The One Dollar And Twenty-Three Cent Solution
Author's note: As a minor aside, the series wasn't about the car and neither is this story, but the car is mentioned here, and it's been variously described on the show as "an endurance prototype" and "designed for racing, not as an assault vehicle," while in the pilot it was apparently an early version of a model intended for mass production. For the purposes of this story I went with the idea that it had a little more in common with a production car than one intended for the racetrack. Credit for the basis of the plot goes to PKB. Meanwhile, all the standard disclaimers to do with intellectual property rights apply.
* * * * *
"Man, I thought that would never end." McCormick held the door of the courthouse for Hardcastle, then paced beside him across the parking lot. "That was the longest deposition I've ever seen. Hasn't that guy ever heard of a lunch break? I'm starving."
"Yeah, Robinson's thorough, all right," the Judge said. "That's how he got to be DA so young."
"Do you think it'll stick, this case against Waverly?"
"I imagine so," Hardcastle said. "Like I said, Dale's thorough, and he's got plenty of Waverly's victims standing in line to testify against him. Besides, with your testimony alone, Waverly probably won't be selling solar fire alarms for at least five to ten years."
"Well, that's good." They climbed into the car and McCormick headed for the freeway. Hardcastle had obviously sorted McCormick and the scam victims into separate mental categories, but Mark himself was somewhat less sanguine on that point. His stint as David Waverly's patsy still rankled, and while he generally managed to focus on more important questions—such as estimating the likelihood that the pretty drugstore cashier who smiled at him last week would respond favorably to an invitation to a movie—reliving the Waverly fiasco for the lawyers had dredged up all too acutely the chagrin and embarrassment he'd suffered through then, to say nothing of the threat to the Judge's life. Still, before they reached the freeway his native cheerfulness had reasserted itself, and as he accelerated up the on-ramp he returned to another theme that took up much of his mental energy. He said, "Hey, what do you think about Cubans?"
Hardcastle groaned. "Ah, McCormick, I don't want to talk about politics right now."
"Politics?" McCormick frowned. "I—no, I mean Cuban sandwiches. Jeeze. You know."
"No," the Judge said, "I don't know. What's a Cuban sandwich?"
"You've never had a Cuban sandwich?"
"If I had, would I have asked you what it was?"
McCormick grinned. "Oh, man, you haven't lived, Judge. I used to get 'em all the time in Florida. They're really big down there."
"Because of all the Cubans?" Hardcastle said dryly.
"Well, yeah. Okay. What they do is, they take a roll like a hero, okay? And they layer on all this ham, roast pork, some Swiss cheese, some mustard…Then they take dill pickles and shave them really thin the long way, okay? And they lay a couple of those on there. Sounds good so far, right?"
"Yeah, I guess," Hardcastle shrugged. "It sounds like a regular sub. What's the big deal?"
"The big deal is, once all that great stuff goes on there they put it in a press. That mashes everything down nice and flat and melts the cheese and kind of toasts the bread. It's incredible."
"Uh-huh," Hardcastle said skeptically. "And how far out of our way do we have to go for this incredible sandwich?"
"It's on the way, not out of the way. It's by the airport."
"Yeah. I was down there last month. This place is just north of there, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place. One half is a liquor mart, and the other half's the café where they make the sandwiches. Kind of a one-stop shopping experience. It's called 'Airport Café And Liquor Store.' Catchy, huh?"
"Very creative. Why were you at the airport?"
"I wasn't. I was by the airport," McCormick said, and in answer to Hardcastle's questioning look he added, "I went down to Long Beach to see that guy with the fabrication place. Remember?" Hardcastle obviously didn't. "Yeah, I told you about it. I needed a swirl pot for the Coyote."
Hardcastle glared at him. "Are you making this up? If you were down there to see some bimbo when you should have been doing your chores then just say so. 'A swirl pot.'"
"A swirl pot," Mark said with dignity, "is a kind of fuel reservoir. This car wasn't built to go screaming around after Catwoman and the Joker, you know. All that hard cornering and heavy braking, the accelerating—sometimes it uncovers the fuel pickup and makes the fuel pressure drop. Haven't you ever felt that? No, of course you haven't," he sighed. "Well, anyway, I wanted to put in a second fuel pump and a swirl pot. The pump feeds the swirl pot and the swirl pot gets rid of air trapped in the fuel. By centrifugal force. Centrifugal force," he repeated. "You know?"
