Note: This is my first attempt at a longer story! I wasn't sure I'd actually post it, but I figure even a novice attempt is better than no story at all, right?? Thanks, Jazz for your encouragement and sending back my muse so I could finish up. Hope you like the last half!

All the standard qualifiers apply--not my characters, just having fun.

A Shot from Nowhere

Georgi1961

Chapter 1

Lt. Frank Harper sat staring out the window of his office, a pen playing between the fingers of his right hand. It had been a slow morning at the precinct and he was enjoying the last drops of tepid coffee when his phone rang. Sighing, and knowing the quiet couldn't last forever anyway, he picked up on the third ring.

It was an unlikely "snitch," calling from an unlikely location. When he heard the call was from the Warden at San Quentin, Harper had thought it was a joke. An inmate—maybe somebody looking to score some points—was reporting that a hit was ordered on Mark McCormick? Who was he trying to kid? When he learned that the tip came from Joe Cadillac, a mob boss currently residing in Quentin, Harper realized the seriousness of the threat. Cadillac owed both Judge Hardcastle and McCormick for saving his son's life nearly two year's earlier. Perhaps he was balancing the scale.

The Lieutenant's first action was to send a squad car to Gull's Way. Then, he dialed Judge Milton C. Hardcastle.

00000

Hardcastle was sitting at his desk reading the day's mail. Bills, solicitations for credit cards—they were now even coming in Mark's name. His mind drifted over the past 2 years since the ex-con had come to live with him. Coerced, that's what it was. He hadn't intended for him to become a permanent fixture, but now Hardcastle couldn't imagine the estate without him in residence. And now, he was apparently permanent enough to be receiving his own offers for credit cards, time shares, and investment opportunities. He was still lost in his thoughts when the phone rang next to him. Startled briefly, he picked it up on the second ring, "Hardcastle."

Not taking the time for pleasantries, Harper jumped in, "Milt, it's Frank. Is Mark with you?"

Hardcastle immediately noted the severity in Harper's voice. "He's out in the yard—by the pool I think. What's wrong?" His voice was nothing but practical.

I just got a call from the Warden at San Quentin. Apparently, Joe Cadillac received some information that a hit was ordered on Mark."

"Frank, how serious do you think this threat is?" The tone in Hardcastle's voice deepened, reflecting his concern.

"Does the name Senegal ring a bell?" was Harper's quick reply.

There was only a brief pause on Hardcastle's end as he registered this as a very legitimate threat, "Hold on, Frank, let me put you on speaker and I'll go bring the kid in."

Hardcastle went to the back door, and not immediately seeing McCormick, walked back through the hallway to the front door. Mark had just finished moving the Coyote close to the fountain—apparently getting ready to wax it judging from the supplies that were sitting in the driveway. The Judge called a quick, "Hold on, Frank" towards the speaker, and opened the front door.

He stepped out onto the front stoop, squinting in the sunlight. He started to call out when he heard a low rumbling—not quite thunder, and prolonged. Looking over Mark's head, he saw a helicopter come up over the cliff—what the hell? McCormick looked at the Judge, and saw his expression change from confused to serious to near panic. Before he could turn to look at what the Judge was staring at, the estate was besieged with machine gun fire. "Get back" Mark screamed at the Judge, afraid that he was going to come forward in a harebrained attempt to protect him, and then he himself took what shelter he could between the Coyote and the fountain.

Milt ducked back into the front door after seeing Mark go for cover. He yelled towards the speaker phone, "Frank, send help NOW!"

00000

Frank listened as Hardcastle switched the phone to speaker. He could hear his heavy footsteps as he left the room. Although the phone was silent for just a minute, he again heard footsteps approaching. From a distance, he could hear his friend holler, "hold on, Frank" and then what sounded like the front door opening. The next sound caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand up—and his heart to race. Gunshots? Machine gun fire? Glass shattering? What the hell was going on?? What came across loud and clear was Hardcastle's voice shouting, "Frank, send help NOW!"

00000

It was over as quickly as it started. The helicopter crossed above the estate and appeared to head out over the ocean and out of sight. Senegal was obviously not wasting any time. Hardcastle opened the front door cautiously, noticing the broken glass, and shattered statues by the fountain.

McCormick...

"McCormick? MCCORMICK? Kid, you okay?" Milt ran off the stoop and across the driveway as soon as the thought registered that McCormick had not come out from his cover. As he crossed around the fountain he stopped short; his heart caught in his throat. McCormick was lying in an unnatural position slumped between the Coyote and the fountain, blood pooling around his body; his hand still gripped the chamois.

He quickly knelt by his side, afraid to get too close but needing to know whether his young friend was still alive. The too faint heartbeat gave him only fleeting encouragement.

Hardcastle was surprised to hear sirens so quickly; unaware that Frank had sent protection before calling to alert him to the threat. Standing up as the squad car approached, he yelled for the officers to call an ambulance and bring blankets. Returning quickly to McCormick's side, he spoke frantically, "stay with me, kid, stay with me…" his voice trailing off as the officers approached.

The paramedics arrived before the ambulance, and the Coyote was moved for easier access to the injured man. They didn't want to risk further harm by moving him before the damage was assessed. The Judge had attempted to stop the bleeding, but was unsuccessful. Upon examination, the paramedics found three gunshot wounds, but couldn't guarantee that there weren't more. One hit the back of his calf, one found its way into his lower back, and one lodged in his shoulder. Although his head was bleeding, they weren't sure whether it was due to the impact with the concrete or from another bullet.

As paramedics worked with amazing efficiency, police officers attempted to question Hardcastle. The Judge, however, just stood there staring at McCormick, watching every move—an IV line was inserted, a bag of blood and a saline solution was held up, shock pants were inflated. He had a very distant look on his face, and was unaware that he was being asked a question for the third time.

"Ah, Judge Hardcastle" the young officer attempted again, "can you tell me what happened here?"

The Judge blinked three times, "What?"

"Can you tell me what happened here" the officer ventured again.

He jumped at the thunderous response from Hardcastle, "HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW WHAT HAPPENED HERE!"

Nobody noticed when Frank Harper pulled in, but he was immediately at the side of the young officer saying quietly, "Baxter, this can wait. Go make sure the perimeter is secure."

Frank approached Hardcastle quietly, knowing there were no words he wanted to hear right now. Instead of speaking, he simply squeezed his shoulder as he walked around him to guide the ambulance drivers to Mark.

Hardcastle's expression was one of shock, total disbelief registering in his clear blue eyes. Harper wasn't even sure he knew he was there.

The attendants waited with the gurney until their patient was able to be moved. Covered in a blanket, carefully avoiding the tubes attached to his arms, they moved him smoothly into the ambulance. Due to the severity of the injuries, and the room needed in which to work, Hardcastle was not allowed to accompany his unconscious friend. Before he could put words together to mount an argument, Harper had him by the arm and led him to his squad car. He pointed to the lights—indicating to Hardcastle that he planned to keep up with the ambulance.

The motorcade, led by the ambulance, exited Gull's way moving through traffic that pulled towards either side allowing them quick passage in its wake. The police radio was tuned to the frequency of the paramedics to monitor the conversation with the hospital. Patient is shocky, BP is 90 over 40, pulse is weak… Frank reached over to switch off the radio, but his hand was quickly caught by Hardcastle, "Frank, I need to know what's going on," his voice almost non-existent.

The only sound for the remainder of the drive was the back and forth exchange of information between the ambulance and the hospital.

As they made the turn into the ramp of the emergency room, they heard five words spoken with contained urgency—obviously well-trained professionals who had seen untold medical emergencies in the past, Cedars, we have no pulse. The words registered slowly, and Hardcastle leaned in and put his hand on the radio as if he could will Mark the strength to hold on. Milt was out of the car before it completely stopped and he followed the gurney into the ER, watching as the medical personnel administered CPR. He was blocked as the team went through the final doors leading towards the operating rooms.

Frank watched as the Judge stood staring at closed doors for what seemed like an eternity. He didn't want to intrude on his thoughts, but thought that his friend may be in shock himself. He hadn't said more than those eight words during the entire trip. Suddenly appearing older than his 68 years, it looked as if his legs may not be able to hold him upright much longer. Frank put his hand on his arm and silently guided him to the waiting room. Surprised that no argument was offered, he led him to a seat close to the nurse's station.

Frank was a well-known figure in this emergency room. He was there standing vigil anytime any of his officers was hurt—no matter how minor the injury appeared. He treated every man and woman under his command with respect and appreciation for the job they did. This circle had grown to include Mark McCormick over the past several years. Although he started out feeling that the ex-con was one of the Judge's "projects," Mark had quickly earned Frank's respect, and the respect of much of the police department. Mark had become one of their own. It didn't surprise him that as the evening wore on, several police officers, ADAs and judges stopped by to check on Mark's status and see if the Judge needed anything.

