At Gull’s Way, the investigation was moving slowly. Photographs had been taken. Statements had been given. And questions had been asked, but no one knew more than they had when they started.
“We’ve identified the man at the pool as Salvador Marinette,” said Harper, reading from his notes. “He was in county with Beal. We don’t have any information that they had ever met before that. It looks like their working together was a spur of the moment thing. Marinette was an enforcer for hire.”
“I don’t have anything on him in the files,” said Hardcastle. “Nothing that ties him and Beal together. What about the gun? Any idea how he got it?”
Harper sighed, “We’ve got it narrowed down to three possible rooms where he could have gotten it out. But we don’t know how long it had been there or who put it there. We’re looking at everyone who had access.”
“What about visitors or his lawyer?”
“No visitors and his lawyer was appointed by the court. The man has a good reputation but we‘re checking him out.”
“Any women hanging around?” asked Hardcastle, remembering Beal’s history with women who fell for his glib line.
Frank sighed again and sat back into the chair, “We’re still asking questions, but that looks like a dead end. There’s just not enough to work with. No signs of forced entry, no fingerprints, no tire treads, no nothing. The note is the only thing that ties it to Beal and that’s not even signed.”
“He wants something,” mused Hardcastle. “He didn’t go to all this trouble; not to get something. Sooner or later, he‘ll have to contact us and maybe we can get a clue. I just hope he‘s not going to hurt McCormick.”
“Beal has to realize that Mark’s worth more to him alive than dead.”
At that moment, there was a quiet knock on the door of the den. Harper and Hardcastle looked up as Officer James Graham entered the room.
“Excuse me,” apologized Officer Graham. “But we got a guy out here who says he has information about Beal. He says he knows you, Judge.”
Hardcastle nodded, “Send him in.”
A minute later, Sandy Knight rushed into the room and over to Hardcastle. “Milt! Are you okay?” Sandy gushed. “I came as soon as I got the call. I am so sorry about Mark.”
“Sandy? What are you doing here?” asked Hardcastle, echoing the question in Harper’s head.
“I got a call from that man, Beal. I don’t know why he called me. He must have seen us together. He told me that he had a message for you.” Sandy paused as if trying to find the strength to say the words out loud. “He said he’d kill Mark unless you got him a half million dollars. He said that he’d make Mark suffer. He‘s only giving you four days to get the money.”
“What a minute,” said Harper as he approached Knight. “Let’s back up. Why would Beal call you?”
Knight appeared to have just noticed that Harper was in the room. He brought his head down and stole a quick glance at Hardcastle. “I guess you wouldn’t have known. Ever since I got out, I’ve been meeting with Milt. He’s been helping me get started. “
“I heard you’ve been doing some advocacy work,” Harper opened the question to both Knight and Hardcastle. “But what does that have to do with Beal?”
“After Sandy was released, he was having a hard time,” explained Hardcastle. “I made a few inquiries, got him an interview and he did the rest. We’ve been meeting pretty regularly. Beal’s partner must have been watching and saw us together.”
“Meeting here at the estate?” asked Harper raising his eyebrow slightly.
“A few times, but mostly in town,” said Hardcastle. He felt as if he had to defend his actions but he didn’t know why.
“But why call Sandy?” repeated Harper.
Sandy shrugged. “Beal probably realized that Milt would contact the police and they’d have the phone tapped. No one would think to tap my phone.”
“Okay, Knight. I’m going to have to get your statement.” Harper said gesturing for Officer Graham to come back into the room. “You know the drill. We’ll need all the details that you can remember.”
“I know,” said Knight following Officer Graham from the room. “Mark’s life depends on it.”
As Knight left the room, Lieutenant Harper turned back to face Hardcastle and gazed at him speculatively.
“No. McCormick didn’t know I was meeting with Knight,” answered Hardcastle before the question could be asked. “He was so upset after killing Weed that I didn’t see any reason to bring all that up.”
“How long have you been meeting with Knight?”
“A little short of six months.”
“Did you ever notice any suspicious person in the area?” asked Harper. He wondered how long Beal had been planning his escape.
“No. But McCormick said that he thought he saw some strange cars hanging around Malibu and the coast. I thought he was just jumping at shadows but it looks like he might’ve been right.”
