Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Many thanks to Owl for going after errors tenaciously.
Author's Note: In the epilogue of "She Ain't Deep but She Sure Runs Fast", our heroes stroll into Myrtle Creek, Oregon, having walked untold miles through the wilderness with their two prisoners. They are met on the unpaved street by the town sheriff, hand their prisoners over to his custody, and then limp off, presumably to get a long-overdue bath and a meal.
As it turns out, there is an actual town of Myrtle Creek. The place pictured in the episode is definitely not it—nor is this.
This story follows on after "A Walk in the Woods". One of the nice things about ff is that it permits infinite variations on a theme (or a missing scene). Here's my version--
by L.M. Lewis
Frank Harper had been to Myrtle Creek not long back, but that time there'd been plenty of parking and no bustle there at all, despite reports of a plane gone missing, and a couple of guys from Texas overdue and presumably lost in the back country.
This time it was different. After a drive that had taken most of fourteen hours—very nearly non-stop, overnight from LA—he was still elated but damn tired, and there wasn't a parking space to be found on the town's main street. He blinked a couple of times in weary bemusement at the transformation. Some of the vehicles were recognizable in a generic sort of way: a hefty handful of state cop cars, some subfusc fleet sedans that screamed 'unmarked official vehicle' to an old pro like Harper, and utility vans marked with the logos of news outlets from Eugene and even Sacramento.
He finally found a spot a block or so down from the entrance to the local eatery and inn. His arrival hadn't gone unnoticed. As he stepped from his car and stretched stiffly, he saw a couple of news-hawk types who'd been dallying on the front porch of the diner, now turning to look him over. It had the all-too-familiar look of a crime scene.
He shook that thought off as he strode back toward the establishment. He had it straight from Hardcastle's mouth by phone late yesterday afternoon. Everything was okay; he and Mark were safe in Myrtle Creek with 'just a couple of loose ends' to tidy up. It had been a quick call, one in a series that Milt had said he needed to make. They hadn't talked long at all.
That still didn't explain why Frank had felt compelled to make the drive up here himself. That need was probably buried pretty deep in the subtext, but Harper had learned to trust his instincts.
And nothing he'd heard on the radio since then had done much to convince him that what he was engaged in was pointless overkill. There'd definitely been a strain in his friend's voice, if not in the hearty and confident words, and the sketchy news reports he'd heard on the way up had mentioned three suspected dead, not counting the pilot of the plane, an old buddy of Milt's.
He took the two wooden steps up onto the wide porch, fended off an approaching reporter with one arm, palm out, and said, "Just passing through. Looking for a cup of coffee."
The vultures fell back but appeared unconvinced. Harper barreled through the door, and into the front room of the Myrtle Creek Inn. To the right was a sitting area. A reporter was interviewing a spokesperson for the state troopers. Frank stood back, listening for a moment and then turned away.
The woman behind the counter looked harassed and at ends.
"No rooms left," she announced. "You might find something over in Medford."
"I'm not looking for a room," Frank assured her, "Just some guys—is Milt Hardcastle around?"
"No," his informant said wearily, "and if he was, you'd have to get in line." She pointed toward the cluster of sharp-nosed folks out on the porch.
Frank was frowning. "I'm not with the press. I'm a friend of his from LA—Lieutenant Harper."
"Oh," the woman said with sudden understanding. "Sorry, I should've recognized you from a couple weeks back." She shook her head and jogged her chin toward the people out front. "They've been peskier than flies today. We haven't had anything like it since that grizzly attack about ten years back. That other man—the one who was with him—"
"Mark McCormick," Frank said helpfully.
"Right. He's in the back."
Frank glanced in the direction she was pointing. It was another open door, this one leading to a pine-floored room with a half-dozen tables, mostly occupied, and an even mixture of assorted cops, sundry investigators, and reporters.
He raised one eyebrow, not seeing the man in question.
"The back," she reiterated. "Kate's feeding him. I told you, they're pesky. They wouldn't even let the man eat in peace."
Frank nodded his understanding. He saw the additional door. It was a solid, swing-type with one small circular window at face height.
"Thanks," he said. "Can I go back there?"
"You'll be safe as long as you're not a reporter," the woman smiled. "Kate said she'd wallop the next one who stuck his head in her kitchen." She gave him the go-ahead with a quick duck of her chin and he grinned and nodded back, taking his leave.
He aroused only limited curiosity, strolling through the dining room as though he belonged there. Years of experience had taught him how to be part of the background noise, something he'd noticed McCormick had picked up somewhere along the way as well.
For the kid it was probably a self-defense mechanism, or maybe just the result of frequent changes of circumstance. Milt had told him (with many self-deprecating asides), about Mark's unscheduled visit to Washington D.C. last year, and with equal enthusiasm about how he'd chucked the kid—head-first and undercover—into the investigation of a college campus murder around the same time.
A month in the wilds of the Cascade Mountains was something outside of both men's experience, though, especially following a plane crash and complicated by a band of cutthroats. Harper wasn't sure what to expect when he pushed through the swing door.
There was a substantial woman—undoubtedly Kate, the cook—standing at her cluttered cooking counter and giving him a baleful glare. "I told you folks—"
"It's okay," a familiar voice interrupted hastily.
Frank's gaze was drawn left, to a small enameled table pushed up against the wall alongside the door.
"He's not a reporter . . . a friend of the judge's. Hi, Frank."
Mark beckoned him over with one hand, the other still holding the spoon. He was obviously tackling a bowl of soup, homemade vegetable from the looks of it. The smell wafted gloriously in the kitchen.
"You came all the way up here?" The younger man looked both amazed and pleased to see a familiar face.
As for Frank, he nodded once and tried to suppress the shocked expression that had surely rearranged his features. He shrugged casually and stepped over to the table, still eying the gaunt man seated there. He was clean-shaven, but a difference in skin tone indicated that there'd been a substantial amount of hair removed. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt that looked too loose on him, probably borrowed since it didn't look anything like Mark's usual sartorial tastes, but Frank thought it unlikely that any of the man's regular wardrobe would have fit him now, either.
"Are you okay?" he asked and his tone gave away what his face was trying to hide.
"Pretty much," Mark nodded. "A little behind on food." He pointed with his spoon toward the bowl. "Kate here is helping me out."
He smiled at the cook who smiled back in a motherly way. Maybe a momma grizzly, Frank suspected. Mark took another spoonful and sighed, swallowing blissfully.
"You should try this. I screwed up yesterday—the judge owed me a steak and I tried to collect. A steak and all the fixin's. That was a mistake." He paused for a moment, as if he weren't sure if he'd made a joke and had to think it through. Then he shrugged, giving up on it. "Anyway, it was great but . . . too much. Couldn't handle it. Got sick afterwards."
"But you're okay now?"
"Yeah," Mark nodded, "the soup's working out fine. It's terrific. Want some?"
Frank shook his head, was well aware of a frown of doubt that was tugging at his face. "You got checked out by a doctor?"
Mark nodded again, but made no comment to support it otherwise.
"And he said you were okay?" Frank persisted, knowing that this was a line of questioning that sometimes had to be put to this witness several times for the purpose of full disclosure.
"Yeah, well," Mark looked down at his belt, notched to the max and still just barely doing its job, even when he was sitting, "I'm a little behind on soup," the kid managed a loopy grin, "but I'm catching up."
Frank accepted that for now, though he thought it deserved a few more questions when Mark was less prepared. He looked around again briefly and switched tracks. "Where's Milt?"
Mark's expression went suddenly graver as he pointed straight up with the index finger of his left hand.
It must've been the driving all night—all the unexpected jolts of the past eighteen hours taking their toll, even the good ones. Frank felt his face drain.
"But, I heard—the news reports said—" he was stuttering, a wholly unaccustomed event for the hardened police lieutenant.
Mark looked alarmed and staggered to his feet, pulling a chair over and saying "Sit," as he pushed it into place for the lieutenant.
"Sorry, Frank." He was doing some frowning of his own. "Not thinking. Shoulda realized that could mean something else."
He looked down in an accusatory way at his now clenched hand, then shook his head. "He's doing pretty good—has a cast-iron stomach, anyway. He asked for a second baked potato yesterday and then slept like a rock. He went with the investigators from the state police. They're looking for Taylor Walsh's camp and the place where Buzz went down."
It was a pretty perfunctory report and there was nothing alarming in the words, but Mark was seated again and staring steadily down at his soup, though he'd abruptly given up on eating any of it. The impression was one of discomfort, and it didn't look to be gastronomic this time.
"The state cops brought in a search plane, huh?" Frank asked.
Mark glanced up and nodded worriedly. "Yeah, and the judge thought it'd be faster that way. He's worried about the evidence—the graves getting disturbed by animals. Buzz, too—it's been almost a month."
"You didn't feel up to flying just yet?" Frank added in a particularly non-judgmental way.
Mark swallowed once and shook his head again, hastily.
"Well, I can understand that. I'm not sure I'd ever want to get in a plane again after something like that."
The younger man's slightly embarrassed smile was still honest and seemed to harbor some relief. "Yeah, but ol' Hardcase, he gets right up in the saddle." Mark's expression had gone deeply rueful. "I was wishing he hadn't. He coulda drawn a map or something."
"I'm sure he'll be fine. Those pilots are pros, and what's the chance of something crazy like that happening twice?" Frank said, hoping that by putting the risk in perspective he wasn't also making Mark feel more foolish.
A heavy sigh from the man across the table suggested that Harper hadn't said anything that Mark hadn't already told himself.
"Yeah, you're right." Mark dragged the spoon through the soup and then set it down with a rattle against the edge of the bowl. He sat back in his chair and then rearranged his face into something consciously less anxious. "But it was really nice of you to come all the way up here."
Frank brushed that away casually. "Nah, nothin'. Claudia said I'd better get back up here and make sure Milt didn't drive the local guys nuts."
