MUSINGS ON THE ONE LEFT BEHIND

By AEIU

The phone had been ringing nonstop for the past two hours. No sooner did they hang it up from a demanding question from a member of the press or the congratulations from a friend or associate then they had to pick it up again. With every passing minute, the unbelievable became more believable; ex-Judge Milton C. Hardcastle had been placed on the short list for a nomination to the United States Supreme Court.

"Un-friggen-believable, Judge" said Mark McCormick, his excitement almost palpable, as he finally took the phone off the hook for the night. "I can't believe we're going to Washington D.C.! We got so much to do before we go. God, I've never been to D.C. Do you think we'll have any time to do some sightseeing? I've always wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial or the Smithsonian."

"Calm down, McCormick," Hardcastle said with a grin as he watched the grown man turn into a five year old before his eyes. "I'm sure we'll have time to see some of the sights but remember we're not going down there as tourists."

"That's right," said McCormick with some awe in his voce before his smile burst into full bloom. "You've been nominated for the Supreme Court. You're going to be hobnobbing in high society. We'll probably be invited to the White House. My God! I'm going to meet the president. I got to call my buddy and see if I can borrow his suit."

Unbidden, an image suddenly appeared in Hardcastle's mind. He could see himself standing in a long reception line shaking the president's hand as he explained his opinions on urgent court matters while on his right stood a star struck and stuttering McCormick with gaped mouth in a suit too small wearing dirty tennis shoes. He could see the president's amused smile as he asked if that was the guest he had brought to this historical occasion.

He shook himself out of the strange reverie and refocused on Mark's happy face. "We'll probably be leaving tomorrow. If it doesn't fit, don't worry about it and we'll rent one when we get there."

"Don't worry, Judge," laughed McCormick. "I'll look like a million bucks. It might be counterfeit million bucks but it will be so close no one will be able to tell the difference. I got to pack." McCormick turned and sprinted from the room to get ready for their big trip.

Hardcastle smiled indulgently. The kid would have to curb some of his enthusiasm before they got to Washington. They were going to have to play it cool and sophisticated if he was going to prove himself among all the old money and connection-heavy professional politicians and hanger-ons.

"Gosh, the Supreme Court," Hardcastle thought. I wish Elizabeth was alive to see this. She always said it was possible but I just laughed it off. Now, one day, I could even be made the Head Justice.

Hardcastle leaned back in his chair and dreamed of the changes he could make as a Supreme Court Justice just as he had done as a young boy when he had first decided that he wanted to be a judge. The harsh sound of the telephone brought him out of his dream and back into reality.

"Dang fool kid must have made his call and forgot to keep it off the hook. Better make this the last call of the night and go to bed; tomorrow is going to be a busy day."

"Hello, Judge Hardcastle here."

"Hello, Milton," said Judge Gault on the other end of the line. "I hear congratulations are in order. I never thought I'd see this day."

"I'll just bet you didn't," Hardcastle thought and then said, "It's enough honor just to be considered for such a distinguished position."

"I'm sure you've got Justice Humble to thank for that. He always did have a blind spot where you were concerned."

"Listen Gault," Hardcastle said as he began to get annoyed, "they don't just nominate anyone for this seat so if you're just calling to get rid of your sour grapes you can hang up this phone right now."

Gault chuckled, "You're going to have to watch your temper when you get up there, Milt. There are a lot of people who are going to be watching and judging everything that you say. And that's just during the initial process. It will be a lot more intense if they should happen to actually give you the nomination. You're a long shot at best and saying the wrong thing to the wrong reporter will only get you sent back that much faster."

"I know how to handle myself in front of the press."

"Sure you do. What are you going to do with that charge of yours when you're in Washington?"

"What do you mean what am I going to do with him? He's coming with me."

Gault openly laughed. "That's priceless. I can just imagine the two of you up there. The press will love it. Maybe he can give a counterpoint to all of your decisions or peddle his story about his life with the judge beneath the baseball cap."

"What are you talking about?"

"Come on, Milt. You can't tell me he agrees with all of your decisions. Suppose they ask him how he feels about his own conviction?"

Hardcastle paused as he considered the statement. He knew McCormick would not do anything deliberately to hurt his chances at securing the nomination but he did have strong feelings about being sentenced to two years in jail for taking a car that he had paid for but foolishly had registered under his ex-girlfriend's name.

