Mark didn’t think it was his imagination, the way things had gotten suddenly quiet as the three of them passed through the outer office occupied by D.A. Thompson’s minions. He knew a few of the assistant D.A.s by name and one them, Shuster, a new hire who’d been on the outer edges of the Dex Falcon trial, gave him a sympathetic nod, but then quickly turned away, busying himself with a phone. There were some cold and wary stares from the others. For once, most of them were directed at Hardcastle.
The judge sailed between the rows of desks like a guy who really didn’t care much about the opinions of minions. Mark had only a second to wonder if he’d keep right on going, past the door and into Thompson’s inner sanctum, without knocking.
It didn’t come to that. The receptionist must’ve phoned ahead. As they approached, the door opened from within. It wasn’t Thompson who’d done the opening, but a burly guy who looked more like a plainclothes detective than an A.D.A. Mark figured him for one of the department’s investigators, some of whom were former cops.
Thompson was seated behind his desk, and didn’t bother to get to his feet to greet his visitors as he drawled, “I was starting to think you’d become a hostile witness, Milt.”
“Now you know me better than that, Dean.” The judge’s grin bordered on lupine, and Mark knew for a certainty that the two men weren’t ordinarily on a first-name basis. “I came as soon as you called, didn’t I?”
Thompson exhaled sharply through his nose, but didn’t challenge that remark. Instead his gaze turned abruptly to Sonny, who’d been doing his best to stand partly behind the other two.
“So this is your informant? Mr. ah,” he glanced down at a pad of paper on his desk, “Daye, is it? Among other names, I see,” he added drily.
Sonny didn’t extend a hand. He glanced nervously at Mark and then forced a smile as he turned to the D.A.. “Just trying to do my civic duty. Anyway, Milt here is practically like family.”
Thompson couldn’t help looking down at the pad again with puzzled furrow of his brow.
“What he means is,” Hardcastle interrupted, “is he’s Mark’s dad, so he did me a favor—a friend of a friend thing.”
Thompson was still frowning at the page before him, which was obviously incomplete. He finally looked up again, this time at Mark, and shook his head as he muttered, “I should have figured.”
“Listen,” the judge growled, “Mr. Daye heard some rumors and he came to me about it. I reported it all to the LAPD—”
“Your buddy Harper.”
“Who last time I checked was a duly sworn officer of the City of Los Angeles—like I said. So maybe you should spare us the aspersions and tell us why you insisted we come down here.”
Mark found himself staring at the judge. He was pretty sure this sterling defense of Sonny was mostly built on Hardcastle’s dislike of Thompson but still . . .
“I asked you to come down here because I received reports that there have been two attempts on your life so far today and this man,” Thompson nodded sharply at Sonny, “is by all accounts a material witness in the matter.”
“He’s a guy who’s already told us what he knows.”
“I think that remains to be seen. And I intend to ask him a lot more questions. I’ve got a grand jury already impaneled. They’re considering some other issues related to organized crime. I’d say this will fit in nicely,” Thompson said brusquely. “Needless to say, I’ve already got the subpoenas drawn up and ready to be submitted.” The D.A. had been leaning forward, one finger tapping the desk as he spoke. But then, almost as suddenly he settled back into his chair as though he’d just made a chess move.
The judge was eyeing him narrowly. There was a tense silence between them until he finally asked, “Subpoenas?” The emphasis was on the plural.
Thompson risked a thin smile and shifted his gaze briefly to Mark. “Subpoenas. Three of them, or . . .” He paused for a moment and then proceeded, this time with a tone more commonly reserved for political dinners. “Or we can keep this civil. My department extends an offer of protection to you until this matter is settled, in exchange for whatever information you may have that will help us settle it.”
Hardcastle looked grim. “Protective custody?”
“I prefer to call it safeguarding witnesses. Do you have any idea the chilling effect it will have on my other cases if a convicted felon were able to orchestrate a hit against a prominent witness from behind bars?”
“Okay, I get it. If Jersey Joe takes me down, it’ll make your office look bad.” The judge frowned and shot a quick glance of his own at Moe and Curly, then back at Thompson. “I need to confer with my clients—in private.”
