WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY
As consciousness began to slowly seep into Mark McCormick's mind, he thought,"Oh no, not again." Now waking up is always a good thing; however, waking up from being unconscious has to be on the bad side of good. And even that has levels. Waking up after being unconscious for a minute or two in a familiar place surrounded by concerned family and friends was not too bad. Waking up after a longer time lying in a hard hospital bed surrounded by grim-faced nurses and doctors was worse. And if you had the patented McCormick-style of good-bad luck, you woke up after an undetermined amount of time in a strange place restrained, and surrounded by scary-looking guys who would like to see you never wake up. As McCormick lay on the cold floor and tried to move his restrained arms; he realized that his luck was running true to form.
McCormick turned onto his back and tried to sit up. As he slowly brought up his head, he noted that his hands were cuffed in front of him. His first thought was of escape. But the room was spinning in a way which made the bile begin to bubble in his stomach. McCormick realized that there would not be any big escape attempt at this time. Instead, he laid back on the floor, closed his eyes and tried to remember how he had gotten into this particular mess.
Earlier that morning:
It was another beautiful day in Los Angeles and Hardcastle's favorite ex-con was stretched out, shirtless, in his favorite old pair of cut-off shorts, soaking in the sun. After a particularly hard game of early morning gorilla basketball, and with several hours of yard work and school work planned for the afternoon, McCormick was taking a deserved rest while Hardcastle harassed California's finest for awhile.
Actually, with the foul mood Hardcastle and been in for the past couple of weeks, it was a pleasure to have him off the estate. Heck, it was a pleasure to do yard work and be out of his sight. And all because Hardcastle's other ex-con had managed to get under his skin for a third time.
News that J. J. Beal had filed an appeal on his recent conviction had Hardcastle annoyed. Finding out that Beal had a good case for making a successful appeal made him angry. Discovering that the appeal was based on one police officer falsifying evidence and another officer altering documentation to cover up the false evidence left him mad enough for people to be worrying about the physical safety of said officers. Hardcastle had spent a good two hours hollering about shoddy police work and officers taking short cuts in their work. And that if Beal was able to escape his full punishment, it was an insult to the every law abiding citizen in the nation all the way back to George Washington. Hardcastle swore that Beal would only win the appeal over his dead body.
McCormick grimaced as he thought back to when he made his initial mistake of trying to calm Hardcastle down. He had pointed out that there had been a lot of evidence gathered from the multiple crime scene left behind by Beal. During the collections of the fingerprints left by Beal in the Corvette, an officer had failed to log them into the evidence room. He had left them in an unsecured desk for several days. The chain of evidence had been broken. When he had discovered the collected prints, he had compounded the problem by having his buddy in the evidence room falsify the date that the evidence had been turned in. Now Beal and his attorney wanted the fingerprints and everything recovered from the Corvette thrown out as fruit from the poisoned tree.
Even a first year law student could see that the prints were likely to be thrown out as evidence. But so what? There were multiple people who had seen Beal take the car. The car would have been searched as a recovered vehicle, so anything found in the car could still be used as legitimate evidence. Beal could win the skirmish but lose the war.
McCormick remembered the cold look that Hardcastle had given him. Hardcastle had informed him that his police, in his city, had let him and its citizens down. Now the District Attorney was talking about dropping the grand theft auto charges against Beal. He had claimed they needed to protect the reputation of the police and save the city the cost of an appeal. The District Attorney had wanted to surrender before the first round had even been fired. Beal had been flown back to Los Angles to have the appeal heard. Back in the county jail which had held him over two years ago. Back in his city, to try to give justice one last black eye. Beal had thrown down his gauntlet and Hardcastle was determined to take the challenge.
Shaking his head, McCormick thought how Hardcastle refused to admit when the fight was lost. No references to obscure legal precedents or bluster was going to change the facts. And Hardcastle was going to have to realize that Beal might have to spend 98 years in jail instead of 100 years. But the thought of Beal not being sentenced for taking the Corvette had made Hardcastle angry. Angry at the police, angry at the DA, angry at the weather, the birds, the trees, the flowers, and his live-in slave. For the past week, it had been mutterings, gorilla basketballs that had gotten too hard core, and an inability to be pleased at anything Mark said or did. It was hard not to take it personally. He hoped that with the appeal now scheduled to start, life would return to normal.
For the umpteenth time, McCormick thought that everyone was missing the main point. He had even tried to broach the idea to Frank; but everyone was more interested in the police officers and the falsified evidence and nobody was asking the other questions. J. J. Beal, as everyone felt obligated to tell him, was a very smart man. Someone who had a reason for everything that he did. A master planner. So why this appeal and why now? Other than the non- inconsequential pleasure of annoying Hardcastle, Beal had to know that they were talking about a small part of a very long sentence. Why go to all the trouble? And how had he even found out about the falsified evidence? He had to have a partner somewhere. McCormick couldn't help but think that the appeal was just a small step in a larger plan. If Hardcastle ever calmed down enough to talk about it; he would try to bring it up again. But now it was time to work on an even tan.
Stretched out on the lounge chair, McCormick began to drift into a light sleep when a hand reached out to his shoulder and gave him a light shake.
The rough voice said, "Time to go McCormick."
"Jeez, Hardcase. I'm just taking a short break," McCormick said with a slight whine in his voice. Blocking the sun with his right arm, McCormick looked up. But it wasn't the gruff face of his friend; instead it was the smug smile of J. J. Beal. McCormick tried to sit up, only to be roughly pushed back into the chair by Beal. Allowing himself to roll with the push, McCormick used the motion to roll out of the chair and onto the cement on the other side of Beal.
"What the hell are you doing here?" McCormick said as he rose to his feet prepared for a fight.
"Take him," Beal said with a faint chuckle at what he considered McCormick's less than impressive resistance.
A large meaty hand reached out and steel-like fingers roughly dug themselves into McCormick's shoulder and pulled him up. McCormick felt himself effortlessly spun around as a fist was struck deep into his stomach. If not for the man's iron grip, McCormick was sure he would have dropped to ground. The man wrapped his right arm around McCormick's neck cutting off oxygen and blood. McCormick tried to shout for help but was finding it difficult to even breathe. Through squinted watering eyes, McCormick watched as Beal slowly began to walk towards him.
"Now we can do this the easy way or you can make it difficult," Beal said as he pulled gauze and a small brown bottle from his pocket. "But I think your new friend Sal, here, would prefer the hard way." Beal soaked the gauze and began to lift it to McCormick's face.
McCormick tried to struggle within the giant man's arm but it was no use. His kicks and swings just seemed to amuse the man.
"This punk ain't no trouble," Sal laughed as he lifted McCormick off the ground and tightened the grip across his neck. McCormick's face turned red as he gasped for air. He went slack and hung like a rag doll in the giant's grip.
"You did it too hard. Let him go," Beal ordered.
Sal loosened his arm and had casually watched as McCormick dropped to the ground.
"Knew he was a light-weight," Beal sneered as he prodded McCormick with his foot. "He's out cold."
"You want I should cut him a little?" Sal said as he pulled out a small knife.
"No, I told you that we need him alive. Just grab the cuffs."
"Yeah, but if you leave a little blood, it lets people know that you're serious. Shakes 'em up."
Beal paused and considered Sal's words. "You're a smart man," Beal said with a smile.
Beal reached down to pick up McCormick. But McCormick took that opportunity to spring into action. He pushed his feet quickly against the ground, and raised his head to slam into Beal's chin.
"Damn!" Beal said as the blow to his chin drove him back.
McCormick knew it was a lost cause but he wasn't going to go down to Beal without a fight. He grabbed Beal's shoulders and lifted his knee straight into Beal's groin. His face lit into a satisfied grin as he saw the pain in Beal's watering eyes. "I'm not the lightweight," McCormick sneered.
"Get him!" Beal shouted to the amused Sal. Sal raised his fist and plowed it straight into McCormick's face. He dropped to the ground. The last thing he heard was Beal's curses and Sal's laughter as he fell into unconsciousness.
"I guess he showed you," Sal said with a grin. "He's got you singing soprano. Want me to cut him now?" Sal bent down on one knee and brought his knife down to McCormick.
"No, I got a better idea. Something that will really shake up the old man," Beal said as he pulled out a gun.
McCormick didn't hear the crack of the gun or offer any resistance as he was cuffed and placed into the trunk of the waiting car.
"Jackass," mumbled Milton C. Hardcastle as he drove towards his home after an unsuccessful afternoon with the District Attorney. He had gone to the meeting to give the benefit of his legal mind and personal experience with Beal, but they had tried to treat him like a hysterical housewife.
Everyone was more worried about the falsified evidence and the cover-up than about Beal getting way with grand theft auto. They thought it was better to cover-up the cover-up then let anyone question police procedures. But justice didn't work in the dark. If the officers broke procedures then it needed to be known and the problem fixed.
The D.A. thought Beal was just a two-bit con who got lucky, found a loophole, and was trying to jerk the chains of justice. He reminded Hardcastle that even if they dropped one charge, the rest of the charges were enough to keep Beal locked up for the rest of his life. But that had been until he saw the cold look in Hardcastle's eyes. Not while there was a breath in his body or a legal book in his hand would Beal serve one day less than his full sentence.
"Nice to know I still got it," smirked Hardcastle. "Not that it works on everyone."
He could already hear McCormick whining about how Beal could get away with stealing the Corvette while he went to jail for taking his own car.
With that thought, Hardcastle's eyes glanced over at the prime cut steaks sitting in the seat beside him. He sighed as he thought of McCormick. He hoped the steaks would be enough of an apology.
He knew that he was letting his temper get the better of him. But where Beal and the Corvette were concerned, he couldn't help it. Letting Beal escape punishment for taking the Corvette was like Cody taking the Coyote. And McCormick knew that and understood the anger.
McCormick had been trying to ride out the storm, but even the kid had his limits. Hardcastle thought back to the morning basketball game. It had been after the second sharp elbow in the gut and third deliberate trip that McCormick had grabbed the ball and walked off the court. No amount of sneers or insults could get him back on the court. He just mumbled something about the repossessing Hell's Angels' motorcycles as a safer line of work and disappeared into the gatehouse. Playing the martyr, McCormick had not responded to the call for breakfast; he just announced that he was going to do the lawn and left. But it was too beautiful of a day and if he knew his ex-con, he bet that McCormick was already goofing off at the pool. Well, let him. All that could be done about Beal was being done. And hopefully the newly motivated D.A. would get to send Beal back to San Quentin with his tail between his legs.