“So how do you want to play this? Can you get the money?”
“Yeah. But not tonight and not in one day. It’ll probably take a couple of days to raise that kind of money. Beal probably knows that. That’s why he’s not calling for four days. He’s not giving us anything to work with. Unless we find out something from the jail, we’ve got no leads.”
“I’ll let you know what we find,” said Harper as he rose to leave. “But you shouldn’t delude yourself that this is all about money. Beal’s dangerous. I’m going to leave a couple of officers here, in case he does decide to come back.”
Before Hardcastle could protest, Knight entered the room and said, “That won’t be necessary. I’ll stay here with him.”
“Sandy, I don’t want you doing that. What about your job?” Hardcastle protested.
Sandy walked over to Hardcastle and placed his hand on the judge’s arm as if to give comfort. “I can take a leave of absence. You shouldn’t be alone. Mark wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
Hardcastle couldn’t say no to the earnest plea in Sandy’s eyes. “O.K. You can stay in the guest room.” Hardcastle knew he should have felt more warmth and gratitude at the concern and love in Knight’s eyes, but his fear for McCormick’s safety drowned out those feelings. “You can get your things and stay,” he sighed.
“I already have them in the car. Come on, I’ll walk you out, Lieutenant,” said Knight as he headed out of the room.
Harper walked with Knight to the front door. He turned to face Knight and started to speak.
“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” Knight interrupted. “I’ll watch him. I’ll keep him safe.”
As he looking into Knight’s eye, Harper believed him. “If you hear anything from Beal, I want you to call me immediately.”
“I don’t think Beal will call anytime soon. But when he does, you’ll know.”
As Harper turned and left, he failed to notice the small satisfied smile that spread across Knight’s face. Knight shut the door and whispered, “Soon everything will be like it was supposed to be.”
McCormick looked over what had been the result of his past few hours of work. After being left alone, he had searched the room to find anything which could help his escape. The first thirty minutes had been spent bending out and sharpening curtain hooks until he had been able to fashion a make-shift lock pick. It had taken several long minutes to force the reluctant lock open. Once the cuffs had been removed he had tossed them out of the open window and had hid several of the sharpened picks throughout the room.
“That should keep my hands free,” Mark thought. “Unless they switch to rope.”
McCormick realized the simplicity of a locked room is what made it an effective trap. There was one open window high above the ground. Climbing down would be a difficult feat. There was one door to the room which was secured with a hasp and lock on the outside of the door. It would be easy to force the door open but impossible to do it without alerting the one or two men who waited on the other side. The room contained a couch, a blanket, various small pieces of furniture, a radio, a sink, a bathroom, and a refrigerator. The refrigerator contained a collection of sandwiches. It had appeared that they planned to have as little contact with their prisoner as possible.
McCormick walked over to the door and began to bang on it with his fist. “Hey!” he shouted. “It’s getting cold in here. How about another blanket?” Not getting any response, he shouted louder and pounded the door harder.
It was only a moment before, he heard Beal shout from the other side of the door. “Move to the center of the room where I can see you.”
McCormick moved to the center of the room then and watched as Beal entered. He held the gun in his right hand and did not appear surprised that McCormick had removed the cuffs.
“Here’s how it’s going to work, B-Team,” Beal said. “You got everything that you need in here for the next few days. You make trouble and you lose your stuff. Make too much trouble and I decide I don’t need you anymore. Understand?”
McCormick nodded that he understood.
Beal sneered, “Good, I knew that Hardcase wouldn’t keep someone who wasn’t trainable. Now throw me the blanket.”
McCormick threw the blanket to Beal and watched him leave.
Over the next few hours he lost the radio, half of his sandwiches, and finally received Beal’s fist in his stomach. The final provocation had been a calculated risk but he was fairly sure that he and Beal were the only people in building. Otherwise the blow would have been delivered by the goon.
It had been a hard long night. It was barely 3 o‘clock as Hardcastle began to bounce the basketball across the court. There was no need to be quiet as there was no one in the gatehouse to wake. The police had collected the little available evidence and left with promises to keep him notified of any new leads. Sandy was asleep in one of the many guest rooms in main house.
