The next day Mark was watching the evening news curled up on the judge’s armchair. His head still ached; his left wrist was splinted. He put his good hand to his forehead and scratched the stitches lightly. Then he looked at the bottle of painkillers sitting on the judge’s desk.
“…and now, Commissioner Emhart’s press conference on yesterday’s attempted bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles.”
“Juuudge!” McCormick hollered out, but immediately regretted it, even before he heard the familiar sound of the judge’s heavy, hurried footsteps in the hallway. Hardcastle had been hovering over him with a morbid air of guilt ever since Mark had woken up in the hospital that morning. He stuck his head out around the edge of the chair just in time to see the man vault down the steps.
“What?” he asked anxiously. “You okay?”
“Yeah, Judge,” Mark said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to alarm you.”
“So why the hell were you shouting? I’m supposed to keep an eye on you here—just in case you faint or something. You heard the doctor. I can’t do it if you give me a heart attack!” Hardcastle grumbled.
“Sorry,” McCormick said defensively, “there’s a friend of yours in the news.” He jerked his thumb at the screen smiling wanly. “I think he’s gonna thank you. The guy owes you another one.”
Hardcastle looked at the screen and winced at the sight. He walked up to the TV set and switched it off with a sharp slap.
“Jackass.” He said disdainfully. Then he turned and sat down slowly across from Mark. “Frank told me the genius wanted to raid the place, no less,” he said with a look of disgust. “And this isn’t gonna improve our relations, either. He probably hates me twice as much now.” He let a moment pass, then leaned forward, resting his forearms on his lap. “Besides, if there’s somebody who deserves to be thanked, it’s you, not me.”
“Me?” Mark said disbelievingly. “For what? Having my head smashed by each and every one of those ski-masked guys before passing out? You saved the day, Judge,” Mark said, shaking his head. “Even the security guard made it through alive.”
“I just dropped a paperweight onto the guy’s foot. You could’ve been shot. And it would’ve been my fault, too,” Hardcastle said with a sigh.
“Your fault?” Mark asked quizzically.
“I had Harv go after you. Put your life at risk,” Hardcastle clarified.
This hardly qualifies as news here, Mark thought, and he would have said out loud under different circumstances.
“A calculated risk, Judge,” he said. “Listen, I can see that you feel responsible, but you made the right decision.”
Hardcastle was shaking his head.
Mark leaned forward, pointed his finger at the judge. “You did,” he said firmly, “And you did it because you knew I’d get the drop on that jerk. And I did.” Then he sat back.
So did Hardcastle. “As simple as that?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” McCormick said, replying promptly and leaving no doubt that he meant it.
They sat there in silence for a while.
“Judge?” Mark finally said, interrupting Hardcastle’s contemplation of the furniture.
“Can I ask you something?”
“That guy Harv. Why did you . . .?” Mark trailed off.
“Let him get away with it?”
“Yeah.” Mark nodded.
Hardcastle sighed heavily and then spoke in a low voice. “It was 1973.” He paused.
1973. The year he died. For a moment McCormick wished he hadn’t asked.
“Harv was nineteen . . . no, eighteen, first offender.” Hardcastle went on. “He’d stolen a Mercedes Benz down in Van Nuys to help his widowed mom, he said. He came before the court full of contrition—‘Yes, Your Honor,’ ‘Of course, Your Honor’—the whole package. His lawyer appealed for leniency and swore his client was willing to toe the line, and he really looked like he was. And I—well, I must not’ve been thinking straight,” he said, wincing.
“You gave him a chance, Judge. To me that is thinking straight.” Mark shook his head. “You just picked the wrong guy,” he said simply.
Hardcastle drew in a long breath. “I even sent him to Father O’Malley down at St. Patrick’s.”
“The one who runs the shelter?”
“Yes. He ran away with the alms box the morning after he set foot in the place. He’s been in and out of prison ever since. And now he’s going to spend another long stretch in there. And he’s lucky, too. If the guard had died he would’ve ended his days inside.” He paused.
“Maybe if I’d handed down a harsh sentence, even an average sentence, things would’ve been different.”
“Maybe, or maybe not,” Mark rightly pointed out.
Hardcastle sighed again.
Third time he’s done that.
“I don’t know,” the judge went on, “I’ve seen too many young men doing the same mistakes again and again, no matter the chances they were given.” He shook his head. “Maybe some people never change.”
