Hardcastle paused reflexively and looked to the ground only briefly before he took off in a run. Frank was close by his side, keeping up rather easily. Hardcastle was older, sure, but he was in great shape and running on adrenaline, and that was a great equalizer.
Frank grabbed him by the elbow just as they arrived at the circle of officers standing around a shape in the grass. A shape with curly hair.
One officer was leaning over Mark and as he was reaching out to check his pulse, Mark quickly bolted upright as if caught in a nightmare. The same nightmare the judge had just been woken out of.
Mark looked around like a caged animal, not recognizing any of the faces he saw. Are these the same guys who jumped me at the gas station? As his eyes focused, he saw the uniforms and brightly colored vests with the LAPD logo.
The judge barged through the line of officers roughly, “Let me in there, would ya?” He was at Mark’s side in another moment, and was down on one knee—rather ungracefully.
“Kiddo?” he ventured quietly with his hand on Mark’s shoulder.
McCormick looked up to see the judge there and sighed a deep breath. “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me.” He looked around pensively, confusion and a little pain written on his face, “but then I guess I’m not totally sure what happened to me.”
“Can you get up—or do we need an ambulance?” It was a practical question that Frank asked, even though he knew what the answer would be.
Mark gave him a look of disbelief and quickly got to his feet—only to lose his balance immediately. The quick actions of both the judge and Harper prevented him from falling flat on his behind.
“Ah, maybe you want to rethink your answer, Mark?” Harper continued, “At least let somebody check you out.”
McCormick met the judge’s eyes with an unspoken message. Hardcastle hadn’t seen this look since the early days of their relationship—a message meant to indicate Mark’s desire to talk with him without any police presence.
The judge sprang into action. “Don’t just stand there, somebody bring me a blanket and bring a car closer. I want to get him back to the scene.”
“Judge, we’d like to ask him a few…” one brave officer ventured, but was cut off immediately.
“He’s in no shape to answer questions right now. I want him looked at. I’m his lawyer, and he’ll be available to talk as soon as he is cleared and coherent.”
Mark visibly relaxed, and it wasn’t only the judge who noticed. Frank was frowning, having just caught on to the game.
“What gives, Milt?” It was a question, barely audible, from his long-time friend.
Hardcastle leaned in and spoke quietly, “I’m not sure yet, Frank, but let me have a few minutes with him. Something seems off.”
“As long as he isn’t on something.” Frank didn’t think it was possible, but he had to consider all possibilities.
“You know better than that, Frank. We both do.” The judge was beginning to show his anger at what he thought was an accusation.
“Hey, don’t get defensive, Milt. I didn’t say Mark would do it intentionally, but given the facts about the threat we’re working on it’s a possibility that it wasn’t willful. Geez, Milt, what did you think I’d think?”
“Sorry Frank. You’re right, of course.” The judge was embarrassed at his outburst to his friend. He knew Frank had just as much trust in Mark.
Frank simply patted Milt on the shoulder. No apology was necessary. He knew they were both worried.
The older officer, Jager, came back first with a blanket. Instead of handing to the judge, he wrapped it around Mark’s shoulders himself. The officer had appeared many times in Judge Hardcastle’s courtroom, and had a healthy dose of respect for him. Most judges didn’t care about the ‘cop on the beat’, but that was not true with Hardcase. He had earned his nickname, but usually for his actions that supported the police officer. He didn’t tolerate sloppy police work to be sure, and a cop would know it if they screwed up, but they never made the same mistake twice. Hardcastle’s lectures didn’t come from arrogance, but rather from a love for the law. If this Mark McCormick was important to the judge, then he was important, and earned the right to be treated with respect.
Hardcastle watched him as he took care of Mark. He then watched as the officer walked towards his younger colleague whose previously misspoken words about ‘the body’ had caused a tense moment for all. Pulling him aside from their peers, he talked to him about the proper time to use the term ‘body’ vs. ‘victim’ vs. ‘unidentified man.’ Hardcastle watched with a grin on his face. When the lecture was done, he called Jager over.
“Tim, thanks for your help. And thanks for giving that young whippersnapper a lesson.”
Office Jager smiled crookedly, “He’s a rookie, Milt, and I don’t think he’ll ever make that mistake again. Did you see his face when Mark bolted upright? I thought maybe he’d need a new uniform!”
Both laughed out loud, a testament to the fact that the tension was easing.
But there was still work to be done.
Father Atia brought Frank’s car around and they got Mark situated in the back seat. The judge climbed in beside him and spoke quietly, “I’d really like to get somebody to take a look at you, McCormick. We’re not sure what happened here.”
