The older man looked down at the papers in front of him on his desk, pursed his lips for a moment and then reduced that to a steady frown.
“Not good. These numbers aren’t looking so good.”
The younger man, who was by no means young, shifted nervously in a chair designed to be not-quite comfortable.
“I can explain—”
“Don’t try,” the older man said sharply. “Lying is bad, but apologizing is worse.” He leaned forward, eying the spineless guido he’d summoned to his office. Not much to work with but he would have to do. “Fortuna—you’re familiar with her?”
“Ah . . .” a look of perplexity crossed the guido’s face. He’d left his little black book back at the hotel; they’d yanked him out of the club with no warning. Besides, he didn’t know if it would make his situation better or worse to be acquainted with the broad, whoever she was. Before he could make up his mind, though, the older man became impatient.
“Fortune smiles on you today,” he growled, “because you have something I want.”
The other man looked up, suddenly hopeful, like a guy who’s spotted a rope dangling above shark-infested waters. “Other than money?”
“Of course,” the patronus leaned back comfortably, elbows on the armrests of his chair, fingers tented before him. “There’s someone you know . . .”
“You mean beside this Fortuna gal?” Sonny Daye said cheerfully.
Judge Hardcastle pursed his lips over the sheet of paper before him. He put a penciled check mark next to another book then frowned and threw the pencil aside.
Ah, what's the use? The ones I have are probably out of date. He may as well just buy the whole bunch new.
He started counting the number of books on this semester’s reading list, then jerked his head up as the doorbell rang. Glad to be interrupted, he tossed the paper onto his desk and trod up the steps to the front door. Peeking through the glass, he saw a dark-haired man around sixty—flashy dress and an insouciant air.
Oh, no. What is it this time?
Be nice, he's McCormick's dad. Be friendly. Grimacing, he pulled the door open.
“Hiya, Milt. Mark home?”
The judge stared at him. “Sonny. What're you doing here?”
“Ringing your doorbell and asking if Mark's around,” Sonny Daye replied with a grin.
“Nah, he's at school. Be back around four. You planning on sticking around for a while this time?”
“Maybe.” Sonny's tone was noncommittal. “School, huh? Thought he said he'd graduated from high school. But if he's getting his GED, hey, that's great.”
“Law school, Sonny,” said Hardcastle dryly. “You wanna come in?”
“Oh, yeah, that's right. He said something about that in a letter I got. Law school, huh?” Sonny raised his brows and shook his head slightly. He gestured with his head toward the steps down into the den, and, at the judge's nod, descended them and looked around for the most comfortable chair. “Who woulda thought? Hey, listen, it's really you I wanted to talk to.”
“Okay, what brings you here?” Hardcastle took his place behind his desk and leaned back, regarding the other man with a tolerant air.
“Well, I heard from some of my old 'business partners', if ya know what I mean,” Sonny gave the judge a look filled with significance, “that Jersey Joe Beiber's on the warpath. You know his final appeal was just denied.”
“I heard that. The court didn't even allow it to be presented. So he's looking at a long ride up the river with no paddle. 'Bout time, too, if you ask me.”
“Ain't that the truth. But get this. He’s not real happy with things right now. You know, looking for some revenge, and he's got a pretty hefty incentive hanging out for the guy who takes down the vigilante judge that sent him up.” Sonny lowered his head meaningfully and gazed up from under his brows at Hardcastle. “You get my drift?”
“He’s from your old stomping grounds, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but I never worked with Jersey Joe. He was nuts. Hey, don't tell the kid, huh? He'd worry about both of us.”
The judge sniffed, then gave Sonny a sober look. “I thought you were strictly legit, now. Turned over a new leaf and all that jazz. What's a club singer doing running around with a buncha hoods connected to Jersey Joe?”
“I don't need to explain anything to you,” Sonny said huffily. “I know a lotta guys, all right? You don't have to be a shark to swim in the ocean, you know. So I heard something and I came straight out here and that's the thanks I get. That's swell. You don't want my help, that's fine with me. I tell you what, Hardcastle, I'll just hit the road, okay? You don't even have to tell Mark I was here. Just forget it. Forget I ever said anything.” He pushed out of the chair and stalked off toward the hall.