"What the…" Hardcastle said as he drove up to Gull's Way. The gate to the estate was ajar. Hardcastle slowly stopped his truck, got out, and examined the gate.
"Not forced," mused Hardcastle as a sick feeling began to form in his stomach. McCormick had insisted upon a new alarm system after the last revenge seeker had broken onto the estate. He was constantly reminding Hardcastle to use the new system, even if they were both just resting at the estate. McCormick wouldn't be so careless. Not now.
"Beal!" thought Hardcastle. He walked back to his truck and pulled Millie from the glove box. Hardcastle drove onto the estate looking for any signs of a possible attack. He got out of the truck, holding his gun in front of him. He scanned the horizon but could not see any signs of life.
"McCormick!" Hardcastle yelled as he walked around the house. "Where are you?" Not seeing anyone, he headed to the back of the house.
"Oh God," thought Hardcastle as he first spotted the crumbled figure by the pool. Heedless of a possible trap, he advanced towards the figure.
"Not him," Hardcastle sighed in relief as he saw the figure was too large to be McCormick. He didn't recognize the man. He saw the piece of paper fluttering under the dead man's body. Pulling it loose, he read the message.
"Didn't take the car this time. Mark said goodbye. Be in touch."
Lowering the gun, Hardcastle realized that he had been too late. Once again, Beal had been too fast and too clever. This time he was going to use McCormick for his revenge. Behind him, Hardcastle heard the phone begin to ring. Swallowing the dread which had risen in his chest, he brought the receiver to his ear.
"This is Milton Hardcastle," he said answering the phone.
"Milt! I've been trying to get a hold of you," said Lt. Frank Harper, in a rush. "Beal's escaped from county."
"How?" asked Hardcastle.
"No one knows. They're still investigating," said Harper with a touch of disgust in his voice. "One minute, he was locked up and the next he had a gun. He and a local thug grabbed a hostage and forced their way out."
"How's the hostage?"
"Wounded, but he'll live. I know that you and Mark won't like it, but these guys are dangerous. I'm sending a police car out there."
Looking at the dead man on the ground, Hardcastle said, "It's too late. They've already been here."
Harper paused, "Mark?"
"Beal's got him," Hardcastle said with a weary voice. "But he left his partner. You'd better get down here." Hardcastle hung up the phone and sat on the closest chair. Many scenarios ran through his mind, many possible plans and possible outcomes. But he could do nothing but wait. Without any information, the next move would have to Beal's.
Though it had its amusing moments, Beal was getting bored waiting for McCormick to wake up. Part one of the plan was done and it was time to start part two. But before he would allow it to begin, he wanted to make sure his partner was too committed to the plan back out. Cautiously, he squatted next to McCormick and prodded him with the muzzle of the gun.
"Come on, B-Team. It's time to wake up."
McCormick groaned and turned onto his back. "What?" he asked looking through the gun and straight at Beal.
Beal stood up and motioned the gun toward a ratty old couch in the center of the room. With some difficulty, McCormick bent his legs under him and struggled to his feet. His muscles were sore and his movements were slow but Beal did not look like he was in the mood to be kept waiting long. As he walked to the couch, his eyes darted around the room, looking for any signs of the ape who had hit him. But they were alone. He sat on the couch, facing Beal and the open door. He considered rushing at Beal and trying to make a break for the door, but he realized that there was probably a nasty surprise waiting there.
With a malicious grin on his face, Beal walked around the couch until he was behind McCormick. He brought his mouth next to McCormick's ear and said, "I think it's time you met my partner."
Beal looked up and shouted, "Come on in."
McCormick was trying to maintain a level of nonchalance but he could not stop his mouth from dropping open in surprise when he saw the new player in the game. "Sandy?"
Sandy Knight, ex-police officer, stood in front of the two men. He looked over to Beal and said with a bored tone, "He's seen me. Are you happy now?"
"Ecstatic," answered Beal. "No backing out now."
Straightening the sleeve of his buttoned-down shirt, Knight said, "I thought it was already too late, when you shot the guard. I'm in this until the end."
"What are you doing here with Beal?" asked McCormick, finally realizing this was not some strange sick joke.
"Flagrant necessity," answered Knight looking at him with a mixture of contempt and hate. "I have to commit a small evil to prevent a larger evil from happening."
"What could possibly justify teaming up with an escaped convict who tried to kill Milt?" said McCormick, wondering what had happened to the man who was Hardcastle's friend.
"Saving a dear old friend from a master conman who's planning on killing him after robbing him blind," said Knight coldly.
Cuff or no cuffs, Beal or no Beal - McCormick was not going to let Knight get away with an accusation like that. He rose ready to fight. But Beal grabbed both shoulders and pushed him back onto the couch. McCormick didn't need to see Beal to know he was amused. If it wasn't such a dangerous situation, he wasn't sure if he wouldn't be laughing at the absurdity of Knight's accusation.
Remembering the nightmare when he had been forced to kill Weed Randall Weed to save Sandy's life while Hardcastle lay near death in the hospital, he looked back at Knight. "I saved your life," McCormick reminded him.
Knight walked over to McCormick and roughly slapped his face. "You stole my life! Did you think that I wouldn't figure it out? You set me up. You set us all up."
McCormick's mouth dropped open, again, as Knight continued his rant.
"I should've figured it out, when you said you knew Weed. But you were too cunning. Made me think it was my idea to re-open the case. What was it? Were you scared that Milt was finally beginning to listen to me and see you for the con, you are.? Is that why you decided to cut your losses by killing him?"
"I'm not the one that shot him!" shouted McCormick as Beal chuckled. "Weed did!"
"But you're the one who got him the gun," explained Knight. "That's why you didn't go with me to get Weed. You needed to make sure that the job had been done right. And when you saw that it hadn't and Milt was going to live, you had to go back and get rid of the witnesses. That's why Weed didn't kill you. You were his partner. But you made a mistake. You weren't able to kill me and I'll see you never hurt Milt again."
"You're crazy," said McCormick shaking his head.
Knight visibly forced himself back to calm and turned a cool eye to McCormick, "Did you know that he has been visiting with me all along? He even pulled a few strings to get me an early release and get re-established."
"Well, Milt's a great guy. I'm the one that told him that he should look you up," McCormick answered with a lie. "I knew you'd have a tough time."
"We've been talking about teaming up. He's ready for a change; he just doesn't want to admit his mistake," said Knight as he watched McCormick's reaction.
"Never happen," said McCormick cockily. "He didn't want you then and he won't want you now."
"We'll see," said Knight. "Soon he'll learn the truth about you and I'll be back where I belong. I've got to go; Milt will be waiting for me." With that Knight smoothly walked from the room, leaving the dumbfounded McCormick behind with Beal.
McCormick turned back to look at Beal. "You know he's crazy?"
"Ain't we all," said Beal as he circled to the front of McCormick and pulled him to his feet. He marched McCormick to the one window in the room.
McCormick looked out and down. He could see that the room was raised above the tree line. And there were a lot of trees. He figured they had brought him to an abandoned ranger's post. McCormick felt the muzzle of the gun brought to his temple.
"Now the way I see it," explained Beal, "you have some slight use as a hostage if things start going wrong. Otherwise it's just as easy to kill you now. There's only one door out and it's going to be locked. And it's a long way to the ground. Out there, you won't get far without a shirt and shoes," he said gesturing to McCormick's bare feet. "The more you cooperate, the easier it will be on you."
"You knowKnight's planning on killing you," said McCormick trying to sow some dissension in the ranks. "He won't leave you alive to blackmail him."
"He can try," Beal said with a smile as he lowered the gun from McCormick's head.
"You are planning to blackmail him, aren't you?"
"Of course," said Beal. "The way I figure it, if the old man had explained all the benefits of the job, I'd be the one riding shotgun with him. I'd be living the good life instead of you. Just waiting to cash in on the jackass's will. I'm just getting what's owed to me."
"And what about me?" asked McCormick.
Beal turned them to face the center of the room. "You? You got food and water," he said gesturing toward the refrigerator. "Something to work on," as he gestured to McCormick's cuffed hands. "I even brought your school books so you don't fall too far behind. You got all that, and four days."
As Beal started to leave the room, he stopped and brought his knee sharply into McCormick's groin. "And some payback."
McCormick turned and shifted slightly to his right, so he took the brunt of the blow to his inner thigh, but the pain was still intense enough to drop him to his knees. He remained quiet as Beal walked from the room.
It was time to consider the angles.
At Gull's Way, the investigation was moving slowly. Photographs had been taken. Statements had been given. And questions had been asked, but no one knew more than they had when they started.
"We've identified the man at the pool as Salvador Marinette," said Harper, reading from his notes. "He was in county with Beal. We don't have any information that they had ever met before that. It looks like their working together was a spur of the moment thing. Marinette was an enforcer for hire."
"I don't have anything on him in the files," said Hardcastle. "Nothing that ties him and Beal together. What about the gun? Any idea how he got it?"
Harper sighed, "We've got it narrowed down to three possible rooms where he could have gotten it out. But we don't know how long it had been there or who put it there. We're looking at everyone who had access."
"What about visitors or his lawyer?"
"No visitors and his lawyer was appointed by the court. The man has a good reputation but we're checking him out."
"Any women hanging around?" asked Hardcastle, remembering Beal's history with women who fell for his glib line.
Frank sighed again and sat back into the chair, "We're still asking questions, but that looks like a dead end. There's just not enough to work with. No signs of forced entry, no fingerprints, no tire treads, no nothing. The note is the only thing that ties it to Beal and that's not even signed."
"He wants something," mused Hardcastle. "He didn't go to all this trouble; not to get something. Sooner or later, he'll have to contact us and maybe we can get a clue. I just hope he's not going to hurt McCormick."
"Beal has to realize that Mark's worth more to him alive than dead."
At that moment, there was a quiet knock on the door of the den. Harper and Hardcastle looked up as Officer James Graham entered the room.
"Excuse me," apologized Officer Graham. "But we got a guy out here who says he has information about Beal. He says he knows you, Judge."
Hardcastle nodded, "Send him in."
A minute later, Sandy Knight rushed into the room and over to Hardcastle. "Milt! Are you okay?" Sandy gushed. "I came as soon as I got the call. I am so sorry about Mark."
"Sandy? What are you doing here?" asked Hardcastle, echoing the question in Harper's head.
"I got a call from that man, Beal. I don't know why he called me. He must have seen us together. He told me that he had a message for you." Sandy paused as if trying to find the strength to say the words out loud. "He said he'd kill Mark unless you got him a half million dollars. He said that he'd make Mark suffer. He's only giving you four days to get the money."
