Hardcastle looked up from the list he was studying, having heard the familiar rumble of the truck even before it cleared the last turn into the drive. He watched McCormick climb out, slam the door, and amble in the direction of the main house.
He put the piece of paper down before he heard the front door open and Mark holler, “You in here, Judge?”
“’Course I am, where else would I be?” Hardcastle grumbled. “You get him off to the airport all right?”
“To the airport and onto the plane. One-way ticket to Las Vegas.” Mark shook his head slightly. “I hope that’s far enough.”
“Is that any way to talk about your father?”
“Yes,” Mark replied flatly, and then he amended that with a grimace and said, “Just so you know, I was right. He confessed: he tripped onto that guy who was going to shoot you.”
“I dunno. It all happened pretty fast. I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“Okay,” Mark said, slouching into a chair, “innocent until proven klutzy.” He glanced at the judge’s desktop and then stood up again to get a better look. “What are you doing? Oh, don’t tell me—is that still next semester’s book list? I knew I shouldn’t have shown it to you.”
“Why not?” Hardcastle huffed. “I’m in the footnotes of some of these books, ya know. I’ve got autographed copies of a couple of them. First editions.”
“Yeah, I know, but most of them are in the law school library, and there’s five of us that are thinking of starting a study group—you know, share the pain—and we were figuring we’d do some sort of book co-op, too. That reading list is a mile long.”
“So you’re gonna need a bunch of books; that goes with the territory.” Hardcastle gestured toward his own law school diploma, hanging on the wall beside his desk. Then his eyes narrowed suddenly. “You aren’t worrying about how much this is costing me, or something dumb like that?”
“Me?” Mark pointed at himself. “Worrying about you coming up with the scratch? Uh-uh, Kemosabe.”
“‘Cause that wager was my idea and you won it fair and square” Hardcastle looked down at the list again, erased a couple more check marks and said, “I think I’m just going to buy them all new.”
“Ju-udge, some of those are over a hundred bucks each.” Mark was on his feet and had snatched the list back. “Listen, I’m the guy holding your marker, right?”
Hardcastle frowned momentarily and then gave that a nod.
“Then maybe I should be the guy deciding how it gets paid off, right?”
“Yeah, I suppose that makes sense.”
“Good,” Mark glanced at the list in his hand, then folded it and shoved it hastily in his pocket, “Sheesh,” he turned and strolled up the steps to the hallway, shaking his head, “offer to turn over a new leaf and he wants to buy a whole damn Carnegie li—”
Hardcastle heard it end abruptly in mid-mutter as the front door slammed closed. He had a notion that it wasn’t so much about the books—did they really put a hundred dollar price tag on some of them these days? He shook his head. No, not the books, but the “ways and means.”
He thought maybe it was time to pay off that marker in full.
NEXT, ON HARDCASTLE and McCORMICK – Virtual Season 4:
Healy had known his days as a bank employee were coming to an end, but when he saw a man in ski mask shoot Dave, the security guard, he thought this wasn’t exactly the end he’d been expecting.
There were three of them. The one who had shot and disarmed the security guard was now waving his semi-automatic gun around, issuing orders to a frightened audience.
“All right, folks, hands up and quiet down if you don’t want to join the man over there.” He gestured towards the semi-conscious guard.
Emhart seemed to puzzle over that last bit. “You have your men in there?” he finally said disbelievingly.
“Well,” Harper hesitated, “yes and no.”
“What do you mean, ‘yes and no’?”
Harper drew his breath in sharply, “Judge Hardcastle and Mark McCormick,” he said and then sighed heavily.
Being held at gunpoint wasn’t exactly a new experience for Mark McCormick. This time, though, he’d been thrown a curve . . . All he saw was Hardcastle’s attentive gaze. He’d seen it too many times to mistake it—Hardcastle knew the guy, or at least he’d recognized something familiar in him.
The man in question must have noticed Hardcastle’s stare too, because he was heading towards the judge. On seeing the ski-masked guy’s steady gait, McCormick automatically took a step forward, interposing himself between the man and Hardcastle.
Without missing a beat, Hardcastle moved to intercept the gun. Number Three franticly disentangled himself and lunged at him before he could reach it.
Mark was still occupied with the first man, but Number Two was up now as well. He hefted his money bag in a straight-arm overhead swing and brought it down squarely on the back of McCormick’s head, knocking him unconscious to the floor.
“Easy as pie, you said! Look at this mess!”
“Shut up, Joey!”
Fifteen seconds of chaos had left another man on the ground, though apparently just unconscious, three edgy robbers and an increasingly hysteric group of hostages. The guys with the guns were no longer hiding their faces and were moving quickly, brandishing their guns nervously, and shouting wildly.
Hardcastle’s diversion worked fine. Harv shifted his attention from McCormick back to the older man. His demeanor and tone changed accordingly.
“Why’s that? Because you say so? This ain’t no damn court, Hardcase,” he said through gritted teeth, almost spitting in the judge’s face. Then Harv took a few steps back waving his gun in the direction of the door.
Hardcastle watched him, monitoring his every move. He knew Harv could trigger a red alert from the back any minute and he feared Pete’s reaction. He knew too well that the worst moment in a hostage situation was the instant the kidnapper realized there was no way out.
It occurred to him just then that Harv might be reaching the same fatal conclusion. And he’d intentionally sent the man to hunt Mark. The kid had a gun, but he would hesitate to use it, no doubt about that. Harv would never return that favor, no doubt about that either—he’d already been proven to be trigger-happy.
Hardcastle glanced over at the guard. A shot in the chest. Blurry images of a ravine started to play in his mind: a body at the bottom, leaves all around.