“What the hell is wrong with you?” asked Beal, shooting a look at Knight, but keeping his gun aimed firmly at McCormick's head. “You went barreling past me like a maniac and now you want him dead before we got our money.”
Sandy took deep breaths as he tried to calm down. “It wasn’t enough to take the place of his son, you had to take the place of his wife, too?” he asked with a cold voice.
“You have completely lost your mind. If you say that again, you’re going to be picking up your teeth,” McCormick threatened.
“Have I?” sneered Knight. He reached into his pocket and threw the watch at McCormick. “Explain that!”
Picking up the watch, McCormick looked up and asked, “You’ve been in my room?”
“Milt’s given me the run of the estate, con,” Sandy smirked. “Now tell me how you got that watch.”
McCormick knew he couldn’t get a physical advantage over Knight. Not with Beal holding the gun. “Well, that’s none of your business. That‘s between me and Milt.” McCormick smirked back as the smile on Sandy’s face evaporated.
“Who else?” Sandy asked in a cold voice.
McCormick forced the smirk to remain on his face. “Well that’s for me to know. A gentleman never tells.”
“I know about you and Judge Groves. How many others?” Sandy demanded. “Is there anyone you haven’t slept with?”
McCormick leaned slightly forward and said with a confidential whisper. “What can I say? I’m a popular guy.”
For a moment, Sandy looked as if he was ready to lunge at McCormick again. But Beal put his hand on the angry man’s shoulder and pushed him toward the door. “Get outta here, Knight. I’ll handle McCormick later.”
As Sandy left, he gave one last glare at McCormick. McCormick stood straight with his arms across his chest and answered back with his cockiest grin. Only after the man left, did McCormick allow himself to relax. He turned to face Beal.
Beal looked down at the strips of cloth littered across the floor and shook his head.
“What were you going to do with these?” he asked. “Pick them up and toss them out the window.”
McCormick was reluctant to throw away the results of so many hours of work but knew there was no choice. He gathered them up and tossed them over the side. He watched as they fluttered to the ground.
“I guess you found one thing you’re better at than me,” Beal said with a smirk as he walked out of the room.
As he heard the lock put back in place, McCormick sank to the ground and placed his head in his hands. “Now what?” he wondered.
In the outer room, Sandy straightened his tie and hair. He looked over at Beal. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I let him get to me. It won’t happen again.”
After waiting a few minutes, Sandy added. “When you do it, I want it to be long, painful and…” Sandy considered his next words, “and humiliating.”
Beal smiled and nodded to Knight. “You’re the boss.”
Knight nodded back and walked out of the room. As the car pulled away, Beal pulled out the tape recorder. As he played back Sandy’s words, his smile broadened as he considered his next move.
Hardcastle rubbed his eyes as he closed another of the case files littered across his desk. He had been trying to find a connection between Beal and anyone who had been recently been housed at the county jail. It had been a long shot but it was the only thing that he could think to do while he waited for Beal’s next move.
Hardcastle stretched back in the chair and considered how quiet the house was. It was always quiet when McCormick wasn‘t around. It was a funny thing that the house seemed even quieter when Sandy was around. It seemed like the man was waiting for something. Hardcastle wanted to be grateful to him for the support but something about his actions felt wrong. Like he was back in front of the cameras making a scripted public statement.
Breakfast had been a case in point. Sandy said all of the right things but seemed tense, almost angry at times. He tried to find the source of the tension but Sandy kept insisting everything was fine. When he turned the conversation back to McCormick, Sandy almost pouted in disappointment. It seemed wrong to have to be concerned about Sandy’s feelings when McCormick’s life was in danger. It was like the competition between the two men had restarted. Hardcastle hated to admit it, but he had been a little grateful when Sandy had announced that he was going to try to get some information from some of his old street contacts. He had offered to go with him as back-up but had been refused. Maybe it was too much close quarters for too long. He knew Sandy was doing everything he could to help.
Hardcastle looked up when he heard the doorbell ring. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not heard the car drive up. He had given Sandy a key to the house so he knew that it would have to be someone else. Perhaps someone with news about McCormick.
Hardcastle walked to the door and was pleased that it was Lieutenant Harper. “Come on in, Frank.”
Frank hesitated at the door and glanced around the interior of the room. “Is Sandy here?”
“Nah, he’s talking to his contacts, trying to kick up a lead. Let’s go in the den.”