"Too true." Mark grinned. "And the sheriff said you were here after the plane went missing. Thanks for that, too."
Frank shrugged lightly. He hoped the sheriff hadn't also mentioned how little cooperation his original suggestions had gotten—particularly from the state police. It made sense, he supposed, to focus the search efforts on the two missing hunters, who were more likely to have survived whatever mishap had befallen them, rather than the possible victims of a plane crash. It hadn't helped, of course, that the hunters in question had hied off to an area where hunting was prohibited, far from their stated destination.
Frank hoped the other prevalent theory hadn't reached Mark's ears yet. Harper had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince the authorities that the ex-con aboard that plane had not been responsible for its disappearance—that he hadn't forced the pilot to land and dispatched both him and the judge.
What had sounded absurd to him had looked mighty convincing to the state police, once they'd heard about McCormick's unusual parole arrangement. If Mark had heard it, though, he was keeping his opinion of the common wisdom to himself.
A waitress ducked into the kitchen, snatched a couple of platefuls of food that Kate had prepared, and was gone again. Then the cook, apparently caught up for now, stepped over to their little table, looking concerned at Mark's remaining soup.
"You oughta finish that."
"It's delicious, really, but I think I'd better quit while I'm ahead." Mark smiled apologetically and pushed away from the table.
"Okay," she said, eyeing him as he bent and retrieved a cane from the floor between his chair and the wall, "I'll make you a snack later on. One of the girls can bring it up to your room. We need to put some meat on those bones. Do you like baked macaroni and cheese?"
Mark eyes went slightly out of focus. "Baked . . . like with a crumb crust?"
"Yup," Kate nodded, "my grandma's recipe."
"I think maybe I died a couple days ago and this is heaven," he sighed.
"Nope, sorry," she patted his arm, "still Oregon. But lots of folks say it's a close second. Go put your feet up for a while."
Mark smiled at her and stood slowly, favoring his left. "Come on," he said to Frank. "You must've driven all night."
"No vacancies now, but we beat the rush. The room's upstairs and there's a back way."
Mark ushered him along, through a narrow hallway and past the laundry room, then to a flight of stairs, indoors but strictly utilitarian. "When all the reporters showed up yesterday, they moved us out of one of the regular rooms and put us up here so we could have a little peace and quiet." He led Frank down another short hallway. "It's more like the guest bedroom."
He opened the door and stepped in, showing off the digs with a sweep of his hand. Two beds bracketed a gable window that faced north, overlooking the main street. Though it was only the second story, it seemed removed from the hubbub below.
"You should take a nap," Mark said, pointing at the bed on the right. "Driving all night like that—" He shook his head.
The bed idea suddenly sounded pretty good. Frank kicked off his shoes and yanked the pillow out from under the chenille bedspread then flopped down on his back. Mark gave him a nod of approval and settled into the upholstered chair.
But once he was horizontal, Frank was suddenly less tired. He studied the man across the room from him and realized he'd gotten practically no information from him.
"What happened to your foot?"
Mark was lifting it up onto an ottoman. He glanced over at Frank and said, fairly nonchalantly, "Got messed up when the plane crashed, I think. It all happened kind of fast."
"Yeah, I'd imagine. But after all this time? And you said you saw a doctor. What'd he say?"
"A chipped bone. He called it a 'non-union'. One of those things you can walk on, obviously. I'm supposed to see somebody when I get back. The cane's a loaner from Kate. It was her dad's."
"She's taken to you, huh?"
Mark smiled and shrugged. "I think she felt bad about the steak incident."
The conversation petered out again. Frank felt oddly awkward asking the big open-ended question: What the hell happened out there? Mark didn't seem to be in a talkative mood. Frank gave that a few moments thought and then decided he could understand it.
"We'd given up. I'm sorry about that. But after three weeks . . . and the search and rescue guys had been saying right from the start that there wasn't much chance of anyone surviving a crash—"
"Not to mention the rogue ex-con," Mark interjected.
Frank grimaced. "You heard about that, huh?"
Mark nodded. "Dalem mentioned it—I gave him a call yesterday, just to make sure the parole board didn't have a revocation warrant out on me. Turns out they did," he added glumly.
"Ya know," he mused, "me and Hardcastle had a little talk up there, the first night after the crash . . ."
He fell silent for a moment, as though he weren't going to continue what he'd started, but then he finally drew a deep breath and plowed on, "We both figured there was a pretty good chance we wouldn't get out of there alive, and I thought the worst thing was that nobody would remember who the hell I'd been." He smiled grimly. "I shoulda realized the California Department of Corrections never forgets."
"Well, there is that," Frank admitted, "but everybody who knows you thought it was a pile of crap."
"Thanks," Mark said quietly, and then, "I thought you were going to take a nap."
Frank recognized a polite dismissal when one got dropped on his head. He nodded from his reclining position and finally closed his eyes.
He slept deep and undisturbed except for a welter of dreams that touched in part on the events of the past few days, with grim shades of what might have happened. His eyes finally opened to a moment of confusion—strange surroundings with only one familiar figure in the dimmer light.
Frank realized it was late afternoon, unless he'd cruised clear through till early morning. Mark was sitting on the bed opposite his, staring fixedly out the gable window, his expression corrugated in concentration. He broke from that as Frank turned over on his side.
"You awake?" he asked the lieutenant.
Frank yawned and nodded, then scrunched the pillow up under his head a little more firmly and asked, "What time is it?"
"Almost six. I think they should've been back by now, don't you?" Mark had returned to his previous occupation, as though if he stared hard enough the clouds would part to reveal the overdue aircraft.
"Probably just means they want to make one last pass, that's all," Frank drawled reassuringly, but he shifted himself upright and got both feet on the floor, joining the younger man in his steady survey of the northerly skies.
Mark started up again, a little more pressured. "I tried calling over to the sheriff's but the guy at the desk must have strict instructions not to be helpful. You think maybe you could run over there and see what's up?"
"Sure," Frank said, standing and stretching, so as not to appear too concerned. "You wanna come?"
Mark looked like he did, but hastily shook his head no. There was a gaggle of bored reporters down there, also waiting for the day's findings.
"Easier for you if I don't," he muttered.
"Suit yourself." Frank gave him a pat on the shoulder. He spotted an untouched plate of food on the lamp table next to the chair Mark had occupied earlier. "Looks good."
"Oh," Mark glanced back, appearing to have forgotten it, "you missed lunch—it's not very warm anymore, but help yourself."
Frank sighed. "Claudia makes sure I don't miss too many meals. I was kinda hinting that you should eat it."
"I . . . can't." Mark left it at that, and looked guilty for having admitted that much.
"You feeling okay?"
"Frank, will ya just go already. And could you please not stand around and talk shop. Just find out why the hell they're not back yet and throw me a signal, okay?"
Frank gave him a little half-salute and headed off. He took the back passage, exiting the door opposite the one that led from the kitchen. Mark was right, the search party ought to be in. The shadows were too long for any more useful work today. He skirted around the garbage bin and made his way along the side of the building, emerging out onto the street not a hundred feet down from the sheriff's office.
The crowd on the porch had thinned; the one over there was thickening. Frank barreled through, shoulders down and fending off a couple of requests for an interview with a well-practiced 'no comment'. Apparently someone had ID'd him from his brief appearance that morning and the word had gotten around.
Inside the office, the deputy on desk duty looked up sharply at Frank's entry but recognized him almost at once. That didn't make him all that much more accepting—Frank supposed he had made a pest of himself the first time he'd been here, weeks ago—but at least he wasn't summarily ejected.
"Somebody said you were back," the man said flatly.
"Gorsen, right?" Frank asked, squinting at the engraved nameplate affixed above the man's shirt pocket. "Sheriff in?"
"Went down to the airfield. The search party radioed in a little while back—" Gorsen paused in his recital and Frank could now hear the engine as well, nearly overhead as it circled around for a landing.
"Good," Frank said with satisfaction. Then he leaned in over the desk, skewering the man behind it with an intense stare that he had perfected over many years in the LAPD. "And, listen, you know the other guy—the one with Judge Hardcastle?"
"Yeah, name's McCormick," Gorsen admitted grudgingly.
"You might want to be a little more forthcoming when he asks you for some information. That man's going to be a prosecution witness in a murder trial. Pays to treat them nice. If you don't know the answer to what they're asking, just say so, and then go find it out."
He pulled back, nodded once in curt farewell, and departed without waiting for a response. He stepped out onto the newly deserted street. Obviously the rest of the pack had heard the plane coming in as well. The last of the vehicles was pulling out. Frank walked around to the north side of the inn looking up toward the gabled window and giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up, then a beckoning sign to follow that.
There was a moment of nothing—probably Mark looking for the latch and freeing it—before the window opened and he stuck his head out, grinning cheerfully. "They wouldn't let you use the phone, huh?"
"It would've ruined my exit." Harper had now moved closer under the window. "I oughta head over to the field and greet the conquering hero. Wanna come?"
Mark took a quick sweeping look up and down the empty street. "Nah, it's nice and quiet here. I think maybe I'd better eat some of that mac and cheese. I wouldn't want Kate to think I didn't appreciate the effort. You go have a good time." He waved and disappeared into the shadows of the room. A moment later a light came on—the one over by the chair, most likely.
Frank shrugged lightly and strolled toward his car, hands stuffed in his pockets. His car was the last remaining on that side of the street.
The airfield was less than a mile down the road, though far enough to qualify as the outskirts of town. It really did have the feel of a celebration there, though far from the scale of Lindbergh's arrival in Paris. It was more that the reporters, being only human and having had a full day of nothing, were eagerly looking forward to anything at all.