“Judge, I’m not sure I want an exam by somebody ‘official.’ I think I was given something—I don’t feel right. I’m crawling out of my skin here. Look at my eyes and tell me what you think.”
The Judge tilted his head back to allow more light into the kid’s eyes. He didn’t like what he saw. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were using. Or had been using.”
“Well, I appreciate your faith here, judge, but I gotta tell you, I’m not so sure. I feel like I’ve been slipped a mickey.”
“Well, then we’ll need some evidence, kiddo. Let’s get some bloodwork done.” The judge was being practical in an impractical situation.
“Juu—uuuddge, what are you thinking? I’m an ex-con and a law student. How’s it gonna look if I turn up on drugs! This could get me kicked out of school. And, God forbid I would have had any on me, I could go back inside.” Mark thought for a moment and quickly checked his pockets to be sure nothing had been planted on him. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, so it’s not as bad as I thought…they can’t trace the drugs to me if we just let this go.”
He immediately noticed the expression on the judge’s face. “Oh God, tell me what I’ve missed.”
The judge took a deep breath and wiped his right hand over his mouth before speaking. “They found nearly half a kilo of cocaine in the Coyote.”
The silence was only punctuated by the look of sheer panic on McCormick’s face.
Father Atia spoke quietly. “That was the whole point, Mark.”
Mark blinked hard. Twice. “What point? What are you talking about?”
Not waiting for a response from Father Atia, McCormick turned to the judge, but didn’t see a look of confusion on his face. Obviously, whatever was going on, he was the only person out of the loop. “Judge, what the hell is he talking about?”
The judge took one look at Father Atia and saw the subtle nod.
“Mark,” Father Atia began, “last week, I was approached by a stranger with some information about a plot against you…”
“Against me? What the hell for?” He paused for only a brief moment before he asked, “And why would he approach you—how would somebody even know we were friends?”
The silence spoke volumes, and Mark picked up on the significance immediately. “You weren’t just ‘approached’ were you? This was somebody coming to…” before Mark spoke the word, he looked over his shoulder to make sure nobody would overhear him, “confess?”
The priest met Mark’s eyes. “Yes, Mark.”
Mark closed his eyes and rubbed them with his right hand. He realized he had spent a little too much time with his eyes closed when he felt somebody, the judge, take his elbow and lean in to ask if he was alright.
He opened his eyes slowly and nodded. He was growing tired quickly, but desperately needed to hear the rest of the story. He stayed with them until the last of the details was complete.
Mark looked accusingly at Hardcastle, “You knew about this last week but didn’t tell me? Even after what happened two months ago? You keeping me in the dark has never worked out well for me…”
Mark paused suddenly, and reached for the door handle. Milt made a move to stop him, but McCormick elbowed his way rather vigorously, “I’m gonna be sick.” With that he just barely made it past the car.
The judge was immediately behind him with his hand on his back, just in case he needed physical support. He wondered now if Mark had a concussion—he had just assumed that he was drugged. He realized now that he may not yet have all the facts. Perhaps the kid’s decision not to see a doctor was not a good one after all.
The judge started tentatively, “McCormick, how long were you unconscious? Do you remember if you hit your head?”
Mark stared at his disbelieving. “Think about what you just asked me. How the hell am I supposed to know?”
“Okay, let me ask this a different way. What’s the last thing you do remember?” The judge was able to maintain a somewhat calm exterior. After all, this wasn’t McCormick’s fault and he didn’t want to treat him like it was.
Mark looked up at him, appreciating the change in demeanor. He sighed loudly. “The last thing I remember was getting gas at a station outside of Bakersfield. I filled up, and was going to go to use the facilities. That’s the last thing I remember.
“Frank, you got that?” The judge asked the question over his shoulder.
“I’m on it.” Frank was back in motion, contacting his officers and shouting orders. “Mark, do you remember which gas station it was?”
“Ah, yeah, the mom n’ pop store, ‘Erickson’s’ I think it’s called. Right off the first exit, just at the light.” He thought for a moment, then continued, “I’ll go with you and show you.”
The judge was about to object, but realized that the kid needed to be included from this point out. No more was he going to leave him out of the picture. Never.
It was only about ten minutes later when the police contingency—led by one Milton C. Hardcastle—arrived at the gas station. A bewildered young clerk came out just as the fourth squad car pulled under the awning.
“Um…is there…something wrong?” Tony was the name on nametag, written in bright blue scripted letters. His eyes were scanning each car.
Upon seeing Mark, he shouted loudly, “Hey, hey, he’s the guy who stiffed me on the gas. He tore out of here and never paid. The owner made me pay for it last night.”