Thompson gestured magnanimously to the man who’d shown them in and was still standing at near-attention by the door. “This is Investigator Shea. He’ll show you to a conference room.” The unspoken assurance was that he’d also stay right outside, possibly listening in, and definitely not allowing anyone to depart.
Hardcastle seemed to be putting as good a face on it as he could. There was even a brief, nearly courteous nod to their escort as they were shown into an otherwise unoccupied room. Once the door closed, though, Hardcastle’s expression settled back into a hard frown as he pulled up a chair and sat down at the table, the other two joining him.
“He can do that?” Mark asked impatiently. “Put Sonny in front of a grand jury and pump him?”
“Can, and will—him, and you, too. And it’ll be no holds barred, with Thompson doing the questioning.”
“So,” Mark tried to keep his tone confident, “if things get too dicey, Sonny pleads the Fifth.”
“Him, yeah,” Hardcastle miffed, “but what about you?”
“Me? What do I know that I can’t tell them?”
“About this? Probably nothing—for once, at least—but you think Thompson is going to stop at just the past couple of days? When he gets on a roll, with thirty attentive jurists to play to, he’s going to nail you on every case you’ve been a party to in the past three years. He’ll ask whatever he likes, and you’ll have to either perjure yourself, or tell ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’” Then he added in a mutter, “So help you God.”
Mark swallowed once and then countered, feebly, “Or I take the Fifth, too.”
“Let’s see how well that’ll sit with the Moral Fitness Board, when you come up for the bar in a year or two. They don’t have to believe you’re innocent in the absence of proof. They know innocent guys don’t rely on the Fifth Amendment.”
Mark pondered this for a moment with a sinking feeling. He finally lifted his head wearily. “Is that why we’ve been avoiding Thompson lately?”
The judge grunted, neither a yes nor a no, but then he insisted, “He didn’t need your testimony in the Austin murder. The only thing you could do is poison his evidence tree and screw up your chances at the bar.”
“He needs you, though,” Mark pointed out. “I mean, you’re the guy Norcross recruited to make sure his candidate got elected mayor. You’re the one who can show the murder was part of a conspiracy. You need to testify.”
“And next time I tell ya not to break in to steal evidence, will you listen to me?” the judge grumbled.
Mark sighed and nodded. Sonny, who’d been watching the whole thing in mystification, said, “I’d just as soon not take the Fifth, either. Stuff like that makes me nervous.”
“Right,” Hardcastle said flatly, slapping his hands against his thighs and getting to his feet. He looked more determined than resigned. “So what’s a few days in a safe house in the cause of justice? Clean sheets, three squares. Maybe a little cable TV.”
Sonny looked doubtful and Mark took a turn at being mystified. Giving in was not the Judge’s M.O. but he’d already turned toward the door and, raising his voice only slightly, announced that they were done conferencing. The door opened inward and their escort appeared, expressionless.
Thompson was only a few steps further away, standing at one of his minion’s desks, leaning in to say something that was accompanied by an unpleasant expression. The man he was speaking to was Shuster, who looked surprisingly impervious for a new guy. Maybe he realized Thompson’s anger was displaced. The D.A. turned and took the three of them in with a haughty demeanor.
“My client and I have decided to take you up on your offer,” Hardcastle said, pulling Sonny forward with a firm hand under his elbow.”
Thompson frowned, having caught the singular even before Mark did. “It’s a package deal,” he said. “All three of you.”
“There hasn’t been any threat against McCormick. Ask Sonny.”
“Oh, I will, but—”
“And who knows how long we’ll be holed up? The kid has classes. He’s shelling out good money to go to law school, and a week or two will dice the whole term.”
Thompson grimaced, as if in recollection of the kind of riffraff that was entering the profession these days, but almost at once he seemed to settle for two birds in the hand.
It was Mark who protested, “But Ju-udge—”
“I thought we’d covered that thing about you listening to me next time.”
Mark was knocked silent by the sharpness of his tone.
“This way, gentlemen,” Thompson gestured. “Mr. Shea will take you. I want to get this done before Bieber’s people are on to it.”
Sonny smiled wanly at him. Hardcastle hung back for a moment, leaning in and muttering, “Somebody needs to take the truck home and keep an eye on the place. I’ll look after your dad; make sure he stays out of trouble.”