"Even if they don't ask him about that," Gault continued. "There are bound to be a whole bunch of questions about the car he stole from Cody Martin; like why he never went to trial or was, at least, brought up on parole violations. And there will certainly questions about the whole legality of his odd situation you've got him in.

"What situation?" Hardcastle demanded. McCormick's parole was a good decision with plenty of precedence."

"I'm not saying it wasn't," Gault said not attempting to hide his amusement. "But I'm sure that there are several groups which might feel his civil rights are being violated and others that will claim you're soft on crime. Face it; you're going into this fight with an albatross around your neck."

"Don't worry about us."

"Oh, I'm not worried. I'm sure with your charm and McCormick's tact; I'll be seeing you both real soon. Good luck. You'll need it."

Hardcastle hung up the phone without making a response. He had never liked Gault; not the first time that his wife had introduced him to the man or the last time when Gault had McCormick arrested after a robbery which occurred during a poker game. He had always gotten the impression that the man was looking down his nose at him as someone who didn't belong as a judge or Elizabeth's husband. He had never let what that snob thought bother him and he wasn't planning on starting now.

"Except," Hardcastle's traitorous mind said, "he does have a point about McCormick. He is always letting his mouth run away with him. Except for a few times as a race car driver, he's never really dealt with the press. He's not going to be ready for a group of reporters who are trying to get him to say the wrong thing so they can get a cheap headline. He'll probably say the wrong thing, and put his foot in his mouth. And that will make me look bad.

Gaul's right. I'm a dark horse in the race but if a runt of a horse can win the Oak Royal Race then I have a chance at getting this nomination. But one mistake can cost me everything. I've got to be careful; watch what I say and watch what McCormick says, or see that he doesn't get a chance to say it."

Even as he contemplated all the things which could derail his nomination, he thought about how happy Mark was for his good fortune and how excited he was for a chance to go to Washington and watch this big moment in his friend's life.

"What' wrong with me?" thought Hardcastle to himself. "McCormick's not going to do anything to embarrass me. How can I even be thinking about asking him not to go?"

XXXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle slept fitfully as numerous dreams kept assaulting his mind. They were different but still the same. He would be successfully fielding a difficult question from a press corps which hung on his every word until McCormick cracked some joke about high speed chases and breaking into the police compound lot, McCormick asking the other nominees their opinions about sentencing a man for stealing his own car, McCormick punching someone out who had asked too personal of a question, McCormick caught in a compromising position with the president's daughter, etc. All of them ended the same with McCormick apologizing profusely as the nomination was withdrawn.

It was true that he had always believed in speaking his mind but he knew enough about politic to know you had to play your cards close to your chest and be careful about stepping on too many people's toes. A seat of the Supreme Court was a political fight and it was a prize worth making some compromises for. The question was what or who was to be compromised.

McCormick just did not have the life experiences and glib tongue to give answers that were both meaningful while being tactful. When pushed into a corner, he would get defensive or sarcastic. He would be raw meat to a ravenous press corps looking for a new angle; a chink in the judge's armor which could result in the loss of the battle before the fight began. It wasn't that he thought the kid was an embarrassment but there were aspects of his life which could be difficult to explain.

Hardcastle was troubled when he woke up. It was like his mind was sending him a message of what his future might hold if he made the wrong decision. Plus there was the question of what winning the nomination would mean to McCormick's own future. He hoped his friend realized that he would do everything in his power to ensure the successfully completion of his California parole but could, and would, McCormick unconsciously want to sabotage the nomination to ensure things stayed the same.

It wasn't like there was any real reason for McCormick to accompany him to Washington. There were probably enough chores on the estate to keep the man busy until he got back. He could even temper his decision by showing how much he trusted McCormick by not having anyone check up on him while he was alone on the estate. But would that be enough to mitigate the message that there was no room for him in the life of a potential Supreme Court Justice?

"Come on, Judge. Up and at 'em!" yelled McCormick from outside of the bedroom. The car they're sending will be here at eleven and the press is going to want to set up on the lawn. I got your suit laid out in the guest room."

A wave of shame engulfed Hardcastle. "He's happy for me. How can I even be thinking about asking him to stay behind?"

As the judge walked into the guest room, he saw his best suit, the one McCormick had cleaned recently, laid out and ready for him to put on. McCormick was standing near it as he compared two ties with the same intensity as a professor studying the Rosetta Stone. He finally made a decision and placed the winning tie next to the suit.