As Hardcastle walked towards the den, he knew something was wrong. There was a hesitancy in Frank’s manner and he had not looked him in the eye since coming in the house.
Hardcastle clutched the desk as a wave of dizziness passed through his body. He knew what it was that Frank could not bring himself to say. They had been too late. Mark’s body had been found. Shot and left in a shallow grave. His best friend had died a lonely death at the hand of a madman seeking revenge.
Frank went around the desk and grabbed Hardcastle to steady him. “Milt! Are you okay?”
“It‘s McCormick, isn‘t it?” Hardcastle forced himself to ask. “You’ve found him. He’s dead.”
“Geez, no Milt,” Frank said as he helped his friend into a nearby chair. “It’s not about Mark.”
“Then what’s it about?”
Frank steeled himself, looked Hardcastle in the eye and asked, “Is there anyway Sandy could have gotten the codes to your security system?’
Hardcastle considered the question and the reason for the question. “Yeah, he was here a few times. He would’ve seen me at the gate. Why?”
“After the Weed incident, when Sandy went to jail, he sent some letters to the warden. The warden didn’t know what to do with them so he sent them to me. I didn’t think there was any reason to bother you with them. But I think you should see them now,” said Frank as he pulled a few letters from his jacket.
Hardcastle read the letters. He recognized the neat perfect handwriting but not the paranoid ravings of the man who had written the letters. The letters claimed that McCormick had been in a partnership with Weed. That Weed and McCormick had plotted to kill him so McCormick could get money from the estate. Sandy believed McCormick had gotten away with murder and attempted murder. He begged the warden to help stop McCormick before he tried again.
“How could he have thought such a thing about McCormick?” wondered Hardcastle.
“There’s more,” said Frank. “I’ve been doing some checking. The day before Beal escaped, Sandy was at the jail with one of the advocacy groups.”
“But how could he have gotten a gun into the jail?”
Frank sighed. “He’s an ex-cop who’s been doing a lot of work at the jail. Sometimes the guards don’t search as a close as they should. I know I’ve got witnesses that say he was at the jail but I can’t find the paperwork where he signed in. None of the guards admit to having searched him when he came in.”
“What else?” asked Hardcastle as he sensed Frank wasn’t done.
“I think we might have a lead where Beal and McCormick are. Officer Gibson has been doing some security work at Balarosa Woods. He remembered Sandy from his days as a spokesman for the department. He said he’s seen Sandy up there.”
“Is he sure?”
“Yeah. I had him take a closer look at Sandy when he was at the station yesterday. Gibson made a positive ID. He said he remembered Sandy looked out of place in the woods. Just driving and walking around like he was looking for something. I checked the records and found Sandy bought one vehicle pass for the parks a few months ago. Last week, he bought another vehicle pass. It’s possible he took Mark up there. But it’s a big park and there’s no proof.”
Hardcastle considered what Frank had told him. He did not want to believe his friend could do such a thing. But he did not recognize the man who had written those damning letters from prison. He knew if he wanted to get McCormick back, he would have to follow up every lead and this was the only one available to him. If he was wrong, he would apologize later.
“We need a plan,” said Hardcastle.
Sandy regretted what he had done at the ranger station. He had let the con get to him. He had lost control and that could be a dangerous thing. It could cause him to make mistakes. Already he had left the watch at the station. He would have to retrieve it before they found McCormick’s body. He would have to watch himself in the future. He hoped Beal would decide to take care of McCormick before they got the money. He was just disappointed that he wouldn’t be there to see it.
As he pulled his car into the estate, he worked out the story he would tell Milt about his inability to find any leads. As Sandy walked towards the house, he realized it felt like home. He belonged here with Milt. Milt had made a very bad mistake with McCormick but when you cared for someone, you forgave them. Sandy forced away the images which had plagued him since last night and entered the home.
“Milt, I’m back. Where are you?”
“I’m in here,” said Hardcastle from the den. “Did you have any luck?”
Sandy entered the den and was pleased to see Milt’s welcoming smile. “I’m afraid not. No one has seen any sign of Beal or Mark.”
“Well, I know you did your best,” said Hardcastle as he looked Sandy over. “You look kinda tired. Did you get a chance to eat any lunch? I was just going to make myself a sandwich. Why don’t I make you one?
“You don’t have to make me anything, Milt. Why don’t I make us a couple of sandwiches?”
“Because,” said Hardcastle in a gently gruff voice. “You’ve been working hard to help me and I appreciate it. Why don’t you sit down at the desk and take a look at the files. Maybe you’ll see something I missed.”
