McCormick turned his head and shot Hardcastle a meaningful glance raising an eyebrow. Then he started to get back on his feet, ready for the improvising job.
Just then the door banged opened with a blow that hit Mark’s left shoulder and sent him tumbling to the ground. He instinctively stuck out one hand to break his fall, but realized that had been a bad idea when he found himself sprawled on the floor with a sore cheekbone and a throbbing wrist.
Still holding his breath and lying on his side, McCormick managed to open his eyes, ignoring the pain that dimmed his willpower. A pale young man, almost a kid, had a gun on Hardcastle. He was yelling and waving his weapon around edgily.
“Don’t move! Back off!” he shouted frantically.
“Okay,” Hardcastle stepped back, then he gestured at the weapon. “Easy with that, son. Somebody could get hurt.”
“Back off! Against the wall!”
Hardcastle sneaked a look at his friend on the floor. McCormick had his eyes open and was trying to prop himself up on one elbow. Hardcastle wanted to engage Joey’s attention long enough to allow Mark to get on his feet and catch the hood unawares, but before the judge could open his mouth, Joey turned to the man on the floor.
“You, too” he cried, addressing McCormick, “against the wall!”
McCormick got to his knees slowly and then started to rise. The moment he was on his feet he thought he was going to fall again. He felt his head pounding, as though from a surge of blood. His vision went red. He stiffened to resist the pain and moved unsteadily towards the judge, staggering noticeably.
Hardcastle grabbed him by the arm. “You okay?” he asked, and then took a closer look at the bruise already visible on the kid’s face.
Mark didn’t have the time to lie to the judge. A man appeared in the doorway, a gun in his hand. The guy was glaring at Hardcastle.
That’s him, Mark thought.
Harv stepped in, staring straight at the judge as he headed towards him. When he reached the spot where Mark had been lying he stopped short and glanced down. He squatted and picked up McCormick’s crude pick, studying it closely. Then he looked at Mark and stood.
“Hanging around with thieves?”
Though the question—which in truth sounded rhetorical—was clearly addressed to Hardcastle, Harv hadn’t shifted his gaze; he had his eyes locked on the battered guy next to the judge.
In spite of his struggle to stay upright, Mark returned a steady look. Then he mustered all the strength he had left and let smart-mouthed McCormick emerge.
“Car-thief, to be precise,” Mark glowered, “But I’m not in the business anymore. What about you? Did you start holding up banks because you couldn’t drive fast enough?”
Harv glared at Mark. He sniffed disdainfully and then shifted to the older man.
“Oh, oh, I see,” he sneered. “He’s not your bodyguard. He’s your pet. Too cute.” Then he went back to looking at the younger man.
Hardcastle glanced at Mark. The kid’s jaw was clenched—so was his fist. To anyone else McCormick would have looked threatening, but he could tell his friend was in a lot of pain. Despite that, he also knew Harv’s nose was about to meet the kid’s straight right.
“You don’t think you’re going to get away with it, do you?” The judge asked, placing a restraining hand on McCormick’s arm.
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.
Not having released Mark’s arm, Hardcastle gave it a gentle squeeze and steered him towards the door, the hoods following along at a short distance, still holding them at gunpoint.
The corridor to the main room was endless, or so it seemed to McCormick. He’d been on the verge of collapse a couple of times, and would certainly have done so if the judge hadn’t tightened the grip on his arm. His cheek throbbed painfully, so did his left wrist. He felt dizzy and exhausted, and the incessant ringing in his ears, that had started with the last blow, was stretching his nerves to the breaking point. None of that qualified as more than a nuisance, though, compared to being jeered at and threatened by that scum.
Hardcastle grimaced. Two whacks on the head. And he can’t stand. At the least he’s got a mild concussion.
His initial assessment of Mark’s condition had been depressingly accurate. He’d developed an eye for that kind of thing, especially when that kind of thing happened to McCormick—basically because that kind of thing happened to McCormick a lot.
And whose fault is it?
The small party was halfway down the corridor when Mark stopped short, turning around abruptly. The maneuver had been so quick and unexpected that Harv almost jumped, while Joey bumped unceremoniously into the judge’s back.
“I need the toilet,” Mark said, not acknowledging the commotion he’d caused. He headed for the bathroom, holding his stomach with one hand and reaching out for the door with the other.
Although momentarily taken aback, Harv reacted before McCormick could cross the threshold. “This ain’t no picnic, pal,” he said, grabbing Mark’s shoulder. “You’ll go later.”
