Mark was cold and shivering when he woke again, the chill of the ground he lay on seeping into his body.
“It would have been easier if I had something to pick them with,” he muttered darkly tugging at his wrists.
This time, with the added assistance and balance of having his hands in front of him, he managed to get to his feet on the first attempt. The effort left him panting but he already felt more in control of his situation. With a slow limp he headed down the road.
It took the better part of three hours to make it back to where the Coyote had been left. On the trek his movement had become easier and so had his breathing. There was a painful area around one of his back teeth. He gently tested the area with his tongue. Mark couldn’t tell if the tooth was loose, but the gash on the inside of his cheek felt huge.
Mark knew he looked bad. The few cars that had passed him along the highway had steered a wide berth around him. He could only imagine what calls were going to be made to the police about him and he half expected to see a cruiser come along. If one did he was going to run for it. One run in a day was more than enough.
“Oh, thank God,” Mark muttered as he cleared the last bend.
Pulling up the medal from where it lay under his shirt Mark gave it a quick kiss of thanks. The Coyote was still there and it still had all four wheels. He moved as fast as he could to the bright red car and ran his bound hands lovingly along its sleek side.
He opened the driver's door and carefully lowered his hurt body into the seat. The relief of not moving made his head spin and for a while all he could do was simply sit there. The sky was beginning to lighten with the false dawn. All he wanted to do was to go home. The judge would be wondering where he was. He started the car and headed towards the estate.
“Where the hell is that kid,” Hardcastle muttered, pacing from the den to the front door for the umpteenth time that night. This wasn't the first time McCormick had stayed out all night, not by a long shot, but he was usually pretty good at letting the judge know when he was going to be late and when he wasn't planning on coming home at all.
The last time he'd spoken to the kid the morning before, McCormick had told him that he would be studying late. The law library had an all-night study section where students could study the night away if they wanted too. McCormick had already done that more times than Milt would have liked but he'd always, always given home a quick call first.
Milt had already called the station to see if there had been any incidents reported involving the young man. He'd nearly gotten in the truck several times to go out and look for him. It was only the promise he'd made Frank that he would be around that had stopped him.
Besides, it was most likely that the kid had fallen asleep on top of his books again.
Milt looked out at the slowly lightening sky and made a decision. He went to his desk and retrieved the truck's keys. If Frank called or showed up he would have to fend for himself for a little while. Milt was going out after McCormick and if he found him asleep at the law library this time he'd read the kid the riot act. Enough was enough.
He had only made it to the front door when he heard the Coyote coming down the drive. It was coming at a remarkably sedate pace compared to McCormick’s usual style.
Ha, guilty conscience, Milt thought.
He stormed from the house ready to blast the young man. McCormick pulled up into his usual spot, but made no immediate move to get out of the car.
“It's about time you got home!” the judge shouted at the driver as he marched over.
“No! Uh-huh, no way, Judge! You do not get to be angry at me. I get to be mad at you! I have had a hell of a night. Do you want to tell me what on earth you and Frank are into?”
Milt stumbled to a stop at his first sight of McCormick, still sitting in the driver's seat. It was odd, but the first thing Milt saw, were the hands resting against the top of the steering wheel. The wrists were bruised, swollen and cuffed together with a set of cuffs that had been put on far too tightly
“What happened to you?” the judge shouted, rushing over to the driver's side and popping open the door quickly but then easing it open slowly to prevent the kid falling out of the car.
“Please, Judge, not so loud,” McCormick muttered slumping back in his seat and letting his hands drop to his lap. He looked spent. “Just consider your message delivered, okay, and help me outta here,” McCormick grumbled in a subdued tone.
With the car door opened Hardcastle got a clear look at him It wasn't good. Every bit of exposed skin was sported deepening bruises and the judge could see the pallor spread underneath the younger man's blood splattered shirt.
“Geez, hold on kid, I'll call an ambulance.”
“No! Hardcase, I don't need an ambulance, I’m just tired. I've been walking for hours. Help me inside and get these damn cuffs off me, will ya?”
Hardcastle wanted to argue but he knew it wasn't beyond McCormick to refuse the paramedic's help if he did call them. The kid was stubborn like that sometimes.
As gently as he could he helped the younger man get to his feet. McCormick, for his part, only gasped a few times but each time he did, Milt felt it like a blow to the gut. He hadn't told him what had happened yet, but from his comments it was pretty clear that he'd been used to deliver a warning to back off. Hardcastle swallowed his anger while he was helping McCormick, but he could feel it seething just below the surface. He was angry at the people who'd done this, and he had a pretty good idea who that was. Underneath the anger was a deeper well of guilt. He was responsible for this too. He'd put McCormick in danger and hadn't even warned him that there was a risk.
Once McCormick was upright the judge took a firm but gentle grip on him and after giving the other a few moments to adjust to the change in position they began the slow walk to the main house.
McCormick let the Milt do all the work in helping him to sit on the couch. Once he was down McCormick closed his eyes and rested while the judge got the first aid kit. He pulled the coffee table over and put the kit on it before taking a seat beside McCormick and opening it. The first shock of seeing the damage had worn off and Milt was able to run a more experienced assessment of the young man's injuries.
“I don't know, kid, maybe you should let me call a doctor for you. You've taken a hell of a beating.”
“Tell me about it,” McCormick said with his eyes still closed and his head resting back against the well-stuffed couch. “No, Judge, there's nothing a doctor could do for me that you can't with your magic bag there.” McCormick gestured blindly in the direction of the coffee table and the first aid kit it held. “Besides, I'm too tired. All I want to do is rest.”
The judge grunted. “Fine, we'll do it your way… for now.”