Harper pulled up in the unpaved parking area, off to one side, parked his car, and wandered over toward the hangar. The camera men were set up, several of the TV news people were doing their intros. The search plane had been thoughtfully left out as a backdrop, though it appeared that the crew and passengers had all ducked into the office at one end of the building.
Frank didn't try to barge in. His patience was rewarded a few minutes later when someone he'd locked horns with only about ten days back—a captain from the state police—emerged. The swarm descended forming a semicircle, mikes held out, cameras lifted to shoulder height and higher.
The official briefing was short and to the point. A site had been identified. Personnel had been dispatched by helicopter to secure it, and further investigations were underway. The downed aircraft hadn't yet been located. There was no definite link between the disappearance of two other groups of backwoods campers in the past three years and the current suspects, but all possibilities were being left open pending further evidence.
The question shouting began almost as soon as the captain stopped speaking. Frank didn't stick around for that. He retreated to his car, pulled it around to the back of the hangar, gave a 'shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits' honk, and then rolled his front window down.
A moment later the back door opened and Milton C. Hardcastle stuck his head out, frowning in puzzlement. Catching sight of the sedan, he suddenly grinned.
"What the hell—Frank?"
"Hey, sailor, need a lift?" Frank grinned right back at him.
"You bet I do." Hardcastle slipped out without taking his leave of anyone, moved around to the passenger side, climbing in with alacrity. He let out a huge sigh as he settled into the seat. "What a damn circus. You'd better get going before somebody catches on."
"The esteemed members of the fourth estate, or your colleagues from the criminal justice system?"
"Either, both. Just get the hell going," Hardcastle encouraged.
Frank pulled away efficiently, but with a minimum of tire spinning and no signs of either stealth or speed.
Hardcastle was giving him a very pleased look. "You came all the way up here, huh? That's real nice of you. When did you get in?"
"'Bout eleven," Frank said, pulling back onto the main road. "How are you?"
"Fine, fine." Hardcastle settled back. "Mark's a little run down. You saw him?"
"Yeah, the cook was hiding him out in the kitchen. Seemed like the best place for him right now."
"Yeah," the judge grunted, "he needs some feeding up. Didn't have anything to spare going into this." He slapped his own midsection, which seemed less expansive that previously, but not concave. "Some of us were a little more prepared to go without for a month or so."
"Still," Frank said cautiously, "sounds kinda extreme."
"It was," Milt sighed and nodded, "but Walsh's cousin, Staller, he cooperated some, gave us a few pointers on what there was to eat up there. Mark picked it up pretty fast."
"So you just kept walking till you got back to civilization, huh?"
"Yeah," Milt frowned, "I guess you could say that. Things got a little dicey a couple of times . . . hell, they were dicey most of the time."
"Guarding a couple of murderers, getting them all the way back here," Frank said, "I'd say so. I'm not sure I know anybody else who even would've tried it," he added soberly.
Milt shifted a bit. Frank glanced over at him, then pulled into his curbside space near the inn. He put the car in park and reached for the door handle.
"Wait," Milt said, turning slightly and putting his hand out.
Frank froze, except for one rising eyebrow.
"It looks like that to you, huh?" Hardcastle asked the question quietly. It seemed fairly rhetorical. "The champion of law and order rounds up a couple of bad guys and brings 'em in, come hell or high water, to face justice."
"Well," Frank gave that a thoughtful nod, "yeah, pretty much what I'd expect from a guy like you. Let's face it, Milt, you're the hero type. Law and order is your specialty."
"Yeah, well it might surprise you," Milt muttered impatiently. "Did the kid tell you anything about what happened out there?"
"Not much," Frank admitted.
"He hasn't been in the talking mood. He was pretty chipper when we first got back, but I think that little conversation with Dalem yesterday took the wind out of his sails."
"Maybe there's always a letdown after you've cheated death."
"Especially when you realize that you can cheat death and still end up doing twenty-five to life," Hardcastle shot back pointedly. "Which is what he would have been looking at if he'd made it back and I hadn't. You realize that, don'tcha?"
"Might have been a little tricky," Frank admitted reluctantly.
Hardcastle shook his head in disgust. "And you having me pegged as Mr. Law-and-Order—lemme set you straight on that. We trapped those two killers—McCormick's plan and it worked like a charm. They fell right into it, after we'd let 'em chase us—me—most of the morning. So there they are, lookin' up at us out of a pit. We've got 'em cornered, no question. And who's the guy with the rock in his hands, ready to bash Walsh's weaselly head in?"
It didn't take any imagination for Frank to figure out the answer there—the man sitting alongside him in the car looked angry enough to bash heads right now.
"Well, under the circumstances—"
"'Circumstances'?—You mean I had too much sense to risk my life trying to get Walsh and Staller back here to face trial, right?"
"Yeah." Frank nodded, now on more certain ground.
But the ground shifted again. Milt looked calmer, almost reflective. "McCormick stopped me."
Frank frowned in puzzlement. "Stopped you from—"
"Killing Walsh . . . Staller too, most likely. He's the one who insisted we had to bring 'em back, or at least try," the judge said firmly.
"And that's the guy everybody had pegged as an opportunistic killer," he added, his voice rumbling with disgust.
"Not everybody," Frank said firmly. "Not the people who know him. I told him that already."
Hardcastle glanced over at him and gave that a sharp, decisive nod.
Then he reached for the handle on his side and opened the door, getting out with a slow stiffness that belied his earlier assertions that everything was hunky-dory. Frank watched him for a moment then shook his head and got out to join him alongside the car.
He saw him looking up toward the north-facing room on the second floor. The light was on and the curtain drawn in the gable window.
"Hope he kept that foot up and got a little rest today," the judge said.
Frank waggled one hand and heard a rather knowing grunt from his friend, followed by a half-whispered, "Figures."
Then he headed off around to the back of the building, Frank on his heels. They ducked in the back door, trudged wearily down the hall and up the stairs, then into the upper hallway. They hadn't even made it to the door of the upstairs room, when it opened, Mark's head poking out.
"Yeah, plenty." Hardcastle shooed him back in and Frank followed them both.
"They found us a rollaway." Mark pointed to the addition to their furnishings, the chair now squeezed over to the side while the neatly made-up cot was pushed against the far wall. "You don't mind, do you?" the younger man asked.
"Looks fine," Frank assured him.
"So you found the camp?" Mark sat down on the bed, directing his attention back to Hardcastle. "What took so long?"
"Buzz's plane," Hardcastle grimaced. "We still haven't nailed that one."
"Well, the pilot said there's some they never find, especially in the pine woods. I showed 'em about where I thought we went down, but we couldn't see much of anything.
Mark swallowed. "If we hadn't been able to walk, we'd still be sitting up there."
"No," Hardcastle made a face, "I think we'd be dead by now."
There was a moment of serious silence before the older man rather unexpectedly sat up straighter and slapped his hands together sharply. "Dinner. What are they serving tonight in the diner?"
Mark's face went long. "Kate said they're closing up at seven tonight. She's had a very long day—"
"Feeding you, maybe," Hardcastle said indignantly. "What about me and Frank?"
Frank started to make motions that indicated he wasn't about to impose on anyone, but Mark was chuckling.
"Hah," the younger man said with a satisfied smile, "you're lucky you're one of the 'private party'. That's what we are tonight. Frank's invited, too. 7:30," he looked down at his watch quickly, and then up at them both, "which is right about now."
"Steak?" Hardcastle inquired cheerfully.
Mark groaned and pitched a pillow at him.
It was turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and candied yams. There was wild rice dressing and a basket of fluffy white biscuits. The doors between the dining room and the lobby were locked and three tables had been pushed together with a white tablecloth draped over them. The lights had been dimmed to lend an air of cozy familiarity to the surroundings, now illuminated partly by jar candles.
Kate was both author of the feast and hostess, taking a place at the table while the two waitresses did fetching and took their seats as well. The rest of the party was composed of the housekeeper and Jackie—the front desk clerk and owner.
"This is supposed to be the off season. I want to thank you guys for bringing us an extra week of business." She smiled and lifted her glass in a toast. "Cheers!"
Glasses were lifted and chinked against each other. Hardcastle took a healthy swig and complemented the vintage—an Umpqua Valley white. Dishes were passed and the food was served out.
Frank watched his friends. Milt was in fine fettle, relishing his second reprieve from death in less than a year. Mark sat more at a remove, as though he were almost stunned to be where he was, eating a homey meal—being feted, even—in warm and friendly surroundings. It wasn't clear which part of it all was the most astonishing to him. Frank almost wanted to lean over and ask the man, his amazement was so apparent.
Even Hardcastle, who was clearly in his element, wasn't plying the eager audience with any tales of their recent adventures. He kept the conversation absurdly general, and though his gratitude was sincere, his joviality seemed just a tad off to someone who knew him as well as Frank did.
The lieutenant could also see—trained detective that he was—that Milt was keeping one eye on Mark, and it was evident that the younger man didn't have all that much stamina yet. It might have been that he was determined not to have a repeat of the previous night's debacle, though he was doing a fair job of at least tasting everything, under much encouragement from Kate. But it was barely an hour into the celebration before he started to droop, his eyes even drifting shut a couple of times.
Milt looked like he was groping for an excuse to draw the festivities to a close. Frank pitched in, pointing out that the judge had been in a plane all day, and he himself had driven straight up from LA not eight hours previous, and neither one of them was a spring chicken.
The ladies nodded their understanding, with McCormick looking grateful to have been left out of the assessment of decrepitude, and the dinner party came to a quick and cheerful conclusion. The three men were trudging down the back hallway when Frank caught up to Mark and tugged his sleeve.
Milt was already on the steps going up, far enough off to not hear Frank's low-murmured, "See? Rogue ex-con, my Aunt Fannie—you're a local hero."
Mark managed a slightly abashed smile and shook his head lightly, which didn't seem to be disagreement as much as bemused disbelief.