As Hardcastle walked out of the den, Sandy sat down at the desk and reverently reached out to the files. He knew Milt trusted him. Milt didn’t let just anyone touch the files that he had worked so long to collect. Again he felt the rightness in the course that he had chosen. He knew that everything was going to work out for them.
Hardcastle allowed his fist to clench as he walked into the kitchen. He wanted nothing more than to reach out and choke that snake until he told what he had done to McCormick. When he had looked over Sandy, he had seen the scratches and bruises across the man’s knuckles. It didn’t take much imagination to guess who Sandy had hit.
Hardcastle brought the sandwiches and some beers into the den. He surprised Sandy by talking about old times instead of McCormick. Sandy was warmed by the conversation. They had been talking for nearly thirty minutes when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll bet that's Frank,” said Hardcastle. “He said he might have some news for us.”
Sandy waited as Hardcastle brought Frank into the den. “What a minute, Frank,” said Hardcastle. “I’m going to want Sandy to hear this.”
Frank nodded a greeting at Sandy and continued. “Like I was saying, we’ve got a lead and I think it’s a good one. A guy called in who said that he knows Beal and he saw him up in the woods. He was asking about a reward.”
“Do you think it’s any good?” asked Hardcastle as he ignored the worried look that briefly flashed in Sandy’s eyes.
“I know the man,” said Frank. “He knows Beal and he needs the money. I think it’s legit.”
“I want to go with you and talk to him. If the information is any good, I’ll pay what he wants. Let’s go.”
Frank hesitated. “What about the ransom money? You’re supposed to pick it up today. What if Beal calls early and wants to deal. I can talk with him.”
Hardastle seemed to consider the suggestion. “I want to look in the man’s eyes before I’ll agree to give him anything.” He looked over at Sandy. “I can have Sandy pick the money up.”
“Sandy?!” questioned Frank as he looked over to the young ex-cop. “Milt, that’s a lot of money. At least, let me send an officer with him.”
“No!” said Sandy as he suddenly found his voice. “Beal’s people might be watching the house. If he sees Milt leave, they’ll follow Milt. He won’t be interested in what I’m doing. If someone sees me with an officer, they’ll get suspicious and might do something to Mark.”
“Sandy’s right,” Milt agreed. “I trust him. He’ll get the money and bring it back to the house. If we need it for ransom then we’ll have it. But if your lead pans out, then he can join us for the arrest.”
“Okay,” said Harper. “We’ll play it your way.
Sandy half-listened to Milt’s instructions about the collection of the ransom money. At first, he couldn’t believe that Beal had screwed up so badly. He would have to try to salvage the situation before it blew up in their faces. But as he considered the facts, he realized that he could turn them to his advantage.
While Milt and Harper were chasing their lead, he would collect the money and disappear. Later he would tell them that despite his best efforts, Beal had followed him. Once he had collected the money, Beal had kidnapped him and took the money. Beal had had plans to collect a second ransom. Beal had found one gun when he searched him but hadn’t found a second gun that had hidden in his jacket. He’d gotten the drop on Beal and had been forced to shoot him. Unfortunately, Beal had already killed McCormick. But justice had been served with the death of Beal. The case would be closed. This time, he would be the hero.
Sandy thought that he could make the plan work. Beal would not be expecting him to come back so soon. When he saw the money, it would be easy to catch him unaware. Beal wouldn’t expect him to be so ruthless and clever. But he would be the winner in this game. If Beal hadn’t gotten around to killing McCormick, he would fix the situation. Later when he made his official statement, he would drop a hint or two that he was hiding something. A suggestion that McCormick had been less a prisoner and more Beal’s partner. Eventually he would allow himself to be forced to admit that he had kept the secret to protect Milt from the truth about McCormick. Sandy took a deep breath. He knew he could make it work.
“Are you ready?,” asked Hardastle.
Sandy smiled. “I’m ready.”
Beal did not know how much time had gone by as he pondered Knight’s words. He knew what Knight wanted him to do but it wasn’t that easy. Guys like Knight didn’t understand. There were things a man did in prison because there wasn’t any other choice. It didn’t mean anything. But if you did it outside of prison that was another issue. It had a different meaning. Beal thought back on his time in prison. He remembered watching the fresh meat being brought into the cells. Young guys who had never been in prison before. They were scared. He enjoyed introducing them to prison life; feeling their fear. He couldn’t deny he’d gotten pleasure when he had forced them to submit, but still he hesitated.