“Sorry, pal—this can’t wait until later.” McCormick got closer to Harv, his hand still on the door. “Or I can just puke up my breakfast right here, if you want.” Then he closed his eyes, swallowing audibly.
Mark didn’t know whether to thank his pasty face, or the revulsion that vomiting never fails to trigger. Harv took a step back, letting him slip between the now open door and his gun.
Walking towards the first stall, McCormick felt the stares. He knew at least one of the onlookers was squinting at him, trying to guess what he had in mind. He desperately wished there really was something to be guessed at.
At that moment he heard the sound of excited voices from the main room. Although he couldn’t make out the words, Mark was almost positive the louder voice was the clerk’s.
He didn’t turn or stop. The diversion he needed had finally come.
Harv swatted Joey’s shoulder. “Stay with him in the john. If he tries anything, shoot him.”
Then he shoved the barrel of his gun into Hardcastle’s back, steering him down the corridor.
Joey watched Harv and Hardcastle depart hurriedly, then spun on one foot to catch up with his limping assignment.
Only seconds had elapsed. Mark was barely in the stall with its door still swinging shut. Joey dashed in, managing to reach the door and push it open before it could be latched. He was awkwardly placed with his weight off-balance when the door came slamming back into his face with McCormick’s full weight behind it.
“Sorry kid.” Mark muttered, looking down at the effects of his assault. Joey was lying, face up and eyes closed, where he’d fallen.
He dragged the man to the sink and tied him to the drainpipe with a rope he yanked one-handed from the blinds. He considered gagging him, but eventually dismissed the idea. The only thing available was toilet paper; it would be both ineffective and unnecessary. If things went as he hoped, the kid (who looked a lot younger now that he was unconscious) would wake up properly handcuffed in a police van, and if not—
What if not?
With one last look at his captive, McCormick got to his feet, picked the gun up from the floor, and headed for the door.
“Can’t you see he’s dying!”
Martin Healy was shouting at Pete at the top of his lungs and gesturing wildly, as if a combination of volume and gesticulation would somehow get through to their captors. Pete stayed tense and silent, tightening and releasing his grip on the gun.
Hardcastle strode to the room, Harv’s gun still pushed between his ribs, completely absorbed by his worries about was going on both in the room he was entering and in the one he’d just left. Once he saw what was happening, he didn’t need Harv’s encouragement to get him to the spot where the guard was lying.
Harv gazed down at the injured man. He glared at Pete and then turned to the bank clerk.
“Fine job, doc,” he said angrily.
“I’m not a doctor,” Martin Healy retorted, “and I told you he needed hospital treatment. And why the hell did you shoot him?” His frustration had flared into genuine anger and he did nothing to hide it.
“I can shoot you too.” Harv pushed his gun against Healy’s chest, making him step back.
Healy stiffened abruptly, suddenly aware that a bullet would kill him no matter what the distance between the barrel and his chest—he’d seen plenty of such wounds in young men, bleeding to death in the streets.
“This isn’t gonna do you any good, Harv.” Hardcastle’s voice grabbed Harv’s attention, distracting him temporarily.
“Let the man get out of here now. You can take me to cover your flight. They won’t risk a superior court judge’s life.” Hardcastle jerked his thumb towards the street. “I have friends out there.”
“I don’t need your advice, Hardcase!” Harv yelled with mounting frustration.
“The hell you don’t. If this man dies it’ll be first degree murder in the commission of an armed felony. That’s a life sentence without parole.”
“I’m not planning to get caught, Judge.” Harv articulated “judge” as kids sometimes do with swear words when they want to irritate adults.
“You mean like you weren’t planning to shoot a man and get yourself trapped in here with a dozen hostages?”
The telephone rang.
Pete went to the counter and picked up the receiver. He swallowed, “Hello?” he said, without much conviction, and then, “Lieutenant Harper.” He handed the mouthpiece to Harv, who snatched it from him.
“Look, Harper,” Harv growled, “there’s one of your buddies here who just offered to escort us. And there’s a bullet in my gun with the name Hardcastle on it. Do you hear me?”
At any other time a threat to his own life would have been enough to make the judge to pay attention to what was being said. Under these circumstances, though, his mind was elsewhere. He wondered how long it would take Harv to realize that his man and McCormick were supposed to have been out there by now.