“Maybe,” Mark said, looking at the judge, “but some other do.”
Hardcastle met his friend’s gaze. “Yes,” he smiled, “some other do.” Then he was on his feet. “You worked up an appetite yet?” he asked cheerfully.
Mark patted his stomach lightly. “I could eat,” he said, matching his friend’s smile.
“Good.” The judge slapped his hands and headed for the door. “Oh, I forgot,” he said, stopping and snapping his fingers. “I just called the bank. I figured you wouldn’t want to go back there so I had them send out the papers. You’ll just have to scrawl a couple signatures. I’ll return them.” He grinned. “Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah, Judge, it is,” Mark said in a tone and with an expression that contradicted what he’d just said.
“Oh, c’mon, kiddo. You’ll be glad when it’s done. Trust me.” Hardcastle beamed at his friend, mounted the stairs and disappeared down the hallway.
He didn’t hear Mark whisper, “I do, Judge. I always do.”
“If Detective Harper is innocent of these allegations he will be cleared. As you are so fond of saying, Hardcastle, the law is for everyone.”
Milt tried to keep his temper in control. “The good thing about being a retired judge is that I don’t have to toe the party line. The great thing is that I still have a lot of friends in high places. Do you really want to go up against me?”
Ericson looked distinctly worried.
“Do the right thing, stand behind your detective, Commissioner, and get Harper back his job.”
Hardcastle waited impatiently while Emhart thought it over.
He carefully gathered up the shroud and recovered the murdered officer. He had very little proof, aside from his own gut instinct, and no motive at all, but Frank had never been so certain.
“Damn it,” he swore. Either Ericson was being played by Foster and Davis or he was behind it all. Either way there was trouble coming, big trouble, bigger than Frank knew he could handle on his own.
Emhart sighed and gestured to the seat across the desk from him. “Take a seat, judge, say what you've come to say and get out.”
“There is a whole lot of trouble coming down in the department and you need to know about it before it rips the whole thing apart.”
Emhart looked interested. “What kind of trouble? You'd better explain to me exactly what you're talking about. The last time you, Harper and your little pet criminal investigated my department I was fielding questions from the media and the governor for months.”
Hardcastle sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I'm going to need more than four minutes to explain this,” he said, stubbornly.
Emhart sighed and pressed a button on his intercom. “Jarvis?”
“Jarvis, reschedule my meetings for the next hour.”
“Uh, oh… umm, yes, sir.”
Emhart released the intercom button and gestured to Hardcastle. “Fine, just talk but you'd better not be wasting my time.”
“You think I can't take care of myself?”
The judge gestured to the overly thin and damaged body before him. “I think the evidence speaks for itself, kiddo.”
“What?! This is not a result of me not taking care of myself, Judge. This is because I got blindsided by bad guys, bad guys that you promised you wouldn't be going after by yourself!”
“Wasn't by myself. I had Frank with me,” Hardcastle muttered but it was clear he didn't think it was much of a defense either.
“I asked you. I asked you straight up, and you said you weren't working on anything. You lied.”
Mark was resigned to getting another ticket.
“Step out of the car, Mr. McCormick.”
Mark began to pull himself up and out of the car. The cop was standing too close to the side for him to open the door.
“Officer, I know I was speeding...”
Mark wasn't watching the cop so it came as a surprise when he felt himself seized by one arm and the back of the neck and dragged from the car.
“Oof,” he grunted as he was dragged clear, spun around and slammed against the side of the Coyote. “Hey!” he protested.
A short, hard jab to his right kidney took his breath away, effectively silencing him.
“Shut up,” the cop holding him hissed in his ear.
He could hear the approach of a second cop. Any hopes Mark may have had that this new cop could rein in his partner were dashed the moment the new cop spoke.
“Is it him?” the new cop asked.
“Yeah, it's him. Here's his licence, he lives with the judge.”
“Alright, Milt, just don't do anything stupid, okay? Go gently for once. And be careful of Ericson. The man has a lot of influential friends.”
“Sure Frank. I don't know what you were worried about. It sounds like a straight forward plan to me. I like the idea.”
“Milt, that's because you haven't heard it all yet.”
“What am I missing?”
“You need to go through channels, Milt. Official channels.”
Next Monday, at 9/8 Central