“You were worried, weren’t you?” McCormick leaned over the half-washed truck hood and tried to get the Judge to look him in the face.
“Don’t be ridiculous, McCormick. In case you’ve forgotten, you are in my custody. I’m supposed to know where you are at all times.”
“Mark, your language,” came a warning from the pool area.
“Sorry, Sarah, but you know I’m right. He was worried about me, but he won’t admit it.” McCormick grinned, throwing a sopping wet sponge at Hardcastle.
The Judge ducked, frowning at the playful car thief. “You’re avoiding the subject. Where were you?”
“Around. Got something to eat at Burger Man, took the Coyote for a spin, checked out the latest in cars at the track. A nice day, overall.”
“Hardcastle!” McCormick mimicked. “Give me a break, Your Honor. Don’t I get time off for good behavior?”
Hardcastle heard a hard edge creeping into McCormick’s voice. The interrogation, and that was exactly what it was, was beginning to annoy him. Hardcastle didn’t want to continue, but some questions had been raised by the parole board, concerning legalities of the parole. The representative who had called last night wondered if Hardcastle was forcing McCormick to help him. Help him or go back to jail. The man didn’t understand that, for all his complaining, McCormick was just as dedicated to bringing these criminals to justice as the Judge was.
McCormick was rubbing the new truck’s body with questionable vigor.
“There’s a man from the Parole and Probation Board who wants to see you.”
McCormick looked up. “When?”
“This afternoon, at 4:00.”
McCormick checked his watch. “It’s 2:30 now. Why didn’t you tell me before? I’ve gotta go all the way downtown…”
“No, the man is coming here.” Hardcastle began to scrub the tires, peeling mud from the sides. “He wants to ask you some questions.”
“Well, I’ve got the answers for him.” McCormick brushed at his shirt and pants. He looked down at his wet clothes. “I’d better change.”
“Mr. McCormick, my name is Pierson, Ralph Pierson. I’m a representative of the Parole and Probation Review Board. We are investigating your situation. There are some irregularities that concern us. Are you supervised?”
Mark looked up at the P&P man. He was a bland, brown man. Mark had never thought of a person as being brown before, but Pierson was definitely a brown person. Brown thinning hair, brown two piece suit, tan shirt and socks, brown belt, tie, and shoes. Even the man’s face was brown, or maybe it was the reflection from the brown clothing.
“Supervised? Yes, I’m well supervised. Not a moment alone.” McCormick paused. He didn’t care for the man’s attitude of his manner of questioning or the barely hidden sneer when introduced to Hardcastle. While McCormick wanted to give the Judge some tough moments, just to teach him a lesson, this man wasn’t the one to try that with. “No, that’s not exactly true. I check in with the Judge and he is aware of my movements, but I’m not a prisoner.”
“I see. Are you forced into doing anything against your will? Any dangerous job?”
“Define your question. I work around the grounds to earn my keep. I clean the pool, cut the grass, garden and trim shrubs. What’s dangerous about that? Unless I cut myself on the Yucca in back.”
“Mr. McCormick, you‘re not taking this seriously?”
“No, sir, I‘m not. If you’ll excuse me, it’s time to clean the pool.” McCormick smiled thinly at Pierson and headed outside the door of the Gatehouse.
“Mr. McCormick! You can’t just walk out, you must answer all my questions.”
“Look, Pierson, I don’t know what you’re getting at and, frankly, I don’t care. If you have a point, get to it. I’ve got work to do.”
Pierson nodded sharply. “Does the Judge ever have you do undercover work, or in any way force you to help on his infamous crusades?”
“Judge Hardcastle does have me help him in his research on certain criminals. I might assist him on occasion. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Perhaps. Forcing you to expose yourself to danger and association with known criminals, that is totally against our policies.”
“If you expect me to complain to you, forget it. Any problems that I have with the Judge, I’ll handle. Without any help from you or your agency. Understand?” McCormick didn’t wait for a reply, stomping off toward the pool.
Hardcastle, who was hovering near the entryway, watched Pierson and McCormick argue near the Gatehouse. “Problems, Mr. Pierson?” Hardcastle startled the man.
“No, none at all. However, Judge Hardcastle, don’t think I am finished here.” Pierson got into his light blue government-issue car and closed the door carefully. He looked up at the Judge as he opened the window. “I’ll be back, Judge.” Pierson glanced toward the pool, his face hardening and the civil servant politeness disappearing, replaced by iciness. “I will be back.”
Hardcastle watched him leave, wondering at the man’s next move. Time will tell, he thought before heading to the main house.
A few weeks passed and soon both Hardcastle and McCormick dismissed Pierson’s visit as a slight blip on their horizon. Everyone returned to normal. Or as normal as it ever got at Gull’s Way.
“McCormick, will you be reasonable? Try, for once, to cooperate. A demo derby is just the way to get inside Talbridge’s organization. You’re a driver. Should be a piece of cake for you.”
“Hardcase, read my lips. I am a race car driver. ‘Race’ being the key word here. Demolition isn’t anywhere near NASCAR or Trans-Am. It’s…it’s demeaning.”