With his back to the corridor, Hardcastle didn’t realize that McCormick had gotten to the doorway just in time to witness the phone call. Knowing that Frank was out there was somehow a relief to Mark, but he also knew there wasn’t much Harper could do for them. He had to think quickly and act even faster—letting them flee with the judge was not an option.
On the other hand, although he had a gun and the element of surprise, he didn’t think his shooting skills would allow him to deal with two armed men who were surrounded by hostages they wouldn’t hesitate to use as shields. He looked down at the gun and then at the judge’s back. Wrong hands for a semi-automatic.
Here Hardcastle. I’m here, just turn your head.
Just then Hardcastle scratched the back of his neck to relieve an itch and instinctively turned his head slightly in the direction of the corridor. He had to suppress a grin when he saw Mark squatting down behind a desk near that doorway. He moved a little further to the right to make sure no one else would see the newcomer and jerked his head imperceptibly as a sign of acknowledgement.
Then the judge made a go-back gesture with his hand. McCormick didn’t understand but quickly complied. He got up, still undetected, and retreated back into the corridor as far as the bathroom. He stopped and waited, trying to figure out what Hardcastle wanted him to do. There was a utility closet directly across from the bathroom. After a moment’s thought he opened the louvered closet door, stepped in, and closed it silently behind him. Still uncertain, he peered between two of the narrow slats and waited.
Once McCormick was gone, the judge let a few seconds pass before starting his performance. This time he made sure that everyone was looking at him as he turned back to sneak a look at the corridor, pretending to be inconspicuous.
“Where the hell’s Joey?”
Although Hardcastle had been expecting the question, it surprised him that it came from Pete. Harv had just slammed down the receiver, having adding a few additional threats to the judge’s life for good measure.
The two robbers exchanged looks.
“Damn!” Harv said under his breath. Then he stalked off, brandishing his gun.
McCormick was still pondering his options when he heard heavy footsteps approaching swiftly. He rested his forehead on the inside of the closet door, clutching the gun tightly in his hand. The sound of the steps stopped abruptly. McCormick opened the door slightly, just enough to free it. Harv was at the bathroom door, his left hand on the knob. He seemed to be pondering his options, too. He finally pushed the door open, but didn’t step in.
Enough of this.
McCormick flung the closet door open and barreled into Harv, slamming him into the bathroom door and down onto the floor Harv’s gun went flying, landing against the opposite wall.
But Harv was only momentarily stunned. He rolled and struck out wildly with a right cross that smashed into McCormick’s face. Mark fell back against the wall, dazed. Harv got on his knees and swung again, McCormick’s plunged to the right, dodging it, and Harv’s fist smashed against the wall.
Mark scrambled up unsteadily, fueled only by a rapidly diminishing supply of adrenaline and clinging to the door with his sore hand. Harv was on the floor, trying to rise. McCormick still clutched Joey’s gun in his other hand. He looked at the weapon and then tossed it away. Then he grabbed a fistful of Harv’s shirt. He looked him in the eye for a split second before delivering the blow that put Harv down for the count.
A satisfied grin appeared on Mark’s face just before he felt his legs no longer supporting the rest of his body and he collapsed in a heap.
Back in the main room, Harv’s sudden departure had made Pete even more nervous. What had started off as a relatively easy bank job was growing more complicated with each passing moment. He paced back and forth, between the wounded guard and the hallway, muttering increasingly incomprehensible words.
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.
His heart sank.
Not this time, he thought angrily.
Holding tight to that resolution, Hardcastle roused from his day-nightmare and scanned his immediate surroundings, looking for something within reach that would work for what he had in mind. He finally spotted the right tool for the job, his eyes lingering on the thing for a second.
That will do the trick. It has to do it.
Hardcastle eased back almost imperceptibly toward the nearest desk, reached behind him and resting his palm on the paperweight sitting there. He wrapped his fingers around the object until it was nestled firmly in his hand. Then he straightened his arm slowly, letting it come to rest against his side.
He addressed Pete. “You’d be doing yourself a favor if you let the police in. I’d testify in your behalf before the court.”
Pete stopped short and fixed the judge with a lopsided grin. “You would?” he enquired sarcastically.
“Sure, you didn’t do the shooting, did you? I’m a judge, you know, I still have friends th—”
“Yeah, you have friends in prison, too,” he said, as he walked toward Hardcastle. “I’ve been inside. Can you guarantee I won’t go back there?” He stopped in front of the judge, waving his gun under his nose. “I don’t think so,” he said, without waiting for an answer.
“This is a big mistake. You’re gonna regret it.”
