I think I've turned him. I told him you might even get the feds to handle his prosecution—split him off from the Austin murder. You said that was the weakest part of the case, right?"
"You told him he's gotta get back in tight with Cherney, get us the low-down on what's happening now?"
"The whole deal, or no deal," Mark assured him. Then he remembered the probable fall-out and tamped down his rising enthusiasm. "Might happen pretty quick. I told him there was a deadline on the offer."
The judge frowned. "Considering you were making it up out of whole cloth, I suppose you figured what's a couple more fibs on top of a whopper?"
Mark found himself nodding, then he broke out of that and said, "Two days. It should all start to unravel by then if I've read Granger right."
"If Cherney trusts Granger."
"He will—Cherney's the kind that can't believe anyone would dare to get in his way. No one ever had before you came along. He doesn't have much practice with losing."
"Two days," Hardcastle mused. He flashed a quick and perfunctory smile that didn't reach up to his eyes. "Thanks," he said. That, too, had come out flat, with no sense of any real gratitude.
Sitting there in the uncomfortable silence that followed, Mark became increasingly certain that the judge had nothing more to say—on that subject or any other. It wasn't the first time since he'd returned—since the Malcolm debacle—that he'd felt things were still out of whack between them. The whole thing felt like a repair job on a broken vase. To the casual glance it was back in one piece, but on closer inspection the glue showed and checking to see if it'd hold water was out of the question.
Which is why he almost jerked in surprise when a moment later the judge cleared his throat.
The first word out of the man's mouth was "Thanks", repeated quietly but with a little more feeling.
Mark sat there, feeling slightly stunned. But this was clearly the prelude to more, and as much as he didn't want to hear it, he couldn't interrupt.
"I, ah, was doing a little investigating of my own." The judge closed the file with a sigh.
Mark kept his mouth shut. He hardly felt in a position to criticize, given how he'd spent the afternoon.
"Look," the older man seem to gather both his courage and a little steam, as though he'd made up his mind about something, "a few weeks back I ran into an old friend." He looked up sharply and added, as if Mark hadn't already figured it out, "It was while you were away."
Mark nodded. Hardcastle broke off eye contact again; it seemed to be easier that way, maybe for both of them.
"Well, she was really the wife of an old friend."
Hardcastle paused. His hesitance seemed excessive. So far there was nothing particularly earthshaking in his revelations. The road wasn't exactly strewn with primroses and Mark tried to keep his expression mildly puzzled.
"Her husband had been a colleague of mine, a judge. He died about two years back."
Mark frowned. "He had something to do with Cherney?"
"I never thought so. Not then, at least. Ben Almston—that was his name—he was over on the tort side—lots of seniority, heard the big civil cases, millions at stake."
Another sigh. Mark knew Hardcastle hated this stuff.
"Looks like it. Nothing obvious, but I've been thinking Red Circle Imports may be the smoking gun."
"For how long?"
"Oh, since about ten o'clock this morning . . . I dunno, maybe I'm off my game."
"You aren't even supposed to be out on the court," Mark finally chastised. "No one-on-one, remember? Especially when the other team isn't just one guy. Cherney was putting a full court press on you."
"You don't know the half of it," Hardcastle admitted ruefully. "Betsy—that's Ben's widow's name, she might've been doing a little pressing herself."
"So you think she's working for Cherney?"
The judge's expression clouded with an uncustomary doubt.
"I ran a little errand of my own this morning after I left Frank's office. I checked out a list of Ben's old cases, cross-referenced it to the list of Cherney's known holdings—you can do that stuff now, you know, these computers are pretty damn amazing."
It was tap-dancing, and Mark wasn't used to it, but he let it go, figuring the judge would get to the point soon enough.
"Anyway," Hardcastle heaved his shoulders and then pushed the file away slightly, "Ben managed to keep his hands on most of Cherney's business that went through the courts. It was nothing that obvious—hell, I never noticed it. The impression isn't that Cherney's side had to win every suit, more like he wanted to make sure he had a friend on the bench—someone who'd rule favorably in the discovery phase so Cherney could keep his private business private, ya see?"
Mark nodded, then frowned. "But what does that have to do with his wife? The guy's dead, so Cherney must've moved on."