McCormick just nodded and relaxed under the judge's care. The older man was muttering and grumbling but his touch when he tended to Mark's facial injuries was gentle and careful. It felt wonderfully normal to hear the Hardcastle grumbling but to know that he was safe after the night he'd had. Mark was still angry at him for having gone off on his own but for the moment he was content to just sit there and be taken care of.
“Kid, you awake, here?” the judge asked.
There was a light tap to his shoulder. “Sit forward. I need to get this shirt off ya.”
Mark considered the effort involved. He obviously took too long to make up his mind because a second tap came to his shoulder, a little firmer this time. “Come on, kid, if you're gonna pass out on me here I will be calling an ambulance for ya.”
“Said, no,” Mark muttered. He felt too lazy to even open his eyes as he leaned forward, relying on the judge's assistance.
“Yeah, well, I still think that's a dumb idea. Why didn't you go straight to the hospital in the first place rather than coming here?”
“Here was closer, 'sides, I told ya, I don't need the hospital.”
“Stubborn, idiot kid…” the judge began a fresh rant as he slowly peeled Mark's shirt from him.
“Ah, damn, kid. They really worked you over here,” Hardcastle muttered.
In Hardcastle’s opinion there was even worse hidden under the kid's shirt than extensive bruising. The kid had lost too much weight. The judge had known that the young man wasn't eating properly but seeing the weight loss in the distinct outline of each and every one of McCormick's ribs spiked his anger again.
He'd been able to justify ignoring his concerns until now but this was the end. He treated each of the McCormick’s injuries as carefully as he could. A gentle press to the injured area on his chest to check if the rib was intact produced a gasp and startled McCormick back into full wakefulness. Hardcastle was rewarded with a glare from the younger man. He was satisfied that he hadn't felt any give under his fingers when he'd pressed. No doubt they hurt but they weren't broken. The kid was right. He didn't really need a hospital. Not that Milton had any intention of saying that to him.
“I need to take a look at that knee of yours,” the judge said.
He noticed the embarrassed flush on McCormick’s face. Hardcase had no doubt that McCormick's embarrassment had nothing to do with modesty. That was not an affliction the kid suffered from. Rather, he suspected it had more to do with the fact that this particular injury pre-dated the beating.
Once he got a good look at the leg and the swollen knee his suspicions were confirmed. Most of the bruising was already beginning to yellow with age. Hardcastle tightened his lips in disapproval but he kept his touch gentle despite his frustrated anger.
“We need to talk, kid. This has to stop. And I mean right now,” Hardcastle said beginning to wind a supportive bandage around the hurt joint.
“Hey, this is not my fault. I didn't do a damn thing wrong!” Mark protested.
“I'm not talking about the beating. You're running yourself into the ground, kiddo. That has to stop.”
“I'd be fine if I wasn't getting pummelled on, just so some bad guy, who can't afford the cost of a postage stamp, wants to send you a message.”
“Look, I'm sorrier than hell about that, kid, but you've been walking around here for weeks looking like a half-starved zombie, and it's got to stop.”
Mark started to struggle up, no doubt intending to end the discussion by storming away to the gatehouse. The judge shoved him back into position.
“Sit still, will ya? I haven't finished and you aren't going anywhere until I do.”
It wasn't clear if the judge meant his first aid or his lecture but either way Mark settled back into the comfort of the couch. He crossed his arms over his chest still angry at the judge and determined to let him know it.
“I'm really sorry you got caught up in that, McCormick. You weren't supposed to…”
Mark was reminded that the judge had gone out on his own. That he'd lied to him and his anger spiked again.
“That's where you're wrong, Judge! I am supposed to be involved. What, you thought you could just side-line me like this and I wouldn’t mind?”
“I wasn't side-lining anyone! I was trying to look out for you, because Lord knows you weren't doing that for yourself!”
“So now I can't take care of myself?”
The judge gestured to the overly thin and damaged body before him. “I think the evidence speaks for itself, kiddo.”
“What! This is because I got blindsided by bad guys, bad guys that you promised you wouldn't be going after by yourself!”
“Wasn't by myself. I had Frank with me,” Hardcastle muttered but it was clear he didn't think it was much of a defence either.
“I asked you. I asked you straight up, and you said you weren't working on anything. You lied.”
“I was trying to make things easier for ya, kid.”
The old goat could have been killed and Mark would have been left with no answers as to why. It was only luck that the bad guys had decided to send Hardcastle a message through him instead of taking a direct approach. That would have been far worse.
“What do you want from me judge? I'm doing my best here. I don't think I can do any better!” Mark snapped.
“I'm not asking you to do better! I want you to slow down, damn it!”
“Slow down? Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how much I have to do? I need to speed up, not slow down. I’m falling so far behind I'm not sure I'm ever going to catch up!” Mark yelled.
Mark was sick of the fight. He was tired, sore and miserable and it felt like all the rules he counted on had suddenly changed. Hardcastle excluding him wasn’t right at all.
“You think this is easy for me, Judge?” Mark asked, feeling calm all of a sudden. “That I'm having fun at law school? Well, I'm not. It's hard, okay? But I'm trying my best not to waste your money and I'm trying…”
“That's what this is about!” the judge interrupted, derailing McCormick's train of thought.
“What are you going on about now?” Mark asked, confused.
“Money, the darn law school fees? That's why you’re out there trying to kill yourself with study every night?” the judge gestured towards the gatehouse and the loft room where McCormick spent a significant amount of time studying every night.
“No! Well, maybe. I don't know! Look, Judge, I owe you a lot, okay, I know that, and I am trying, but I’ve already stuffed up once. You saw that dismal grade.” Mark said harshly before dropping both his gaze and his tone. “I don’t want that to happen again Judge.”