Frank stayed in contact with the officers gathering evidence at the estate. All leads—no matter how trivial they seemed at this juncture—were being followed. The minutes stretched to hours, and as the sun set into darkness, Hardcastle's mood deteriorated with growing exhaustion.

"Milt, you should try to eat something." He knew Hardcastle would never leave, but at least this was a safe opening for a conversation. Besides, Frank himself was hungry. It had been nearly 12 hours since he'd eaten breakfast.

Hardcastle looked at him—probably for the first time in hours. "Frank, you should go home. This looks like it's going to be a very long night." Hardcastle had spoken so quietly that Frank may have missed it if he hadn't been looking directly at him.

"Nothin' doin', but how 'bout I go get us some sandwiches and coffee?" Frank maintained eye contact to let him know he was serious.

Hardcastle sighed, understanding the unspoken words of friendship—for both him and McCormick, "Yeah, Frank, I could eat a sandwich, thanks."

Frank gave a quick squeeze to the Judge's shoulder as he headed towards the cafeteria.

Moments later, Frank arrived back with four sandwiches and two cups of strong coffee. He passed two to Hardcastle, and settled in next to him as they both ate in silence. Frank picked up the trash, and headed back to the nurses station when he saw the doors to the surgical wing open.

Hardcastle was immediately on his feet with Frank quickly back at his side. They both braced themselves for what they thought may be devastating news.

"Are you here for Mr. McCormick?" the surgeon asked quickly. They both nodded in agreement. "I'm Dr. Little…Carl. I'm heading the team that has been treating Mr. McCormick. I don't know how much you already know, but Mark suffered four gunshot wounds…"

"Four?" It was Hardcastle who cut the doctor off. "We thought he was only shot three times." Only three times? Only??

"A fourth bullet grazed his head, but did its share of damage." Dr. Little continued, trying to provide just enough detail. "Mark survived the surgery, but his heart stopped. He's a fighter, and we got him back. We had to close before we could remove the bullet from his back. Right now, he's too weak for another surgery. We are going to monitor him closely, watch for infection, and try to help him gain enough strength to remove the last bullet."

Hardcastle waited a moment to see if any additional information was forthcoming from the doctor. When it appeared that he was finished, he asked the obvious question "isn't it dangerous for him to have the bullet in his back? Can it move and make his injuries worse?"

The doctor thought for only a brief moment, realizing that total honesty was the only way he could answer, "I'm not sure there is any worse, sir. Mark wouldn't survive another surgery right now. We did what we could, but he is just too weak. To be honest, I'm not sure how he survived. I've never really seen anything like it. Our goal now is to keep his blood pressure up, watch for infection, and give him some time to stabilize. Maybe tomorrow—if he doesn't take a turn for the worse."

"Can I see him?" Hardcastle's voice cracked. Clearing it, he continued, "I'd like to sit with him if I could."

"Of course. He's in recovery now, but as soon as we can, we'll move him to the ICU. We'll bring in a chair for you. Someone will be out soon." With that, Dr. Little turned slowly and walked away, leaving the two men staring after him.

Hardcastle turned to Frank. "I'll be staying for as long as it takes. I think you should go home—and maybe tomorrow you can bring me a change of clothes or something…" his voice trailed off.

Frank looked at his older friend consideringly, "I'll wait until you're settled with Mark, then I'll head home for a bit. I've arranged for additional security—two officers that know McCormick are on their way. It appears as if Mr. Cadillac's information is correct, and we don't want to be caught off guard again. I'll be back first thing in the morning after I am brought up to speed with what they found at Gull's Way. I'm going to keep a car there, too, just in case."

Hardcastle nodded absently as he sat back down to wait.

It was another hour before McCormick was moved into the ICU. As promised, a chair was waiting for the Judge—and an extra for Frank if needed. Frank watched as Hardcastle moved the chair closer to the bed, and taking Mark's hand he started to talk quietly, "Hey, kiddo, I'm here. You keep fighting and everything will be okay…" Hardcastle blinked away the tears that had formed in his eyes.

Frank confirmed that he'd be back in the morning with a change of clothes for the Judge, and quietly exited the room, praying this would not be the last time he saw his young friend alive. He checked with the officers posted outside the ICU, and told him to call him at home if the Judge needed anything.

The officers understood the unspoken words.

00000

Hardcastle had fallen asleep with his hand resting on Mark's. He bolted awake when he felt his hand move. With no windows in the ICU, he was unsure whether it was night or day, or even how long he'd been asleep. Blinking hard, he looked at McCormick's opened eyes and smiled. He cleared his throat, and spoke quietly as he pushed the call button for the nurse, "Mark, don't try to talk. You won't be able to. If you can understand me, blink twice."

He watched as his young friend blinked hard, and twice.

The nurse arrived quickly, and had heard the Judge's request. She leaned in with a smile, "That's good Mr. McCormick. Your doctors are on the way. Stay with us, and we'll explain what's going on." They both smiled as Mark blinked twice again.

00000

While the team was examining McCormick, Hardcastle dialed Frank's office, but hung up when he saw the Lieutenant exit the elevator. Not waiting for pleasantries, Hardcastle started talking excitedly, "Frank, the kid's awake. I don't know what that means, but it's got to be good, right?"

Frank smiled. "It sure is. Is he strong enough to have that last bullet removed?"

"I don't know—they shooed me out as soon as he woke up. They've been in there for about 20 minutes."

Just then, Dr. Little came out, followed by four additional members of his team rolling Mark behind him. He intercepted Hardcastle, "If we're going to have a chance to remove the bullet before it can do any more damage, we have to do it now. We'll keep you posted." With that, he turned and was off before the Judge could even respond.

Frank stopped Hardcastle from taking a step. "Milt, we need to let them do their job."

Hardcastle looked into Harper's eyes, "I didn't get a chance to say good…" He stopped himself before he completed the sentence. No, this was not going to be goodbye. He sighed, looking helplessly to Frank.

"I brought you some clothes, why don't you go into the locker room and take a shower. Nothing is going to happen for the next 30 minutes" Harper insisted, praying that he was correct.

00000

Frank had received his morning update from the precinct, and was filling in the Judge with what little information was available when Dr. Little came out. He motioned for the men to stay seated, as he pulled up a chair in front of them. "The surgery went as well as can be expected. We were able to remove the bullet, and feel we have minimized the damage. We can't be sure what the extent is yet, that will take a few days. He's still very weak, and that is affecting how his other wounds are healing as well. We're treating him for an infection, and we hope to have that under control soon. He's still not out of the woods yet," the doctor paused and offered a slight grin, "but he surprises us at each turn."

Hardcastle had only one thing on his mind, "Will he be okay? What are his chances?"

Dr. Little contemplated the question with a frown, "At this point, I just can't offer you any guarantees. I'm sorry. He is remarkably strong, and we hope he is through the worst of it. We need to control this infection so he can heal. Right now, time is what he needs. The next 48 hours will tell us a lot. I wish I could say more."

Hardcastle nodded, and stood with the doctor. "When can I see him" was his final question.

"When he is out of recovery, he'll head back to the ICU for the next day or so. I'm sure your chair is still warm" he said with an empathetic smile. With that, the doctor shook both men's hands and departed.

00000

With the officers stationed outside the ICU again, Hardcastle took the familiar plastic hospital-issued chair and moved it closer to the bed. Frank had returned to the station to oversee the investigation…promising to return in a few hours. When word has spread around the precinct about the attack at Gull's Way, he had been overrun with requests for assignment to McCormick's security detail. The Judge had smiled warmly when Frank had told him this—how much the kid was respected by his officers. Three years ago, Mark would have probably laughed, not even registering it within the realm of possibility.

Hardcastle began the vigil again. Gently taking Mark's hand, he leaned in and spoke softly, "Hey, kiddo, you're out of surgery. It all went well, and now you just need to build your strength. We'll do what we can to make that easy for you, but I'm countin' on you to do your part…show us some more of that McCormick spunk. It'd be great for these doctors to see it; you shouldn't save all your attitude for me, okay?"

Hardcastle had been here too often in the past three years, but usually it was a result of a case they were working on. This…this just didn't make sense. An attack at his home, at their home. How could this happen. Maybe I should ask why this didn't happen sooner? The thought caught in the Judge's throat. Surely he should have guessed that this could be a possibility. In his career he had sent many criminals away—and allowed many to go free. In the past three years, another 60 were behind bars because of this 'agreement' with the ex-con. Agreement. By whose definition? And each time he sat here he questioned his decision—his arrogant idea to hunt down the offenders who had walked out of his courtroom legally. Legally? If he believed in the law, he had to believe in all of the law, not just the convenient parts that allowed him to rid the streets of criminals. Was it ego? Could it be that he just didn't like to lose?