“Oh yeah? When?”
“Now.” Hardcastle hurled the paperweight onto Pete’s foot with a perfect snap of his wrist.
Pete let out a yell of pain and automatically lifted the offended limb, bending over to grasp it. He’d barely realized he was standing on one foot with his gun aimed down, when Hardcastle’s fist crashed into his nose. The next thing he knew he was sprawled on the ground, stunned. Without missing a beat, Hardcastle snatched the gun.
“Get up!” he ordered, grabbing Pete’s shirt and lifting him as if he were a puppet. Then he turned to the bank clerk. “Get out there,” he said pointing his finger at the door. “Move slowly, keep your hands up. Give them the all-clear.”
Then he set out, pushing his reluctant and unsteady prisoner ahead of him down the corridor.
Hardcastle had already considered every possible scenario by the time he halted his captive at the bathroom door. No gun had been fired, so the chances were good that Mark had managed to disarm Harv. Still, the judge wouldn’t risk his friend’s life on assumptions, no matter how reasonable they were. He pressed his ear against the door.
After that he looked at Pete and jerked his head. “Call him,” he ordered in a hoarse whisper.
“Harv!” the man called out tentatively. “You in there?”
Hardcastle reached for the doorknob and turned it cautiously, then pushed the door part-way open slowly and looked inside. Through the narrow space he saw McCormick on the floor, face down and unmoving. He felt his breath catch. He flung the door open, dragging Pete behind him. He dropped to one knee next to Mark and, for the second time that morning, felt for the kid’s pulse while his own heart skipped a couple of beats. Then he closed his eyes, sighed heavily, and started breathing again.
He grasped McCormick by the shoulders and gently turned him over. Some blood was oozing out of a fresh cut on the kid’s forehead but he was breathing steadily, too.
As relief flooded through him, Hardcastle heard a series of light steps behind his back. He raised his gun and made a quarter-turn, aiming it at Pete.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he said dryly.
Pete dropped the gun he’d just scavenged from where Mark had tossed it earlier. He straighten and stood with his hands up.
His stance hadn’t changed much when Frank stormed into the room. He looked at Mark, then at the judge. The lieutenant took a deep breath, closed his eyes and heaved a huge sigh. He reached into his tactical vest for his radio and issued an all-clear, along with a request for medical assistance.
Frank put the handcuffs on Pete personally. Joey, now scowling sullenly from below the sink, was cut loose and handcuffed as well. Harv was the last to rouse, lifting his head and trying to spit at Hardcastle before Frank stiff-armed him up and handed him over to one of the arriving back-up officers. The three men were escorted out just as the paramedics arrived with their stretcher.
Mark groaned when his lids were lifted and a penlight was pointed at his pupils. The paramedics seemed pleased with the response. The older of the two flipped his radio unit on and relayed their findings to his base hospital while Hardcastle listened in anxiously. It was the usual gibberish that didn’t tell a bystander very much. About all he caught from the return transmission was the final phrase “—and transport.”
“Where you takin’ him?” the judge asked, as the paramedics signed off and readied to leave. “And how’s he doing?”
He got a questioning look from the older paramedic. Hardcastle glanced down at himself and realized he must look like he’d been through the wars, maybe like he needed a paramedic to check him out as well.
“I’m okay,” he assured the man. “But the guy your hauling off, I’m his . . . his—”
“Best friend,” Frank suggested gently.
“Right,” Hardcastle said, without any protest or hesitation, and when that admission didn’t seem to be carrying much weight, he hooked a thumb at Frank and added, “and this guy is in charge of this crime scene; he needs to know where to contact the victim and how soon he’ll be able to give a statement.”
“Na’ today,” the guy on the stretcher muttered.
Everyone looked down at him. Hardcastle grinned.
“St. Mary’s,” the paramedic said, aiming the answer toward Frank, “closed head injury and facial trauma. Stable, for now. Is that enough for your report?”
Hardcastle didn’t mind being ignored. He sidled in next to the stretcher and patted McCormick’s shoulder. “See ya in a little bit. You just take it easy for a while, okay?”
As the paramedics loaded their gear and rolled, Mark waved—his right hand just barely clear of the stretcher, his eyes still closed. Then the stretcher and its occupant were gone.
Frank looked at this friend. He’d rarely seen him that exhausted. “You look like you could use a stretcher too, Milt.”
“I’d rather drive there,” Hardcastle answered as he trudged out into the hallway.
Frank put a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll drive, you’ll talk.”