Frank had to fight a little to retain his duly assigned sleeping spot—the rollaway. He was worried to discover that Mark had apparently taken Milt's after-dinner assessment seriously.
"I've been sleeping in a regular bed the whole past month," Frank pointed out as he sat down on the cot to cement his possession. "Besides, I'm the guy who had the long nap this afternoon—probably won't even be able to sleep tonight. You get the regular bed."
McCormick accepted defeat with a fair amount of equanimity, further evidence of fatigue, Frank figured. The younger man propped his cane against the gable seat and sat down to unfasten his belt and pants, still another indication that he was done-in. Milt don't voice any objection when Mark dropped what he'd shed in an untidy heap on the floor next to his bed, even as the judge was neatly folding his own pants and draping them over the arm of the chair.
Frank stayed sitting for a moment, making no move to get ready for bed even as the other settled into theirs.
"Might take a little walk," the lieutenant said. "Too much sitting today and an awful late supper."
"Just turn off the light on your way out." Milt waved one hand at the overhead fixture.
Frank nodded to that, though his friend was already turned on his side, eyes shut. He rose, opened the door, took his jacket from the hook behind, flipped the switch, and slipped out quietly.
He descended the front stairs, not wanting to have to explain to Kate his sudden change of heart with regards to sleeping. The front lobby was still occupied—after all, it was only about nine-thirty and reporters were used to a life of late-night deadlines and strong coffee. He was pleased to see the desk clerk had apparently retired to the back office to tote up the day's take.
Unfortunately, it wasn't so crowded that his descent on the stairs went unnoticed. A woman in a business suit and pumps—obviously a TV person—whispered loudly enough to carry, even if the other conversations hadn't pulled to a sudden halt.
"That's the guy who was up here a few weeks ago, remember?—a friend of that judge's.
It didn't take any more than that. There were three who moved meet him at the bottom of the steps and one other who had swooped down on a camera case he'd left next to the sofa.
"Any comment on the condition of Judge Hardcastle?" the woman in pumps poked a microphone in his direction.
Frank plastered a neutral expression over his first, instinctive frown. This was the kind of question for which 'no comment' just stirred the pot. He bowed to experience on that one and answered, "He's doing well and assisting the authorities in their investigation."
He tried to push through the cluster of reporters, now numbering five, without appearing too obvious about it. The lady in pumps had planted herself firmly in his way—pretty much defying anything but an offensive linebacker move.
"Are you aware that the environmental group 'ACCUSE' has offered to provide legal counsel to Mr. Walsh and his associate?"
Frank couldn't help it; that had caught him off-guard and he froze for a moment, which allowed the woman to put the icing on her completely rhetorical question.
"One of their spokesmen has gone on record suggesting that former Judge Hardcastle and the convicted felon he has in his employ are, in fact, the only vigilantes in this case." She smiled provocatively. "Any comment on that?"
"First I heard of it," Frank said, with a blandness he'd perfected over twenty years of being blindsided by hardened pros from the LA media.
Unfortunately, that was an open invitation, and now there were a couple more reporter-types, drawn in by the scent of blood.
"A Mr., ah, Apfelvert," she'd glanced down at her little leather-covered notebook, "gave a press conference this evening in Eugene. He pointed out that even the authorities doubted that anyone could have survived the plane crash which only Mr. Hardcastle and Mr. McCormick claim to have witnessed, and that there was no plan filed for the purported flight, nor any physical evidence of the alleged crash."
"So he's saying they hiked up into the mountains to harass an innocent bunch of nature buffs and kill a couple of hunters?"
"So you are familiar with the allegations," she chirped. "Any comment? It does appear from the record that Mr. Hardcastle has a history of relentlessly pursuing people who have been found innocent in a court of law, and his accomplice—"
"'Accomplice'?" Frank interrupted. "What happened to 'associate', like for those others guys—Walsh and Staller?"
"Just a turn of phrase," she interjected the apology with manifest insincerity. "—and his associate has served two terms in the California state prison system, with a third trial still pending for felony charges he incurred while still on parole."
Frank knew the sensible thing at this point would be to stick to his 'no comment' and head back upstairs, but he'd noticed the cameras were now rolling and she'd upped the ante by inserting a little breathless disbelief in that last long phrase. It was the sort of thing that did great as a lead story in a sweeps month. So he gave her and her cameraman one of his most beatific smiles, the kind he usually saved for higher-ups who were a little short in practical intelligence but had to be humored.
"I usually try not to interfere with defense counsel's strategy," he said primly, "but your Mr. Apfelvert might want to reconsider the direction he's taking this one. He's going to have get a whole lot of evidence thrown out, starting with the three witnesses I interviewed last month who'll testify to seeing Buzz Bird's plane take off from that airfield down the road with two passengers on board."
He tipped his chin in a friendly nod and ducked around the blond. She was hardly in a position to chase after him. A couple of the others tried, but he'd made his move so unexpectedly that he soon left them bunched up at the door, with him already halfway to his car.
He tucked himself in behind his steering-wheel, frowning tightly at the eager mob still looking like they might pursue. He put the vehicle into gear and pulled away, dashing their hopes. He was clenching the wheel tightly, mostly angry at them, with a little reserved for himself—losing control like that. Milt wouldn't be happy.
There was a gas station on the south of town, only a mile and a half from where he was staying. He'd spotted a pay phone there on his way in this morning. He had a couple of calls to make.
He'd killed some time after that, enough so that most of the reporters had finally dispersed for the night, probably to file the latest tidbit: "LA Cop Defends Vigilante Ex-Judge". At least one of the phone calls he'd made had cheered him up, though he couldn't repeat what Claudia had called his interviewer.
This time he parked off the street, in a shadowy spot next to a dumpster. The back door of the inn was locked, but a couple of soft raps brought Jackie, looking frowzy with a sweater pulled tight around her and a look of puzzlement on her face.
"Sorry," he whispered as she let him in, "trying to avoid the hangers-on."
She nodded as she closed and locked the door behind him and then turned away. He tiptoed up the stairs and tried to negotiate the hallway without squeaking any boards. The door to the room was unlocked and he leaned on it carefully. He might not have bothered, as soon as it was open a crack he heard the voices from within—a quiet but intense conversation with only the light from the streetlamp just outside.
"So you figure we should just give up—leave him out there to the grizzlies and the coyotes," Milt grumbled.
"I know you want to get him back, a proper funeral and all that. I'm just saying he might not mind it so much being buried out there in the mountains . . . and you heard what that guy from the state police said. You could fly right over the crash site and not see anything—"
It seemed about the right time to rattle the doorknob or something, though Frank was intensely interested in finally seeing how this process worked. He'd known for a while now that there was more to these two's working relationship than Milt saying 'Jump,' and Mark asking 'How high?'
He pushed the door in a little further and the light from the hallway did his announcing for him. Mark was sitting, cross-legged, elbows resting on his knees as though he'd been leaning forward, intent on persuading the older man. He didn't look like he'd succeeded. Milt was still in repose, though he now glanced over his shoulder and said, "Hi, Frank, back already?"
"Sorry I interrupted."
"It's okay," Mark said a little edgily. "I was just trying to convince him that Oregon has a perfectly competent bunch of investigators and they don't need him to hold their hands."
"And I'm just saying it might be helpful to have one of the survivors along to give them some landmarks," Hardcastle groused.
"And maybe convince 'em to keep looking," Mark sighed. "Never say die. You'll keep at it if it takes all winter."
"Shouldn't be that long," Hardcastle conceded. "Besides, like I said before, they only need one survivor. No reason why you can't head back home. You could catch a ride with Frank, here. Right, Frank?"
Mark split his look of frustration between the two older men and seemed suddenly unwilling to be sent home.
Harper had sat down on the cot, knees apart and hands clasped loosely between them "Well, I think I'm not going back right away."
"Why not?" Milt asked, taken aback.
Frank frowned. "You even hear of a group called 'ACCUSE'?"
Mark shook his head but Milt mirrored Frank's unhappy expression and shot back, "Action Committee for . . ." his frown deepened as he turned onto his back as though the answer would be written on the ceiling and muttered, "something or another—it's the political branch of one of those nutso 'bombs for trees' groups."
"Close," Frank said. "It's the Action Committee to Create an Unspoiled Sacred Earth, and they're a fully legit 501c—section 3, 'educational and scientific' charities— despite a longstanding suspicion that some of their members don't just stop at mailing petitions to people they disapprove of."
"So what does that have to do with anything?" Mark asked, glancing from Hardcastle to Harper worriedly.
Frank sighed, then passed along the information he'd gotten downstairs. "I made some calls and checked on this Apfelvert guy. He's one of their top guns and a lawyer, so it looks like they're horning in on this in a big way. And those witnesses I talked to last month, well, I was mainly interested in what time Buzz took off and which direction he was headed in. I'm not sure any of them got a good enough look at who-all was in the plane to be willing to testify to it in court."
"Anybody with a law degree worth the paper it's printed on knows that trying a case in a press conference is just cage-rattling," Hardcastle grumbled indignantly, "but if you throw enough mud on the wall, something will stick."
"Too many metaphors," Mark said bluntly. "But I'm either the mud or the wall or both."
"Wait a sec," Milt held out one hand, palm out, "who's the vigilante ex-judge in this operation, tell me that?"
He'd forced a wry smile out of the younger man who finally admitted, "Okay, you're the vigilante, and I'm the muddy wall, and what the hell are we going to do about it?"
"Tonight?" Hardcastle said with a weary sigh. "Get some sleep. And then tomorrow—figure out where that plane went down; find it and Buzz. That should help some."
It was the sound of traffic that woke Frank up—the rumbling engine of a bus, specifically. It was full daylight and he had a sudden jolt of recollection that there really oughtn't be much traffic where he was. He blinked a couple of times and rolled over.