The day progressed much like that…the Judge obsessing over a decision he made over three year's ago. He was lost in his thoughts when he heard a 'knock' on the partition. One of the officers was carrying a sandwich and a cup of coffee and set it down next to the Judge. In response to the questioning look, the officer shrugged and simply said, "Just following Lt. Harper's orders."

The Judge broke into an easy smile and accepted the offering graciously. Frank was one of his oldest friends, and this was one way he could be there when he wasn't able to be there. "'Preciate it" was his quick response. With that, the officer backed out of the cubicle quietly.

00000

Harper looked around the room at the task force that had been formed to investigate the attack on McCormick. At first, they had been looking at what little evidence was left at the estate, but now it was time to put it in context for the officers.

Harper started in and appreciated the immediate silence that ensued. He knew he had their full attention. "…and so far, McCormick is holding his own. Two guards will be stationed round the clock for McCormick, and another officer will accompany Judge Hardcastle…" He stopped when he noticed the grins on the faces in the room, "yeah, whether he likes it or not." Hardcastle's reputation as the Lone Ranger was legendary in this precinct, hell almost in the entire city. Recently, his sidekick had gained nearly as much notoriety. Of course, not everybody approved of this arrangement, but the officers on the street had always respected Judge Hardcastle. He had come up the ranks, first as a police officer, then as a lawyer—always supporting the cop on the beat to the best of his ability. When a defendant walked because of a technicality, the Judge's lectures were famous—and it was certain that the officer would never make the same mistake again. He was respected for this, although not always well liked.

Harper continued, "We don't have much to go on so far, but Joe Cadillac got wind that a 'contract' was put out on Mark yesterday. The warden at San Quentin relayed the information to me immediately. Unfortunately, not in time to prevent the attack or protect McCormick" his voice trailed off momentarily. Looking back up at his officers, he continued, "Sander, you're on the first flight up to San Francisco tomorrow. I've arranged for a personal meeting with Cadillac. Get everything he's got. Get every idea he has, no matter how far fetched it may seem to you…" Before he could finish, he was interrupted by a young officer.

"How do we know his information is good? Didn't Hardcastle have something to do with him goin' to Quentin?"

"Cavenaugh, you weren't around then, but Hardcastle and McCormick saved the life of Joe Cadillac's son. This is a debt he wants to repay. He's helped us in the past—and at this point he knows he has nothing to lose or gain. It's hard to explain, but his code of honor runs deep. We can trust him. Hardcastle does."

Cavenaugh had the sense to look abashed. As a rookie, he had heard stories of Cadillac, but hadn't known of the connection.

Harper continued, "About six months ago, McCormick went undercover into Senegal's drug operation. Mark had gathered enough information to put many of his men inside, but Senegal was smart; he stayed clear. Mark wanted to nail him, but didn't realize his cover had been blown when Senegal agreed to meet him. They shot Mark up with a nearly lethal dose of heroin and left him for dead. We finally got him on attempted murder…luckily not on murder one. His trial is coming up next month. Unfortunately, he's been out on bail. We blew it this time. He should have had protection on Mark."

"Needless to say, Senegal has gone dark. As far as we can tell, nobody left in his organization knows where he is. We have to assume he or his goons are watching…making sure there is nobody to testify." Harper paused to look at his team.

"Ok, what do we know…" he looked around the room, eyebrows raised.

Sander was the first to speak. "The shell casings found at the Judge's estate were .50 caliber. Not surprising, probably the oldest and most common kind. And…there were a lot. I'm still not sure we've got them all. We're tracing every purchase and supplier we can, but, let's face it, they won't be traceable…" he said those final words quietly.

Carlisle jumped in next, "We're tracking down every helicopter in a radius of a full tank. Senegal has one, we're pretty sure, but can't imagine he'd be dumb enough to use it. We're also considering his rivals. Could have been done to point the finger towards Senegal to make sure he goes away…but then why kill the star witness."

"MCCORMICK IS STILL ALIVE!"

All eyes in the stunned room turned quickly to the doorway to see Judge Hardcastle standing there, his presence ominous in the lighted doorway.

It was Harper who spoke, quietly but with authority, "Milt, we know Mark is alive. He's going to stay that way, too."

Hardcastle cleared his throat, "Uh, I…ah…just wanted to check in to see if you have any new information. What've you got?" He quickly took the nearest seat and waited with raised eyebrows.

Frank quickly continued, "Ok, Carlisle, let's also consider the rival angle. Take whoever you need—from the off duty pool—and get started. Keep me posted on the chopper, too."

Frank looked around consideringly, "The rest of you hit the streets, turn every stone, talk to every snitch, hit the drug scene and get any lead for where Senegal may be hiding. Take whatever cash you need from Vice…just make it happen. Senegal had to turn in his passport, but I'm sure we all know that that doesn't guarantee anything. He has private planes and officials from Mexico and Columbia in his pocket. Check in every three hours…okay, get moving."

Frank watched as the room cleared quickly, each officer nodding or saying something by way of encouragement to the Judge. Hardcastle still sat, looking exhausted, but finally meeting Frank's eyes.

"They have Mark on drugs to sleep—they figure he'll be out for at least the rest of today. I thought I'd stop by and check on the progress of the investigation. I didn't mean to…" his voice trailed off. Harper recognized this as a Hardcastle apology. The Judge had the utmost respect for his law enforcement colleagues, and didn't want to appear as if he doubted their ability or commitment.

"You look like hell." Harper couldn't help his words. They just came out.

"Yeah, well, Mark looks worse, and he's counting on me to take care of things while he's out."

"Okay, since you're here, do you feel up to giving your statement?" Harper looked at his friend sympathetically, but already knowing the answer.

Hardcastle's sideward glance at him confirmed the affirmation.

00000

Hardcastle's statement was recorded and sent to be transcribed. He didn't provide any details that Harper hadn't already known…after all, he had heard it all on the phone. Things happened too quickly. Far too quickly.

Harper got up and closed the door to his office. Rounding his desk again, he met Hardcastle's eyes and asked, "Is there anything you want to tell me off the record, Milt?"

Hardcastle looked away for a moment, turning his back to his friend. "I wish to hell I did. This just happened too fast. But, there must be something I'm missing, something that we can…"

"What is it Milt?" Harper asked, seeing the puzzled look on Hardcastle's face.

"It may be nothing, maybe I'm just grasping at straws here…"

"Milt, I've never known you to grasp at straws. I'd put your instincts against anybody I know."

Hardcastle wiped his hand under his nose and continued, "McCormick had been sticking close to home lately, close to me. He didn't venture off the estate, and when I went to run errands, he always found an excuse to come along." He paused for emphasis, "McCormick HATES errands. He says they only exist to interfere with his tan-potential."

"How long?" Harper asked. "How long has he been sticking close?"

Hardcastle thought for a moment, scratching his jaw in an attempt to jog his memory. "I'd say about two weeks or so. Maybe longer, like I said, this may be nothing."

Harper flashed his 'I doubt it look' and was already taking action. He picked up his phone and dialed dispatch, "Put me through to Sander, now." After a brief pause, Harper spoke again, "Sander, when you see Cadillac, try to pin down the time frame of this whole deal. When does he think the contract was issued, let him know that this detail is very important."

The next call was to Cavenaugh. "Scott, get a list of all the calls that came in and out of the Gatehouse at Gull's Way…no, no court order, Hardcastle is here and he'll sign the forms." Understanding the sideward nod of Milt's head, he added, "While you're at it, get the calls for the main house, too."

"You think Mark knew? Maybe someone contacted him?" Harper asked.

"Maybe, but why wouldn't he tell me? That's the only thing that doesn't make sense."

"Milt, he's kept stuff from you before, right?"

"Yeah, but he always had a good reason…he always thought he had a good reason" the Judge corrected.

"And that reason always was…" Harper ventured, already knowing the answer.

"To protect me." The Judge said in total resignation. "Damn fool kid."

"Hey, Milt, hold on, we're just theorizing here. We don't have any facts. Let's see how this plays out. In the meantime, go be with Mark. You'll want to be there when he wakes up. You can chew him out soon enough" the last statement was said with a small grin.

Hardcastle didn't need any more convincing. He was already out of his chair and heading towards the door when he spoke over his shoulder, "I want to know as soon as you do."

"You always do, Milt. Most times even before."

With that, Hardcastle exited the office, and headed back to McCormick.

Chapter 2

Hardcastle was back in the hospital—again taking in the antiseptic sterility of the environment. He thought casually that Lysol must market a scent solely for hospital use since they all seem to smell the same. He had only been gone a few hours, but it had felt like a lifetime. Hopefully not Mark's lifetime.

He went immediately to the ICU, quickening his pace when he noticed that the two assigned officers were not on duty. What the hell is going on here…? As he turned past the first cubicle he froze, his breath catching, unable to move or speak. McCormick's 'room' was empty. The bed was made, and there was no trace of Mark's belongings. His mind was spinning, but he was frozen in space, and time. McCormick. Then aloud, quietly, "ahh, kid." He felt faint, and unconsciously reached for the footboard of the empty bed.

