Beal woke with an aching head. He quickly jumped to his feet but hesitated as a wave of dizziness assaulted him. He savagely suppressed the pain when he saw his prisoner had escaped. He saw the empty gun laying on the floor. He reached behind him and pulled out the loaded gun.
“You’re going to wish you’d cooperated,” Beal muttered as he pressed against the locked door.
He gave the door a hard shove and it sprang open with a crash. He staggered into the main room and made his way to the desk. He knew without shoes, the man would not get far in the woods. He contemplated McCormick’s short pain-filled future.
“Damn!” Beal cursed as he spotted the phone. “The cavalry’s coming.” He slammed the receiver back onto the phone. He ran down the stairs and looked for any signs of the escaped prisoner. Beal decided that it was time to cut his losses. His truck was hidden about a quarter mile from the station; if he saw McCormick while going to the truck, he‘d get his revenge. If not then Mister Knight could explain things to the police. Beal started down the path when he saw Knight drive up.
Knight pulled the car up and rushed to Beal. He gave the gun in Beal’s hand an anxious glance and said, “We’ve got to get McCormick out of here. You were spotted.”
Beal considered this new turn of events. “What do you mean spotted?”
“The police got a call from someone who saw you up here. Milt and Harper are checking it out. We don’t have much time. Get McCormick and let’s go.”
“Did you hear this person say they had seen me?”
“No. Harper came by and told Milt. We decided to split up. They’re going to pick me up after they get the information.”
Beal grinned as he realized that he wasn’t the only person who had been duped. “They set you up. Hardcastle wouldn’t stop to pick you up if he thought he knew where I was at. He’d come straight up here with guns blazing.”
Sandy became quiet as he contemplated Beal’s words. “That’s not possible,” he whispered. “Milt trusts me. He told me to get the money.”
Beal’s eyes narrowed as he glanced at the back seat of the car and saw the suitcase. “If they’re not following you, they put a tracer in it,” he sneered as he formed a new plan. “And just to make your day, McCormick’s escaped.”
“Escaped!” snapped Sandy. “How?”
“It doesn’t matter how. What matters is that, any minute, half of the LAPD is going to come barreling in here and we don’t have anything to bargain with.”
Sandy reached behind his back and pulled out his hidden gun. “We’ve got to stop him. We can’t let him get back to Milt.”
“We’ll split up. Find him and bring him back here.”
Sandy nodded. He saw some freshly broken branches and went east into the woods. “I’ll head this way,” Sandy gestured. “You go to the west.”
Beal watched as Sandy ran into the woods. “Sometimes it’s just too easy,” he thought. “Let Milt’s boys fight it out. I’ve got the money.”
Beal was pleased when he saw Sandy had left the keys in the ignition. Sandy had taken the south road to the station. Beal decided to drive away using the north road to avoid any rescue party. He pulled out the suitcase in the back seat. It appeared all the money had been collected. He dumped the money into the front seat and threw the suitcase towards the woods. Beal knew he would have to check for a tracer mixed in the money but now he had to escape. As he sat down, another wave of dizziness came over him. He realized that he would have to find a place to hole up before he got worse.
Sandy heard the car pull away from the station. He realized he had been betrayed. His plans for his future were ruined. But none of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered was to make sure McCormick never got his claws back into Milt. Even his own death would be worth that.
Hardcastle and Harper pulled up to the ranger station as Beal drove out. On the way through the woods, they had been notified by the dispatcher of the emergency call from McCormick. The call had been traced and nearby police were headed to the scene.
“That was Beal in Sandy’s car!” Hardcastle exclaimed.
“Yeah,” agreed Harper as he radioed the information out to the other officers. “But it looked like he was alone. We’d better check this out.”
Hardcastle jumped out of the car the minute it stopped. Harper was right behind him. They ran to the station with their guns drawn. They quickly searched the station but did not see any sign of McCormick or Sandy.
“The dispatcher said McCormick had escaped and couldn’t stay on the phone,” Harper said..
