A RETURN TO NORMALCY

By Aeiu

"There's nothing like early morning basketball," thought ex-judge Milton C. Hardcastle as he breathed in the frosty morning air which contained only the slightest whiff of decay. He clutched the ball in his hands and took in the beauty of the moment. There had been a few awful moments during his last case in which he thought this simple joy would be lost to him forever.

The case had involved men he had known from the Georgia Street Motors, a group of police officers he had rode with during his years on the force. Over the years, all of them had become judges and most of them had retired. Recently he had learned that his former friends had graduated into vigilantism and cold blooded murder.

He had come up with the perfect plan to bring them to justice. He pretended to have a falling out with his in-house parolee, Mark McCormick, in a public place where he knew they would see. Outraged by McCormick's arrogance against one of their own, the Georgia Street Motors had offered him a chance to rejoin their ranks and teach the errant ex-con humility. The lesson included a gun, a lonely road, and no witnesses except them.

Hardcastle shuddered when he remembered that awful moment. A semi-willing pickpocket had agreed to replace the gun loaded with bullets with one loaded with blanks. Even then it had been hard to fire those bullets into McCormick's body while ignoring his pitiful pleas to stop. He didn't think he would ever be able to forget that sight and those sounds.

He had stopped the Georgia Street Motors' reign of murder but it had been harder than he had imagined. But now he could enjoy this time with the man that he had come to realize meant so much to him.

"Oaf," Hardcastle grunted as he felt the bony but strong elbow plow itself into his belly and the ball was from pulled from his hands. He watched helplessly as the curly-haired player bounced it a few times and effortless threw it into the basket.

"You're getting careless, judge," laughed McCormick. "That's fourteen to twelve, my point."

"That was uncalled for, McCormick," growled Hardcastle as he rubbed his stomach. "You're nothing by a hooligan."

"Nancy says I'm a gentleman," McCormick said as he flashed a dimpled grin.

"Well, she doesn't know you like I do," said Hardcastle as he eyed the young man's smile. It still looked off. During their last case, he had found it necessary to strike McCormick in the mouth. The ever present split lip was a painful reminder of that moment. Sometimes he wondered if it would ever heal.

"That's okay, we got nothing but time," McCormick said with a wink.

He threw the ball to the judge and the game continued. No matter how hard he tried, Hardcastle always found himself lagging by a point or two. Determined that this time the game would be different, he waited until he saw the perfect time to attack. His combination of pull-push-and blow left McCormick sprawled face down on the court. Hardcastle refused to let himself feel any guilt until after he had sunk the basket and tied the score to eighteen-all.

"Now who's being a hooligan?" asked McCormick as he pushed himself to a sitting position.

"You're getting soft, hotshot," Hardcastle chuckled as he pulled the young man to his feet. "Too much easy living."

As McCormick took control of the ball, Hardcastle wiped the sweat from his face and mouth. He refused to acknowledge the salty iodine taste which tickled against his lips and tongue. He watched as McCormick casually wiped his forever damp hands against his pants. It was a gesture he had repeated constantly during the game.

"Looking pretty filthy there, McCormick," Hardcastle thought as he turned his mind back to the game.

It seemed like it had been a long time since he had won a basketball game against the parolee. He didn't know why but he felt it was vitally important to win. So he played hard and blocked out the reality which surrounded him.

Seemingly without effort, McCormick sank the next basket. Hardcastle swore it would be the last point McCormick would make during the game. He grabbed the ball, prepared to rush down the court and do whatever would be necessary to make the next points.

The tacky surface of the ball made it difficult to dribble down the court; it felt like it was sticking to his hand. As he looked out over the court, he became aware of the many dark smears and small puddles which littered the surface. Most appeared to have dried but some were still fresh including the one left by McCormick's recent fall which was right in his path.

Aware of what it was, Hardcastle could not bring himself to disturb the brownish-red sludge. He tried to move to the side but tripped over his own foot. He attempted to hold onto the ball as he felt himself falling but the force of hitting the pavement caused it to spring free as he felt his hands slide into the puddle which was still surprisingly warm to the touch.