"Judge, its okay" a young officer approached him.

Hardcastle spun around too quickly, swaying a bit. The officer hastily held his hand out to steady him. "Judge" he started again, "It's okay. They moved Mark into a private room. He's okay, really. I'll take you there. We tried to call the precinct, but you had already left. I was hoping to catch you by the elevators."

Hardcastle read the name badge on the officer, trying to regain his composure, "Uh, Wilson, why did they move him? Is he awake?"

"Not quite awake, but improving. They're all pretty impressed with his progress. I've hear the term 'miraculous' used more than…"

"Where?" Hardcastle interrupted.

"Follow me, sir" the young officer exited the room and led him to his friend.

00000

As hospital rooms went, this was pretty standard. Institutionally-issued blue. Blue walls, blue blankets, and blue blinds lending themselves to an overall blue-hazed room. Supposedly a color to calm, it had the unwanted side effect of being depressing. He noted one difference immediately—the customary plastic visiting chair was replaced by what appeared to be a recliner. He couldn't help the grin that appeared on his face.

00000

Mark slept. This continued for the remainder of the day, just as the doctors had indicated. Several had been in and out, holding quiet conferences with the various nurses involved in his care. New orders were given, more fluids were hung, and Hardcastle had left the room when more personal care was needed. The kid may have been out, but he was still entitled to his dignity.

The Judge sat, surprised at how comfortable the new chair was. He resumed his vigil, and started talking to McCormick quietly, "Hey, kiddo, I'm back. Tried to run out on me, huh? Didn't think I'd track you down in your new room?" He missed their banter. He had never enjoyed 'arguing' as much as he did since he met McCormick. He could take it, and dish it back—all before breakfast. Where the kid was concerned, silence was never welcome.

Hardcastle had time to chew on the theory that Mark had known about the threat. Had he been contacted? Why wouldn't he have told me? The first question would be easy to confirm. The second left a cavernous mystery. If the threat had been against Mark, why would the kid accompany him on any errand off the estate? He wouldn't knowingly put the Judge at risk, and he would never admit to needing 'watching'. He'd proved that well enough over the past years. The only logical conclusion was that Mark thought Hardcastle himself was in danger.

The night wore on slowly with Hardcastle having plenty of time to mull over the possibility that Mark had some information that he had not shared with him. He knew it would be awhile before he could confirm any of his theories, but he kept at it to make sure no possibilities were ignored.

00000

Hardcastle awoke slowly, taking in his surroundings. He had apparently fallen asleep in the chair, having fully reclined it. Unlike the plastic uniform chairs he was used to, this chair actually provided a somewhat decent night's sleep. He was still pondering that thought when Frank walked in with two cups of coffee and about a dozen donuts.

"Don'tcha think that's a bit stereotypical Frank?" he mused gesturing to the donuts.

"Yeah, sure, but I didn't think you'd really want me to bring a seaweed salad and tofu, huh?"

Hardcastle grinned, and gratefully reached for his breakfast. He stood to offer Frank the comfortable chair, but was waved away by the Lieutenant as he pulled up a plastic chair next to his friend. They sat for a few moments eating the donuts and taking small sips of the piping hot coffee.

Frank broke the silence, "any change?"

"Not that I could tell. They say he's improving though. You know, different levels of unconsciousness. You'd think I'd be an expert by now."

"Well," Frank began again, "I've got some news." He didn't wait for a reaction from Hardcastle to continue, "Looks like Mark had received about a dozen calls over the past two weeks from phone booths. Pretty random, but all within a 3 mile radius of the estate. All around 5:30 in the morning. Maybe timed just before your basketball wake-up calls? Do you think somebody could have been watching?"

Hardcastle stopped chewing for a moment and was lost in thought, as if trying to remember something.

"What is it, Milt?"

"Ya know, Frank, the last couple of weeks I was amazed that I didn't have to shoot too many balls off of the Gatehouse windows to get him outside. He seemed awake and ready to play. Don't know why I didn't think something was up. No whining, just up and out for basketball."

"So, let me get this straight, you're concerned when McCormick doesn't whine?"

"Frank, this is McCormick we're talking about, remember?"

They both shared a smile, one of few over the past 48 hours.

"They're still running the calls to your house. Maybe we'll get lucky.

00000

Six hours later they did get lucky. One phone call that fit the profile of those to the Gatehouse was identified. Harper immediately went to the hospital to discuss it with the Judge. Maybe he could shed some light on the context and timing.

Frank hit the button for the 5th floor, and was surprised to run into the Judge as the door opened. "Frank! What brings you back here so soon?"

"We got something…I wanted to run it by you. Where are you headed?"

"To grab somethin' to eat, come on—my treat." The Judge sounded in a better mood.

"How's Mark?" Harper quickly asked, castigating himself for jumping into business before checking on how his favorite ex-con was doing.

"Ah, better, I think. They're doin' his personal care now, and I try to make myself scarce during their routine. They stopped some of the meds. Hopefully, he'll come around soon."

"That's really great, Milt." Frank smile was sincere, and obviously relieved with the news.

Hardcastle carried the tray with their late lunch, and found a quiet table near the window. While he was sorting the lunches he spoke, "So, wha'dja find out?"

"One call came in to your place from one of the same phone booths that called the gatehouse. This call wasn't in the morning, came in at 11:58 pm on the 17th. Lasted about 10 seconds. Do you remember it? Maybe McCormick picked up?" Harper asked hopefully.

There was a brief moment of thought, and then an expression of understanding registered on the Judge's face. The expression quickly turned to disgust as he wiped his hand across his face, "I am an IDIOT! Why didn't I think of this! It seemed like a prank at the time, but given what happened I should have thought about it." The Judge was obviously distressed, and his voice had risen above the appropriate level for a hospital cafeteria. Several visitors at near tables were now looking in their direction.

Frank reached his hand over and grabbed the Judge's arm. "Hey, Milt, take it easy. You've had other things on your mind. Besides, it wouldn't have made a difference anyway."

Hardcastle let out a deep breath, "Sorry Frank…but I shoulda put two and two together."

The lieutenant looked at his friend with compassion, and treaded lightly, "Ok Milt, tell me everything you remember about the call."

"McCormick and I finished watching a movie. Usually, after a John Wayne picture he can't wait to turn in. That night, he didn't seem to want to leave. He started making small talk, at least I thought it was small talk. Now that I think about it, I think he was trying to ask me something, or maybe tell me something. He…" Hardcastle focused on something past the table, trying to remember exactly what the conversation entailed "he asked me some inane questions, like how many drug dealers I'd sentenced, and if any of the dealers I'd busted as a cop ever came before me again as a Judge. I figured he was just a little anxious about Senegal's trial. You know, when he gets tense, he talks a lot. Not really about anything, just kind of nervous energy. You know, you've heard him when he's worn a wire."

Frank smiled and nodded. He remembered some pretty comical monologues courtesy of one Mark McCormick.

"Anyway," Hardcastle continued "I finally kicked him out around 11:30. By the time I got into bed, the phone rang. I almost didn't answer it, figured it was for the kid. I guess it was the third or fourth ring by the time I picked it up. At first it didn't sound like there was anybody there. After a few seconds, he spoke. All he said was 'seen your pet con in the last 20 minutes' and hung up." He took a deep breath as he remembered the feeling those words brought out. "Well, for someone to know he had only left the main house in the last half-hour, I figured he had to be close—had to be watching us. I'll tell you, Frank, it scared me. I mean, I've had calls like that before, but none specifically gave a time frame. You know, some neighbors didn't like it when Mark came to live with me. They'd occasionally call, but it's been a long time since I've gotten one like that."

"Wha'dya do, Milt?" Harper asked when it didn't look like Hardcastle was going to continue.

Hardcastle looked Frank in the eyes, "I thought something happened to the kid so I ran over to the gatehouse. Scared the crap out of him when I barged in" he said smiling. "I didn't tell him the real reason, just said I thought I saw somebody prowling around. The funny thing was that he didn't question my reason, didn't give me a hard time. He just helped me look around. Seems pretty odd that…"

The hospital paging system interrupted his last thought, "…please return to room 514 immediately…would Judge Hardcastle please return to room 514 immediately."

Milt was out of his chair before the page ended, making Frank break into a jog to catch up with him. He was able to slide into the elevator just behind the Judge before the door closed. "What do you think's goin' on, Milt?"

"I don't know…I don't know" he shrugged, distress etched on his face.

Hardcastle was the first off the elevator and walked quickly down the hallway. Panic had welled up inside of him…he had only stepped away for 20 minutes. He shouldn't have left the kid alone…what if…

He was stopped by a nurse just outside of Mark's room. She grabbed him gently by the arm, "Judge, its okay. Mark's okay. He's asking for you."

