Father Atia arrived at Gull’s Way three days later as planned. He and the judge had decided to talk with Mark about the threat on his life after final exams were behind him. The pressures at the end of the semester were difficult enough and they didn’t want Mark to be looking over his shoulder each time a car backfired. Although, since they had teamed up, the ex-con may very well argue that he was always looking over his shoulder—and the judge’s shoulder as well.
The sun was shining brightly, and Father Atia moved the chair by the pool under the umbrella for shade. He had been talking amiably with the retired jurist and found him well versed in a variety of topics that related to the church. He smiled inwardly at the noticeable avoidance of all talk about his father and any of his activities.
By the time three o'clock rolled around, and the judge had checked his watch for about the fourteenth time, Father Atia could sense his distraction. “You seem worried, Judge.” It was a simple statement, but navigated right to the heart of the problem.
“The kid’s exam was at eight o'clock this morning. It was property law, and the exam would probably be multiple choice. Can’t figure out what’s keeping him.”
The priest smiled warmly. “I know he likes to drive to a certain lookout point and reflect. It wouldn’t surprise me if the city created a parking spot just for him.”
The judge reflected on the statement, obviously meant to reassure him. “Yeah, I know, but this is long even for him. I told him you’d be coming by for an end-of-semester celebration. I guess I wasn’t clear on the time.”
“I have nothing else to do today. In fact, I kept the entire day open just to spend with Mark. He’ll be here soon. Is there something else bothering you?”
The judge smiled at the intuitiveness of the priest. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his stomach. “Well, Father, to be honest I think the kid will be a little miffed that I kept this from him.”
“I don’t know Mark as well as you do, but I do know that intentions are very important to him. He will see the reason why we kept this from him. I don’t believe there will be any blame.”
The judge snorted loudly and then looked abashed at this outburst. “I only wish that were true.”
There were few things that Mark McCormick loved more than driving. Except maybe driving fast.
One perk of working with the judge all these years was that police officers rarely took notice if he sped by them. Their assumption was probably that he was working on a case—and he hoped they never learned the truth. Usually the trip to San Quentin on the I-5 took about six hours, or maybe a bit longer when the judge was a passenger. Today he was able to make the trip in a considerably shorter time.
His last exam was easy for him. He was certain he now understood the law as it pertained to personal property. He had actually been taught that difficult lesson years ago by a different instructor. An instructor that changed his life—in a positive way. But today’s exam marked the completion of his first semester in law school. He was surprised at how much he liked it—once he got used to the rigorous schedule and got over the fact that he was older than the other students. What may have initially appeared as insecurity and fear of failure, was in fact fear of disappointing the judge. Once they got over that and Mark could relax, it turned out that he had an aptitude for it. Finally, his past experience was helping him in life. He had the unique ability to see the law from multiple perspectives and understand risk and resilience as it applied to offenders. But now he was looking forward to a well-deserved break between semesters.
Now it was time to do some detective work and figure out just what Father Atia and the judge were up to. He could, of course, ask them. But that wouldn’t be much fun. He realized that he missed the work he did with the judge—and while he would never give up law school, he hoped to find a compromise.
He pulled into San Quentin a little after three pm. Having used some contacts in the law school, he had already arranged a meeting with the gentleman he wanted to talk to. An individual who he felt confident would help.
After signing in and proceeding through security, he was seated in private room, feeling pleased that he knew just which names to drop. Within ten minutes, Joe Cadillac was escorted in.
With an amused expression on his face, the inmate held out his hand, “Mark McCormick. I was surprised to hear that you requested a visit yesterday.”
He accepted the hand quickly, “Mr. Cadillac, I appreciate that you agreed to meet with me. I know you didn’t have to.”
“I never thought a law student would want to interview me, but I didn’t have anything better to do. I trust that Milt is fine? I must admit, I’m surprised he let you come to see me alone.”
Mark seemed to have found a fascination with the table top, but quickly looked up to meet the gangster’s eyes. “Well, Mr. Cadillac…”
“Joe, Mark. Please call me Joe. You don’t work for me.”
“Ah, okay, um…Joe. Hardcase, um, sorry, Hardcastle doesn’t know I’m here. And, there is no interview for class. I just needed to ask you a few questions.”
“Well, let’s sit and see what I feel like answering.”
Cruising in the Coyote back to Malibu, Mark had time to process the few facts that Joe Cadillac had told him. He was not surprised that Father Atia would confide in his father, but was surprised that specific details were not available.