Mark was up and standing at the window. He was a little off to the side, surveying the street from that position. He looked over his shoulder as Frank stirred.
"'Morning," he said simply, as though the 'good' part was still in question.
"What's going on?" Frank said, still feeling a little groggy. Sleep hadn't come easily last night.
"Hardcastle headed out early. They were bringing a chopper in to take him up to Walsh's camp, and then later on they're going to do some more sweeps in the plane, looking for the crash site." He frowned down at the floor and added thoughtfully, "I think I could've handled sitting in a helicopter. I should've gone."
"Like he said, they really only need one of you," Frank reassured. He got his feet over the edge of the bed and dragged his pants on, fastening them as he padded over to the window. "What's going on down there?" he asked curiously.
"The outside agitators have arrived," Mark said flatly.
He pulled the curtain back warily to reveal a changed scene from the day before. Two school buses, repainted in a semi-professional, full-palette tribute to Mother Earth, graced the curb across the street from the inn. Their passengers were alighting, gaggling in the usual way of newcomers everywhere. Signs, not yet erect and readable, were tucked under arms and already the reporters were at work, infiltrating the masses with notebooks and tape recorders at the ready.
Frank recognized last night's cameraman, hair still askew as though he'd kept late hours and just arisen. He had his tripod and other equipment piled nearby and seemed to be conferring with one of the group leaders, probably discussing camera angles. Frank dropped the curtain, shaking his head. He studied the man standing next to him, looking wearily slump-shouldered, despite a night's rest.
"It's not too late. He wants you to go home. We can leave him a note and I can drive you."
Mark shook his head stubbornly. If anything, his attitude seemed to have hardened in the morning's light. Frank glanced back down at the street scene, now forming up into what would appear, at least on the news clips, to be a sizable crowd.
"This end of the operation isn't dangerous," Frank observed grimly. "That's the beauty of it. I think they took a cue from the IRA—you got your PAC crew, doing the peaceful assemblies and petitions, then you got your dark side guys, out buying up the black market explosives. Everything is compartmentalized. When something gets out of hand, somebody like Apfelvert just gets up in front of a camera, wrings his hands, and deplores the violence."
"If that's as reassuring as you can get, Frank, I think you better stick to police work," Mark said glumly as he turned away from the window. "Come on, Kate sent one of her girls up here twenty minutes ago to ask if we wanted pancakes. I told her we did."
Frank dispatched two stacks, praising Kate's flapjack skills between glorious mouthfuls. He was pleased to see that Mark was doing his bit, though still in a remarkably cautious way.
"You know, there's one thing good about this," Frank finally commented when he saw Mark pushing his plate away.
"What's that?" the younger man drawled.
"Those protesters," they could hear them now; the chanting was distant, but distinguishable, and mostly consisted of 'Free Taylor Walsh' and 'Save the bighorn', "they're all in front, and so are the reporters and the TV crews."
Mark nodded at the obvious.
"And my car's around back. I think you need to get out."
Mark looked at him dubiously and finally said, "I've been 'out' for a whole month. I don't mind being in for a while."
"Well, you may be looking forward to a day cooped up in that room, but you know how I hate being stuck in the office, and I'd like a little company."
Kate, who'd been standing not far off, perked up at this. "You'll need some sandwiches. I've got a lot of turkey left—made some chocolate chip cookies, too."
Mark looked only faintly put-upon and conceded gracefully. "Okay . . . as long as we get away from the crowd."
"My plan exactly." Harper stood and collected both their plates, delivering them to the sink before Mark was even on his feet.
"Just give me five minutes. And you'll need a jacket, young man," she admonished.
"I've got this really authentic fur vest," Mark chirped.
Kate wrinkled her nose. "Jackie tried to burn it but your friend said it was 'evidence'. If it is, how come the sheriff wouldn't let us leave it over there?"
Mark chuckled. "Listen, the only thing it's evidence of is how bad I am at sewing, but if you haven't guessed by now, Hardcastle never throws anything out. Evidence." He shook his head and reached for his cane, still smiling.
Frank smiled, too. He thought Mark had been pretty genuinely opposed to getting out for a bit, but his mood seemed perceptibly lighter now that the decision had been gently forced on him.
Kate provided them with sandwiches, a nice selection of apples and pears, a dozen homemade cookies, and a large thermos of coffee. Mark got a red plaid wool jacket and, on second consideration, a cardigan as well, "Just in case a front comes in."
Frank poked his head out the back door, scouting the territory with a quick look both ways, and then signaled that the coast was clear. A moment later they were in the car and on their way, sticking to the small road that paralleled the main street for several blocks.
Mark hadn't even offered to drive. He was sitting a little stiff, as though the whole thing was out of the ordinary which, Frank supposed, in a way it was.
"Been a while, huh?"
"Ah, yeah . . . I was just thinking. The last time I was in a car was, um, almost five weeks ago. Not the longest I've ever gone, though," he added and flashed an unexpected grin. "So where we off to?"
"Well, the first stop's not all that far." Frank nodded to the gravel drive he was coming up on—the airfield.
"He won't be back for at least a couple more hours," Mark said, casting him a puzzled look.
"Yeah, but you're a pretty good witness, and the take-off part might be more important now, what with the slant Walsh's defense attorney is taking." He pulled in, close to the edge of the field.
Mark hadn't uttered any protest, merely gone a little more stiff, and he didn't make any sudden moves once the car had come to a complete stop.
"Come on," Frank encouraged, climbing out.
He heard a sigh and then the younger man popped the lock on his side and clambered up, squinting as he looked around uneasily. The field was deserted, except for a couple of unattended small planes parked to one side. Mark stared off in that direction for a while. He looked back; Frank had opened the trunk.
"Kinda early for lunch, isn't it?"
"Yeah, though one of those cookies might be an idea . . . nah, better to wait." Frank patted his midsection and then reached down, pulling out a battered leather satchel.
"What's that?" Mark limped back along the car.
"Stuff." Frank opened the flap and spread the accordion sides a little, pulling out a well-worn, official-looking map.
"Here. This is the one." He lifted the satchel out with his free hand then closed the trunk and looked around for a moment. "There's a table inside there." He pointed at the hangar. "Might be easier."
Mark nodded, still looking a little mystified, and reached back into the front seat to pull out his cane. Frank paused at the edge of the field, waiting for him to catch up. They ambled slowly, Frank with the map in one hand, still toting the satchel, and the younger man surveying his surroundings as though trying to recapture a memory which was overlain by too many others.
The table, chipped and stained Formica salvaged from somewhere, was comfortably situated with a view of the field. Frank pulled out a chair and patted Mark's shoulder, then took a seat kitty-corner from him.
"Here," the lieutenant said, spreading the map before them. "The witnesses I talked to said Buzz took off on the east-west runway, then sheered off a little north of east once he cleared the trees."
Mark staring down at the map, then shook his head once and looked out onto the runway in question.
"There," he said, "that row of trees right there, those were the ones we just missed," he shuddered, "and that hill beyond there, we went just to the left of it."
Frank studied the indicators and then looked back at the familiar charted topography. "This hill, here?" he said, putting his index finger on it.
Mark tore his gaze away from the saw-toothed perimeter of trees and brought it down to the paper. He frowned and then said, "I think so, yeah." He looked up at Frank. "You spent a lot of time with this map, huh?"
Harper shrugged. "Wasn't much else I could do." He shook his head. "It's a bad feeling. I'm used to being able to investigate, but this time I was off my turf."
"Lot of good it did you two."
"Yeah," Mark smiled, "but thanks." He looked down at the map again.
"So once you were up, past the trees and the hills, which way then?" Frank asked.
"North. Mostly. It was a little past midday and the sun was behind us. But we meandered some. Buzz wanted to show us stuff."
"Any landmarks? Anything with a name?"
"No, more like scenery. A couple of hawks on a thermal—that was nice."
"And how fast? Could you tell?"
"Seventy-five knots, more or less. Mostly that."
"That's what the speedometer read. Do they call 'em speedometers on a plane?"
Frank pondered that one for a moment. "I dunno . . . and how fast is a knot?"
"Faster than miles—that'd be about ninety miles an hour, a little less," Mark said absently. "Funny, it doesn't feel fast when you're up there. And I've gone faster than that on the PCH."
"I'll bet." Frank grinned, then looked down again. "So we'll call it 90. How long were you up there?"
Mark said nothing. He was still gazing in the direction of the map, but his eyes were unfocused. Frank waited patiently and his witness finally blinked a couple of times and said, "Sorry . . . um—"
"Any idea what time the plane came down?" Frank asked quietly.
Mark took a breath and said, "Yeah, three thirty-five, by Hardcastle's watch. He broke it. Of course he wasn't sure if it was accurate. But about that, anyway. We calculated it out, that first afternoon. We thought maybe two-hundred miles, more or less." Mark shook his head again. "I'm sure the judge discussed all of this with the state investigators. Hell, there was even a guy here from the FAA."
"Hmm," Frank said noncommittally. "It's a big radius."
"Damn right," Mark muttered, staring at the map again. "That," he poked at a kidney-shaped object. "That's a lake, huh?"
"Um." Frank squinted down at it. "Mulligan Lake, looks like."
"I saw it—kinda shaped like a bean. It was off to the left, caught the sun for a moment."
"Did Buzz fly toward it?"
"No—no, just kept going."
"That'd be pretty far out on the radius. Did Milt see it?"
"I don't know. He was sitting to the right of Buzz. I was in the backseat."
"Then there's a chance he didn't." Frank gave the younger man a long hard stare.
There wasn't any immediate response, and into the silence came a distant drone, faint at first but growing steadily more apparent and distinguishable—a single engine plane. Mark looked away toward the open hangar door with a puzzled expression.