“It’s important, you know that.” The Judge’s voice softened. “Besides, you did promise, remember?”
The Judge held out the file, as if Mark needed to look at the photos inside again. Franklin Sullivan Talbridge III was from money, a long line of money through steel, oil, and years ago, cattle. His father and grandfather were a bit shady, but nothing violent. A few shortcuts through the law, a bit of unorthodox dealing, that was the extent of their illegalities. Then there was the current generation.
“Well?” the Judge prompted.
Mark thought about the photos showing the mangled bodies of the women who worked for Talbridge and later decided to quit. Horribly beaten, burned and tortured, yet alive through the whole process. McCormick remembered his reaction, the feeling of Hardcastle’s hand on his back as he threw up lunch, dinner and his guts. McCormick had sworn his uncomplaining assistance to whatever scheme Hardcastle came up with. “Okay, you’ve got a demo driver. I just hope no one from the racing circuit finds out. This could ruin me.”
“Hey, Skid! Coming down in the world, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, finally realized you aren’t a real driver?”
The chorus of yells and insults followed Mark to his car, an old Chevy with more mile than seemed possible. Hardcastle watched as McCormick withdrew into himself, trying to avoid any acknowledgement of the onlookers. Hardcastle began to realize just what he was asking McCormick to do. He would become the butt of all the on looking drivers’ jokes.
“Kid, I’m sorry about this.” Hardcastle helped McCormick into his car’s window, as the doors were welded shut.
“Yeah, so am I.”
“Gentlemen, start your engines!” The loud speakers blared, drowning out the rest of McCormick’s reply.
Hardcastle ran back to the sidelines, where friends and crew of the demo drivers waited. The Judge had watched many other demolition derbies before, but this time his attention was on their target. Talbridge’s one passion was the derbies and the man liked to stay close to the action. He was watching his driver from the side area.
Hardcastle moved closer to the killer. Talbridge wasn’t what anyone would pick if they were asked to describe a cold-blooded murderer. He was medium height with graying hair, an elder statesman-type man. McCormick had even remarked that Talbridge resembled Lorne Greene. They would need concrete proof to convince a jury of Talbridge’s guilt. If McCormick could win this event, he might meet Talbridge and be hired by him. Talbridge didn’t like to lose. Ever.
A rending crash drew Hardcastle’s attention to the circle of cars. He couldn’t find McCormick for a moment, then spotted the gray and blue Chevy next to a crumbled Mercury. McCormick’s face was hidden by his helmet and the shadows in the bare interior.
The Chevy was hit from the side by a purple Ford. McCormick swung the car around and smashed into the Ford. Just as another car was about to smack into him, Mark threw the gear into reverse and allowed the Ford to get scrunched again. Carefully avoiding any disabling hits, McCormick managed to survive until only four cars were left, his, the Talbridge car, and two badly damaged Toyotas. They circled around the vast graveyard of trashed cars, looking for an opening, a chance to maim without being maimed. After some relatively quiet moments, one of the Toyotas went for McCormick’s Chevy. Mark was trapped by two abandoned hulks and didn’t seem able to avoid being crushed.
As Hardcastle held his breath, Talbridge’s driver threw his ancient Mercedes in reverse and slammed into one of the hulks, throwing it out of McCormick’s way. This left some space, but not enough for the car to squeeze through. McCormick hit the gas and used the other wreck as a ramp, getting his car onto two side wheels and driving it through to safety. The Toyota, trying to imitate the action, flipped over, catching the Talbridge’s car on the rear bumper. Both cars spun around and crashed into McCormick’s car just as he started to come back down onto four wheels. McCormick flipped over and over, finally landing on his hood. A flame started in one of the other crashed cars, catching onto fire the spilled gasoline and oil spread over the arena. The remaining Toyota idled nearby, waiting for a survivor to emerge, but nothing moved, neither driver nor car. Hardcastle vaulted the fence and rushed to the center of the arena, followed by the other drivers’ friends and assistants. Talbridge’s driver pulled the wrecked Toyota’s driver from the burning vehicle as the fire extinguishers were played at the flames. Hardcastle leaned over the edge of the Chevy, looking for McCormick’s body. He couldn’t find him at first, then saw him in the back seat.
“McCormick! Are you alive?”
McCormick’s smudged face didn’t move, his arm crooked at an unnatural angle under his lower back. There was blood running down his forehead, trickling into his right eye and curving around his slack mouth. As Hardcastle stood back, preparing to call for the paramedics, he saw Talbridge’s driver coming up from the other side. The two men stared at each other for a moment over the car, gauging the other. Finally they quit wasting time and got the paramedics over to the Chevy.
Hardcastle watched as the paramedics carried McCormick out of the crumpled car. He was pale and lifeless looking. Hardcastle tried to lean over and check for McCormick’s pulse, but the paramedics were in his way.