"I'm familiar with elementary physics, McCormick."
"Oh. Okay. Well, the secondary pump feeds the primary fuel pump so it's always getting fuel under pressure with no air in it, even when we're chasing Jesse James and he takes a corner hard…" McCormick nattered away while Hardcastle sighed and gazed out the window: this was far more information than he'd required. "…and I found the pump up here at Jimmy's," McCormick said, drawing to a close, "but I still needed the reservoir, and this guy in Long Beach said he could modify one for me, but he needed to see the car. That's why I went by the airport."
"Are you telling me that this fancy car of yours runs out of gas when you take a corner?"
"Judge, I don't think even Flip Johnson could have designed a car to take the kind of abuse you dish out. It's got a steel fuel tank."
"So without a bladder-type tank the gas can drop below the fuel pickup when I'm driving it hard. That makes the fuel pressure drop. No pressure, no performance. No performance, no catching the bad guy."
"Why don't you put a bladder tank in it?
"Why don't you give me a raise?"
"Your honor, I submit Exhibit A on the question of why I don't buy an eight-hundred dollar bladder tank."
They drove in silence for a few minutes and then McCormick, still smiling, said, "Well?"
"Well, do you want to try a Cuban?"
Hardcastle grimaced. "I don't know. Barney's is on the way home and we wouldn't have to get off the freeway until just before we get there."
"We go to Barney's all the time."
"Because I like Barney's. What if I don't like Cubans?"
"What if I don't?"
McCormick rolled his eyes. "If you don't like it, I'll pay for it."
"What did you, win the lottery? You're gonna buy lunch and hang custom swirlies on your hotrod?"
"No, I'm not gonna buy lunch, because you're gonna love Cubans."
The Judge got the last word in the form of a skeptical huff and then they lapsed into amiable silence. They left the freeway at Manchester, headed west, then turned north on Lincoln through Torrance. After a few blocks Hardcastle abruptly sat up and said, "Hey, pull in there—pull into that Ralph's."
McCormick glanced over in dismay. "I thought we were going to the Cuban place!"
"Just pull in up there."
"Just do it, will you?" Hardcastle cried.
McCormick sighed elaborately, but he signaled and sidestepped into the left turn lane for the store. "I said I'd pay—"
"We'll get your sandwich, for crying out loud. This'll only take a minute. Park there. Stay here."
"Where are you going?"
Hardcastle hoisted himself on to the door sill and swung his legs out of the car. "I'll be right back."
"C'mon, Judge. What's going on?"
"None of your business."
"Stay there." Hardcastle strode quickly across the parking lot, not so focused on his errand that he couldn't once again regret McCormick's apparently pathological inability to take direction without launching a debate. Once inside the grocery store he stopped, rummaged through his pockets for change, then approached the customer service counter, behind which a middle-aged woman in the store's uniform stood sorting coupons. She glanced up at his approach. "Hello. Can I help you?"
Hardcastle gave her his sweetest smile. "I hope so. I owe this store a dollar twenty-three."
The clerk blinked. "You owe the store?"
"Yes. A couple of weeks ago I stopped in here to buy some limes."
"Yes. I bought five limes. When the cashier asked what kind of limes they were I said, 'Limes. Plain old limes.' Well, I was wrong. The next time I came in here I realized that the store carries 'plain old limes' and organic limes, and I had picked up organic limes. The price difference between five organic limes and five normal limes is a dollar twenty-three. So I owe your store a dollar twenty-three."
Much of this flew right past the clerk, but she did get the upshot. "Sir, that's so sweet of you; we appreciate your honesty. We really do. But it's not necessary to pay the difference. Really."
"I've got it right here," Hardcastle said, putting the exact change on the counter.
The clerk didn't move toward the money. "Please don't worry about it," she said. "Really. It's okay."
"It will be okay if you take the money," the Judge said firmly. "Somebody has to pay the difference in the price of those limes, and since I used the limes, it's going to be me, not the store."