“You are an idiot, do you know that kid?”
McCormick looked up defiantly at that. “That's what I just said, isn't it?”
“Oh, hogwash! You're not stupid. I said you're an idiot, that's totally different.”
“Okay, I must have lost my Hardcase translation book because that doesn't make any sense, Judge.”
“McCormick I don't care a whit about your law school tuition fees. I care that you're not looking after yourself, understand? So what if you hand in the occasional less than perfect assignment, it happens. You’re not always going to win your cases when you’re a lawyer you know? No one gets it a hundred percent right all the time.”
McCormick shook his head and looked away. “What if I can't make it, Judge.”
“Sure you can. You just gotta learn how to pace yourself. I do understand, kiddo. My first year in law school was hell too.”
“Yeah, Judge, but I'm not you.”
“Everything looks better in hindsight, McCormick. I didn't start out in my first year on the law review you know. I had a few subjects I struggled with. I even had a couple of less than stellar results here and there.”
“You… really?” Mark was amazed. He'd never asked, but he'd just assumed the judge had sailed through law school like it had been no big deal.
“Sure, I'll show you my records if you like. Sometimes it got pretty tough going. I was still a cop back then, so like you, working while I studied.”
Mark laughed, “I don't think slave and general dog’s-body counts as a real job, Judge.”
“Not that. You're still working my cases. We've already put away a couple of bad guys while you've been a student. You’re being too hard on yourself, McCormick.”
“I don’t know, Judge, sometimes I’m not so sure.”
“That’s okay, kiddo. I’m sure.”
Milt spent the next few hours in his den thinking over the conversation he'd had with McCormick. He had sent McCormick back to the gatehouse to sleep. He hoped the kid really was getting some rest but he doubted it. He hadn't slept either, having stayed up worrying about the younger man, and with good reason as it turned out. It had left him too unsettled to sleep.
He could hear a sedan coming down the drive toward the house that Hardcastle guessed was Frank.
Good, at least he's been released, he thought.
Milt met his friend at the door and led him to the den. “How are you doing, Frank?”
Harper shrugged, “I've been better, a long night.”
Milt harrumphed. “Tell me about it. They got McCormick on his way home last night, Frank. They roughed him up pretty bad.”
Frank was alarmed. He was Milt's friend, but he and McCormick had built their own strong and unusual friendship. “Is he all right?
“Yeah, he will be. He's sleeping it off in the gatehouse.”
“Nah, he's awake, Hardcase. You okay, Frank?” McCormick asked from the doorway.
Frank turned and gave a low whistle at the bruises he could see on McCormick’s face. ”No offence, but I think I should be asking you that, Mark.”
McCormick shrugged a little stiffly, “Like the man said, I'll be okay. Doesn't make it hurt any less right now. They let you go, you suspended?”
Frank sighed. “Yeah, had to surrender my badge and gun 'til the investigation is over.”
Mark came down the steps and headed for one of the chairs. Even the short rest seemed to have helped him at least move easier. “I'm really sorry, Frank.”
“I'll get reinstated when we catch these guys, but even if they don't put me back, I can't say I regret it. There are things I'd be willing to give it all up for and Billy Cook is one of them. But I'm sorry you got dragged into this too, Mark.”
Frank didn't see the judge grimace at that comment. The judge expected a retaliatory snap of anger from McCormick but all he got was a muttered comment. “The pair of you are exactly the same. I'm gonna have to get two leashes.”
Frank looked to Hardcastle, his eyebrow raised in question. His old friend didn’t answer other than to shrug.
“Was it Foster and Davis who beat up Mark?” Frank asked.
Mark sighed. “I don't know Frank, all I can tell you is they were big guys, I'd never seen either of them before and they knew how to use their fists, and their boots too for that matter.”
Hardcastle opened a file and pushed two photos across the desk to McCormick.
Mark leaned forward and looked at the photos for a moment then nodded. “Yeah, that's them.”
Hardcastle frowned and took the photos back, slipping them back into his file. He'd never wanted to nail someone as badly as he did these guys.
“So what's the plan, Kemosabe?” McCormick said, looking to the judge.
Hardcastle looked up in surprise at the term of affection McCormick used. He hadn’t heard that in a while.
“What else, we take them down. Frank, you said you had a more information.”
“I'm not sure how solid it is but, yeah. It looks like Ericson has expanded the insurance scam since he took over from Foster and Davis. Found a couple of references to a medical clinic over on Park Road.”
“Makes sense, there's a lot more money in medical and personal injury claims then there is in vehicle insurance alone.” Mark said thoughtfully.
Hardcastle sat back. “True, but there's also a lot more in the way of checks and balances, too. I don't know, Frank, they'd have to have at least one doctor willing to sign off on any of their phony medical reports. That's not as easy as getting a mechanic to fake a damage claim, you got to have real patient details and medical records to pull that one off.”
“Yeah, that's why I'm not entirely sure we’re on the right track. It could be done, but it would be hard to set up.”
Mark shook his head. “I don't think it would be that hard, Judge. You could just recycle some of your existing patients through the system. Claim you were focusing your practise into accident recovery or something. So you could pass a large number of bogus medical claims through without raising suspicions.”
“Mark might have something there, Milt. The clinic is a co-op building with several doctors all running independent clinics.” Frank opened his own file and leafed through a couple of pages.
“There is one doctor in the building that does most of the accident claims. Doctor Ormond – Suite 3 on the clinic's ground floor.”
“Worth checking it out,” Milt said.
Hardcastle could see McCormick's frown without even looking over at the younger man. McCormick obviously thought the judge was going to go in without him again.
“We even have the perfect way in,” Hardcastle said, pointing to McCormick's bruised and battered face.
