Frank Harper arrived on time at the diner where he'd agreed to catch up with Hardcastle. The judge was there with a fresh plate of food already served up in front of him.
“Looks good,” Frank said looking at his friend's burger and fries plate. He took a seat across from Milton and waved the waitress over. After he'd ordered the same, they got down to business.
“So did you talk to Emhart, Milt?”
“Said I would, didn't I?”
Harper nodded, “So are you going to tell me how it went or do I have to guess?”
“You could probably guess, Frank. It went. The man is still a jackass but even he doesn't trust Ericson. I think you might be right about him.”
“I hope you kept it civil, Milt, we're going to need Emhart's backup on this.”
Hardcastle suddenly found his lunch plate incredibly interesting.
“Milt? Tell me you didn't …”
“Of course I didn't. I might have been a little less than polite though.”
“Well, I couldn't help it. He even had the gall to bring up McCormick, like he was some kind of two-bit snitch. We got past it, okay? I'm never going to be joining the man's fan club, that’s for sure, but I think if we need a little quiet help he'll be there. He wants Ericson gone for his own reasons.”
“That's as good as we could expect. How did things go with Mark last night? He's not here hanging over your shoulder in protection mode so I assume you managed to keep him out of the loop.”
“I told ya, he's got enough on his plate.”
“Yeah, Milt, I saw him last night so I believe you. He’s running himself ragged. I guess I just wanted to know if the two of you were all right.”
Hardcastle sighed, “Damned if I know, Frank. We don't talk anymore, not about the important stuff. It's either him asking me about the law or me harping on him to eat and sleep.”
“I don't suppose he's planning to do either of those today, huh?”
“Nah, he was gone to school early this morning, and he left a note that he wouldn't be back until later. I'm not expecting him home until very late.”
“It'll work out, Milt. Mark's smart enough to figure this out for himself, eventually.”
“Yeah, I'm just worried about the damn fool.”
“Have you told him that?”
Hardcastle looked uncomfortable, so Frank knew the answer was “no.”
“The biggest problem between you and Mark is that you both assume you know what the other is thinking. Milt, just talk to him.”
Frank's food arrived, and after a quick nod of thanks for the waitress, he tucked in.
“Anyway, I did a little digging into Foster and Davis. I couldn't find any connection to Ericson on paper but I did uncover a couple of odd details from a few years ago,” Frank managed between bites.
“Oh, yeah, like what?” Hardcastle asked.
“There was an internal affairs investigation raised a few years ago. Foster and Davis were suspected of running an insurance scam. The initial investigation was looking into potentially faked accident reports that were all signed off by the same mechanic, a guy by the name of Andrew Mattock, but the investigation apparently didn't have any basis and it was closed. No charges were laid. Foster and Davis were cleared.”
“So if there's no direct connection to Ericson, what makes you think the decision was dirty?”
“Ah, I said there was no connection on paper. The internal affairs investigation was run out of the San Francisco office…”
Milt laughed a little, “The same office where Ericson was making a name for himself.”
”So, they do know each other, and you think it was Ericson that had the investigation buried.”
Frank nodded enthusiastically and waved his empty fork in Hardcastle's direction. “Yeah, I do, and I'll tell you what else I think, Milt. I think the scam is still active. I got curious and looked into the number of motor vehicle accidents that Foster and Davis have recorded as having attended. Milt, it's nearly six times the average.”
“Well, that is interesting,” Hardcastle said, as he drained the last of his coffee.
“But it gets better. More than two thirds of the vehicle write-offs are processed through the same chain of repair shops, and all of them are owned by the same guy.”
“Oh, let me guess, Frank, this guy who owns all these repair shops, he's the same guy who was listed in the initial investigation, right?”
“Got it in one, Andrew Mattock.”
“Okay, so Ericson stumbles across an open investigation into what must have been a fairly small-scale scam operation run by Foster and Davis and their mechanic partner. Instead of continuing the investigation he sees a potential money maker and shuts down the investigation. He either buys off or coerces Foster and Davis into working for him.”
“From what I saw, Milt, I'd say it was a payoff, Foster and Davis didn't look the least bit coerced.”
“Yeah, probably. Anyway, Ericson has reorganised and expanded the business. Somewhere along the way your friend Bill Cook sticks his nose into Ericson's business and, bam, they kill him. Dress it up like a suicide.”
Both men were silent for a while, neither suddenly very interested in their meals. Frank pushed some of his food around on the plate.
“It's a good theory, Milt, but right now that's all we've got.”