The judge shook his head slowly. "Nah, that's the thing; Betsy was a clerk in the court system—that's how she and Ben met, way back."
"So it was a two-fer? She made the assignments and he handled the rulings?"
"That's what I'm figuring."
"She still works for the court?"
"No—retired about a year ago. Ben left her with a nice pension. A lotta people even wondered why she'd stayed on in the first place, after marrying Ben. She didn't make all that much compared to him."
"I guess together they made a lot more." Mark drummed his fingers on the table once, then cocked his head and added, "But look, even if she was helping funnel Cherney's cases to the right judge, that doesn't mean she's still working for him."
Hardcastle gave him a disbelieving stare. "Come on, kiddo, I like the long odds as much as anybody, but her latching onto me just when her old boss has a big trial coming up—you think that's a coincidence?"
"Okay, maybe not," Mark admitted with a sigh. "I'm just saying she might not be a willing accessory anymore. Hell, maybe it was Ben who snookered her into it in the first place."
"Then why not get out, come clean, once he was gone?"
It was Mark's turn to stare in disbelief. "Judge, she wouldn't have any proof she was coerced. So now Cherney's going to trial and it's for murder. For him the rest is penny-ante, but not for the former clerk. He might be threatening to take her down with him for what she did. It's the perfect lever to guarantee she keeps cooperating."
Those last two words had slipped out unfiltered. Hardcastle had been looking interested but not completely convinced. Now his gaze sharpened.
"You've never even met her . . ."
Mark figured he was blushing by now; he could feel the unwanted warmth in his face. Hardcastle was taking it all in with a look of increasing consternation.
"I have, once, sort of . . ." Mark's sudden confession petered out almost as quickly as he'd launched it.
"When?" Hardcastle asked, a shadow of suspicion overlying the curiosity.
"Last night. I think it was her. About 5'6", maybe 135, red hair—starting to gray—cut shoulder-length."
It was a dead-accurate description worthy of a police witness. Hardcastle nodded silently but the follow-up question was in his eyes.
"Out front, on the highway," Mark said. "The guys in the two sedans—it looked like they were giving her a hard time about something--at least that's what I thought. I showed up and they took off. I offered to call the cops—stay with her until she made a report but . . . she refused."
He'd said the last part as non-judgmentally as possible. Hardcastle winced anyway, but it was only another moment before the obvious must've occurred to him.
"How come you didn't include her in your report to Frank?" He frowned and answered his own question, "You knew she'd come from here, huh?"
Mark said nothing, which definitely said it all.
It was as if he could see the wheels turning in Hardcastle's head and the almost exact moment when they ground out their final conclusion in the form of yet another question.
"How long have you been home?"
Mark had already decided this was no time to compound the felony. He was planning on sticking to the truth from here on out in the discussion, and he was pretty sure that meant not taking too long to think up his answers.
"Since around noon, yesterday. I guess you could say Barb kicked me out. Nothing serious—well, studying for the bar exam is serious enough, I suppose." He shrugged. "I was just in the way up there. So I headed home to be in the way around here, instead," he added, smiling wanly. "I stopped off at the market to get some stuff—that was right around lunchtime."
Hardcastle calibrated the coincidence pretty quickly and shot back, "Then why the hell didn't ya come over and introduce yourself?"
"Ah . . . well, I've only asked myself that about ten times in the last twenty-four hours. I guess I thought it might be awkward—'Surprise! I'm home!'"
To Hardcastle's credit, he obviously gave that scenario some thought and even a little nod of agreement.
"So, I went by Teddy's place and hung out for a little while." The words were already out of Mark's mouth before he realized he'd skipped over a scene or two. All good intentions at honesty aside, some things were better left unreported. He swallowed once and plowed ahead.
"I thought I'd give you two a chance to visit without me being underfoot."
"But how'd ya know I wasn't taking her straight back to her place from lunch?"
Mark froze. He should have figured that even in this debilitated, lovelorn condition Hardcastle would notice a discrepancy. This time the silence went on a little too long.
"You followed us here?"
It hadn't sounded any better with the judge saying it, Mark decided. He drew himself up and squared his shoulders from the slump they'd sunken into.
"I just wanted to see if the coast was clear. When I saw it wasn't, that's when I headed over to Teddy's, see?"
