"The Winds of Change"

This story picks up where my second story "After the Storm" left off. The characters Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, Mark McCormick, Sonny Daye and Frank Harper are not mine. They belong to the brilliant minds of Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh, however, the rest of the characters are the product of my overactive imagination. I tried to remain true to the characters, and "Hardcastle and McCormick" canon as much as possible. Thank you to those of you who have been patiently waiting for this story. It truly was a journey! Character thoughts are in italics unless otherwise indicated.

The plane slowly taxied to the gate after it landed at Newark International Airport. The cabin was full of dazed and bleary-eyed passengers who made the five-hour, overnight flight from Los Angeles. As the passengers deplaned, the anxiety Mark McCormick felt since he resolved to testify against his uncle, David McCormick, grew deeper and more pervasive, seeming to take on a life of its own. He sat frozen in place, staring out the window as Judge Milton C. Hardcastle unfastened his seatbelt to free himself from the tiny seat that held him prisoner for far too long. Travel weary passengers found a renewed sense of energy as they bustled about to retrieve their bags from the overhead compartment as the judge impatiently waited for the window of opportunity to do the same. Grumbling and muttering, the older man despised this chore most because he nearly had to fold himself in half to duck the low ceiling in the cramped airplane cabin. He was so intent on completing that task that he had not noticed that Mark had remained fixed in the same spot.

"Hey, kiddo, come on! Let's get a move on! You can't stay there all day, you know!" Judge Hardcastle barked as he attempted to break the spell that rendered his young friend motionless. He looked around and realized that save for a couple beleaguered flight attendants, they were the only ones left on the 747. He shifted his steel blue eyes back to Mark and observed the death grip that the man had on the arms of his seat.

Hardcastle wasn't quite sure Mark heard him until he saw the subtle shake of his head and a barely audible murmur, "I can't do this."The judge had been Mark's most trusted yet unlikely friend since they met several years back in his courtroom. Never in his wildest dreams would he have ever thought that the man who sentenced him to prison would be the same man whose shoulder he would lean on in his darkest hours. However, the reality of what he was about to do; of the nightmare he would have to relive made him feel as if his body was weighted down with lead. He just wasn't sure that he had it in him to endure the burden of a trial and facing his uncle again.

Mark's mind drifted back to the last time saw his uncle, David McCormick, which was shortly after his release from the hospital when he was fifteen. Dave had beaten him so severely that he had to stay in the hospital for three days! As he lay in the hospital bed, he plotted his escape, vowing that that would be the last time he would ever be David McCormick's punching bag. On his second night home, he lay in bed until he heard Dave's clumsy footfalls on the creaky old stairs leading to the master bedroom that he shared with his wife, Angela. Mark waited an hour, eased the covers off the bed and tiptoed across the room. He grabbed the bag that he packed the previous night and climbed out the window into the frigid New Jersey night. He fell to the ground with a soft thud, the blanket of snow buffering the noise. The impact of his landing jarred his aching broken ribs and the pain forced him to take a moment to gather his strength. He used that moment to make sure that he had not alerted Dave to his absence. Realizing that he probably would not live to see another birthday if he continued to live under his uncle's roof, he decided to take his chances on the street. At least he could live or die on his own terms and not at the mercy of some cold-hearted alcoholic, his adolescent mind reasoned.

The retired jurist's aching back muscles overrode his patience as he shook Mark's shoulder brusquely, hoping to break the trance. Mark slowly turned his head in his friend's direction but never made eye contact. A petite blonde flight attendant named Julie K. spotted the two men and made a beeline toward them. "Is everything all right, gentlemen?" she asked with a trace of exasperation in her voice and an expression on her face that was a mix of annoyance and concern.

"Yes, ma'am," Hardcastle replied with a nervous grin as he gave Mark a furtive glance. "It's been a long flight for the both of us and he's just a little…tired."

She took in the pale complexion and the beads of sweat forming on the young man's forehead and upper lip. He looks like he could keel over any minute. "Do you need any help with him?"

"No, he'll be fine, thank you, um, Julie," Hardcastle cautiously replied.

"No problem! Thank you for flying Trans-American Airlines! I hope you enjoyed your flight!" said Julie as she slipped back into flight attendant the two men departed, Julie turned her back, stomped down the aisle, and rolled her eyes as the fake smile quickly evaporated from her face.

While Hardcastle wandered around the airport trying to find the baggage claim area, Mark followed behind as if he was on autopilot, not caring to take in his surroundings. He knew that "Hardcase" would take care of everything; he depended on that fact, as he was not mentally up to the task. Mark felt as though he was drifting in the middle of the ocean, no longer in control of his own life, and he wondered if things would ever be same.

Mark's father, Sonny Daye, agreed to meet them in Newark and together that would do whatever it took to bring David McCormick to justice. The plan was for him to meet his only son and the retired judge at the Grant Hotel as soon as they arrived from the airport. Sonny believed that it would be the perfect time to introduce Mark to his long-lost grandmother in an attempt to help him heal from his tortured past. Rather than tell Mark about it, Sonny figured that it would be best to show up with them at his mother's door unannounced, if she still lived at the same address. Just to make sure, he walked to the pay phone down the street from the hotel, fished a quarter out of his pants pocket and dialed the number that he knew by heart. He missed the sound of his mother's voice, no matter the tone. The phone rang five times before he heard the familiar voice on the other end simply say, "Maronetti residence". Sonny paused for a moment and simply hung up the phone. He just couldn't bring himself to say anything. What would I say? "Hey Ma, it's me. It's been 26 years since I've talked to you but I was wondering what's for dinner? By the way, I'm bringing your 32 year-old grandson to meet you. See you in an hour?" He stood there frozen with his finger on the plunger before he had another burst of courage and dialed the number again. Once again, his mother answered the phone, this time Sonny spoke up. "Hello…Ma. It's me, Michael."

"Sonny? What the hell do you want? If you're looking for me to bail you out of jail, you can just forget it! It'll be a cold day in hell before I give you another dime!"

"Ma! Ma, listen to me! It's nothing like that! I just wanted to know if I could come and see you, or something. It's been a long time, you know. I…I just wanted to see ya."

The pause on the other end of the line made him wonder if she was still there. "Ma? You there?"

The string of profanity-laced Italian let him know that she still was. Her voice was muffled, as if she took her mouth away from the phone. Sonny heard someone in the background saying, "Ma, what is it? Who's on the phone?" It was his sister, Denise. Sonny thought to himself, "Damn, I haven't seen Pip since she was 13!"

Emily returned to the conversation and said, "I don't know, Sonny, I just don't know. I haven't heard from you in what, 26 years, and NOW you wanna see me? What's the real reason, you're calling for, huh?"

Sonny knew he had to talk fast or else he would be on the receiving end of a dial tone. He decided to use his trump card, after all. "Actually, Ma, there is something else…"

"I knew it! I knew there had to be a reason why you were callin' me after all these years! I didn't even know if you were still livin' or if your lifestyle had finally caught up with you! Well, what is it, huh? Why are you really callin' me?"

"Uh, I found Mark, or should I say, he found me. He…he wants to meet cha."

She drew a deep sigh and sniffed as though she was crying. She still had Mark's picture tucked away in her photo album. Every now and then, she would pull it out and stare at the picture of the curly haired little boy with the clear eyes and dimpled but snaggle-toothed smile. Her heart would flood with emotion, as she wondered to herself whatever became of that sweet little boy. Now she finally had the chance to find out. She gathered her composure and said, "When?"

The smile on Sonny's face cut through his voice, "Tomorrow afternoon, maybe?"

More Italian obscenities followed and she said, "How about five thirty?"

"Sounds great, Ma. I can't wait to see ya!"