"What a minute," said Harper as he approached Knight. "Let's back up. Why would Beal call you?"
Knight appeared to have just noticed that Harper was in the room. He brought his head down and stole a quick glance at Hardcastle. "I guess you wouldn't have known. Ever since I got out, I've been meeting with Milt. He's been helping me get started. "
"I heard you've been doing some advocacy work," Harper opened the question to both Knight and Hardcastle. "But what does that have to do with Beal?"
"After Sandy was released, he was having a hard time," explained Hardcastle. "I made a few inquiries, got him an interview and he did the rest. We've been meeting pretty regularly. Beal's partner must have been watching and saw us together."
"Meeting here at the estate?" asked Harper raising his eyebrow slightly.
"A few times, but mostly in town," said Hardcastle. He felt as if he had to defend his actions but he didn't know why.
"But why call Sandy?" repeated Harper.
Sandy shrugged. "Beal probably realized that Milt would contact the police and they'd have the phone tapped. No one would think to tap my phone."
"Okay, Knight. I'm going to have to get your statement." Harper said gesturing for Officer Graham to come back into the room. "You know the drill. We'll need all the details that you can remember."
"I know," said Knight following Officer Graham from the room. "Mark's life depends on it."
As Knight left the room, Lieutenant Harper turned back to face Hardcastle and gazed at him speculatively.
"No. McCormick didn't know I was meeting with Knight," answered Hardcastle before the question could be asked. "He was so upset after killing Weed that I didn't see any reason to bring all that up."
"How long have you been meeting with Knight?"
"A little short of six months."
"Did you ever notice any suspicious person in the area?" asked Harper. He wondered how long Beal had been planning his escape.
"No. But McCormick said that he thought he saw some strange cars hanging around Malibu and the coast. I thought he was just jumping at shadows but it looks like he might've been right."
"So how do you want to play this? Can you get the money?"
"Yeah. But not tonight and not in one day. It'll probably take a couple of days to raise that kind of money. Beal probably knows that. That's why he's not calling for four days. He's not giving us anything to work with. Unless we find out something from the jail, we've got no leads."
"I'll let you know what we find," said Harper as he rose to leave. "But you shouldn't delude yourself that this is all about money. Beal's dangerous. I'm going to leave a couple of officers here, in case he does decide to come back."
Before Hardcastle could protest, Knight entered the room and said, "That won't be necessary. I'll stay here with him."
"Sandy, I don't want you doing that. What about your job?" Hardcastle protested.
Sandy walked over to Hardcastle and placed his hand on the judge's arm as if to give comfort. "I can take a leave of absence. You shouldn't be alone. Mark wouldn't want you to be alone."
Hardcastle couldn't say no to the earnest plea in Sandy's eyes. "O.K. You can stay in the guest room." Hardcastle knew he should have felt more warmth and gratitude at the concern and love in Knight's eyes, but his fear for McCormick's safety drowned out those feelings. "You can get your things and stay," he sighed.
"I already have them in the car. Come on, I'll walk you out, Lieutenant," said Knight as he headed out of the room.
Harper walked with Knight to the front door. He turned to face Knight and started to speak.
"Don't worry Lieutenant," Knight interrupted. "I'll watch him. I'll keep him safe."
As he looking into Knight's eye, Harper believed him. "If you hear anything from Beal, I want you to call me immediately."
"I don't think Beal will call anytime soon. But when he does, you'll know."
As Harper turned and left, he failed to notice the small satisfied smile that spread across Knight's face. Knight shut the door and whispered, "Soon everything will be like it was supposed to be."
McCormick looked over what had been the result of his past few hours of work. After being left alone, he had searched the room to find anything which could help his escape. The first thirty minutes had been spent bending out and sharpening curtain hooks until he had been able to fashion a make-shift lock pick. It had taken several long minutes to force the reluctant lock open. Once the cuffs had been removed he had tossed them out of the open window and had hid several of the sharpened picks throughout the room.
"That should keep my hands free," Mark thought. "Unless they switch to rope."
McCormick realized the simplicity of a locked room is what made it an effective trap. There was one open window high above the ground. Climbing down would be a difficult feat. There was one door to the room which was secured with a hasp and lock on the outside of the door. It would be easy to force the door open but impossible to do it without alerting the one or two men who waited on the other side. The room contained a couch, a blanket, various small pieces of furniture, a radio, a sink, a bathroom, and a refrigerator. The refrigerator contained a collection of sandwiches. It had appeared that they planned to have as little contact with their prisoner as possible.
McCormick walked over to the door and began to bang on it with his fist. "Hey!" he shouted. "It's getting cold in here. How about another blanket?" Not getting any response, he shouted louder and pounded the door harder.
It was only a moment before, he heard Beal shout from the other side of the door. "Move to the center of the room where I can see you."
McCormick moved to the center of the room then and watched as Beal entered. He held the gun in his right hand and did not appear surprised that McCormick had removed the cuffs.
"Here's how it's going to work, B-Team," Beal said. "You got everything that you need in here for the next few days. You make trouble and you lose your stuff. Make too much trouble and I decide I don't need you anymore. Understand?"
McCormick nodded that he understood.
Beal sneered, "Good, I knew that Hardcase wouldn't keep someone who wasn't trainable. Now throw me the blanket."
McCormick threw the blanket to Beal and watched him leave.
Over the next few hours he lost the radio, half of his sandwiches, and finally received Beal's fist in his stomach. The final provocation had been a calculated risk but he was fairly sure that he and Beal were the only people in building. Otherwise the blow would have been delivered by the goon.
It had been a hard long night. It was barely 3 o'clock as Hardcastle began to bounce the basketball across the court. There was no need to be quiet as there was no one in the gatehouse to wake. The police had collected the little available evidence and left with promises to keep him notified of any new leads. Sandy was asleep in one of the many guest rooms in main house.
Hardcastle was worried about McCormick. He hoped McCormick was still alive and that Beal hadn't decided to take revenge against an innocent man. He wondered if the last angry orders that he had said to McCormick would be the last words he would ever have a chance to say to his friend. He realized that he had failed McCormick by not recognizing that Beal was a threat. But failure was something that Hardcastle was very familiar with.
He knew he wasn't an easy man to live with. His temper and pride were hard for anyone to take. He was controlling and arrogantly thought that he was always in control. But too often he'd been proven wrong. He'd been wrong when he'd refused to help his son, Tommy, when he got into trouble with the law. He'd forced his boy to choose between the army or jail. His son had chosen the army and it had cost him his life. Had he also been wrong when he forced a young grieving car thief to choose between jail and becoming an old man's personal Tonto? McCormick had chosen to be Tonto and now that choice could cost another life. And he had been wrong about Sandy.
Hardcastle considered his and Sandy's history. Sandy was the orphaned son of his partner. He had promised to look after the boy at his partner's death bed. And he had. The young boy had been a frequent guest at Gull's Way. He was so smart, so polite, so helpful, so perfect. It had been easy to make comparison between the young Mister Knight and his own son's more colorful antics. Those comparisons had not stopped as the boys grew older. They only got more vocal, and pointed over time. On more than one occasion, Tommy had accused him of wishing that Sandy was his real son. It wasn't true but he wondered if the jealousy he had fostered had fueled Tommy's rebellion which led to their estrangement and, eventually, to the young man's death.
But he hadn't learned his lesson. He had insisted that McCormick and Sandy become friends, hoping that McCormick would learn to adopt Sandy's finer qualities. He had known about their mutual dislike of each other and he had known of their unspoken competition. Both had been vying for his attention and approval.
He was ashamed to admit it but he had secretly enjoyed their battle for his favor. But it had ended so wrong. One had nearly lost his freedom and was forced to live with the knowledge that he had taken a life. The other had lost everything that he had worked for his entire life and was forced to start again.
He had failed Sandy. He had always held him up to an ideal that others had to live up to. More of an example than a real person. Sandy was supposed to be the good one, the perfect one, the one always in control. But Sandy had flaws. If he had spent more time with Sandy as a friend, he might have learned more about the person under the façade of perfection. He might have helped Sandy overcome his hidden demons. He had failed Sandy and failed his dead partner.
That was why he had betrayed one of his strongest principles. He had pulled strings for Sandy. Nothing major, but he had let it be known to the right people that he felt justice would not be served by making an example of the young officer. Prison time had to be served but it had been served in a low security facility for a short period of time. Sandy had been forced to resign from his beloved police force but there were other jobs available to someone with the right references, and he had been able to provide the right references. He had betrayed his principles and, in some ways, he had felt that he had betrayed McCormick.
McCormick had never talked about Weed or Sandy. He had never asked about the trial, or the sentence. It was a period of his life that he seemed anxious to forget. And given his own culpability, Hardcastle was more than willing to comply.
The inquiry from the Board of Parole could have resulted in McCormick's parole being revoked, but it had never been likely. All of the police reports had portrayed him as a victim of circumstances who had acted heroically to save the life of a police officer who had lost control.
Sandy's fate had been less sure. He faced jail, disgrace, and a questionable future. Sandy had needed him worse than he had ever needed him in the past. So he had made his choice. There was no reason to talk about it with McCormick as it would not affect his life.
After being released from prison, Sandy had still needed him, as a friend and mentor. But this time he had learned his lesson. He had not forced the two men to be together. He had never talked about one to the other or compared them in anyway. He did not want them to feel that he was choosing one over the other. They had become two separate parts of his life. But now, because of his enemy, they were depending on each other for survival. Hardcastle couldn't help but feel he had failed them again
"Oh, here you are," said Knight walking up to the basketball court dressed in an ironed t-shirt and shorts. "I know how playing ball can help clear your mind. Want to play some one-on-one?"
"Sure," said Hardcastle vowing that if given the chance he would do right by both friends. He tossed the ball to Sandy and they began to play.
McCormick held the weapon tightly in both hands. He gave one quick glance to the man bleeding on the ground before staring at the mad man with gun.. "Weed. Put the gun down," McCormick begged. "I'll shoot. I swear, I will."
But Weed only laughed. He neither believed nor cared that McCormick might use the gun. He advanced on Sandy and dared McCormick to shoot.
"Man, don't make me do this!" McCormick cried. He could feel the hate which radiated from Weed as he stood over Sandy. However Sandy's eyes were not on Weed, instead he stared up at McCormick with contempt as if convinced Hardcastle had given his gun to the wrong man.
McCormick could see the wild look in Weed's eyes as his fingers began to tightening around the trigger. Unable to watch, McCormick closed his eyes and fired the gun. The explosion seemed to echo forever, when he opened his eyes, it was Weed that lay on the ground. The spark of life had begun to fade from his eyes.