Mark started to get out of the car, but was stopped by Father Atia. “Let them handle this, okay?”
“No offense, Father, but what is there to ‘handle’? I want to talk to this guy to see what he knows. Remember, I don’t remember what happened.” Mark’s frustration was evident, as was his growing exhaustion.
“Mark,” it was Frank now that was responding, “It doesn’t do any good to have a suspect talk to a witness before the police can get a statement. Let’s try to keep this as clean as we possibly can.”
Frank, Jager and the judge approached the young man and began asking very carefully worded questions.
“Son, can you tell me exactly what you saw last night?” Officer Jager began.
“That guy,” he pointed excitedly towards Mark, “drove this hot red car in here about nine o'clock last night. He put $12.85 in premium gas…”
He was quickly interrupted by the judge, “That’s a pretty good memory you’ve got there, Tony. Do you remember all sales to the penny?”
“The ones I get stuck paying I sure do! Do you know how long it takes me to make $12.85, just to have some jerk stiff me?”
Mark could hear the exchange from Frank’s car, and couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He was out of the car, and standing next to the judge before anybody could stop him, “Hey, I was gonna pay, but I went to use the bathroom first. I don’t remember anything after that. Did you actually see me drive away?”
Tony paused long enough for the judge to jump on his indecisiveness. “You didn’t actually see him leave, did you?”
Nobody noticed that Jager had wandered towards the station’s men’s bathroom. “Hey, Frank, call the team over here, we may have some evidence.”
As Milt took a step towards the bathroom, Frank grabbed his arm, “Let’s let the team go first, we still have some questions to ask here.”
Thirty minutes later, the evidence team had completed their work. Several items had been bagged, and more samples and prints were taken. The judge caught sight of one particular bag, and quickly grabbed it out of the hand of the stunned technician, “Hey, Your Honor, that is police evidence…”
“He knows that, Ben, he’s going to give it right back to you,” it was Frank who interrupted the conversation this time. Although he was addressing the young technician, his words and eyes were aimed at his older friend.
Milt held the bag up to his face for closer scrutiny, and after noting the curly hair in the bag was a perfect match to McCormick’s, he handed the bag back with no further conversation.
The technician took the proffered bag and went on with the update as if he were never interrupted, There were some marks on the door, near the bottom, and a broken pair of sunglasses.” He pulled out the other bag and got a quick nod in return from the judge.
“Our working theory goes like this: Mr. McCormick stopped to fill up his gas tank. Upon doing so, ah, he spent $12.85 at the pump, he headed to the restroom. Just as he opened the door, we think he was hit from behind…right about here,” he indicated a spot on the ground where one small splatter of blood remained.
“Then, see here,” he continued “he must have fallen forward because see these scratches on the door, it looks like it could have been metal from the pair of sunglasses.” He looked at the sunglass bag again. “It looks like we got a good partial print on the glasses.”
Then there was a pause, and the judge’s annoyance grew, “And?”
“And, nothing sir. That’s all we have that’s supported by evidence. The rest would just be a guess.”
The judge wiped his hand over his face in frustration, “I’m wantin’ to hear all guesses here—even if you are just going on instinct.”
“Yes sir. Well, see, even though this is a gas station and cars pull in and out of here all day long, there is a set of skid marks off to the left there…here…let me show you.”
The judge and Frank both followed the young technician around the side of the building where he stopped abruptly and said, “See.”
In fact neither Frank nor the former jurist saw anything. The look on their face must have registered with the young man and he quickly squatted down and showed them with his hand, “See here. All of the other marks are near and around the pumps, or in the main parking area. This guy must have had his car parked here—out of sight from the bathroom and pumps. Makes me think he may have thought his car would be recognized.” He nodded to emphasize that last point and then continued, “And see where the marks go? They go in the opposite direction of any of the others. Away from the street, and towards the back. I bet if we spent some time looking back there we might find a trail.”
The judge couldn’t help a small grin. This young technician reminded him of McCormick and his keen ability to notice right away anything that didn’t fit the regular pattern of things. And, of course, when it came to cars, and the logic of the people who drove them, he knew McCormick would be impressed with the technician’s take on things.
“Well done, son. You’ve given us a lot to think about. Do you think you could spare some men to take a look and find out more about that second car?”
“Yes sir. Right away!” It was obvious the young man was pleased to have been given a compliment from the judge. Most who knew him also knew that these types of comments were few and far between.
When all the work was completed at the gas station, several casts were taken of the tire marks, and more finger prints were found. Now all they could do was wait until the lab results were back. And waiting was something neither the judge nor McCormick were good at.