“Damn.” Talbridge’s driver leaned against the crumpled Chevy. He took off his crash helmet, revealing shoulder-length blond hair, a soft fuzzy blondish red mustache. As he looked at Hardcastle, the Judge noticed that the driver’s eyes were pale blue, almost clear. It was an otherworldly look that reminded the Judge of an actress that used to star on an old television cop show, Meg Foster.
Hardcastle walked over to the waiting man. “My name’s Hardcastle, Milton Hardcastle.”
“Yeah, I know. My name’s Frank Keller. I work for -- “
“I know who you work for,” Hardcastle interrupted, watching the ambulance pull up to the waiting stretcher.
“I don’t think you do. I work for Judge Miller.”
Hardcastle turned, seeing the driver break out into a smile. “Miller? Carl Miller?”
“That’s right. I kinda do what McCormick does for you. Only I was hired for the job, not roped into it. The Judge said that you might show up, and when I saw McCormick degrade himself by driving in this derby, I knew you were after Talbridge. I’ve spent a lot of time working my way into that creep’s inner sanctum, so I’d appreciate it if you would pull back. Okay?”
“Okay, Keller. I guess I don’t have much choice, with McCormick on the sidelines.” Hardcastle walked over the ambulance. “But if you need help, just yell. Miller knows how to get in touch with me.”
“Thanks. And give Skid my condolences. He was one of the best on the circuit. He might have been a NASCAR champion someday, if he hadn’t run into you.” Keller closed the door of the ambulance behind Hardcastle, waving as they drove off. He turned to see Talbridge waiting, at this moment in no way resembling good ol’ Pa Cartwright. Keller swallowed. It was about to hit the fan, and he wasn’t sure he was ready.
“Mr. Keller, you lost. I don’t like to lose. I especially don’t like to lose because you were playing Sir Galahad with another driver. I think we need to talk about your responsibilities.”
Keller ran a hand through his blond hair, almost wishing he was in the ambulance and that McCormick was in his place. Undercover work was a walk on the razor’s edge, and keeping your balance wasn’t always easy. As Talbridge began his speech, Keller found himself wondering whether the ex-racer was even alive.
“Mark McCormick, can you hear me?” The doctor used his thumb to pry open on of McCormick’s eyes. “Can you answer me?”
“Mhmph.” McCormick tossed his head, trying to escape the pain he felt. Someone was pouring pure alcohol onto his forehead. He couldn’t seem to open his eyes more than a crack. He struggled to get free of the probing fingers.
“McCormick, stay still!”
McCormick heard the commanding voice of Judge Hardcastle and held himself still. He didn’t remember what had happened, only that he was obviously in a hospital and hurt. He tried to talk, but his voice was raspy. Someone held a straw to his lips and he swallowed a drop of water. Mark tried again. “What happened?”
“Don’t you remember, McCormick?” Hardcastle asked, watching from the doorway.
“Did I crash the Coyote?” McCormick tried to remember.
“No, it happened in the …” Hardcastle started to answer.
“Please, Judge, we would like Mr. McCormick to remember on his own, if he can.” The doctor finished pouring water onto Mark’s cuts, cleaning them out. “Now, Mr. McCormick, can you tell me the last thing you can recall?”
But Mark didn’t answer, he had passed out again. The Judge stood by as the doctors put McCormick’s arm in a cast and placed a collar around his neck. The cuts were bandaged and finally, McCormick was taken to his room to recover.
It was evening, Mark was certain of that. He peered around the room, seeing the usual antiseptic surroundings. The room was bathed in a mellow orange glow. Mark reached over and switched off the night light. The collar was stiff and uncomfortable, so he tried to get it off. He realized that his left arm was stiff and uncomfortable also. He looked down to see a cast running from his upper arm to his wrist. The cast was angled to allow some comfort. There was a dull throbbing above his left eye. After taking a careful survey of his various aches and pains, McCormick realized that he had to take a leak. He stumbled out of bed to the bathroom. Washing his hands afterwards, which was difficult but not impossible, he started at himself in the mirror. Overall, he didn’t look too bad. There was a scrape on his right cheek and another on his chin, but other than that, Mark felt very lucky. He vaguely remembered going to the demolition derby, but nothing about the actual crash.
McCormick turned the overhead TV set on, flicking the channel selector until he came across an old mystery film starring George Brent. He settled down, snuggling against the pillows and watched the film until he fell asleep. When he awoke again, the local station was broadcasting a test pattern. Mark shut the set off and drifted back off.
A voice kept intruding on his sleep, refusing to allow Mark to escape. The injured driver peered beneath his eyelashes, waiting till his eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine in the room before opening them completely. McCormick saw Hardcastle standing by his bed, worry showing in his eyes. When the Judge realized that McCormick was awake, a shield went up, hiding his feelings.
“How do you feel?”
“Uncomfortable.” Mark pulled at the neck collar. “Can’t I take this off?”
“Maybe. We’ll ask your doctors. Do you remember anything more?”
“Just a little. I sorta remember going to the derby, but not much after that, just images.” Mark’s eyes narrowed as he tried to recall. “The last image I have is that of something coming at me, large and white and metal. A car?”