“He might be somewhere hiding in the woods. We’d better go look for him.”
“What about Sandy?” asked Harper.
“We can worry about him after we find McCormick.”
Hardcastle and Harper ran into the woods and began calling for their missing friend.
McCormick felt like he had been stumbling through the woods for hours. It had been tough going. He knew he was leaving an easy trail to follow but he didn’t have a choice. Every branch scratched against his exposed skin and every pointed rock dug itself into his feet. He wondered if he had made the wrong choice about leaving the station. He considered doubling back to see if it was safe.
He barely heard the shot being fired when he felt a burning sensation across his side. The impact caused him to stumble and fall to his knees. He stifled a cry of pain and turned to face his attacker.
“Stop right there, McCormick!” Sandy ordered. “You didn’t think I’d let you get away, did you?”
Nearby they heard Hardcastle’s distinctive voice call for McCormick. “That’s the cavalry, Sandy,” said McCormick with palpable relief in his voice. “It’s over.”
“It’s over for you, McCormick,” said Sandy as he moved closer for a better shot. “It really doesn’t matter what happens to me. I owe Milt too much to leave him to you.”
As Sandy raised the gun, Hardcastle burst into the clearing, his own gun raised and pointed at the ex-cop who had been his friend. “Drop it, Sandy!” he ordered.
“I’m sorry, Milt,” Sandy said. “You don’t understand now but one day you will. I’m doing this for you.”
McCormick was struck by the farce of the situation. He had seen Sandy’s crazed look before in Weed’s eyes. It was like some horrible parody of those last minutes, except all the roles were being played by different people.
“I’m not going to tell you again, Sandy. Drop the gun!” Hardcastle said as he cocked his gun.
A sickeningly sweet smile appeared on Sandy’s face as his finger began to tighten around the trigger.
“Noooo!” screamed McCormick as he launched himself out of his crouch and into Sandy. He heard a bullet whiz by but did not know who had fired the shot. He slammed into Sandy and knocked him to the ground. Sandy tried to fight back but it was a losing battle as McCormick began to mindlessly strike out at the man under him. Time had lost all meaning as he felt Sandy’s resistance cease.
Hardcastle had frozen when he heard McCormick’s shout and watched him attack Sandy. The bullet from Sandy’s gun shot harmlessly into the woods. He saw Sandy had stopped fighting against McCormick’s attack and moved towards McCormick.
“It’s over, McCormick,” said Hardcastle as he touched the young man’s shoulder.
McCormick turned to look at his friend with a feral smile. “Over?” he asked.
“Yeah, let him up.”
McCormick stopped and slowly got to his feet. The adrenaline drained from his body. He blinked as he tried to focus on his friend. “I don’t feel so good.”
McCormick felt himself sway and strong arms caught him before he hit the ground.
“Here I go again,” he thought as he lost consciousness.
As consciousness slowly began to seep back into McCormick he decided to take an inventory of his circumstances. He determined that he was laying in a bed; an uncomfortable bed with a particularly hard mattress. His hands were unrestrained but there something that pulled against his left arm when he tried to move it. He nose was assaulted with the smell of disinfectant and medicine. He decided he had ended up in the hospital.
McCormick peeked cautiously open and saw Hardcastle sitting in a chair next to the bed. The older man pretended to be reading the paper while he watched the younger man from the corner of his eye.
“Hey,” McCormick said with a smile. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
“Humph,” Hardcastle said as he folded the paper. “I was wondering when you were going to decide to wake up. How’re you feeling?”
“A little sore, a little tired, and a lot hungry. What’s the damage?” McCormick asked as he gestured towards his body.
“Not too bad. No broken bones but the bullet grazed your side. A lotta of scratches and bruises. Your right knuckle’s cracked. A touch of exposure and dehydration. That’s why you got the IV drip. Otherwise stress, exhaustion, and a fever. The doctors say you can be doing yard work in a couple of days. The sun and fresh air will be good for you.”
“No doubt,” said McCormick amused. “Did you get Beal?”