“Okay, okay, c'mon back in here.” The judge rubbed his nose thoughtfully as he stared at Mark's father. “So you want to keep all this just between us, huh? Not get the kid involved. That's gonna be kinda tough since he lives here and all.”
Sonny shrugged. “I guess I figured you could make a couple calls to some of your buddies in blue and get the whole thing taken care of. You know, have them roust some hoods and put 'em in the stone dormitory.”
Hardcastle shook his head. “That's not the way the system works. It's not the way I work. Listen, I'll do some checking up and see what I can find, but if—”
Both men froze at the sound of the Coyote out front.
“Ah, okay.” Sonny fingered his tie nervously. “I'll just leave it all up to you. I've done my part anyway, right?” He straightened his expensive-looking jacket and pasted on a smile.
The front door slammed and a voice called, “Hey, Judge! I'm ho-ome!”
“We're in here,” called back Hardcastle.
“We?” said McCormick, as he entered the archway. He stopped abruptly as he caught sight of his father. “Sonny?” he asked in surprise.
“Mark, hey! You're looking good, kid!” Sonny made a slight gesture as if to offer an embrace, but McCormick stuck an emphatic hand out to offer a shake.
“Sonny? When did you get here? And why?”
“Hey, c'mon. That's no way to say hi to your dad.” The judge's tone was gruff.
Mark quirked an eyebrow at him. “Oh, yeah? And I bet you killed the fatted calf for him.”
“So, how you doing in school?” Sonny hastened to interject. “I gotta admit, it was kind of a surprise to hear you were going into the law biz. But hey, it's great. Really!” He laughed self-consciously. “I never knew anybody who graduated from college before.”
Hardcastle bridled at that. “Well, you know me.”
Mark snorted and waved Sonny toward the chair at the window side of the judge's desk. As he dropped into his wingchair, he said, “Oh, it's a lotta work, but I'm getting through. Most of the other students are a lot younger than me, but I’ve got an edge.” He jerked his head toward Hardcastle. “Kinda have my own personal tutor.” He settled back in his chair, eying his father with a wry smile. “You just dropped by for a visit, or did you win another bar?”
Sonny smiled back. “What's the big surprise here, huh?” He gestured toward Hardcastle who’d been drumming his fingers in the desk. “It’s like I was telling Milt before you got here: I was passing through L.A. and look—you're my kid, right? I should stop by and say 'hello'. Nothing so strange about that.”
McCormick sighed and looked at the judge. “Okay, are you gonna tell me or do I have to bring out the thumbscrews?”
The judge smothered a grin, shrugged and looked at Sonny. “I think he knows us too well. What say we fill him in before he gets all tough with us?”
“Frank, this is Sonny Daye.” Hardcastle jerked a thumb at the man hovering nervously behind him. “You remember him from that bar business, with Doyle Madison’s bunch.”
Sonny hesitantly reached around the judge to extend a hand. Frank nodded and smiled, meeting his hand halfway. “Yeah, sure. How could I forget? You throw a hell of a grand opening, Sonny.” The lieutenant gestured at the chairs in front of his desk. “So, what can I do for you guys?”
“Now don't go flying off the handle, but Sonny's heard something.” Hardcastle gave him a half-cocked smile that was intended to be reassuring. “Jersey Joe might be doing some subcontracting. We got a couple names for you. Middle-level guys from back east who owe him.”
He’d slipped the folded page from his pocket but didn’t offer it immediately despite Frank’s extended hand and his impatient, “Milt—”
“Next you’ll be talking about putting a guard on the estate, safe houses,” Hardcastle grumped as he reluctantly handed over the information, “a lot of folderol like that.”
“Don’t bother, Frank,” interjected McCormick wryly. “I've already lost that argument.”
