WHO DO YOU TRUST
It was a bright sunny day and ex-judge Milton C. Hardcastle was feeling good as he drove Master Harold (AKA Death Ray) Thomas downtown so he could be transferred back to juvenile custody for a three month sentence before being released to a foster family which the judge had feted and approved. He felt good about the resolution of this case but it had left a bittersweet taste in his mouth. The tapes of the psychiatric sessions of David Shelcroft had proved he was a murderer but they had, also, shown that his good friend Judge Brant was corrupt and had been for years. He wondered how he could have been so wrong about a man he had trusted. Hardcastle forcibly turned his mind from the fate of his one-time friend and back to the young man sitting by his side who was sporting a large grin.
"Penny for them," Hardcastle asked.
"Just thinking how much things have changed. I got real lucky," Harold responded.
"Luck didn't have anything to do with it. You might have made some mistakes but when the chips were down you made all the right choices."
"Yeah, but I got you and Mark to thank for the chance to make them."
"I'm glad you decided to trust us. Turning over those tapes made all the difference."
"I didn't turn nothing over," Harold answered sharply; his gang mentality bristling at the insinuation that he would turn over gang property just to save himself. "I lost it fair and square in a bet."
"I'm glad it turned out like it did but McCormick had no business offering you a chance to skip out like that."
Harold laughed at the suggestion. "You think that's what we bet. Heck I didn't need to bet for something like that. I could have walked out of there anytime and you and Mark wouldn't have been able to stop me."
"Well, what did he bet you?" a confused Hardcastle asked.
"That sweet ride of his," Harold said as his eyes got a dreamy far-away look. "Nobody can blame me for making that bet. I'd be riding high in a car like that."
"McCormick bet the Coyote!"
"Yeah, that red car of his."
Hardcastle's mind tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. When McCormick told him that he had won the tape recordings of Shelcroft's confession, he had been sure that Harold had been offered a chance to run if he won. McCormick had taken a heck of a chance betting his car in a basketball game. It was all l the man had in the world; a tie to his dead friend and mentor, Flip Johnson, and his best ticket back to the world of professional racing. Why would he make a bet like that?
"Because he was sure he wouldn't lose," thought Hardcastle with sudden clarity. "He watched this kid take fifty bucks off of me in a basketball game. He knew what Harold could do on a court but he knew he was good enough to beat him." Hardcastle's mind rebelled as he carried the logic to its inevitable conclusion. "But I beat him at basketball all the time. Or does he let me win? And if the games are part of his con, what else is a con?"
A lusty laugh from the lad on his right brought his mind back to the present as Harold imagined out loud the reception the ladies on the strip would have given him for a chance to cruise in the Coyote. Hardcastle rejoined the conversation but as they drove into town. His goodbyes to Harold were heartfelt but gruff as he wished the teenager luck and made him promise to keep in touch. The judge tried to suppress the doubts which formed in his mind but the seeds had already been planted.
The first things he noticed as he drove back into Gull's Way was that Tonto was no longer on the reservation. "Nothing to worry about," thought Hardcastle, "I gave him a lot of chores to do and he probably had to drive into town for some supplies. He doesn't need to check with me every time he leaves the estate."
Hardcastle would have denied he was worried but he noted it was exactly twenty-seven minutes later when he watched McCormick pull up to the house and carry a few bags of groceries into the kitchen.
"Hey, judge," Mark said in greeting. "Did Harold get off okay?"
"Yeah, I don't think he'll have any trouble keeping his nose clean this time."
McCormick laughed. "Are we talking about the same kid? I'm sure he'll be running the place in no time."
"Did you get those chores done?"
"You mean the 'Twelve Labors of McCormick'. I got a few of them done then I went out to pick up a few groceries. You might complain about me but Harold was a bottomless pit. Last night at dinner, I thought we were going to have to duel over the last piece of chicken. But don't worry; I'll get them done later."
"What time did you leave?" asked Hardcastle trying to appear casual.
"About an hour and a half ago."
"Wouldn't have taken you that long to pick up these few things. Did you stop anywhere else?" He realized there must have been something wrong with his tone of voice when McCormick gave him a strange look.
"Well, you got me, Hardcase," Mark answered with an exaggerated New Jersey twang. "After I picked up the groceries, me and the 'Scooby Gang' decided to rumble against the 'Chipmunks'. That Alvin is a lot tougher than he looks."
"Don't be acting silly," grumbled Hardcastle. "I'm just making conversation. There's no need to be acting all suspicious. Unless you got something you want to tell me."
It wasn't what he had wanted but Harold and Judge Brant had opened a curtain and he started looking at McCormick in a new light as he wondered how much he really knew about anyone. Dinner had been a stilted affair. McCormick had valiantly tried to rally over their Friday night movie. He had been friendly, witty, and engaging as he tried to draw the judge into lighthearted conversation. Hardcastle had to admit that the man was everything he would want in a partner, and friend but he was, also, a facile liar.
Hardcastle tried to keep his end of the conversation going as he weighed McCormick's words and tried to determine what was an act and what was real. But his timing was off and his responses were a bit too slow and measured, it wasn't long before McCormick fell silent. They decided to call it an early night. But sleep did not come easy for the judge as he mentally reviewed his relationship with the parolee he had taken into his house and wondered if the man was playing him for a fool as his friend Judge Brant had done.
Morning came too early for both men. Hardcastle bounced the ball on the court with an inner fury. Today he would learn what McCormick could really do with the basketball.
Mark could sense the barely controlled anger emanating from the man who faced him on the court. He did not know the source of the anger but he hoped that a rough game of gorilla ball would exorcise whatever was wrong with the judge.
Hardcastle wasn't surprised that he had made the first point easily. McCormick would have been expecting the old Hardcastle but an unnecessary elbow in the stomach showed they were playing by a new set of rules. In the next play, McCormick returned the favor with a quick push to the back which sent the judge sprawling.