“Yeah. If it hadn’t been for Keller, the crash probably would have been much worse.”
“Keller? Who’s that?”
“Talbridge’s driver. He helped you escape a worse crash.”
“Did he win? I’m sorry, Judge. I know you wanted me to win. I did try. At least, I’m sure I did. Don’t quite remember.”
“No, he didn’t win. And you did the best you could.” Hardcastle was distracted. “Have you seen the doctors yet?”
“No, I wish they would come. I want out of here. I don’t like hospitals.” McCormick sighed, leaning his head back and waving his arm around. “I wish I could remember what happened.”
“It’ll come, don’t force it.” Hardcastle walked to the window. “I think I’ll head on home. Do you need anything?”
“No, thanks. Just a ticket out of here. See if you can scare up a doctor-type.”
McCormick felt free. He had been released from the hospital for three days now, and finally he could take the collar off. Despite Hardcastle’s protests, Mark was driving the Coyote, with the Judge as a passenger. The annoyingly persistent Pierson had called again, shortly after McCormick’s release from the hospital. He was to meet Pierson at his office, accompanied by Judge Hardcastle.
So there they were, tooling along the California highway system, Mark enjoying his freedom, Hardcastle finally relaxing a bit. Both men put the meeting out of their heads and concentrated on the beautiful day. The other drivers on the road were unusually polite, the traffic was fairly light, and the local radio station was on an oldies kick, playing the music of McCormick’s childhood.
As they left the highway, Mark was singing along to “Norwegian Woods”. The Coyote approached a nearby railroad yard as a train came into sight. It began to turn on the track, scraping metal on metal, whistle blowing. McCormick began shaking and had to pull the car over to the side of the road. Hardcastle turned to look at him and saw that all the color had drained from his face. They sat at the side of the road, Mark gripping the steering wheel as he tried to steady the thumping of his heart. He lowered his head over the dashboard, panting.
“Okay?” Hardcastle laid his hand on Mark’s arm.
“Man, I don’t know. I had a flash or something. I don’t know, but when the train wheels made that noise, I could feel my skin crawl. I think I heard that same kind of sound right before the crash. Oh, God, I don’t want to have that feeling again.” McCormick flung his head back and took some deep breaths.
“Want me to drive?” Hardcastle asked.
“No, thanks. I’d feel even worse with you driving.” Mark slowly guided the Coyote back onto the road and resumed the trip to the Parole and Probation building.
He was still somewhat shaky when they went inside to the meeting. Pierson was waiting impatiently.
“Gentlemen, come this way, please.” Pierson led Hardcastle and McCormick to a small conference room and waved towards some chairs. “Have a seat.”
McCormick perched on the arm of a chair, while Hardcastle leaned against the wall.
Pierson shrugged. “As you wish, gentlemen. This won’t take long. How are you feeling, McCormick?”
“Fine.” Mark wasn’t in the mood to talk with this man about everything.
“Get to the point, Pierson,” Hardcastle said.
“I have on my desk reports of the various escapades that had McCormick either in danger of his life or in trouble with the law. So far, either through luck or your influence, Judge, he has managed to escape any serious repercussions from these crusades. Frankly, Your Honor, I think his time is running out. You have been using your position to force McCormick to help you. Since he is unable to get away from you by himself, I will have to help him. I am moving to have McCormick taken from your custody and placed under our direct jurisdiction, for his own protection. And furthermore…”
“Just one cotton-picking minute, Pierson. No one forces me to do anything that I don’t want to do. If I decide to help Hardcastle, that’s my business. It is certainly none of your business. Who the hell gave you the right to interfere?” McCormick advanced toward Pierson with every word.
“It’s my business to protect people like you. You will be notified of your new status in a few days. I would advise you to move from Hardcastle’s premises immediately. You will, of course, be given a list of possible jobs. You, Judge Hardcastle, should avoid contact with the parolee until this office deems it safe to meet again. Do both of you understand?” Pierson began to realize that McCormick was nose to nose with him.
“I will live where I want, with who I want, and do what I want, without interference from you or this office. If you want me to report to some wiseacre here, fine. I’ll do it. But I will continue to live at Gulls-Way, and I will work for Hardcastle as long as he and I decide to. Do I make myself clear?” With every word, McCormick leaned closer to Pierson, causing the man to lean farther and farther back, until Pierson was bent backwards over the table. McCormick poked his finger on Pierson’s chest as he said, “Do you understand?”
McCormick picked up a file laying on the table, marked with his name, and flung it across the room, watching as papers floated around Pierson’s body. “Coming, Hardcase?”
Hardcastle watched as Mark strode from the room. “Well, Pierson, good luck making Mark McCormick do anything he doesn’t want to. I’ve been trying for months now and it hasn’t worked yet.” The Judge followed McCormick down the hallway. He caught up with him at the elevators.
“You were a little hot in there, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I know. It just got my goat, that these people can tell you where to live, where to work, who to see. I got a little upset, that’s all.” Mark jabbed the ‘Down’ button again. “Can he make me leave the estate?”