After a few more moments of thought Hardcastle spoke. “I think we need to go have a talk to this auto repair king and see if we can shake anything loose there. Ericson is too smart to have left any direct trail. Foster and Davis, for whatever reason, are tight with him. Besides, they're cops and they won't scare easy. All that's left is the mechanic, Mattock. He's got to be feeling a little on the outs, going into crooked business with a bunch of cops. Could be we might be able to get a little leverage.”
“Okay, but we do this together. Mark would kill me if I let you go off by yourself.”
They took Milt's truck. Frank's car was unmarked, but he couldn't help it -- it still 'looked' like a cop's car. Frank got out and scanned the well-appointed garage, with more than half a dozen mechanics diligently working on at least twice that number of cars. Business was good.
An older man, only a few years younger than Milt, looked up as the pair approached. He straightened and wiped his hands clear of engine grease on a nearby cloth and dumped it on a bench as he came over.
Sorry, boys, we're booked solid for the next few days. If you need urgent work done you'll have to take your truck elsewhere, but if it's a just a lube we could probably fit you in next week,” the man said with a regretful shake of his head and a smile.
“Doesn't look coerced to me,” Milt whispered quietly to Frank.
“Are you Andrew Mattock?” Frank asked when the man approached.
Immediately the man's eyes narrowed and the welcoming smile vanished. “Who's asking?”
“I'm Frank Harper and this here is Milt Hardcastle,” Frank said gesturing to Hardcastle.
The friendly introduction seemed to mollify the man a little and he shrugged the tension easing. “Yeah, I'm Andy Mattock.”
Hardcastle looked around. “Great setup you've got here,” he said.
Mattock was still suspicious. “Yeah, business has been good.”
“Yeah, I just bet it has,” the judge said.
“Well, as I said, we're booked up so you'll have to take your truck elsewhere.”
“That's fine, Andy, you don't mind if I call you Andy, do you?” Hardcastle said, barely giving the other man time to shake his head before ploughing onward. “Besides, I have my own mechanic. He's a little overworked at the moment too, but I don't think I'd trust my truck to anyone else.”
Mattock looked confused and wary. “So if you're not here for a service or repair, what can I do for you?”
Milt exchanged a quick glance with Frank.
“We heard you specialise in accident repair.”
Mattock looked nervously between the two men. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We’re talking about the nice little deal you've got set up with a couple of cops named Foster and Davis. We want to know how Lars Ericson fits into it all.”
Mattock's head jerked back a bit, as though Milt had reached out and slapped the man.
Score, thought Hardcastle.
“I said I have no idea who you're talking about,” Mattock said firmly, but it didn't take a detective genius to see that the man was lying.
“Oh, really?” Frank asked, stepping forward. Mattock took a small nervous step backward.
“You see, I have documented evidence that you do know Foster and Davis, that you know them very well. Well enough to have put together a tidy insurance scam.”
“That's ridiculous,” Mattock stammered. “There is no proof!”
Hardcastle shared another glance with Frank. The man was far too easily rattled to have come up with a scam like this by himself, or to have kept it going as long as it had.
Milt gestured around to the garage, fitted with the latest in technology. “So how did you get the start-up capital for this place, Andy?”
“What? I want you guys to leave… now!”
Hardcastle leaned in closer. “Are you sure about that? Your buddies Foster and Davis are going down, you know. They aren't going to be able to protect you, even if they wanted to.”
Frank nodded sadly in agreement. “Cops do tend to stick together. When it comes right down to it, they are going to do the best they can for each other but anyone else, anyone on the outside, well…”
Mattock looked more than a little spooked. Hardcase shook his head too. “Shame, all this loyalty and what will it get you?”
Mattock was backing away now, not making any pretence of hiding his fear.
The judge shrugged. “Well, if you're sure. But if I were you I'd get myself a real good lawyer.”
Harper and Hardcastle stood side by side and watched as Andy Mattock all but scurried away, vanishing into one of the offices within the garage. Frank looked over to his friend of many years.
“That was fun. I can see why you and Mark keep doing this.”
They headed back to the truck. “Come on, Frank, you're a cop. You get to do this sort of thing all the time. It's no different.”
“Oh, yes it is, and you know it. As a cop I gotta follow the rules. I’ve got to worry about due process and civil rights, you… you and Mark get to walk in and just stir the pot. That's a big difference.”
Hardcastle opened the driver's side and climbed into the cab. He had a smile on his face while he waited for Frank to get settled. “Okay, you're right, Frank, it is a lot more fun this way.”
Frank just rolled his eyes as Hardcastle started the engine and pulled out into traffic. “So, what's next?”