“Looks like an accident victim in need of rehabilitation to me,” Frank said.
McCormick gave him a half-hearted smile in return. “Feel like one too,” he said.
Hardcastle nodded. “Right, you and Frank go and see if this doctor is a part of the game. That is if you’re up to it, McCormick.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you 'I'm fine', Judge?”
“Just until I believe it, kiddo.”
“And what are you planning to do?” Mark asked sternly.
“Well, first I'm going to make us some breakfast, and then I'm going to go into town and talk to Commissioner Jackass.”
“Emhart,” Frank corrected.
“Whatever. Ericson’s got to be watching, so as long as I keep his focus on me it leaves the two of you to do the leg-work.”
“Just be careful, Judge. Take it from me, these guys are not playing around. I'm not even entirely sure I was supposed to make it back last night.” Mark said.
“Nah, you're pretty tough, kid. But they're gonna pay for last night, trust me,” Hardcastle grumbled.
Mark didn't reply but he did acknowledge the judge's oath with a nod.
“You hungry, Frank?” Hardcastle asked.
“Good, you can help me rustle up some breakfast.”
Mark started to struggle up to his feet.
“You stay right where you are, McCormick. You've got another long day ahead. Frank and I will get it. Besides you've got a lot of reading to do to catch up on the case,” Hardcastle said, dumping his folder on the desk in front of McCormick.
“Another long day?” Mark muttered. “I haven’t finished the last day yet.”
Frank smiled at McCormick's dismayed expression. Milt had managed to put together a pretty thick file on the case in a relatively short period of time. He dumped his own thick folder next to the judge’s and gave McCormick a pat on the shoulder.
“Enjoy,” he said, and followed the judge out of the den.
McCormick sank back into his chair, pick Frank's folder up and began to look at the contents.
Frank picked Mark up right on time and they drove to the clinic. Frank was quiet and Mark was grateful for that. He had a lot of thinking to do.
He thought it was possible that Hardcastle might be right. Mark rolled his eyes at himself, what was he thinking? Hardcase was always right. But this time he really did make sense.
Mark had known going into it that law studies were going to be hard, but was he making them harder than they needed to be? One mediocre grade wasn’t the end of the world.
Not even his lecturers had demanded the level of perfection he himself had been trying to achieve. It was probably time he eased up a little. He still wanted to get good grades. Actually, he wanted better than good grades. He wanted the judge to be proud of him, but more than that he wanted to be proud of himself and know that he'd done his very best.
But maybe the judge was right? He didn't have to do everything at once. He could pace himself.
“Mark?” Frank's call roused him from where he'd been staring unseeingly out of the passenger window.
“Just checking if you were awake, we're just about there.”
“You got your story straight?”
“Yeah, it's easy when there is a lot of physical evidence to back it up.” Mark smiled self depreciatingly down at his bandaged wrists and the bruises they covered.
“Just be careful, okay?”
“No problems, Frank, this is the easy part.”
Frank pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine.
“You sure you don't want me to come in?”
“Yeah, it's a lot harder for a doctor, at least an honest one, to turn away an obviously injured patient without an appointment, if they don't have anybody around to help. You'd better get comfortable though, Frank. If they’re busy this could take a while.”
“Don't worry about me, Mark. This isn't my first stake-out and, with luck, it won't be my last either.”
Mark nodded and got out of the car. It didn't take any acting at all for him to look injured and in need of medical help as he walked up the short path and into Suite 3 of the clinic. The receptionist behind the counter of the nearly empty office was an older woman in her late forties. She looked up as Mark approached.
“May I help you?”
Mark nodded. “Yes, I was told that Doctor Ormond is a rehabilitation therapist? I'd like to see him.”
The receptionist gave him a strange smile. “Her. Do you have an appointment?”
“Sorry, uh, no, I don't but I'd really like to see her today if I could?”
The receptionist frowned and gave him a scrutinising stare, taking in his bruised face and the bandages. “I'll see if the doctor has an opening today,” she finally said. “Please fill out these forms and take a seat.”
Her... damn, probably should have looked into the doctor a little more before they came here. This was exactly the kind of ‘go in all guns blazing’ type action that sometimes got him ticked off at the judge.
The man’s a bad influence on me, Mark mused.
As Mark had thought, it took a while and both of the other patients in the waiting room were called in before the receptionist came back with his answer.
“Mr. McCormick? The doctor will see you now.”
It was about time. Mark was happy to leave the pale gray-green decor of the waiting room, it was an uncomfortable reminder of institutions Mark had spent entirely too long in.
Mark had to struggle to rise, and not one bit of it was faked. While he'd been waiting his muscles had seized up on him.
The receptionist watched, but didn't offer any assistance, and Mark didn't ask for any. Finally upright he followed the receptionist through the door into the clinic's inner sanctum and then into a small, ordinary-looking consultation room.
“Please undress, Mr McCormick. You can leave your belongings there,” the receptionist pointed to a small chair near the door. “The doctor won't be long. Do you need assistance?”
“No, I'll be fine, thank you,” Mark said, trying not to flush in embarrassment. Over the last three years he’d become reaccustomed to a certain amount of personal privacy.
Mark slowly began to peel out of his clothes and laid each item on the indicated chair.
Funny how somehow Hardcastle, the old donkey, had managed to get him into a doctor's examination room after all.
Investigating a case... ha! And he'd fallen for it.
It turned out not to be that bad. Doctor Taylor Ormond, when she arrived, was an attractive woman.
The doctor checked Mark's injuries with a careful, efficient touch. She seemed a very competent and caring doctor and Mark had a hard time believing she could be mixed up with the kind of thugs that would beat a bound man and leave him in a forest for dead. But then, even good people sometimes found themselves mixed up in events they couldn't control.