"I'd take the money, ma'am," said a familiar voice behind him, and he turned sharply to see McCormick, hands clasped behind his back, rocking on his heels, and utterly failing to suppress a delighted grin. "If you don't, he's just going to go home and write a check for a dollar twenty-three and mail it to you."
The clerk sighed. "Do you have your receipt?"
* * * *
Hardcastle turned with a glare. "Have you ever once done what you were told?" he demanded.
"Not so far." McCormick had witnessed too many examples of his friend's integrity to still be surprised by it, but it never ceased to charm him. He clapped the Judge on the shoulder and said conspiratorially, "Now I know your dark secret, you produce thief, you."
Hardcastle shrugged him off. "I would have been a produce thief. Now I'm an honest citizen with a clear conscience."
"It should have been clear before. It was an accident."
"Hell yeah, it was an accident. Who knew there's a kind of lime that's not organic? They grow on trees, don't they? Last time I checked that makes things organic."
"In a sane world," McCormick said. "But this is L.A. You know this store probably loses a buck twenty-three every five minutes just to employee theft, right?"
"That's their problem," the Judge said. "I told you: it's not going to be on my conscience."
"What were you doing buying limes, anyway?"
"Ah, Frank asked me to pick up some for that goofy theme party Claudia was having. For the drinks, you know."
"I thought that was for her girlfriends," McCormick said, and narrowed his eyes. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"I was taking some files back to Frank, wise guy," Hardcastle growled. "He asked me to get the limes because he forgot them and he didn't want Claudia to take his head off over it."
"Ah. Well, why didn't you want me to come in the store?"
"Because it was none of your business!" Hardcastle cried. "You'd just make a production out of it. Like right now."
"You're not embarrassed, are you?"
"Good. Because it's kind of…"
"Kind of what?" Hardcastle rumbled ominously.
"Okay, okay, not quaint. Unique." McCormick held up his hands placatingly. "That's a good thing, Judge." Hardcastle scowled anyway, and to turn the current of his thoughts McCormick said, "Hey, while we're in here, how about picking up something for this weekend?"
"What's this weekend?"
"'What's this weekend?' Judge, the Lakers are at the Bulls this weekend. Come on."
"Oh. Well, what'd you have in mind?"
"The usual. No point in breaking tradition."
"Fine," Hardcastle conceded, and pointed to the far end of the store. "Beer's down there."
Following a successful cruise through the store's beer selections and with Hardcastle driving the cart ("When you buy the grub, you can drive the cart," he'd said), they made their way to the snack aisle, where they quarreled good-naturedly over the relative merits of Cheezee Puffs and sour cream flavored Wavy Crisps, finally calling it a draw and tossing both bags into the cart. Hardcastle moved on to the popcorn.
Shopping hadn't made McCormick any less hungry, and it had occurred to him, somewhere between the pretzels and the potato chips, that if he'd kept his mouth shut they'd be enjoying their sandwiches by now. He glanced toward the front of the store. A few shoppers pushed carts past the end of the aisle, moving in and out of his field of view, but what caught his attention was the young guy standing—leaning, actually—against the rows of shopping carts in their corral. Normally he would have mentally classified the disreputable looking guy as "dirtbag" and moved on, but now he stared hard at the man, for there was something utterly, dismayingly familiar about his manner: it was the invariable look of the prisoners in the yard at San Quentin when they were about to whip out a shank.
"Hey, what about beer nuts, huh?"
"Ju-udge." McCormick reinforced his warning with a nudge.
"What?" Hardcastle looked up.
McCormick indicated the man with a motion of his head—and he couldn't help noticing, with admiration tempered by dismay, the fixed, Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade look that blazed in his friend's eye as the prospect of a dangerous confrontation presented itself.
"Get back to the stock room," the Judge said. "Find the manager. Tell him something's about to go down and to call the cops."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm gonna keep an eye on this guy. He's probably not alone."
"Are you nuts?" McCormick whispered fiercely. "You'll be alone if I'm back there, and you want to take on two guys?"
"Then hurry up! Come on. Somebody's gotta let the cops know that something's going down here." He jerked his thumb toward the back of the store, at the second floor windows there. "Look: that's where their offices are. If you can't find a phone and somebody in the stock room to call the cops, go up there. They'll have a phone up there for sure. Now get going!"