Mark looked down at the keys he’d been handed. “Yeah,” he said quietly, as Hardcastle hustled to catch up with the others, “but who’s gonna keep you in line?” But the judge was already gone.
Mark didn’t stop to talk to anyone. Shuster was on the phone again and everyone else gave him sideward glances that were only minimally less hostile than when he’d come in. He went down the elevator and out the front door seeing no more of Sonny or Hardcastle. Presumably Thompson had a back door for witness smuggling. Mark figured they’d be in the underground lot by now, climbing into some anonymous black van with tinted windows. He thought somebody ought to speak to the people in charge of fleet purchasing. Those vans always stood out like a sore thumb.
He was pondering the futility of subterfuge when he spotted a familiar figure, standing impatiently next to the judge’s truck, which had been parked on the street not far from the D.A.’s offices.
Mark picked up his pace, closing the distance between them. “Freddie?”
Fred Dylan stopped in mid-pace, looking up. “Well, finally. I tried to reach you by phone.”
“How’d you know I was here?” Mark asked suspiciously.
“Process of elimination. Listen, you ever read any Plutarch?”
“Plutarch, you know, Lives of the Romans?”
“No, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Yeah, well, neither had I. Dammit.”
‘But what’s that got to do with—?”
“Herennius. He’s in Plutarch. He was a Roman centurion.”
“Okay, so it’s some kind of code name.”
“Right. Listen to me. Mark Antony, remember him?”
“Vaguely.” Mark frowned.
“He was a powerful guy. Cicero was getting in his way. Mark Antony sent Herennius to track Cicero down. He caught up with him as he was leaving his country estate. He decapitated him and brought the head back to Antony. End of story. Cicero was a dead, sixty-four year old lawyer. Is any of this sounding familiar?”
Mark stiffened. He knew he ought to be one-hundred percent wary of this question, but he felt nothing like the suspicion he’d had a few moments ago in Thompson’s presence.
No, he thought, and out loud he said, “It can’t be Thompson; he’s the D.A., for crissake.”
“It doesn’t have to be him, but think—does referencing the late Roman Republic sound like Jersey Joe’s style?”
There wasn’t all that much thought required. “No,” Mark shook his head, “it’ll be somebody who reads stuff like Plutarch, and thinks he can make a joke that no one else will get.” He frowned. “How’d you figure the Plutarch thing out?” he asked, and then, without waiting for an answer he blurted out, “Norcross. He’s snooty enough to think he could get away with it. Buy Jersey Joe’s contacts—Bieber’s going up the river for a long time anyway; a powerful friend on the outside wouldn’t hurt.
“But who the hell is Herennius?” Mark muttered, still thinking out loud. “A centurion—somebody official, but just a foot soldier.” Mark blanched and shot a look back over his shoulder. “That guy, Shea. I’ve never seen him before.”
Freddie’s brow was furrowed when Mark turned back to him.
“Shea—tall guy, 6’2”, 220, dark hair, scar,” Fred closed his eyes as if the last part needed a cleaner projection screen, “above his left eyebrow?”
Mark wasn’t sure about the scar, but the rest was close enough. He shoved Dylan in the direction of the passenger door and popped the locks.
“It’s a clean alias, and he’s got papers to go with it,” Freddie said, climbing in on the opposite side. “His real name is Victor Pompano. But decapitation isn’t his M.O.”
“That’s a comfort,” Mark muttered. “Hang on.” He pulled out with a sharp turn of the wheel and took the corner too fast. The exit for the underground lot was on the opposite side of the building and he rounded the second corner just in time to see a black van merging into the left turn lane a block down.
He might be wrong about this; it was pure gut instinct, but he gunned it, navigating around the slower cars, still unsure what he was going to do once he caught up. Catch up, then worry about the rest.
He hear the familiar ch-chack of a round being racked into the chamber of semi-automatic and turned his head just enough to see that Freddie was not limiting himself to an observer’s role.
“He might be a different guy named Shea,” Mark said doubtfully.
“Don’t worry; I only shoot guys from the D.A.’s office in self-defense.”
Mark gave that an absent nod as he swerved around a Caddie that wasn’t taking advantage of the newly-green light. He suspected his quarry was aware of the pursuit. The van had gained ground on him and might soon be lost in the traffic. He picked up his pace, jumping a yellow and hearing the screeching application of brakes from his right.