“Yeah. Seems he had a concussion. Passed out about a mile from the station. Didn’t put up any fight. He’s headed back to the big house.”
“What about Sandy?”
“He’s in the prison infirmary. You hit him pretty hard,” Hardcastle said gruffer than before.
As McCormick watched his friend, he realized Hardcastle was angry. He was trying to hide but he was definitely angry.
“Are you mad at me?”
Hardcastle sighed. He hadn’t wanted to talk about this so soon. But McCormick already sensed there was a problem so it’d would be better to handle it now. “What do you think, Sport?”
Hardcastle took a hurried step forward when he saw the color drain from McCormick’s face. The white features quickly turned a bright red.
“Oh, God, Judge!” McCormick said in a stricken voice. “I am so sorry. I swear! I never said anything to anyone to give them that sort of an idea.”
“Calm down, McCormick,” Hardcastle said. He could hear the monitors beep faster as McCormick’s pulse began to race.
“Okay,” McCormick babbled, “maybe I did say a few things. But Sandy was being a jerk, and Beal was smirking, and I…”
“What is going on here!” an older nurse said as she burst into the room. “You were doing so well and now you have every monitor in the place going off.” .
McCormick shut his mouth as if someone had turned off a switch. He stared forlornly at the blanket.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled not wanting to cause any more trouble for his friend. “It was my fault.”
The nurse checked over the various monitors and her patient’s vital signs. “Do you need to be alone now, so you can rest?” she asked.
“Ahh, no. We really got to talk.”
“All right,” she said. Though she spoke to McCormick, she gave Hardcastle a hard stare. “I’ll be right outside if you need anything.”
As the nurse left the room, Hardcastle asked, “What was that all about?”
McCormick was surprised that Hardcastle hadn’t heard about the tapes yet. But he realized it was only a matter of time before they would be discovered and become part of the case. Everyone and their cousin would have a chance to listen to them. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be long before Sandy and Beal would start making their accusations. Soon Hardcastle would be the butt of every joke in the prison and police station. He decided that it would be better to make a full confession rather than wait for the shoe to drop.
“Well,” McCormick said as his eyes darted everywhere except at Hardcastle. “It seems that Sandy got some weird idea that we were..” he hesitated, “were more than friends.”
“Yeah, he thought I was treating you like my son.”
McCormick sank back into the bed and covered his eyes with his free hand. “No. He thought we’re lovers.”
Hardcastle considered the words and started to chuckle. “Where would he have gotten that idea?”
“I don’t know. The man’s crazy. He found the bracelet Mattie gave me and the watch you gave me. Then he decided I was having sex with everybody you brought into the house. Anyway he told Beal but Beal was making blackmail tapes. And it’s possible that might have been on them. Plus when Sandy was ranting at me. I might have said a couple things to yank his chain.
“Don’t worry abut it. No one’s going to believe that.”
“Beal believed it.”
“Well, Beal’s as crazy as Sandy. People have said it before. This time won’t be any different. It’ll die down. And if it doesn’t, to hell with them.”
“What about Mattie?”
“Next time you overhaul her engine, she’ll know to just give you cash. Besides she might like the idea of people talking.”
“So, you’re not mad?”
“Not at that.” Hardcastle watched as McCormick looked at him with questioning eyes. After the recent confession, anything seemed anticlimactic. But McCormick’s lack of trust had bothered him since the rescue in the woods.
“What were you thinking, McCormick?” Hardcastle asked. “Did you think I wouldn’t shoot?”
“What?” McCormick looked up in confusion.
“Back in the woods. When Sandy had the gun on you. He could’ve had killed you. I wouldn’t have hesitated.”
“Oh. I know.”
“Then why?” asked Hardcastle. “Didn’t you trust me?”
“Sandy’s the son of your partner. And your friend. I didn’t want you to have to live with that. Besides...”
McCormick looked up with a grin. “I really, really wanted to hit him. I’ve been wanting to do that since that first dinner together.”