AFTER THE RACE
Mark McCormick bit back the bitter taste of the cheap beer as it burned down his throat and his eyes darted around his surroundings. It was the sort of place Sarah Wicks, the housekeeper at Gull's Way, warned him to avoid. Dark, dismal with an air of criminality; it was not the sort of place he usually chose to socialize but tonight, and for the past few nights, it was the place he needed to be.
It had been a week since the Trans Am Race and while he wouldn't admit anything to Hardcastle, his body still ached from the punishment it had received from the multiple crashes and spin-outs he had experienced while racing for Denco.
"Denco, and Dennis Collins," thought McCormick as he slammed down another watered down glass, "that's a name that brings mixed emotions." Collins who gave him a chance to drive in the Trans Am Race based on the recommendation of his old racing buddy, Davey. Collins who ran a top dollar racing operation and spent money like water. Collins who offered him more cash for a few days of work than he would ever earn as Judge Hardcastle's yardman and Tonto. Collins who was going to give him a chance to reenter the world of professional racing. Collins who with his sidekick, Larry, ran a combination chop shop and car theft ring to pay for his racing operation. Collins who kidnapped Hardcastle and planned to commit murder to prevent the truth from coming out.
Once again fate had offered him the big prize but snatched it away as soon as he tried to reach for it. But he couldn't say fate had been entirely unkind; as it pulled away one prize, it offered another. Back at the very beginning when he asked Hardcastle for permission to participate in the race, Sarah had been wholly against it. Not because of his background, parole status or even because she thought it was silly. She didn't want him to do it because she was worried he would get hurt. She had vehemently argued against it; finally agreeing only after giving him a long list of conditions including calling her every night and after being told that the judge would accompany him to keep him out of trouble.
"He was going to keep me out of trouble," laughed McCormick to himself. "Hah, that man can find more trouble than a pack of kids with fake IDs and a twenty dollar bill." Still it gave him a warm feeling inside; like he had a family who cared if he lived or died.
Old Hardcase had, also, been a revelation. The man had honestly been worried about him. The look on his face when he had opened the ambulance door following the first spinout had told him just how much he meant to the judge. And later he realized how much the judge meant to him. The sick feeling in his stomach as he had searched for Hardcastle before the race and the fear which gripped him when he saw Collins and his goons hustling the judge out of the track. He didn't regret giving up his chance to return to professional racing, it wasn't worth Hardcastle's safety or life.
But still the thrill of race, the roar of the crowd; man and machine working as one against time and all other obstacles trying to be the best. The feeling was positively addicting. It fulfilled a need that couldn't be satisfied any other way. Running down crooks with the judge could come close but it wasn't the same thing. He would miss it.
McCormick was so caught up in his musing that he was unaware that he wasn't alone until he felt the prick of the knife.
"Come quietly," the man at his side threatened as the blade pressed against his side. "You've got friends who want to talk with you."
McCormick didn't flinch; he had been expecting this ever since the police carted Collins off of the track in cuffs. He recognized the man with the knife as Bobby Briggs, one of the men from the Denco pit crew who had disappeared before the police had a chance to question him about his knowledge of the car thefts. Despite the feel of cold steel against his body, he wasn't worried about the blade. He was sure it was more for show than a real threat.
Briggs pressed the point of the blade closer until it cut through the cloth and touched the flesh. Mark bit back a gasp as he felt the tip enter into his side and blood seep from the fresh wound.
"Just give me an excuse and I'll gut you right here, fink," Briggs threatened.
"Wrong again," thought McCormick as slowly got up from his seat. Still the cut hadn't been deep, just slightly painful. It was still possible that this was a case of false bravado instead of someone looking for revenge. He had been wrong about a lot of things in his life and his time spent with Hardcastle showed him how fatal a mistake could be. But he wanted to hear what Briggs and the others had to say. He owed it to them.
"Lead the way," Mark said with a tight smile on his face.
As they started to walk out of the bar, another man appeared on his left. The man was Ronnie Arnt, another member of the now defunct Denco pit crew, also, wanted for questioning by the police. Arnt casually grabbed McCormick's left arm as they headed out of the bar. To all appearances, they were just three friends who had decided to call it a night after a few beers.
Mark realized in another life, it might have been true. He had thrown a few glasses back with several of the members of his team discussing racing strategies, the car, or just memories of other races. They had been good times. But that was before the judge had opened his eyes to the truth about Denco; before the police had been brought in, and before the whole Denco corporation came crashing down. He didn't regret his choice to stand by the judge but he regretted the possibly innocent people it had affected.
