McCormick was relieved to see the homestead appeared undisturbed, but not surprised that the judge took a careful look around, with his weapon still at the ready, before finally heading inside. It didn’t take any further nudging to get him over to the phone, either.
Mark stood there long enough to see that he was dialing Frank’s office, then snagged Sonny’s elbow and tugged him quietly toward the hall.
“Got some nice begonias out here,” Mark said. “You ought to see them.”
Sonny looked mystified but was silent as he let Mark usher him out the front door. It was only after they were down the steps and a short ways along the path that he said, “I’m not all that big on flowers, kid.”
“I know,” Mark muttered. “Fertilizer’s always been more your strong suit.” He shook his head and drew up short, turning to face the man. “Listen, I’m only going to ask you once. Why the hell are you here?”
“What,” Sonny managed to look mildly offended, “a guy can’t do a good deed for a friend of his kid’s?”
Mark’s lips tightened as though he were holding in his first and most instinctual response. After a long and judgmental moment he replied, “Some guys for some kids, yeah. You—”
“Well, I don’t expect you to believe me,” Sonny said. “I guess that beating I took last year—”
“Wait.” Mark held one hand up. “Wait a sec. The thing with the bar. Okay, I guess that was sort of on the up and up. But if you’d just told us from the start that you won it in from a wiseguy in a shady card game—”
“The judge,” Sonny hooked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the house, “would’ve tossed me out on my butt. Can I help it that just once I wanted to do something for my kid?”
Mark murmured “‘Just once,’” half to himself. He stared past his father, back toward the house. He could see Hardcastle standing by the window, receiver still in his hand, gesturing intently as he spoke.
He glanced back at Sonny, then fixed him with his most implacable gaze.
“I still don’t get it. Okay, so you came here to do a good deed—you’ve done it. But now the hammer’s coming down and,” he shook his head again, this time in wonderment, “you’re still here. Why?”
All he got in answer from Sonny was a nervous shrug.
Hardcastle finished his report to Harper with the license number—a Jersey plate, of course, and little hope of it actually belonging to the vehicle in question. Frank also hadn’t made any progress in identifying that Herennius guy.
“And, just like I figured, the D.A. wants you to see you, pronto.”
“You told him, huh?”
“I had to, Milt. Bieber calling a hit on an ex-judge—”
“So what’s it got to do with Thompson? I did my testifying almost a year ago. Bieber’s already run through the whole appellate process and struck out.”
“You’re still forgetting about the Van Zants? And how ’bout the Norcross case? How many times have you run for mayor and caught a CEO in an illegal dumping scheme? Like I said, you’re a valuable property. Other evidence or not, Milt, you’re the lead-off man on a couple of his witness lists. You can’t blame the D.A. for taking an interest.”
“Thompson?” Hardcastle snorted. “All he’s interested in is his conviction rate.”
“Okay, yeah,” Frank conceded, “but he’s stuck with you, and you’re stuck with him, so would you please make my life a little easier? Pay him a visit.”
“Don’t see what good it’ll do. He’s gonna start talking about safe houses—all that nonsense.”
There was a stern silence from Frank’s end, and then, finally, “This can’t just be about the safe house. It started before that was even a possibility. What the hell's going on, Milt?”
“Yeah, well,” Hardcastle muttered, it was hard to lie to one of his oldest friends, even a lie of omission, “some of his ‘legal weasels’ are a little sharp.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Hmm . . . mostly it is, except when it come to the parts where they get very interested in ways and means.”
There was another moment of silence on the line, before he heard Frank clear his throat and ask, hesitantly, “You mean the McCormick method?”
“Yeah,” Hardcastle said gruffly, “evidence acquisition, no holds barred.”
“When did that become a problem? Like you said, they’ve got more evidence than they need. You’re the frosting on the cake and most of the time they don’t even use Mark.”
“Hah . . . that was before, when he was just an ex-con and they didn’t want to touch him with a ten-foot pole. Then they used him in the Price/Falcon case and got a slam dunk, not to mention his parole’s ended.”
“So what’s wrong with all that? Sounds like he’s an upstanding citizen doing his civic duty.”
“And if anybody reads between the lines on those proffers, even mine, they’re going to figure out he went through some locked doors or flashed a phony ID to get at some of that evidence.” Hardcastle had lowered his voice, but even at a near-whisper it was very intense. “He’s gonna be a candidate for the bar for crissake.”
It seemed to have finally gotten through to Frank, producing a long sigh from his end of the phone and then, “Okay, I get it. He can’t start working on a clean slate until you’ve buried the old ones. In the meantime, maybe a squad car in the driveway—for me? Have a heart, Milt; I’m lousy at eulogies.”