Hardcastle was worried about McCormick. He hoped McCormick was still alive and that Beal hadn’t decided to take revenge against an innocent man. He wondered if the last angry orders that he had said to McCormick would be the last words he would ever have a chance to say to his friend. He realized that he had failed McCormick by not recognizing that Beal was a threat. But failure was something that Hardcastle was very familiar with.
He knew he wasn’t an easy man to live with. His temper and pride were hard for anyone to take. He was controlling and arrogantly thought that he was always in control. But too often he’d been proven wrong. He'd made mistakes on the bench and sent innocent men to prison. He'd nearly driven his wife to divorce him at one point. Had he also been wrong when he forced a young grieving car thief to choose between jail and becoming an old man’s personal Tonto? McCormick had chosen to be Tonto and now that choice could cost another life. And he had been wrong about Sandy.
Hardcastle considered his and Sandy’s history. Sandy was the orphaned son of his partner. He had promised to look after the boy at his partner’s death bed. And he had. The young boy had been a frequent guest at Gull’s Way. He was so smart, so polite, so helpful, so perfect. It had been easy to make comparison between the young Mister Knight and his own son. Those comparisons had not stopped as the boys grew older. They only got more vocal, and pointed over time. And then when McCormick entered the picture, he and Sandy had seemed to feel some friction between them.
But he hadn’t learned his lesson. He had insisted that McCormick and Sandy become friends, hoping that McCormick would learn to adopt Sandy’s finer qualities. He had known about their mutual dislike of each other and he had known of their unspoken competition. Both had been vying for his attention and approval.
He was ashamed to admit it but he had secretly enjoyed their battle for his favor. But it had ended so wrong. One had nearly lost his freedom and was forced to live with the knowledge that he had taken a life. The other had lost everything that he had worked for his entire life and was forced to start again.
He had failed Sandy. He had always held him up to an ideal that others had to live up to. More of an example than a real person. Sandy was supposed to be the good one, the perfect one, the one always in control. But Sandy had flaws. If he had spent more time with Sandy as a friend, he might have learned more about the person under the façade of perfection. He might have helped Sandy overcome his hidden demons. He had failed Sandy and failed his dead partner.
That was why he had betrayed one of his strongest principles. He had pulled strings for Sandy. Nothing major, but he had let it be known to the right people that he felt justice would not be served by making an example of the young officer. Prison time had to be served but it had been served in a low security facility for a short period of time. Sandy had been forced to resign from his beloved police force but there were other jobs available to someone with the right references, and he had been able to provide the right references. He had betrayed his principles and, in some ways, he had felt that he had betrayed McCormick.
McCormick had never talked about Weed or Sandy. He had never asked about the trial, or the sentence. It was a period of his life that he seemed anxious to forget. And given his own culpability, Hardcastle was more than willing to comply.
The inquiry from the Board of Parole could have resulted in McCormick’s parole being revoked, but it had never been likely. All of the police reports had portrayed him as a victim of circumstances who had acted heroically to save the life of a police officer who had lost control.
Sandy’s fate had been less sure. He faced jail, disgrace, and a questionable future. Sandy had needed him worse than he had ever needed him in the past. So he had made his choice. There was no reason to talk about it with McCormick as it would not affect his life.
After being released from prison, Sandy had still needed him, as a friend and mentor. But this time he had learned his lesson. He had not forced the two men to be together. He had never talked about one to the other or compared them in anyway. He did not want them to feel that he was choosing one over the other. They had become two separate parts of his life. But now, because of his enemy, they were depending on each other for survival. Hardcastle couldn’t help but feel he had failed them again
“Oh, here you are,” said Knight walking up to the basketball court dressed in an ironed t-shirt and shorts. “I know how playing ball can help clear your mind. Want to play some one-on-one?”
“Sure,” said Hardcastle vowing that if given the chance he would do right by both friends. He tossed the ball to Sandy and they began to play.
McCormick held the weapon tightly in both hands. He gave one quick glance to the man bleeding on the ground before staring at the mad man with gun.. “Weed. Put the gun down,” McCormick begged. “I’ll shoot. I swear, I will.”