Hardcastle watched impotently as McCormick scoped up the ball and sank the basket. He scowled at the winner as he remembered that this was how the game always ended; with his hands colored red as he watched the kid score the final point.

"I win," smiled McCormick as he helped the judge climb back to his feet.

"Another game?" asked Hardcastle unwilling to have their time together end too quickly.

"Can't," shrugged McCormick, "the light will be here soon."

"It's your fault I lost," accused Hardcastle as he pointed his finger toward McCormick's white shirt covered in blood that oozed from his bullet-ridden body. "Everything is either sticky or slicker than snot."

"You act like it's all mine," laughed McCormick.

"Most of it is yours," groused Hardcastle as he scratched the itchy area around the ugly hole located behind his ear, a souvenir from his last night with Millie and Jim Bean.

The light began to trickle in all around them. Hardcastle tried not to flinch from its brilliance. "Do you have to go?" he asked hopefully.

"Friad so," said McCormick as he started walking toward the light. "Your roommates wouldn't like it if I stayed. Sorry about the mess." He said as he gestured toward the gore covered court.

"Don't worry, I'll clean it up. Same time, tomorrow?"

"Always."

Hardcastle watched as the best friend he had ever had started to walk into the light. While he was sorry the world had lost him, he was very glad that McCormick had finally found his way home.

Hardcastle knew as the kid walked away into the light that his many injuries faded away and he became whole. Hardcastle desperately wanted to see that moment but the light was so bright that he was forced to turn his head away. In a moment, it was gone leaving him alone in his world of eternal twilight.

He knew he didn't have much time before his three roommates woke up. The four of them were tied together for eternity for their role in the death of an innocent. For despite his checkered past, McCormick was an innocent.

"Hell is hell," thought Hardcastle as he pulled out the hose and began to clean the court. It would be a long day and night until the next game. But he would wait because he had nothing left but time.

Hardcastle stifled a scream as he shot up in his sweat drenched bed. "Another dream," he thought. "Another damn dream." Sometimes he wondered if he would ever sleep through the night again.

There had been so many dreams in the nights since he and McCormick had brought the rogue vigilantes to judgment. In retrospect, the first dream seemed almost benign. In that one he paced the floor of the manor waiting for McCormick. He intended to let the kid know what he thought about his little performance on the lonely road letting him think the gun still contained real bullets. But the next sound wasn't McCormick letting himself into the home carrying a bag of burgers and flashing that familiar smile; instead it had been his friend, Lieutenant Frank Harper, to inform him that McCormick's lifeless body had been discovered on a dead-end road. Harper swore to him that they would find the culprits who had committed the murder. He even brought in the men who would be in charge of the investigation. Parnell, Stern, and Cadigan entered the home, still in their police uniforms as they flashed him their smirking knowing grins.

He had wakened with a shout, the first disturbed night of many.

At least, Hardcastle mused, this one hadn't been the worst of the dreams; rather it seemed to be a continuation of that awful fantasy. Hardcastle shut his eyes and grimaced as he thought back.

Sterns had handed him the gun and ordered him to prove his loyalty by shooting McCormick. The kid, already sported the split lips, looked up nervously as the weapon was turned on him. Without a choice, Hardcastle forced himself to pull the trigger. The explosion of the weapon was almost deafening, he barely heard McCormick's cry of pain as he watched his friend's body thrown backwards by the impact. There was so much blood and so much pain in the young man's eyes; pain mixed with horror and fear. That's when they knew the truth; the bullets had not been switched out, they were real.

His blue eyes met McCormick's as he desperately tried to figure a way out but they were surrounded by three armed vigilantes. He could tell McCormick knew the truth; there was only a chance for one of them to survive this encounter. He wasn't sure but he thought he saw McCormick give him the briefest of nods. The kid bit his injured lip and fell back silently as he waited for fate to deal him the final hand.