The only response he received was the click of the line on the other end but it was enough for Sonny. It was time to make amends to the people in his life who meant more to him than anything else in the world. He strode back down the street with a sense of purpose that had been absent for such a long time. He checked his watch, for he knew that Mark and the Judge would be arriving from the airport any minute. He paced back and forth outside the hotel until he saw the taxi pull up. Hardcastle was wearing his lucky hat, cowboy boots and jeans, while Mark wore a pale yellow polo shirt and jeans. The weather was unseasonably warm for New Jersey in mid-May. It had been a couple of months since he had last seen his son and although he still looked a little rough around the edges, it was an improvement from the last time. He even looked like he had picked up a couple pounds, too. They walked toward Sonny as he held him arms out to pull his son into a quick hug and shake the Judge's hand.

"Hey, Kiddo! You look great! How was your flight?"

Hardcastle spoke up for McCormick who was still not all there. "Great, Sonny, it's good to see you," the Judge said as he surveyed his surroundings. The hotel was located in downtown Newark but it looked more like east L.A.!It looked like it had seen better days but the Judge reminded himself that if he could survive Iwo Jima, he could survive this.

Mark, who remained speechless throughout the exchange, also looked around. Things sure have changed since the last time I was here! Well, if can survive Q, I can survive this. He shook his head as if to pull himself together for he knew he would have to have his wits about him for this debacle. This is the last time I let Sonny book the hotel! The two men hauled their suitcases through the entrance across the lobby to front desk with Sonny leading the way. The place actually had a certain charm—like a grand dame who had been a stunning beauty in her heyday but time had turned her hair silver and replaced the flawless skin with wrinkles. The beauty was still there, however, underneath the signs of age.

"Are you guys ready to eat? I know of this great little diner a couple blocks over. They have the best steak and eggs in town…" Sonny suggested.

Mark shook his head and said, "No thanks, Sonny. I think I'm gonna grab a little shut-eye. Maybe I'll catch up with you later, okay?"

Both Hardcastle and Sonny looked somewhat disappointed. "I'll join you, Sonny!" the Judge said as he clapped his hands together.

After the two men departed, Mark stretched out on the bed and fell into a deep sleep no sooner than his head hit the pillow. All he wanted to do was get this over with but at the same time, he regretted his decision to come to Newark for something that happened a lifetime ago. Part of him would rather forget it ever happened but as hard as he tried, the abuse and torture crept into his thoughts and invaded his dreams. The night terrors stopped for a brief period but had started again two weeks before. He even startled himself awake with his murmuring "no" during the flight, much to his utter embarrassment, but the other passengers seemed oblivious to his outburst.

The older men ambled along to the restaurant, each consumed by their concern for Mark. Sonny finally broke the silence, "Hey Judge, is he okay? He looks like ten miles of bad road!"

"He says he's fine but the nightmares have started again. He thinks I don't know it but this whole thing is eating him alive! We'll just have to keep an eye on him, Sonny."

"Yeah. I'm just wondering if he's only doing this for us, you know?"

"Well, if he were, it wouldn't surprise me. I think that he'd rather walk across hot coals than see this thing through."

The two men enjoyed a hearty breakfast and discussed the progress on the case, pleased with how quickly things transpired. The trial was set to begin in two days: all they had to do was help McCormick stay sane. Hardcastle checked his watch and told Sonny that he needed to make a few phone calls but he secretly wanted to check on McCormick. They parted ways with Sonny promising to return around four. As the Judge walked down the hall to their room, he thought he heard the sound of muffled shouts. He approached the door and scrambled to pull the key from his jacket pocket. When he opened the door, he could see Mark in the throes of yet another nightmare. He trotted across the room and shook the young man's shoulder to wake him. Mark awoke with a start and a panicked look on his face. "Sorry, Hardcase. I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No, I went to grab a bite to eat with your father, remember?" When it appeared that the young man recalled them leaving, Hardcastle continued. "I brought you something to eat," and he shoved the Styrofoam box under McCormick's nose.

"I'm not hungry, Hardcase, thanks."

"No so fast, Hotshot. You haven't eaten since last night and that wasn't much. Eat!"

Reluctantly, Mark took the container, sniffed it cautiously and placed it on the night table next to the bed. "Alright, alright. Just let me wash my hands, okay?"

Satisfied, Hardcastle watched as Mark stepped into the bathroom. A few minutes later, McCormick emerged looking more awake than he had all day. He sat on the edge of the bed and unenthusiastically started to eat. His legendary appetite had been sporadic at best lately, which made the weight slow to return. He felt the judge staring at him while he ate, almost as though it was an unofficial test of his mental health. These days food was the barometer for McCormick's state of mind: the less he ate, the more troubled he was. He took a couple nibbles of the toast and a few bites of steak but his notoriously voracious appetite was clearly absent. The eggs remained untouched, partly out repulsion due to the recent spate of "Eggs a la Milton". He set the container back on the table with a promise that he would eat more later.

"That's stuff gonna be terrible later, kid,eat up," the judge urged almost as if he was trying to force the old Mark who could polish off three pizzas in one sitting to make a hasty return. Hardcastle's sense of normalcy lied within the realm of his young friend eating from sunup to sundown and until that was the case, he would stop at nothing to see its reappearance.

"Nah, I think I'll take a walk, thanks, Judge."

"You want some company, kiddo?"

"No, this neighborhood is not exactly an ideal place for a retired Superior Court Judge to be taking a stroll."

"Now how is anybody gonna know that?"

"Are you kidding? You reek of justice and law and order! You'll be eaten alive!"

"Kiddo, I saw combat in Iwo Jima! I think I can handle the mean streets of Newark!"

"Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you!"

Hardcastle was surprised that McCormick relented so easily and was secretly pleased to join him. They walked in companionable silence for a couple blocks until Mark stopped dead in his tracks: he saw a woman that looked strangely familiar. He cocked his head to the left and tossed the image around in his brain until the picture clicked into focus: it was his Uncle Dave's wife Angela standing at a bus stop across the street! She had gained about 50 pounds but it was definitely her. The image that Mark had of her was the complete opposite of the broken down woman that stood 25 feet away from him. Her once shoulder length blond hair looked scraggly and unkempt and her clothes were ill fitting and untidy. What happened to her? She used to be almost as beautiful as Mom was! Life with David McCormick had definitely taken its toll on the woman and the hard lines on her face were a testament to that sad fact. She shifted her weight from side to side impatiently as she took a long drag on her cigarette, the ashes falling onto her rumpled pink shirt. The judge took note of the change in Mark's demeanor and lightly gripped his arm. "Mark? Are you okay, kiddo?" The use of his given name forced McCormick to return his attention to his friend.

"Yeah, I…ah…"

"What is it? You look like you've seen a ghost or something!"

"I…I thought I saw someone I used to know."

"Who was it?"

"It's not important. Come on. Let me show the movie theatre I used to go to when I played hooky."