But Weed only laughed. He neither believed nor cared that McCormick might use the gun. He advanced on Sandy and dared McCormick to shoot.
“Man, don’t make me do this!” McCormick cried. He could feel the hate which radiated from Weed as he stood over Sandy. However Sandy’s eyes were not on Weed, instead he stared up at McCormick with contempt as if convinced Hardcastle had given his gun to the wrong man.
McCormick could see the wild look in Weed’s eyes as his fingers began to tightening around the trigger. Unable to watch, McCormick closed his eyes and fired the gun. The explosion seemed to echo forever, when he opened his eyes, it was Weed that lay on the ground. The spark of life had begun to fade from his eyes.
McCormick knelt beside Weed. He hated Weed for what he had done to Hardcastle but was horrified that he had taken the man’s life. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to the dying man.
Weed’s eyes opened and seemed to study McCormick. Recognition appeared in his eyes as Weed realized his time had run out. “I know you, he said. “You’re the funny guy.”
McCormick wanted to throw the gun as far as he could but it seemed welded onto his hand. He could hear the sirens of the police cars as they arrived on the scene. The silence was suddenly filled with shouts and cries. So much noise that McCormick lifted his hands against his ears. He wanted to stop the babbling sounds. “No, no, no….” he began to shout.
“No!” McCormick gave one last shout as sat up in the bed. He looked around and saw he was no longer in that cursed parking lot. His body was drenched in sweat as he tried to remember where he was.
“McCormick. What‘s wrong?” Hardcastle asked as he approached the cot.
“Judge,” McCormick laughed. You’re okay. You’re here.” He rose to hug his friend, glad that it had only been a dream.
“Look,” Hardcastle said without looking McCormick in the eye. “I’m sorry about how this all turned out. But I want you to know that I’m not giving up. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“What are you talking about?” McCormick asked in confusion.
“The board revoking your parole over Weed’s death,” Hardcastle explained.
McCormick looked down and saw the familiar but hated prison denim which now clothed his body. “But it was self defense. He’d have killed me. He’d have killed Sandy.”
Hardcastle looked away, again, as if he couldn’t find the words to explain why justice had failed in this instance. “I’ll fix it, kiddo. I promise.”
There was a knock on the door. Both men turned and watched as Sandy Knight entered the room and walked over to Hardcastle. “Milt, we’ve got to go. Harper still wants to meet with us over the auto theft ring.”
“I know,” answered Hardcastle. “I’ll see you next week. I won’t forget.” Hardcastle turned to leave as McCormick stared in dumbfounded shock.
The two men walked out of the cell side by side, like they belonged together. Just before he left, Knight turned. He smiled and gave McCormick a smile and a mock salute. McCormick could see the familiar key chain dangling from his fingers.
“My car!” shouted McCormick getting to his feet. “Hardcase! You gave him the Coyote. Bring ‘em back, Knight! Bring ‘em back or I’ll kill you!”
McCormick woke for a second time in a sweat. This time he shivered as a cool breeze from the open window blew across his shirtless body. “A dream,” he muttered. “Only a dream.”
McCormick sank back onto the couch and shivered, both from the dream and the coolness in the room. Without the blanket, he had been forced to use the curtain for warmth but it provided little comfort. He tried to think about escape but his mind kept straying to Hardcastle and Sandy. He knew Hardcastle had always admired and respected Sandy. That faith had been sorely tested following the Weed incident. But he had never given Hardcastle a chance to talk about it.
McCormick sighed as thought back on the nightmarish few weeks. Hardcastle lying near death in the hospital room, being forced to shoot Weed, facing possible arrest for homicide, the Board of Parole inquiry which might have sent him back to prison even if he had done the right thing, and watching his friend trying to reclaim his health and life. Once it was over, he had suppressed the memories into a dark corner in the back of his mind. He would have been happy never to speak of Sandy or Weed for the rest of his life.
It didn’t bother him that Hardcastle had been meeting with Sandy. He had expected it. Hardcastle was not the kind of person who turned his back on a friend. But why hadn’t Hardcastle told him about the meetings? Now that he was going to law school, Hardcastle had agreed to cut back on the crime fighting. But was Hardcastle content with this change in their lives?