So, somebody was going to be set up. But why was he involving the judge?
McCormick thought briefly about calling the judge to let him know he’d be late. He may be worried, but he was angry with Hardcastle for keeping him out of the loop. He should have learned from past experience. He’d be home by midnight, and he knew the judge would be waiting to talk with him. That would be soon enough.
He leaned back farther into the leather bucket seat, accelerated around the next curve and began sorting through his mental rolodex to see if he could fill in any missing pieces. They had a few weeks before the new year to figure this out.
As he was nearing the turnoff for Bakersfield, nature called. He thought he could make it to Mama Tosca’s. Not only did the thought of a late dinner from his favorite Italian restaurant sound wonderful, but he also knew that the judge would be mad—and admittedly worried—due to his late arrival.
He pulled into a gas station, topped off the tank, and walked towards the restroom. The last thing he remembered was opening the bathroom door.
By seven o'clock, the judge had called Frank and an APB was issued. The jurist knew that wouldn’t sit well with the kid, but he couldn’t worry about that right now. There were enough other things to worry about.
Father Atia waited with the judge to hear the result of the APB. If he was near the city, the call would come back within a few hours.
The phone in the den rang at exactly nine o'clock and Hardcastle moved to answer it before the second ring. Father Atia watched as the expression on his face changed to quickly to concern. “What do you mean they found his car? Where the hell’s McCormick?”
He listened for only a moment longer, then slammed down the phone and turned to the priest. “The Coyote was found on a rural road near Bakersfield. What the hell would he have been doing up there?” The judge was momentarily distracted by that thought, but quickly re-focused. “They didn’t just find the car—it appears to have been in an accident.” After a brief pause, he lowered his voice and met the priest’s eyes, “They found some drugs in the car. ”
The silence was thick, and finally Father Atia spoke, “Was anybody hurt?”
The judge shook his head, “The Coyote has only minor damage, but McCormick is nowhere to be found.” After only one beat, he continued, “There is absolutely no way the kid would have been involved with any kind of drugs. No way. Never. He didn’t even like taking his pain medication when he was shot.”
“Are you sure Mark drove the Coyote up there? Could it have been stolen?” It was a possibility that must be considered, but Father Atia did not know whether that theory would bode well for his young friend.
“We don’t have many details, yet. Frank is coming over to pick us up, and we can drive with him up to Bakersfield. But first I want to make a few phone calls.”
Thirty minutes later, with all the calls completed, they headed north with Frank, complete with lights and siren.
When they finally arrived, they found three squad cars waiting and technicians scouring the crime scene. Hardcastle was the first out of the car, heading directly to the group of officers watching the technicians. “What’s going on here?”
Before the oldest officer could question who he was, he recognized Lieutenant Harper walking quickly up behind him with his badge in his hand. "We're checking for more evidence, sir,”
“More evidence? What’ve you got so far?” The concern in the judge’s voice was apparent.
“Besides the cocaine, we found several sets of prints in the car…”
“Probably McCormick’s and mine.” The judge cut off the officer in mid-sentence.
“Sir, there was also some blood, just a few drops, really. It was fresh though. And what looks like cocaine dust. Not a lot, but we swabbed it. Who knows…maybe there is some saliva on it that we can use. We’re trying to see if there is anything else that can go to the lab.”
Frank gently guided Milt by the arm away from the officers, “Let them do their jobs. We don’t want to delay anything here.”
Mark opened his eyes—at least he thought he opened his eyes. There was nothing but darkness. It was so dark he wondered if he had lost his eye sight. His anxiety began to grow, just as his eyes began to adjust and he realized he was actually lying in wet grass, outside. He was cold. He didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t explain it. A combination of wanting to climb out of his skin and wanting to fall back asleep. He opted for the latter as he closed his eyes.
The investigators couldn’t rule out the theory that Mark took off on foot after the accident. He could have either hitched a ride, or started walking. It was only about twenty minutes later that the van with dogs arrived. After giving them a scent from the car, the two dogs immediately headed northeast.
As Hardcastle watched them go, he debated following. Since McCormick would probably not miraculously appear at the accident site, he opted to tag along. The dogs were keeping up a fairly good pace while keeping their nose to the ground.
The canine team leader halted the pack with one quick raised hand. He didn’t bother to think about his next words or what impact they might have on those who were following him when he yelled out, “We have a body!”