The Judge stared in disbelief, not noticing the smile that was growing on Harper's face. "What?"

The nurse repeated, "I said, he's asking for you." She paused and smiled, "He won't believe that you're okay until he sees you. He seems to think you've been in some kind of accident."

Milt smiled in relief, and headed quickly into McCormick's room. As he entered, he saw Mark's head turn slightly towards the door, "Hardcase?" It was barely a whisper, but he had heard it. He moved into Mark's line of vision, smiling, "Yeah, kiddo. 'Bout time you woke up."

Mark looked at him with cloudy eyes, trying to focus. His hand reached out blindly, and was quickly grabbed by the Judge. "I'm here, Mark. You're going to be okay."

Mark closed his eyes, "Judge, are you okay??"

"Hey, I'm fine. I was inside, remember? You were the one with no cover." He was now holding Mark's hand in both of his.

"No…don't remember. Don't remember how I got here. Seemed pretty bad; nobody would tell me where you were. Thought you died…thought they were afraid to tell me." Mark was obviously exhausted; his speech barely comprehensible.

"Mark, everything's okay now. Just rest. I'll be here when you wake up, I promise."

Mark was out again. But this time, the nurse assured him that he was only sleeping. He would need a lot of that to heal now.

The Judge slid the kid's hand under the blanket and gave it one more pat before walking back to Frank. "Can you believe it, he was worried about me?" He shook his head in disbelief.

Still grinning, Harper replied, "So what's not to believe?"

00000

The Judge was woken out of a deep sleep, and sat for a brief moment trying to figure out what he had heard. He rubbed a hand over his face and saw that McCormick was sleeping fitfully. He seemed to be mumbling, but it was difficult to fully understand him. "No…can't…no cops." Then, just as the Judge thought he had settled back into a peaceful sleep, McCormick bolted upright in bed, "HARDCASTLE!"

His eyes were wide open now and darting around the room. The Judge was quickly at his side, simultaneously grabbing his hand and right shoulder laying him gently back in the bed. "I'm here, kid. It's okay, just calm down. Everything's okay."

Before he could finish talking, the officers and a nurse had arrived having heard the scream. "Judge Hardcastle, what is it?" it was the younger officer who spoke first, while the nurse tended directly to McCormick.

"Mark, can you hear me?" The young nurse who had been assigned to Mark over the past two days spoke in a calming voice and checked the monitors, easing the Judge out of the way to check his vital signs."

Mark was awake now and staring at the ceiling. "What happened?" he asked innocently.

"Well, kiddo, that's what we'd like to know. Sounded like maybe you were having a bad dream or something." The concern was evident in Hardcastle's eyes.

"Ah, sorry. I don't remember." He looked at the Judge and nodded his head sideways towards the officers. The Judge nodded back, understanding the unspoken assertion that Mark didn't want to talk until they were alone.

The nurse, satisfied that Mark was okay, informed them that a doctor would be around in under an hour. When she and the officers finally left, Hardcastle walked over to the bed and asked quietly, "You okay?"

McCormick took a deep breath and spoke slowly and deliberately, "I think I remembered what happened, Judge. There was a chopper over the estate. There was a lot of shooting."

"And…" the Judge prodded.

"And what? I was hit" he replied, his eyes already becoming heavy.

"Do you know why?" the Judge ventured carefully.

"Senegal" he said weakly as his eyes closed again.

With his response, the Judge's suspicion that Mark knew something that he hadn't shared with him was confirmed.

He decided to wait until morning to talk to Frank. If Mark had been contacted, he may have kept some kind of notes. He would have to think carefully about how search the Gatehouse. He had always respected Mark's privacy—to the extent that he could. He may barge in unannounced, but he had never gone through his drawers or his personal effects. He never had reason to. But, unless Mark could tell them if there was any information or evidence, the Gatehouse may have to be searched, and this would have to be done with care. Although he trusted Mark implicitly, there may be something that he wouldn't want the Judge to see. Maybe something from his past, maybe something of his mother's. Perhaps Frank would be better suited for this particular job. Mark would certainly trust him.

As the Judge considered all of these possibilities, he slowly drifted back to sleep.

00000

Light was streaming in through the room now. The Judge brought the recliner up to a vertical position slowly as his eyes adjusted. As he stood up, he was surprised to see Mark's eyes open.

"Hey, kiddo. How long have you been awake?"

"Dunno…I've kinda lost track of time."

"Do ya need anything?" The concern was still evident in the Judge's question.

"I'm thirsty."

"Let me get you some ice chips. I'll see what else you can have, too. I'll be right back." He waited for McCormick's nod before he went in search of a nurse.

He returned quickly having succeeded in finding both a cup of ice chips and a nurse. While he fed a few spoonfuls to Mark, the nurse updated his charts with a new set of vitals. "Well Mr. McCormick, you seem to be doing much better. How are you feeling?"

"I feel better, but that's not saying much" he said attempting a grin. "I'm thinking a little more clearly, I think."

"That's good, Mark. The doctor will be making his rounds soon." She said casually as she walked out of the room.

Mark looked at the Judge now that they were alone. Before he could ask what was on his mind, the Judge spoke, unusually quietly, "Hey, kid, do you think you could answer some questions?"

He knew.

Before he could answer, Frank walked in bearing gifts resembling coffee and more donuts. His smile at seeing Mark awake was genuine, "Mark, how ya doin?"

Mark managed a half-grin this time, "I'm doin' better, Frank. But I need you to do me a favor."

"Sure, Mark, anything." He now looked between Mark and Milt and sensed a certain tension. "Do you want me to come back later?" he offered.

Mark spoke softly, but clearly, "I need you to go to the Gatehouse and get an envelope. It's in the drawer of my desk in the loft. Frank, it has your name on it…just in case."

Frank looked again between Milt and Mark. Turning to Milt, he eyes asked an unspoken question.

Hardcastle just shrugged.

"I'll be back in about an hour" he said as he grabbed a donut from the box. Hardcastle had long ago given Frank a set of keys to the estate. He often watched the house when the Judge went away. This continued as he and Mark started their Long Ranger routine and found themselves out of town on many occasions. "Hey, Milt, can I see you a second?"

Once they were outside of the hospital room, Harper turned to Hardcastle and asked, "Milt, what gives?"

"I think we may have been right about the phone calls. Maybe Mark kept some kind of record for you…'just in case'. I really don't know."

"Yeah, well, don't lose your temper until I get back. Someone needs to protect the kid."

Milt managed a small smile, "That's what your officers are for" he smirked, waving a hand roughly in the direction of the two young men in uniform.

Hardcastle returned to the room, and looked at Mark again. "You doing okay, kiddo?

"You tell me, Judge" he exhaled, triggering a coughing bout. The Judge moved to his side, and adjusted his bed vertically to ease his discomfort. He held out some more ice chips which were welcomed, "thanks."

"You rest if you need to. This can all wait."

Mark looked at the Judge intently. It was never a good sign when he was this nice. "Am I going to be alright? I can read you, Judge, and there is something you aren't telling me. I don't want to hear it from the doctor…" He was becoming agitated, and the Judge glanced at the monitor that indicated an increase in his heart rate.

"Hey, hey, come on, calm down now. You're getting stronger every day. They removed the bullets, and patched you up good. Rest. That's what you need. The doctor will confirm all of this, okay?"

"Yeah?" Mark asked somewhat skeptically, his eyes starting to close again.

"Yeah, kiddo. Take a nap. We can talk when you wake up."

00000

Harper returned as expected, not surprised to see the kid sleeping again. He came in toting a legal sized envelope. The Judge stood to take the envelope, but Frank pulled it back. "I think Mark should tell us what he wants us to do with it."

"Thanks, Frank" came a quiet voice from the bed. "But, go ahead and open it. I'm not sure I can remember all the details without my notes."

Both older men looked at their young friend. "Are you sure you're up to this, Mark?" It was Harper that verbalized the question.

"No choice now…but you gotta promise to listen to the entire story. Not sure I can finish it in one try here…" Mark motioned for some more ice chips, and was readily accommodated.

He started slowly, and motioned to Frank to open the envelope. "About three weeks ago, I got a phone call. I didn't recognize the voice, and the message was vague. All he said was 'where's the judge', then he hung up." Mark took a deep breath and endured a few more guttural coughs. He waived off additional ice chips and continued, "The next call came…two days later I think, again in the early morning. This guy gets up even earlier than you, Hardcase. The second message was more cryptic, 'is the Judge safe?' The first one I figured was just a prank. But the second one changed in tone, too. So, I drove down to see you, Frank. I figured the Judge would blow me off. He's kinda used to these calls, right Judge?"

Harper and Hardcastle exchanged looks, and it was Frank who spoke first, "Mark, you didn't come to see me."