Hardcastle shrugged his shoulders and filed the incident into the recesses of his mind, for the moment. He had known McCormick long enough to know that he was desperately trying to change the subject. Hardcastle directed his attention to the scene that was set before him and tried to imagine a teenaged McCormick growing up in a place like this. A gentle breeze made the debris in the street flutter. Two homeless men shuffled through the streets, one was having an intense argument with himself about inter-galactic travel while the other swatted at invisible flies. A police car whizzed by with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Across the street, an old woman opened her window and dumped a bucket of water onto a couple holding a shouting match outside her window, which briefly interrupted the lover's quarrel and made them stare at each other in disbelief. It only worked for a few minutes and then they picked up right where they left off. McCormick shook his head, broke into a fit of laughter and proclaimed in his best Chamber of Commerce voice,"Ah yes, New Jersey: the Armpit of America!" The laughter was a much-needed release; it had been ages since he felt like laughing and it felt good to do so, even if it was at a pathetic glimpse at love and relationships. The two friends continued their tour of downtown Newark, punctuated by little known facts Mark supplied such as "I got into my first fist fight in this park" or "that used to be Juvenile Hall." The building he pointed out was covered with graffiti and boarded up except for a few broken windows on the top floor. However, the most disturbing of all: "I saw a man jump off that building right over there."Mark shook his head as recalled the sight of the man falling off the roof of the ten-story building and sound of him screaming as well as the abrupt end to the screams when he hit the ground with a sickening thud. In his mind, running away in the middle of night with little more than the clothes on his back was far better than staying here. They returned to the hotel about an hour later, with the hopes of relaxing before meeting Sonny later that evening. However, when they arrived, Maggie, the attendant at the front desk, waved her hand and motioned for the judge to come over.

"Mr. Hardcastle? I have a message for you: A Frank Harper wants you to give him a call (sounding more like cawl than call)," as she chomped her gum.

"Thank you, um…Maggie." The Judge smiled and gave her a quick wave as they walked toward the elevator.

"Sure thing, babe," Maggie said as she stuck the pencil back into her voluminous brown hair and turned back to her soap opera that was playing on her tiny black and white TV behind the counter.

"I wonder what Frank wants," Mark wondered aloud as the elevator chugged its way up to the third floor.

"Oh, I'm sure he's just wondering how things are going for us out in… what did you call it: 'The Armpit of America'?"

"Heh heh heh, you've got to work on your Jersey accent, Judge. Say it like this: "Ahmpit", not "Armpit". It sounds way too clinical when you say it that way."

"Ok, Kid, I'll work on it. In the meantime, you need to work on taking a shower, eating a decent meal and getting a little shut-eye, capisce?"

"Capisce, huh? I'm impressed!" Mark said with a hearty chuckle.

Later that afternoon, Sonny dropped by the hotel and the three of them went over to New York since the area had limited dining choices. Mark was in the mood for pizza so they headed over to Little Italy's on 45th near Times Square. It had been many years since he had been in the "Big Apple" and he nearly forgot how insane Times Square could get. L.A. is less hectic than New 're always in someone's way here. Back home, people move at a slower pace. It struck him as funny that he considered California (and Gulls Way, for that matter) home. He would have never imagined that he would feel any kind of connection with the West Coast way of life. Although his Jersey accent would periodically color his words, his heart belonged in L.A. and the sooner the trial was over, the sooner he could put Newark and all the bad memories associated with it, out of his life.

Sonny considered taking them to Brooklyn, but he thought better of it. No, he could wait one more day. Besides, Mark was sharp and somewhat apprehensive about meeting his grandmother. He just might pull a disappearing act tomorrow if he knew that was in store. After dinner, the trio began the trek back to Jersey. Halfway back to the hotel Mark, who had been silent throughout the trip, suddenly spoke up. "Dad, can we swing through the old neighborhood? I'd kinda like to see it."

Taken aback by the request Sonny stammered, "Yeah, sure son, we can go there."

After a few left turns and a gesture-laden ride down 9thavenue, the men arrived at their destination twenty-five minutes later. Sonny parked his El Dorado in front of an abandoned Laundromat with apartments above it. Mark stared out the window for a long time before he finally mustered the courage to climb out of the back seat. He slowly walked up to a tiny side door with a rusted scissor gate across it. Garbage and an old sign blocked the doorway. His eyes tracked upward and fell upon the fire escape: the very same fire escape that he sat on night after night for three months, waiting in vain for his father's return. He could remember sitting there and spying men who resembled his dad only to be disappointed time after time when he would sadly realize it was not him. Hardcastle and Sonny also knew that that was where a frightened little boy sat crying his eyes out. Mark walked away from the two men as he fought back the tears that threaten to spill down his cheeks. The pain of abandonment washed over him afresh but he reminded himself that that was years ago and his father now stood twenty feet from him; the book of his childhood finally had a happy conclusion.

Sonny walked over to where his son stopped and placed a hand on his shoulder. Mark turned to face him and allowed his dad to pull him into a loving clasp; an ironic gesture from the man who many would argue started the domino effect of one bad turn after another in his life. He replicated the action and they remained that way until Mark pulled himself free with the words: "Come on. Let's get out of here before people ask where we're registered or something!"

Sonny laughed and said, "Good point, son." Then he turned and shouted at the top of his lungs, "Hey, everybody! This is my son!"

"Good for you, buddy! Now get the hell outta here!" shouted angry one person.

"Who cares?" shouted another. A stray cat shrieked and dogs started to bark, thus signaling their exit.

"This reminds of my last gig in Reno! Tough room!"

When they returned to the hotel, Mark and the judge went their separate ways: Mark up to the room and Hardcastle in the direction of the front desk stating that he needed to speak with the clerk about their bill. He walked toward the desk and watched McCormick as he got on the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, he made a beeline toward the pay phone to return Harper's call.

"LAPD, Lieutenant Harper, speaking."

"Hey, Frank, it's me."

"Milt! Where the hell have you been all day! I left a message for you to call me hours ago!"

"Yeah, Frank I know. Sonny came by and took us around town and to New York City. What's up?"

"I don't know how to tell you this, Milt, but I got a call from the D.A.'s office. David McCormick seems to have disappeared off the radar. He failed to check in when he was supposed to."

"What! Why the hell was he let out on bail anyway?"

"He wasn't considered a flight risk. He has ties to the community! He claims to have "found religion" and is a deacon in his church. You know the routine."

"Routine my…" Hardcastle paused, drew a deep breath and continued. "Now what? I'm sure he must know we're in town because the trial starts the day after tomorrow!"

"I know that, Milt. They've put extra men on the case but there's really not much else they can do. Just keep an eye out for him. He has a lot at stake. He could be dangerous."

"Yeah well, nobody knows that better than McCormick, Frank. Thanks for letting me know."

"Are you gonna tell the kid?"

"Are you out of your mind? Of course not! He's doing all he can to keep from going crazy as it is!"

"Keep me posted, Milt. I'll see you tomorrow."

"All right, Frank and thanks."

Meanwhile, Mark approached the door of their hotel room and saw that it was ajar. That's strange I know we locked that before we left. He carefully pushed the door open and saw that the room had been ransacked. Just as he was about to turn and go back down to the front desk, he felt a wallop on the back of his head and he crashed to the floor. Less than five minutes later, Hardcastle walked into the room and saw Mark trying to drag himself off the floor.

"What the hell happened?" Hardcastle asked as he ran to Mark's side and helped him sit in the side chair closest to the door.

"I don't know, Hardcase. I was hoping you'd tell me!"

"What's the last thing you remember?"

Mark closed his eyes as he rubbed the back of his head. Hardcastle noticed that there was blood on his fingers. It was difficult to see, at first, because of the thick, curly hair. Hardcastle ran into the bathroom, grabbed a hand towel and gently placed it on the back of his head.

"All I remember is that when I walked up to the door, it was open… and…and the room had been trashed. That's the last thing I remember. Maybe it was a robber or something."

"I was afraid something like this would happen," Hardcastle muttered.

"Judge, this isn't the best neighborhood in the world, you know. It happens."

"You don't understand… this is too much of a coincidence."

"What…what d'ya mean?" Mark asked as he struggled to focus his eyes.

Hardcastle held up three fingers and asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Mark squinted his eyes as he desperately tried to bring his vision into focus. With one eye open he asked, "Two?"

"That's it. We're going to the hospital."

"No way, man! I'm staying right here!"


"Judge, listen to me: This is Newark! By the time I get through triage, a bump on the head will be the least of my worries! Have you ever been in an E/R in Newark?"