McCormick knelt beside Weed. He hated Weed for what he had done to Hardcastle but was horrified that he had taken the man's life. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the dying man.
Weed's eyes opened and seemed to study McCormick. Recognition appeared in his eyes as Weed realized his time had run out. "I know you, he said. "You're the funny guy."
McCormick wanted to throw the gun as far as he could but it seemed welded onto his hand. He could hear the sirens of the police cars as they arrived on the scene. The silence was suddenly filled with shouts and cries. So much noise that McCormick lifted his hands against his ears. He wanted to stop the babbling sounds. "No, no, no…." he began to shout.
"No!" McCormick gave one last shout as sat up in the bed. He looked around and saw he was no longer in that cursed parking lot. His body was drenched in sweat as he tried to remember where he was.
"McCormick. What's wrong?" Hardcastle asked as he approached the cot.
"Judge," McCormick laughed. You're okay. You're here." He rose to hug his friend, glad that it had only been a dream.
"Look," Hardcastle said without looking McCormick in the eye. "I'm sorry about how this all turned out. But I want you to know that I'm not giving up. I'm going to get you out of here."
"What are you talking about?" McCormick asked in confusion.
"The boardrevoking your parole over Weed's death," Hardcastle explained.
McCormick looked down and saw the familiar but hated prison denim which now clothed his body. "But it was self defense. He'd have killed me. He'd have killed Sandy."
Hardcastle looked away, again, as if he couldn't find the words to explain why justice had failed in this instance. "I'll fix it, kiddo. I promise."
There was a knock on the door. Both men turned and watched as Sandy Knight entered the room and walked over to Hardcastle. "Milt, we've got to go. Harper still wants to meet with us over the auto theft ring."
"I know," answered Hardcastle. "I'll see you next week. I won't forget." Hardcastle turned to leave as McCormick stared in dumbfounded shock.
The two men walked out of the cell side by side, like they belonged together. Just before he left, Knight turned. He smiled and gave McCormick a smile and a mock salute. McCormick could see the familiar key chain dangling from his fingers.
"My car!" shouted McCormick getting to his feet. "Hardcase! You gave him the Coyote. Bring 'em back, Knight! Bring 'em back or I'll kill you!"
McCormick woke for a second time in a sweat. This time he shivered as a cool breeze from the open window blew across his shirtless body. "A dream," he muttered. "Only a dream."
McCormick sank back onto the couch and shivered, both from the dream and the coolness in the room. Without the blanket, he had been forced to use the curtain for warmth but it provided little comfort. He tried to think about escape but his mind kept straying to Hardcastle and Sandy. He knew Hardcastle had always admired and respected Sandy. That faith had been sorely tested following the Weed incident. But he had never given Hardcastle a chance to talk about it.
McCormick sighed as thought back on the nightmarish few weeks. Hardcastle lying near death in the hospital room, being forced to shoot Weed, facing possible arrest for homicide, the Board of Parole inquiry which might have sent him back to prison even if he had done the right thing, and watching his friend trying to reclaim his health and life. Once it was over, he had suppressed the memories into a dark corner in the back of his mind. He would have been happy never to speak of Sandy or Weed for the rest of his life.
It didn't bother him that Hardcastle had been meeting with Sandy. He had expected it. Hardcastle was not the kind of person who turned his back on a friend. But why hadn't Hardcastle told him about the meetings? Now that he was going to law school, Hardcastle had agreed to cut back on the crime fighting. But was Hardcastle content with this change in their lives?
Maybe Hardcastle wanted to get back to being a full time Lone Ranger again? Maybe he had talked to Sandy about being the new Tonto? It shouldn't hurt because McCormick knew that he had made his own choice to grow up and find a life other than as a crime fighter's sidekick. But he couldn't deny that it did.
Knight was crazy and wanted to take his place even if it meant murder. Beal was dangerous and wanted to destroy Hardcastle. McCormick knew they had to be stopped. But as he lay in the cold locked room, shirtless and shoeless, he didn't see how.
"Come on, Hardcastle," McCormick prayed. "You're smarter than them. Get me out of here."
The day went by too slowly for Hardcastle's liking. It was the worst part of any operation; the preparing and the waiting. Without McCormick it was even worse. He had to admit that Sandy had tried his best.
The early morning basketball game had been more subdued than he would have normally played. It could almost have been called polite. Hardcastle had won by a few points but had suspected that Sandy had allowed him to score a few of the points by not putting up much of a defense. Afterward Sandy had prepared a breakfast which contained all of his favorites. And all of it had been prepared perfectly.
Immediately after breakfast, Sandy had begun cleaning the dishes without being told. In fact, Hardcastle had protested but Sandy had told him that he needed to focus on getting McCormick back. Afterward there had been long hours at his bank and investment firm with numerous meetings with numerous faceless executives who had tried to convince him not to remove any money from his accounts. Through it all, there had been Sandy giving his silent support. At one point, Sandy had even argued with a particularly obnoxious bank executive about possible criminal penalties for refusing to release a depositor's money in a timely manner. After they had arranged for the money, they had gone to the police station to check on the investigation.
At the police station, Sandy had been greeted as a returning hero. It had been good to see that he had not been forgotten. A couple of officers who had worked with him in the past had taken him into the break room to talk about the old times. Even though Sandy had been happy to receive such a welcome, he was hesitant about leaving. It had taken Hardcastle several minutes to convince him to go with his friends.
Hardcastle had felt relieved when he saw Sandy walking away. The constant hovering had been getting on his nerves but he couldn't find the words to say it to a man who was trying so hard to be there for him.
The meeting with Frank had not provided any new information. There had been no new leads on how Beal had gotten the gun or where he was holed up with McCormick. Frank had made some vague comments about some leads that might turn promising but had refused to be more specific. Sandy had returned and there had been small talk as he and Frank had caught up on all the things which had happened in the time since Sandy's arrest and release. Finally Hardcastle had been forced to admit that there was nothing else that they could be doing and they had headed back to Gull's Way. Sandy had grilled the steaks, while he had prepared some vegetables. Sandy had encouraged him to eat while he had moved his food around the plate. The night had ended with an old John Wayne movie which Sandy had sat through with rapt attention to the screen.
Hardcastle marveled how a day could seem so normal and abnormal at the same time. There were times that he would have sworn that it was McCormick by his side. But some comment, or rather lack of comment, would remind him that McCormick was gone. And every time, he had not been able to stop the feeling of disappointment. Finally he had bid Sandy goodnight and had headed up to his room, hoping that tomorrow they would find the answers that they were looking for.
As McCormick looked back at his first full day as Beal's prisoner, he was surprised that any day could be so boring. There was no movement or sound from the other side of the door that he had been able to hear. He spent the day alternating between sharpening the curtain hooks and trying to tear usable strips of cloth off of the back of the couch. It was slow going, using only his teeth and a semi-sharp object. He worried that the fraying fabric would not be able to hold his weight even if he doubled up on the strips and hoped that it would be able to hold him until he could climb down to the upper support beams of the station.
When his hands become tired, he read the books left behind by Beal. As a method to force a student to study, it was strongly successful. McCormick could not remember a time when he knew as much about the collection of evidence and was so thoroughly bored with the subject. He forced himself not to consider Beal or Sandy and to just focus on his escape. He knew that he would only get one shot. As McCormick considered his escape plan, he found himself drifting into a light sleep.
Sandy Knight sat on the couch while an inane old movie played on the television. He forced himself to remain awake, wanting to make sure that his friend was deep into sleep before moving forward with his plan. It had been a long hard day. It had hurt to see Milt so worried about the ex-con who had wormed his way into Milt's affections. There had been times during the day that he had wanted to blurt out the truth, just to take the worry out of his friend's eyes. But sometimes you had to be cruel to be kind. The sooner the deed was done, the sooner Milt could go back to the life that he was meant to live.
Sandy leaned back into the couch and allowed himself to imagine everything that the future held for him and his friend. First there was the worry. Milt was still too strongly under McCormick's influence to see the hardened criminal that lay under the glib exterior.
Then would come the anger. Anger over the death of the ex-con would fuel the judge's passion for justice. Beal might be thinking about blackmail, but the same anger which had led Milt to hunt down the thief the first time would cause him to hunt the man down again for the death of McCormick. And he would be by Milt's side every step of the way. Fueling and nurturing the anger when necessary, he would be there for the final confrontation between Beal and Milt. And he would ensure that Beal did not walk away. Another threat to Milt's well-being eliminated.
Then would come the grieving. He didn't doubt that Milt would grieve for McCormick. And he would be there, offering support and friendship. He would guide Milt back to a life with meaning. A life with dignity and honor. Perhaps as a law professor.
Eventually Milt would be able to see the way that McCormick had manipulated and used him. There would be shame and embarrassment, but they would never talk about it. But deep down, Milt would know what had happened. Then there would be the unspoken gratitude for having the courage and the wits to do what had to be done.
He would move to the estate so he could be there for Milt. Standing by his side, as close as family, as close as son and father. Watching each other's back and ready to protect each other from outside threats. The way it was supposed to have been until McCormick had taken his place.
Deciding that it was late enough, Sandy grabbed the small gym bag that he had left in the hall closet and quietly slipped out of the house. This was a critical part of the plan. He knew that his friend was a man of strong opinions. Once he made his mind up, it was hard to get him to change. He would not want to believe that McCormick had been anything other than what he believed him to be. But a subtle hand could change that.
Sandy smiled as he entered the gatehouse; the extra key was right where Milt had always left it. He pulled out a small flashlight and shined it downward to the floor. He grimaced at the mess left in the beautiful home, another sign that McCormick held too much sway over Milt. When he, eventually, took over the gatehouse, he would make sure that it was always kept immaculate to show his gratitude and respect.
Sandy entered the bedroom suite and placed the gym bag onto the bed. He opened the bag and pulled out a small stash of marijuana cigarettes and a mirror which contained traces of cocaine. Too many drugs would make Milt suspicious. But later on, after McCormick's death, when the gatehouse would be closed and cleaned, they would find the drugs. Milt might deny the evidence in front of own eyes. But the suspicion would be planted. There would be other hints that would be planted along the way which would help Milt see the truth about McCormick. Sometimes the truth needed a hand to be heard.
Sandy pulled the top cabinet drawer open and looked for an open spot to plant the drugs. His eyes spotted two small black velvet boxes. He recognized the name of a local jewelry shop embossed on the boxes. He knew they contained something expensive. Something too expensive for the likes of McCormick.