Mark took a deep breath and continued, carefully forming the words, "you weren't in. I didn't want to leave a message and didn't have time to wait. I figured I'd just drop back later. But…the next day, again real early, I got another phone call." Mark took a few more deep breaths and continued, "this time the voice sounded angry and his message was very clear, 'go to the cops again and he dies.' And this time, there was a photo under my door. This…psychopath…was at the estate." He now looked directly at the Judge, "He got onto the property. Frank, there's a photo in there, I dated them as they came in. This guy was watching us. He knew I went to see you. He knew when the Judge was alone." Mark was blinking his eyes again, fighting the sleep that baited him. He continued, struggling now, "Frank, read what's in there. I'm gonna rest my eyes for just a bit, okay?"

"Sure, Mark, you rest. We'll take a look." Frank glanced at the Judge and opened the envelope. Pulling up a chair, he spread the contents out on the table carefully, mindful of any potential fingerprints on the photos. He assembled the photos into the proper chronology. He turned to Hardcastle when he realized that he had not said a word. The Judge maintained a watchful eye on McCormick with an expression that would have been unreadable to most. Harper recognized it as guilt.

"Come on, Milt. Let's help the kid out here. Let's get this in order."

Milt finally looked at the pile of papers in front of him. He marveled at the detail McCormick kept—all without letting on that anything was wrong.

They were able to piece the timeline together from the notes. Photos came in about every two calls, each increasing in detail and proximity. The last photo, dated by Mark as arriving the day before the shooting, was a photo of the Judge dozing off by the pool. It appeared to have been taken point blank.

Frank was out the door to the two officers standing guard. He left instructions to contact the precinct and get another team ready to go to Gull's Way. He handed them the photos in the envelope to send down for prints. They all doubted there would be any, but they would be thorough in their investigation.

Frank noticed the nurses going into McCormick's room and was not surprised by the quick exit Hardcastle made. "He's awake now, but it will be about 20 minutes until they're done. Where are we at?"

Frank caught him up quickly, and the two men sat to review the timeline again. There were a few missing pieces that they hoped Mark could fill in.

The nurses exited his room in under 20 minutes; the younger one still blushing. Frank and Milt grinned at each other knowing how women reacted to the McCormick 'charm.' They both took deep breaths and re-entered the room.

Mark rolled his eyes when they entered. "Glad I slept through that the last few days!" He looked at each of the men in turn and continued, "did you look through everything?"

Harper spoke first, "yeah, but I still want to hear the timeline from you. I have some questions, too, that I hope you can answer."

Mark started to take a deep breath, but winced and was forced to exhale, "yeah, okay, I think I was getting to the third phone call—the one after the first photo. The third call came on the 18th. I remember it because the Judge had woken me up the night before to check for prowlers. It wasn't until the next morning that I figured out what had happened." He locked eyes with the Judge, frowning, "so, Judge, before you start hollering at me about not telling you about the phone calls, you didn't exactly 'fess up' about the one you received did you?" Mark ended his reprimand with a hopeful expression.

"Nobody's hollerin', kid" was his only response.

Staring at the Judge for a brief moment, he continued, "Okay, so the call comes in on the 18th around 5 am. This message was clear, too. I can't remember the exact words…Frank, did I write it down?"

"Yeah, Mark, you wrote 'I can get him out in the open anytime I want. It takes a full 22 seconds to walk from his house to the Gatehouse. Although he may have been a little faster last night.'"

"Yeah, that's right." Mark was sounding tired again. "The next few calls delivered the same demand. If I testified against Senegal, the Judge would die. If I went to the police, the Judge would die. He wanted me to show up at court, and deny everything under oath. He wanted a record of it. That was his assurance that I would not decide later to testify—that perjury charges would send me back to jail. But, I thought I had a plan." He gave a weak shrug, "at the time, it actually made sense. I think it still does, but I never, ever figured they'd try to take us out anyway."

Milt cleared his throat and spoke softly, "Mark, they didn't try to take us out. They tried to take you out."

To ease the confusion that found its way to McCormick's face, Hardcastle continued, "Frank got a call from Quentin. Joe Cadillac found out that there was a contract out on you. Has been for about two weeks now."

Mark considered this for a moment, closing his eyes before speaking, "so, it didn't matter what I did. This guy was just buying time until the contract could be carried out?" Mark was drifting off again.

"Or, maybe, this guy was just hedging his bet…" Hardcastle mused.

Chapter 3

The hospital cafeteria was the setting of yet another lunch shared by the Judge and Lt. Harper. They were working on several theories—and none of them made sense at the moment. If Senegal's goal was to prevent Mark from testifying by setting him up to perjure himself, then why order a hit? Was it possible that they were dealing with two coincidental threats? Was one of Senegal's enemies trying to set him up? There were so many possibilities it was hard to justify them in light of the few confirmed pieces of evidence that they had.

Lt. Harper was busy writing down all the possibilities when he was startled by Hardcastle's hand coming down forcefully on the table, "It just doesn't make sense, Frank." He was obviously frustrated, and that combined with the cumulative effect of no sleep was taking its toll.

"No, Milt, it doesn't make sense. We just don't have enough pieces yet, but we're taking all the right steps. Do you think there is anything in your files that may help?"

The Judge inhaled deeply and let the air our slowly, "Sure, it's possible. I don't know where to start. Maybe we can see who's been released from prison recently, and maybe work the theory that it isn't Senegal. But if it's not him, why can't we find him?"

The friends departed with Frank heading back to the station for updates, and the Judge heading back to the estate to take a look in his files. Frank would run the names of anybody nearing parole to check their status. For now, Mark was resting comfortably.

00000

Milt was in the basement looking through the second cabinet full of files. Working the alternate theory—that it was not Senegal—was leading him nowhere. He sat back, swiping his hand over his eyes and letting it rest there, blocking out the light. He almost didn't hear the phone ring.

Plodding up the stairs unusually slow he called out to nobody, "I'm coming, just hang on." On the 8th ring that he counted, he picked up the phone. "Yeah, Hardcastle here."

"Milt, you're not going to believe this." It was Frank and his voice sounded urgent.

"Just tell me, Frank. I'm running out of ideas here."

"Senegal is dead. Has been for at least a week as far as the coroner can determine."

Silence.

"How? Where? What the HELL is going on here, Frank!"

"Hold tight, Milt. I'm coming to pick you up. The detectives want us to see this first hand."

00000

The conversation on the drive was speculative. Neither one had any idea what direction this investigation would now be taking. It would depend on a couple of things they decided; how long Senegal had actually been dead and who owned the property on which he was found.

They arrived at the scene about an hour later; a warehouse that had apparently been for sale for quite awhile. The body was found in a freezer, and may have gone undetected indefinitely if the freezer had not failed. A delivery man who had been given the wrong address reported an unusual odor prompting a visit from the LAPD.

The Judge was scratching his head. "Whoever did this didn't mean for him to be found so quickly. Whatever the original plan, it was meant to look like Senegal was driving it." He continued to wander the scene, looking through each door hoping something would stand out. Frank followed him, not wanting to stop his train of thought. "Frank, who spoke with Cadillac?"

"I sent Sander up there, why?"

"I just think we need some more details. Let me talk to Sander, and then I may just have some questions myself."

Frank pondered that for a moment realizing the Judge would never leave the city as long as Mark was in the hospital. "I can arrange to bring Cadillac down here, Milt, if we need to."

Milt looked at his long-time friend and immediately understood his intentions, "Thanks, Frank, I didn't want to ask."

Frank waved him off, "You didn't need to. With this new information, I think he may be able to help. Do you think he will?"

"Yeah, Frank, I do. He feels like he owes me, and right now I'm not about to argue the point."

00000

The next day passed slowly as Frank diligently prepared the paperwork to allow Joe Cadillac to be brought to Los Angeles to help with the case. Frank and his men had used informants in the past, but Cadillac was a legend in this town. Even to the younger officers who weren't on the force when he was active in the 'business', most had read his book. Needless to say, there was no shortage of volunteers wanting the honor of transporting him. Unfortunately for all of them, the feds retained jurisdiction and their agents were sent to see to his cooperation and extradition.

Mark was improving slowly, and had been promoted to a liquid diet. Hardcastle was torn between staying with his young friend for added protection and assisting Frank in the case. His concern for Mark was the obvious victor—and he remained at his bedside.

Shortly before dinnertime, the phone in Mark's room rang. Answering it quickly to allow the kid to sleep, Hardcastle's quiet tone immediately confirmed to Frank that he had called at an inopportune time. "Sorry, Milt, I guess the kid's sleeping?"

"Not anymore" he smiled at Mark's expression. "Not a problem, though, physical therapy is due in anytime now. What's up?"

"Just wanted to let you now that Cadillac is on his way down from San Francisco. He's being escorted by two feds. Should be here within the hour. I figured you'd want in on it."

The response was quick and forceful, "Damn straight I do. I'll head right over." A few more inconsequential words were shared before the phone was hung up.

"What's going on?" Mark asked, unable to determine what would get this reaction from the Judge.