"No but-"

"Trust me. It ain't worth it. Unless you have a bullet hole or a stab wound, there's no need in even going to the trouble."

"You might have a point there, kiddo, but we can't stay here."

"Why not? I've been through worse than this…when I was in Q, I mean." He hoped he hadn't made his friend feel any worse than he already did about what happened to him.

"I'll explain later. Just trust me on this: we can't stay here. I'll pack your bag, you just stay still."

Mark followed the Judge's command, an indication that he got hit on the head a lot harder than he cared to admit. Hardcastle hustled to phone to make two phone calls: one to the police and the other to try to reach Sonny. After the third call in fifteen minutes, Sonny finally answered the phone and he told him what minutes later, Newark P.D. arrived to find a very angry Judge Hardcastle chomping at the bit. The two men provided the details to the police but when they were ready to leave, the retired judge stepped out in the hallway with the two officers.

Hardcastle looked around to make sure that Mark was out of earshot but still whispered, "Officers, there's one more thing that I didn't mention: McCormick is going to be testifying in a couple days against his uncle, but the uncle's gone missing. I don't think this is a coincidence."

"Sir, with all due respect, you're from L.A., right?" Hardcastle stood with his arms folded and nodded his head as the officer continued, "This ain't exactly Rodeo Drive. Things like this happen around here all the time, Pops." He shook his head, closed his notebook and placed it back in his shirt pocket.

The judge straightened his posture to his full height and stood toe-to-toe with the overburdened, indifferent patrol officer, the veins in his neck and forehead bulging. "Officer Jameson, is it? I am a retired L.A. County Superior Court Judge and a former police officer myself so I've seen my share of "things like this" as you put it. This is not some random robbery! This was an attempt on his life and if you don't put that in your report I'll see to it that you're busted down so far, you'll be lucky to be on cleanup detail for the mounted police! Have I made myself clear?"

"Crystal clear, sir. I apologize, Your Honor. We'll do everything we can to get to the bottom of this, sir…Your Honor, sir." While Officer Jameson squirmed, his partner, Officer Robinson turned his back to hide his sheer delight in seeing his know-it-all partner get his comeuppance for once.

Less than ten minutes after the police left, Sonny charged into the room. "What the hell happened? Are you all right, son?"

"Yeah, I'll be alright. You didn't have to come all the way from Vegas just for this!"

"Vegas? Are you sure you're okay, kiddo?" Sonny looked into his son's blue eyes and saw how that is pupils were as wide as saucers.

"Yeah, yeah I'm fine." Mark attempted to prove it by standing up but the room suddenly shifted and he found himself flat on his behind on the floor once again.

"That's it, I know where you guys can go, until the trial is over."

Sonny and Hardcastle each took an arm and helped Mark to the elevator. Mark stopped mid-way and declared, "Wait! I need my bag. I'll go get it." He clumsily tried to break from the grip that the men had on him and attempted to walk back to their "suite".

"Cut it out, McCormick! If you don't knock it off, I'm going to throw you over my shoulder and carry you out of here myself!"

"Point taken. Lead the way, gentlemen," Mark acquiesced.

"Don't worry about your stuff, son, I'll get it. Just do what the judge says, ok?"

"Ok, dad."

Sonny and Hardcastle exchanged looks as they got Mark to the car without further incident. When they settled him in the backseat, Sonny darted back into the hotel to grab their things. He tossed the bags in the trunk and jumped into the driver's seat. He checked the rearview mirror and saw that Mark appeared to be sleeping. While they were at a red light, he whispered, "Judge, what's going on here? What's with you checking out over a simple robbery?"

"That's the thing, Sonny, it's not. I couldn't say anything when I called you because he (crooking a thumb toward the snoozing McCormick) was sitting right there. It appears that our defendant has flown the coop."

"What?" Sonny exclaimed, nearly rear-ending a Buick in the process.

"Yeah, the kid's been having enough trouble sleeping as it is, he doesn't need this right now."

"You really screwed up this time!"

"I know, Davey honey! I'm…I'm so sorry! Please...Please, don't-"

The man raised his wiry arm and gave his wife a vicious backhand that knocked her across the room. Her hand shook as she wiped it across her nose, the blood flowing freely down her dirty pink shirt. The drunken man showed her no mercy as he charged toward her, his breath smelling of old cigarettes and cheap whiskey. He grabbed by her hair, forcing her to her feet. "I told you to kill him," he growled. His hot breath turned her stomach.

"I… thought I did! When I hit him with that lamp, he didn't move and he was bleedin'! I panicked and ran 'cuz you said not to get caught! You gotta believe me!" she pleaded.

"Well, my darling, once again you were wrong! He's still alive, he's gonna know I had something to do with it and he's still gonna testify!"

A sense of relief washed over her but she silently prayed that her husband didn't notice. "How…how do you know he's still alive?" she had never laid a hand the young man in her life but she knew had to obey her husband if she wanted to live.

"Because of this!" He shoved her onto the bed and pointed to a black electronic box on the scuffed up nightstand.

"What's that?"

"It's a police scanner. I can hear every call that the Newark PD responds to, including your botched attempt at killing that no good bastard! So you see, I knew you failed before you even got here! Fortunately, the police are quite busy, so I'm gonna go to that hotel and watch him. If he tries to leave, I'll kill him myself!"

"No! You can't do that!" She begged. Mark held a special place in her heart and she was thrilled when the young man escaped the "House of Horrors" on that frigid night. Her only regret was that she was unable to join him.

"You wanna try and stop me?" it was more of a threat than a question. He took another swig of whiskey from the bottle, grabbed the keys to his rusty old Cordoba and left sleazy motel that was their temporary hideout.

He parked a block past the hotel, so that he wouldn't be spotted by anyone. A few minutes later he spied a yellow El Dorado speeding down the street coming from the opposite direction. The Cadillac came to screeching halt in front of the hotel and a man with brown hair wearing a cheap suit sprinted inside. "Sonny!" he thought to himself. Several minutes later, he watched as Sonny and an older guy helped a curly haired man whom he knew was his nephew into the car. He gripped the steering so tight, it looked as though the skin surrounding his knuckles would burst. When the men drove off, he started his car, gunning the engine. He took a deep breath to calm himself, instead of running them off the road like he wanted to, he decided to follow them, then he could take care of his "problem" for once and all and make a clean getaway.

Sonny nodded his head as he recalled the conversation he had earlier and convinced himself that it was indeed the safest place for the his only son and the judge. He pointed the shiny yellow Cadillac toward Brooklyn, barely registering traffic signals and the beat up Chrysler Cordoba tailing them. It wasn't until they approached the George Washington Bridge that his noticed that the same car that was behind them twelve blocks back was still there. He made a sharp U-turn and headed in the opposite direction, jostling his passengers in the process. Mark blurted out, "Cut it out, Hardcase! I don't wanna shoot hoops right now," without opening his eyes. Hardcastle grabbed at his hat as he tried to figure out what was going on. Just as he about to ask, Sonny volunteered in a commanding tone, "We've got a tail but I think I lost 'em!" He put his beloved car to the test and virtually turned on two wheels down a side street. "It's ok, Judge, I know a short cut."Two hours later, they arrived at their destination. Sonny parked his car in front of a neat five-story apartment in a quiet neighborhood. He glanced at his watch and looked up to the fifth floor. "Good, she's still up," Sonny breathed.

"Who's still up? Where are we?" Hardcastle asked, his patience with the situation reaching its end. He hated it when he was not in control.

"Bensonhurt, Judge." When that didn't seem to ring a bell for Hardcastle, Sonny spoke again. "Brooklyn. Specifically…my ma's place."