He figured the judge saw all too well, but before the man could comment further, they were both startled by the ring of the phone.
Hardcastle reached over, between two piles of unfilled papers, and snagged the extension. Mark relaxed just slightly, letting his shoulders slump as he listened to the judge's side of the conversation.
He tensed again, almost immediately, when the first words out of Hardcastle's mouth after the hello were, "Betsy, I was just thinking about you."
The rest of it consisted of a couple yeses and nos, without context, and finally a barely more informative, "Sure, that'd be fine. What time?"
Whatever hour she suggested also met with his approval. He glanced at his watch and said yes one last time followed by "See you then. Bye."
The receiver was put back more carefully that it had been snatched up. Hardcastle seemed to be thinking. Mark gave him a moment, hoping sincerely that whatever he'd just decided with Betsy Almston had displaced what they'd been discussing earlier.
The judge shook his head slightly, as though clearing away a thought, then sat back and looked at McCormick straight on. "She wants to see me. She said it's important."
"What is?" Mark asked impatiently.
"She's up to something."
The judge raised one eyebrow. "I thought you were the one saying Cherney's muscle guys were giving her a hard time. Maybe she wants to come clean with me."
"She couldn't do that over the phone?"
Hardcastle gave that a shrug.
"Okay," Mark gave in as gracefully as he could, "when's the meet?"
"'Meet'?" Now both eyebrows were up. "She's comin' over to tell me whatever it is she wants to tell me. She lives about twenty minutes from here."
"That's not a lot of time. You aren't even going to give Frank a heads up?"
"Why the hell would I do that?" The judge was now giving him a completely baffled expression. "Listen, kiddo, what do you think Cherney wanted her to do? Get the dope on me, probably; see if there was any dirt his people could use, maybe plant some bugs, even."
Mark glanced around nervously.
"Don't worry; this is one place she didn't get the tour of." Hardcastle evinced a small grin, which faded almost at once as he reasoned on, "It was just that, nothing more. Look, he didn't tell her to kill me. If he had, I'd be dead."
There'd been something cold in that last line, and Hardcastle had turned away as quickly as he'd said it. He scooped up the Cherney file and deposited it back in the drawer, closing that with an emphatic shove.
"Let's go get ready for the company."
Barely twenty minutes had passed before Mark heard a car coming up the drive. A peek out the front widow confirmed it was the champagne-colored Beemer. He stayed there long enough to satisfy himself that it was the woman, and she was alone. Then he shot one look at Hardcastle and retreated to a less obtrusive spot, leaning on the mantel.
The judge rose slowly and made his way toward the door before she had a chance to ring the bell. Mark could hear the tones—hers urgent, his quietly reassuring—without being able to make out the exact words. He resisted the urge to move into the hallway.
It wasn't necessary. Hardcastle was ushering her into the den, with her hanging on his right arm. She hadn't even made it to the bottom of the steps before her sweeping, anxious gaze took in the fact that the judge wasn't alone.
"Who—?" It seemed as though she interrupted her own question with a sudden recollection. She managed a cautious smile. "Sir Galahad." She tipped her head just slightly in his direction, then she glanced back at the judge. "He's your friend—the one you told me about?"
Hardcastle frowned slightly. "McCormick, yeah. He says you two met last night."
"Yes," she nodded, unlatching from Hardcastle's arm and moving toward one of the chairs. She lowered herself into it as though her burden had become too great. "I think I noticed the resemblance right away—I believe I mentioned something to that effect to you Mr., ah, McCormick."
Her change of position forced the other two into motion, Hardcastle slipping into his place behind the desk—setting things on a businesslike footing—while Mark circled around to her left, taking the other wingback chair. He didn't ask her to call him Mark.
"Milt," she said, abruptly turning back to the main object of her attention, "I felt I owed you an explanation."
If she was waiting for him to contradict her, she waited in vain. She seemed to be aware of the sudden coolness in the room. She spared another sideward glance at Mark, who was also keeping his opinions to himself.
She leaned forward, toward Hardcastle, touching the edge of the desk lightly. "Would it be possible to speak to you . . . alone?"
Mark was halfway back to his feet at this, in part protest and part warning. "Judge—"
Hardcastle lifted one hand, palm out toward him. "Hold on."