"My, my, McCormick," whispered Sandy under his breath. "What did you do to get these?"
Sandy hid the drugs and mirror in the drawer and pulled out the first box to study it closer. He opened the box and he saw the beautiful gold ID bracelet. The name 'Mark' was etched onto the bracelet. He turned it over and read the back. It said "Thanks. Love Mattie".
Sandy smirked. It was the kind of gift that a grateful older woman would give her young lover. Sandy decided the gift had to be from Judge Mattie Groves. She had always been a little too flirty for his taste. And always ready to sing McCormick's praises a little too loudly for there not to be some interest. He chuckled when he thought what McCormick would have had to done for such an expensive gift.
"There's no fool like an old fool," thought Sandy as he put the ID bracelet back in the drawer so Milt would be able to see how McCormick had exploited others around him.
He wondered if the second box contained another gift from Judge Groves or was it from another old fool who had been taken in by McCormick's charms. He opened the second box and saw an expensive watch. He was impressed by the obvious high quality of the piece. He turned the watch and read the inscription.
"Milt never used the word love," thought Sandy as he considered what it meant. Judge Groves had used the word love on the gift she had given her criminal lover and now Milt used the same word.
A flash of insight assaulted his mind as the implication of the gift became clear in to him. His mouth hung open as he momentarily forgot how to breathe. His knees turned to water as he collapsed unto the bed. No matter how he tried to turn it over in his mind, he could only find one explanation for the gift and its inscription.
He didn't want to believe it but the more he thought about it; the more sense it made. It explained so much. The hold that McCormick seemed to have over Milt. The liberties that Milt allowed an ex-con who should have been grateful just to be out of jail. This expensive gift and now a law degree. Now he understood.
A ruthless clever conman had found a grieving widower who had lost a son in Vietnam. Over time, the conman had wormed his way into the man's trust until one day the trap had been sprung. Whether through drugs, alcohol, or trickery; McCormick had seduced Hardcastle. Then appealing to the man's sense of honor and guilt; he had ensnared the man. There might be blackmail involved, or worse, he might've convinced Milt that it really was love. Milt had only ever used the word when he talked about his wife, Nancy. Now, somehow, Mark had convinced Milt they shared this feeling. He remembered the great love that Hardcastle had shared with his wife, Nancy. McCormick had perverted that word. Had perverted his friend. It was an old story made more vile by the fact it happened to someone as fine as Milton C. Hardcastle. Sandy knew he would have to help his friend back from this sickness and become a real man again
"You'll pay for this, McCormick," said Sandy as he put the watch into his pocket. He could not bear to let such a thing remain on the estate. He thought of a friendly pawn shop owner who would be able help him. For a few dollars, the man would predate a pawn slip to make it look like McCormick had pawned the gifts weeks ago. A hint that McCormick had pawned them for drug money would let Milt know how much McCormick valued his affection.
Sandy shut the drawer to the cabinet and slipped back into the main house. He climbed into bed and tried to sleep. But the thoughts which had invaded his mind since the discovery of the jewelry would not leave and sleep was a long time coming.
Sandy Knight drove down the highway in his blue Corvette. He had not wanted to admit it, but he was glad to get out of Gull's Way and away from Milt. The knowledge about Milt's and McCormick's relationship had shaken him to the core. It had been all that he could do to make polite conversation until he had found an excuse to leave the estate. It didn't help that Milt seemed relieved to have him gone.
Sandy sighed as he pushed more speed out of the car. He knew it wasn't true. Milt appreciated everything that he was doing for him. Milt was a good man.
"It's not his fault," Sandy said out loud.
Surely it was like a disease. McCormick had probably told him many sob stories about his pathetic life, and horror stories about his time in prison. Milt would've felt guilty and guilt made people do strange things.
He wondered when it had happened. During that month long trek through the woods of Oregon. That would have been a perfect time. Alone, together, and facing certain death. Or after Weed's attack on Milt when he was hurt and confused. Or the time that McCormick had been shot and near death. Milt would have felt particularly protective of the con.
He could picture the scene in his mind. McCormick would have been working on Milt for days, if not weeks. Probably claimed that he had been a straight man until Milt had sent him to prison. He would've told a story about being raped in prison and how the rape had changed him. Of course, McCormick would've claimed not to blame Milt for what had happened. But Milt would've felt responsible and would've wanted to help.
Then when Milt's defenses weredown, McCormick would've struck. He would've acted like a lost child reaching out for help and comfort and Milt would've responded. People like McCormick knew how to get other men to respond. McCormick would've talked about love and need until Milt believed it. He was too decent to be able to see the scam. Then one day it went too far and Milt was trapped. And all the time, McCormick was carrying on an affair with Groves and Lord knows, who else. He had made a fool out of Milt and he would pay.
Sandy looked down as his hands tight with white rage as they clutched the steering wheel. He eased his foot off of the accelerator and brought the car back to a legal speed. As he drove to the ranger's post, he realized that he had never hated anyone the way he hated Mark McCormick.
Beal sat back in the couch in the ranger station and lifted a beer in salute to his genius. It was the ability to take advantage of any situation which separated the winners from the losers. And he was a winner.
Not that there hadn't been some tough times. Like the first time he had run out on Hardcastle. If he had only known what the prize was, he'd have found a way to kowtow to that jackass. He hadn't been impressed the first time he met McCormick but he was impressed now.
A little bowing and scraping and you're living in the gatehouse. A little more and you've got the run of the estate. Next thing you're acting like the guy's son and he's buying you respectability. A law degree, no less. Probably gets the lion's share of the estate when the old guy croaks.
Beal sighed when he thought about what could have been his. But he smiled when he thought about what he was going to get. Five hundred thousand dollars. That would make up for a lot.
He knew that Knight was going to try and kill him after McCormick was dead. But he wasn't that easy to kill and he had his own plans. After Knight had his hooks into Hardcastle, he'd pay big bucks to hide his involvement in McCormick's murder. And once he squeezed as much as he could out of Knight, he'd see how much Hardcastle would pay to keep Knight out of prison. It would be a sweet moment when he told Hardcastle the truth about McCormick's death. The moment that would make everything worthwhile.
Beal knew what made him a winner was his ability to keep it cool and professional. Knight was running on emotion and that made him careless. That carelessness was going to make Beal a rich man.
Beal sat up as he heard the car skid to a stop below the station. He looked out and saw Knight storm out of the car. Beal walked to the desk, he turned on a small tape recorder, and pulled out a small gun.
"What the hell is he doing here?" Beal wondered as he prepared for trouble.
McCormick continued the long hard task of trying to cut usable cloth strips from the couch. He had pulled as much as he could off of the back and was now forced to work on the front. He knew he was lucky that Beal had not looked in. He had been twisting and tying the strips together and had formed a half-way decent rope. But when he dangled it out of the window, he saw that it was still too short to get him to the upper supports. He hoped he'd be able to figure out a way to use the curtains to make up those necessary last few feet.
McCormick looked up in shock as the door to the room was flung open. Sandy Knight stood in the door with his eyes blazing pure hate. Before McCormick could react, Sandy lunged at him and began mindlessly throwing his fists at his head and chest.
"You God damn filthy con," Sandy shouted. "How could you do that to him?"
Thrown to the floor, McCormick did not waste time trying to argue with Sandy as he tried to deflect the worse of the blows. Sandy straddled McCormick and continued the assault. He was like a hysterical beast but McCormick knew that his fury could do damage if it wasn't stopped soon.
"When?" Sandy screamed. "When did you crawl into his bed?"
As the meaning of Sandy's words became clear, McCormick found himself enraged. He planted his feet on the ground and lifted up his hips. He made a quick twist and knocked Sandy off. McCormick started to rise when he saw Beal come up from behind. Beal grabbed Sandy and pulled him away from the fracas. When Sandy attempted to rush back at McCormick, Beal pushed him to the ground. McCormick tried to take advantage of the situation but Beal raised the gun and coldly pointed it at McCormick's head.
"Stop, both of you!" he ordered.
Sandy slowly rose from the floor and shot a look of pure hatred at McCormick. "Shoot him," he said. "We don't need him any more."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" asked Beal, shooting a look at Knight, but keeping his gun aimed firmly at McCormick's head. "You went barreling past me like a maniac and now you want him dead before we got our money."
Sandy took deep breaths as he tried to calm down. "It wasn't enough to take the place of his son, you had to take the place of his wife, too?" he asked with a cold voice.
"You have completely lost your mind. If you say that again, you're going to be picking up your teeth," McCormick threatened.
"Have I?" sneered Knight. He reached into his pocket and threw the watch at McCormick. "Explain that!"
Picking up the watch, McCormick looked up and asked, "You've been in my room?"
"Milt's given me the run of the estate, con," Sandy smirked. "Now tell me how you got that watch."
McCormick knew he couldn't get a physical advantage over Knight. Not with Beal holding the gun. "Well, that's none of your business. That's between me and Milt." McCormick smirked back as the smile on Sandy's face evaporated.
"Who else?" Sandy asked in a cold voice.
McCormick forced the smirk to remain on his face. "Well that's for me to know. A gentleman never tells."
"I know about you and Judge Groves. How many others?" Sandy demanded. "Is there anyone you haven't slept with?"
McCormick leaned slightly forward and said with a confidential whisper. "What can I say? I'm a popular guy."
For a moment, Sandy looked as if he was ready to lunge at McCormick again. But Beal put his hand on the angry man's shoulder and pushed him toward the door. "Get outta here, Knight. I'll handle McCormick later."
As Sandy left, he gave one last glare at McCormick. McCormick stood straight with his arms across his chest and answered back with his cockiest grin. Only after the man left, did McCormick allow himself to relax. He turned to face Beal.
Beal looked down at the strips of cloth littered across the floor and shook his head.
"What were you going to do with these?" he asked. "Pick them up and toss them out the window."
McCormick was reluctant to throw away the results of so many hours of work but knew there was no choice. He gathered them up and tossed them over the side. He watched as they fluttered to the ground.
"I guess you found one thing you're better at than me," Beal said with a smirk as he walked out of the room.
As he heard the lock put back in place, McCormick sank to the ground and placed his head in his hands. "Now what?" he wondered.
In the outer room, Sandy straightened his tie and hair. He looked over at Beal. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I let him get to me. It won't happen again."
After waiting a few minutes, Sandy added. "When you do it, I want it to be long, painful and…" Sandy considered his next words, "and humiliating."
Beal smiled and nodded to Knight. "You're the boss."
Knight nodded back and walked out of the room. As the car pulled away, Beal pulled out the tape recorder. As he played back Sandy's words, his smile broadened as he considered his next move.