The look on Hardcastle's face was priceless when the dawn of understanding crossed it. All he could utter was, "Oh."

Sonny left Mark and Hardcastle in the car until he was sure someone would let them in. He rang the buzzer with trepidation. A voice from the intercom simply said, "Yeah?" The anxious man pressed the intercom button and spoke, "It's me, Pip, Sonny." He paced back and forth on the small stoop while he waited for the buzzer to unlock the door. Instead, after a pause for what seemed like an eternity, the door opened. A petite woman with long, dark wavy hair and electric green eyes stood in the doorway.


"Yeah, Pip, it's me."

Pip, as Sonny called the woman, remained frozen in place before she suddenly squeezed Sonny as if for dear life.

"Sonny, where the hell have you been all these years? I thought you were dead!" Tears streamed down her face as she continued to hold her long-lost brother in her arms.

"Pip…Pip I'll explain all that but I've got an emergency! See, it's my kid: he's in the car and he's hurt!"

"Your kid'shurt? What the hell are you standin' here running ya mouth for? Go get him! Poor little guy! Why didn't you take him to the hospital, stupid!" Sonny trotted toward the car as Hardcastle emerged from the passenger side. He looked over his shoulder and saw Pip give him a strange look when the judge appeared in her line of sight. Pip shouted to Sonny, "Kid, huh? He looks like he's about ready for Medicare!" If it had not been a life or death situation, the expression on her face would have been hysterical. Hardcastle stooped over, poked his head in the backseat, and grabbed McCormick's arm to help him out of the car. He seemed disoriented but did his level best to get his head to cooperate with his arms and legs. The two men assisted Mark with walking up to the apartment. Pip climbed the stairs ahead of them, peppering them with question after question. Sonny assured her that he would explain it all once they got upstairs. By the time all three men reached the top floor apartment, they each looked like they had wrestled an alligator!

Sonny placed hand on Mark's shoulder and told him to sit on the sofa. Mark complied and wearily flopped down and closed his eyes.

"Ok, Sonny: talk! This whole thing seems really weird to me!" Pip grew irritated with Sonny and the two strangers he brought into her mother's living room.

"Where's Ma?" Sonny asked as he kept looking toward the hallway, expecting to see his mother emerge any minute.

"It's Monday night, Sonny. Where has she been going every Monday night since 1952?"

He was in no mood to play guessing games, so he simply nodded his head in feigned recollection. Knowing his kid sister, she would tell him anyway. She couldn't keep a secret to save her life!

"Anyway, the canasta game is usually over around ten so she should be here any minute. She cast her eyes toward the sleeping form on the floral patterned sofa that had not made a peep since he sat down. "So, ah, what's with…your kid there? Is he special or something?"

Hardcastle could not let this golden moment pass him by; his only regret was that McCormick was unaware of the whole thing. "You don't know the half of it! How do you do? I'm Milton C. Hardcastle, I'm a friend of Mark's…er, your nephew over there."

"Yeah, Pip, Hardcastle here is a Judge, well, a retired one anyway. Mark, uh, ran into a little trouble and the Judge has been tryin' ta help him out."

"Trouble, huh? Look, Sonny I don't want no trouble here, ya got me? We've had enough already outta you without you bringing your son over there to pick up where you left off!"

"Pip, it's not like that… anymore. Mark is in town to testify against someone. He and the Judge are from L.A.!"

"L.A., huh? Well, that explains everything! You shoulda told me we had guests from such a faraway land; I woulda polished the silver and taken my furs outta cold storage!" Pip's replied; her New York accent growing more pronounced with each word.

"Don't mind her, Judge; she can be a real doll when she's not being a total jerk!"

"Whatever, Sonny! Just start talkin' or out tha door you'll be walkin'!" Although she loved her brother dearly, she adored her mother and would do anything to shield her from any more heartbreak, especially if it was because of Sonny and his dubious vocation.

Just as Sonny was about to tell Pip just what she could do with her smart mouth, he heard the turn of a key in the front door. A petite woman with jet-black hair streaked with silver turned the corner to find her daughter, her son and two strangers in her living room. "Sonny! I thought you were coming tomorrow! Who are these people? Are you in some kinda trouble?" She shed her black raincoat, hung it on the mirrored hook near the door and placed her purse in the hall closet. She immediately regretted allowing Sonny see her do it but pushed back that thought.Get a hold of yourself, Em. He says he's changed… but if anything's missing, I'm calling the cops, son or no son!

"No, Ma. It's nothing like that at all. I was just trying to explain it to dear, sweet Denise here but now that you're here, I won't have to say it twice. He started out by introducing her to her sleeping but injured grandson and explaining what happened earlier. She tiptoed over to the sofa and stared down at Mark as he tossed his head from side to side. She stretched out a tiny, wrinkled hand, stroked his hair and caressed his face. He settled back into a peaceful rest; her touch seemed to be just what he needed to stave off the bad dream he was having. Pip remained silent throughout the recount of what brought them to her mom's door this time of night but kept her eyes on her Sonny. Hardcastle supplied information whenever Sonny didn't have an answer. In the middle of the Judge's account of how he found Mark semi-conscious on the floor, Pip suddenly bolted to the phone. She had the receiver in her hand and as she dialed with the other, she turned to the group, "I just remembered that my best friend Maria's sister, Kim is a nurse! He needs to be checked out! He hasn't moved in over twenty minutes!" She spoke so fast into the phone, it almost sounded like she wasn't speaking English. When she hung up the phone, she told them that Kim lived two blocks down and that she would be there in ten minutes.

The buzzer rang exactly eight minutes later and two minutes after that; Kim was walking through the front door. She wore a white t-shirt and sweat pants, her long red hair still damp from having just showered. She worked at St. Michael's Hospital and had just gotten home. She rushed over to the sofa and reached into her black bag to retrieve a penlight. Turning to Pip, she asked, "What's his name?"

"Mark," Pip supplied, simultaneously grateful that Kim was at home and angry with herself for not thinking to call her sooner.

Kim directed her attention back to Mark and softly called his name to rouse him. "Mark, my name is Kim and I'm a nurse. Can you hear me?" When he grunted in reply she continued. "I'm gonna check you out, okay? First, I'm gonna feel your head. She ran her fingers through the thick curls to check for any lumps. When her fingers drifted toward the base of his skull, itelicited a apologized and continued her examination. Speaking to no one in particular, she said, "He's got quite a goose-egg right here," pointing to her own head to demonstrate. She grabbed the penlight and explained to Mark that she was going to shine the light into his eyes. She was taken with him when she first saw him but she was completely bowled over when she saw how crystal blue his eyes were. He's really cute! I wonder if he's married. All the cute ones usually are." His pupils appear normal but he probably has a slight concussion. Just keep an eye on him. If he becomes nauseous or is confused, take him to the hospital right away. Other than that, he'll be fine."

A round of sighs was followed by a chorus of "thank yous". Kim packed her bag and Pip walked her to the corner. As the two friends strolled down the street, Kim had to know: "Denise, who was that guy?" Beaming with pride, Pip simply replied, "My nephew!"