Milt thought about it for a few moments. “We need to get surveillance on Foster and Davis. You'll have to do that, Frank. This is one time when it's easier to be a cop. I'm pretty sure we have Mattock spooked. He's got to be at least thinking about his situation. I figure he'll either go to Foster and Davis for help or he'll go with accusations. Either way we need to know how they react.”
“And what will you be doing?” Frank asked.
Hardcastle could hear the faint censure in his friends tone. “Don't worry, I'm going home. I'm going to check into Ericson's finances with my own resources, and a few slightly less official channels.”
Frank nodded his agreement. “All right, sounds good. How about we meet back at your place tonight and compare notes.”
Hardcastle hesitated for a moment.
“Still haven't any plans to tell McCormick, huh?”
“Frank, it's not like I want to keep him out, it's just I don't see what help he can be.”
“Milt, you have to talk to him.”
“I'll think about it, okay?”
Night air, blowing through the open top of his car, ruffled though Mark's hair as he drove. It was late, very late, and the PCH was all but deserted. Mark opened the throttle up a little and pushed the Coyote through the corners. He loved how responsive this car was. Even though he knew it was long past time he gave the engine a service and a tune up, it seemed to react to his every wish almost before he directed it to. It was moments like this that he was pleased the judge let him win that bet to pay his tuition fees. If the judge hadn't taken over the responsibility of the bill there was no doubt in Mark's mind that he would have needed to sell the Coyote. He would have missed it.
It was the only thing he had that was worth anything, but it wouldn’t have been the monetary value that he would have missed. He would have missed the connection it represented. This car was the last link he had to his old life, his old dreams. Dreams that had seen him through some pretty harsh days.
Very few things eased him more than tinkering with the high-performance engine. It took a lot of work to keep a car like this in top condition but Mark had never minded. He found the work therapeutic. Have a fight with the judge? Go work on the Coyote for a few hours. Something in a case going wrong? Take the Coyote out on the desert highway in the cool night air and let the car show what it could do.
He’d have to find the time to give it a little attention. It could use it. He could hear a slight variance in the engine sound and a glance at the dash let him know the engine was running a little hotter than it should be. Mark sighed. The engine needed work.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that at first he didn't notice the flashing red and blue lights behind him.
Mark looked down at the dash again and groaned. The speedometer showed he was at least eight miles per hour over the limit. The judge was going to rake him over the coals for getting yet another speeding ticket. He took his foot off the accelerator and let the Coyote idle down to a much slower speed while he looked for a safe place to pull off the road. The cruiser behind him caught up quickly and matched pace with him. Mark pulled the car over on a short straight section of road and shut the engine off. He dug into his pocket to find his licence.
He was just pulling out his registration papers when he heard the crunch of footsteps on gravel coming up besides the car. He looked over at the cop, it wasn't one he recognised. This cop was a tall man with a slightly crushed uniform, sandy-colored hair above a stern face. The cop had his hand resting on the top of his holstered sidearm in what was obviously a warning.
Must be new to this beat, Mark thought. He'd been pulled over for speeding so many times that he'd often been pulled over by the same cop. They'd gotten to know him and it had been a while since he'd been treated to the full hard-core cop routine. Fortunately he remembered it well enough to know to be particularly polite.
“Good evening, officer,” Mark said, being sure to keep his hands clearly visible.
“Your licence and registration,” the cop snapped.
Mark frowned a little. He supposed he'd been hanging around the judge and Frank too long and it bothered him that the officer had been so abrupt.
Mark said nothing but handed over his licence and registration papers. The officer took them and flicked on his flashlight. First shining the beam on the papers Mark had presented him before turning the light to shine full into Mark's face. The officer left the light shining brightly in Mark's eyes for more than a minute.
“Is 101 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu your current address, Mr. McCormick?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And do you own the residence?”
“Uh, no, retired Judge Milton C. Hardcastle owns the property and I live there.”
Mark was resigned to getting another ticket.
“Step out of the car, Mr. McCormick.”
Mark began to pull himself up and out of the car. The cop was standing too close to the side for him to open the door.
“Officer, I know I was speeding...”
Mark wasn't watching the cop so it came as a surprise when he felt himself seized by one arm and the back of the neck and dragged from the car.
“Oof,” he grunted as he was dragged clear, spun around and slammed against the side of the Coyote. “Hey!” he protested.
A short, hard jab to his right kidney took his breath away, effectively silencing him.
“Shut up,” the cop holding him hissed in his ear.
He could hear the approach of a second cop. Any hopes Mark may have had that this new cop could rein in his partner were dashed the moment the new cop spoke.
“Is it him?” the second cop asked.