"It's way too soon for them to be back unless they—"
His speculation was interrupted by the sight of the plane itself, circling around only once before it lined up for its approach and set down neatly on the very runway the two men had been studying. Mark let out a breath and started to turn back to Frank. It was obviously not involved in the search, just a small private plane, and the very antitheses of Buzz's now-departed wreck.
But this plane had barely taxied to a halt before Frank was on his feet. He picked up Mark's cane, left leaning against the wall, and handed it to him, saying, "Come on; there's somebody I'd like you to meet."
Mark took the cane with an ungracious and suspicious frown but allowed Harper to usher him out the door. Frank waved at the man who was now climbing down from the craft.
"Hey, Jack," Frank waved, and then to his companion he turned bluffly and said, "Mark, I'd like you to meet Jack Herriot, an old buddy of mine."
"Frank," Mark said, at a pitch that was low and a little threatening, and which Frank ignored.
Herriot was a lean man of about fifty, with just enough gray to qualify as distinguished. He strode over, extending a hand. "So you're the one Frank's been talking about. Helluva thing, walking away from a crash up here."
"Just dumb luck . . . and I don't think I'm going to test it a second time."
The pilot laughed. "Good point. But most guys never get a chance to see how lucky they are even once. I've been flying for over twenty-five years and I've never even come close."
"That's nice," Mark said dryly, "though you might not want me as a passenger. My track record's not all that good."
"Nope," Herriot grinned, "lightning doesn't strike twice. You ever heard the expression 'can't drown, born to hang?'"
"No, but it doesn't cheer me up that much."
"Mark," Frank said soberly, "you need to do this."
"Why?" the younger man protested. "Lots of people don't fly. People get through their whole lives without doing it. I'll show Hardcastle the damn lake on the map."
"You're going to give up on finding that plane, let Apfelvert and those ACCUSE people call you and Milt liars, all because of one freak accident?"
Frank was pretty certain that Mark could see how thin the fabric of his reasoning was, and he really hadn't had any intention of shaming him into overcoming his fear. Yet he'd been somehow aware that, in all of this, not letting Milt down was by far the strongest argument in the box. When push had come to shove, he'd reached for it quite naturally. But even with that lever in place, Mark still stood, silently surveying the plane, chewing on his lower lip.
The internal debate looked fierce, but it was all over a moment later with a single sharp nod as he muttered, "Okay, let's do it."
Herriot grinned and gestured toward his plane with a sweep of his arm. Frank climbed up, opening the hatch and climbing in. He turned to offer the younger man a hand up. Mark maneuvered awkwardly, but it looked more like the pain from the unhealed fracture than any residual reluctance.
Frank eased himself into the back, leaving Mark to occupy the right-hand front seat. Herriot made his final inspection and climbed in as well, and a moment later they were picking up speed.
It was a smooth take-off, easily clearing the trees. Frank watched Mark's shoulders stiffen with the initial acceleration, and then loosen, just a little, when they were finally leveling off.
"We going up by that Mulligan Lake?" Mark shouted above the engine noise.
Frank leaned forward. "Too far. This is just a test drive."
Mark nodded, looking relieved, though he'd already seemed more relaxed. He did turn to Herriot and inquire, "You don't smoke, do you?"
The pilot shook his head, looking bemused.
It was perhaps, all told, a twenty-minute loop, out and back. By the end Mark even seemed to be taking in some of the scenery, though he mostly kept his comments to himself. The landing, despite being completely routine, brought another tense moment, but Frank thought it would have taken a detective's observational skills to see the younger man's concern.
And when they were finally down, and had taxied to a stop, Mark actually turned and shook Herriot's hand, looking grateful as he thanked him.
Jack grinned. "Any excuse to get up here. It's beautiful country, and, besides, Frank promised me a little fishing."
"You brought my gear?" Harper asked.
"It's back there somewhere. Claudia dropped it off at my place yesterday evening."
Frank turned halfway around in his seat and investigated the cargo, pleased to see his favorite fishing hat had made the cut.
"Saw a good spot not too far from here and my car's right over there," he said cheerfully.
Mark gave him a studying look. "And all this was just an excuse to get me out here to clean fish, huh?"
Frank slapped him on the shoulder. "Only if we catch something," he assured him.
The front never arrived, in fact the afternoon turned unexpectedly warm and Mark was able to jettison both jacket and cardigan, except for sitting on. Frank watched him make himself at home next to the picnic supplies and get a one-sandwich head-start on him and Herriot. He was eating with more enthusiasm than Frank had observed the past two days and only paused now and then to look around him with an expression of contentment.
It was a beautiful spot, though strangely devoid of fish. Herriot doggedly continued casting, but Frank eventually succumbed to the siren call of Kate's turkey and Swiss, joining Mark in his sunny spot on the bank.
He was handed a sandwich. There were still four left, though the cook could hardly have anticipated the third picnicker. Frank noticed Mark was unwrapping a second for himself.
"Looks like you might be off the hook in the fish-cleaning department," he observed.
Mark cracked a wry smile. "Was that supposed to be a pun, Lieutenant? And you know," he gestured casually toward the river with sandwich in hand, "it's never over till it's over."
"That's the truth," Frank sat back and did some unwrapping of his own. "Thank God," he added quietly.
Mark nodded, took another bite, chewed for a few moments, and swallowed before he spoke again, still looking out toward the river. "All those papers you had—the maps, all that stuff in that briefcase . . ."
He paused, and the silence went on long enough for Frank to finally nod and say, "It was from last month . . . the investigation after you guys disappeared."
"I figured." Mark cocked his head and looked to the side where Frank was sitting. "Thanks. I mean, I know you and Hardcastle are friends and all that but I know he was really glad to see you yesterday."
"Yeah," Frank shrugged. "We're friends from way back, but he wasn't the only reason I hightailed it up here—last month or now. I had a couple of friends on that plane."
Mark's expression fell suddenly. "You knew Buzz, too? I'm sorry about—"
"Mark—" Frank's exasperation cut through the condolences. "No, Milt talked about him from time to time, but I never met the guy."
The younger man gulped out a sudden embarrassed, "Oh," and then went back to studying the river for a moment before he added, "Well . . . just thanks, that's all, from both of us."
"You're welcome, anytime . . . and I hope it's not too soon again. You two—"
"I wanted to go to Hawaii," Mark interjected in a righteous tone.
Frank raised one eyebrow and turned his head. "And how were you going to get there, swim?"
Mark smiled ruefully. "Okay, thanks for this morning, too."
"And next time I tell ya you gotta do something—"
"I'll try not to whine about it." Mark frowned suddenly. "I didn't actually whine, did I?" He cast a quick cautious glance at Herriot, still in mid-river in his waders.
"Not so anybody but me would've noticed, and my lips are sealed."
By the time they returned Jack Herriot to his parked plane it was getting on toward sunset. The search plane was back, being serviced by its crew, but everyone else—searchers and reporters—had dispersed. Herriot was eager to be on his way, to get part of his trip done before stopping for the night somewhere they still had vacancies. They said their good byes, and from Mark there was an especially sincere wish for a safe trip.
Then they returned to town. Even from a block or two out it was apparent that the circus was in town. Frank had to admire the protesters' stamina, though he suspected they were working in shifts and saving the best stuff to be breaking news in the evening timeslot.
Mark grimaced. "I thought that stuff about villagers carrying torches and storming the castle was all made-up."
"They aren't villagers and this isn't a castle," Frank muttered.
But there were torches. The sheriff had summoned his full complement of deputies, and a phalanx of state troopers were hanging around as well. From what Frank could see through the open area between the buildings, sides had been drawn up in front of the sheriff's office.
Frank pulled in behind the inn and found his usual spot by the dumpster. He surveyed the man beside him in the front seat of the car. Mark looked alert but not alarmed. Harper supposed this might be the end result of spending two years in a place where the rioters had more tattoos.
"I don't think they're all that dangerous, but they're getting a head of steam up," Frank said, "and remember, there's people in that organization who think the only thing technology is good for is building bombs. We're going to get out and walk straight to that back door. No dallying. I hope it's unlocked." He shook his head once and opened his door.
Mark did as he was told, as though he were taking this afternoon's promise seriously. There were no shouts of recognition, no sign at all that they'd been spotted, and the staff had left the back door unsecured, something Frank remedied as soon as he and Mark were inside.
There were voices coming from the kitchen. One was clearly Milt's. Frank headed that way, cooler in hand and a nonchalant expression on his face, with Mark staying at his heel.
Milt looked up with a scowl on his face that was only partly converted to a more puzzled expression once he'd sighted them.
"Where ya been? I was about to send a search party out to look for you."
"Fishing," Frank hefted the small cooler with one hand. "Got a nice rainbow. Just the one."
"Took a while," Mark volunteered, "and he was about to give up when I told him about the one you caught with just a piece of wire and a bug.
"I didn't even know you'd brought your tackle along," Hardcastle said to Frank, one eyebrow cocked.
"You know what they say," the lieutenant drawled, "'Don't leave home without it.'"
Kate had abandoned her stove to investigate the cooler.
"Gutted and filleted," Mark announced with a small degree of personal pride. "And I see you've got extra mouths to feed." He jerked his head in the general direction of the street out front.
"Them," Kate sniffed. "Outside agitators. One of them cornered Mrs. Muldrow on her way to the post office and started haranguing her. And they complained because my lentil soup this afternoon had turkey stock in it . . . It was perfectly good stock. I made it myself."
"The sandwiches were terrific," Mark said comfortingly. "All gone."
Kate beamed and then briefly looked concerned. "You had enough?"
"Just right," Frank assured her. "The cookies, too."
"They got cookies?" the judge asked with just a hint of mournfulness in his frown.
She leaned over and patted his shoulder. "I have a couple left."
"How did your day go?" Frank asked, carefully keeping any tone of smugness out of the inquiry.