An hour later, McCormick woke up on his own and had no clue where he was. He knew he wasn't at the hotel. No, this place was much nicer. He slowly lifted his head and began to sit up. He saw Hardcastle snoozing in the armchair across from the sofa he was lying on and heard the sound of a man and two women in the midst of a heated discussion. He recognized Sonny's voice but not those of the women. He managed to stand upright without toppling over and decided to venture toward the voices. He held on to the wall as he moved toward the rear of the house. He popped his head into the doorway of the first bedroom where they stood arguing and politely asked if he could use the bathroom. The bickering came to a screeching halt when they saw Mark standing there. Sonny told him that it was down the hall on the right. Mark wandered down the hall, closed the bathroom door and turned on the faucet; he splashed cold water on his face hoping to get his bearings. He felt more alert, but no less confused about where exactly he was and how he got there. Relying on his street smarts, he quietly opened the medicine cabinet, spotted a prescription bottle, and read the label: "Ranitidine, take one capsule daily as needed, Emily Maronetti, 1745 Bath Avenue, Brooklyn, NY" Well, at least now I know where I am. Now the next question is who is Emily Maronetti? Slowly, the pieces fell into place: Sonny told him a couple months ago that his grandmother's name was Emily. His breaths grew quicker and his hands shook as he realized that his grandmother, whom he had never met, was in the next room. He checked his reflection and his face grew flush as he discovered that he needed a shave. He gave his armpits a quick sniff and checked his teeth. Satisfied that it was as good as it was going to get, he placed the bottle back in the cabinet and opened the bathroom door.

He wiped his sweaty palms on the legs of his jeans and carefully walked back down the hall. Sonny, Emily and Pip had left the bedroom and waited for Mark in the living room. He saw that he suddenly had an audience and that he was center stage. First, he approached Emily. With an outstretched hand, he stumbled up to her and stammered, "Hello, Ma'am. My name is Mark…Mark McCormick."

Emily stared in disbelief and made no move to shake Mark's hand. Thinking that he offended her in some way, he slowly lowered his arm. The tiny woman rushed over to him to close the gap between them and took him in her arms. She grabbed him so fast that she nearly knocked him down! He quickly recovered his balanced and returned the gesture. She pulled herself away and cupped Mark's face in her gnarled hands. Mark towered over her but he bent down so she wouldn't have to strain to hold her position. The next words out of her mouth sounded like heaven, "I'm your, grandmother, Mark and it's a pleasure to meet you, Son." She held him again and proclaimed, "You're skinny!"

"I know. I need an Italian grandma to fatten me up!" Mark said with a twinkle in his eye.

She released Mark once again and grabbed his hand, pulling him farther into the parlor. She stopped in front of Pip and said, "This is your Aunt Denise, but we call her Pip."

Pip threw her arms around Mark's neck and planted kisses on his cheeks. "Come sit down! Sonny told us about what happened. How do you feel now? Are ya hungry? I could whip up something real quick!"

"No, that won't be necessary, uh…Pip. Why do they call you that anyway? You a Gladys Knight fan or something?" Mark asked, deciding to give them a taste of the old McCormick charm.

Pip was tickled and through her giggles, she explained that "Pip" was short for "Pipsqueak" because she was the youngest. While he relished the attention, Mark's eyes began to droop. Emily grabbed Mark's hand and was about to lead him to the spare bedroom. "No ma'am. I'll be fine out here. There's no need to go to any trouble."

"Nonsense, there is no way I'm gonna let you sleep on the sofa like some bum! Sonny can sleep on it. You need to be in a bed, young man! You still have a nasty bump on your head." She reached up to touch his head and Mark met her halfway. He winced when her bony little fingers brushed across the lump. "Sorry, honey. Let's get you set up in the Marty's old room."


"Yeah, your Uncle Martin." A wave of sadness washed over Emily. "He was…killed in Vietnam."

Mark looked over at Sonny who dropped his head. There was nothing else for McCormick to say except, "I'm sorry."

The judge silently watched as McCormick seemed to transform right before his eyes. He appeared to be standing a little taller and he was happier than he'd been in a long, long time. Well, kiddo, your wish came true: you finally got a family that loves you. Mark climbed into bed and drifted off to sleep and not one nightmare disturbed his slumber.

The next day brought David McCormick a step closer to his Day of Reckoning. He was furious that Sonny was able to escape but he vowed to find them and make Mark pay for trying to destroy him. The problem was that he had no idea where they could have gone. He ran his hands through his silver streaked hair as he desperately calculated all the potential places they could be hiding. He had to find them before the trial tomorrow or else he would never be free! The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. The nerve of that little bastard! Pressing charges against me! I gave that ingrate a roof over his head and fed him, too! That's more than his old man ever did for him and this is the thanks I get?

For the first time in several weeks, Mark had a peaceful night's sleep. He squinted his eyes to ward off the morning's sunlight streaming through the window. The pounding headache he had last night receded to a mere dull throb. He sat up in the bed, temporarily confused about his surroundings until the recalled that he was in his grandmother Emily's home. A smile crept across his face as thought about how overjoyed she and Pip were to meet him. Heeding nature's call, he tiptoed across the creaky floor to the bathroom. The rest of the house was quiet, except for Hardcastle's familiar snore. He decided to shower and dress so that he could take a quick walk before anyone else awoke. He was gone for about thirty minutes before Sonny woke with a start. He dreamt that Dave had found them and had killed his only son. His heart was pounding in his chest and he decided to check on Mark, if only to ease his worried mind. The knock on the door was unanswered so he opened itonly to find an empty bed. Panic overtook him as he checked the kitchen and bathroom and found them unoccupied, too. Had it been a dream or had his worst fear come true? He ran to the front window and saw his wayward son walking toward the apartment. "Thank God!" he whispered aloud as he waited until Mark was on the stoop to press the buzzer. When Mark finally reached the apartment, he was out of breath. Sonny opened the door, threw his arms around him, and gave him a quick once over to make sure he was okay.

"Sonny? What's going on? You're acting like you haven't seen me in ages! What's the big deal?"

"Have a seat, son. The judge and I didn't want to tell you but your Uncle didn't check in with the D.A's office. The police think he's jumped bail. Hardcastle thinks that robbery was no coincidence, either. So you can't just go wandering off, okay? Dave is dangerous and if he tried it once, he might try something else again."

"Is that why we're here? Why didn't anybody tell me? I'm the one he's after, not you guys!"

"Yeah son, that's one of the reasons why I brought you here. You weren't exactly in the best shape last night so I couldn't tell you then, I was gonna bring you here today anyway, though."

"I can't stay here, Sonny! There is no way I'm gonna put grandma and Pip in danger because some lunatic wants me dead!" Mark started to walk toward the bedroom to grab his things. He could not bear the thought of his family getting hurt because of him.

Sonny clasped his son's forearm to intercept his departure. "Mark, this is the best place for you, believe me. He'll never find us here but lay low until tomorrow, okay?"

"All right, Dad. Sorry I worried you. Where's Hardcase?"

"Still sleeping, so's Ma."

"No I'm not. You guys wanna tell me what's going on?" Emily was tying a knot in her robe as she walked toward the two men.

"Good morning, grandma," Mark said as he planted a kiss on her forehead.

"Good morning, Sweetie. How did you sleep? How's your head?"

He rubbed the back of his head and was pleased that the lump was a lot smaller. "I slept great and my head feels much better, thanks."

"Good! Now what do ya want for breakfast? You look like you could use a decent meal."

"I'll just have toast and coffee, grandma. I can make it myself."

A string of Italian words and gesticulations emanated from Emily. Sonny knew what was next and he tried to get Mark off the hook. "Son, if you don't want another lump on your head, you'd better let her fix you something."

"Okay, you win. I'll have whatever you make, grandma, and thank you."

Pleased that he had come to his senses, Emily scurried toward the kitchen, clattering pots and pans as she began her quest to fatten up her scrawny grandson. There was so much that she wanted to know about Mark but she didn't know where to begin. She remembered Mark's mother, Donna, and wondered what ever became of her. In her heart, she knew that she was too good for her son. Donna's family never approved of her son but she went against their wishes and tried to have a life with Michael, or Sonny as he was affectionately called. As she stirred the pancake batter, she resolved to ask about her.