The game was more reminiscent of the one they played on McCormick's first night at the estate when the young man needed to release his anger and frustration at the fates which had tied him to the judge. Only now it was Hardcastle who needed to work off the residual anger against his opponent and, unlike McCormick, he could not take any pleasure after scoring a point; rather he viewed it as additional proof of the continuing façade.
The game went on for several hard minutes and harder knocks when McCormick grabbed the ball and demanded, "What's your problem?"
"I don't got a problem," Hardcastle denied, "I'm playing to win."
"No, you're playing to main and I want to know why."
"You're bird dogging!" accused Hardcastle as he stopped and glared at Mark.
"Bird dogging!" exclaimed McCormick in disbelief. "I'm up by two points and doing everything short of bleeding and you think I'm bird dogging."
"Quit your belly aching. You breezed through your game with Harold and that was to a hundred."
"Breezed through? I fought for every point I made off of him."
"Quit your conning."
"You are," shouted Hardcastle as he jabbed his finger into McCormick's chest. "You've been conning me since the day you got here and I want it to stop."
McCormick jerked back as if he had been slapped. He had seen the look of mistrust in most people's eyes after they found out he had spent time in jail but he had never seen it in Hardcastle's eyes; not even the first night he had signed up as his makeshift Tonto. "I'm not conning you," he hissed. "I've always been honest with you ever since you blackmailed me into this arrangement."
Hardcastle felt a wave of doubt wash over him as he saw the hurt look in McCormick's eyes that were quickly masked by his old defensive shell. But he didn't know if it was the reaction of a man wrongly accused or a conman trying to save the con. Hardcastle decided to put all his cards on the table. "You bet the Coyote against the tapes when you played Harold."
"So, it worked. I didn't hear you complain when we heard Shelcroft confess to murder."
Hardcastle's voice began to rise as he ticked of the logic of his reasoning. "That car is the only thing you own and you'd never bet it against the tape unless you were sure you were going to win and the only way you'd know that if you're a lot better player than you pretend to be. So what else about you is a lie?"
"I didn't know I was going to win that game," Mark's voice rose in response. "I wanted to win and I played like hell to win but I never was sure I was going to win that game until the last ball."
"Then why would you've made that bet with Harold?"
"Because he reminds me of me," confessed McCormick as a flood of suppressed memories rose to the surface. "That was me about sixteen years ago; no family, no future, no hope, just a bunch of wannabe criminals I ran with on the street and a love of cars. When Flip took me in, he offered me a car if I would be willing to work for it. He offered me a chance at a future. And I couldn't think of a better use of his car than to offer a chance to another kid." Emotions spent, Mark sighed in defeat as he shoved the basketball into Hardcastle's hands. "That's the truth, judge. Believe it or don't."
The judge watched the slumped shoulders of the young man as he walked away; not toward the gatehouse but toward the beach evidentially to do some heavy brooding. Hardcastle realized that he believed what Mark had told him but try as he might he couldn't find the words to stop him from walking away.
Mark walked several hundred feet along the beach before he allowed himself to sink into the sand. As he sat and stared out at the waves, he knew he hurt but not angry because he knew, despite what had just been said, the judge trusted him. He thought back on all they had been through in the past few months; that first night when Hardcastle gave an angry two-time loser access to the gatehouse despite the objections of a worried housekeeper, standing up for him against a gaggle of judges following the nearly disastrous Teddy Hollins incident, twice left standing on the side of the road while he raced away following his own improvised plans, playing butler in a scheme to gain the trust of an unreliable woman, and so many other smaller ways that the judge showed that he trusted him. Mark smiled to himself as he remember the judge and all the good times he had since he joined up on a crazy plan to fight for justice with his own slightly eccentric Lone Ranger.
"I can't have messed up too bad, if he's smiling," thought Hardcastle as he quietly walked up on his friend and sat down in the sand next to him. They sat in amicable silence for a few minutes. "I don't have to say anything," realized Hardcastle. "He's already forgiven me."
"I've known Judge Brant for over fifteen years," began Hardcastle as he kept his eyes fixed on the tides. "I met him just after he had been appointed to the bench. I taught him the ropes. We were friends. Our wives were friends."
"Judge, you don't have to..." Mark said.
But Hardcastle kept talking as if the young man had not spoken. "There were many long nights when we stayed up talking jurisprudence and the letter of the law. He was one of the first people that I discussed my rehabilitation idea with. He thought it was a good idea. I thought I knew him. I thought he knew me."
"People change," said Mark. "He made a mistake, got in a bad spot, and made a bigger mistake."
"Nah, the tapes showed he's been dirty for a long time. I thought I was a good judge of character but he snowed me for years. Then he used me to set Harold up and thought I'd cover for him when I found out the truth. I'm not as good a judge of character as I thought."
"So you thought you'd take it out on me," Mark mused. He frowned when he noticed the judge flinch at his words. "It's okay," McCormick said. "You took a big risk bringing me here particularly after Beal. You've showed me a lot of trust. Probably more than I deserved."
"No, you earned every bit of it and I forgot that."
"As long as you're sure now."
His gut instinct told him the answer as he nodded to his friend. But there was still a question left unanswered. "What would you have done if you lost the Coyote to Harold?"
"I wasn't too worried about it. I wanted to win more than Harold."
"Because it was Flip's car."
"No self-preservation." McCormick laughed at the confused look on the judge's face. "Because if I had lost I was going to go double or nothing for your Corvette and I knew you'd kill me."
Hardcastle laughed. "Now that you could be sure of."
The two friends sat in the sand and watched as the sun's rays reflected off of the water. Both comfortable that in an unsure world, they had something they could trust in.