Hardcastle hardened his heart to do what he knew had to be done. He forced himself to look into his friend's eyes and hoped McCormick knew his deep grief for bringing them to this point. He watched as the corners of McCormick's mouth quirked upward in one last grin, a smile of absolution.

The next shot entered McCormick's head. He prayed it was a fatal shot. The last four he fired in the center of his friend's chest. The witnesses could tell there was no need to check for a pulse of the curly-haired man who lay dead at their feet.

Hardcastle suddenly felt as if he was watching himself in a movie on a screen. He watched as his face broke out in a smile as he accepted the congratulations of his fellow killers. He could hear his voice as it laughed and joked about the ex-con's last minutes of life. But he knew that he and everything he had ever believed in died at that moment.

Like the others, he got on his motorcycle and drove away leaving the body of his loyal and so very brave friend alone like a sack of discarded trash along the road.

He followed the others to Stern's home where they broke open a six pack and wine and he was welcomed back into the fold. He wondered if the others saw that the comradeship never reached his eyes as he nursed his only can of beer throughout the evening of revelry. After a few minutes or a few hours, as time had lost all meaning, he slipped away from the festivities and found his bike parked nearby. He thanked the god whose commandment he had broken that he had, for reasons unknown, packed additional bullets. He loaded his gun and returned to the party. As the others made a toast in honor of his first kill, he pulled out the gun; their words of friendship and loyalty literally died on their lips.

The case completed, he returned to his home to close up the loose ends. The first was a call to Lieutenant Harper to tell him where to find McCormick's body and to ensure that it would be treated with dignity. He promised he would explain everything when the police got to his house. But a letter would have to do for the explanation.

The letter told what had happened and why. He admitted that everyone had been right about his crazy plan to bring criminals to justice but they had all been wrong about McCormick; he had been the only right thing in a scheme doomed to failure. He left detailed instructions of his final wishes; the greatest was to ensure his friend's final resting place, in death as in life by his side. He explained why he didn't think the justice system would give him the punishment he deserved so, for one last time, he would take matters into his own hands. He did not ask for forgiveness as he had already received that from the only person who mattered however undeserved it was.

He sat at his desk and poured himself a glass of whiskey and drank a toast of farewell to his friend; someone who had deserved so much more than what life had chosen to give him. He put the cold end of the handgun against his temple and felt his finger tighten around the trigger. Once again, the explosion was almost deafening.

The lack of oxygen forced him out of his downward spiral, as in the past the vision of what might have been had the ability to make him forget how to breath. Again he was filled with the need to race to the gatehouse and pull McCormick from his bed; to verify that his body was unmarked by the holes from the bullets and feel his heart still beating in his warm living body.

He felt the urge to call in every favor he had and use every legal skill learned to end this sham of a freely chosen parole and give McCormick his freedom before their association got him killed for real. But he wondered if that was what McCormick wanted and he didn't know if he had the strength to send the young man away. They needed to talk but he didn't know how.

As Hardcastle settled back into his bed and tried to claim a few hours of rest before morning, he thought back on his beloved wife, Nancy, who had died so many years ago. "She would've called you a gentleman, kid," Hardcastle thought to himself as slumber finally claimed him. "She always knew a class act."

Morning came to Gull's Way as was its habit. Hardcastle rubbed the sun from his eyes and stared out at the new day. He had slept in again, unable to face a game of basketball when he couldn't tell if the shadows were real or imaginary.

The many nights of interrupted sleep had left him feeling drained. He dressed with indifference and thought about what he could say to the man whose life could have so easily been lost. The relationship between him and McCormick had started to change; a distance was forming between them. He wasn't sure how he could change it back or if he should.

As Hardcastle entered the kitchen, the man who occupied his thoughts looked up from his bowl of cereal. "Morning judge," McCormick said with a familiar smile. "You're looking decidedly unchipper for a guy who slept late. I was thinking about sending out a search party."

Hardcastle muttered beneath his breath as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. As in the previous mornings, he found himself unable to look his friend in the eye.