Maybe Hardcastle wanted to get back to being a full time Lone Ranger again? Maybe he had talked to Sandy about being the new Tonto? It shouldn’t hurt because McCormick knew that he had made his own choice to grow up and find a life other than as a crime fighter’s sidekick. But he couldn’t deny that it did.
Knight was crazy and wanted to take his place even if it meant murder. Beal was dangerous and wanted to destroy Hardcastle. McCormick knew they had to be stopped. But as he lay in the cold locked room, shirtless and shoeless, he didn’t see how.
“Come on, Hardcastle,” McCormick prayed. “You’re smarter than them. Get me out of here.”
The day went by too slowly for Hardcastle’s liking. It was the worst part of any operation; the preparing and the waiting. Without McCormick it was even worse. He had to admit that Sandy had tried his best.
The early morning basketball game had been more subdued than he would have normally played. It could almost have been called polite. Hardcastle had won by a few points but had suspected that Sandy had allowed him to score a few of the points by not putting up much of a defense. Afterward Sandy had prepared a breakfast which contained all of his favorites. And all of it had been prepared perfectly.
Immediately after breakfast, Sandy had begun cleaning the dishes without being told. In fact, Hardcastle had protested but Sandy had told him that he needed to focus on getting McCormick back. Afterward there had been long hours at his bank and investment firm with numerous meetings with numerous faceless executives who had tried to convince him not to remove any money from his accounts. Through it all, there had been Sandy giving his silent support. At one point, Sandy had even argued with a particularly obnoxious bank executive about possible criminal penalties for refusing to release a depositor’s money in a timely manner. After they had arranged for the money, they had gone to the police station to check on the investigation.
At the police station, Sandy had been greeted as a returning hero. It had been good to see that he had not been forgotten. A couple of officers who had worked with him in the past had taken him into the break room to talk about the old times. Even though Sandy had been happy to receive such a welcome, he was hesitant about leaving. It had taken Hardcastle several minutes to convince him to go with his friends.
Hardcastle had felt relieved when he saw Sandy walking away. The constant hovering had been getting on his nerves but he couldn’t find the words to say it to a man who was trying so hard to be there for him.
The meeting with Frank had not provided any new information. There had been no new leads on how Beal had gotten the gun or where he was holed up with McCormick. Frank had made some vague comments about some leads that might turn promising but had refused to be more specific. Sandy had returned and there had been small talk as he and Frank had caught up on all the things which had happened in the time since Sandy’s arrest and release. Finally Hardcastle had been forced to admit that there was nothing else that they could be doing and they had headed back to Gull’s Way. Sandy had grilled the steaks, while he had prepared some vegetables. Sandy had encouraged him to eat while he had moved his food around the plate. The night had ended with an old John Wayne movie which Sandy had sat through with rapt attention to the screen.
Hardcastle marveled how a day could seem so normal and abnormal at the same time. There were times that he would have sworn that it was McCormick by his side. But some comment, or rather lack of comment, would remind him that McCormick was gone. And every time, he had not been able to stop the feeling of disappointment. Finally he had bid Sandy goodnight and had headed up to his room, hoping that tomorrow they would find the answers that they were looking for.
As McCormick looked back at his first full day as Beal’s prisoner, he was surprised that any day could be so boring. There was no movement or sound from the other side of the door that he had been able to hear. He spent the day alternating between sharpening the curtain hooks and trying to tear usable strips of cloth off of the back of the couch. It was slow going, using only his teeth and a semi-sharp object. He worried that the fraying fabric would not be able to hold his weight even if he doubled up on the strips and hoped that it would be able to hold him until he could climb down to the upper support beams of the station.
When his hands become tired, he read the books left behind by Beal. As a method to force a student to study, it was strongly successful. McCormick could not remember a time when he knew as much about the collection of evidence and was so thoroughly bored with the subject. He forced himself not to consider Beal or Sandy and to just focus on his escape. He knew that he would only get one shot. As McCormick considered his escape plan, he found himself drifting into a light sleep.
