It was a glorious day, sunny and exceptionally warm for the time of the year, even for California. Judge Hardcastle was contemplating the cloudless sky from his kitchen window; a lavish meal was sitting on the table along with fresh orange juice. The man looked at what he’d cooked and decided he hadn’t worked up an appetite yet, so he just poured himself a cup of hot black coffee, picked up his morning paper and sat at the table, determined to go through the sport section before breakfast. He leaned back on his chair, crossed his legs and shot a look at the clock on the opposite wall. Ten to eight.
He’ll show up before I’m done with this.
After a while Hardcastle found himself contemplating the aforementioned wall and realized he didn’t know yet whether he was going to pay or collect the twenty bucks he and McCormick had wagered on the Lakers game. He was wondering how many times the bills had gone back and forth in three years or so of bets. Since they bet on virtually everything—from pulse rates to speeding fines, not to speak of ball games—money tended to change hands pretty fast at Gull’s Way. Handing over and collecting the cash had helped them to smooth the corners of a potentially lethal relationship since the very beginning and had turned into some kind of tribal ritual later on.
Unfortunately, Hardcastle thought, that didn’t apply to The Bet. Using a wager to have Mark accept the money he needed for his education had been a good idea. Yet, as the whole fuss about the books purchase had already proven, the details of the payoff needed to be handled soon.
Soon had turned into ‘the sooner the better’ the day Mark had come to him, a large envelope in his hands and possibly the most troubled expression he’d ever seen on his young friend’s face. The fee was almost overdue because McCormick hadn’t been able to remind him to call the bank.
The fool kid.
He’d breathed a sigh of relief when Mark had gone along with his proposal without much bickering. It had been a matter of a few minutes really—he’d pointed out the obvious convenience of the arrangement, the kid had nodded his consent, he’d slapped his hands together and called the bank to make an appointment for the next day.
Once his own enthusiasm had subsided though, he’d started to wonder why there had been so little bickering. And now he was trying to decide whether that slight worry on the kid’s face was actually a memory of the night before or just a dream-like by-product of McCormick’s latest culinary experiment. Hardcastle was still considering and pursuing his lips when the kid in question stepped in from the back door almost startling him.
“Mornin’ Judge.” Without waiting for the man to return the greeting, McCormick closed the door hastily and walked straight to the sink.
“Hey.” Hardcastle turned slightly on his chair to welcome the newcomer. As soon as the judge’s eyes met Mark’s face though, what was intended as a casual look turned into a stare. “You know,” he said looking mildly displeased at the sight, “you outta put your books down and get yourself some decent sleep.”
McCormick leaned casually against the counter holding the coffee pot and a mug, “I slept like a log, Judge,” he said bluntly.
“To me it looks like you slept on it,” Hardcastle said grimacing. He folded his paper in half and put it on the table. Then he watched Mark pour his own cup of the black liquid.
Mark conveniently took a quick swallow to hide his own grimace. “Doing an all-nighter has never killed anybody, Judge,” he finally said, sitting at the table across form Hardcastle and sneaking a look at the man.
“You sure look so bad you could be the first.”
The old donkey was clearly not inclined to let go of the subject—he’d frowned when he’d heard his excuse and was now looking at him intently. Although Mark knew Hardcastle’s inquiring technique all too well, having experienced it on many occasions before, he couldn’t avoid feeling edgy under the jurist’s look. So he purposely ignored the man’s piercing gaze, put a spoonful of scrambled eggs on his own plate, and began to inspect his food like a gold miner would examine debris on a sieve.
“I just needed to review my notes before tonight’s lesson. I would have done it yesterday afternoon, but had things to do. And that was your idea.” Then he stood up and went to the stove. “Is there any bacon left?” he asked. McCormick doubted his evasive maneuver would go unnoticed, but he needed to shake off the judge’s stare—that man could read his mind and he didn’t feel like being read.
Hardcastle wouldn’t normally object to his friend making his own breakfast, yet he couldn’t help but frown. He stared at the browned crunchy slices he’d cooked. “What’s wrong with this?” he enquired touchily.
“Nothin’, Judge.” Mark answered, “Keep it; you might use it next time we run out of charcoal.”
On hearing that, Hardcastle shifted his look from McCormick to the plate and then back again. “I thought you liked it crispy,” he said prickly and then went back to staring at the young man who was busying himself with a frying pan.
“Yup. Crispy and chewable.” Mark smirked.
Which response earned McCormick the first grunt of the day.
By the time Mark had fried bacon to his own satisfaction, the judge was done with his paper. They spent breakfast chatting about previous night’s basketball result distractedly, both brains being occupied with their ten o’clock appointment. The only difference was that the judge was eagerly anticipating the moment, while McCormick was trying to keep himself from envisioning it.
Minutes before nine o’clock the two men got in the truck and headed downtown. Just after the driver had pulled into the PCH, the passenger gave him a swift glance. “You know Judge, you don’t have to do this.”
Hardcastle didn’t take his eyes off the road. “I know I don’t have to do this. I want to do it.”