“I don’t know. Probably.” Hardcastle shrugged. “We’ll see. I have some old friends here, we’ll see what they say.”
Back at the estate, McCormick turned the stereo on full-blast and kicked off his deck shoes. He poured himself a drink and sat down on the recliner. Leaning back and closing his eyes, Mark tried to lose himself in the music.
He was sound asleep when Hardcastle came in to complain about the noise, the drink spilled onto the floor. Hardcastle picked up the glass and cleaned the spilled liquor. Then the Judge got a throw rug and put it on Mark’s legs and chest, being careful not to wake him. McCormick murmured in his sleep and rolled over onto his side. He was scrunched up in the chair, his body forming a fetal-like position. The cast on his arm fell over the side of the chair, yanking at his shoulder. Mark jerked up, half awake, “Wha-?”
Hardcastle raised the cast back onto the chair, placing it on top of the quilt. “Go back to sleep, son, everything is fine.”
McCormick smiled, murmured something and drifted off to sleep.
Hardcastle stood watching him for a while, until he was certain that the ex-con was asleep.
“Mark, telephone!” Sarah called from the house.
Mark waved, throwing the pool vacuum hose to one side. Cleaning the pool with only one good arm was difficult, but it kept Mark’s mind off his problems. He smiled at Sarah as he took the phone from her.
“Yeah, McCormick here.”
“Mark, this is Keller. I need help and I need it fast.”
“Keller?” Hardcastle had told Mark about Keller’s job with Judge Miller. “Name it.”
“I think Talbridge is on to me, but I can’t be sure how much he knows, and how much he only suspects. Get word to Miller, tell him that I am going to try to get out of here tonight. Miller is to meet me in the usual place, and bring a gun.”
“Yeah, okay. Want company?”
“No, better not come. I don’t want you seen by Talbridge, he has a good memory. He’s spot you from the derby, and put two and two together. Just get word to Carl Miller, Hardcastle should have his number there.”
“Okay, Keller. Hey, man, take it easy. Watch yourself.” Mark held the receiver long after Keller had hung up. Finally, he replaced it and rummaged through the Judge’s desk drawers. Finding the small black phone book in the back of the middle drawer, he thumbed through the pages, trying to find the number.
“Aha! At last. Figures Hardcastle would have it listed under ’J’ for Judge instead of ’C’ or ’M’.” Mark quickly touchtoned the phone number, but the line rang without an answer. “Damn.”
McCormick pulled a pistol from the side drawer and checked to see if it was loaded. Keller needed help now, and since Miller wasn’t home and Hardcastle was visiting his friends with the P&P board, there was no one else around to help but him. Tonto to the rescue! He scribbled a note to Hardcastle and laid it on the desk, telling the Judge where he was going.
Sarah saw him as he climbed into the Coyote, awkwardly placing the gun under his shirt. “Mark?”
Mark waved to her as he left the estate, speeding down the street.
“Where is he going?” Sarah wondered. She went back into the house, opening the windows in the den to air it out. She never noticed the small piece of paper blow off the desk onto the floor.
McCormick darted in and out of the afternoon traffic, racing towards Talbridge’s house before Keller could leave. If he got there in time, Keller would have some backup when he made his move, no matter where he chose to do it. If Keller had enough of a chance, Mark could just drive him away in the Coyote, without being seen.
When Mark arrived at the house, he saw some of Talbridge’s men in a rush, throwing suitcases into the midnight blue limo. “Uh oh, it’s hit the fan.”
Mark drove the red car past the house and parked it out of sight. Slowly and carefully, he made his way on foot to the carport, avoiding the thugs who were running about. Slipping into the kitchen, McCormick listened for sounds of life in the main hall. Hearing nothing, he edged out along the wall and headed for the stairs. On the second floor, Mark eased past the closed doors, listening for any signs of Keller’s whereabouts. Not until he was near the end of the hallway did he hear Keller’s voice. Apparently arguing with Talbridge, if the noise level was any indication.
Mark leaned closer to the door and listened.
“Talbridge, you can’t get away this time. People know about me being here. There’s nowhere for you to go.”
“Perhaps. But I will make sure that you are not alive to greet them.”
Mark leaned closer, pressing his ear against the door. Suddenly, the door opened and McCormick fell in. Looking up from the floor at Talbridge, Mark smiled engagingly.
“Sorry to drop in like this, but I heard you were looking for a new driver and I thought that I would apply. Is this an inconvenient time? I could come back.” Mark started to get up, but Talbridge kicked him back down. “Well, if you insist, I’ll stay.”
“Keller, it seems that your friend is alone. Where are your troops?”
“I’m just the advance man, the others are on their way,” Mark answered.
“I don’t think so, Mr. McCormick -- isn’t that your name?” Talbridge called for his men. “Take there two with us. They can be of some amusement while we are holed up in the country.”
Keller and McCormick looked at each other as they were dragged out the door. They both knew what that meant -- Talbridge’s favorite pastime was torture…literally.
