Hardcastle and McCormick: Virtual Season Four

“I really think I ought to move downstage as everyone exits—the movement would enhance the character’s psychological distance as he starts the soliloquy—”

Bill Moss looked up from his script, sparing a quick glance at his watch. “Rory, this is only the second act. We’ve got three more to block after this. And it’s already four-thirty.”

“But this first soliloquy,” Rory Griggs frowned stubbornly, “it’s critical.”

Hamlet—one night only at the Bradford Community Theater—I don’t think that rates as ‘critical’. I thought a TV guy like you would understand time constraints,” Moss shook his head impatiently. “Stand wherever you like.”

The young man flashed a smile—the same one that had graced the cover of People less than a month earlier. It disappeared completely a moment later, replaced by the brooding countenance of the doomed Danish prince.  Then he took three strides downstage and held the pose without seeming to. A stage hand hastened forward, masking tape in hand, then hesitated a moment.

“Yeah, Jimmy. That’s fine.” Moss gave him a nod and then looked over his shoulder, shielding his eyes as he searched out a shadowy figure in the balcony. “Got it, Pete?”

“Yeah,” a gruff, disembodied voice came out of the darkness. “I can dim the fresnels and use a follow spot.”

Moss nodded again, wearily. He was turning forward again, to resettle in his seat, when all hell broke loose.


Dinner at Gull’s Way tended to be informal, and lately that had extended to McCormick bringing law books to the table, a continuation of the reading he did while he cooked.

“I’m not sending you out for pizza anymore,” Hardcastle said as he used a roll to sop up one last dollop of gravy on his plate.

Mark looked up after the beat-and-a-half it had taken him to register that he was being spoken to. “Huh?”

“Too dangerous.” The judge gestured toward the book with what was left of the roll. “Reading and driving.”

“I don’t . . .” McCormick hesitated, looking momentarily chagrined. “Okay, well, only when I’m stuck at a light.” The book was still open, his finger marking where he’d left off.

Hardcastle popped the last bit of roll into his mouth and hmmphed. “I just think you oughta take a break now and then.”

McCormick shrugged. “It’s only one more month till finals.”

There was no arguing with the facts. The judge changed tacks—“Hey, how ‘bout some pecan pie?”

McCormick nodded absently; his eyes already back on the place where he’d left off. Hardcastle had taken that as a yes and already departed for the kitchen, plate in hand, when the front doorbell rang.

McCormick marked his place again, this time with a paper napkin, and frowned as he stood. He raised his voice slightly, to be heard in the direction of the kitchen. “Hey, were you expecting somebody?”

It wasn’t necessary. Hardcastle came bustling in—no pie.

“Who is it?” Mark asked curiously.

“Old neighbor—Theodora Kemp.”  The man brushed by, obviously heading for the front hallway. “She’s early.”

Mark trailed after him, now genuinely curious. His mental file had come up with a lady of dignified years with a creative bent and a quirky smile.

“She the one who paints—down on the beach.”

“Uh-huh,” Hardcastle nodded, “the artistic type, that’s her.” He pulled up short in the hallway. “Don’t you have some studying to do?”

“Weren’t you telling me to take a break?” Mark knitted his brows. “Unless this is some kinda date or something.” He started turning, as if to retreat.

“Nah, nothing like that.” The judge shook his head for emphasis. “She’s on the theater board; so was Nancy, way back when. She probably wants to hit me up for a donation or a subscription or something. She said something about it being their twenty-fifth anniversary season. Can’t believe it’s been that long—”

The bell rang again and they could see two shadowy shapes through the diamond-paned glass in the front door. Hardcastle frowned. “Musta brought one of the other ladies.”

One of the taller ones, Mark concluded on a quick glance, but the mystery was solved a moment later as Hardcastle opened the door.

“Milt, dear,” a bird-like woman who matched Mark’s recollection fluttered in, “I know I should have called, but when William told me what happened, I told him we mustn’t waste a moment. Oh—my, I’m forgetting my manners.”

She turned, motioning her companion forward. He was tall and thin, with more salt than pepper in his hair, and a careworn expression. He managed a tentative smile as she introduced him. “This is Mr. Moss—William. Though now that I think of it, you and Judge Hardcastle must have met before.”