Hardcastle hmmphed and then added, “Two of them are in my files: Jimmy Bianchi and Vinnie Russo. I’ve penciled in the muscle they normally use. But the third one's new to me. Sonny says he’s never heard of him, either.”
Frank gazed down at the page, the concern in his expression deepening. “Some guy named ‘Herennius’? That’s not ringing any bells. No first name even?” He sighed. “I can run him through the system, but listen, Milt, if there's been a credible threat—”
“I don’t know that guy,” Sonny said nervously, “but those other two aren’t the kind that bother with threats first. You oughta listen to the lieutenant here about the guards and the safe houses and all that.”
“All I want is a little basic information,” Hardcastle said firmly. “Two of these guys are already on the FBI’s radar. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell if they start making any moves. And anything at all on our Mr. Herennius: a mug shot—weight, height and hair color, even. How hard can that be?”
Harper sighed and put the paper down on his desk. “I’ll do what I can, Milt, but you could try being a lower profile target once in a while, and you know Thompson, over at the DA’s office, he’s gonna pitch a fit when he hears about this.”
Hardcastle made a face. “Who says he has to know about it?”
“He’s got one of his legal weasels calling me almost every day about you. He says you’ve been avoiding him. I dunno why he thinks I’m the one to pester about it.”
“Hah, see? I try keeping a low profile and nobody’s happy anyway. Besides, I can’t help it if the man is disorganized. I’d be in there every day if he had his way about it. I put half a dozen cases right in his lap—”
“And that makes you and Mark his prime witnesses: the Van Zants, the Austin murder, that screwy thing with Randy Hopke—”
“He shouldn’t need me to hold his hand. There’s plenty of evidence in all of those cases . . . and McCormick’s got classes, ya know.”
Frank looked momentarily puzzled, and then gave it a shrug. “I dunno. All I know is he’s been jammering at me, so I figured I better jammer at you.
Hardcastle waved it off. “Objection noted. Now get me some intel on my mystery man.”
The three of them strolled out into police lot, heading for the truck. Mark made a determined lunge for the driver’s side and got there first. Hardcastle, having wasted time heading that way, was the last one in on the passenger side. There was relatively little grousing; he seemed lost in thought. That probably explained why he didn’t comment on the black sedan that started crowding them once they were out on the PCH. Mark thought they’d picked up the tail somewhere early on.
“Anybody we know?” McCormick asked as he feathered the gas, temporarily widening the space between them and their stalker.
Sonny turned halfway round, peering through the rear window anxiously. Hardcastle, jogged from his contemplation, gave a quick glance toward the mirror and grunted, “A Caddy with chrome—it’s not the cops.”
McCormick had already come to the same conclusion, along with the assumption that the tag number he was busy memorizing would turn out to be stolen. Their pursuer surged forward suddenly, evaporating his scant lead. Mark ignored the tap on the bumper, knowing it was intended to make him reflexively slow down. The sedan had both speed and maneuverability on its side.
But not mass. As the driver of the car accelerated and started to pass, Mark caught a glimpse of a gun barrel protruding from the passenger window. It was only a small advantage to have the intended target muttering aggravatedly from the far side of the seat—Mark knew even if the gunman only got the guy behind the wheel, the truck might easily plunge off the road.
He floored it to regain his cab-length lead and then swung out wide, returning the tap with interest, this time against the Caddy’s front passenger quarter.
It dropped back, careening wildly. For a moment the driver looked as though he might regain control of his vehicle, but then it ran up on a soft shoulder and spun to a halt in a spume of dust. Hardcastle had his gun unholstered but Mark kept going.
“Why didn’t you—”
“Stop and see how many guys were in there riding shotgun?” Mark shook his head. “Uh-uh. Back to the ranch, Kemosabe. You can call Frank so he can say ‘I told you so’.”
Their attackers were already out of sight around the curve behind them. Sonny turned slowly, facing forward again with a rigid expression. Hardcastle, gun still in his hand, looked dissatisfied. Nobody had any words of appreciation for the evasive maneuvers.
“You’re welcome,” McCormick said with a sigh.