Hardcastle's frown solidified. "It went . . . well, I guess you'd have to say 'methodically'. We've kinda given up on the hunches and we're back to flying a grid. Pilot says the leaves falling might be a help, but it makes things look different, too." He shook his head.
Mark looked like he was on the verge of saying something, then shut his mouth firmly on whatever it was.
Frank sighed and asked, "When's dinner?"
There were enough trout fillets for seconds, and a plate of cookies was produced for dessert. After that the three had retreated upstairs.
"She's working some pretty long hours," Frank observed.
"Yeah," Milt agreed, "she said it's not usually like this, but with the extra business in town, everybody's willing to put in some overtime for Jackie."
He was standing there, between the beds, gazing out the gabled window and down at some of the extra business. There were in full swing now and the chants were getting a little more personal. 'Hard Time for Hardcastle' was the current number.
Milt sighed philosophically. "I kinda liked 'No Plane, No Gain' better."
"Catchy and illogical," Mark observed, "the perfect pitch."
Frank sat down in the chair, took off one shoe, and rubbed his foot. "They can't keep it up indefinitely."
"Wanna make a bet?" Milt cast a glance over his shoulder at him. "Kate had it on good authority that Apfelvert'll be here tomorrow. He supposed to be meeting with his clients. I'm guessing he'll rouse the rabble some, too."
Frank paused in the removing of the other shoe. "Hey, whaddaya say we pile in my car and drive down to Medford. It's Dodgers vs. Giants tonight. We can find a place with a TV and grab a couple of beers."
Milt looked listless. "Our guys have cinched it and the Giants are in the cellar."
Frank shrugged. "Even bad baseball is still baseball."
The judge scratched his nose and said, "You got a point there," and then turned to Mark, who was already horizontal on his bed. "You comin', kiddo?"
Mark actually looked like he was considering it for a moment; it didn't sound like the street scene was due to break up any minute, but finally he said, "Nah, I think I'm getting used to having a mattress again—and fishing takes it out of a guy."
"You didn't even catch anything," Frank protested.
"They also serve who merely stand and fillet," Mark pointed out, "and even if they do it sitting down. Go have fun. Be careful."
There was a half-wave, half-shooing motion from the younger man before he turned over, facing the wall, apparently prepared to ignore the villagers with their torches. Frank pulled his shoe back on and doused the lights as he and Milt slipped out the door.
They took the back way to the main road again. Milt didn't have a lot to say, just sitting pensively while they made their escape. One they'd hit the highway, though, he settled back a little and said, "Thanks for getting him out today. I think it helped some."
Frank nodded. "Yeah. I think he'll be better once he gets home."
He shot a sideward look to see what reception this remark was getting. Milt looked not much convinced, but that might have been because he didn't want to admit it.
"How long were you figuring you'd stay up here?" Frank inquired cautiously.
"'Long as it takes," his friend shot back. It sounded defensive. Milt must've realized that, too because he immediately reinforced his position by adding, "We gotta find that plane."
"Why?" Frank persisted calmly "Because that jackass lawyer from ACCUSE is trying to rattle your cage? You know he's blowing smoke and when it finally comes in front of a jury, they'll figure it out, too."
"I've seen more juries than you have, Frank. I wouldn't count on it. Besides . . ."
Frank glanced over at the drawn-out silence. Milt was staring off into the darkness beyond the headlights.
"You're still feeling a little guilty about leaving Buzz up there? From what you said—which I'll admit wasn't much—it sounds like he was dead before the plane hit the ground."
Milt seemed to give that a moment's reflection, and then he nodded once, slowly.
"We all gotta go sometime," Frank said, trying to sound practical rather than harsh. "I'd say going sudden like that—while doing what you said he liked most—it seems like a pretty good way to buy the farm."
"Maybe," Hardcastle conceded. There was another long silence before he spoke again.
"I wish he'd talk about it some. Ya know, it started up there."
He made a vague gesture toward the mountains behind them, and Frank caught the drift. The subject had segued to Mark.
"He musta figured he had to be a good trooper," Milt mused on, almost as if he were explaining it to himself, "no division in the ranks, 'specially when we were around Walsh or Staller, which was pretty much all the time." He shook his head and glanced up at Frank. "But we're back now, and he still isn't acting right."
"By 'right' you mean calling you a donkey and giving you a hard time?"
"Well . . . yeah, but not really that. It's more like his spark went out. I tell ya, he's not himself."
"He's tired, worn out. You are, too, only you won't admit it." Frank frowned. "He's right, you know; you are a donkey a lot of the time."
Milt opened his mouth but Frank didn't let him launch anything before he plowed ahead.
"And he just wants to go home."
"I told him he could—"
"Home isn't just a place," Frank interrupted pointedly. "And he also knows if he leaves you here there won't be anyone left to talk some sense into you."
"We've only been looking for a couple of days."
"And after the search there'll be the crime scene photographs to analyze, and the physical evidence to be identified, and you know they've got two more sets of backwoods campers that went missing over the past couple of years, don'tcha? He knows he'll be lucky if you come up for air by Christmas."
"You'd think he'd be happy to have the place to himself for a while," Milt muttered, "nobody on his case about—"
"Now you are being a donkey." Frank shook his head and then maneuvered the turn into the parking lot of a roadhouse on the outskirts of Medford.
"One more day," Milt said quietly. "Is that too much to ask?"
"I'm not the one to be asking . . . and he'll never tell you 'no'."
Though the Giants rallied for a second run in the eighth, it wasn't enough to make any difference and the Dodgers won by a decisive four runs. It might as well have been intramural girls' lacrosse as far as Frank could tell, occasionally studying his friend. Hardcastle didn't even seem to be enjoying his beer.
All in all, they both seemed glad to pack up and head back to the inn even before the game was finished. Frank looked around for a neutral topic to chew over on the way home with his still-pensive companion.
"So you caught one with a bobby pin and a piece of string, huh? What'd it weigh, ten pounds?"
"Wire," Milt said quietly. "A piece of a spring from inside the instrument panel. McCormick bent it and sharpened it on a rock. I found the cricket—they get slow when it's cold out. Had to squash it some. And what I caught was some dumb little panfish—a bluegill. You know they'll bite on anything. Wasn't even six ounces, I'll bet, and I had to practically threaten him before he'd eat his share . . .. The second time I tried to use it, the wire broke."
It wasn't Hardcastle's usual buoyant style, but it was too late to retract the innocent question. He seemed to be caught up in the intense memories.
"Bein' hungry wasn't the worst. Not for me, anyway. The hard thing is watching somebody else dying, slowly, and knowing you're responsible for it . . . and they aren't even holding it against you."
"He said that?"
"Yeah," Milt shrugged, "pretty much. I tried to apologize early on. He wouldn't let me."
"Being a good trooper, I guess," Frank suggested.
"Nah, that was before we even knew about Walsh and his crew. I was responsible, though. I shoulda taken one look at Buzz and his plane and said adios."
"But then Walsh would still be out there, preying on the tourists."
Hardcastle frowned, obviously out of practice in being vehemently disagreed with.
"Everything happens for a reason," Frank added, philosophically. "I think Mark's figured that by now."
"It does, huh, and he has?"
Harper could see a few lights up ahead, the airfield, over on their right. The turn-off to the town's back street was coming up soon. The street ahead looked dark.
"Looks like they finally packed it in," he observed, still turning onto the smaller street cautiously.
"Yeah, somebody said they're camping, further on a ways," Milt said glumly. "And tomorrow being Saturday, and their noble leader coming in, there'll probably be an even bigger swarm of 'em."
"Just one more day, right?"
Hardcastle looked unhappy, but resolved. "Right."
It wasn't all that late, but they sneaked in quietly. Mark appeared to be out cold, flat on his back, snoring gently. Milt looked pleased, which seemed to suggest this was the first night it had been so.
Frank thought maybe things were getting back to normal for the younger man, but he was firmly of the opinion that both of his friends needed to stand down and head home for a decent rest.
Frank awoke early and decided it was the distinctive timbre of diesel engines that had done it again. The buses were back. There was a tap on the door a moment later and since he was already conveniently up and about, he answered it.
Jackie smiled and handed him a bundle of neatly-folded clothes. "More donations from my sister."
Frank nodded and accepted the stack. By the time he'd shut the door, the other two were rising. Milt, already on his feet, looked out the window at the de-bussing crowd with a sour expression.
"I'm glad I talked the search team into pulling some overtime."
Mark leaned over to take a quick peek and then grimaced and headed for the bathroom. He paused at the pile of clothing Frank had stowed on the chair, separating out what was obviously intended for him and gathering it up.
"I'm gonna be spoiled," he said as he shuffled off. "I'll need a valet." The bathroom door shut behind him with a snick.
"There he is, I'll bet. An early bird."
Frank turned back to Milt, who was sitting wedged into the gable seat, peering down, like a sentry surveying the opposing forces. Frank wandered over, standing back a little and watching. The man wasn't wearing a suit but his denim looked well-tailored and others were gathering around him as if intending to hang on his every word.
"Yeah," Frank agreed, "looks like the type. I've probably seen his picture in the paper but it's been a while. This'll get him some publicity. I'm surprised it took him this long to get here."
"Oh, he was making the rounds of the radio talk shows yesterday. Besides, Saturday, more of a turnout. I'm sure he likes to have a big crowd in the background for his visuals."
Frank gave that a cynical quirk of a smile and they both watched as the group below formed up and lifted signs. The man in denim patted one of his apparent lieutenants on the shoulder and headed across the street, lost to view beneath the porch roof below the window.
"Interview time," Hardcastle said wearily. "Tough life, rousing the citizenry and all."
The bathroom door opened and a waft of steam billowed out.
"All yours," Mark announced. He was dressed in the latest donations—flannel again—and still toweling his hair.
Hardcastle scowled. "Shoulda let me go first. It's like a swamp in there. Besides, I'm supposed to meet 'em at eight downstairs."