“I remember your wife,” Moss offered his hand. There was nothing tentative about the shake. “She was very kind—a real patron of the arts.”

“We’ve met—been a while, though.” Hardcastle smiled. “Can’t say I’m as big on theater stuff as Nancy was.”

“He’s more a John Wayne kinda guy,” McCormick said, leaning forward.

“You must be Mark,” Mrs. Kemp said, eyeing him with more than casual interest. “Vickie Emmers told me all about you.”

Mark grinned nervously. “I’d like to categorically deny everything—”

“Actually, she said you were very good at talking your way out of awkward situations. I believe ‘facile’ was the term she used.”

Hardcastle smiled thinly. “With Vickie, I’d say that’s getting off light.” Then he turned back to his guests. “Sounds like you have some kind of trouble,” he said, gesturing them into the front hall and then toward the den.

He hung back for a moment, slowed by McCormick’s hand hooking his elbow and a sharply whispered, “Donation, huh? You didn’t know anything about whatever’s going on?”

“Scout's honor,” Hardcastle sotto voced right back at him, then did his best impression of a congenial host for the company: “Can we get you folks some coffee? Got a nice pecan pie—”

There were polite ‘no’s. Mrs. Kemp perched uneasily on the edge of her seat but waited until the judge had settled in behind his desk. He lifted one eyebrow quizzically as McCormick pulled a chair in and sat down.

“No studying, huh?”

McCormick shook his head and turned to Mrs. Kemp. “So what happened today that made you think of us?”

She cast a quick sideward glance at Mr. Moss. He sat, tight-lipped. She sighed and then situated herself to take in both of her listeners.

“You know about the Bradford legacy, of course.”

Hardcastle shrugged and nodded. McCormick shook his head no.

Mrs. Kemp looked momentarily surprised and then said, “Well, I suppose you wouldn’t. It’s practically a legend here in town; so one assumes everyone knows about it. Mr. Bradford was an impresario, though the story goes that he only turned to the organizational side of show business after he’d experienced utter failure as an actor.”

“But he was very good at the production end of things,” Moss interjected, “which is where the money is, most of the time.”

Theodora Kemp nodded. “He started his own production company and was immensely successful. He owned a huge estate north of Malibu.”

Mark cocked his head. “Where the theater is now?”

“Precisely.” Theodora smiled. “He passed away suddenly—it’s been twenty-six years. His only living relative was an older brother, back in the Midwest. Amos left everything—the estate, his investments—to a foundation. His plan was for a theater that would combine amateur and professional talent. The board is made up of members of the community and Mr. Moss here has served as the theater’s manager right from the start. Two and a half decades of dedicated service.”

“Twenty-five productions of Hamlet,” Moss said grimly.

Hardcastle wave a hand airily. “This is where the story gets a little weird.”

“Not weird, Milton,” Mrs. Kemp looked at him sternly, “that would be the Scottish play.” She glanced back at Mark and smiled again. “I’d call it theatrical.”

“Long story short,” Hardcastle interjected, “the will calls for a full-length production of Hamlet every year.”

Mrs. Kemp nodded. “On April twenty-third—the anniversary of the Bard’s death. As Milton pointed out, it’s stipulated in the will. Should the foundation fail in the endeavor, the entire endowment, everything, is to revert to Bradford’s natural heirs.”

“His brother?” Mark asked.

“Or his descendants.”

Mark thought about it for a moment and said, “Okay, that’s kinda oddball, but I wouldn’t say it’s weird.”

“We haven’t gotten to the weird part yet,” Hardcastle said drily. He nodded to Theodora. “Tell him about the last thing Bradford left them.”

She sighed. “It’s not really all that strange, you know. Amos Bradford had a lifelong dedication to the theater. I’m not a bit surprised that he wanted to continue that connection after his death.”

Mark shrugged. “Lots of people leave everything to some good cause.”

“He’s Yorick,” Hardcastle said bluntly.


“Yorick, the jester, the skull in the cemetery. That’s Bradford. He left his skull.”

Mark frowned. “His real skull?”

Hardcastle nodded. “He only had the one.”

“It was part of the bequest,” Moss said quietly. “His skull must appear in Act V. The will is very explicit about that.”

Mark cast a quick glance at the judge and muttered, “Weird.”