The aroma of coffee brewing coaxed Judge Hardcastle out of his slumber and he quickly dressed to join the rest of the household. He greeted everyone with a hearty "good morning" and joined Emily, McCormick, Pip, and Sonny at the dining room table. Soon after, breakfast was served. Sonny was about to reach for the platter of bacon but Emily intercepted his attempt with a slap on the hand. "I know that it's been a few years but we still say grace at the table, Michael!" McCormick was astonished by use of his father's given name. He had no clue as to what it really was; even the PI couldn't give him that information so he concluded that "Sonny" would have to suffice. "Michael Maronetti," Mark thought to himself. It had a nice ring to it, better than "Sonny Daye." Everyone at the table joined hands and bowed their heads as Emily began her prayer: "Thank you, Lord, for the food you have provided for us and for everyone at this table. Most of all, thank you, Lord for bringing Mark to me, Amen." Mark was so overcome with emotion that when he tried to say "amen" it was caught on the lump in his throat. He cleared it and soft but sincere one came out. Plates were passed and glasses clinked as the hungry men and women heartily dug into the feast set before him. Hardcastle watched Mark as he ate, relying on his theory about the correlation between McCormick's appetite and his state of mind; he was pleased to see that the kid seemed to be in a good mood.

What happened next unfortunately proved the theory, too. Emily innocently asked Mark to tell her more about himself. "How's your mother? She was always such a sweet girl." McCormick paused with the fork held mid-air, at a loss for words, and placed it back down. A few awkward moments later he found his voice, "Um…she died when I was 12."

"Oh, angel, I am so sorry to hear that! I had no idea or else I wouldn't have asked."

"It's okay, grandma, I know you didn't know. I lived with her brother for a while after that," Mark supplied before she could ask, suddenly uninterested in finishing his meal. The unease at the table was palpable but Pip broke the silence.

"That's good. At least you had someone to take care of you,"

"Actually, it wasn't. He…he didn't like me very much and used his fists to tell me so every chance he-. I'm sorry. I shouldn't lay all this on you right now. Grandma, could I please be excused?"

"Of course, sweetie. There's more in the kitchen if you want to eat later."

"Thank you, grandma. Dad, I'm gonna sit outside for a while, okay? I won't wander off again." Without waiting for a reply, he walked out the front door.

When he was out of earshot, Emily turned to Sonny. "My God, Michael, why didn't you tell me any of this? It sounds like he had one hell of a childhood, thanks to you!"

"Yeah, I know. Every time I think about, I get sick, Ma. That's the real reason we're here. You see, the judge and I convinced him to press charges against David, that's the uncle. The trial is supposed to start tomorrow but that bum jumped bail! We think he's the one that attacked Mark at the hotel and we just couldn't take any chances. I'm sorry."

"That poor boy! How could you let that happen to him, Sonny? I thought your father and I taught you better than that!"

"Ma, I had no idea that that happened to him until a couple months ago. Hardcastle here didn't even know and he's been more of a father to him than me and certainly a better friend!"

The older man smiled at that last remark. "Mrs. Maronetti…"

"Emily," she interrupted.

Hardcastle started again, "Emily, Mark got really sick a couple months ago and while he was half out of his mind, that's when we both found out. Blaming Sonny isn't going to help him. What is going to help him is the support of his family and friends."

Pip spoke up, "You're right, Judge. What can we do to help him?"

"If there's one thing I've learned about McCormick is that when he's ready to talk, he will. Until then, all we can do is wait."

Mark sat on the stoop watching the world go by. He hated the feeling of helplessness that he felt. This was supposed to be a happy occasion but I ruined it! Now, grandma and Pip are gonna think I'm some kind of nutcase! Or worse, they're gonna treat me like I'm gonna break or something!"Get a hold of yourself, McCormick, for chrissake! You're a grown man, not some scared little boy!" Mark chastised himself aloud. He ran his fingers through his hair as struggled to reel in his emotions. He bowed his head, unaware of the Cordoba that had slowed down in front of the building. When he felt that he could face his family again, he rose from his perch and quickly rang the man in the car caressed the gun that was in the seat next to him and squealed the tires as he took off. "I'll take care of him and Sonny later. I wanna get 'em both at the same time," he said as he calculated his next move.

As he climbed the stairs, Mark resolved to spare his aunt and grandmother the details of his past. He wanted them to know the person he was now, not the sad boy that he was when his father abandoned him and when his mother died. He certainly didn't want them to see him as the angry and confused young man he was when he was in prison, either. In fact, he never wanted them to know about any of his stints in the various correctional facilities from coast-to coast. Besides, what would happen if they found out? Would they pity him or worse, turn him away? The thought of either scenario was overwhelming and frankly, he was not willing set himself up for the rejection from the two people who had shown him such compassion and love. Rather, he would pretend that nothing happened, hoping that they would, too.

When he returned to the apartment, he noted that the table had been cleared of the dishes and everyone had gathered in the living room. Emily rose from her seat and grabbed his arm, pulling him into the room.

"Sit down, honey. I have something to say to you," Emily declared. Mark did as he was instructed, his heart filled with dread and regret. What came next completely blindsided him. "Mark, I want to show you something." Emily left the room and returned with a black-and-white photo with curled edges. Her voice was thick with emotion as she spoke: "I've kept this picture of you for the last 26 years, hoping that I would meet this sweet angel." She sniffed and continued. "Last night, my prayers were answered. Here you are…you're here! The judge and your father explained what happened to you after…after you went to live with your uncle and I want to beg for your forgiveness."

"Forgiveness? Forgiveness for what?" Mark asked, totally unprepared for the sudden turn this visit had taken.

Emily walked over to where her grandson sat and encircled him with her arms, burying her face in his soft, curly hair. "I'm so sorry! I didn't know! I didn't know that all those bad things were happening to you! I thought that you were better off without your father in your life! I thought…I thought that you were okay!" Emily sobbed.

Mark gently wriggled himself free and looked into his grandmother's eyes. "Grandma, you have absolutely nothing to apologize for! I know you didn't know. I didn't even know I had a grandmother that loved me or an aunt for that matter, until a few months ago! Please don't cry." His voice was low and reassuring, his words sincere.

"I can't help it. You're a part of me and I can see the sadness in your eyes. You didn't deserve to be treated like that, sweetheart, you didn't deserve it!"

Mark looked down at the floor, too ashamed to face the rest of his loved ones in the room. His heart was full of sorrow but at the same time, a sense of love: a sense of belonging. "Thank you, grandma, but the person who needs to say what you said is David McCormick, not you. The trial starts tomorrow, though. Either way, he'll be sorry."

Pip took the opportunity to add her two cents, too. "For what it's worth, I keep a pistol in my purse. I could make him sorry, too, you know."

Mark laughed at the thought of his barely five-foot tall aunt "taking care of" his miserable excuse for an uncle. "I hope that won't be necessary, Pip, but just in case, could I borrow that purse for tomorrow?"

Judge Hardcastle, who had been silent throughout the awkward scene chimed in, "Nah, it'll clash with your suit, kiddo."

The entire room erupted with laughter and the atmosphere returned to its former light-hearted state. McCormick soon realized that he was among family and that he didn't have to hide his past from them, so he decided to fill Pip and Emily in on his criminal past: the good, the bad and the ugly, including how Judge Milton C. Hardcastle entered his life.

No longer able to restrain her sharp tongue, Pip asked, "So ya went to jail for stealin' yer own car?" When Mark nodded his head, Pip continued, "Boy, you really are special!"

"I tried to tell you!" Hardcastle smugly replied.

Emily marched over to the sofa, grabbed two pillows and flung them each at the judge and her smart aleck daughter. "Hey! Nobody talks about MY grandson like that and gets away with it!"