“Yeah, it's him. Here's his licence, he lives with that judge.”
“What's going on?” Mark asked. He was beginning to have a very bad feeling about the situation.
Another, even harder punch to the same kidney silenced him again. He could hear his licence being transferred to the other cop and a few muttered comments but he was too busy trying not to throw up to really gather much information from the exchange. He really hated getting punched in the kidney. Not only did it hurt like hell, it took his breath away and made him instantaneously nauseous.
Whatever was going on it wasn't just a simple case of speeding. These cops had been waiting for him specifically. At least I probably won't end up with another ticket this time, Mark thought encouragingly.
He was spun around again, the movement causing a flare of pain from his injured knee and he couldn't help but stagger slightly to the side. One cop didn't appreciate the unauthorised movement and let Mark know it with a solid punch to his stomach. Mark gagged and spat the results to the ground by his feet.
A hand grabbed him by the hair and pulled him straight. “Pathetic,” was the judgement call of the cop who had him in the painful grip.
Mark didn't have time to say anything before his head was slammed backwards against the top of the Coyote. He was stunned and dazed, barely fighting off unconsciousness. When he came back to himself he found himself once more leaning forward over his own car, this time he could feel his hands pulled back behind him as cuffs were tightened around his wrists.
“Put him in the car,” the older cop said.
It was too late to fight back, and when Mark thought about it, he realised that he wouldn't have a chance anyway. One lame, handcuffed person against two well-armed assailants… the calculation was not in his favor. He'd be dead before he made it two feet. Not that he thought it likely that he would be surviving whatever these guys had in store for him anyway. He was no longer even entirely sure they were real cops.
No, he revised his thought. They were real cops, just real bad cops. They had the look, the uniforms, the police cruiser, the attitude and they knew the routine, but this was not a normal arrest.
He was shoved through the opened rear door of the cruiser with no consideration to his safety. Mark barely managed to avoid hitting his head against the door jamb on the way.
As soon as the younger cop let him go and slammed the self-locking door behind him, Mark struggled into a sitting position. The older cop got in behind the wheel while the younger cop in the passenger side. The car started and turning around and heading back towards the city, accelerating away from the now abandoned Coyote. Mark wondered if the car would still be there when he made it back, assuming he did make it back. The Coyote was unlocked and keys left in the ignition.
Mark waited until he was sure his voice was not going to waver before he spoke. That 'pathetic' accusation the older cop had levelled at him had stung more than he'd like to admit.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
“I thought we told you to shut up,” the younger cop said, turning so that he could glare at his prisoner. Fortunately the metal cage separating the backseat from the cops in the front served to protect Mark from any further abuse.
“I don't know what you guys think I've done, but…”
The older cop laughed at that. “You? Who said you'd done anything? Who said we have any interest in you at all.”
“Then why am I here?” Mark asked.
The younger cop turned again and gave Mark a smile that chilled him.
“You're going to be our messenger boy. We have a message we want you to deliver to your judge friend.”
The judge? Suddenly, Mark had a flash of insight. The papers on the kitchen table the other day had been a case. Hardcase had lied to him. He and Frank were working on a case that had something to do with bad cops in the department and instead of letting him help or at least warning him, they'd just left him hanging.
“There's a fire road up ahead,” the younger cop said.
Mark’s bad feeling intensified. It seemed likely that these guys were going to give Hardcastle a permanent message. Mark began to think that even near impossible odds were better than none. There had to be a way to get himself away from these guys alive. And when he did, he and Hardcastle were going to have a long talk.
The older cop turned off the highway and drove down the unsealed gravel road. The drive was done in silence. Mark had nothing to say and the cops seemed to have no more interest in baiting the little fish.
They drove for nearly half of an hour before they stopped. Mark had never been this far into the hills and he was unfamiliar with the area. He still hadn’t come up with a viable plan of escape when the car pulled over.
The woods were close by the road’s edge. There were no lights, and no buildings nearby. No sign of habitation at all. Again he was dragged from the car and this time thrown to the ground. He came up to his knees spitting out the leaves and dirt he'd landed in.
The older cop circled him a few times, inspecting him like he was a particularly unpleasant bug he'd found against the bottom of his shoe.
“All right, here's the message we want you to give to your judge friend.”
A downward punch hit him across the right eye and knocked him to the ground in a blaze of pain.
“Judge Hardcastle needs to keep his nose out of business that doesn't concern him.”
That statement was followed up by a boot to his gut. Mark tried to curl and protect his head and stomach the best he could from the sudden flurry of blows and kicks, not an easy thing to do with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Somewhere through the assault Mark began to feel his awareness fading away.