“But that’s really not the issue,” Theodora sighed and then looked toward Moss. “Perhaps you should explain. You’ve been there for most of the incidents.”

“‘Incidents’?” The judge looked more interested. “Whaddaya mean?”

“Pranks,” Moss shrugged, “accidents, maybe.”

Mrs. Kemp edged forward even more. “This afternoon it was the lights. Glass shards everywhere.”

Moss flashed a sharp glance at her. “I thought you wanted me to tell it?” He turned back to Hardcastle. “It was the overhead floods—they’re big lamps.”

“One fell?”

“No—shattered, and not ‘everywhere’. It was mostly straight down.”

Hardcastle ventured cautiously, “A bulb breaking, that sounds like an accident.”

“One lamp, maybe, but two at almost the same moment?” Moss shook his head. “Ed Dieter—he’s our lighting technician—he thinks somebody messed with the bulbs. It doesn’t take much. The techs never touch the glass; just the oil from your hands can make a lamp shatter when it heats up.”

“And Rory had been standing right under them a moment earlier,” Mrs. Kemp added impatiently.


“Rory Griggs.” She paused, as if that ought to have been enough of a clue. Hardcastle stared obtusely. “Rory Griggs. He’s an absolute catch—we signed him last summer, straight off a run in Hamlet at the Tamarack Festival.”

The judge cocked an eye. “Haven’t been to that one.”

“Well, of course not,” she smiled, “it’s in upstate New York. He got some good reviews, though, and it’s not easy to find someone who can handle the role and is willing to do a single performance off one week’s rehearsal. Some years our Hamlet has been old enough to be Ophelia’s father. But Rory—”

Moss grimaced. “What she means is, we hit the jackpot. Right after we signed him last fall, he landed a spot as the new surgical intern on that show, Med-Star. They wanted a sidekick—something for the 18-30 female demographic—but instead he turned it into a breakout role. They’re even talking about a spin-off.”

Mark looked puzzled. “And he’s still willing to do your Hamlet?”

“Yeah, I know,” Moss shrugged, “When everything took off for him I figured his agent would offer to buy him out of the contract. We only pay scale you know.”

Mrs. Kemp nodded.  “Rory’s been a trouper. Med-Star went on hiatus last week and he showed up for our first read-through like it was the most important role he’d ever landed.”

Mark grinned. “More important than a vigilante neurosurgeon’s sidekick?”

“Okay,” Hardcastle grumped, “so you think someone’s trying to off your lead—”

Mrs. Kemp shook her head. “Not necessarily. Two days ago it was a fire in the utility room—a match in an old paint bucket. It was just lucky that one of the stagehands had gone back there to get something and was able to put it out. Then yesterday a counterweight fell; it almost struck Roger Phelps.”

This time Hardcastle looked properly impressed. “The Roger Phelps?”

“Yeah,” Moss said, “that one. He’s King Claudius. And we’ve got his wife, Ruby Seddon-Phelps, as Queen Gertrude.”

Hardcastle whistled. “Heck of a cast. Roger and Ruby—they had a real good run of movies.” He glanced over at McCormick. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“You mean with horses?”

The judge frowned. “Well, yeah, some of ‘em—horses, casts of thousands, the works. And they could act, too. They were terrific.” His brow furrowed. “I’d’ve figured they were pretty much retired.”

Mrs. Kemp smiled. “They were both close friends of Bradford.”

Moss nodded. “He discovered Ruby, back in the fifties—he’s the one who got her started in the movies. Then she got paired up with Roger and—magic. On stage and off. So they both owed him.”

“They agreed to appear in the anniversary production as a special tribute to Amos,” Mrs. Kemp added. “We’ve been advertising it all year.”

Hardcastle sighed wearily. “So the targets—if there really are targets—seem to be random. Sounds like we're back at someone trying to close down the show and revert the estate. What did the police say?”

Kemp and Moss exchanged glances.

“You mean you haven’t talked to them yet?” The judge frowned in disapproval.

Moss ducked his head toward Hardcastle but addressed his companion. “Maybe you ought to listen to the man.”

Theodora Kemp drew herself up and shook her head tightly. “No. I still say it’s a bad idea and the rest of the board agrees with me. We can’t go to the police.”

“Why not?” Hardcastle asked.