“I’ll think about it, Frank.” The judge tried to sound conciliatory. “And you can just tell Thompson I was a horse’s ass—he’ll pretty much be expecting it.”
They parted on civil terms. Frank even managed to avoid saying “I told you so.” Hardcastle put the receiver back in the cradle and realized he was alone in the den. He half-turned, catching a glimpse of the other two men standing out along on the walkway that lead to the gatehouse. They were intent in conversation.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It made sense, he supposed. First the bar incident—sure, it hadn’t turned out all that well but that hadn’t really been Sonny’s fault. McCormick had to realize his dad had been really been trying that time. Now another visit, this time to give them a heads-up, and Sonny hadn’t beat feet the moment danger loomed.
Hadn’t he hoped that the guy would start living up to his son’s pretty reasonable expectations? And now that he finally had, wasn’t it natural that Mark would see something to look up to?
It was the shrug that swept the fog of uncertainty from Mark’s mind and convinced him—beyond a doubt—that something wasn’t on the up and up. He reached out, snaring Sonny’s arm in a firm grip, stopping just short of shaking some sense into the man.
“Lemme make this perfectly clear. I don’t care who else or what else you’re afraid of, if you aren’t being absolutely level with me then you’ve got a bigger problem than you think.”
“It’s nothing like that, kid.” Sonny’s grin wavered between placating and insouciant.
Mark shook his head. He wasn’t buying whatever his father was selling. He leaned in, giving up his grip on the man’s arm for some pressure on his shoulder.
“You’re not getting it, Sonny.” He half-recognized the confidential growl he was employing as something he’d heard Hardcastle use.
“Getting what?” Sonny asked nervously.
Mark let out a long sigh, shook his head, and started up again in slow, measured words. “If it turns out you haven’t been on the level—if you do anything that puts him more at risk . . .”
Unlike the growl, this was all his. As unspoken threats went, it had the ring of absolute sincerity. Sonny swallowed once and seemed to force another, fainter grin, but he had the decency not to defend himself any further.
Mark’s stare narrowed a little. “All right,” he finally said, having made up his mind—he really had no choice, “I need your help—”
“Yours,” Mark said glumly. “I have to meet somebody—an appointment.”
Sonny leaned in, threats and hazards apparently pushed aside in the interests of a good conspiracy. “Who with?”
“Nobody you know.” Mark frowned. “But I need you to distract the judge—nothing fancy, just make sure he’s not staring out the window when I leave. I won’t be gone long. Can you handle it?”
Hardcastle watched them, feeling moderately resigned. He assured himself that he was absolutely in favor of Mark having the father he’d waited twenty-seven years for. That hand on the shoulder sure looked like a conciliatory gesture, and Sonny wasn’t sidling away with his usual air of avoidance.
He turned from the window, intending to head down to the file room. He figured he’d take up where he’d left off this morning, perusing the files for anything that might give him a handle on the one remaining mystery assassin. He thought Sonny and Mark could use a little space.
He hadn’t even made it as far as the end of the hall, though, before he heard a perfunctory double rap quickly followed by the knob turning and a hesitantly inquiring, “Hey, Judge?”
It was Sonny, with the door half-open and his head poking around the edge.
Mark made a clean get-away. He didn’t expect he’d be lucky enough to have his entire errand go unnoticed, but he’d already laid out his alibi: “I had to run over to school.”
It had the ring of truth. There were some professors on the law school’s staff who wouldn’t extend a deadline even on account of a mob contract. Hinckleman would probably say, “Hmmph, if you were dead, you wouldn’t be asking.”
And, for added veracity, while Mark had been on the phone that morning setting up his appointment he’d had the forethought to suggest a place actually on campus—the basement coffee room of the law school’s library. Somehow he wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t had to give detailed directions to the person he intended to meet.
He spotted his quarry seated at a table in a position that made perfect strategic sense, facing the only door and with the wall against his back. But otherwise the man looked perfectly at home in a collegiate atmosphere. With his drab wool vest, tweed jacket, and wire-rimmed glasses he could have passed for a graduate student—or more likely an associate professor. His only greeting to McCormick was a considered nod, not so much unfriendly as reserved.
Mark slipped into the seat at right angles to him, on account of he didn’t want his back to the door these days either. He summoned a cautious smile and said, “Who’s ahead, Freddy, you or me?”
Fred Dylan cocked his head slightly, as though he were running the stats. He probably was. There was only the slightest hint of a return smile—the kind that passes between trench-mates who’ve seen some battles—before he answered, “I think we’re even.”
“Too bad,” Mark said. “I need a favor.”
One of Freddy’s eyebrows rose just slightly. This was someone who didn’t do surprised very often. Mark wasn’t sure exactly what his job description was. Henchman didn’t quite cut it. Consigliere might have been a closer bet: Don Ferris’ right-hand man and advisor, and even in near-retirement Ferris was a force to be reckoned with in the West Coast mob.