Hardcastle rubbed his eyes as he closed another of the case files littered across his desk. He had been trying to find a connection between Beal and anyone who had been recently been housed at the county jail. It had been a long shot but it was the only thing that he could think to do while he waited for Beal's next move.
Hardcastle stretched back in the chair and considered how quiet the house was. It was always quiet when McCormick wasn't around. It was a funny thing that the house seemed even quieter when Sandy was around. It seemed like the man was waiting for something. Hardcastle wanted to be grateful to him for the support but something about his actions felt wrong. Like he was back in front of the cameras making a scripted public statement.
Breakfast had been a case in point. Sandy said all of the right things but seemed tense, almost angry at times. He tried to find the source of the tension but Sandy kept insisting everything was fine. When he turned the conversation back to McCormick, Sandy almost pouted in disappointment. It seemed wrong to have to be concerned about Sandy's feelings when McCormick's life was in danger. It was like the competition between the two men had restarted. Hardcastle hated to admit it, but he had been a little grateful when Sandy had announced that he was going to try to get some information from some of his old street contacts. He had offered to go with him as back-up but had been refused. Maybe it was too much close quarters for too long. He knew Sandy was doing everything he could to help.
Hardcastle looked up when he heard the doorbell ring. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not heard the car drive up. He had given Sandy a key to the house so he knew that it would have to be someone else. Perhaps someone with news about McCormick.
Hardcastle walked to the door and was pleased that it was Lieutenant Harper. "Come on in, Frank."
Frank hesitated at the door and glanced around the interior of the room. "Is Sandy here?"
"Nah, he's talking to his contacts, trying to kick up a lead. Let's go in the den."
As Hardcastle walked towards the den, he knew something was wrong. There was a hesitancy in Frank's manner and he had not looked him in the eye since coming in the house.
Hardcastle clutched the desk as a wave of dizziness passed through his body. He knew what it was that Frank could not bring himself to say. They had been too late. Mark's body had been found. Shot and left in a shallow grave. His best friend had died a lonely death at the hand of a madman seeking revenge.
Frank went around the desk and grabbed Hardcastle to steady him. "Milt! Are you okay?"
"It's McCormick, isn't it?" Hardcastle forced himself to ask. "You've found him. He's dead."
"Geez, no Milt," Frank said as he helped his friend into a nearby chair. "It's not about Mark."
"Then what's it about?"
Frank steeled himself, looked Hardcastle in the eye and asked, "Is there anyway Sandy could have gotten the codes to your security system?'
Hardcastle considered the question and the reason for the question. "Yeah, he was here a few times. He would've seen me at the gate. Why?"
"After the Weed incident, when Sandy went to jail, he sent some letters to the warden. The warden didn't know what to do with them so he sent them to me. I didn't think there was any reason to bother you with them. But I think you should see them now," said Frank as he pulled a few letters from his jacket.
Hardcastle read the letters. He recognized the neat perfect handwriting but not the paranoid ravings of the man who had written the letters. The letters claimed that McCormick had been in a partnership with Weed. That Weed and McCormick had plotted to kill him so McCormick could get money from the estate. Sandy believed McCormick had gotten away with murder and attempted murder. He begged the warden to help stop McCormick before he tried again.
"How could he have thought such a thing about McCormick?" wondered Hardcastle.
"There's more," said Frank. "I've been doing some checking. The day before Beal escaped, Sandy was at the jail with one of the advocacy groups."
"But how could he have gotten a gun into the jail?"
Frank sighed. "He's an ex-cop who's been doing a lot of work at the jail. Sometimes the guards don't search as a close as they should. I know I've got witnesses that say he was at the jail but I can't find the paperwork where he signed in. None of the guards admit to having searched him when he came in."
"What else?" asked Hardcastle as he sensed Frank wasn't done.
"I think we might have a lead where Beal and McCormick are. Officer Gibson has been doing some security work at Balarosa Woods. He remembered Sandy from his days as a spokesman for the department. He said he's seen Sandy up there."
"Is he sure?"
"Yeah. I had him take a closer look at Sandy when he was at the station yesterday. Gibson made a positive ID. He said he remembered Sandy looked out of place in the woods. Just driving and walking around like he was looking for something. I checked the records and found Sandy bought one vehicle pass for the parks a few months ago. Last week, he bought another vehicle pass. It's possible he took Mark up there. But it's a big park and there's no proof."
Hardcastle considered what Frank had told him. He did not want to believe his friend could do such a thing. But he did not recognize the man who had written those damning letters from prison. He knew if he wanted to get McCormick back, he would have to follow up every lead and this was the only one available to him. If he was wrong, he would apologize later.
"We need a plan," said Hardcastle.
Sandy regretted what he had done at the ranger station. Originally he and Beal were supposed to have as little contact with McCormick as possible as it would reduce the chances the con had to escape, but he had let the man get to him. He had lost control and that could be a dangerous thing. It could cause him to make mistakes. Already he had left the watch at the station. He would have to retrieve it before they found McCormick's body. He would have to watch himself in the future. He hoped Beal would decide to take care of McCormick before they got the money. He was just disappointed that he wouldn't be there to see it.
As he pulled his car into the estate, he worked out the story he would tell Milt about his inability to find any leads. As Sandy walked towards the house, he realized it felt like home. He belonged here with Milt. Milt had made a very bad mistake with McCormick but when you cared for someone, you forgave them. Sandy forced away the images which had plagued him since last night and entered the home.
"Milt, I'm back. Where are you?"
"I'm in here," said Hardcastle from the den. "Did you have any luck?"
Sandy entered the den and was pleased to see Milt's welcoming smile. "I'm afraid not. No one has seen any sign of Beal or Mark."
"Well, I know you did your best," said Hardcastle as he looked Sandy over. "You look kinda tired. Did you get a chance to eat any lunch? I was just going to make myself a sandwich. Why don't I make you one?
"You don't have to make me anything, Milt. Why don't I make us a couple of sandwiches?"
"Because," said Hardcastle in a gently gruff voice. "You've been working hard to help me and I appreciate it. Why don't you sit down at the desk and take a look at the files. Maybe you'll see something I missed."
As Hardcastle walked out of the den, Sandy sat down at the desk and reverently reached out to the files. He knew Milt trusted him. Milt didn't let just anyone touch the files that he had worked so long to collect. Again he felt the rightness in the course that he had chosen. He knew that everything was going to work out for them.
Hardcastle allowed his fist to clench as he walked into the kitchen. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and choke that snake until he told what he had done to McCormick. When he had looked over Sandy, he had seen the scratches and bruises across the man's knuckles. It didn't take much imagination to guess who Sandy had hit.
Hardcastle brought the sandwiches and some beers into the den. He surprised Sandy by talking about old times instead of McCormick. Sandy was warmed by the conversation. They had been talking for nearly thirty minutes when the doorbell rang.
"I'll bet that's Frank," said Hardcastle. "He said he might have some news for us."
Sandy waited as Hardcastle brought Frank into the den. "What a minute, Frank," said Hardcastle. "I'm going to want Sandy to hear this."
Frank nodded a greeting at Sandy and continued. "Like I was saying, we've got a lead and I think it's a good one. A guy called in who said that he knows Beal and he saw him up in the woods. He was asking about a reward."
"Do you think it's any good?" asked Hardcastle as he ignored the worried look that briefly flashed in Sandy's eyes.
"I know the man," said Frank. "He knows Beal and he needs the money. I think it's legit."
"I want to go with you and talk to him. If the information is any good, I'll pay what he wants. Let's go."
Frank hesitated. "What about the ransom money? You're supposed to pick it up today. What if Beal calls early and wants to deal. I can talk with him."
Hardastle seemed to consider the suggestion. "I want to look in the man's eyes before I'll agree to give him anything." He looked over at Sandy. "I can have Sandy pick the money up."
"Sandy?!" questioned Frank as he looked over to the young ex-cop. "Milt, that's a lot of money. At least, let me send an officer with him."
"No!" said Sandy as he suddenly found his voice. "Beal's people might be watching the house. If he sees Milt leave, they'll follow Milt. He won't be interested in what I'm doing. If someone sees me with an officer, they'll get suspicious and might do something to Mark."
"Sandy's right," Milt agreed. "I trust him. He'll get the money and bring it back to the house. If we need it for ransom then we'll have it. But if your lead pans out, then he can join us for the arrest."
"Okay," said Harper. "We'll play it your way.
Sandy half-listened to Milt's instructions about the collection of the ransom money. At first, he couldn't believe that Beal had screwed up so badly. He would have to try to salvage the situation before it blew up in their faces. But as he considered the facts, he realized that he could turn them to his advantage.
While Milt and Harper were chasing their lead, he would collect the money and disappear. Later he would tell them that despite his best efforts, Beal had followed him. Once he had collected the money, Beal had kidnapped him and took the money. Beal had had plans to collect a second ransom. Beal had found one gun when he searched him but hadn't found a second gun that had hidden in his jacket. He'd gotten the drop on Beal and had been forced to shoot him. Unfortunately, Beal had already killed McCormick. But justice had been served with the death of Beal. The case would be closed. This time, he would be the hero.
Sandy thought that he could make the plan work. Beal would not be expecting him to come back so soon. When he saw the money, it would be easy to catch him unaware. Beal wouldn't expect him to be so ruthless and clever. But he would be the winner in this game. If Beal hadn't gotten around to killing McCormick, he would fix the situation. Later when he made his official statement, he would drop a hint or two that he was hiding something. A suggestion that McCormick had been less a prisoner and more Beal's partner. Eventually he would allow himself to be forced to admit that he had kept the secret to protect Milt from the truth about McCormick. Sandy took a deep breath. He knew he could make it work.
"Are you ready?," asked Hardastle.
Sandy smiled. "I'm ready."
Beal did not know how much time had gone by as he pondered Knight's words. He knew what Knight wanted him to do but it wasn't that easy. Guys like Knight didn't understand. There were things a man did in prison because there wasn't any other choice. It didn't mean anything. But if you did it outside of prison that was another issue. It had a different meaning. Beal thought back on his time in prison. He remembered watching the fresh meat being brought into the cells. Young guys who had never been in prison before. They were scared. He enjoyed introducing them to prison life; feeling their fear. He couldn't deny he'd gotten pleasure when he had forced them to submit, but still he hesitated.
Beal thought of Hardcastle and the others who had enjoyed McCormick's favors. Sandy had been surprised to find out the truth. But not him. He knew that they were all corrupt. As corrupt as he was. Only he was honest about it.