Beal thought of Hardcastle and the others who had enjoyed McCormick’s favors. Sandy had been surprised to find out the truth. But not him. He knew that they were all corrupt. As corrupt as he was. Only he was honest about it.
Still he found it hard to believe that Mister Law and Order was light in the loafers. When he thought about what Hardcastle had wanted from him when he got chosen to be the man’s personal Tonto, Beal got angry. He was glad that he had stolen the Corvette. If he had had known what Hardcastle wanted, he’d have driven it off a cliff. He realized he owed Hardcastle more than a simple payback. Hardcastle had insulted his manhood.
Beal pondered his original plan. After the ransom money was spent and he had bled Knight for all he could get, he intended to present Hardcastle with the tape he had made. He knew Hardcastle and knew Hardcastle couldn’t resist listening. He could imagine the shock the man would feel when he learned of Knight’s betrayal and the horror when he heard McCormick being killed. He had always intended for McCormick’s death to be painful but now there was something new to add.
What would Hardcastle think when he heard his boy-toy submitting to his enemy? That would be a great way to drive the knife into the man’s gut.
Beal pictured the scene in his mind. He would start with the velvet touch. Go in with some beer to loosen him up. Offer him some sympathy and some hope. Let him know what he was expected to do. He knew McCormick wouldn’t believe it but he’d play along and try to find a way to escape.
Beal smiled as he opened the chamber of his gun and dropped the bullets into the drawer. He stuck the weapon partially in his pants where the handle would be in reaching distance both to him and McCormick. McCormick would make a grab for the gun and he would let McCormick take it.
Beal took the other gun, the loaded gun, and stuck it in the back of his pants. Let McCormick have his moment of triumph when he thought he had the upper hand. It would be dashed once he realized he was holding an empty gun. He loved it when he saw the hope die in their eyes die.
Then would come the iron fist. McCormick would find out what happened when you didn’t submit to your betters. McCormick would cooperate and all of it would be recorded. Beal grabbed the tape recorder and a couple of beers and headed into his prisoner’s room.
“God, that hurt!” thought McCormick as he wiggled his fingers. He knew when he had hit the wall that it had been a pointless exercise in frustration. But for one moment he got to imagine that he was punching out that idiotic twerp so it had been worth it. He didn’t know what sick delusion that madman had crawled out of. It was bad enough that Sandy thought he was the gigolo of the Los Angles Court System but to accuse him and Hardcastle of being lovers showed how crazy the man was. Just the thought that Sandy had pictured such a thing in his mind made him want to pound the man into oblivion.
Of course, Sandy couldn’t have come barging in earlier when the make-shift rope was hidden or afterward when he had escaped. No, good old Sandy Knight had to come barging in when he had all of his rope laid out. Now his best bet for an escape had been thrown out the window and scattered to the wind. He was left with a back-up plan which included trying to climb down with nothing more than his bare hands. It didn’t look like a safe bet, but it was all he had left.
McCormick bent down and picked up the watch that Sandy had thrown at him. He squeezed his hands around it and pulled what comfort he could from this reminder of a happier time. Hardcastle had given him the watch shortly after he had found out about law school. McCormick remembered how he'd smiled when he read the inscription. Hardcastle had gotten embarrassed and claimed the jeweler had made a mistake. He had even found the receipt that showed the inscription was supposed to read, “From Hardcastle”. Love was something that Hardcastle would show but never say. McCormick was glad he hadn’t let Hardcastle take it back, even when the older man insisted he wanted to have the mistake corrected. It was a gift given from one good friend to another. He slipped it into his pocket. He didn’t want to leave it behind for someone like Sandy or Beal. He walked to the window and contemplated the safest way to get to the ground.
A short while later McCormick turned as he heard the door open. “What do you want?” he asked as he watched Beal enter with beer and a recorder.
Beal placed the tape recorder and beer on a small table by the cushion-less couch. Beal turned on the recorder and gestured for McCormick to join him. “Come over here, B-Team. There’s nothing for you out there.”
McCormick cautiously walked over to the couch. He saw the gun stuck in the front of Beal’s pants. He smelled a trap. As McCormick sat on the couch, Beal pulled up a wooden chair and sat so he was facing McCormick. He handed McCormick a beer and took a large swig from his own bottle. “Here’s to you, B-Team.”
“What does that mean?” asked McCormick as he took a small drink from his bottle.