Mark knew better than to ask Ferris to intervene in an East Coast hit, though. He knew even if he had been holding that big an IOU on Ferris, fighting mob with mob would be anathema to the judge.
Dyer must’ve known that much about Hardcastle, too. Hell, he probably knew the man’s shoe size—Freddy knew things.
“What kind of favor are we talking about here?”
“There’s a contract out on the judge,” Mark said bluntly. “Someone tried to do the hit today.”
“I’d heard something about that,” Freddy said, not indicating just how up-to-date his information was.
“How much do you know?”
The answer was silence.
Mark swallowed once and nodded his concession. “Okay. I don’t need to know it all. Just one thing.” He slipped a piece of paper out of his pocket and passed it over.
Freddy took it, glancing down at what was written there.
“It’s one of the hit men, just the last name, Herennius.” Mark said. “Ever heard of him?”
Dylan mouthed the word in silent concentration. His eyes narrowed slightly for a moment before he shook his head. “Nobody by that name in the Organization—not that I’m aware of.”
Mark looked doubtful for a moment. “You’re sure? Maybe it’s an alias.”
Freddy squinted slightly. He might have been running some program—scanning an algorithm. Mark held his breath.
“Not one that’s being used by anyone who’s currently active in the profession on either coast, or anywhere in between.”
“Someone new, maybe? Just up from the minors?” Mark asked, his hopes fading fast. “Maybe from overseas? An import?”
“No, Bieber is strictly a union man. When he hires a hit, he buys American. Still . . .”
“‘Still’ what?” Mark asked impatiently.
“There are possibilities,” the other man murmured more distantly.
“You’ll look into them for me?”
Freddy seemed to snap back into focus, as though he’d executed a long series of complex equations whose answer was ‘yes’. He nodded once slowly.
Mark was already on his feet. He thought a thank-you might have reminded Dylan that he’d just offered to do a favor for the enemy. Instead he said curiously, “You didn’t check it in that notebook of yours.”
“That really isn’t necessary.”
“You know them all? Every guy who’s ever done a mob hit?”
Freddy nodded once diffidently. “Among other things. A lot of things. Lists can be dangerous. I’m eidetic.”
“I just have to picture the page.” Freddy shrugged. “It’s all up there.”
Mark considered this for a moment. It wasn’t all that surprising except—“That notebook you use, why—?”
“Ferris knows, sort of,” Dylan grimaced slightly, “not the rest of them. It’s a socially awkward skill to possess in my profession—lots of things need to be forgotten. If a list is dangerous, it’s just as dangerous to become the list.”
He stood and nodded once sharply. “I’ll check into it and let you know if I come up with anything.”
Mark watched him depart. He felt oddly relieved, as though the vague promise was a sure thing. A moment later his relief was subsumed by an even stranger feeling. He suddenly realized he’d just been unnecessarily confided in by a man who had probably never done an unnecessary act in his entire life.
He pondered that for a moment and then shook off his concern. Whatever Freddy’s motives were, if it got them the inside track on this Herennius guy, Mark would be grateful.
Mark checked his watch as he approached the estate—a total elapsed time of just over one hour and the front gate looked calmly inviting under the cerulean sky.
Open, and inviting. He frowned as he turned in off the road. He was certain he’d closed it. Then he heard the fuselage of shots, and before he could gun his own car, another vehicle—a late model Camaro—came roaring out, its tires slinging a shower of gravel at the Coyote.
His frozen dilemma was resolved a second later by the welcome sound of running feet and some winded cussing—the judge, definitely. He couldn’t imagine Sonny running toward a source of gunfire. There was no time to waste though. He peeled off after the Camaro.
He didn’t give much thought to what he’d do when he caught up. He took the twists and turns of this familiar stretch of road with practiced ease and caught a glimpse of the muscle car on the first straightaway. He was aware of a wildly inappropriate feeling of well-being: drive, chase, catch. There was no room in that sequence for worry.
And then, abruptly, he knew something was wrong. There was no car in sight as he came out of the next curve, even though he’d sped up. His quarry must’ve taken one of the canyon road turn-offs. Mark slowed. He heard the distant cacophony of more than one police siren. He pulled to a stop on the side of the highway and cussed quietly—just a couple of heartfelt words.
It was lack of practice. He’d lost his edge. If he’d narrowed the gap quicker the guy wouldn’t have eluded him. On the other hand, he might have cornered a dangerous killer while he himself was armed with nothing more lethal than a ball point pen and a yellow highlighter. He let out a sigh and cast one reluctant look up the empty road.
No, he’d definitely lost the guy.
He wheeled the Coyote around in the width of the roadbed and gunned it, heading back to the estate.