The doctor finished her examination and helped Mark to redress. Despite the doctor’s care, the examination had taken a lot out of him.
“Mr. McCormick, I can reassure you that you are going to make a full recovery with very little medical intervention. The only injury you have that concerns me at the moment is your knee. You have likely suffered a torn ligament. With mild physical therapy, it should heal well. I don’t expect you will need any surgical intervention.”
The doctor turned to her desk and wrote on a prescription pad. “I'm giving you a script for some anti-inflammatory and pain medication. You don't have to take the pain meds if you don't want to, but I do recommend you take the anti-inflammatory, since it will reduce the swelling and help the injuries heal faster.”
Mark nodded and took the 'scrip from her when she offered it. “Thanks, Doctor,”
“Now, Mr. McCormick, are you going to tell me why you really came to my office today?”
“Mr. McCormick, your own doctor could have helped you with most of your injuries, yet you came here today specifically to this clinic. The injuries to your wrists appear to be ligature bruising from some type of restraint. The one injury you have that does require a doctor specialising in accident injury treatment, you have left untreated for days. Suddenly, you find an urgent need to see me without an appointment? Why is that?”
The doctor crossed her hands over her chest and stared at him.
Mark sighed. “Okay, I'm here looking for information.”
“You're right. The knee I hurt a few days ago. The rest of it is compliments of a couple of dirty cops, named Foster and Davis.”
Doctor Ormond blinked and her arms unfolded.
“So, you do know them,” Mark said. It wasn't a question, it was clear the doctor was familiar with the men.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, we've met. They did this to you?”
“Yeah, last night. They beat me up and left me in the middle of nowhere. How do you know them?”
She wouldn't answer.
“Look whatever they have on you, however it is that you got mixed up in all of this, I can help you.”
She looked at Mark’s injuries skeptically.
“Okay, maybe not me, but definitely the guy I work for.”
“And who is it that you work for?” she asked.
“Judge Milton C. Hardcastle. Listen, you don't have to live like this. You can get out. The judge will help you. You can trust him.”
“Do you?” she challenged.
Mark didn't hesitate with his reply. “Yes.”
“I need to think about this.”
“All right, I can understand that. Look, Foster, Davis and their boss are going down. If you help us, it would be easier.” Mark pulled the judge's card from his pocket and put it on the doctor's desk. “Call him.”
Doctor Ormond nodded. “Thank you, Mr. McCormick. I think I might just do that.”
She helped Mark out of the examination room. “Take care of that leg and do take your medication, Mr McCormick.”
Mark left the offices and hobbled back down the path towards the car where Frank was waiting. Seeing him coming Frank got out, helping the younger man the rest of the way.
“How'd it go?”
Mark laughed. “Which part, the examination or the case?”
Frank chuckled. “Milt really knows how to maximise a situation, huh? How about both, but we can start with you. What did the doctor say?”
"She said what I've been saying all along, I'm fine, Frank.”
“She? Doctor Ormond is a girl?”
“A woman, Frank, they do have women doctors you know.”
Frank gave the younger man a sour look. “Yes, Mark, I had heard. So she said you're fine, huh?”
Mark could tell that Frank didn't quite believe him.
“Yeah, well, mostly. She said I tore a ligament in my knee and gave me a script for it. But she did say it wasn't bad.”
Frank shook his head. “You do realise that Milt is going to get to say 'I told ya so' over this?”
“He's going to be insufferable,” Mark groaned.
“You'll survive it. So, is your lady doctor involved?”
Mark nodded. “She knows Foster and Davis. I think they're blackmailing her over something.”
Frank frowned. “Mark, you were supposed be subtle. What if she'd been dangerous?”
“Hey, I didn't do anything. She's a doctor, Frank, she's smart. She figured out I wasn't really there for medical help and things just went from there. Anyway I'm pretty sure I've got her convinced to call Hardcastle. I think he could help her.”
Frank looked a little concerned. “Mark, that really depends on what Ericson and the others have on her. It might be that she'll end up facing the courts herself.”
“I know that, Frank, but whatever it is she’s mixed up in, Hardcase can help her. I know it.”
Frank knew it was pointless to argue with McCormick. The young man didn't see it but he had developed a blind spot where the judge was concerned. Sometimes Frank thought it was McCormick, not Judge Hardcastle, who had bought into that whole Lone Ranger routine.
From inside Suite 3 of the clinic Doctor Taylor Ormond watched her most recent patient being helped into a car by an older man. She held the card McCormick had given her in her hand and gently tapped the tip of it against the table.
McCormick's visit to her clinic had been a surprise. She hadn't ever expected anyone to begin an investigation into Foster, Davis or Ericson. The young man had been earnest and convincing in his pleas that his employer, Judge Hardcastle, could help her. She would have to give it some thought but she was pretty sure this could be an opportunity. She watched the car drive away and made up her mind.
Milton Hardcastle hated waiting, and being made to wait outside Commissioner Emhart's door so that he could go in and see the incompetent idiot was pretty much the top of Milton's dislikes list.
The commissioner's assistant worked quietly behind his desk. The man had politely told the judge several times that the commissioner would see him soon, but nothing seemed to be happening.
As though he'd been drawn by the judge's thoughts, the commissioner's assistant looked up from his desk and smiled at the judge.
“I'm sure it won't be long now, Judge Hardcastle.”
Hardcastle gritted his teeth together and tried to smile. “You did tell him it was important, didn't you?”
The younger man looked a little taken aback at the judge's attitude. “Of course, sir, would you like me to pop in and check on the commissioner for you?”