As suddenly as they had begun the blows stopped. Mark lay there gasping for breath. It hurt like hell to breathe and he was fairly certain that a couple of his ribs were damaged. Everything seemed disjointed and confused, and Mark suspected he was fading in and out of consciousness. He heard two doors slam closed and a car engine before he worked out that the cops were leaving.
A flush of relief passed through him when he realised that he was still alive. It left him feeling shaky. From the beginning of the beating he'd fully expect that he would be killed on this dark, lonely road. His body left for some poor hiker or forestry officer to find. He'd felt bad that the judge would have most likely been the one they would call to come and identify what was left of him.
The cruiser backed up, its headlights nearly blinding him as he lay on the damp earth. In the bright light he could see splatters of red flecked across the leaf detritus covering the ground. He shivered there was a disturbing amount of red which he could only hope was coming from less serious injuries. Mark coughed and saw a fresh splatter of red speckle the leaves and the cough hurt like hell.
The car turned and drove away, taking the light with it. Mark lay still watching as the retreating tail lights were swallowed by the night.
Silence fell around him as the sound of the engine faded away. Eventually he could hear the sounds of the night creeping back. It was relaxing and Mark felt himself drifting away. He shook his head in alarm. If he fell asleep here the judge really would be identifying his body in a day or two, when someone finally found him. The exposure would kill him, even if his injuries were survivable. He couldn't let that happen. He reminded himself he’d survived worse.
With his hands bound behind him it took several attempts before he managed to get to his feet. He hobbled a few steps in the direction the cruiser had taken before he tripped over some unseen obstacle in the dark and fell back to the ground. Unable to catch himself he landed face first, no doubt adding to the collection of bruises he had there.
Sitting up Mark looked into at the darkness and realised this wasn't going to work. There was very little light from the waning moon making it through the canopy of leaves. He could barely see where the road was, let alone any obstruction on it. With his hands still cuffed behind him he had no chance of keeping his balance.
Mark remembered one long, tedious night in prison his cellmate had described an escape trick. It was a way to bring cuffed hands from the back to the front. Mark had never tried it before and it didn’t sound easy, but he had no choice. He had to try.
With a pained groan Mark rolled onto his back and used the ground to force his hands lower. The action hurt like hell but he kept at it, taking only brief breaks when he needed time to catch his breath and clear his head. Each time he failed he was less sure he was going to be able to pull it off, but eventually he managed to pull his cuffed hands down his back and up behind his knees. Having made it that far he had to take a rest.
Rolling sideways back into the leaves and dirt, Mark rested. It wasn’t the most comfortable position but exhaustion was catching up to him. He tried to stay awake but he was pretty sure he faded out for a while.
He wakened to find himself on his side, still bound in the awkward position and his body covered in a light coating of night dew. The moisture covered everything around him making him shiver. Encouraged that the hardest part was done, Mark managed to thread his good leg back through the cuffs. His injured leg caused him some pain but finally it was through and his bound hands were to the front.
This time when he passed out Mark could do nothing to stop it.
Milt had been waiting up for McCormick to make it home, but so far there had been no sign of him. The phone rang and for a few moments Milt hesitated before answering it. In Milt’s experience, calls at 2 AM were rarely good news. His first thought was that it would be McCormick, his second and more frightening thought was that it was the police calling about McCormick. It was a call he dreaded, a voice on the phone telling him that the kid had been in some kind of accident.
“Milt?” It was Frank.
“Frank, what’s happened?” Hardcastle asked hoping he wasn’t not about to get the news he feared most.
“Trouble, Milt. Ericson has launched an investigation into me. He’s playing hardball.”
Milt felt a surge of relief. Not good news but not the worst.
“On what charges?”
“He has raised allegations of corruption and taking bribes.”
“That’s ridiculous, Frank, no one will believe it”
“Milt, they already believe it enough to put me on suspension pending an I.A. investigation. I’ve lost my access. I can’t keep an eye on Foster and Davis anymore. I’ve spent the last several hours being questioned.”
“Never mind Foster and Davis, Frank, are you okay?”
“Not really, Milt. I haven’t told Claudia yet.”
“Anything you need. You know that, Frank.”
“Sure, Milt. I’ll be out to the estate as soon as I’m released here. I have a little more information for you.”
“All right, Frank, see you soon.”
Hardcastle hung the phone up. He knew this had to be hard for Frank. He was a dedicated officer with a list of citations. It had to be eating him up that he could be accused of something like this.
And where the hell was McCormick? Hardcastle didn’t want to admit it but he was worried.