He turned back to Betsy with a slightly off-kilter smile. "Sir Galahad here has a notion that you may not have my best interests at heart."
He rose to his own feet and stepped out from behind the desk, motioning to the younger man. He snagged an unwilling McCormick by one elbow and had him in reluctant tow.
"Gimme a sec," he said, over his shoulder.
It was more like a few minutes, and the discussion had to be taken a good way down the hall and was still of an intensity that was somewhere just shy of shouting. It was drifting in that direction, at any rate, and continued right up until the moment when it stopped, abruptly.
It was that silence that dragged Mrs. Almston's eyes back to the doorway where the two men stood side-by-side. She was standing, too, caught in an awkward pose with one hand tilting Hardcastle's Remington bronze over at forty-five degrees, scrabbling under the base.
"Looking for this?" the judge held up a baggie that contained a small device.
Betsy frowned and dropped back into her seat.
"I think you really do owe me an explanation, but maybe you wanna make sure I got all of these before you start naming names."
She peered at the bag and nodded once, silently. Mark's penetrating side glance as he resumed his place went entirely unaddressed.
She sighed. "There's a man that Ben knew—you know him, too—Martin Cherney."
Hardcastle gave that a simple nod and no change in facial expression.
"Ben . . . he may have done a few favors for Mr. Cherney. I don't know exactly what they were, but, well, you know—"
"No. I don't."
She drew herself up a little. "No, of course you don't. You'd never have done anything like that, would you? A favor for a friend."
"Cherney's an accused murderer," the judge murmured.
"It would have been three murders if he'd been a little luckier," Mark added dryly.
Hardcastle shot him a sharp glance. Mark gave him only an only slightly apologetic shrug in return.
"I know," Betsy shook her head and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. He's also a blackmailer. He told me if I didn't cooperate with him, he'd make sure the DA found out about what Ben had done."
"What difference would that make now?" Hardcastle said quietly.
She sat, skewered in his gaze, darting her own glance back to Mark's equally unrelenting expression.
"Betsy," Hardcastle began again patiently, "there's no way out of this but the truth. What does Cherney have on you?"
She sniffed once, in self-sympathy. "Some checks," she finally said, "made out to us from Red Circle Imports. Cherney assured Ben the company was well-shielded. A few months ago one of the directors came to me on behalf of Mr. Cherney. He told me if the investigation continued, eventually the connection to his company would be uncovered. If that happened he would make sure that our connection to them was also revealed."
"And what did they ask you to do?"
"Not that much, really. Just get to know you better."
Hardcastle sat back with a chagrined expression. "I'm pretty sure Martin Cherney wasn't worryin' about me being lonely in my old age."
"They hoped I'd find something that they could use against you—more blackmail, I suppose. They wanted that here for extra insurance." She gestured dismissively to the bug. "I don't think they believed me when I told them I hadn't found anything."
"And now," Hardcastle lifted the bag and shook it gently, "why'd you want it back?"
Mrs. Almston bit her lip for a moment. "You won't believe me, but I was trying to get out. I wanted to destroy it."
"You just preferred to do it without getting caught," Mark said caustically.
"All right, yes." She turned back to the judge. "I hoped maybe we could still have something together, but first I had to undo what I'd done."
"Ju-udge," Mark growled.
The woman shot him an aggravated look before turning back to Hardcastle. "That's why I wanted to speak to you alone."
"And that's why I wanted to hang around," Mark shot back. "But if you still want to listen to her sales pitch, then I guess I'm outta here."
He was on his feet, as good as his word. He paused for a moment, halting in mid-stride halfway to the door and pointing at the plastic bag and its contents. "You want me to throw that down the garbage disposal for you?"
Hardcastle looked grimly first at the evidence, and then at the younger man. "No," he said simply, with tone of brittle civility, "I'll look after it."
"Have it your way." Mark threw his hands up in a gesture that implied he'd had enough of both of them. He stomped up the steps and into the hall. He yanked the front door open and was through it before he could hear anything else she said, though he could easily imagine her purr of satisfaction as she moved on to further repair work.
He closed the door behind him with less than his intended slam.
It was past dusk. The light from the den on his left cast his jagged shadow down toward the walkway. He was all too aware, even without a look in that direction, that from where Hardcastle sat he presented a silhouette, back-lit against that light. This, of course, didn't even take into account the devious Widow Almston still in there with him.