"I'm just saying," continued McCormick as he tried to pull his friend from his black mood, "that anyone that looks this bad in the morning should have least had the benefit of feeling pretty good the night before. Are you feeling alright?"

"I'm fine," mumbled Hardcastle as he mentally made plans for the day. He'd keep the kid busy working somewhere in the back area of the estate. Maybe he'd take this opportunity to go into his file room. It might be time to pull some of the more dangerous cases from the pile or, perhaps, time to throw out the lot of them.

"What you need," observed McCormick "is a good breakfast. How about I scramble you up some eggs?" He got up and walked over to the refrigerator.

"No eggs," said Hardcastle sure that the one thing he didn't want was food and chatter. "I'm not hungry."

"How about some orange juice?" asked McCormick as he stuck his head into the refrigerator. "You know what they say a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine."

"Fine," answered Hardcastle as he decided it was easier to accept the drink than argue his point. "After that I'm going to want you to prune those bushes in the back. They're looking shaggy."

"Judge, the only people who can see those bushes are lost explorers or tourist taking helicopter rides over the homes of the stars and the donkeys."

"Just do it," the judge said listlessly.

"Here," said McCormick with a worried tone at Hardcastle's continuing unwillingness to talk with him. "We didn't have any orange juice so I got you some tomato juice. You know what they say; a day without tomato juice is like a day without orange juice."

Hardcastle unaware of McCormick's proximity turned too quickly as he tried to take the glass. He was only vaguely aware that his arm hit McCormick's hand and caused the glass to fly loose. However his eyes became fixated on the vibrantly colored liquid as it jumped free and splattered across the room.

It appeared to Hardcastle as if time had slowed as the white cotton fibers of McCormick's t-shirt greedily absorbed the fluid in a myriad of various sized droplets. The judge watched in morbid fascination as each droplet exploded in a rich red hue and expanded throughout the young man's chest. Hardcastle did not hear the glass shatter as the pounding in his ears became deafening as he tried to catch his breath. He watched as McCormick looked down on himself and the floor as he held out one hand which to the judge's eyes appeared to be colored crimson. He was aware that his friend did not appear to be in any pain but his memory reminded him that McCormick never was in pain during the dark games of his dreams. Hardcastle saw McCormick's lips were moving and he strained to hear what he had to say.

"Sorry about the mess, judge," McCormick said unaware of the effects of his words.

Hardcastle's eyes widened as his nightmare suddenly stood before him. He heard the response to the kid's apology; it sounded like his voice but he wasn't sure as it repeated the expected response. "Don't worry. I'll clean it up."

Then everything went black.

Hardcastle didn't know how much time had gone by but he became aware that someone was shaking his shoulder as the roar of sound in his ears began to ebb like the retreating tide. He realized that he was leaning heavily in the chair as he looked up and saw concerned eyes looking down at him with barely concealed panic.

"Come on, judge. Talk to me," McCormick babbled. "I'm getting scared here. Tell me anything. Tell me to go out and clean the gutters. You can do it."

Hardcastle forced his eyes to focus, took a deep breath, and confessed, "I'm sorry. It was a dumb plan."

"Thank God," McCormick breathed. "Wait, what?" he asked confused.

"I said I'm sorry. It was a dumb plan."

"Are you okay?" McCormick asked.

"Of course, I'm okay," insisted Hardcastle as he pushed away McCormick's helping hands. "I'm not the one who was standing around waiting for a gang of murderers to shoot me hoping there were blanks in the gun."

"But they were blanks," said McCormick feeling like he was explaining the obvious.

But you didn't know that until after I fired them. Hell, I wasn't sure until you walked in here with those burgers."

"Okay, I get it," said McCormick as he held his hands up in defeat. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have scared you like that. But is that any reason to give me a heart attack."

"What?"

"I admit, Mark continued, "I was a little sore at you. That punch hurt."

"McCormick, that's not…"

"And then you fired all six shots at me. I thought that was over kill," McCormick paused. "No pun intended."

"I'm trying to…"

"And I never had a chance to get anything to eat before our one act play. So maybe I did linger a bit at the Burger Barn."