Milt reminded himself that there were only a few acceptable legal provocations for killing a city official and none of them involved frustration over being made to wait.
“Yes, yes, I would like that. Thank you,” he said, through his clenched teeth.
The commissioner's assistant vanished though the double doors that lead to the police commissioner's inner office. Hardcastle knew Emhart had good reason to ignore him and was delaying seeing him in the hopes that Milt would take the hint and simply go home. Hah, no chance!
Frank had a lot of faith in his superiors and trust in the department. He was far too loyal to see it, but Emhart wasn't helping or standing by him like he’d promised. Milt wasn't going to let Frank be hung out to dry on this thing. It would kill Frank if the department he loved, and had dedicated his life to, abandoned him. Emhart had made a commitment to support Frank in this investigation and Hardcastle intended to see that the man held up his side.
It took a while for the assistant, Milt tried to remember the man's name, Jarin… Jaris… Jarhead, something like that, to return.
The man smiled politely to the Judge. “Commissioner Emhart will see you now, please, follow me.”
“About time,” Hardcastle muttered, getting to his feet and following the man into the office.
“Thank you Jarvis, that will be all,” Emhart said. Emhart stood and offered his hand to Milt who took it in a crushing grip. He could see Emhart trying not to wince as they shook hands.
“Thank you for seeing me, Commissioner, I know you're busy,” Milt said, looking pointedly at the large desk holding a single sheet of paper.
“Yes, what can I do for you this time, Judge Hardcastle?”
Jarvis discretely closed the office doors behind him leaving the two men alone. As soon as he was gone Milt dropped Emhart's hand.
“You can tell me why you're trying to feed a good cop to the sharks.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Hardcastle.”
“Frank Harper is a hell of a cop, and you know it. If you think I'm going to stand by and watch you hang him out as a sacrifice, you are very much mistaken, you got me?”
“Hardcastle you can't come into my offices and threaten me…”
“A threat would be me telling you I'd tear your arms off and beat you to death with them, or maybe telling you that if you leave a good man to hang on your political ambitions that I'd sling so much dirt in your direction, that you’ll find it hard to get a job in a supermarket, packing boxes. This is no threat, what you've got here is a man making you a promise.”
It made Hardcastle uncomfortable to use bullying, but his friend’s career was on the line and for a man like Emhart this tactic was the most effective. “Frank Harper’s career is not an acceptable loss in this mess, you got that?”
“If Detective Harper is innocent of these allegations he will be cleared. As you are so fond of saying, Hardcastle, the law is for everyone.”
Milt tried to keep his temper in control. “The good thing about being a retired judge is that I don’t have to toe the party line. The great thing is that I still have a lot of friends in high places. Do you really want to go up against me?”
Emhart looked distinctly worried.
“Do the right thing, stand behind your detective, Commissioner, and get Harper back his job.”
Hardcastle waited impatiently while Emhart thought it over.
“Oh, well, um, it could be that a few pertinent facts in this... I’ll look into Detective Harper's situation, all right?”
“Yeah, you see that you do.” Milt growled out.
Milt left, not waiting to be dismissed from the man's office. He strode past Jarvis's desk while the man was on the phone.
There were still no guarantees that a weasel like Emhart would do the right thing by Frank, but Milt had done his best. If Emhart did leave his friend to the wolves, Milt had not been joking, he would do everything he could to see the jackass brought down. Milt climbed into his truck and headed for home. Frank and McCormick should be back by now and he was eager to see if the kid really was okay.
Milt found Mark and Frank out by the pool. They had started the grill and there were already steaks sizzling on it. Mark looked up at his arrival and smiled. The smile surprised Milt for a moment. It had been a while since he'd seen McCormick relaxed enough to give him a genuine grin.
Mark turned to his companion. “See, Frank, what did I tell ya? We didn’t have to wait for Hardcase. Just put a couple of steaks on the grill and hey, presto! Like magic he'll appear.”
“Funny man.” Milt looked over at the steaks. “Don't have the heat up so high, you'll burn 'em,” he commented.
Mark laughed and clicked his fingers in Frank's direction. Frank scowled at Milton and pulled a ten-spot from his pocket, handing it over to McCormick.
“Thanks a lot, Milt, you could have maybe asked how our day was? No, you have to lodge a complaint. Mark bet me you would be a critique of his cooking before you asked us anything.”
“I wouldn't need to if he'd listen to me for once.”
Hardcastle reached over to the burner dials in an attempt to turn down the heat. He managed to get one turned down a little before McCormick slapped his hand away and turned the knob back up to a higher setting than it had been before.
“Shoo,” Mark said, using his spatula to defend the grill until Hardcastle backed off.
Milt gave up. Besides, he'd happily eat a dried, burnt steak if it meant that he'd get the old McCormick back.
He snagged a beer from the ice box and sat near Frank at the patio table. “So, Frank, how did it go?” he asked his old friend, but his gaze firmly on McCormick.
Mark chuckled. “I got a clean bill of health, so you can stop worrying, Hardcase.”
Milt felt relief at that until he noticed Mark give a slightly guilty glance in Harper's direction.
Frank was staring at McCormick and with a roll of his eyes the younger man gave in. “Well, it was mostly clean, my knee is a little weak but the doctor told me, with a few days' rest and some anti-inflammatory pills, it'll be fine.”
Hardcastle glanced over toward Frank for confirmation and got a small nod. He was relieved to hear it. Milt had been worried about him this morning.
He looked over at McCormick standing at the grill and frowned. “Then what the hell are you doing standing on it then?” Milt asked fuming.
McCormick laughed aloud and Frank moaned. “Damn it, Milt, you were supposed to say 'I told you so first,'” Frank complained as he pulled out a second ten dollar note and passed it over to the now chortling McCormick.