“It means,” explained Beal, “that I’ve been thinking about you and I decided that I feel sorry for you.”
“Yeah. Your whole life has been nothing but almosts. You almost had a racing career. You almost won the prize money. You almost had Hardcastle’s money. You almost had respectability. You almost had a chance to escape. I’ve got nothing against you. You’re just a tool to get back at Hardcastle.”
“Well, I’m glad I have your sympathy,” McCormick said as he forced his body to appear to relax.
“Oh, you do. I even admire the way you got those judges eating out of your hand.”
“Well, my popularity may have been exaggerated.”
“It’s too bad how this is going to end for you. Particularly when there might be another way out.”
“What do you mean?” McCormick asked. He felt his skin crawl as he leaned forward and appeared interested in the Beal’s offer. “What’s the recorder for?”
“I was thinking that you might have some information you can share with me. Something I can use when the money runs low.”
“Not much to tell. Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“You’d be surprised what I’m interested in,” Beal said with a leer. “I don’t have to kill you to get back at Hardcastle. I’ve got room for a partner. Someone who has the right information. And someone who could provide a little fun might have his uses.”
“Well, anyone can tell you that I’m no fun at all,” said McCormick as he gauged the distance to the gun.
“I think you can be,” said Beal as he leaned forward making the gun even more accessible.
Beal watched as McCormick’s right hand darted out for the gun. He half turned toward McCormick’s hand as if he was going to try to stop him.
McCormick used that moment to swing into action. The feint with the right hand had been a diversion. McCormick fisted his left hand and struck Beal on the exposed side of his neck. In perfect conditions, it could be considered deadly force. However seated and leaning forward, it served only to stun his attacker.
McCormick watched as Beal’s eyes became unfocused. He knew that he would only have a few seconds for a follow up. McCormick grabbed the beer bottle and struck Beal on the right side of his head. Without waiting to see the reaction, he stood and hit Beal straight in the chin. Beal’s eyes closed and he slumped to the floor.
McCormick knew he didn’t have any time to congratulate himself. He quickly pulled the gun from the front of J.J.'s pants. A moment of triumph flashed in his eyes as he held the gun.
As he looked down at Beal, McCormick realized that something was wrong. The gun felt too light. He opened the chamber of the gun and groaned when he saw it was empty.
McCormick looked down at Beal. “No bullets?“ he asked the unconscious man. “I can’t believe you came in here with an empty gun.” He heard the crumpled figure begin to groan and decided that he would need to escape before Beal woke.
McCormick ran out of the room. He saw the open lock in the hasp and quickly locked the door. He knew that the lock was too small to stop someone from forcing the door open but it would give him a little time. McCormick’s eyes scanned the room but he did not see any anything he could use as a weapon. He decided that his best course of action was to hotwire Beal’s car and make his escape.
As he was headed out of the room, he saw a phone. He almost cried in relief when he heard the dial tone. He tried calling Hardcastle and then Harper but both times he got their answering machines. He decided to waste a few precious minutes and call for other back-up. He dialed the dispatcher of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“Hello, this the Los Angeles Police Department. What is the nature of your call?” asked a cool voice.
“My name is Mark McCormick,” he said in a rush. “ I was kidnapped by J. J. Beal. I need you to send some help.”
“How do you spell McCormick?”
“That doesn’t matter. I need you to call Lieutenant Frank Harper. Put a trace on this call.”
“Lieutenant Harper is not available. Is there someone else who can help you?”
McCormick wanted to cry in frustration as he tried to get the emotionless woman to understand the seriousness of the call. There was a brief pause and he heard the woman began to speak.
“I have verified that there is a warrant on a J. J. Beal. He is considered armed and dangerous. I am sending a unit to your location. We will want you to stay on the phone until the officers arrive. What is your location?”
“I don’t know,” explained McCormick. “I have to go. I’ll leave the phone off the hook. Just trace the call.”
He could hear the woman calling for him to speak with her as he laid the phone on the desk. He ran out of the room and down the stairs. When he got outside, he was disappointed to see that there was no car. McCormick realized that another escape plan was gone. He considered his options.
Beal was unconscious in a locked room. But he could wake at any minute and the lock would not hold him for long. Beal knew where the bullets were and probably had another gun. The police were coming but Sandy could show up any minute and was probably armed, also. He was shirtless and shoeless but there had to be someone or something in the woods that could help him until the police arrived. McCormick hoped he made the right choice as he ran into the woods.