McCormick, stop. I'm…"

"But is that any reason to wait for over a week and pretend to have a stroke or something."

"McCormick," Hardcastle finally shouted. "I'm trying to apologize here."

Mark looked confused for a moment. "For what?"

"For nearly getting you killed?"

"When?"

"How many times have I nearly gotten you killed?"

"Are you comfy?" McCormick asked with a smirk. "Because that could take a while."

Hardcastle looked down at the table. "Yeah, I'm sorry about those too. I've made mistakes, too many of them."

McCormick sighed; the conversation wasn't going the way he had wanted. He had hoped getting his friend riled up would help him break through his dark mood. "It's not just you, you know. I might have made a few mistakes along the way too."

Despite his feelings of guilt, Hardcastle couldn't let that statement go as he looked up with an arched eyebrow. "A few?"

Hope sparked in Mark's eyes as he heard the challenge in the judge's voice. "Yeah, I might have made a few miscalculations on handling Trish," he said as he referenced their recent run-in with Arthur Farnell and his school for burglars.

"A miscalculation? I sent you into a crowded restaurant to get a little information from her and a couple of hours later you come back with your second stolen car in twenty-four hours."

"There might have been a better way to handle it," Mark admitted with reluctance. "What surprised me was the way you handled it. I thought you would have been a lot more upset when I borrowed that car."

"You didn't borrow it. You stole it out of the showroom and the only reason the police didn't pick you up immediately is that it belonged to a crime boss and was filled with heroin. And he wanted to kill you himself."

"Like I said a slight miscalculation."

"Yeah, but this time it was close, too close."

"So was the thing with Tina Grey. But who came running to my rescue with a mighty hi-ho silver and a cloud of dust."

"I should have never gotten you involved with that."

"Judge, they were killing people; just like Parnell and company. They needed to be stopped. Besides I walked into that one even after you said no. Sometimes we're going to make mistakes and that's when the other one steps up. It's what partners do."

McCormick held his breath as he waited for the reaction. The judge didn't throw the word back in his face but, instead, appeared to consider it and all of its implications.

"If anything would have happened…" Hardcastle said as his mind contemplated the unthinkable.

"I know," said McCormick, "I felt the same way when Stern was wailing away at you."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had the gun on the others so I couldn't do anything while he was cleaning your clock."

"What do you mean he was cleaning my clock," Hardcastle said as he bristled at the perceived insult. "I had him with my old one-two punch."

"Yeah, but he came back with the old three-four-five."

"The day hasn't dawned that a guy like Sterns could take me out."

"It's hard to tell with the way you've been taking it easy and sleeping in lately. I haven't had any early morning invitation for basketball in a while. But I guess that's what happens when you get old."

"Old! Who's getting old? I can still wipe the basketball court with your butt any day of the week."

"Oh yeah!" said McCormick with mock outrage as he threw out more bait to the hungry wolf. "I got twenty that says it's going to be your butt wiping the court."

Hardcastle stood and poked McCormick in the chest. "You're on. Get the ball and meet me on the court in two minutes and bring your money 'cuz you're going to lose."

"Well, bring your wallet to the court so you can kiss your twenty goodbye."

"Hah!" shouted Hardcastle as he started out the door mumbling angrily under his breath.

McCormick let his inner smile appear on his face as he watched Hardcastle leave. He had seen the shadows in the judge's eyes over the past few days and hoped the return to normalcy would cure whatever troubled his sleep.

And that it would help his own sleepless nights; for their recent case had, also, left its mark on him. Not from the memory of his friend standing over him with a gun because he had trusted Hardcastle and his plan. But from an earlier incident when the judge had insisted that he accompany him to gather information from the incarcerated Dwayne Morton. Too many times during the recent nights he found himself forced awake in a cold sweat; his ears still ringing as they heard that horrible metal sound of the slamming gate of San Quentin.

McCormick closed his eyes and mentally forced the echo from his mind as he went to join his friend and partner in the warm light of the day.

THE END