Hardcastle had to admit that McCormick did look like a million dollar in the suit and tie he was wearing. He looked inch for inch like a successful young professional. "Looking good, McCormick."

"You like it?" Mark asked obviously pleased with the compliment. "I really lucked out. My friend's girlfriend bought him this suit for his trial but he decided to skip bail and ran off with her sister. So she gave me the suit." McCormick checked his watch. "We'd better hurry up or we're going to have to break a couple speed laws to get to the airport and you're not going to want the press to get pictures of that."

Hardcastle faltered as McCormick bounded from the room. He didn't know if McCormick was serious or joking. But in the high stake games of Washington, all it would take is a simple small comment to bring his nomination to an abrupt end. And he had dreamed of it for too long to let it die without a fight. He knew what had to be done and he needed to tell McCormick before he changed his mind again.

It had been a difficult decision to make and part of him regretted having to make it even though he knew it was for the best. He went downstairs where McCormick was still excitedly chattering about the trip. He turned to face his friend and asked in his most casual voice, "What do you intend to do in Washington, kiddo?"

XXXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle sighed for the umpteenth time since he had settled into his seat for the first leg of his trip to Washington. He had felt great during the initial headiness of making his way through the throng of reporters and fielding their questions but now he had spent forty-five minutes on the plane and he wished he had someone to talk to.

The young businessman who had snatched up the seat, which became available after he had turned in McCormick's ticket, had his nose buried in a pile of papers making it obvious that he was not interested in starting a conversation. If McCormick were there he would have a word for word critique of his Q and A with the reporters. It would be amusing and honest. He could always count on McCormick for his honesty. And when they were done with that, he would be able to relax as McCormick excitedly chittered about all the fun they would have once they reached their destination.

Sometimes it was just comforting to hear a familiar voice in an unfamiliar situation. It remained him that there was someone watching his back. There had been a long period when he had to live without that comforting feeling but it returned, almost immediately, after he had brought the smart mouth ex-con into his life.

Instead he had plenty of time to go over their hurried goodbyes and think back on the hurt look in McCormick's eyes. It would have been better if McCormick had been angry but instead he had been understanding and accepting of the decision to leave him behind. McCormick had put on a brave face, sincerely wished him luck, and plucked the old dirty baseball cap from his head so he would look more professional in front of the press.

McCormick had been watching his back, like he always had. Even though he felt he was being told that he was only good enough to mow lawns or be a punching bag by two bit criminals; not good enough to even be seen by the press corps. Hardcastle worried it might have been something McCormick had been told in the past by other people. Hardcastle knew it wasn't true but he couldn't deny it had been implied in the decision not to take McCormick with him to Washington. Hardcastle sighed and wondered when he had become the sort of man to abandon his friends.

As he sat in the plane, Hardcastle changed his mind again. McCormick was smart, good looking and could be the soul of discretion. Why should he be ashamed to be seen with him or admit that they knew each other? It wasn't like his unique parole program was a deep secret that wouldn't come out if he did get the nomination. He might as well bring it out in the open now.

Despite his bravado and dreams, he knew his nomination was a long shot. All he was doing was making himself and his friend miserable. So much that it might cause a permanent rift between the two of them. He didn't want that and he intended to fix the problem he had created.

Hardcastle got on the phone as soon as the plane landed at its first lay-over. It only took a few minutes to purchase another ticket for Washington and have it waiting for McCormick at the airport.

Unfortunately he had less luck trying to reach McCormick to tell him the news. He had tried several times until he had been forced to abandon his task and get on the plane. There was no answer at the house. A stray thought entered his head that McCormick had taken this opportunity to go on the run but it was quickly dismisses. He realized that it was more likely that he was throwing himself into the list of chores that had been left to do. After all hadn't he been told that was the sum of his worth? Hardcastle swore however long it took, he was going to get McCormick to Washington.

XXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle had been in Washington DC for several hours and his frustrations continued to mount. His mood somewhere between angry and worried. He slammed down the phone after another unsuccessful attempt to contact his unresponsive charge. After staring at the telephone for a few minutes, he picked it up and reluctantly dialed another number.

"Harper residence," answered Lieutenant Frank Harper with the Los Angeles Police Department. "How can I help you?"

"Hey Frank. This is Milt."

"Milt? What are you doing calling me? I thought you'd be knee-deep in soirees and interviews. How's Washington treating you?"