“Well, I did tell him so,” Milt said, a little miffed to be the target of his friends' bets.
He sipped his beer and watched McCormick as he tended the food for several minutes. It suddenly occurred to him, this was McCormick's way of burying the hatchet. Grill a few steaks, share a few teasing remarks, and move on. The strangest thing about the kid was that it really was that easy.
Oh, he'd dig his heals in and be a stubborn mule about the important things, but McCormick never let the little stuff get him for long. Hardcastle thought there was a good chance that if McCormick hung around for the next fifty years, he'd never really understand the way the kid's mind worked.
“Don't overcook 'em, McCormick, they'll go tough and you’ll cook the taste right out of 'em,” he grumbled.
“Yeah, Judge, I have done this before, a time or two, you know.”
“And they were tough last time, too,” Milt commented, mostly because it was true. The last batch the kid had grilled up had been tougher than old leather.
“Not everyone wants to chase their steak around on the plate, Hardcase, some of us like it to be dead before we eat it.”
McCormick started to pull the steaks off the heat and plate them then finished up with the salad.
The lunch when McCormick served it up was pretty good. Despite the judge's fears, the steaks still had plenty of flavour. He and Frank had another beer, while Hardcastle noted that McCormick stuck to juice. Relaxed and well-fed, they discussed what had happened at the clinic.
They were just finishing up when the phone rang. McCormick got up after the first ring, or at least he tried to. He actually made it to almost vertical before his knee gave out and sent him back into his seat with a thump.
“For the love of… will you just sit still for ten minutes? I'll get it,” Hardcastle snapped at the younger man, who had the grace to look sheepish.
“You really should take it easy, Mark,” Frank said, backing him up.
Milt left them there and went inside to answer the phone but he did hear McCormick's contrite. “It's the pain meds, they work too well. I forgot for a second that I'd even hurt it.”
The judge picked up the closest phone. “Hardcastle.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line before a woman spoke. “Judge Hardcastle, my name is Doctor Taylor Ormond. I treated your friend, Mark McCormick, this morning at my clinic.”
“Yes, McCormick said you might call. He said you might have some information that could help us.”
They had discussed the doctor's involvement in Ericson's scam over lunch and the kid seemed pretty convinced that she'd want to help them. Milt hadn't been so certain. McCormick had notoriously bad judgement when it came to women, especially pretty women. From the younger man's description, Doctor Taylor Ormond definitely fit into that category.
“Good. Mr. McCormick also said that you might be able to help me out as well. Is that true?”
The kid seemed to have nailed it this time.
“It depends on what we're talking about. If you're involved criminally, I might be able to get you a deal with the district attorney, especially if there are extenuating circumstances.”
“I don't want to go to jail, Judge Hardcastle, but I can't live with this anymore. I realise I will lose my medical licence when this is all over, but I have to speak out. Mr. McCormick said you were investigating the insurance scam. If it was only that I could live with it, but there's more. They're blackmailing me, Judge, into writing prescriptions for patients who don't exist, then they collect the narcotics and, I guess, they sell them.”
“Drugs, huh? What kind of volume are we talking about?”
“Judge, I have hundreds of fictional patients on my books, each of them getting the maximum quantity of narcotics allowable under the law. They have me keep the amounts just low enough that no flags are raised with the medical board.”
“So it's not a small volume and not a huge one either, but a very steady supply. Hell of a scam they've cooked up.”
“I need help, Judge Hardcastle. These people are dangerous. Look what they did to your friend. If you help me I'll give you everything I have on them. I've managed to hide away some evidence. I thought if I could gather enough information I could get them to leave me alone, but I know they won't.”
“They will once we get them behind bars, where they belong,” Hardcastle promised.
“Could you meet with me, Judge? You and Mark?”
“Sure, when and where?”
“Here at the clinic is the safest place, but not during the day. Would tonight be all right?”
“Yeah, okay. We'll come by after hours, say around seven tonight.”
“Thank you, Judge Hardcastle. That would be perfect. I'll see you then.”
The doctor hung up on the other end and the judge slowly put down the receiver, thinking. There was still a lot about this case that didn't add up but it was a lot bigger than they first thought.
The judge walked back to where Frank was clearing away the dishes, McCormick, thankfully, was sitting in his seat letting Frank handle it.
“Who was that, Judge?” McCormick asked.
Milt snorted. “It was your lady doctor. Seems you were right, kid. She wants to cut a deal and in return she'll hand over evidence she has on Foster and Davis. If we can get them, we may be able to lean on them a bit and get them to roll over on Ericson.”
Mark pushed himself up from the table. “Just give me a minute to clean up and I'll go with you, Judge,” McCormick said eagerly.
Milt suspected McCormick just wanted to check out the doctor again, but that wasn't what he had planned.
“Take it easy there, Romeo. The only place you're going for now is to the gatehouse where you're going to get a few hours rest.”
McCormick's frown was back. “Judge…”
“Relax, McCormick, we're not meeting her until tonight, at seven, and, yes, you are going along. At least you will be if you get a little rest, you look beat.”
“Oh, I guess I could study for a bit…”
“No, no study. This is the deal, McCormick. You want to come along and talk to the good doctor, fine, you can -- on the condition that you get a few hours' sleep between now and then. Deal?”
McCormick looked flustered for moment then he sighed and nodded. “Okay. I’ll rest, but you don't go without me, Judge. “
“I won't be going at all, kiddo. Frank can handle taking the doctor's statement and gathering up her evidence. I'm going to check on our friendly crash repair mechanic. See if he's realised what a precarious position he's in yet. If not we’ll push him a bit more.”