Sandy Knight sat on the couch while an inane old movie played on the television. He forced himself to remain awake, wanting to make sure that his friend was deep into sleep before moving forward with his plan. It had been a long hard day. It had hurt to see Milt so worried about the ex-con who had wormed his way into Milt’s affections. There had been times during the day that he had wanted to blurt out the truth, just to take the worry out of his friend’s eyes. But sometimes you had to be cruel to be kind. The sooner the deed was done, the sooner Milt could go back to the life that he was meant to live.
Sandy sat on the couch and considered the facts as he had done so many times in the past few years. He compared the attributes of himself and McCormick. It shouldn’t have been any contest. He was the orphaned son of the man’s best friend. He had been there to comfort Milt after the death of his son and wife. His entire life had been an attempt to emulate Milt. Before his association with McCormick he had never even considered breaking the law. McCormick was a born criminal of dubious parenthood. He was a loud, and disrespectful slob who constantly tested his friend’s temper. But still he was the favored one.
Sandy had sensed it from the beginning. There was a special gleam in Milt’s whenever he talked about the con and their successes in Milt’s ridiculous and dangerous crusade, his willingness to turn a blind eye to McCormick’s numerous faults and make excuses for his crude behavior.
He could understand it if McCormick bore some similarity to Tommy Hardcastle. He knew Milt still felt unwarranted guilt over the death of his son in Viet Nam. McCormick was nothing like Tommy, yet he had hold over Milt that was as undeniable as it was unexplainable. But in a few days that hold would be ended and his and Milt’s life could begin anew.
Sandy leaned back into the couch and allowed himself to imagine everything that the future held for him and his friend. First there was the worry. Milt was still too strongly under McCormick’s influence to see the hardened criminal that lay under the glib exterior.
Then would come the anger. Anger over the death of the ex-con would fuel the judge’s passion for justice. Beal might be thinking about blackmail, but the same anger which had led Milt to hunt down the thief the first time would cause him to hunt the man down again for the death of McCormick. And he would be by Milt’s side every step of the way. Fueling and nurturing the anger when necessary, he would be there for the final confrontation between Beal and Milt. And he would ensure that Beal did not walk away. Another threat to Milt’s well-being eliminated.
Then would come the grieving. He didn’t doubt that Milt would grieve for McCormick. And he would be there, offering support and friendship. He would guide Milt back to a life with meaning. A life with dignity and honor. Perhaps as a law professor.
Eventually Milt would be able to see the way that McCormick had manipulated and used him. There would be shame and embarrassment, but they would never talk about it. But deep down, Milt would know what had happened. Then there would be the unspoken gratitude for having the courage and the wits to do what had to be done.
He would move to the estate so he could be there for Milt. Standing by his side, as close as family, as close as son and father. Watching each other’s back and ready to protect each other from outside threats. The way it was supposed to have been until McCormick had taken his place.
Deciding that it was late enough, Sandy grabbed the small gym bag that he had left in the hall closet and quietly slipped out of the house. This was a critical part of the plan. He knew that his friend was a man of strong opinions. Once he made his mind up, it was hard to get him to change. He would not want to believe that McCormick had been anything other than what he believed him to be. But a subtle hand could change that.
Sandy smiled as he entered the gatehouse; the extra key was right where Milt had always left it. He pulled out a small flashlight and shined it downward to the floor. He grimaced at the mess left in the beautiful home, another sign that McCormick held too much sway over Milt. When he, eventually, took over the gatehouse, he would make sure that it was always kept immaculate to show his gratitude and respect.
Sandy entered the bedroom suite and placed the gym bag onto the bed. He opened the bag and pulled out a small stash of marijuana cigarettes and a mirror which contained traces of cocaine. Too many drugs would make Milt suspicious. But later on, after McCormick’s death, when the gatehouse would be closed and cleaned, they would find the drugs. Milt might deny the evidence in front of own eyes. But the suspicion would be planted. There would be other hints that would be planted along the way which would help Milt see the truth about McCormick. Sometimes the truth needed a hand to be heard.
Sandy pulled the top cabinet drawer open and looked for an open spot to plant the drugs. His eyes spotted two small black velvet boxes. He recognized the name of a local jewelry shop embossed on the boxes. He knew they contained something expensive. Something too expensive for the likes of McCormick.