He felt his resolve weakening. It took a moment of stern self-admonishment before he could take that first step down the stairs. He found himself casting suspicious glances out past the fountain into the darkness. He knew what he was supposed to do but he couldn't help feel as though the hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up, like the moment just before an electrical storm.
But all stayed quiet as he tromped across the drive and into the darker shadows of the hedges and trees that bordered it. He paused for a moment, looking back toward the main house, then ducked even further into the shadows and changed course abruptly.
He skirted the edge of the rose garden and edged down toward the back of the house, moving quietly. He was just starting to think he'd overreacted when he saw another shape approaching the house from the back of the property. It was the burly guy from the night before, he was almost certain.
The garage door was open. Mark ducked in unseen. It was darker still inside there, but by dint of experience he had no difficulty navigating to the workbench. He could almost hear Hardcastle's voice in his head—some sage advice along the lines of not bringing a knife to a gun fight. He thought the odds were better than even that he could find one of Hardcastle's spare pieces out here, though that might require a little rooting around.
That seemed a good enough reason to choose something less definitive for a weapon. A baseball bat came easily to hand, sitting in a uncovered plastic barrel along with a motley collection of other sports equipment. He hefted it silently, then with all due caution he made his way up the short flight of concrete steps that led from the garage to the spare pantry just off the kitchen.
He listened for a moment before he heard a muffled crack of glass followed by the latch being thrown and the door squeaking on its hinges. There was no way any of that would be audible at the front of the house.
He eased forward, bat in one hand, the other on the inside knob of the pantry door. The guy on the other side seemed to be moving with equal stealth, but with far less familiarity than Mark possessed. He heard it—the creak of one of the boards in the sub-floor, which meant the man was right next to the sink.
He kicked the pantry door open, letting it bang on the wall alongside it. The man whirled, obviously startled. His gun hand started to swing toward him, too. It felt like slow motion, but Mark's own weapon had already begun its descent.
The moment of impact and the discharge of the gun seemed simultaneous. The flash of light from the barrel was inordinately bright, and the jarring of Louisville Slugger against flesh and bone nearly knocked the bat from his hands.
It did send the other man's weapon careening across the floor, and now the man himself was doubled over, clutching his right wrist and howling. Mark backed off—feeling the surge of still-unused adrenalin and bat still at the ready—until he was close enough to scoop the weapon up.
"Come on," he said firmly, "no whining. You're a goon, for Pete's sake; you're supposed to be a little tougher than that." He stayed a safe distance away but reached out—bat now in left hand—and nudged his opponent lightly. "Your buddy with you tonight?"
The man stopped moaning long enough to glower at him from under heavy brows. Mark took that for a definite maybe.
"We're going up the hall a ways, the room in front, okay? You can sit down once we get there."
He made the goon go point and kept the gun trained on him, but didn't forsake the bat. He felt more comfortable with an alternative to deadly force at hand, though it felt like he'd pulled a muscle the first time he'd used it.
From the hallway he could see the front door open, with damage to the jamb. His prisoner was already making enough noise to alert anyone to their arrival. Mark added a sharply worried, "Hardcase . . . you okay?" to that and was relieved to hear the judge grumble from inside the den, "Fine, yeah. This guy made a mess of the door coming in, though."
Mark shook his head as he herded his goon down the stairs. Betsy had retreated to a far corner. The second man, barely smaller than the guy from the kitchen, was sprawled on the floor—another victim of blunt force. Hardcastle's weapon of choice had been a brass-handled poker from the stand by the fireplace.
"Yours have a gun?" Mark asked as he leaned heavily on the shoulder of the kitchen goon and got him sitting in a chair.
"Uh-huh." Hardcastle poked at the man who'd kicked in his front door, then levered him up a bit. Mark snatched the piece out from under him.
Betsy's eyes widened and she gasped, "Oh, my God. They would have killed us all."
Mark shot her a glance, heaved a sigh, and shook his head.
"Us, yes. You, I doubt it." He finished patting the unconscious man down and looked up over his shoulder at the judge. "Can I at least say 'I told you so'?"
"Hah," the judge cracked a smile as he reached for the phone and tapped out a familiar number, "who found the bug?"