“They call this the death seat,” Freddie observed as the guy in their wake laid on his horn.
”That’s only for left turns,” Mark said, making his from the middle lane on fewer than four wheels. He caught another glimpse of the van, now two blocks ahead and turning right, north again, into the canyon roads. “Hang on.”
He took that turn even more sharply, slamming his own shoulder into the side window. The van was gone from sight, lost in the maze of twists and turns ahead, but with nothing on either side that wasn’t a dead end.
“He’s headed for Bryson Canyon,” Mark said, with more assurance than he felt. Then, as if to confirm his guess, he saw a spume of dust, as though a heavy vehicle were taking a dirt road with too much speed. He mentally ran the odds and found himself repeating them out loud to Dylan. “Shea’s got to have backup in the van. No way Hardcastle hasn’t figured out something’s not kosher by now.”
Freddie had the courtesy not to suggest that Cicero might already be dead, Sonny, too, though he’d been strangely absent from Mark’s calculations. He preferred thinking of his father as a nullity, than weighing the possibility that he was Shea’s backup.
“Check the glove compartment; the judge keeps his piece in there.” He heard Freddie undoing the latch.
“Yeah, a .45.”
“Hang onto it for a minute. Almost there.” He slowed as they passed the gate into the park and heard the crunch of gravel beneath the tires. At the first turn-off he came to a halt. They were on a slight rise, though there were shoulder-high patches of scrub and a few small trees on either side. He saw a shimmer of dust hanging over the road to the right. He almost thought he could make out the fresh tire tracks.
“There,” he said, “see?” He clutched the wheel and swung it to the right.
“Pull over,” Freddie said sharply. “It’s a dead end.”
“Doesn’t matter. It is. I’ve seen the map.”
Mark sighed, edged the car in among the bushes, and put it in park. “‘The map’? Every road?”
“Once I figured out where we were . . . yeah.” He handed Mark the .45. “It curves to the south and ends about a quarter mile up. We can cut through,” he whispered, now that they were both out of the truck and standing side-by-side.
Mark gave him a considering look and then lowered his own voice to respond. “This isn’t your problem, you know. I can handle it from here.”
His companion, consigliore to a high-level, not-quite-retired mobster, was silent for a moment. He finally let out a weary sigh and said, “I think I’m supposed to be here.”
“Says who?” Mark tried to keep the alarm out of his tone. “Ferris sent you?” Starting a gang war had not been on his to-do list.
“No,” Freddie admitted, “not in so many words. I didn’t bring it up with him—” a brief look of guilt crossed the man’s face and then he plunged on, “but when you find a copy of Plutarch’s Lives on your doorstep first thing in the morning, with the right page dog-eared, well . . .,” his voice trailed off; he looked over his shoulder, across the trackless route they’d take, “consider it a sign.”
“Anyway,” he straightened up and checked his weapon one more time, “like you said, Shea must have backup, and who knows what shape your judge is in, so you do need me.”
“No shooting,” Mark said sternly. “No unless there’s no other way.”
Freddie nodded once in reluctant agreement but did not holster his firearm. Mark hadn’t either, in fact he’d left Hardcastle’s bulky leather holster in the truck.
He pointed to Freddie’s right, a silent suggestion that they fan out. They made their way through the clumps of brush, trying to move quietly despite the graveled surface. There wasn’t enough scrub to offer concealment, but the road ahead dipped down Their approach ended at a rocky escarpment.
Mark dropped flat and saw his companion do the same a dozen feet to his right. The black van was parked below, about twenty yards off and ten feet below them, with Shea and two other men just on the other side of it, gathered in close. It was hard to say what they were doing.
Even with the element of surprise, charging in wasn’t going to do any good. Despite his earlier admonition to Dylan, Mark thought about taking them out at this range, only to realize that the first shot, successful or not, would send all three down behind the car, with Hardcastle and Sonny as hostages.
The nearly-frozen tableau held for a moment—kidnappers and observers—until finally something seemed to have been decided down below. Two of the three men stepped back for a moment and the third, Shea, opened the rear sliding door. Then he stepped back, too, and it became evident that he was gesturing to the occupants with a gun.