"It's not as glamorous as you'd think," admitted Hardcastle reluctantly. "I was met in the airport by a handler and rushed to the hotel. I got my first cocktail party tonight when they're going to bring all the nominees together to meet the press."

"So what's up?"

"I left McCormick at the house and I haven't been able to get ahold of him since I left."

"McCormick? Isn't he the newest guy in your rehabilitation program? Do you think he ran off? I can get an APB out on him."

"No don't do that. I don't think he's run off but he might be mad at me for making him stay behind or there might have been an accident at the house. You two haven't met so I want you to find some excuse to go over there and see if he's okay."

"Find an excuse to go over there? You do know that he's on parole and you're his parole officer?"

"Yes, Frank, I know that. But I told him that I trusted him to be alone at the house and I wouldn't put it past him if this isn't some sort of test to see if I meant it. So if you can just drive by and tell him that you're looking for some lost kid or a complaint about loud noises or something, check to see if he's okay and then get back with me."

"Okay but what if he's not there?"

"Check around with the hospitals and things. He's always tripping over his own feet," said Hardcastle as he considered McCormick being alone and hurt in an accident. "That guy can get into more trouble than a mouse playing with catnip."

"But what if he's gone?" Harper stressed.

"He's not gone."

"Milt."

"If he's gone, I'll cross that bridge when I get to it but he's not gone."

"Okay, Milt, you are the boss. Right?" Harper answered sounding both amused and skeptical.

"Thanks, Frank. I owe you one."

Hardcastle hung-up the phone and began to don his jogging clothes.

"Dagnabit, McCormick, why are you always making things so difficult?" Hardcastle thought. He hoped he would feel better after a quick jog. Running always helped him think and he had a lot of thinking to do. He was sure that McCormick was at the house, probably pouting and feeling sorry for himself, but there was a possibility that he had gotten hurt or some criminal from the past with a grudge had come looking for revenge. It had happened once before and it could happen again.

He had hoped that McCormick would be able to fly down and join him in Washington. It was looking less and less like a possibility but it would be McCormick's own fault for refusing to answer the telephone. He had done all he could and now he needed to concentrate on the reason he had been called to the capitol. And to do that he needed to clear his head.

His mind was a swirl of thoughts as he began to run; thoughts about McCormick, his nomination, his dreams of being a Supreme Court Justice, his mission to bring to justice the criminals that had slipped between the cracks, and all the changes and future changes in his life. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that it took him a second glance before he realized the man talking to him had a gun.

XXXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle's face did not betray any fear as he waited for a chance to free himself from the kidnappers. It was clear that this was no random crime. These were professionals who had been sent to kill him; all they needed was a secluded spot to finish the job. He didn't know who they were, who had sent them or why someone wanted him dead. No one had noticed the kidnapping and no one would notice he was missing until it was too late. Hardcastle hated to admit it but things looked bleak.

As his eyes scanned the landscape, he saw a splash of red dart in the rear view mirror.

"Gee that looks like McCormick's car," thought Hardcastle. "I hope he'll be alright if I don't get out of this."

The red car continued racing behind them until even the kidnappers noticed it. The man with the gun ordered the driver to speed up and loose the tail but it was harder than it looked as the vehicle stayed behind them with a determined tenacity.

"Couldn't be," thought Hardcastle as he stole another look back at their pursuer. "Just wishful thinking. It's too bad we didn't get a chance to talk again. There were somethings I really wanted to say. Strange how much that car looks like the Coyote."

He kept his eye glued on the red car as it inched ever closer.

"Well I'll be," thought Hardcastle as his face broke out in a wide smile, "it's McCormick. It's going to be alright"

And suddenly he wasn't worried anymore.

XXXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle tried not to fidget as he sat in the luxurious Captain's Office of the Washington DC Police Station. The local police were at a loss of how to handle the unique situation which had been thrown in their laps. The responding officers had been called to handle two cars driving recklessly which resulted in a crash and alleged shots being fired. When they arrived they learned that one of the participants was a nominee to the Supreme Court who had been kidnapped, in broad daylight, in front of a high class security hotel which housed dignitaries and foreign ambassadors. Further he had been rescued by an unarmed citizen without injury to anyone. Said citizen would have been the hero of the hour until it was discovered that he was a California parolee who did not have permission to have traveled out of state. All in all, an embarrassment to the city and a tricky situation in a town that was famous for them.