“I mean you shouldn’t feel obliged,” Mark clarified.
This time Hardcastle looked at the man sitting next to him, squinted a little and then turned his look back to the road. “I know what you mean. I’ve been speaking English for years now,” he replied. “So that’s what’s been bugging you, huh? I thought we agreed,” he said in a vaguely complaining tone.
“You agreed, Judge, I was just around when you made the decision.” McCormick didn’t bother to conceal the not-so-subtle shade of resignation in his voice. With that man it would have been futile anyway.
Hardcastle sighed lightly, his eyes glued to the skyline. “Listen,” he began, “we made a deal and I want to make sure to meet my contractual duty without delays. And without having to rely on you, like last semester. You left the damn bill marinate on your desk for three entire weeks because you were afraid the figures would upset me.”
McCormick interrupted his contemplation of the surroundings. “I know, that was dumb,” he said.
“Dumb is just the nicest synonym of the word I’d pick.”
“But it was kinda unintentional, you know,” Mark protested mildly.
Hardcastle frowned. “What do you mean ‘kinda unintentional’?”
“Well, I kept putting off because you were already dealing with that leak in the bathroom and then you had to replace the truck’s suspensions and well . . . yes, I didn’t want to upset you,” McCormick finally admitted.
The judge thought he’d underestimated his friend’s capability to fuss over things. “That’s exactly why we’re going to see ol’ Larry Fedders, down at the bank,” he said. And then added, “’Sides, we’re not just dealing with money here. This is a matter of trust.”
McCormick opened his mouth automatically, his first instinct being to ask why he’d chosen that word. Instead, he just offered quick reassurance. “I trust you, Judge,” he said mildly puzzled, “I know you would never back off.”
“It’s not about you trusting me.” Hardcastle paused and looked at his even more bemused passenger. “Nor about me trusting you.”
The kid’s face was a study in bewilderment now. “So whose trust are we talking about, Judge?”
“Yours. It’s about you trusting Mark McCormick. Listen, you’re no longer in my judicial stay, and you’re too old to have to turn to me to foot the bill. Too easy that way, too. Besides, it’s your money, you earned it, you decide what to do with it.”
McCormick leaned forward turning fully to the driver with his back against the door, “But you know I would never back off either,” he said in one breath.
“Yeah, I know. But you don’t. And that’s because deep inside that head of yours you still think you’ll wind up quitting.”
Much to his surprise, Mark heard himself say, “Well, it’s a possibility.”
Hardcastle didn’t seem to be taken aback, “Of course it is, but you’ve gotten your chance to get ahead and I want to make sure that whatever the upshot is, it’ll be because of your own decisions.” He paused, then added, “And now relax and let me drive.”
McCormick knew that tone. He’d heard the bang of a gavel at the end of the sentence, too. He had something else to say, though.
“I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing, Judge. ‘Cause I really do.”
Mark hadn’t meant to be solemn, but somehow he must have sounded so because Hardcastle looked suddenly uncomfortable.
“Yeah, well . . . ya know,” he said shrugging.
“Yeah, Judge. I know.” Mark beamed.
They lapsed into a silence occasionally interspersed with comments on the morning news they heard on the radio as they drove along.
They’d been ushered into Mr. Fedders’ office by his attractive young secretary. Strangely, though, McCormick had barely acknowledged her presence. Rather than boosting his self-confidence, Hardcastle’s lecture on trust and responsibility had made him feel even more despondent. The judge said he’d earned it, but that wasn’t the word he would have chosen.
They’d wagered on a game of one-on-one and he’d won. Though ‘Hardcastle had let him win’ would be a more accurate rendition of the event. He’d even pondered the option of selling the Coyote after all, and repaying his debt, but he knew that would have hurt the judge beyond description, and eventually he’d reconciled himself to the notion that he would owe his friend forever.
And now this. He’d spent the night wrestling with that thought and now Hardcastle was shaking hands with the man who was going to perpetuate his uneasiness. He watched the two men exchange civilities. Then Fedders gestured his guest to their seats and the three of them sat down.
“So, Judge Hardcastle, what can I do for you?”
“Well, actually, I’m just acting as a friend of Mr. McCormick, here.” He looked at the goggle-eyed man sitting next to him. “He’ll explain.” Then he smiled broadly and eased back in his seat making it clear that he was going to listen rather than talk.
“Mr. McCormick, of course. You’re Judge Hardcastle’s employee, if I remember correctly.” Ol’ Larry Fedders had already shifted his gaze from the judge to the younger man and was now staring at him.
“Er, well, yes I am his . . . his—”
McCormick had just begun to clear his throat when the judge chimed in, “He’s my associate; we work together.”
“Hmm, I thought I saw your name on some orders of payment issued by Judge Hardcastle,” the man peered through some papers on his desk, “tuition payments.” He looked up at the younger man, smiling.
McCormick suddenly thought ‘Ol Larry bore an eerie resemblance to his math teacher. He turned to the judge with a pleading look.
Hardcastle couldn’t help sighing. “This is precisely why we are here.” He said.