“We aren’t certain this is anything more than bad luck, or carelessness, or both,” she said pleadingly. “And so far that’s been our official position. It’s a wonderful cast, the twenty-fifth anniversary—”

Moss grimaced impatiently. “She thinks if we bring the police in, it’ll spook the actors and we’ll lose some of them—Rory for certain, unless his agent is an idiot. No cast, no production.”

“And it would just scare off the person responsible.” Mrs. Kemp said insistently. “We won’t have any proof of who did it—or who they were working for.”

“It has to be someone in the production.” Hardcastle said, half to himself and then looking up sharply, “Who are the beneficiaries—and why would they try something now, after all these years?”

“Oh,” Theodora smiled, “very astute observation. I’ve looked into it,” she added. “Amos Bradford’s only brother died in the late sixties, so until last year the heir would have been his nephew.”

“And now?”

“He passed away, which leaves the great-nephew—his name is Wolf Bradford. Who names a child ‘Wolf’? You have to wonder about that.”

“Do we know anything about him?”

“He’s a lawyer,” she sniffed.

Mark grinned. “Definitely guilty of something, then.”

Hardcastle shot him a look.

“Well,” Mark tried for a more serious expression, “he’d know his way around a will, and know what it would take to violate one of the codicils—run the cast off, or even incapacitate somebody. It sounds kinda theatrical, but it makes sense.”

Theodora turned to him, looking earnest. “So you’ll help?”


She nodded eagerly. “We’re short a Guildenstern—”

“One of the grave traps wasn’t fastened properly,” Moss said quietly.

“That was three days ago.” Theodora winced, and then smiled again stalwartly. “He’ll be up and about in a few weeks, the doctors say.”

Moss cocked his head toward Hardcastle and added, “Brings a certain dramatic irony to the phrase ‘Break a leg’.”

Theodora shot him a silencing glance and then refocused all her charm on Mark again. “It’s a very short part—only twenty-nine lines. The show must go on. Vickie Emmers thought you’d be perfect—”

“I’ll bet she did.”

“She said you have a real flair for the dramatic,” Theodora said encouragingly, “but what we really want is someone to keep an eye on things.”

Mark forced a smile, then cast a beseeching look at Hardcastle who intercepted it with a reassuring smile.

“Listen, Theo, he’d like to help—but there’s a problem. He’s still got a month before his gig goes on hiatus.”

Mrs. Kemp looked blank.

“Law school,” Hardcastle said. “He’s a law student. First year. The exams—”

Oh,” Mrs. Kemp said in sudden astonishment. “Vickie didn’t mention that.”

McCormick sighed, but didn’t have a chance to comment before she’d segued.

“Milt—most of the supporting roles are played by our local amateurs. You know that nice Mr. Jamison, the one with the travel agency? He’s Rosenkrantz.” She stopped to smile winsomely and then inquired casually, “Didn’t Nancy tell me one time that you’d done a turn in Hamlet back in high school?”

“Yeah,” Hardcastle admitted reluctantly, “we did that one my senior year.”

Mark looked at him in disbelief. “You’re kidding.”

“I was Polonius.” Hardcastle shrugged. “It was a small school. They needed every kid they could get their hands on, and I figured at least if I played an old guy I wouldn’t have to wear tights.”

Moss looked dubious but Theodora clapped her hands together. “Perfect.” She turned to the director. “We put him in as understudy for our Polonius.”

Hardcastle shook his head hastily. “But I—”

Mark chortled and then said, “Come on, Judge, where’s the old community spirit? The old can-do undercover attitude? Heck, when it’s my turn it’s ‘McCormick—put one over the centerfield wall. McCormick—pretend you’re a cop’.”

“It’s been fifty years—how the hell am I supposed to remember the lines?”

“You’ll only be an understudy,” Theodora reassured him, “that way you can poke around all you like.”

Moss still looked unhappy. “Let’s hope nothing happens to our real Polonius.”

She gave him stern glance. “The show must go on. I know it’s only two more days, but what if something serious were to happen? We need someone with Milt’s experience.”

Moss shut his mouth on a frown. McCormick looked suddenly more sober. It was obviously not the judge’s thespian skills that were in demand.