“Just behave for once,” Mark muttered under his breath. Freddie must’ve caught the words, or at least the tone. He never took his eyes off the men below, but a hint of a wry smile twitched the corner of his mouth.
Hardcastle hadn’t been surprised to see two extra men waiting for them when they and Shea first got to the van. Anything worth doing was worth doing right. It was Sonny who’d frowned at one of the men who’d climbed in the vehicle, taking the seat behind them. The frown was transmuted to a persistent expression of puzzlement, but it wasn’t until they were pulling out into traffic that Sonny leaned in and spoke, almost lower than a whisper. “I keep thinkin’ I’ve seen that one guy before.”
The judge didn’t turn. He’d been thinking it was odd that he hadn’t recognized either of the two, and come to think of it, Shea must be a new guy as well. But to Sonny he only returned a whisper from the corner of his mouth. “A fan maybe? Or a former arresting officer?”
Sonny gave him a quick grimace. Hardcastle supposed it was better than panicking, and it was only natural that they were both on edge—him on account of two assassination attempts in one day, and Sonny because he was Sonny. But none of that explained the prickling feeling at the back of his neck, and the way Shea kept glancing in his rearview mirror and pushing the pedal as though they’d already picked up a tail.
“Someone back there?” Hardcastle asked casually.
“Nah,” Shea growled. “Thought maybe, but . . . nah.” Still, he pushed his way through traffic like a man who didn’t quite believe his own assurances. Their route led mostly north, toward the twisting residential streets beyond the 101, a logical place to put a safe house.
Except they didn’t pull into one of those quiet, out-of-the-way streets but continued on, until they passed through a back entrance to one of the parks on the north edge of the city. He supposed they might be passing through, en route to Burbank or Glendale. Maybe this was part of their protocol, a good way to detect a tail. He’d just opened his mouth to ask when Shea turned sharply onto a barely-graveled dirt road, careening for a moment and obviously taking it too fast for conditions.
Hardcastle shut his mouth. There was no point in letting on that they were anything but compliant witnesses with full faith in their guards. He shot another quick glance at Sonny. Anxiety had won out over puzzlement, but he seemed to share the judge’s opinion on not doing anything to wrinkle their façade of cooperation.
They’d entered a small open area, sunk ten feet below the surrounding valley and obviously a dried-up creek bed, probably the head of an ancient spring. To their other side rose a moderate-sized cliff of sandstone, and at its base was the entrance to a cave. It’d be nothing spectacular, knowing the local geology—either a short tunnel through to the other side, or a smooth, dead-end chamber. It was nobody’s conception of a safe house.
At any rate, the jig was up. Hardcastle was surprised not to feel the nose of a pistol pressed into the back of his neck. Shea put the van in park and pocketed the keys. He turned halfway around in his seat, leveling the gun from their direction. The other two men exited past them, while Sonny sputtered something about having rights.
Hardcastle was figuring the odds. It was essentially one against three, though at least Sonny was predictable in a crunch. Their guards were conferring just outside the car. Shea kept his weapon trained on them through the open driver’s door. The final decision was made in what seemed to be only a few moments, then the rear door on that side was opened and they were gestured out at the point of Shea’s gun. The other two men were armed as well.
Oddly, no one carried a shovel. The judge assumed Jersey Joe didn’t mind their bodies being found. With his sentence of natural life, it hardly mattered. He was still puzzled about one thing though.
“You’re Herennius?” he asked Shea.
“Huh?” the man said, then Hardcastle felt a shove from behind. They were being herded into the cave.
Mark had finally caught sight of Hardcastle—Sonny, too. Both were on their feet and appeared unharmed, though it didn’t look as if that would go on much longer. They were being hustled into the cave at gunpoint. The only advantage was that all three of their captors now had their eyes and attention focused in that direction.
He only spared a quick jerk of his chin for Freddie, who’d already come to the same conclusion anyway. The slope to Mark’s left was less precipitous, a scramble rather than an out-and-out leap. He descended as silently as possible. Freddie had found his own route down and now both of them were crossing the open space at a sprint, stopping just short of the van and crouching down to regroup.
They were reduced to hand gestures now, and Mark showed his a hastily acquired visual aid: a rock twice the size of his fist that had some heft to it. Freddie looked at him with utter disbelief etched on his face and made a slight wiggling motion with his gun. Mark shook his head once, his expression stern. Freddie exhaled silently and groped around with his free hand for a rock of his own.