"Joe Cadillac is being brought down for questioning."

"What? What does he have to do with this?"

"Ah, Kid, I guess you were still a bit out of it the other day. Joe's the one who called in the threat on your life…

"JOE CADILLAC?" Mark's astonishment could not be concealed. "Why on earth would he…" his voiced trailed off as realization sunk in. Not immediately able to meet Hardcastle's eyes, he waited to see if his suspicion would be confirmed.

The Judge simply cleared his throat and said quietly, "I guess he feels he owes us…and he knows what it feels like."

Mark met the Judge's eyes with a slight grin. The unspoken words rang loudly.

"Well, Judge, don't just stand there…go see what the man has to say."

The Judge looked over Mark carefully, "Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

"Yeah, Judge, believe it or not, I'm old enough to stay by myself. But, tell Mr. Cadillac thanks for me, okay?"

"Yeah, wiseguy, I will." With that, the Judge gave some orders to the officers posted at the door, and left.

00000

"What do you mean they FOUND the body??" The harsh words were spoken by a man who was clearly used to having his way. This failure was unacceptable. Unforgivable. "The deal was that Senegal would not be found, EVER. Gentlemen, you have failed me."

The next sound that filled the air was that of a semi-automatic handgun. Two bodies fell to the ground unceremoniously.

Turning to the remaining men in the room, the gentleman in charge continued talking as if never interrupted. "We must now, unfortunately, implement our backup plan. I trust there will be no more mistakes."

One man in the room found his voice first, "No sir Mr. Norcross. There will be no more mistakes." They then went about their business clearing out the bodies of the unfortunate victims as Mr. J. J Norcross stood up, adjusted his sport coat and exited the room never glancing back.

00000

Judge Hardcastle walked briskly into Lt. Harper's office. "Frank, is he here yet?"

"Yeah, he's in an interrogation room talking with his lawyer. We're playing this by the book." Frank responded, head down, completing some paperwork. He then suddenly looked up, "How's Mark doing?"

"Gettin' better all the time. He was a bit surprised, to say the least, that Joe Cadillac was the one who sent the warning. He didn't remember it the first time around."

Frank nodded, "Well, let's get this show on the road." Frank stood from his chair, and followed the Judge out of his office and down the hallway. Giving two quick courtesy knocks on the door, the two men entered the interrogation room.

Joe Cadillac stood as the men entered. The Judge crossed to the table quickly and extended his hand—which was quickly taken by the ex-mobster. "Joe, we appreciate your help, all of us." Cadillac's lawyer also shook his hand then turned back to his client, "Mr. Cadillac, are you're sure you won't be needing me?" Upon an affirmative nod, he exited the room.

Mr. Cadillac met the Judge's eyes, "You saved my boy, and that's not something I'll ever forget. As soon as I heard what was going down, I tried to get to the Warden. He didn't want to hear it at first, but one of the guards remembered Mark and took the chance that I wasn't playing games. How is your boy, Hardcastle, nobody would give me any information"

Hardcastle met Cadillac's eyes, acknowledging the meaning in his question. He knew Joe Cadillac was one of the few people who understood his discomfort with openly acknowledging his relationship with the kid. How could he really talk about it with anybody if he hadn't talked about it with Mark? Maybe that would soon change. "He's getting stronger every day. Not easy with four gunshot wounds, but he's a fighter…a real fighter."

Joe nodded solemnly, "Glad to hear it. You'll get these guys, Milt, that much I know."

Hardcastle nodded and motioned him to the chair and quickly caught him up on the details they had so far. The Judge noticed Joe's furrowed brow, "What do you know?"

"I know, or knew, Senegal's operation. This wasn't his style—never, but my information came from a more…er…official source."

The Judge stared at him blankly. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm not sure the source matters as long as you are heading in the right direction…"

The Judge was clearly annoyed and growing impatient, "Look here, Joe, this is the time to tell me anything you know…I don't care if it came from the Governor himself!"

Joe met his eyes with intensity and made a very subtle nod of his head in Frank's direction. While Hardcastle was considering this unstated request, Frank picked up on the nonverbal language and growing tension, "If you two will excuse me, I'll go get us some coffee. I'll be back in say, 15 minutes?" He looked the question to Milt to determine if that would be sufficient time for Joe to speak freely without a police presence.

"Ah, yeah, Frank, I could use some coffee. Joe?"

"Yeah, Lt. Harper, extra sweet, lots of cream—you know, Italian style." The small smile on his face and short nod acknowledged his thanks to the astute lieutenant.

As soon as the door closed behind Frank, Hardcastle turned back to Joe, "Okay, what aren't you saying?"

"I didn't have to say anything, you pretty much summed it up."

The Judge's expression turned quickly from confusion, to subtle acknowledgment, to outright disbelief, "you are NOT telling me this came from the Governor?"

"Not the threat, Milt, the information. And, of course, not from the Governor himself, but a staff member." He stopped momentarily and continued more quietly, "Might I assume you are acting as legal counsel here and that anything I say will remain confidential?"

"Yeah, Joe, you may assume that" the Judge acquiesced equally quietly.

"Okay, good, then my sources say that you pissed off a few politicians recently. I understand you ran for Mayor?"

"Yeah, but what has that got to do with…no, couldn't be. He's on a short leash awaiting trial."

"Milt, I spent most of my career on a short leash awaiting trial. You never could stop me, either…until recently" he added with an ironic smirk.

"My God, Joe, you're saying Norcross is behind this? He set this up to look like Senegal was out to get the kid? How would that help him?"

"I don't think it would have stopped there. The plan only started with Mark. It seemed to include you—and a few others in the Mayor's new staff. Mark was just the easiest to get to—and the easiest way to throw off the scent. He made a lot of press with the Senegal arrest. Really, Milt, he's becoming a little too well known in 'alternative' circles." He let that last comment lie there for a moment as Milt considered the meaning.

"Where do I start, Joe. Who can help us get the evidence we need. If I storm the Mayor's office with these accusations about Norcross, I'm not sure what it will look like."

"I'm giving you one name. That's all I got right now, but it may be enough. Talk to a man named Samuel Paddock. Sam's a straight shooter, and I think he got wind of something, but wasn't sure what. No outright threats, just some unusual information. He told the right guy, and the right guy told me."

Milt was still considering this information when two light knocks on the door were shortly followed by Frank's slow entry carrying a tray of coffee. The Judge met his eyes and nodded, indicating that it was okay to come in.

They didn't have the luxury to linger over the coffee as the Judge was feeling a renewed sense of urgency to jump start the investigation. He looked at his watch briefly and then nodded to Frank. Frank, sighing, stood up and again left the room.

"Now what?" It was Joe that was looking confused.

"Ya got another appointment, Joe. Apparently you are entitled, while in custody, to seek spiritual guidance if requested…kind of like seeking legal representation" grinned the Judge.

Cadillac looked disbelieving into his eyes. "You never stop surprising me, Milt. Never."

Just then the door opened and Fr. Atia entered, smiling. "Pop, it's good to see you."

The Judge stood, shaking Fr. Atia's hand. Turning back to Joe, he offered his hand, too. It was quickly grasped, and held by both of Joe's hands. "Thank you, Milt."

The Judge swiped his hand under his nose, and nodded. "You've got an hour before they transport you back. You can wait here together." As he turned towards the door, he quickly looked back, "I guess we're even now, Joe. Thanks."

But now it was Joe who surprised the Judge, "Milt, where our boys are concerned, nobody is keeping score."

Milt met his eyes, nodded in agreement, and exited the interrogation room leaving Joe and his son to some privacy.

00000

Frank was waiting impatiently in his office, and as soon as Milt entered he couldn't control his frustration, "Do you mind telling me what the hell is going on?"

The Judge rubbed his hand quickly over his face and met the eyes of his friend, "you remember Norcross?"

Frank squinted disbelievingly, "yeah…what are you saying?"

"I'm sayin' he's behind this" Milt was talking quietly in controlled anger. "He did this to the kid."

"Proof?" was Frank's simple reply.

"I'll have it…I have a direction to go, and I'm gonna follow it to the end."

Frank stood quickly, pushing his chair out behind him, "Now wait a minute, Milt. I agreed to let you talk to Cadillac because I thought you would be the only person he would talk to. Hell, I even let you question him alone." Stopping Milt's attempt to interrupt with a short but firm wave of his hand, Frank continued, "this is a police investigation, and you need to let us handle it. We do this by the book, and you go back to the hospital and keep an eye on Mark."

"Don't give me that, Frank, we've already tossed the book aside on this one. Hell, you even brought Cadillac down here. That isn't exactly police procedure."

Now it was Frank who was becoming incensed, "Don't make me regret my decision, Milt; you WILL NOT be involved in this."

Their eyes met and held, frustration in both; neither willing to back down.