The rest of the afternoon consisted of Mark helping Emily around the house while Pip got ready for work. Mark was surprised to learn that she was an undercover police officer for NYPD and worked the afternoon shift. Meanwhile, Hardcastle and Sonny left so that they could pick up Frank Harper from the airport. Frank and McCormick had developed an unconventional friendship and Harper wanted to be there for his friend. Hardcastle filled Harper in on the details on the way back to the house. By the time they arrived back at the Maronetti residence, it was dusk. The three weary men trudged up the walkway and greeted Mark as he sat on the stoop. Mark rose to meet Frank with a handshake and a slap on the back and sat back down.

"Hey, kiddo," Frank greeted him as he playfully ruffled Mark's hair. "How are you holding up?"

"Fine, I guess. I just want to get this over with."

"Hey, son! Did you eat dinner yet?" Sonny asked as he, too ruffled the curls.

"No, grandma kicked me out of the apartment. She's fixing something special for dinner for all of us and she said that I was in her way." McCormick snickered because he got caught red-handed sniffing around in the pots on the stove. He couldn't help himself, everything smelled so wonderful! Emily grabbed a broom, shook it at him and banished him from the house until she finished cooking. Taking the not so subtle hint, he scurried out of the kitchen but not before snitching a freshly baked roll.

Sonny fondly recalled his mother's cooking and decided not wait a moment longer so he bravely rang the doorbell. Emily grumbled as she wiped her hands on her apron. She walked over to the intercom and simply said, "yeah?"

"Hey Ma, it's me. Can we come up now? I'm starved!"

"I guess so."

The four men entered the apartment, the heavenly scent of a traditional Italian meal filled the house. The table that was set before them was divine: red wine, antipasto salad, lasagna, rolls-the place settings appeared to be his grandmother's finest china and crystal.

"Wow, grandma! I've never seen anything like this in my life! You really shouldn't have gone to so much trouble!" Mark gushed as he stooped down to give Emily a kiss on her forehead.

Emily stretched out an arm and gently but firmly cuffed Mark on the head. "Faggetaboutit! You're my grandson and we've got company! Now go wash up for dinner! All of you!"

"Yes ma'am," all four men wisely complied.

Hardcastle was pleased to see the return of McCormick's robust appetite. He wondered if part of the zeal was motivated by the implied wrath of an angry Italian grandmother but nonetheless, it was a welcome sight. As soon as Mark was halfway finished with his first plate of food, Emily rose to refill it and continued to do so until she was satisfied that her bony grandchild was full. While that scene played out, Sonny, Harper and Hardcastle watched with delight as they observed the young man drink up the love and attention. Emily was not a rude hostess, however, so she asked Frank about himself as she scooped out second and third helpings of lasagna onto Mark's plate. She was happy that Mark had so many good friends in his life.

After dinner, the three older men retired to the living room as Mark cleared the table while Emily was in the kitchen. The buzzer rang and Emily cursed in Italian since she hadn't expected anyone else at that time of night.

"I'll get it, grandma." Mark said as he walked back toward the dining room. He was so distracted by the heavy feeling in his stomach from the huge meal he had just eaten that he simply pressed the button to let whomever it was in. A few minutes later, there was a rap at the door. As Mark released the many locks, the door suddenly flung open and he was thrown to the floor. Temporarily stunned, he shook his head and lifted it in time to see the gun in David McCormick's hand. He struggled to rise from the floor but Dave cautioned him with the words: "Stay right there or I'll blow you away where you sit."

Hardcastle, Sonny and Frank abruptly ended their raucous conversation when the heard the commotion. Frank cursed himself for not bringing his weapon. He knew that David McCormick was a very dangerous and unbalanced man, but he was sure that he would have been captured by now! Powerless, he was forced to try to reason with a man who had no qualms about beating a person senseless and attempting to murder that same person all in the name of escaping punishment. He rose from his seat and gingerly walked over to the two men with his hands in front of him as a sign of surrender. He used the knowledge that he had about the man to try to relate to him. "Deacon McCormick, you're not gonna get away with this. Just put the gun down so we can talk."

"Shut up and sit down, you! I'm here to take my nephew and his dear old dad for a little ride." Dave's hands shook and his eyes wildly darted around the room as he shouted at Harper. "I don't have a problem with you but if you get in my way, you'll be sorry," his voice now a low, menacing growl.

Sonny, too, walked toward the crazed gunman with his hands in the air. "Here I am, David, take me but leave Mark out of it! You've hurt him enough. I'm the one you need to deal with, not him."

"I said shut up! In case you haven't noticed I'm the one in charge here: me and my friend," he said as he cocked the gun in his hand. "Let's go!" He yanked Mark's shirt collar, forcing him to stand. He pressed the gun to Mark's temple as he spun him around to face his family. "You miserable bastard! I take you in after your whore of a mother dies and this is how you repay me? Sending me to jail? I should have killed you when I had the chance 20 years ago! I sent my stupid bitch of a wife to take care of you but I guess if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself! And you, Sonny," he hissed, "You waltz in here and act like you're some kind of hero, or something! I guess you forgot how you used to say you were never really sure if Mark was really yours, huh?" Sonny visibly blanched as he watched Mark's reaction to his uncle's cruel words; his son flinched as if he had been struck. The two men stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity and Mark used his uncle's distraction to propel himself backwards to knock him down. The two men rolled on the floor as Mark struggled to wrestle the gun from Dave's hand. Dave managed to sock his nephew in the jaw and pounced on him, straddling him, his forearm across Mark's throat and the gun in the other hand. The unmistakable sound of a shotgun being racked ended the mayhem. "Drop that gun or I'll blow you clean out of your shoes!" Emily took careful steps as she aimed the shotgun at Dave's head. "Sonny! Call the police and get this bum off my clean floor!" Sonny obediently trotted toward the phone and hurriedly dialed 9-1-1.

David McCormick, on the other hand, was anything but compliant. His mind raced as he realized that he was going to jail for potentially the rest of his life. There was no way he was going to allow himself to be subject to the disgrace of a public trial! He had been doing God's work! He was a deacon in his church! How could he face the congregation? What would Reverend Stephens think of a man such as himself going to prison? For David, there was just one-way out. He slowly lifted the gun in his hand to his head and squeezed the trigger; his lifeless body collapsing onto Mark. Emily let out a blood-curdling scream and fainted while Frank and the judge rushed over to the older and younger McCormick men. At first, it seemed that everyone's worst fear had come true: Mark was dead. There was blood everywhere but as they approached the two men, it was clear that only David McCormick had met his fate. As Sonny tended to his mother, Frank quickly pried David off of Mark as Hardcastle leaped to the curly-haired man's side. His hands trembled as he physically inspected his best friend for injuries. Relief washed over him as he confirmed that McCormick was unhurt, however, the young man had yet to speak.

Rivulets of his uncle'sblood ran down Mark's face and created abstract patterns on the front of his shirt. His eyes scanned the room until they fell on his best friend and saw the sheer panic in those pale blue voice trembled as he found his words. "Is he…is he d-d-dead?" The judge simply nodded in response. Mark closed his eyes and exhaled. He wasn't sure whether to shout for joy or burst into tears as he realized that part of his torment was truly over: he would never have to face his uncle in the flesh again-in court or anywhere else. However, the irony of the situation was evident by the shell-shocked expressions on the faces of the survivors of the ordeal: it was clear that no one would ever shake the image of the blood splatter on the wall and the thunderous sound of the single shot that felled the monster. Hardcastle stretched out a hand to assist his friend off the floor. When Mark rose to his feet, he stared his best friend in the eye and finally allowed the walls that he built around his heart to crumble like a sand castle. He released a guttural moan and sobbed like never before. The judge wrapped his massive arms around him and whispered, "It's all over now, Son. You're safe. You're free."