McCormick tootled the horn as a farewell to the tiny group of people waving to the truck as they left. “The cops sure weren't happy with you for letting the lovebirds get away before talking to them.” He drove carefully, slowly picking up speed as the truck approached the inn sign and the highway.
“Hey, I got no legal authority here.” Hardcastle pressed a palm to his chest. “If they want to haul outta here at six in the morning, what can anybody do about it?”
Mark snickered. “How does anybody know when they left, if everybody was still asleep?” He glanced over at the judge and murmured, “You big softie.”
“Ah, you're nuts.” Hardcastle waved the problem away.
“There's the snowplow, going back toward the inn,” pointed out McCormick. He glanced again at the speedometer, shook his head and sighed. “It's gonna be awhile before we get down to the flats and out of this snow.”
The judge barked out a laugh. “I thought you wanted snow! Well, you sure got it.” He waved a hand at the windshield. “Lots and lots of snow.”
“There can be too much of a good thing, y'know.” McCormick used the wipers briefly to get some slush clear, then added, “I'm about ready for some sun and sand. You?”
The older man grunted, hand propped on the truck door, chin resting on his palm. “Why is it all our vacations end up like this?” he grumped. “Nice place to stay, good food, lotsa snow, friendly people – well, mostly anyway – and we end up catching bad guys again.”
“Not to mention finding out everybody's secrets.” Mark carefully upped his speed just a bit, but stayed vigilant for black ice on the highway.
“Yeah.” A silence fell in the truck cab. Then, “Except ours. Then again, we don't really have any secrets.”
A snort came from the driver's side. “Oh yeah? Bet you don't know what I got you for Christmas.”
“Yeah, well, you're never gonna guess what I got you, either.” Hardcastle settled himself more comfortably. “How soon will we get home?”
“Before midnight, if the traffic's not bad. I can stop and pick up a turkey and some stuffing mix, maybe some cranberry jelly.” Mark raised his eyebrows hopefully.
Hardcastle smiled at the thought. “Some sweet potatoes, get a pumpkin pie and some eggnog. That's a plan.”
McCormick grinned. “Then we can open our presents, right at midnight.”
“Oh, no,” responded the judge. “Presents in the morning, in front of the tree.” He mused for a moment. “Although some of that twenty-year old brandy with the eggnog would be mighty nice.”
“What the –! How did you know that?” Mark sent a quick glance at his passenger and then sighed. “I can't keep anything secret from you, can I?”
“Nope,” with a grin.
McCormick grinned right back at him. “But I bet that monogrammed set of cuff links will make me feel better about it.”
The truck, chains rattling, sped down the road in a swirl of snow.
NEXT, ON HARDCASTLE and McCORMICK – Virtual Season 4:
Father Atia smiled broadly as he grasped the hand in both of his. “Judge, thank you for seeing me on such short notice. And…” he glanced around the grounds, lingering on the breathtaking view of the ocean, “I appreciate your discretion.”
Motioning Fr. Atia through the front door, the retired jurist followed him down the stairs into the den. After motioning the priest to the sofa, he took a seat across from him. “To tell you the truth, it isn’t that difficult to get rid of the kid when what I’m interrupting is yard work.”
The silence that followed was brief, interrupted by a deep and exhaustive exhale that led to the simple, yet cryptic statement, “Judge, I’d like to talk to you about a hypothetical situation.”
“Well, I get a lot of practice running hypotheticals with the kid,” was Hardcastle’s quick response. Then, his face turned to one of concern. “We’re not talking about McCormick here, are we? Has something happened?”
Smiling, the priest put the judge at ease immediately, “No, Judge, Mark didn’t do anything. The reason I asked to meet you alone is because I didn’t want him to do anything. He has turned into a good friend, and I don’t want to put him in any more danger.”
The judge immediately picked up on the language that he suspected was meant to be left unspoken. “Any more danger?”
Lieutenant Harper looked up from the pile on his desk, and immediately stood to offer Fr. Atia his hand. Nodding to Milt, he gestured for both of them to sit. After sitting back down in his chair, eyebrows raised, Frank finally spoke, “Well, I have to admit, you’ve had me curious since you called. What’s going on?” On an afterthought he continued, “and why isn’t Mark with you?”
Father Atia looked first at Judge Hardcastle before turning his gaze to the lieutenant, “to be honest Lieutenant Harper, we planned this so that Mark didn’t know we came to see you. I’d appreciate it if this could remain among the three of us” and after a very brief pause, “only for the next week or so.”
“Well, if I wasn’t intrigued before, I certainly would be now.”
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.
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!”