"I told you," Betsy wailed, "I was trying to get rid of it. I just didn't have a chance."
"And who found the second one?" Mark retorted.
Mark watched with some satisfaction as Mrs. Almston sat down at one end of the sofa, abruptly silent, her face suddenly pale and drawn.
"Frank?" Hardcastle spoke into receiver after a brief pause. "Yeah, it's me. Sorry to bother you after-hours but I'd hate to hafta call up the on-duty guy and start explaining all this from scratch. We bagged those guys the FBI was so hot on . . . Yeah, of course I'm home. It's easier hunting from a tree stand—you know that."
It didn't go on much longer. Both Hardcastle and Harper were men of few words when there were arrests to be made. Mark was still keeping on eye on Betsy and found he had to resist the urge to sit down himself. Too much excitement. He still felt out of breath.
The woman opened her mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and merely turned her eyes back to Hardcastle.
"Sorry, kiddo," the judge said to her before she could say another word, "you kinda flashed your team colors when you didn't mention that you'd planted a back-up bug in here. You were checking this one," he tapped the bagged bug, "because it'd stopped working. And once you knew we were onto you—all that stuff about Cherney—you never would have said that unless you were pretty sure we wouldn't be around to repeat it. You just wanted to distract us while his guys closed in, huh?"
"Nice, though," Mark interjected thoughtfully, "having you on the inside to stir up some trouble."
"Yup," the judge nodded once in her direction, "you gave the signal, I'll bet, and then whoever was listening in relayed it to these two—no other way they could have timed it like that. There'll be radios out there somewhere," he speculated as he glanced over his shoulder at the window.
The man on the floor was finally stirring. Mark had a vague notion that he ought to get some handcuffs on him, but it seemed like a lot of effort now that the adrenalin had burned off. There was a distant sound of sirens. Good, let them take care of it. The baseball bat had gotten too heavy to hold up. Its business end now rested on the floor and the muscle he'd pulled had settled into a throbbing burn in his side.
Hardcastle was frowning at him, probably because he wasn't pointing the gun with any accuracy.
"Sorry," he muttered, "'s heavy." He heard something clatter. The damn bat. He bent to retrieve it and felt the room tilt precariously.
Mark heard Hardcastle's holler, right before the floor came up and hit him in the face.
"I dunno, kiddo. You can't even tell when you've been shot."
"I thought I'd pulled a muscle. It felt like that," Mark repeated quietly. He stared up at the acoustic-tiled ceiling. Olive View, he thought. He might not always know when he'd been shot, but he was getting better at identifying hospital ceilings.
"Anyway," he added, "spleens aren't all that important, are they? That's what the doc said. One less thing to worry about if you're in a car crash, that's what I figure."
He heard Hardcastle sigh.
"And the cavalry arrived and the goons and your ex-girlfriend got packed off to the pokey, right? Doesn't sound like I missed much."
There was a long silence from the occupant of the visitor's chair. Mark felt a twinge of guilt—nothing at all like a muscle pull. He supposed he ought to try and be a little more understanding.
"It's better to find out you're dating an accessory to murder before things get serious," he said sagely. "Trust me; I know about this stuff. Remember Tina Gray?"
This at least got him a humph. Mark lifted his head slightly and directed his gaze toward the guy in the chair. He didn't last long in this position, but it was long enough to see that Hardcastle was still unsettled.
"Hah," he said as he let his head drop back onto the pillow, gently—nothing jarring. Jarring was a bad thing right now.
"'Hah' what?" the judge said grimly.
"'Hah' as in—if that was me over in that chair mooning you'd tell me to go do some chores and there's plenty of fish in the sea and all that stuff."
"I'm not mooning," Hardcastle grumped. "I never moon."
"Okay 'pine' then—you like that better?"
"No," the judge shot back gruffly, "cause it's not that, either. I'm just thinkin', that's all."
"About what?" Mark asked curiously, turning his head to take another look at the man.
Hardcastle shrugged. Mark was still fixed on him with a doubtful expression.
"Well," the older man began reluctantly, "might be that I used to think I was a pretty good judge of character."
"Well, yeah—'cause you are."
