There were two black-and-whites and a familiar sedan in the drive by the time he pulled in. Hardcastle was standing near the front stoop gesturing animatedly to Frank Harper, who looked as though he were trying to herd his witness indoors. Sonny wasn’t in sight.
The judge stopped even minimally cooperating as soon as he caught sight of Mark.
“You got ‘em?” he asked impatiently.
Mark thought it was pretty obvious that he hadn’t. He shook his head. “An ’86 Camaro, black, one of those IROC-Z’s; it had a chimsel.” He rattled off the plate, which he suspected had not originally been issued to a Camaro. He noticed the other two were staring slightly. “You know—that brake light up high in the middle, a C-H-M-S-L—‘chimsel.’ They didn’t have them last year, so it’s an ’86.”
The staring hadn’t abated much, though Frank turned slightly and relayed the basic information to one of the officers. Mark managed a half-shrug. He couldn’t help it if he was a little eidetic himself—though only when it came to cars.
Then he gave the judge a harder look. “You okay? What the hell happened? I heard a bunch of shots.”
“Yeah, well, you missed most of the excitement,” Hardcastle said dryly.
“I was over at school.” He thought he’d gotten it out smoothly—maybe a little flat.
All he got from the judge was a hard-to-interpret, “Uh-huh,” and then, “well, I heard that damn souped-up car coming a ways off. I told Sonny to stay out of the way and I grabbed a shotgun.”
He didn’t get a chance to finish the question. The man himself stepped out on the stoop, looking around warily. He spotted Mark and gave a jaunty half-wave that contrasted sharply with the worried set of his eyes.
“Hey, kid, you get your assignment handed in?”
Eventually Sonny retreated upstairs and all but one of the cop cars departed. Harper had insisted on some sort of guard detail at Gull's Way unless Hardcastle wanted a ride to the nearest available safe house. With that as the alternative, the judge capitulated.
In the den, with at least an appearance of peace reestablished and the real subject of his aggravation not open to discussion, the judge shifted to something a little more general.
“Is he gonna stick around for a while?” He glanced up toward the ceiling and, presumably, the guest room above. “Not that I mind,” he added, trying to lighten his first remark with a smile
McCormick noticed his effort and responded in kind, “If you’d made him sleep on the couch in the gatehouse instead of one of the rooms over here, he’da been gone by now.” He forced a grin as he plopped into a chair. “Sonny’s not all that stoic, y’know.”
Hardcastle settled into another chair, but not the one behind his desk. Even he seemed reluctant to have his back to a window these days. He also seemed to be giving Mark’s comment more thought than it required.
He finally sighed and said, “I just want you to know—I get what’s going on.”
Mark felt his jaw go slack and pulled it up again, if only to swallow hard. He thought he’d been keeping his suspicions about Sonny under wraps. As little kinship as he felt with the man, it still amazed him how much he could be embarrassed by Sonny’s failures.
“I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out. “I should’ve said something.”
“Why?” Hardcastle asked, looking genuinely surprised at the admission. “I mean, he’s your dad and all. I think that gives you some kinda right to keep stuff between you and him.”
“But this—it affects you.”
“Some,” Hardcastle shrugged, “yeah, I guess.”
“You guess?” Mark shook his head in disbelief. Hardcastle might be the master stoic, but this was taking the practice to extremes. If the man suspected Sonny was a hazard, he ought to be raising a ruckus and shaking the truth out of him.
This calm bore an uncanny similarity to another occasion only a year back, when the judge had been diagnosed with a fatal blood disorder. All in error, it turned out, but while the shadow of death had hung over his friend, nothing Mark had done had been able to dispel his resignation.
Mark pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “Look, we’re going to talk about this some more, just not now. What’s important now is figuring out who this third guy is, and making sure he doesn’t get a whack at you.”
“Sounds about right,” Hardcastle said.
“And after that we can deal with the whole Sonny thing,” Mark added nervously. He presumed once they held both ends of the string, the web could be unraveled. If Sonny had been any part of that, it would be obvious.
The judge nodded. He seemed more than willing to put off the inevitable revelations. Mark figured that was out of kindness to him. Did the judge still think Sonny meant that much to him?
He frowned and finally got to his feet. “In the meantime, no objections if I move him out to the gatehouse?” He figured his worst suspicions had been pretty much laid bare with that request, but what if he had failed to act on them and it turned out Sonny was completely suborned?
To his surprise, there was no anger in Hardcastle’s expression—a hint of sadness, perhaps, which Mark could completely understand. Sonny had come to them under the guise of friendship.
“Whatever you think is best,” the judge said. The tone of resignation was back and his expression was unreadable.