Despite Hardcastle's assurances to the police that the out of state travel had been approved by him, albeit retroactively, the station captain thought the investigation was potential too high profile not to ensure all aspects had been investigated and fully verified. As such, McCormick had been placed into holding to answer additional questions while all the I's were dotted and the T's were crossed. Not quite arrested but not free to leave.

Hardcastle was torn as to his own feelings about McCormick's actions. On one hand he was glad the man was here and it had to be considered a small miracle that he showed up at the right time to thwart the kidnapping. On the other hand, McCormick had broken parole rules, speed limit laws, and specific instructions not to come. He would have to let him know that such behavior was unacceptable, no matter the outcome. Hardcastle knew he had to lay the law down and make him understand that he couldn't go around running off half-cocked without thinking through the consequences.

"Judge Hardcastle," a young police sergeant called from the door, "we're done with Mr. McCormick. If you'll follow me."

"Well, it's about time," griped Hardcastle as he got up to follow the sergeant.

"We needed to talk with Mr. Dalem to verify Mr. McCormick's status. Everything checked out and the captain was able to keep some of these details out of the official report. We've got his statement and he should be signing out in a few minutes. Though you might want to feed him.

"What?"

"Nothing," the sergeant grinned, "he kinda mentioned he was hungry."

"Leave it to McCormick to be facing parole revocation and be thinking of his stomach," thought Hardcastle.

When they entered the holding area, the police sergeant signaled for two uniformed officer to help the judge before he turned and left the room.

"Mr. McCormick is coming up now," said one of the officers as he tried to suppress a smile. "You might want to feed him."

Hardcastle was about to respond when McCormick came through the door.

He flashed the Hardcastle a jaunty grin. "Gee, Judge, I've been waiting forever. I guess a Supreme Court Judge doesn't have as much pull as I thought," he quipped.

"I don't see what you're so happy about, McCormick. You're…"

Growl. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It was loud enough to stop Hardcastle's chain of thought, and cause both officers to snicker at the shared joke, while McCormick manfully pretended not to have heard anything.

"Come on," said Hardcastle as he lightly grabbed McCormick's arm. "Let's get out of here." As he took the man's arm and hustled him out of the room another loud growl was emitted from Mark's stomach.

Once they got onto the sidewalk, Hardcastle turned him so they were standing face to face. "Okay, McCormick," demanded Hardcastle, "what do you have to say for yourself?"

"Um, you're welcome for saving your life?" McCormick said nervously as his stomach growled again.

"When's the last time you ate?"

"I had a few candy bars somewhere in South Carolina. Gee, you save a shoe-in for Supreme Court Judge and the police won't even get you a sandwich?" McCormick shook his head at the unfairity of the situation.

"You haven't eaten anything but candy bars since you started out here, have you?"

"I had some sandwiches before I left," McCormick grudgingly admitted while his stomach growled again.

"Oh for the love of… Come on, get in the car and let's get you something to eat before someone calls the dog catcher on that growling stomach of yours."

XXXXXXXXXX

Hardcastle looked on with eyes of wonder as they left the trendy Washington buffet restaurant. Once again he was amazed at how much food someone so skinny could eat at one time. The meal had started out tense but once McCormick seemed sure they weren't going to discuss the kidnapping or his unannounced appearance, he had relaxed and allowed his appetite free rein. Hardcastle was sure he heard the manager breathe a sigh of relief when McCormick finally indicated he was full.

"There's another restaurant that going to regret being an all-you-can eat place with you in town," Hardcastle said as he climbed into the Coyote. He had commandeered to keys after seeing McCormick's eyes start to droop.

"Thanks, judge," McCormick said as he patted his now silent stomach. I hadn't realized how hungry I was."

"I'm glad you got a good meal because now we need to talk about that fool-hearted stunt you pulled. Now I appreciate that you were able to help me out but you had no business driving out here. I gave you specific orders to stay at the house and you broke your parole agreement by coming out here. Not to mention how many driving violation you probably broke driving out here so fast. And I don't even want to talk about how dangerous it was for to do it with no sleep or decent food. Why would you do something so stupid?"

As he turned to face his companion sitting next to him, he realized the only answer he was going to get was a soft snore as McCormick nestled into the seat had fallen asleep.

As he started the car, Hardcastle looked over at his friend and muttered, "Yeah, I missed you too, kid."

THE END