Still he found it hard to believe that Mister Law and Order was light in the loafers. When he thought about what Hardcastle had wanted from him when he got chosen to be the man's personal Tonto, Beal got angry. He was glad that he had stolen the Corvette. If he had had known what Hardcastle wanted, he'd have driven it off a cliff. He realized he owed Hardcastle more than a simple payback. Hardcastle had insulted his manhood.
Beal pondered his original plan. After the ransom money was spent and he had bled Knight for all he could get, he intended to present Hardcastle with the tape he had made. He knew Hardcastle and knew Hardcastle couldn't resist listening. He could imagine the shock the man would feel when he learned of Knight's betrayal and the horror when he heard McCormick being killed. He had always intended for McCormick's death to be painful but now there was something new to add.
What would Hardcastle think when he heard his boy-toy submitting to his enemy? That would be a great way to drive the knife into the man's gut.
Beal pictured the scene in his mind. He would start with the velvet touch. Go in with some beer to loosen him up. Offer him some sympathy and some hope. Let him know what he was expected to do. He knew McCormick wouldn't believe it but he'd play along and try to find a way to escape.
Beal smiled as he opened the chamber of his gun and dropped the bullets into the drawer. He stuck the weapon partially in his pants where the handle would be in reaching distance both to him and McCormick. McCormick would make a grab for the gun and he would let McCormick take it.
Beal took the other gun, the loaded gun, and stuck it in the back of his pants. Let McCormick have his moment of triumph when he thought he had the upper hand. It would be dashed once he realized he was holding an empty gun. He loved it when he saw the hope die in their eyes die.
Then would come the iron fist. McCormick would find out what happened when you didn't submit to your betters. McCormick would cooperate and all of it would be recorded. Beal grabbed the tape recorder and a couple of beers and headed into his prisoner's room.
"God, that hurt!" thought McCormick as he wiggled his fingers. He knew when he had hit the wall that it had been a pointless exercise in frustration. But for one moment he got to imagine that he was punching out that idiotic twerp so it had been worth it. He didn't know what sick delusion that madman had crawled out of. It was bad enough that Sandy thought he was the gigolo of the Los Angles Court System but to accuse him and Hardcastle of being lovers showed how crazy the man was. Just the thought that Sandy had pictured such a thing in his mind made him want to pound the man into oblivion.
Of course, Sandy couldn't have come barging in earlier when the make-shift rope was hidden or afterward when he had escaped. No, good old Sandy Knight had to come barging in when he had all of his rope laid out. Now his best bet for an escape had been thrown out the window and scattered to the wind. He was left with a back-up plan which included trying to climb down with nothing more than his bare hands. It didn't look like a safe bet, but it was all he had left.
McCormick bent down and picked up the watch that Sandy had thrown at him. He squeezed his hands around it and pulled what comfort he could from this reminder of a happier time. Hardcastle had given him the watch shortly after he had found out about law school. McCormick remembered how he'd smiled when he read the inscription. Hardcastle had gotten embarrassed and claimed the jeweler had made a mistake. He had even found the receipt which showed the inscription was supposed to be 'From Hardcastle'. McCormick knew that the word love was something that Hardcastle could never say. But he was glad he hadn't let Hardcastle take it back, even when the older man insisted he wanted to have the mistake corrected. It was a gift given from one good friend to another. He slipped it into his pocket. He didn't want to leave it behind for someone like Sandy or Beal. He walked to the window and contemplated the safest way to get to the ground.
A short while later McCormick turned as he heard the door open. "What do you want?" he asked as he watched Beal enter with beer and a recorder.
Beal placed the tape recorder and beer on a small table by the cushion-less couch. Beal turned on the recorder and gestured for McCormick to join him. "Come over here, B-Team. There's nothing for you out there."
McCormick cautiously walked over to the couch. He saw the gun stuck in the front of Beal's pants. He smelled a trap. As McCormick sat on the couch, Beal pulled up a wooden chair and sat so he was facing McCormick. He handed McCormick a beer and took a large swig from his own bottle. "Here's to you, B-Team."
"What does that mean?" asked McCormick as he took a small drink from his bottle.
"It means," explained Beal, "that I've been thinking about you and I decided that I feel sorry for you."
"Yeah. Your whole life has been nothing but almosts. You almost had a racing career. You almost won the prize money. You almost had Hardcastle's money. You almost had respectability. You almost had a chance to escape. I've got nothing against you. You're just a tool to get back at Hardcastle."
"Well, I'm glad I have your sympathy," McCormick said as he forced his body to appear to relax.
"Oh, you do. I even admire the way you got those judges eating out of your hand."
"Well, my popularity may have been exaggerated."
"It's too bad how this is going to end for you. Particularly when there might be another way out."
"What do you mean?" McCormick asked. He felt his skin crawl as he leaned forward and appeared interested in the Beal's offer. "What's the recorder for?"
"I was thinking that you might have some information you can share with me. Something I can use when the money runs low."
"Not much to tell. Nothing you'd be interested in."
"You'd be surprised what I'm interested in," Beal said with a leer. "I don't have to kill you to get back at Hardcastle. I've got room for a partner. Someone who has the right information. And someone who could provide a little fun might have his uses."
"Well, anyone can tell you that I'm no fun at all," said McCormick as he gauged the distance to the gun.
"I think you can be," said Beal as he leaned forward making the gun even more accessible.
Beal watched as McCormick's right hand darted out for the gun. He half turned toward McCormick's hand as if he was going to try to stop him.
McCormick used that moment to swing into action. The feint with the right hand had been a diversion. McCormick fisted his left hand and struck Beal on the exposed side of his neck. In perfect conditions, it could be considered deadly force. However seated and leaning forward, it served only to stun his attacker.
McCormick watched as Beal's eyes became unfocused. He knew that he would only have a few seconds for a follow up. McCormick grabbed the beer bottle and struck Beal on the right side of his head. Without waiting to see the reaction, he stood and hit Beal straight in the chin. Beal's eyes closed and he slumped to the floor.
McCormick knew he didn't have any time to congratulate himself. He quickly pulled the gun from the front of J.J.'s pants. A moment of triumph flashed in his eyes as he held the gun.
As he looked down at Beal, McCormick realized that something was wrong. The gun felt too light. He opened the chamber of the gun and groaned when he saw it was empty.
McCormick looked down at Beal. "No bullets?" he asked the unconscious man. "I can't believe you came in here with an empty gun." He heard the crumpled figure begin to groan and decided that he would need to escape before Beal woke.
McCormick ran out of the room. He saw the open lock in the hasp and quickly locked the door. He knew that the lock was too small to stop someone from forcing the door open but it would give him a little time. McCormick's eyes scanned the room but he did not see any anything he could use as a weapon. He decided that his best course of action was to hotwire Beal's car and make his escape.
As he was headed out of the room, he saw a phone. He almost cried in relief when he heard the dial tone. He tried calling Hardcastle and then Harper but both times he got their answering machines. He decided to waste a few precious minutes and call for other back-up. He dialed the dispatcher of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Hello, this the Los Angeles Police Department. What is the nature of your call?" asked a cool voice.
"My name is Mark McCormick," he said in a rush. " I was kidnapped by J. J. Beal. I need you to send some help."
"How do you spell McCormick?"
"That doesn't matter. I need you to call Lieutenant Frank Harper. Put a trace on this call."
"Lieutenant Harper is not available. Is there someone else who can help you?"
McCormick wanted to cry in frustration as he tried to get the emotionless woman to understand the seriousness of the call. There was a brief pause and he heard the woman began to speak.
"I have verified that there is a warrant on a J. J. Beal. He is considered armed and dangerous. I am sending a unit to your location. We will want you to stay on the phone until the officers arrive. What is your location?"
"I don't know," explained McCormick. "I have to go. I'll leave the phone off the hook. Just trace the call."
He could hear the woman calling for him to speak with her as he laid the phone on the desk. He ran out of the room and down the stairs. When he got outside, he was disappointed to see that there was no car. McCormick realized that another escape plan was gone. He considered his options.
Beal was unconscious in a locked room. But he could wake at any minute and the lock would not hold him for long. Beal knew where the bullets were and probably had another gun. The police were coming but Sandy could show up any minute and was probably armed, also. He was shirtless and shoeless but there had to be someone or something in the woods that could help him until the police arrived. McCormick hoped he made the right choice as he ran into the woods.
Beal woke with an aching head. He quickly jumped to his feet but hesitated as a wave of dizziness assaulted him. He savagely suppressed the pain when he saw his prisoner had escaped. He saw the empty gun laying on the floor. He reached behind him and pulled out the loaded gun.
"You're going to wish you'd cooperated," Beal muttered as he pressed against the locked door.
He gave the door a hard shove and it sprang open with a crash. He staggered into the main room and made his way to the desk. He knew without shoes, the man would not get far in the woods. He contemplated McCormick's short pain-filled future.
"Damn!" Beal cursed as he spotted the phone. "The cavalry's coming." He slammed the receiver back onto the phone. He ran down the stairs and looked for any signs of the escaped prisoner. Beal decided that it was time to cut his losses. His truck was hidden about a quarter mile from the station; if he saw McCormick while going to the truck, he'd get his revenge. If not then Mister Knight could explain things to the police. Beal started down the path when he saw Knight drive up.
Knight pulled the car up and rushed to Beal. He gave the gun in Beal's hand an anxious glance and said, "We've got to get McCormick out of here. You were spotted."
Beal considered this new turn of events. "What do you mean spotted?"
"The police got a call from someone who saw you up here. Milt and Harper are checking it out. We don't have much time. Get McCormick and let's go."
"Did you hear this person say they had seen me?"
"No. Harper came by and told Milt. We decided to split up. They're going to pick me up after they get the information."
Beal grinned as he realized that he wasn't the only person who had been duped. "They set you up. Hardcastle wouldn't stop to pick you up if he thought he knew where I was at. He'd come straight up here with guns blazing."
Sandy became quiet as he contemplated Beal's words. "That's not possible," he whispered. "Milt trusts me. He told me to get the money."
Beal's eyes narrowed as he glanced at the back seat of the car and saw the suitcase. "If they're not following you, they put a tracer in it," he sneered as he formed a new plan. "And just to make your day, McCormick's escaped."
"Escaped!" snapped Sandy. "How?"
"It doesn't matter how. What matters is that, any minute, half of the LAPD is going to come barreling in here and we don't have anything to bargain with."
Sandy reached behind his back and pulled out his hidden gun. "We've got to stop him. We can't let him get back to Milt."
"We'll split up. Find him and bring him back here."