One quick glance over the hood of the van showed that two of the kidnappers were just inside the cave’s entrance, facing in. That still left Shea unaccounted for, but Mark was sure that time was running short. He moved to the front corner of the van, while Freddie took the same position at the back, and with no prearranged signal except for Mark starting the charge, they launched themselves on their targets.
It must not have happened in slow motion, though it seemed to take forever: crossing the few remaining feet, his breath loud in his own ears, the implacable descent of the rock and the dull thud that reverberated through his hand and wrist. There was no more noise than a grunt from his victim as he sank to his knees. Mark barely registered the nearly simultaneous fall of the man two feet to his right.
But Shea had heard it. Though it was nothing as definite as two pistol shots would have been, he naturally started to turn. They could see him now, ten feet further into the obscurity of the cave, with the even less distinct shapes of the judge and Sonny beyond him, only their faces paler than the surrounding shadows.
There was that moment where everything seems frozen, the milliseconds in which nerves tried to respond to brains. Then everything was in chaotic motion again as two shots were fired.
That was Freddie, down on one knee, leaning on the rock-felled heap of goon in front of him, with the silhouette of his weapon being brought to aim.
“No!” Mark shouted. The judge and Sonny were still in the line of fire.
He moved to intercept Freddie but suddenly realized it wouldn’t be necessary. Shea had been toppled off his feet and was down on the ground, with Hardcastle in possession of his weapon.
Nerves caught up to brains, and reflexes stood down—Freddie lowering his weapon while Hardcastle cocked his head just slightly, as if he couldn’t make much out against the backlight.
“McCormick? Hah, figured it was you makin’ everybody nervous. Who’s your friend?” He squinted to make some details.
Mark, rolling his own goon aside to disarm him, stood and gestured to his companion. “Judge, you remember Freddie, right? We met him in Palm Springs last year.”
Freddie was still in a kneeling crouch. Hardcastle had already ID’d him, if his puzzled scowl was anything to go by, but any awkwardness that might have ensued was suddenly displaced when Freddie’s weapon slipped further to the ground, a prelude to his slow, crumpling collapse.
“Dammit.” This time it was more of a gasp as Freddie clutched at his right side. Mark was there, pulling his hand away and lifting the edge of the man’s sweater.
“Me, too, I think. Huh, didn’t feel like getting shot; ‘course I’ve never been shot before.” The muttered soliloquy came from off on Hardcastle’s left, where a huddled shape could be just made out, sitting on a boulder.
“Sonny?” Mark started to get to his feet. “Where?”
“My arm.” It was now evident that he was clutching a spot halfway between his right elbow and shoulder, but he was sitting mostly upright and he sounded alert.
“Okay,” Hardcastle said, in a take-charge tone, “we’ll tie up Shea and his buddies. You get these two out to that van and hustle ‘em down to St. Vincent’s. It’s a hop, skip and a jump on the 101. Check them into the ER and send the cops back up here.”
There was a low moan from the goon Mark has hit. Hardcastle looked down disapprovingly and added, “I suppose we’ll need some ambulances here, too,” he sighed, and then, sharp again, he added, “Let’s get movin’ here.”
Mark got the goons restrained and the victims loaded up. Freddie was pale but still awake, and Sonny seemed more bemused than alarmed by his own situation.
Hardcastle stepped out of the cave for a moment, just as Mark was ready to leave. He leaned in at the rolled-down driver’s window and said, “You don’t have to drop a dime to Thompson’s office just yet, ya know? I kind of want to tell him all about it myself.”
“Oh, that guy, Shea, you can tell the cops his real name is Victor Pap—” Mark frowned and hesitated.
“Pompano, Victor Pompano,” Freddie muttered from the seat behind him. “Jeez, can’t you remember anything?”
There was a parting smile from the judge, subdued under the circumstances, and a slap with the flat of his hand on the hood of the vehicle before he stepped back and Mark pulled away.
Hardcastle heard the first sound of sirens, police and ambulance, not more than ten minutes after he’d seen the van off. Having two gunshot victims had probably increased McCormick’s credibility considerably. The goons were both awake now, joining Shea in a trio of sullen “I want my lawyer” stares. The judge didn’t even try to question them. He knew Jersey Joe bought silence by the metric ton.