Hardcastle saw the company to the door, though not, of course, until he’d pried loose everything they could provide him about the production. He strolled back into the den, already leafing through the file Moss had handed over: production and casting notes, the latter complete with résumés and headshots. Added to that was a list of the crew—a few long-time employees overseeing a collection of dedicated local volunteers. The judge recognized some the names.

“Well,” he glanced up and found himself addressing an empty room. “Huh—?” he muttered.

He cocked a look over his shoulder and down the hall, then frowned, shook his head, and settled back down behind his desk. He couldn’t fault the kid for being dedicated to his studies, but he thought he’d at least have had to put up with a little kibitzing on this one.

He reopened the file to the place where he’d left off—Ophelia was a young lady named Emma Wister, who hailed originally from Grand Forks and was newly graduated from the UND theater program. He’d just put that one to the side, as an unlikely addition to the list of suspects, when McCormick ambled back in from the hall, his nose in a book. He was still reading as he took the two steps down by rote and dropped back into a chair.

He turned a page, not looking up. “What time did they say you’re supposed to be there for rehearsal?” 

“Ah,” Hardcastle glanced at the schedule in among the other papers, “looks like four-fifteen—tomorrow—why?”

“Good. I’m out by a quarter to three. I can give you a ride, help keep an eye on things while you’re emoting—stuff like that. Four eyes are better than two, right?”

“What happened to that whole ‘I’ve got finals’ razzamatazz?”

McCormick waved that away, still not looking up. “If I’ve learned one thing this past year, it’s that I can study and stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong at the same time . . . I just didn’t want to put on a pair of tights.”

“Aw, you wouldn’t have had to worry about that—look, here’s the notes from the artistic director. I guess after twenty-five years of doing these, they must be bored silly. This version’s set in the early 50s and the guys all wear suits.”

McCormick climbed out of the chair and leaned over to take a look, then frowned. “What’s this part?” he pointed and read, “‘…a subtle commentary on the Cold War and the anomie of the mid-twentieth century nuclear family’?”

“Who knows? I just wanna figure out who’s behind the mischief.” Hardcastle gave him a narrow stare. “You don’t trust me going off by myself, even for something as picayune as this?”

McCormick said nothing for a moment, then sighed. “You do know how that play ends, don’t you?” He held up the book, now closed, with one finger still holding his place.

The judge recognized it now by its cover: a rarely-opened, leather-bound copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, straight from his own library.

“Yeah,” he grumbled. “‘Goodnight, sweet prince…’ and all that stuff.”

“Uh-huh,” McCormick flipped the book open, “—and that’s right after a sword fight and a poison flagon, and a cast reduction of about seventy percent. Supposing somebody really doesn’t want this show to go on? There’s a lot of money at stake here—a multi-million dollar inheritance—that’ll buy a lot of ingenuity. You’re damn straight I don’t trust you going off by yourself.”

“And all that ‘Where’s your old undercover can-do spirit?’”

“I guess I got a little carried away.” Mark’s momentary look of embarrassment suddenly hardened into something sterner. “You know old Polonius gets knocked off in Act Three.” He held the page up, pointing gravely to the relevant passage. “Stabbed, through a curtain.”

Hardcastle shrugged. “Hey, I’m just the understudy. Besides, like you said, this is Hamlet—everybody dies.”


McCormick was true to his word, returning home promptly at three-thirty the following afternoon—enough time to grab a snack and a pocket-sized textbook before intercepting Hardcastle in the driveway.

“Uh-uh. Unless you want this to be ‘Exit—pursued by Coyote’.”

The judge grimaced. “Just came out to see if you were ready.”

“Hah, a likely story.” McCormick shook his head slowly, then turned and pointed to the truck. “I’ll drive. It’ll give you time to get in character.”

“I’m just an understudy.”

“An undercover understudy—there’s the rub. How're you going to pass for one of those if you don’t at least pretend you’re panting to be Polonius?” Mark climbed in behind the wheel and then cocked his head suspiciously. “And how goes the investigation otherwise?”

“You only went to two classes today. How much progress were you expecting? I asked Frank to do a little background check on that Wolf Bradford character, the heir-apparent.”

“He didn’t ask why?”

“Worse than that,” Hardcastle grumbled. “He asked if you know what I'm up to. Do you two have some kind of agreement or something?”

“Not in so many words.” Mark grinned as he turned the key in the ignition.

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