00000

The Judge arrived back at the hospital and proceeded directly to Mark's room. The kid was in a fitful sleep. It was probably just as well that he returned to the hospital as Mark was still weak, and he didn't want to be far away. If he couldn't trust Frank to talk with Samuel Paddock, then he couldn't trust anybody. Now that they knew where the threat was coming from—and how much weight it held—Mark needed all the protection he could get.

00000

It took Frank less than an hour to arrange a meeting with Paddock and commandeer a police helicopter. On the flight to Sacramento, he had time to review his notes on the case. Now that they knew where the information originated, Harper was confident that this was the break they were looking for.

Walking briskly into the Capital building, he was directed to Paddock's office and was pleased to see that the man was waiting for him. With the pleasantries completed, Frank jumped right to business. "Sam, I appreciate that this is a bit unusual, but we're in the middle of a murder investigation and your name came up as somebody who may have some information."

"Frank, this whole situation has been a bit unreal. I heard some disturbing news and ran it by some colleagues. The next thing I know, I read about a retired superior court Judge's home being attacked" Paddock said as he motioned his visitor to a seat in his office.

"I'll agree with you there, but I need to ask you some questions. I'll need as much detail as you can provide—no matter how trivial it might seem to you." Frank reached into his jacket pocket and produced a notebook and pen. "Let's start at the beginning, exactly what did you hear?"

Sam leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and began.

Nearly an hour later, with the story told and all questions answered, Frank sat back and let out a loud breath. Maybe not enough for an arrest warrant, but at least we know what direction to take. Maybe get some officers in place and see how this plays out. They've got to be getting a little tense with both Mark and Milt still alive.

Thanking Sam again, Frank left the Capitol and headed back to Los Angeles.

00000

The next day, Milt sat silently in the hospital lounge as Frank re-told the story he had learned from Sam. J.J. Norcross may have indeed orchestrated this entire scenario. He didn't like to lose, and the anger he felt toward both Mark and Milt after his failed attempt to control the Mayoral elections in Los Angeles—and the money he lost—led him on a path of revenge. According to the rumors, Norcross didn't think he had anything to lose, but everything to gain. His associates researched the recent arrests that the duo had been responsible for. After that, it was all speculation. They believed he thought the most logical choice for a frame would be Senegal. Since Mark was instrumental in his arrest, and it would have been logical to assume that Senegal was behind the attack at the estate.

He probably had the phone calls made, assuring Mark's silence, and guaranteeing that he would remain in close proximity to the Judge. The hints he dropped to Senegal's competition increased the chances that the 'plot' would be revealed, and blamed on Senegal. The fact that Senegal's body was discovered prematurely was a miscalculation.

But the theory ended there. Sam did not know what would happen next. The information he received was hearsay. It could not be admissible.

"Frank, we have enough to at least question Norcross. Let's do it. Maybe if he knows we're on to him…"

Franks expression was one of cynicism, "maybe if we're on to him what? You honestly think he'll give up?"

The Judge sighed, "No, probably not, but I want to talk to him."

"Milt, that's not a good idea and you know it." Frank knew what was going on in his old friend's mind, but this time he'd stand firm. "If all of this is true, you can't go barging in there. Maybe that's what he wants." Frank drew his hand over his face as the thought. "I have a team on him. We'll know everything that he does. Let's just see where this leads, okay. You stay put and keep an eye on the kid, okay?"

Milt blew out a breath. He knew Frank was right. He knew they didn't have enough evidence. And he knew…

His last thought was interrupted by a scream, followed closely by gunshots. Milt was on his feet and running towards McCormick before the third shot was fired.

Down the hall, he saw one officer down outside of Mark's room. He didn't have time to process where the other officer had gone. Running into the room, he stopped short as he saw J.J. Norcross standing over the kid with a gun pointed at his head. The other officer was standing behind him, his gun also drawn.

Norcross didn't spare a look—"Hardcastle, tell the officer to put his gun down, or the last living action I do will be to pull this trigger."

The Judge heard Frank enter the room, and sparing a quick glance saw his gun also focused on Norcross.

Milt spoke with a quiet intensity, "What do you want, Norcross?"

Norcross didn't move his gun from Mark's head, "I want to walk out of here, and I'll need your help to do it."

Mark kept his eyes focused on the Norcross, "Milt, don't. It's not worth it. He's a killer, and a coward; he'll never let you walk away…"

Angered, Norcross unexpectedly backhanded Mark with the gun, and in that instant, Frank took his shot.

00000

Hardcastle stayed in Mark's room as the doctor finished the six stitches it took to close the gash caused by Norcross' gun. "You really have a way of pissin' people off, kid, calling him a coward." The concern on his face belied his words.

"Yeah, one of my many gifts Hardcase." Mark winced as the last stitch was knotted.

Hardcastle put his hand gently on Mark's shoulder. "It's over now. Norcross lost."

"And the good guys are still standing…well…at least most of them are" Mark continued with a small grin. "But, hey, where's Frank? Everything happened so quickly, I haven't had the chance to thank him. Is he okay?"

"You just worry about yourself, Mark, I'm fine" Frank called out as he entered the room. Approaching the bed, he too looked down at Mark, "how're you feeling?"

Mark reached his hand out to take Frank's, "I'm just peachy, Frank, really, but I owe that to you. I think this donkey here would have actually let Norcross take him out of the building."

Frank grasped Mark's hand and winked, "never would have happened. We never would have let him leave."

"What did you expect me to do" Hardcastle chimed in? "He had a gun to the kid's head."

"Aww, Hardcase, are you trying to tell me you care?" Mark joked, lightening the mood.

Uncharacteristically, the Judge replied quickly "you know that I do, Mark" with a wink of his own.

00000

Mark had been home nearly a week when Frank showed up at Gull's Way with a hefty file folder under his arm. He found his friends sitting by the pool engrossed in a serious discussion.

"…come on, Judge, girls…in teeny weeny bikinis…and surfing. What's not to love about Waikiki beach?" Mark's voice had a twinge of whine to it.

Hardcastle rolled his eyes towards Frank.

Frank watched the interaction with a grin. Only a few short weeks ago he thought he would not only lose his young friend, but that he would again have to watch Milt shut himself off from the world as the guilt ate away at his life a little bit each day. He was thankful to have both friends alive, well, and engaged in the familiar banter.

The Judge had stopped talking, and it was only when Frank realized Mark was staring, mouth agape, that he came out of his reverie. Frank looked between his two friends and wondered what had caused the silence.

"Huh?" was all that Mark could manage to utter as he took the proffered envelope out of the Judge's hand.

Again, the Judge rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner. "For the last time, I said, I already got the tickets. Two weeks in Hawaii. One on Waikiki, and one on the Big Island. Thought it might be fun to see an active volcano." The Judge noticed that Mark was still not talking. "Uh, of course, if you'd rather go someplace else…"

Mark didn't let him finish the sentence before he reached out and grabbed the envelope, "No, I DON'T want to go someplace else…I've been wantin' to go to Hawaii my entire life!"

"So what brings you here, Frank" Milt asked casually as he watched Mark read through all of the confirmations in the envelope.

"Who says I need a reason to visit my friends?" Frank replied quickly—also watching Mark's enjoyment of the contents of the envelope.

"Ah, that file under your arm gave you away" the Judge responded with a suspicious tone.

"Oh, this? I'm just returning your file on Norcross. No more suspect, no more case. But I know you like to hang on to these things." Harper grinned as he handed the folder over.

Taking possession of the file, the jurist simply put it on the patio table. Looking out over the ocean, he spoke quietly, "thanks, Frank. Maybe it's time, though, that I start gettin' rid of some of this stuff. Maybe it's time to think about retiring."

"Retiring?" Both Mark and Frank bellowed over each other.

"You can't" Mark continued as Frank stepped back a bit. This wasn't his fight, and quite frankly, maybe the two of them should retire from the crime-fighting business. It was dangerous, and he wanted both men around for a long time. He didn't, however, agree with the jurist's presumed reasoning—guilt.

Milt looked directly into Mark's eyes, and spoke with a quiet intensity, "four bullets and two weeks in the hospital. And that's only this time. Do you want me to add it up for you?"

Mark cut him off with an argument of his own, "Six bad guys put away, and a hot nurse coming to dinner next week…and that's only this time. Do you want ME to add it up again for you? Math doesn't seem to be your strong suit."

They were at an impasse as Frank watched on in amusement. Known for his good timing, he spoke when the silence continued, "I tell you what superheroes, I'll take the file. When you decide when you want to remodel the bat cave into a pool hall, let me know. Until then, I'll hold onto it. I gotta run anyway. I'm taking Claudia to dinner to make up for not being around much the last few weeks."

Appreciating the change of subject, they both said their goodbyes to Frank. As Milt helped Mark back to the house, he knew they'd continue this conversation. Whatever the decision this time, he knew he'd appreciate just having Mark in his life for a long time.

THE END