“My, my, McCormick,” whispered Sandy under his breath. “What did you do to get these?”
Sandy hid the drugs and mirror in the drawer and pulled out the first box to study it closer. He opened the box and he saw the beautiful gold ID bracelet. The name ‘Mark’ was etched onto the bracelet. He turned it over and read the back. It said “Thanks. Love Mattie”.
Sandy smirked. It was the kind of gift that a grateful older woman would give her young lover. Sandy decided the gift had to be from Judge Mattie Groves. She had always been a little too flirty for his taste. And always ready to sing McCormick’s praises a little too loudly for there not to be some interest. He chuckled when he thought what McCormick would have had to done for such an expensive gift.
“There’s no fool like an old fool,” thought Sandy as he put the ID bracelet back in the drawer so Milt would be able to see how McCormick had exploited others around him.
He wondered if the second box contained another gift from Judge Groves or was it from another old fool who had been taken in by McCormick’s charms. He opened the second box and saw an expensive watch. He was impressed by the obvious high quality of the piece. He turned the watch and read the inscription.
“Milt never used the word love,” thought Sandy as he considered what it meant. A flash of insight assaulted his mind as the implication of the gift became clear in to him. His mouth hung open as he momentarily forgot how to breathe. His knees turned to water as he collapsed unto the bed. No matter how he tried to turn it over in his mind, he could only find one explanation for the gift and its inscription.
He didn’t want to believe it but the more he thought about it; the more sense it made. It explained so much. The hold that McCormick seemed to have over Milt. The liberties that Milt allowed an ex-con who should have been grateful just to be out of jail. This expensive gift and now a law degree. Now he understood.
A ruthless clever conman had found a grieving widower who had lost a son in Vietnam. Over time, the conman had wormed his way into the man’s trust until one day the trap had been sprung. Whether through drugs, alcohol, or trickery; McCormick had seduced Hardcastle. Then appealing to the man’s sense of honor and guilt; he had ensnared the man. There might be blackmail involved, or worse, he might’ve convinced Milt that it really was love. Milt had only ever used the word when he talked about his wife, Nancy. Now, somehow, Mark had convinced Milt they shared this feeling. He remembered the great love that Hardcastle had shared with his wife, Nancy. McCormick had perverted that word. Had perverted his friend. It was an old story made more vile by the fact it happened to someone as fine as Milton C. Hardcastle. Sandy knew he would have to help his friend back from this sickness and become a real man again.
“You’ll pay for this, McCormick,” said Sandy as he put the watch into his pocket. He could not bear to let such a thing remain on the estate. He thought of a friendly pawn shop owner who would be able help him. For a few dollars, the man would predate a pawn slip to make it look like McCormick had pawned the gifts weeks ago. A hint that McCormick had pawned them for drug money would let Milt know how much McCormick valued his affection.
Sandy shut the drawer to the cabinet and slipped back into the main house. He climbed into bed and tried to sleep. But the thoughts which had invaded his mind since the discovery of the jewelry would not leave and sleep was a long time coming.
Sandy Knight drove down the highway in his blue Corvette. He had not wanted to admit it, but he was glad to get out of Gull’s Way and away from Milt. The knowledge about Milt’s and McCormick’s relationship had shaken him to the core. It had been all that he could do to make polite conversation until he had found an excuse to leave the estate. It didn’t help that Milt seemed relieved to have him gone.
Sandy sighed as he pushed more speed out of the car. He knew it wasn’t true. Milt appreciated everything that he was doing for him. Milt was a good man.
“It’s not his fault,” Sandy said out loud.
Surely it was like a disease. McCormick had probably told him many sob stories about his pathetic life, and horror stories about his time in prison. Milt would’ve felt guilty and guilt made people do strange things.
He wondered when it had happened. During that month long trek through the woods of Oregon. That would have been a perfect time. Alone, together, and facing certain death. Or after Weed’s attack on Milt when he was hurt and confused. Or the time that McCormick had been shot and near death. Milt would have felt particularly protective of the con.