McCormick shook his head, and with a last wry look he said, "You're out of your mind."
* * * * *
Once he turned the corner at the end of the aisle McCormick broke into a trot and jogged along the back of the store until he reached a set of swinging doors that led to the storeroom. He pushed through and paused. The huge stock room was cavernous and gloomy compared to the brightly-lit public part of the store, and packed with pallets of merchandise: toilet paper, French cut string beans, pigs' feet…Who eats that stuff? he wondered. On the rearmost wall of the building were four large overhead doors, all closed, where delivery trucks offloaded their cargo. To his left, at the far end of the storeroom, a dimly-lit stairway led up. To his right, at the other end of the building, a short, wide hallway ended not with a door but hanging strips of thick plastic and led to another part of the storeroom—probably the freezer and refrigerated sections. He didn't see anyone, and apart from the muted thunder of the massive overhead ventilation system, he couldn't hear anything, either.
"Hello?" he called. No answer. "Hello? Anybody in here?" Nothing. Remembering what Hardcastle had said about the phone, he headed for the stairs. He had one hand on the railing when a shout came from behind him. A man in a short-sleeved white dress shirt, dark tie, and dark pants, middle-aged and beefy, was hurrying toward him looking managerial and displeased. His gold-tone nametag read, "Jim Sutton—Asst. Manager."
"Can I help you?" he asked, in a tone which left no doubt that his unspoken question was, "What the hell are you doing in here?"
"Oh, great," Mark said. "Hey, listen: I know this is gonna sound crazy, but you gotta trust me on this: there's a guy up front, by the registers, and I think he's gonna try to rob the store. We need to call the police."
Sutton crossed his arms. "Who are you? What is this, a joke?"
"Look, if I'm wrong the cops can blame me, but I'm telling you: this store's about to get robbed and there isn't time to debate it." Mark was burning with impatience to get back to Hardcastle before the Judge did something…well, Judge-like. "Where's your phone?"
Sutton hesitated, seeming to consider. Then he said, "Back there," and jerked this thumb over his shoulder, indicating the far hallway. "Back down that hall. How do you know somebody's going to rob the store?" he asked as Mark surged ahead of him. "Did you see a gun?"
"No. No guns. But Tonto here have pretty good instincts."
"Nothing. It's just—I've seen things like this before."
"Oh," Sutton said, as McCormick pushed through the plastic strips. This secondary storeroom had its own overhead loading door—closed like the others—although it was much smaller than the main storeroom, having to accommodate only a small office plus the walk-in freezer and refrigerator.
"The phone's over there," Sutton said, pointing toward the office, then adding conversationally, "Are you a cop?"
McCormick made a face. "Why, do I look like a cop?"
"No. You look like a chump."
Even before the words registered McCormick had stopped in surprise: crouched by the open safe next to the desk in the little office a man was cramming the safe's contents into a red duffel bag. "What the hell…?" Mark turned—and found himself facing Sutton and a second accomplice, this one with a semi-automatic pistol leveled at him. Forty-caliber, by the look of it. He put his hands up—slowly. "You just had to see what he was doing in the store," he said inwardly. "You couldn't wait in the car."
"Put him with the rest," Sutton said.
"Let's go." The gunman motioned with the pistol, and McCormick edged past him, hands still raised, his eyes never leaving the gun.
"Joey," Sutton said to the man at the safe. "Come on. Give Tig a hand with this guy."
Tig held the gun on McCormick while Joey unpinned the freezer handle and swung the door open. Inside, face down on the floor, bound and gagged, lay a handful of store employees. At the sight of them Mark reacted instantly, reflexively: there was no way he was going into that freezer alive.
His left hand flashed out and caught Tig's gun hand and he twisted down and back, forcing a screech of pain from Tig and wrenching the gun free. The move put him right on top of Tig, but he used the leverage that remained to slug the guy right-handed and send him sprawling. Tig was between him and the exit, and despite making a galvanic leap to clear him, Mark tripped and nearly fell himself. In putting both hands out to catch himself he dropped the gun, and it skittered across the smooth concrete floor, out of reach. Recovering himself, he plunged toward the hallway.
"Get after him!" Sutton shouted. "Get him!"