Most of the people on the Denco racing team had been arrested or had scattered for places unknown. Hardcastle didn't believe innocent people ran from the police but life experience had taught him differently. There were different levels of innocence; just because you weren't guilty didn't mean you didn't have something to hide and some people have a good reason not to trust cops. One thing he was sure of it the people on the Denco team would have good reason to be angry at the man they had welcomed onto the team and who had betrayed them. What he didn't know how angry they were and what they wanted to do about it. But were they guilty of being part of the criminal enterprise or just innocent dupes of Collins' and the others. He needed to know the truth. Mark found himself guided out of the light of the tavern and into the dark of night.
"The alley. How original," thought McCormick as he felt the small wet patch on his shirt rub against his side. "It's just a small cut. I can probably stop it with a band aid. I've drank with these guy. We were part of the same team. They're just mad and they just want to talk. Maybe get a little revenge against the guy that brought the police in. But I'm not in any real danger here."
They had walked half-way down the dark backstreet when Arnt jerked him to a stop and took a firmer grip of his arm. Briggs did the same on the other side. It was time to talk.
McCormick's eyes focused on the man standing in the shadows. "Hey Davey," he said. "I thought that was you I've seen hanging around."
Denco's original driver for the Trans Am Race looked surprising good for a man who had disappeared from his home while recovering from an earlier racing accident. He walked slowly towards Mark as he donned a pair of leather gloves. "Skid, you disappointed me. I thought we were friends."
"I'm sorry about the Trans Am Race."
"You're sorry," said Davey with a menacing glint in his eyes. "Do you have any idea what you cost me? Cost all of us?"
"Collins was running a chop shop for expensive cars. He was…"
Davey struck his closed fist deep into McCormick's midriff as he pulled in close. "He was the man who paid the bills," whispered Davey into Mark's ear. "He was good to us."
"Okay," thought McCormick as he bit down on hislip, "they're pissed but they could be doing a lot worse. I'm still not in any real danger here, not from Davey."
"Collins was a crook," Mark explained.
"All you had to do was keep your ears and mouth shut and drive," Davey said as he struck McCormick across the jaw.
Mark licked at the blood from his split lip. "He was going to kill the judge."
"A cop who couldn't keep his nose out of other people's business," said Davey as he struck Mark again. "I thought you knew the score."
"Is that why you asked me to race because you thought I'd keep quiet."
"I remembered you from our days on the track. I felt bad for the raw deal you got. I gave you a chance at the big time again. If you did good, you could make some major money." Davey grabbed a fist full of Mark's hair and pulled his head back. I sure as hell never thought you'd choose a cop over your team and your friends."
"All Collins was offering was a chance of five to ten as an accessory or worse. But it doesn't have to be that way. Go to the police and tell them you didn't know anything."
"Don't be so naïve. When they're done checking out Denco, they're going to find my fingerprints all over it," Davey said as he let go of the hair and backhanded Mark across the face. "I'm not going to hang around and let some D.A. make his career by sending me up the river."
Mark caught his breath as he tried to keep himself upright. "I can't believe you were part of it. You're a good racer. You don't need Collins or his dirty money."
"A racer is only as good as his tools," explained Davey. "When the money started running low, I helped Mr. Collins expand his operation. We were partners in everything. He was going to take me to the top. Now I'll never be able to race professional again. So we wanted to thank you, my friend, for all you had done before we blew town. "
"You could talk to Hardcase and make yourself a deal." It had hurt deep inside to say that but he knew the truth now and he was in real danger. He hoped he hadn't waited too long to signal the judge and police listening nearby.
Davey gave two more punishing blows into Mark's body and watched as his two friends let the ex-con drop to the ground. "I'm not a fink. I don't betray my friends."
"Do you want me to cut him?" asked Briggs.
"Nah," said Davey as he pulled out a gun and aimed it at Mark's head. "We were friends once so I'm going to make this quick."
"Wrong again," thought McCormick as he looked up at the contemptuous eyes which stared down at him. "Wrong about everything." He got one leg under himself and prepared to make a desperate run for the weapon. Again so fixate on the moment, he was unaware they weren't alone until he heard a familiar gruff voice.
"You're going to want to drop that, Davey," said Milton Hardcastle as he pointed his own gun at the racer's head and two police officers came up behind.
"You brought the cops?" asked Davey incredulously to the man on the ground before him.
"He wanted to give you and your buddies a chance," explained Hardcastle as the officers moved forward and flanked the judge. "He didn't believe Collins when he named you as his partner in the car thefts."
"You're lying," denied Davey. "Mr. Collins wouldn't betray me. Skid is the only fink here."
"Everyone is expendable to a man like Collins, even you." Hardcastle didn't like how Davey had failed to lower his gun. "You and your friends are only facing theft and assault charges with a good lawyer, you might get it lowered. Don't make it worse."