“You're not going alone, are you?” Mark sounded worried. “Judge, you promised.”
“McCormick you're worse than a den mother. No, while you're resting I'll take Frank with me, then Frank can come back here and I'll just sit on him with a whole bunch of LA’s finest.”
“What do you think he'll do?” Mark asked curiously.
Milt shrugged. “I think he's going to run. If he does, then it's a sure bet he's going to take anything incriminating he has along with him. That's not the sort of thing you leave lying around when you want to disappear. If he does, we’ll get him.”
Mark nodded. “And this way any evidence the police find is untarnished.”
Milt smiled. “Now you're cooking. See, I knew all that study would pay off for ya.”
“Ha, you're just this side of the law on this one and you know it, Hardcase,” Mark challenged, holding up one hand with his fingers pinched close together to leave a narrow space.
“It doesn't matter how close you walk the line, kid, just as long as you don't cross it.”
“I'm going to remind you of that the next time I stray a bit close.”
“You? Hell, kid, half the time you move past it so fast that you don't even see there is a line!”
“Hey, I haven’t done anything like that in a while!”
“No, you haven't. For which I am eternally grateful. Now, get out of here and get some rest or the deal is off.”
“Yeah, okay, fine,” McCormick muttered.
Hardcastle watched him go, satisfied that he would at least try to rest.
In a well-appointed office downtown, Ericson sat with his back to the door absentmindedly tapping his gold pen against the polished wood surface of his desk. He stared out of the window to the cityscape beyond and thought about his situation. He’d just had the most interesting phone call about Judge Hardcastle. He was still a problem.
This was the first time Lars had personally come across Judge Hardcastle and it hadn’t taken long for him to see the reports were true. The man was every bit as tough and stubborn as they said.
He thought it was possible that he had made a tactical mistake in having Foster and Davis rough up the judge's little friend. It turned out that hurting McCormick as a warning had done nothing other than rile the old jurist up. It would have been more effective to simply have killed the young man right from the start, and hope the judge's grief derail him.
Lars wasn't sure of the exact nature of Hardcastle's relationship with McCormick so it was hard to predict how effective that would be. It might have been better to have the judge himself taken care of in the first place. It was an oversight he would now have to correct.
Taking out a high-profile target like Judge Hardcastle would have to be done carefully. There would be no half-hearted investigations and easily bullied medical examiners when someone with that kind of clout was killed. Still, it could be done, especially if the judge died amidst a scandal of some kind.
He had thought about raising implications about the judge's relationship with the man who shared his home, but soon dismissed the idea. It could be made to work but it would mean he would have to personally get closer to the investigation than he wanted. He wanted to be seen as merely an interested observer in this. Anything else and he could lose everything he'd worked so hard to gain.
There was a knock at the door and his assistant came in. He turned to look at her, sure to keep his expression neutral despite the murderous direction of his thoughts.
“Sorry, to disturb you, sir, but there are two police officers here to see you.”
Lars kept his expression light, he was certain he knew exactly who it was that had come to see him.
“Oh … did they give their names?”
“Yes, Officers Foster and Davis.”
“Thank you, Suzanne, send them in.”
Moments later Foster and Davis came in. Foster took the seat in front of Lars's desk uninvited, looking comfortable with one leg crossed over his knee while Davis remained standing and lurked by the window.
Lars waited until Suzanne had closed the door behind her before he acknowledged the presence of the other two men.
“I told you never to come to this office! What are you thinking, wandering in here like this?”
Foster regarded him for a long minute. Ericson maintained his patience. Foster was playing well outside his class.
“I was thinking that your great plan to get Frank Harper and that nosy ex-judge, Hardcastle, off our backs didn't work out too well. I warned you that Harper was stubborn!” Foster accused.
Lars tried very hard not to sigh. Foster was an idiot, and his partner Davis, even dumber but he needed them on his side for now. When he didn't need them, Lars would use the thick and very comprehensive file of evidence he'd gathered on the two men. No allegation they made against him after that would stick. It would appear to be the desperate ranting of guilty men. If anything it would help strengthen and consolidate his position.
“Harper is not a problem. He's a little fish, in far deeper than he can swim. And, as it happens, I've already taken care of him. He's going to be the fall guy in all of this. The commissioner himself will see to that. No, it's Hardcastle that's the problem. He's who we need to remove.”
Foster glanced over to his partner and smirked at Lars. “How is it that when you say things like 'remove', it's Davis and I who have to do the dirty work? What if I tell you to do your own damn killing this time?”
Lars sat back in his seat. This rebellion was an unexpected complication and it made him angry. Unlike most people, when Lars got angry he didn't yell. He got quiet, but his tone was hard as steel and cold as ice.
“Foster, not even you are stupid enough to threaten me. Hardcastle is as much your problem as he is mine, and you will show some respect. I'm the one who took your two-bit operation and made it into something. I'm the one who pulled your butts out of the fire when you were too stupid to know how not to leave a trail a blind man could follow. You were supposed to talk to William Cook, and get him to toe the line. Instead you decided to kill him. I'm the one who is going to get you out of the mess your incompetence has created.”
Foster was no longer sitting in feigned comfort, he'd uncrossed his leg and there was now no trace of his previous condescending smirk.
Ericson sat forward. “If you want to get out of this mess, and go back to enjoying our previously lucrative business arrangement, you will shut your mouth. You two will do what I tell you to do, and only what I tell you to do. This has to be done right. Hardcastle isn't some beat cop, and he’s not some two-bit detective like Harper. The man has power and influence. He has to be handled right or people will notice.”
Satisfied that for now there would be no more dissention in the ranks, Lars laid out his plan. “Now this is what we are going to do.”