All Mark could hope was that Hardcastle had got the note and was on his way. After all, didn’t the Lone Ranger always save Tonto in the nick of time?
“Where’s McCormick?” Hardcastle bellowed, scaring Sarah into dropping the picnic trays left over from the poolside dinner the night before.
“Thank God, your Honor, I think Mark’s in trouble. He took your gun from the desk and left in the Coyote.”
“How long ago?” Hardcastle hurried into his office, looking for a note.
“Just a few minutes ago. He was in a terrible hurry. He had a phone call just before that.” Sarah followed him into the study.
“Phone call? Who?”
“I don’t know, but the man asked for you first. When I told him that you were out, he asked for Mark.
“Did McCormick say anything, anything at all?”
Sarah shook her head. Hardcastle found nothing on top of the desk, and sat back in his chair, trying to decide who had called. It couldn’t have been Pierson. Mark wouldn’t have taken a gun to meet him, no matter how much he might want to. Then who could it have been? An old friend in trouble? Or… Hardcastle’s eyes landed on a scrawled piece of paper laying near the trash can. He leaned over and picked it up.
“Damn it!” Hardcastle reached for the phone. “He’s in no condition to be doing this.” Hardcastle waited impatiently while the phone rang.
Finally, a slurred voice answered. ‘lo.”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“Milt Hardcastle. Have you heard from Keller lately?”
“No, in fact, he’s overdue to call. Why?” Miller sounded awake and alert now.
“McCormick’s gone after him. Keller’s in trouble and said something about a meeting place. Where?”
“Talbridge’s country place. He stores his race cars there, both the demo derby one and the stock car. If he’s heading for a safe spot, that would be the place.”
“Get the cops and have them head there as fast as possible. I’ll meet them there.”
“You’re not going there. Let the cops handle it.”
“Carl, they’ve got Keller and maybe McCormick, too. Just get the cops!”
“Look, can’t we just talk this over?” McCormick was hanging from an ancient set of manacles, all oiled and made workable. Talbridge’s men had cut the cast from his arm to make it easier to hang the right arm up. The pain was bad, but not as bad as it was going to be when Talbridge began his fun and games. McCormick was having problems keeping a stiff upper lip. When was Hardcastle going to get there?
“Perhaps you are wondering what I have in mind for you?” Talbridge fiddled with some implements laying on a nearby table. Some were recognizable, others weren’t, but the ones that were, were enough to scare the daylights out of McCormick. There was very little time left.
“Not really, but feel free to tell me. Feel free to tell me anything you want.” McCormick watched Keller out of the corner of his eye. Miller’s associate was slowly working on his ropes.
“Oh, I will, Mr. McCormick, I will. But I can play and talk at the same time.” Talbridge picked up a small whip with multiple leather thongs at the end. “This is an amusing instrument of pain.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” McCormick winced as the whip cracked the air near his bare chest. The fun and games had begun.
Hardcastle arrived just ahead of the police at the country house. He was itching to bust inside, but the head cop didn’t want to make a move until they were sure of the layout.
“If we go in without any preparation, we could get both Keller and McCormick killed. A little patience, Judge, just have a little patience.”
Hardcastle paced up and down the road, anxiously awaiting the signal to move in. Finally, the word was given and the local cops and their SWAT team began to move on the house. Hardcastle followed behind, trying to find the most likely location for McCormick and Keller to be. As they got nearer the house, the police dropped to the ground and crawled closer. The people in the house didn’t even expect company, so there were no guards on duty. A bad mistake on Talbridge’s part and, with any luck at all, his last.
The SWAT team swept through the house, covering each door with their M-16s and Uzis. As they approached the stairs to the basement, they could hear muffled sounds. The advance men burst down the stairs and met the first resistance. It was a fairly quick fight, as the goons were outnumbered. When all the gunfire had died down, Hardcastle pushed past the SWAT team who were clearing up the mess of guns and wounded men. He touched his own gun as he pushed through the door.
Hardcastle walked into a nightmare. McCormick was hanging from the ceiling, his body covered with blood, both dried and still fresh. Cuts and scrapes could be seen underneath. His head lolled loosely, his chin resting on his chest. At first, Hardcastle thought that McCormick was unconscious, in fact he hoped that the boy was. But he soon saw that McCormick’s eyes were open and somewhat aware. Glancing around the room, the Judge saw Keller lying in a corner, bleeding from a head wound. Talbridge didn’t appear to be there.
Hardcastle saw file cabinets, tables and desks pushed against the walls of the converted basement/office. There were no windows or doors other than the door the Judge had entered through. He moved towards McCormick, cautiously surveying the room for signs of life other than McCormick or Keller. Just as the Judge reached McCormick, he spotted Talbridge.
The killer was hiding behind an old gray file cabinet, partially hidden by Mark’s body. Hardcastle brushed his hand against McCormick’s leg, using the movement to distract Talbridge’s attention from his other hand which was slowly and carefully moving the gun from under his navy blue jacket.