He could picture the scene in his mind. McCormick would have been working on Milt for days, if not weeks. Probably claimed that he had been a straight man until Milt had sent him to prison. He would’ve told a story about being raped in prison and how the rape had changed him. Of course, McCormick would’ve claimed not to blame Milt for what had happened. But Milt would’ve felt responsible and would’ve wanted to help.
Then when Milt’s defenses were down, McCormick would’ve struck. He would’ve acted like a lost child reaching out for help and comfort and Milt would’ve responded. People like McCormick knew how to get other men to respond. McCormick would’ve talked about love and need until Milt believed it. He was too decent to be able to see the scam. Then one day it went too far and Milt was trapped. And all the time, McCormick was carrying on an affair with Groves and Lord knows, who else. He had made a fool out of Milt and he would pay.
Sandy looked down as his hands tight with white rage as they clutched the steering wheel. He eased his foot off of the accelerator and brought the car back to a legal speed. As he drove to the ranger’s post, he realized that he had never hated anyone the way he hated Mark McCormick.
Beal sat back in the couch in the ranger station and lifted a beer in salute to his genius. It was the ability to take advantage of any situation which separated the winners from the losers. And he was a winner.
Not that there hadn’t been some tough times. Like the first time he had run out on Hardcastle. If he had only known what the prize was, he’d have found a way to kowtow to that jackass. He hadn’t been impressed the first time he met McCormick but he was impressed now.
A little bowing and scraping and you’re living in the gatehouse. A little more and you’ve got the run of the estate. Next thing you’re acting like the guy’s son and he’s buying you respectability. A law degree, no less. Probably gets the lion’s share of the estate when the old guy croaks.
Beal sighed when he thought about what could have been his. But he smiled when he thought about what he was going to get. Five hundred thousand dollars. That would make up for a lot.
He knew that Knight was going to try and kill him after McCormick was dead. But he wasn’t that easy to kill and he had his own plans. After Knight had his hooks into Hardcastle, he’d pay big bucks to hide his involvement in McCormick’s murder. And once he squeezed as much as he could out of Knight, he’d see how much Hardcastle would pay to keep Knight out of prison. It would be a sweet moment when he told Hardcastle the truth about McCormick’s death. The moment that would make everything worthwhile.
Beal knew what made him a winner was his ability to keep it cool and professional. Knight was running on emotion and that made him careless. That carelessness was going to make Beal a rich man.
Beal sat up as he heard the car skid to a stop below the station. He looked out and saw Knight storm out of the car. Beal walked to the desk, he turned on a small tape recorder, and pulled out a small gun.
“What the hell is he doing here?” Beal wondered as he prepared for trouble.
McCormick continued the long hard task of trying to cut usable cloth strips from the couch. He had pulled as much as he could off of the back and was now forced to work on the front. He knew he was lucky that Beal had not looked in. He had been twisting and tying the strips together and had formed a half-way decent rope. But when he dangled it out of the window, he saw that it was still too short to get him to the upper supports. He hoped he’d be able to figure out a way to use the curtains to make up those necessary last few feet.
McCormick looked up in shock as the door to the room was flung open. Sandy Knight stood in the door with his eyes blazing pure hate. Before McCormick could react, Sandy lunged at him and began mindlessly throwing his fists at his head and chest.
“You God damn filthy con,” Sandy shouted. “How could you do that to him?”
Thrown to the floor, McCormick did not waste time trying to argue with Sandy as he tried to deflect the worse of the blows. Sandy straddled McCormick and continued the assault. He was like a hysterical beast but McCormick knew that his fury could do damage if it wasn’t stopped soon.
“When?” Sandy screamed. “When did you crawl into his bed?”
As the meaning of Sandy’s words became clear, McCormick found himself enraged. He planted his feet on the ground and lifted up his hips. He made a quick twist and knocked Sandy off. McCormick started to rise when he saw Beal come up from behind. Beal grabbed Sandy and pulled him away from the fracas. When Sandy attempted to rush back at McCormick, Beal pushed him to the ground. McCormick tried to take advantage of the situation but Beal raised the gun and coldly pointed it at McCormick’s head.
“Stop, both of you!” he ordered.
Sandy slowly rose from the floor and shot a look of pure hatred at McCormick. “Shoot him,” he said. “We don‘t need him any more.”