The cops didn’t succeed in hindering him much in his efforts to get to St. Vincent’s, and he made it there, in his own truck, in just under forty-five minutes from the time McCormick had left. He found him sitting in the ER waiting area.
Mark shook his head. “Freddie was hanging in there, and I think Sonny had what we in the sidekick biz call ‘a scratch.’”
“Well,” Hardcastle glanced around, feeling surprisingly uncomfortable, “sorry about that.”
Mark lifted one eyebrow.
“I mean, I said I was going to look after your old man, and look what happens.”
The other eyebrow joined the first. “I don’t think you can hold yourself responsible for Sonny getting in the way. Let’s face it, coordination doesn’t run in my family. Did he trip when he tried to duck or something?”
It was Hardcastle’s turn to look surprised, but he batted that down. Obviously McCormick hadn’t gotten a decent view, having just come into the cave from full daylight.
He cleared his throat as he tried to find the right words. “Look,” he finally said, “I thought we’d pretty much bought the farm in there, me and Sonny. And I was the guy who’d put in for the mortgage.”
“No, wait, just listen, ‘cause I don’t want to have to tell you twice. I know you and your dad haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but this visit, well, finally there was some progress.” He cleared his throat again. “Maybe I wasn’t real sure about Sonny’s motives, but I want you to know I was dead wrong about that, and you were right.”
Things had gone about as silent as they could, considering the surroundings. The long pause was finally punctuated by a single syllable from McCormick.
“No, I mean it. When push came to shove in that cave, I made my move to try and take down Shea. But Sonny got in first, caught Shea in the arm, and kept him from nailing me. Scratch or no scratch, he took a bullet for me.”
Mark stared at him for a full second and then, “Are you sure he didn’t just trip?”
Hardcastle opened his mouth to reply, but saw McCormick’s gaze drawn sharply to the main entrance. Two men of the sort readily reminiscent of Shea’s assistants, entered shoulder-to-shoulder, scanned the room professionally, and then stepped aside, holding the doors open.
The rest of the committee consisted of one man, Don Ferris, in a splendidly subdued charcoal-gray suit and silk tie. His expression was grim. He looked as though he might walk straight in through the door marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” but, having seen the judge and Mark, he changed trajectory at the last moment.
“What happened?” he barked, mostly in the younger man’s direction.
Mark gave him the Reader’s Digest version, starting with Sonny’s unexpected appearance on the porch at Gull’s Way, and ending with the breakneck drive to St. Vincent’s. “Freddy took one shot to the left side, below the ribs. He was breathing okay and still awake when we got here. It’s been under an hour. I haven’t heard anything since.”
Ferris cast a quick glance at the judge. Then he turned on his heel, heading for the registrar’s desk, his bodyguards close behind. Words were exchanged, and Ferris was passed inside, having dismissed his men to a couple of chairs nearby.
Mark studied the whole incident and hmmphed. “How come it never works that way for me?”
“He’s on a bunch of hospital boards. I think he may have put a couple of surgeons through medical school. He offers a group health plan to his people, you know.”
Mark darted a glance at him. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
Hardcastle shook his head solemnly. The expression didn’t soften as he went on.
“You consulted Freddie Dylan?”
Mark shrugged and said, “To quote a friend of mine who’s very big on law and order, ‘It takes one to catch one.’ Who else do we know who’s a walking data base on hired killers? He came up with that Victor guy’s name, didn’t he? And, you know I think you’re going to find that Shea answers to your old buddy Norcross, the king-maker. Freddie thinks he was pinning it on Jersey Joe as a cover.”
Mark turned away, looking back at the registrar’s desk with a frown as he muttered, “But who the hell is in Fred’s chain of command besides Ferris.” He cocked his head. “Hey, you think ol’ Ferris reads Plutarch?”
Hardcastle only half-heard that last part. A woman in scrubs had appeared at the “Authorized” door, clip-board in hand. “Family of Mr. Daye?” she inquired briskly. Mark’s gaze fastened on her and he stepped forward, the judge right behind him.
“Sorry,” she said, “one visitor to start, until the doctor’s finished with him. You’re family?”