Briggs dropped his knife and raised his hands. He hated the snitch that had turned them into the police but he wasn't going to do heavy time on a hopeless attempt on revenge. He was sure there would, one day, be another opportunity; a time without witnesses. He spit on the ground in front of Mark and walked over to the police who pulled out their cuffs. Arnt followed close behind. Only Davey still stood between the judge and the man who had betrayed Denco.
"You're not worth it," said Davey as he dropped his gun and raised his hands. "But if I ever…"
"I know," said McCormick as he rose to his feet and started to remove the wire that had placed on him hours earlier. He didn't want to hear anymore. He had been wrong; wrong about why he was chosen to race, wrong about Denco, and wrong about his friend.
He watched mutely as the judge handcuffed Davey and read him his Miranda Rights. In a surreal way, it was the final collision between his old life and his new one. Part of him knew he had made the right decision but the other part couldn't look Davey in the eye as they put his former friend into the police car.
"Mixed emotions," thought McCormick as he stood be the mouth of the alley and watched the police car pull away. "He'd have killed me but, to him, I'm the friend who betrayed him."
"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" asked Hardcastle irritably as he swatted McCormick on the shoulder. "I thought we were going to have to wait until he shot you before you'd give the word to move in."
"I wanted to be sure he was involved with the car thefts," explained McCormick.
"How bad did they hurt you?" asked Hardcastle as he moved Mark into the streetlight. He tsked as he examined the forming bruises on the young man's face.
"Nothing a good long soak in a hot tub won't cure." McCormick grunted as he moved forward and felt the tug at his side. In the all that had happened, he had forgotten about Briggs and his knife. He placed his hand on his side and felt the spreading wetness. "Maybe a couple of bandages."
"I'm taking you to the emergency room and I don't want to hear any arguments," stated Hardcastle as he cut off McCormick's protests before he had made them. "I thought this was a stupid idea from the beginning, putting you out as a target for Collin's men. When we saw Davey and those guys hanging around; we should have just turned it over to the police and let them handle it."
"Davey's my friend. Was my friend," corrected McCormick. "He might have got scared and ran after Collins got arrested. It didn't prove he was part of the theft ring. I had to give him a chance."
"And all of this?" asked Hardcastle as he gestured to the results of Davey's assault. "Why'd you wait so long?"
"They had a right to be mad. I expected them to want to rough me up. They brought me in and gave me a shot. When Denco fell, it destroyed their lives. I betrayed them."
"What are you talking about?" demanded Hardcastle as he swatted McCormick on the shoulder again. Haven't you been paying attention? They're the ones that betrayed you."
McCormick mouthed an exaggerated 'ouch' as he rubbed his shoulder. "We were part of the same team."
Hardcastle sighed. He knew from his recent experience with his old friend, Judge Brant, how it felt to have a friend betray you. At least, none of his old friends had tried to kill him. He knew McCormick had a right to feel bad. What he couldn't understand was why the kid felt like he was the one who had done something wrong.
"Davey brought you in because he thought you were crooked and Collins would have kept you for the same reason," explained Hardcastle. "None of them were your friend and none of them would have lifted a finger to help you once the boys in blue figured out what they were doing. They'd probably try to leave you holding the bag."
"I don't they were even going to tell me about the criminal part of the operation."
"Not right away. But they knew you weren't stupid. They'd have waited until you were in too deep to get out then they'd own you. It was a trap. One baited with a lot of money but a trap."
"Yeah, but I was racing. I was going real fast."
"And at the finish line were stone walls and bars. They didn't want what was best for you. You didn't mean anything to any of them."
"And I do to you," challenged McCormick.
"Sure you do; clipped hedges, a clean pool, and a mowed lawn."
"Thought so," said McCormick as he stared straight down the street without really seeing anything. In the distant, he swore he could hear the sound of racing motors and smell the burning tires; he could even feel the vibration of the wheel in his hand. "It's an addiction to speed," he thought wistfully of what might have been.
"You'd have won that race," Hardcastle said as his placed his hand on the racer's shoulders.
"I'd have left them in the dust," McCormick agreed with a grin.
"There'll be other races."
"I know. And next time I'm not stopping until I pass the finish line; I don't care who has you or what they're going to do to you," McCormick said knowing it wasn't true. "Come on, let's go home."
"Home," argued Mark.
"Hospital and I'm driving," countered Hardcastle as he held up the keys to the car.
Even though he knew he was going to the hospital, McCormick continued to bicker with the judge as they slowly walked to the car and drove way. It was nice to know he wasn't wrong about everything.