"There's time." Mark gave up on the towel and started working on his socks, easing the left one up over the obviously swollen spot on the outside of his foot and ankle.
This was all a bit more ambitious than the previous morning and Frank had a notion what it was leading to. He kept his mouth shut, though, and didn't stare. Hardcastle was back out shortly, buttoning up his checked wool shirt.
"Ready?" Mark asked.
The judge gave him an odd look.
"Well, I thought it might be nice if we grabbed some grub before we left," Mark added nonchalantly.
Milt shot Frank a quick querying look. The lieutenant shrugged in innocent ignorance.
"Look," the younger man explained patiently, "I know you said you didn't need me up there but, honest, two days. I think old Eagle Eye might do better with his trusty scout along. I figure two people looking doubles the odds of seeing something—in this case, maybe it triples 'em."
"You're comin', huh?" Hardcastle launched a small, rather pleased smile that threatened to become a grin.
"Yeah," Mark stood and grabbed his cane, "I am."
Frank saw them off, flanked by the official search and rescue crew, who were in no mood to field questions from the press. After that he hung around in the front room of the inn. He was left alone. The folks out in the street were being film-worthy. A bullhorn was involved. Frank started to pine for his fishing spot of the previous day, but he knew he ought to stay informed. There'd be a quiz later from Milt.
An attempt to loft an effigy which bore a sign inscribed 'Hardcase' had to be discouraged by the local authorities late in the morning. This led to some scuffling, one arrest, and further footage.
Apfelvert reappeared about an hour after that. He'd been conveniently missing during the confrontation but now demanded to see his clients. He was finally ushered into the Sheriff's office, which was increasingly under siege.
Frank was considering braving the front to go visit Deputy Gorsen and see what was up, but just then he heard the distant sound of a single-engine plane. He stepped out on the porch, squinted up at the autumn sky, a cloudless deep-blue, and soon caught sight of the plane circling in from the north.
People in the street were shading their eyes and looking up as well. There was a certain amount of confusion. The chanting had stopped, replaced by a babble of voices—comments and questions. It was too soon for the plane to be returning, at least according to the pattern of the previous days.
Frank stepped down from the porch and headed around to the back of the building and his parking spot. He wasn't sure what kind of difficulties the plane had encountered to necessitate such an early return, but he wasn't waiting in town to find out.
He took his back way and made good time, but noticed one of the buses loaded up and following, not far behind him. The flying squad, no doubt, detailed off to make noise whenever the search party showed up.
The plane was already on the ground, taxied in, and its crew and passengers all out and headed for the hangar, except for the pilot, staying behind to safeguard his plane. As Frank pulled into a spot in the graveled lot, he saw a news van spinning in behind him, spilling its crew almost before it had halted. The camera man jogged along beneath his load while the lady, formerly in pumps, had traded all that in on tight jeans and hiking boots. She had the mike and a three-length lead on the competition.
Whatever had happened, Frank sighed, it wasn't going to be private for long. He hoped at least Mark had a grip on himself by now. He strode across the grassy perimeter and then loped toward the hangar once he was on the packed dirt landing field.
He heard the bus pulling in behind him and then people climbing off, chattering. They'd be headed this way in a minute, too.
The search party was clustered just inside the hangar. He saw Milt, front and near the center. Mark was a more shadowy form, standing further back, his head tilted down as he listening to one of the other rescuers, who appeared to be saying something very intenty to him.
The reporter with the newly painted-on jeans was walking backward gracefully, now, facing her camera man and addressing her mike.
"Buford 'Buzz' Bird," she said breathlessly, "is a legend in this part of western Oregon, famous for his flying exploits as well as for sharing the beauty of this country with others through his spectacular nature photography. Now, after over a month, the question remains: 'What was his fate, and that of his plane, The Buzzard?"
She'd reached the hanger now and went right for the lead man. She must have interviewed him previously. Her voice still had that slightly breathless quality to it as she clasped her mike. "What can you tell us, Captain, about today's efforts." She poked the microphone at him.
Frank cringed. He hoped the guy was at least handy with a euphemism and bad at remembering names. The captain from the state troopers looked past the woman, appearing a little put-off by the approaching crowd. He nodded to a few of his men who fanned out to establish a perimeter. Frank was busy separating himself from the agitators when the man began to speak in slow and measured phrases.
"With the assistance of a survivor from last month's tragic accident, the wreckage of a downed single-engine plane has been sighted today, northeast of Mulligan Lake. We called in additional search and rescue personnel and their preliminary findings indicate that Mr. Bird's temporary grave has been located as well."
The reporter snatched the mike away long enough to interject, "Can you tell us anything about Mr. Bird's cause of death?"
The captain looked down at her with a certain amount of poorly concealed disdain. "The pathologist's findings will be released from the state medical examiner's office after they have completed their examination."
There was a pause, but as the woman moved to pull the mike back toward her self, his hand snaked out and closed around it as he added, "In addition, the forensic team assigned to the Placer River campsite informs me that they have discovered two additional sets of human remains, estimated to have been dead for at least a year, possibly more, and—no—we aren't able to state their causes of death yet either."
The crowd, which had been muttering its way up to chanting mode, now fell hushed, though that only lasted a moment or two. Then followed a new flurry of muttered questions as a few of the brighter ones tried to explain the implications to their fellow agitators.
The captain had released his grip on the mike and was turning away from further questions. The woman gave up after a couple of ignored attempts and let the cameraman turn his attentions to the confused and scattering protesters, most of them already wandering back to the bus.
The search team was dividing up, too. Frank stepped past the no-longer-needed perimeter-keepers with a quick nod and headed for Mark. The younger man was leaning on his cane, looking calm and contented. Milt joined them, too.
"Should I ask which of the survivors provided the assistance?" Harper asked solemnly.
"It was a group effort," Mark said, his smile was serious, too. "I hope Buzz doesn't mind being hauled back down to the city."
Milt frowned out at the mountains. "He didn't have any kin left. Always was kind of a lone eagle. Maybe we should've left well enough be."
"None of that, Kemosabe. It's all evidence, remember?" Mark patted his shoulder. Then he gazed out at the dispersing crowd. "Can we go home now?"
Milt nodded. "They're bringing my truck back down from Eugene."
"Sorry," Frank said. "I didn't think you'd want it sitting out here getting vandalized. I made sure they impounded it."
"Yeah, well. We stopped off up there yesterday between passes. I had to sign some papers and show 'em stuff. Prove I wasn't dead and all that. They said they'd tow it back down here today." He looked around as if he expected to see it appear magically.
"Later on, probably," Frank said. "You're back early. Good work."
Milt hooked a thumb in Mark's direction. "He's the scout. I'm the vigilante, remember?"
"Come on," Frank smiled and started walking. "I'll give you a ride back to the inn."
He heard Mark behind him, talking to Milt. He figured there was an elbow poke involved as well. "'Scout', huh? I thought I was the mud on the wall."
"Nah," the judge drawled. "What kind of a job would that be?"
The bus had still been loading as they pulled away, but despite being not yet informed of their team's setback, the crowd in town was subdued, as well. They stood in little clusters, signs dangling and dragging on the ground. Apfelvert was nowhere to be seen and most of the reporters were MIA as well.
Frank parked boldly along the curb and got out, surveying the changed atmosphere.
Milt joined him a moment later. "What's up?"
Frank could only shrug. "Dunno. Wasn't this way when I left."
They waited for Mark to get to his feet and finally headed for the otherwise deserted porch and the front door. Jackie was tidying up and swung around as she heard them enter.
"You're back! You heard?" Her eyes sparkled and her smile was mischievous.
There were three equally uninformed headshakes.
"That lawyer fellow—the one with the protesters—he kept demanding to see 'his client'—"
"Walsh, yeah," Frank said, looking over his shoulder and down the street toward the sheriff's office and jail.
"Hm-mm," Jackie cocked her head, "the sheriff finally let him. Only it seems Mr. Walsh was all riled up about the lawyer bringing folks up here, and making all those news statements. They have TV in the jail, you know," she added in an aside.
"Modern times," Hardcastle drawled with a growing smile. "So Walsh tossed him out on his ear, huh?"
"No," Jackie let out a gasp, "worse." She managed to sound shocked. "He bit it off—"
"His ear?" Mark looked apalled.
Jackie nodded. "At least that what they're saying. Deputy Gorsen said there was blood all over everything when they finally got them separated. They took him down to the hospital in Medford and most of the reporters headed down there, too."
Frank issued a long, low whistle and solemnly opined, "That's gonna be a helluva lot of paperwork."
Milt lifted one eyebrow. "You think maybe Walsh is going for an insanity defense?"
"He's probably convinced Apfelvert," Mark said with quiet certainty.
The truck arrived less than an hour later, dropped off in front of the inn. It was nearly three, and Frank thought Milt could have easily claimed it was too late that day to make a start, but to Harper's surprise, his friend was heard to remark that they might as well get a few miles behind them before it got dark.
They settled up the bills. Mark had to do only minimal leaning to extract a substantial tip for the cook; she'd already provided them with sandwiches and cookies for the road.
With very little to pack, and promises to return ("There'll be a memorial service for Buzz once we know what's what," Jackie assured them."), they said farewell to the staff. The three men stood on the porch for a moment surveying the now-quiet town. Both buses had already headed out.
"Well," Mark said with an air of finality, "let's go home."
Frank watched them head toward the truck, moving slowly, like two guys who'd had a long month. Milt gave his faithful scout an elbow up when they got to the passenger side—it was probably no longer absolutely essential, more like a gesture. A moment later he was up and in on his own side, just a little more sprightly, as if to prove it was nothing much at all. And then they departed.
Harper shook his head, smiled, climbed into his own sedan, and followed after them a short distance back, just in case.