Mark nodded once and turned to leave.
Hardcastle watched him go. It only made sense that the kid would want to spend a little more time with Sonny. It was a real step forward in the relationship. He hoped his reply hadn’t sounded too flat. He suspected it had. He kept telling himself that he had no objections at all to Sonny resuming his long-neglected place as McCormick’s father—better late than never.
But the bottom line was he didn’t trust the man—not his motives, and even if those happened to be legit, most certainly not his capability for long-term commitment. It had nothing at all to do with Sonny inevitably moving on, and Mark maybe wanting to move on with him. He swore his real concern was Sonny building up his son’s hopes and then dropping him flat again. Really.
Mark trudged up the stairs, intending to announce the change in accommodations to Sonny then and there. It wasn’t until he got to the top of the steps that he heard a muffled voice from beyond the half-closed door of the guest bedroom.
Had it been anyone else, he would have knocked to announce himself, or merely turned and headed back downstairs. Instead, he froze for a half-second, and moved closer, soundlessly.
From his new position he could make out the anxious cadences--Sonny’s side of a telephone conversation.
“Yeah, I’m still here—”
Mark resisted the urge to hustle into Hardcastle’s bedroom and pick up the other extension. It would be bound to tip Sonny off.
“—but I’m telling ya, my kid’s not stupid. He’s on to me.”
Mark reached out for the banister to steady himself. Even his deepest suspicions had left some room for hope. That door was closing fast.
“I didn’t say nothin’. God’s my witness. I swear,” Sonny protested. His voice had risen a half-octave in what was sounded like panic. He seemed suddenly aware of the increase in volume, too. He dropped down to a near-whisper and said something further that was indistinguishable.
Mark stepped forward and even the whispering stopped. He heard the receiver settle into the cradle as he pushed the door open without knocking. There was a quick stiffening of Sonny’s shoulders and a half-jump as he jerked his head around and locked gazes with his son. It was obvious he’d been staring down at the phone.
Sonny’s face was caught in a freeze-frame of fear, just for a split-second. Then it sublimated into his usual nonchalance, even a half-smile that revealed not one iota of guilt.
“Hiya, Mark. You missed all the excitement, huh?”
Mark schooled his own face into non-judgmental passivity and nodded wordlessly. How many times has he lied to me before?
He didn’t think it would help to accuse him now. The one thing Sonny had in limitless supply was chutzpah. But even knowing this, Mark might have spoken his mind if only to hear the man’s lies. It would be like cauterizing a wound: a painful searing heat in place of a slow draining of faith. But then the phone rang again. He twitched and sensed Sonny’s nearly identical movement.
It was only the one ring—obviously Hardcastle had picked up the receiver downstairs. In the sudden silence Mark stared at his father but said nothing. Chutzpah or not, he watched Sonny swallow nervously.
If he’d been on the verge of a confession, it was suddenly pushed aside by an impatient bellow from the bottom of the stairs.
“Can’t put it off any longer,” the judge groused. “Gonna have to run downtown.”
Mark frowned for a second, then stepped out into the hallway and looked down the stairs. Hardcastle was leaning, one hand on the lower end of the railing.
“They caught some of ‘em?”
It didn’t seem likely; the judge looked peeved.
“Nah, nothing that useful. It’s Thompson.”
“What’s he want now?”
“Well, for one thing, he wants to know who tipped us off about all the ‘contractees.’”
Mark frowned and glanced over his shoulder. Sonny had been edging forward, naturally curious, but at hearing this he stepped back, looking reluctant.
Mark shook his head in barely concealed disgust. “The D.A. doesn’t want to book you.” He paused briefly and then revised that. “Okay, well, maybe he will, but it’ll only be because you’re related to me.”
Sonny didn’t look reassured. Hardcastle slapped the top of the newel post impatiently and hollered, “He doesn’t need a tux for this show.”
“Come on,” Mark nudged Sonny toward the stairs. “The D.A.’s is safer than hanging around here, right?”
The material witness seemed reluctant. Mark had a sudden notion that he wouldn’t mind seeing Sonny get the third degree, even from Thompson himself. The nudge turned into a firmer prod.
Hardcastle was squinting up, directly at him. “You coming, too?” he asked. There was a grim set to his expression.
Mark had his father in tow. He would have thought it was obvious that Sonny needed all the encouragement he could get. He shrugged. “We’re the Three Musketeers, looks like.”
“More like Larry, Moe, and Curly,” the judge muttered, looking not too happy as he let the other two pass and then followed them out the front door.
Hardcastle’s truck pulled out—past the fountain and down the drive. In the now empty house the phone on his desk rang, and went unanswered.