Sandy nodded. He saw some freshly broken branches and went east into the woods. "I'll head this way," Sandy gestured. "You go to the west."
Beal watched as Sandy ran into the woods. "Sometimes it's just too easy," he thought. "Let Milt's boys fight it out. I've got the money."
Beal was pleased when he saw Sandy had left the keys in the ignition. Sandy had taken the south road to the station. Beal decided to drive away using the north road to avoid any rescue party. He pulled out the suitcase in the back seat. It appeared all the money had been collected. He dumped the money into the front seat and threw the suitcase towards the woods. Beal knew he would have to check for a tracer mixed in the money but now he had to escape. As he sat down, another wave of dizziness came over him. He realized that he would have to find a place to hole up before he got worse.
Sandy heard the car pull away from the station. He realized he had been betrayed. His plans for his future were ruined. But none of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered was to make sure McCormick never got his claws back into Milt. Even his own death would be worth that.
Hardcastle and Harper pulled up to the ranger station as Beal drove out. On the way through the woods, they had been notified by the dispatcher of the emergency call from McCormick. The call had been traced and nearby police were headed to the scene.
"That was Beal in Sandy's car!" Hardcastle exclaimed.
"Yeah," agreed Harper as he radioed the information out to the other officers. "But it looked like he was alone. We'd better check this out."
Hardcastle jumped out of the car the minute it stopped. Harper was right behind him. They ran to the station with their guns drawn. They quickly searched the station but did not see any sign of McCormick or Sandy.
"The dispatcher said McCormick had escaped and couldn't stay on the phone," Harper said..
"He might be somewhere hiding in the woods. We'd better go look for him."
"What about Sandy?" asked Harper.
"We can worry about him after we find McCormick."
Hardcastle and Harper ran into the woods and began calling for their missing friend.
McCormick felt like he had been stumbling through the woods for hours. It had been tough going. He knew he was leaving an easy trail to follow but he didn't have a choice. Every branch scratched against his exposed skin and every pointed rock dug itself into his feet. He wondered if he had made the wrong choice about leaving the station. He considered doubling back to see if it was safe.
He barely heard the shot being fired when he felt a burning sensation across his side. The impact caused him to stumble and fall to his knees. He stifled a cry of pain and turned to face his attacker.
"Stop right there, McCormick!" Sandy ordered. "You didn't think I'd let you get away, did you?"
Nearby they heard Hardcastle's distinctive voice call for McCormick. "That's the cavalry, Sandy," said McCormick with palpable relief in his voice. "It's over."
"It's over for you, McCormick," said Sandy as he moved closer for a better shot. "It really doesn't matter what happens to me. I owe Milt too much to leave him to you."
As Sandy raised the gun, Hardcastle burst into the clearing, his own gun raised and pointed at the ex-cop who had been his friend. "Drop it, Sandy!" he ordered.
"I'm sorry, Milt," Sandy said. "You don't understand now but one day you will. I'm doing this for you."
McCormick was struck by the farce of the situation. He had seen Sandy's crazed look before in Weed's eyes. It was like some horrible parody of those last minutes, except all the roles were being played by different people.
"I'm not going to tell you again, Sandy. Drop the gun!" Hardcastle said as he cocked his gun.
A sickeningly sweet smile appeared on Sandy's face as his finger began to tighten around the trigger.
"Noooo!" screamed McCormick as he launched himself out of his crouch and into Sandy. He heard a bullet whiz by but did not know who had fired the shot. He slammed into Sandy and knocked him to the ground. Sandy tried to fight back but it was a losing battle as McCormick began to mindlessly strike out at the man under him. Time had lost all meaning as he felt Sandy's resistance cease.
Hardcastle had frozen when he heard McCormick's shout and watched him attack Sandy. The bullet from Sandy's gun shot harmlessly into the woods. He saw Sandy had stopped fighting against McCormick's attack and moved towards McCormick.
"It's over, McCormick," said Hardcastle as he touched the young man's shoulder.
McCormick turned to look at his friend with a feral smile. "Over?" he asked.
"Yeah, let him up."
McCormick stopped and slowly got to his feet. The adrenaline drained from his body. He blinked as he tried to focus on his friend. "I don't feel so good."
McCormick felt himself sway and strong arms caught him before he hit the ground.
"Here I go again," he thought as he lost consciousness.
As consciousness slowly began to seep back into McCormick he decided to take an inventory of his circumstances. He determined that he was laying in a bed; an uncomfortable bed with a particularly hard mattress. His hands were unrestrained but there something that pulled against his left arm when he tried to move it. He nose was assaulted with the smell of disinfectant and medicine. He decided he had ended up in the hospital.
McCormick peeked cautiously open and saw Hardcastle sitting in a chair next to the bed. The older man pretended to be reading the paper while he watched the younger man from the corner of his eye.
"Hey," McCormick said with a smile. "We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Humph," Hardcastle said as he folded the paper. "I was wondering when you were going to decide to wake up. How're you feeling?"
"A little sore, a little tired, and a lot hungry. What's the damage?" McCormick asked as he gestured towards his body.
"Not too bad. No broken bones but the bullet grazed your side. A lotta of scratches and bruises. Your right knuckle's cracked. A touch of exposure and dehydration. That's why you got the IV drip. Otherwise stress, exhaustion, and a fever. The doctors say you can be doing yard work in a couple of days. The sun and fresh air will be good for you."
"No doubt," said McCormick amused. "Did you get Beal?"
"Yeah. Seems he had a concussion. Passed out about a mile from the station. Didn't put up any fight. He's headed back to the big house."
"What about Sandy?"
"He's in the prison infirmary. You hit him pretty hard," Hardcastle said gruffer than before.
As McCormick watched his friend, he realized Hardcastle was angry. He was trying to hide but he was definitely angry.
"Are you mad at me?"
Hardcastle sighed. He hadn't wanted to talk about this so soon. But McCormick already sensed there was a problem so it'd would be better to handle it now. "What do you think, Sport?"
Hardcastle took a hurried step forward when he saw the color drain from McCormick's face. The white features quickly turned a bright red.
"Oh, God, Judge!" McCormick said in a stricken voice. "I am so sorry. I swear! I never said anything to anyone to give them that sort of an idea."
"Calm down, McCormick," Hardcastle said. He could hear the monitors beep faster as McCormick's pulse began to race.
"Okay," McCormick babbled, "maybe I did say a few things. But Sandy was being a jerk, and Beal was smirking, and I…"
"What is going on here!" an older nurse said as she burst into the room. "You were doing so well and now you have every monitor in the place going off." .
McCormick shut his mouth as if someone had turned off a switch. He stared forlornly at the blanket.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled not wanting to cause any more trouble for his friend. "It was my fault."
The nurse checked over the various monitors and her patient's vital signs. "Do you need to be alone now, so you can rest?" she asked.
"Ahh, no. We really got to talk."
"All right," she said. Though she spoke to McCormick, she gave Hardcastle a hard stare. "I'll be right outside if you need anything."
As the nurse left the room, Hardcastle asked, "What was that all about?"
McCormick was surprised that Hardcastle hadn't heard about the tapes yet. But he realized it was only a matter of time before they would be discovered and become part of the case. Everyone and their cousin would have a chance to listen to them. And if they didn't, it wouldn't be long before Sandy and Beal would start making their accusations. Soon Hardcastle would be the butt of every joke in the prison and police station. He decided that it would be better to make a full confession rather than wait for the shoe to drop.
"Well," McCormick said as his eyes darted everywhere except at Hardcastle. "It seems that Sandy got some weird idea that we were.." he hesitated, "were more than friends."
"Yeah, he thought I was treating you like my son."
McCormick sank back into the bed and covered his eyes with his free hand. "No. He thought we're lovers."
Hardcastle considered the words and started to chuckle. "Where would he have gotten that idea?"
"I don't know. The man's crazy. He found the bracelet Mattie gave me and the watch you gave me. Then he decided I was having sex with everybody you brought into the house. Anyway he told Beal but Beal was making blackmail tapes. And it's possible that might have been on them. Plus when Sandy was ranting at me. I might have said a couple things to yank his chain.
"Don't worry abut it. No one's going to believe that."
"Beal believed it."
"Well, Beal's as crazy as Sandy. People have said it before. This time won't be any different. It'll die down. And if it doesn't, to hell with them."
"What about Mattie?"
"Next time you overhaul her engine, she'll know to just give you cash. Besides she might like the idea of people talking."
"So, you're not mad?"
"Not at that." Hardcastle watched as McCormick looked at him with questioning eyes. After the recent confession, anything seemed anticlimactic. But McCormick's lack of trust had bothered him since the rescue in the woods.
"What were you thinking, McCormick?" Hardcastle asked. "Did you think I wouldn't shoot?"
"What?" McCormick looked up in confusion.
"Back in the woods. When Sandy had the gun on you. He could've had killed you. I wouldn't have hesitated."
"Oh. I know."
"Then why?" asked Hardcastle. "Didn't you trust me?"
"Sandy's the son of your partner. And your friend. I didn't want you to have to live with that. Besides..."
McCormick looked up with a grin. "I really, really wanted to hit him. I've been wanting to do that since that first dinner together."
McCormick munched a sandwich as he took a break from his latest project. He looked up at Hardcastle who was, also, engrossed in a sandwich. He had been back at the estate for a little over a week. Time had healed his recent wounds.
"You know, Mr. Richardson called again," McCormick ventured as he mentioned Sandy Knight's appointed counsel. "He says that Sandy really wants to talk to you."
"Knight and I don't have anything to say to each other," said Hardcastle, as he placed his sandwich back on the plate.
It bothered McCormick that Hardcastle had reverted to using Sandy's surname. "I won't mind if you did. Sandy must have had a lot of problems. Maybe you can help."
Hardcastle thought back to those damnable tapes. He had finally listened to them. There were a lot of things he could forgive. But when he heard Knight's cold order to kill McCormick and worse, he knew Sandy was dead to him.
"I know you mean well, McCormick," Hardcastle said as he looked up at McCormick. "But it's over. Let it go. Besides you got spring semester to be worrying about. You got tax law this term, don't you?"
"Yeah," McCormick said with a grimace as he bent down to pick up the box of junk that he had brought up from the basement..
"I don't envy you. That was some of the most boring lectures and reading I ever had to study."
"Well, I got a plan to help with the studying. I figure about four more loads and I'll have that basement storeroom cleaned out. Then all I'll need is a chair and a lock for the door. I can trust you with the key, can't I?" McCormick asked as he headed out to the trash bin.
"Anytime, kiddo, anytime."