There was no time for strategy, no time to hide: they were on him, and the best he could do was a high, desperate leap onto a pallet of cartons, slithering across the top and landing on the far side, putting the crates between himself and his pursuers—his attackers, now, because they came at him from opposite sides of the pallet. As he turned to face Joey, Tig grabbed him from behind, clamping one iron forearm tight against his throat. He threw himself back, trying to slam his opponent against the wall, and lashed out with his feet at the other man. He missed Joey but brought down a cascade of boxes and blocked, briefly, the frontal attack. But now his air was gone—in just those few seconds—and the agonizing force on his throat never slackened. He twisted his head to one side, ducked his chin, and clawed for the man's hands, his fingers—anything to break that deadly hold—but a grey haze closed in on him inexorably. His wildly thrashing feet broke open the cartons, scattering jars, smashing them, and it was this that saved him. He slipped, and the shift in balance caught Tig unprepared—he was already leaning back himself, to throttle McCormick, and he too slipped in the mess. They crashed together to the floor with McCormick on top, and at once the pressure on his throat was gone: his attacker, in falling, had knocked himself out cold.
McCormick rolled off him gasping, his senses returning quickly, and he had pushed himself up on one knee when movement from above made him shy violently to one side. Joey struck viciously at him with a broom handle, a blow that would have cracked his skull had it landed full. Instead it struck him glancingly, opening a two-inch gash above his left eye.
Joey swore and raised the stick for another try. McCormick lurched to his feet and charged forward, head down, under the down-sweeping stick, and plowed into him, his arms encircling the man's waist, too low and too close for the broom to be an effective weapon now, and he drove with all the strength left in his legs, drove until they fetched up hard against a high-stacked pallet. The boxes gave way beneath their combined weight.
Again he landed on top, but except for losing the broom handle Joey was unaffected by the fall. They scrambled to their feet, but McCormick, dazed by the strike to his head and half-blinded by the blood streaming into his eyes, was slower getting up, and this time, slower in seeing the blow aimed at him, a strike to the side of his face that staggered him and set off a constellation of sparks before his eyes. Reflexively, blindly, he swung back, felt his fist smack with a gratifying meat-on-meat sound into the man's face, and because he couldn't see he drove forward again, forward into his enemy and fighting by feel alone, but now his breath was coming hard, air was running out on him, and his arms were lead. Then Joey missed his footing in the slippery mess on the floor. He put out a hand to catch himself, and McCormick, with what remained of his strength, hit him with a backhand fist that knocked him stunned to the floor.
Mark stood sucking air in agonized gasps, his hands on his knees—but he'd drawn just two breaths when the sound of a slide being racked froze him.
* * * * *
Hardcastle waited until McCormick disappeared around the end of the aisle, and then, still pushing the cart, sauntered toward the front of the store, doing what he could to look like a harmless old man. At the end of the aisle he turned left, away from the register lanes and past the thug leaning on the carts, close enough to glimpse the pistol butt protruding from the guy's belt. He continued past the store's west entrance and paused near the photo counter, where he feigned interest in the battery display. His focus, though, was on the far end of the store: the east entrance, near the customer service desk. He quickly found what he was looking for: the accomplice, standing by a magazine rack at the end of a register aisle, nervously leafing through fashion magazines. The accomplice, like his companion, glanced repeatedly at his watch.
Milt scanned the parking lot and driveway outside the store for an obvious getaway car, but the only vehicles parked in front were a couple of Medicare sleds being loaded with groceries. Legitimate. No cops, either, he noted with a sigh. Of course, McCormick hadn't been gone two minutes, and it was asking too much for any cops to be on hand by mere chance. The Lone Ranger, however, didn't lurk tamely behind the battery display waiting for the cavalry while the bad guys robbed the general store: He led the charge.
Milt abandoned the cart and strolled out the west doors. Once outside he dropped into a crouch. Hugging the building and keeping below the level of the windows he crept the few feet over to the half-height door where the carts were pushed into the store. This late in the day a lot of carts were stranded in the parking lot, so it was easy for him to squeeze through the half door back into the store. Now he was behind the potential robber and out of his field of vision. He crept silently forward until he was within striking distance, and then he reached out with one long arm and swept the man's feet from under him. The guy went down like a pole in a caber toss and gave no trouble as Hardcastle confiscated his gun and handcuffed him to the nearest stack of carts.