Talbridge pulled a semi-automatic from his side and held it on the Judge. “You’re my ticket out of here, so be very careful what you do.” Talbridge rose, keeping his weapon on Hardcastle. He moved past McCormick, seemingly unconcerned as to whether or not the man was still alive. Hardcastle stepped backwards, ready to fire if necessary.
Talbridge pointed the gun at the racer. “I wouldn’t try anything, if you value your assistant’s life.”
Hardcastle froze, his attention on the white ring under Mark’s ribcage, caused by the pressure of the muzzle. “Don’t. Please don’t.
“No.” A raspy voice came from the beaten McCormick. “No more.”
“Shut up, you!” Talbridge swung the semi-automatic around, using the butt to hit McCormick’s right arm.
The man gasped, then grabbed with his legs at Talbridge’s body, wrapping them around the sadist. Hardcastle pulled the weapon from Talbridge’s hands, then swung on him as McCormick’s grip loosened. Talbridge dove for the door, running into two uniformed SWAT men who greeted him with two M-16s pointed in his face.
“It’s all over, Talbridge. Your reign of terror is over for good.” Hardcastle shook his head. “Get him out of here.”
“Hey, Hardcase,” McCormick called hoarsely.
Hardcastle turned and grabbed the manacles’ key laying on the table. He grimaced as he saw the various torture devices there. As another police officer came in, Hardcastle threw him the keys. “Unlock them.”
Hardcastle caught McCormick in his arms as the manacles were unlocked, releasing the ex-car thief. Hardcastle lowered him to the ground, keeping his arms around McCormick’s body to shield the cuts from the rough floor.
“Get an ambulance. And hurry.”
An older officer looked up from where he was checking Keller’s wounds. Already sent for, your Honor.”
“How is he?” Hardcastle asked, indicating Keller.
“He’ll live, he’s just got a bad lump on his head. How about him?” The police sergeant asked, pointing at McCormick.
The Judge didn’t answer, almost afraid to look at the amount of damage down to McCormick.
“Judge?” McCormick groaned as he tried to lift his head.
“Yeah, kid, take it easy. The good guys are here.” Finally, the Judge added to himself. “You’re going to be okay, just hang on.” His voice trailed off, the words hard to find. He could only start to imagine what McCormick had been through, probably waiting for him to arrive in the nick of time. But the big important Judge didn’t get there in time. In fact, he had almost arrived entirely too late.
McCormick reached up and gripped Hardcastle’s jacket, pulling himself up. “How are we gonna explain this one to Pierson?”
Hardcastle looked down, not sure if he had heard correctly. “What?”
McCormick smiled, fully aware of the Judge’s guilt trip. “I said, how are we going to explain this to the idiot at P & P? I don’t think he’ll believe that I fell down the stairs, do you?”
“Damn you, McCormick.”
“I think I already have been, thank you, your Honor. I think I already have been.” McCormick’s smile became vacant as he slumped in Hardcastle’s arms, unconscious.
“Cripes, McCormick, don’t you know when to quit?” Hardcastle watched as his assistant did his 50th push-up. McCormick was dripping in sweat and the recent tan was only partially covering up the now healed scars.
The two men hadn’t spoken of what went on in the small basement room. Hardcastle didn’t know what to say, while McCormick didn’t seem to want to remember. Keller had visited once, after he was released from the hospital, but the visit was uncomfortable.
As far as Hardcastle could tell, there were no obvious problems from the torture session. And yet, things had changed. Mark wasn’t so up, didn’t seem to enjoy leaving the grounds. His retorts were stilted, forced.
The doctors had told Hardcastle to give him time. Even capture was difficult for some people to adjust to, to forget. Torture on top of that would take time to learn to live with. The psychological wounds would take more time than the physical hurts to heal.
Pierson had been taken care of the day that McCormick had been caught by Talbridge. His superiors suggested strongly that he was overzealous, and perhaps a vacation might be in order.
Hardcastle wondered if a vacation wouldn’t be in order for McCormick, too. Maybe he could mention it tonight at dinner. A couple of weeks in the mountains, or maybe the islands, that might be nice.
McCormick collapsed, rolling onto his back and shielding his eyes form the sun with his arm across his face. He was panting, almost hyperventilating.
“Want some lunch?” the Judge asked.
“No. I’ve got to trim back the hedges.” McCormick pulled himself up and headed for the garage.
“Kid, you trimmed the hedges yesterday -- and cleaned the pool, cut the lawn, and did the various other yard chores. This place could be a model for House Beautiful. I don’t think anything has to be done again quite so soon. Give it a rest, will ya?”
McCormick continued walking towards the garage. “Then I’ll clean up the garage. I’m bored.”
“Your Honor, you have a visitor.” Sarah escorted a blond man to the back patio. “Mr. Duncan from the District Attorney’s office.”
“Mr. Duncan, what can I do for you?” Hardcastle watched as McCormick disappeared through the hedges by the driveway.
Duncan threw a videotape onto the table. “I thought you might want this.”
Puzzled, Hardcastle picked up the tape. “What is it?”
“It’s McCormick during that hell session.”