The judge raised one eyebrow, then shook his head. "Nah . . . used to be, maybe, but not anymore, not for a while now—all the way back to J.J. Beale, I'd say."
"Hey," Mark protested, "what about me? You picked me, didn'tcha?"
"You were a fluke."
"How do you know? Maybe Beale was the fluke."
"Nah," Hardcastle shook his head again, "too many of them. Beale, all those folks I used to know back in Clarence, Sheriff Cutter up in Canary Creek—lots of 'em."
Mark went back to looking at the ceiling. He thought maybe he was still a little dopey from the anesthesia, but not half as dopey as the guy in the chair.
"That's just dumb," he said, "you saying you're a bad judge of character. The problem is, you give people the benefit of the doubt—"
"Yeah, like I said . . . bad judgment assuming folks are on the up and up like that."
"Well, you can't help it, though. I think we all think people are like us, and you're on the up and up, so you figure other people are, too. Besides, you're a judge."
"A retired judge," Hardcastle muttered, with a hint of bitterness that McCormick wasn't sure he'd ever noticed before. "And it's a good thing, too, I'd say."
Mark sighed. "What I meant was, once a judge, always a judge—at least when it comes to some stuff. And maybe all judges don't take that 'innocent until proven guilty' thing seriously, but I kinda figure you did . . . and you still do."
In the silence that followed, he didn't notice his lids drifting shut. They were past half-mast when he was startled back awake by the sound of Hardcastle shifting in the chair.
Mark blinked once at the ceiling. "Ah . . .?"
"Sorry," the judge replied, "didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep . . . well, maybe I dozed off for a second or two."
"Half an hour, more like," Hardcastle corrected gently. "I should get out of here, let you get some real sleep."
"No . . . no. We were talking about something." He blinked again. "Oh, yeah, about you being a judge."
"Hmm . . ." Hardcastle hesitated, then started up again, "there was one case you thought I wasn't too fair with."
Mark frowned. It took him a moment or two to latch on to the implication of what he'd said. His brow wrinkled and then flattened out again. "Well . . . that was a jury trial, right?" He smiled diffidently.
"What the hell they got running in that IV of yours?"
"Wish we could take some home in a bottle," the judge said wistfully. "Anyway, I hate to tell you this, kiddo, but if you'd asked for a bench trial, I think it would've ended up the same. You took the car; her name was on the papers."
"Nothing you could do about it," Mark murmured, ". . . then." His eyes had drifted shut again.
Hardcastle muttered, more than half to himself, "Why the hell are we rehashing this?"
"'Cause it's important."
"I thought you were asleep."
"Just resting my eyes."
"I was just thinking about it some, the last couple weeks," Mark said, eyes still shut. It seemed a little easier to talk about it that way.
Maybe it was easier for Hardcastle, too. He hadn't threatened to leave again and, after all, he was actually the one who'd brought it up this time.
"I was just wondering," Mark meandered on, "if you figured everything evens out in the end."
"What the heck does that mean?" Hardcastle said grumpily.
"You getting me off the hook for taking the Coyote, and then me getting shot a couple times, and then you saying you'd pay my law school bills—"
"That was a bet; you won it fair and square."
"It's only a bet if both sides have something to win and something to lose," Mark pointed out patiently. "I didn't put up anything on that wager." He finally dragged his eyes open and turned his head again slightly.
Hardcastle was sitting motionless with a pensive expression on his face. He finally shook himself free from that and growled, "It's not some kinda quid pro quo thing. That's not how it's supposed to work."
"What isn't?" Mark asked. There was no answer for a couple of minutes and when it finally came, it startled him out of another half-doze.
"Friendship," Hardcastle admitted, almost grudgingly.
Mark's eyes flickered open. "And you don't even have an IV," he said in mock astonishment. He held the grin for a moment before his expression went more serious. "Okay . . . just so you don't think you have to keep me around 'cause you owe me or something like that. I'd hate to think I was underfoot—"
"Cramping my style?" The older man smiled, but it faded after only a moment. His pensive expression had returned.
Mark took that in, then went back to studying the ceiling for a moment.
"Well," he finally said, "once I'm outta here, I think we should head up north, find some nice spot, and put our lines in the water."
"There's plenty of fish in the river, eh?"
"Yup," Mark said with a drowsy smile, "you'll see."