After a quick check to make sure that the accomplice hadn't noticed the activity, the Judge backed out the way he'd come, stood up, dusted himself, and strode back to the east entrance. This maneuver, too, put him behind the bad guy, who had by then noticed his friend's absence and was looking increasingly nervous. Hardcastle paused at the service desk, where the clerk who'd taken his lime money was still busy. "Do you have a phone back there?" he whispered.
"I'm sorry," she said. "We do, but it's for employees only."
Hardcastle made an impatient gesture. "Call the police. Tell them there's a robbery in progress and that Milt Hardcastle asked you to call them. Got that?"
Her eyes went wide. "Milt Hardcastle," she repeated.
"Right. Can you do that?"
He turned from her and approached the accomplice, who was now craning to see what had become of his friend. "Lose something?" Hardcastle asked. As the man turned toward him Hardcastle caught his forearm in a viselike grip and, using the momentum of the man's turn combined with a motion of his foot that swept the man's legs from under him, dropped him face first to the floor. In contrast to his unnoticed first capture, this caused something of a stir among nearby customers, but it was after all L.A., and without much fuss the Judge soon had both of his prizes contained in the tiny room behind the customer service counter.
"Now, gentlemen," he said, rubbing his hands together and looking pleased with himself. "You want to tell me what the hell is going on here?"
* * * * *
Mark drew himself up with an effort, blinking as the dripping blood burned his eyes and blurred his vision. Sutton. He'd forgotten about the manager.
"That's enough," Sutton said. "Let's go."
Mark brushed backhanded at his eyes—and when he was able to focus again his first thought was that getting clocked in the head had made him stupid. But Hardcastle was really there, standing behind Sutton with his .45 to the man's ear, and Sutton was really lowering his gun. "That is enough," Hardcastle rumbled. "Drop it." Sutton hesitated, but behind Hardcastle a phalanx of uniformed cops led by the estimable Frank Harper swarmed into the storeroom, and he conceded to the inevitable.
Even before the gun clattered to the concrete McCormick turned away: if he didn't sit down he was going to fall down. Hardcastle helped ease him onto an undamaged carton, then stood frowning at the gash in his forehead. He didn't say anything but stalked off, returning a moment later with a handful of paper towels that he pressed into McCormick's hand. "Hold that there," he said, guiding his hand to the injury. McCormick winced, but Hardcastle held his hand firmly in place. "No. Hold it there," he said. "You're bleeding like a stuck hog. Keep your head back." More frowning. "What the hell happened to you? I told you to find a phone, not storm the Bastille."
McCormick looked up from under the towels and opened his mouth to reply when Frank approached. He, too, frowned at the sight of Mark, but when he spoke he just said, "That's all of them, Milt. Your guys were straight with you. There were just the three of them back here." He looked at Mark again. "What the hell happened to you?"
McCormick sighed. "The manager ambushed me. He and his buddies were cleaning out the safe, and—oh, man, the freezer!" He started up, but Hardcastle's hand was already on his shoulder, pressing him back down with irresistible force. "Judge, they locked people in the freezer—employees."
Frank had already turned to deal with it. "Hey, Billy!" he called, motioning a uniformed cop over. "I'll see you, Milt. I'll give you a call later for your statement. You better get him patched up," he added.
"Yeah, yeah." Hardcastle took McCormick's elbow. "Come on, Tonto. Let's go see the medicine man."
McCormick stood up a little unsteadily and glanced ruefully around at the crushed cartons and broken jars. He himself was liberally coated with mayonnaise, pickle juice, and a collage of other products. "Looks like you're into the store for a lot more than a buck twenty-three, now," he said.
"Hey, I didn't spill a drop catching my guys. This is coming out of your allowance, not mine."
"You smell like a salad, you know that?"