“His son,” Mark said firmly.
“This way.” She ushered him in, leaving Hardcastle, hands in pockets, staring at the now-closed door.
“He’s in examining room six.” The woman pointed down a corridor that had doors on either side. Mark headed for the sixth door down, but before he’d taken two steps, saw Don Ferris emerge from that room. Mark paused, looked at number on the nearest door and did the counting again. The mobster didn’t look up as he headed into the room directly across from the one he’d just left.
Mark approached cautiously, trying to wipe the frown from his face. He’d almost managed an appreciative smile before he arrived at the door, which was indeed number six. Two quick raps and he entered. Sonny was sitting up on the cart, looking paler than he had earlier. His right arm was bandaged and in a sling.
“What’d he say?” Mark asked, with a sharpness that didn’t go with his smile. Sonny looked startled at the question. “The doctor,” Mark added, “about your arm.”
“Oh this?” Sonny gestured with his good hand, suddenly sounding more expansive, “Aw, it’s nothin’. Through-and-through and didn’t hit anything major. Of course there’ll be a lot of pain—”
“Yeah . . . there always is.” Mark didn’t release him from his stare, trying to gauge what he was thinking. Then he shifted suddenly. “Hardcastle says you took a bullet for him.”
Sonny swallowed once and forced a smile. “Yeah, well, like I said, nothin’ a guy won’t do for a friend of his kid. Right?”
“Or for an old mob boss.” Mark gestured with a flick of his chin back toward the door behind him.
He wouldn’t have thought Sonny could have gone any paler. He heard it before he heard it: the halting stutter, the air of bravado.
“You know, kid, your old man knows a lot of important guys.”
“He’s holding your markers, huh?” Mark said. His tone was weary. It had barely been a question.
Sonny looked suddenly too tired to argue. He gave it a nonchalant one-sided shrug of reluctant agreement. “A few, maybe.”
“So tell me, did you take a bullet for Hardcastle . . . or for Ferris?”
There was a silent pause, and then his father cocked an utterly unexpected grin—or maybe Mark had been expecting that all along, too. After all, nobody ever really owned Sonny Daye.
“To tell ya the truth,” Sonny said, with his old, insouciant air, “I kinda thought maybe I tripped trying to get out of the way.”
Hardcastle had taken a seat across the room from Ferris’ men when the “Authorized” door opened again. It was Ferris who emerged. The two men started to rise but he motioned them back down with a wave of his hand and headed toward Hardcastle’s side of the waiting area.
The judge rose, not as a sign of courtesy, but more to meet the man eye-to-eye. He’d been thinking through much of what McCormick had said about the day’s curious chain of events.
“How’s your man?” he asked politely.
“Stable, they call it. They’re taking him up to the operating room but they say he’ll make it.”
“That’s good. I like Freddie. I think this is the second time he’s saved my life.”
“Freddie’s a good boy.” Ferris touched his finger to his temple. “Mind like a trap. He knows things.”
“Not everything,” the judge pointed out.
“Nobody can know everything, except God,” Ferris said piously.
“Yeah, maybe,” Hardcastle nodded, “but I’m guessing there’s things you know that Freddie doesn’t.”
“Not much. Freddie’s my right-hand man.”
“And your right hand maybe doesn’t know what your left hand is doing.”
Ferris smiled thinly. “It’s better sometimes if your right hand doesn’t even know you have a left hand.”
“Who is he?” Hardcastle said, already knowing he wouldn’t get an answer, but needing to ask anyway. “Your plant in Thompson’s office, the guy who knew about Shea’s double life. Is that why you needed to cover my ass, to keep the heat off Thompson? Does he know about your left hand? Hell, you bought a judge once, why not a D.A.?”
“Nonsense,” Ferris said calmly. “From all reports, Mr. Thompson is a fine, upstanding officer of the court, and what point would it serve to upend the D.A.s office? The rogue has been found, and in the nick of time, too, it appears. I only did what any decent citizen would do.”
He smiled again. “And good luck convincing your friend Thompson that one of his choirboys has any other allegiance.”
His smile was briefly broader, but then faded away to reflect his other concerns. Ferris turned, heading for the door with his men up and behind him, leaving the judge, for once, speechless.