Hardcastle’s grip tightened on the cassette. “He taped it? Jesus, that…that…”
“Uh-huh, that’s what we thought. After having seen the tape -- well, give McCormick my condolences. No one should have to go through what McCormick went through. I thought that he might want to destroy it himself.”
“We feel there’s no value in this tape being shown in court. The defense would object, rightly, to its inflammatory value.” Duncan shook Hardcastle’s hand. “Warn him that he might have to testify, will you?”
“Yes. Yes, I will. Thank you for coming.”
Judge Hardcastle stood looking at the cassette in his hand. Finally deciding, he went inside the house and to his study, where he had a VCR. Placing the tape in the machine and switching on the television, Hardcastle hesitated. Did he have the right to see the tape without McCormick’s permission? Without even his knowledge? Hardcastle turned on the tape player.
“Dear God in heaven.” Hardcastle leaned back in his chair, listening to the video tape rewind. He felt drained, ill. Why did he watch the tape? Why did he sit through the whole thing? Hardcastle knew why. If McCormick could go through all of that, survive essentially intact, then Hardcastle could watch it, try to understand what McCormick was experiencing.
He heard a knock on the door. “Yes?”
“Sarah said you wanted to see me. What is it?” McCormick stood in the doorway. He looked as if he would take flight at the slightest provocation.
Judge Hardcastle glanced toward the VCR. It had finished rewinding, just as McCormick arrived. “Come in, close the door behind you.”
McCormick did so, while Hardcastle retrieved the tape. When Mark turned back around, the Judge handed it to him.
“A little souvenir from your stay in the country. Talbridge likes reruns.”
Mark turned and flung the tape against the wood paneling. The case cracked open. “Damn him! I could kill him for this, I could…” Mark’s voice broke, his threats ending in sobs. He slammed the door open, stumbling into the hallway.
Hardcastle followed him, refusing to allow McCormick to handle things alone this time. He grabbed Mark by the shoulders and swung him around.
“Cry, son. Let it out.” Hardcastle pulled him closer, gently holding McCormick in a hug.
The victim of Talbridge’s cruelty broke down completely, his sobs becoming uncontrollable. Hardcastle could hear the muffled curses against his shoulder as Mark vented his rage against the session with the serial killer. Mark began to hiccup as the crying died down. He pulled away from the Judge’s arms, somewhat embarrassed by his display of emotion.
“Yeah, I suppose. Sorry about the weepy scene.” McCormick stared at the floor.
“Mark, don’t ever be ashamed of your emotions. Everyone has them, everyone. And sometimes you have to release them, or you’ll be in worse trouble.”
McCormick looked into Hardcastle’s eyes. “Yeah, I know. But it’s not my style.”
Laughing shakily, the Judge replied. “I never knew anyone who showed his emotions as often, or as easily as you do.”
McCormick smiled back. “The doctors at the hospital thought that I should see a psychiatrist. I think that might be a good idea. I’m ready to try and forget this, but first I have to see it through. What do you think?”
“I think that’s a good idea, Mark. What about the tape?”
“Burn it. I don’t want it around. I don’t want to see it.” Mark went back into the study and picked up the tape. He began pulling the film off the cassette roller, until he had a large mass of twisted tape at his feet. He shoved it into a waste basket and took the garbage outside. Once near the pool, he took out a matchbook and set the tape on fire.
The two men stood watching the colors in the flames change as the video tape went up in smoke. McCormick stared into the fire until it was completely burned out, then walked over to the beach trail. He turned as the ground sloped down, waiting for the Judge to join him. Hardcastle followed.
The two men walked side-by-side down to the beach. They strode down the shoreline in silence, Hardcastle content to allow McCormick to start the conversation.
As Mark stopped to watch a passing sailboat out on the horizon, he coughed. “Milt, did you watch it?”
Hardcastle hesitated, knowing that how he answered as well as what he answered could be extremely important. “Yes, Mark, I did.”
Mark turned, heading back to the house. He didn’t say a word to the Judge until they were back at the house. “I wish you hadn’t, but…” Mark finally looked the Judge in the face. “I guess you felt you had to.” It sounded more like a question than a statement.
“Kid, I didn’t even know if I was going to give you the tape or not. Especially after I saw what was on it.” Hardcastle felt a catch in his throat.
“Please, I don’t want, I can’t talk to you about this, not yet. Maybe later, after I see a shrink.” Mark shoved his hands in his pockets, shyly smiling at the Judge. “Thank you.”
“For understanding, for trying to help without forcing me. I don’t know what…” Mark left the sentence unfinished, certain that the Judge understood without the thought being vocalized.
Hardcastle stood next to McCormick and tried to respond without sounding too ‘mushy’, knowing that that would make McCormick, and himself, very uncomfortable. “I’m here, kiddo, I want you to know that. If you need me, for anything at all.”
They both sat down by the pool and drank in the unusually cool day, savoring the even more unusual peace that existed between them. Hardcastle and McCormick were both aware that this wouldn’t last, they wouldn’t want it to, but it was nice for a change.