* * * * *
"So it turned out that the guys we saw in the front of the store were just there to create a disturbance to cover the robbery: to be decoys for the real job going on in the back." This was Mark's third iteration of the story, and he hadn't even been interviewed by the cops yet. First he'd gone through it—or his part in it—for the Judge, on their way to the hospital, and then for the ER doctor who'd stitched his forehead; the doctor, an old acquaintance, had enough experience in patching up both Mark and Milt to wonder why the hospital hadn't been favored with a visit in months ("Because the ER at St. Bernard's has candy," Mark had replied); and now for Julie, the nurse who'd wrapped his split knuckles and applied the bandage that covered the stitches over his eye. He liked Julie, who reminded him of Sarah Wicks, all trim efficiency and reassuring competence, but whereas no one had ever accused Sarah of maternal warmth, Julie added an abundance of that quality to her other professional virtues. So Mark patiently repeated the story, although by now he was extremely tired and well on his way to developing a really debilitating headache.
Julie had heard several similar stories from Mark and Milt before, and she didn't approve of this adventure any more than she had of the others. "You should be more careful," she told him. "You take far too many chances. That's what the police are for. They're trained for that kind of thing."
"Hardcastle used to be a cop," Mark offered timidly.
"That was a long time ago," she replied. "You could have gotten killed."
"Nah," McCormick said, with a dismissive bravado that he hoped sounded more convincing than it felt. "Hardcastle was right there with the cavalry. Besides," he went on, before she could object, "it was for a good cause. All those customers in the store could've gotten hurt if we hadn't done something—not to mention the employees those guys stuffed in the freezer. And we saved the store's money, so even if they don't give us a parking spot near the door, Hardcase'll probably have free groceries for life." He smiled, but she didn't smile back.
"You shouldn't joke about it, Mark," she said gravely. She gazed into his face and seemed about to go on, then changed her mind and just shook her head. "Be more careful, hon," she said, giving his shoulder a squeeze, and then she was gone.
Mark recognized the end of the process, and he was both anxious to get out of the hospital and dreading the drive home. At that moment he'd have sold his soul for a teleport to the Gatehouse loft, to his own comfortable bed. He glanced at his bandaged hand, intending to flex it experimentally, and realized with a shock that it was trembling. He instantly clapped on to the edge of the gurney to stop it.
This was ridiculous, he thought, scowling. When he was racing he'd measured the difference between life and death in fractions of inches, fractions of seconds, and he'd accepted the risks as part of that life. How was riding shotgun for Batman any different? In fact, hadn't he really, at root, concluded that it was better? If he was going to skate along that line, wasn't it better to be doing something good, something useful—hell, even something moral in the process?
"You decent?" Hardcastle's booming voice broke abruptly into his thoughts. The Judge hesitated when he saw McCormick's expression. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Mark said. "I was just thinking."
"In your condition? Haven't you had enough head injuries for one day?"
McCormick pointed to the amber vial the Judge was holding. "What's that?"
"This?" Hardcastle gave the little bottle a shake. "This is the good stuff. It's to keep your floor mats clean."
"For the nausea." Milt filled a paper cup at the sink. "How many do you want?"
"How many are in there?"
"The correct answer is 'one' or 'two.'"
A sigh. "Two."
Hardcastle took the cup back and hit the wastebasket from outside the key. "Nothing but net," he said with satisfaction. He considered McCormick, sitting there looking pale and drawn. "Well, you did good today, kiddo." Mark looked at him doubtfully. "I'm serious. It was one against three, there, and you took out two of those guys."
"Yeah, well." Mark eased cautiously off the gurney and they headed for the door. "If I did so good, how come I feel so bad?"
"Come on, cheer up. Hey, if you give me directions I'll buy you a Cuban."
McCormick stopped in his tracks, his hands up. "Judge: No. Don't. Don't even say that. Not now, or they're going to have a clean-up on aisle seven."
"Cheap shot. Sorry."
"This is all your fault, you know," McCormick informed him sourly.
"Yeah. If you'd played Boy Scout by mail we wouldn't have been in that store in the first place."
"If you'd stayed in the car like I told you, 'we' wouldn't have been in the store at all. I'd have been in and out in two minutes, and we'd have been long gone."
McCormick considered. "But this way we foiled a crime ring," he said. "So maybe it's a good thing you're a Boy Scout, huh?"
"Now you're cooking. And I'll tell you something: you were right about one thing. That store was losing more than a dollar twenty-three to the employees."
"The pills are working already. I think I just hallucinated you saying I was right about something."
"Ah, don't worry about it. You won't remember it tomorrow. And you still smell like a salad."
* * * * *