Mark was sprawled on the lounger by the pool, once again locked in a struggle with his textbook on torts. The breeze off the ocean was light and carried a hint of salt. A lawnmower droned the distance. They’d gotten home from the hospital the night before, after a week of antibiotics and intensive care in the isolation ward. Frank had returned home ahead of them, but had driven back up to Fresno to bring them home. Delarico’s trial had been postponed for the week, but Milt would be testifying in the next day or so. Mark had heard that Frank’s team had traced phone calls and bank transactions tying the mobster to the McCready killers, and two counts of attempted murder as well as a charge of conspiracy to commit murder had been added to the docket. The crook was going away for a long time – hell, he was going away forever, and Mark couldn’t wait to wave good-bye.
Milt was inside, on the phone with his insurance company, explaining that he needed a new truck because the last one had gotten crushed by a tree. Mark had wanted to listen in, delighted that, for once, it wasn’t his car that was the wreck, but the Judge had sternly pointed at the lounge chair after they’d finished breakfast, and told him to stay on it. Stay on it and study.
Mark didn’t pretend to be good at following orders, but he’d thought it would be in his own best interest to follow that one. Things had been a bit tense between them in the hospital, but he didn’t know why. Once he’d awakened and started getting better, Milt had seemed preoccupied – and, of course, the Judge had been his usual irritable self when forced to remain in bed and recover; except when the nurses were around. Mark smirked to himself and shook his head at the effusive southern charm that the Judge had showered on them, much to their delight. Mark hadn’t had a chance once the Judge geared up, or so the Judge had told him. According to him, women preferred more mature men. Mark had contented himself with a laugh but the Judge hadn’t appeared amused.
“Got something to smile about?” Milt asked in a mild tone, breaking into his reverie and Mark realized that once again he’d lost the thread of the study material and was staring sightlessly at the placid ocean.
Shaking his head, he looked up and saw that the Judge was carrying two mugs of coffee to the table by the pool. Accepting the unspoken invitation to take a break, Mark gladly put aside the textbook and joined Milt, choosing the chair across from him. “How’d it go with the insurance company?” he asked, barely able to restrain a grin.
“Fine,” Milt drawled. “Pay those guys enough and nothin’s ever a problem.”
Mark snorted, and lifted his mug. “Yeah, right. Just wait until they cancel the policy.”
As Mark was swallowing, Milt said with heavy solemnity, “I think we better have a talk.”
Mark’s enthusiasm for the unexpected reprieve from studying rapidly waning, he barely managed not to choke, and echoed, “Talk?”
“Yeah,” Milt confirmed, leaning back in his chair, getting comfortable. “You said a few things up on that mountain that I want to clear up.”
“Oh, come on, Hardcase!” Mark protested. “I don’t even remember whatever I might have said. It was the fever talking, that’s all.”
“Why’re you getting so defensive?” Milt challenged with a frown.
“Are you kidding? Whenever you want to talk, I always end up having to defend myself,” Mark retorted, crossing his arms and then belatedly uncrossing them when he realized that he was only reinforcing the appearance of a man with something to hide. Would help if he could remember what he said. When Milt didn’t rise to the bait, Mark grimaced and asked grudgingly, “Okay, I’ll bite; what did I say?”
“Oh, nothing much, just that you were finding law school tough,” Milt told him, while closely scrutinizing his face.
Mark looked away. Busted. With a sigh, he shrugged. “I’ve been doing okay,” he replied. “Until we got to torts.” His gaze fixed on his mug on the table, he went on. “I can’t seem to … to get them into my thick skull. Can’t even seem to concentrate on them for any length of time before my mind drifts off to something else. I’m sorry, Judge, but maybe you’re wasting your money on me.”
Milt’s mouth twisted, and he shook his head. “Look here, nobody like torts or enjoys them – well, nobody normal, anyhow. They’re the worst part, because it’s all pretty much straight memory work. But, maybe I can help you. A long time ago, I grouped them under major themes, so that it was easier to remember related casework and precedents. You know, for exams. But mostly, if and when any of that stuff comes up now, well, that’s what paralegals and research are for.”
Feeling a flare of hope at the thought that there might be some way of organizing and making sense of the mountains of detail, Mark leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “I think that would help a lot, Judge. Thanks.” He hesitated. “But … well, are you really sure you want to keep paying the tab? It’s a lot of money and I hate to admit it, but there aren’t any guarantees here. I might not have what it takes.”
Milt’s concerned frown melted into a soft smile. “You know what, kiddo? It’s harder to get into law school than it is to get out of it and past the bar. You’re plenty smart enough. But now you’re touching on the other thing you said up on that mountain. You said you wished you were worth it.”
Silence fell between them, as if Milt expected him to respond somehow, but what could he say? Mark chewed on is lip and looked away, out at the endless ocean. Finally, he said quietly, “I guess I said that because I’m not sure I am – worth it, that is. And, and, well – I don’t want the money to change things, to be a wall or something between us. And I don’t want school to get in the way, not when you need me to back you up on some harebrained scheme or other. That’s what I’m here for, Judge. To back you up and to, well, to make sure you don’t get yourself into trouble that you can’t handle.”
Milt snorted and shook his head. Leaning forward so that his face was in Mark’s space, he said, “I take it back, that stuff about you being plenty smart enough. You’re an idiot, McCormick.” His voice rose as he carried on. “Or you are if you really think all that. How in hell could the money come between us, huh? Do I really need to spell it out for you?”
Mark remembered what the Judge had said, up on the mountain. Milt had said Mark was his best friend, the best friend he’d ever had. Warmed by the memory, and knowing how much Hardcase hated what he called the mushy stuff, Mark shook his head. He started to respond, but the Judge wasn’t finished.
Milt held up a hand and continued, “Not worth it? Then who is? Huh? Who has worked harder or done more to get where you are now from where you were? Who has put his life on the line more times than I can count, just ‘cause I asked you to?”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Mark protested. “Just the opposite.”
“I’m not talking about anybody owing anybody anything. I’m talking about wanting to do this; about believing in you and what you can do when you put your mind to it.” Milt had gotten so worked up that he coughed harshly, a lingering holdover from the infection and their harrowing time on the mountain.
“Hey, Judge, take it easy,” Mark urged. “Don’t have a heart attack!”
“I’m not having a heart attack!” Milt groused, and gasped for breath. “I’m fine. Don’t change the subject.”
Mark leaned back and raised his hands for peace.
With a huff of impatience, Milt waved away his irritation. He took a breath and let it out slowly. “I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I don’t want you to give up on yourself or on law school, at least not yet – and certainly not over something as dumb as torts. Give it until the end of this year, okay? If it’s not what you want, well, then, that’s different. An’ we can figure out what you’d rather do. I’ll back you, whatever you decide.” Leaning forward, his sharp gaze locked with Mark’s, he reached across the table to jab a finger into Mark’s chest as he added with firm deliberation, “Because you’re worth it.”
Mark had to take a breath to settle the emotion, the gratitude and affection, the joy of those simple words. “Thanks, Judge,” he said softly but with heartfelt meaning. Still, there were other issues and Hardcastle needed to know that he couldn’t be leaving Mark out of what was going on. “But what about school getting in the way of you going after the old cases in your files?” Mark asked. “Or any other case that comes up, for that matter. You weren’t even going to tell me about Delarico’s threats and the trial.”
Chagrin filled Milt’s face, and he nodded. “Okay, I can understand why that’s a problem, especially after how things turned out.” He looked into the distance, unconsciously pursing his lips and chewing on his cheek as he thought about it. “Okay,” he finally said, “how about this. I promise to keep you in the loop. An’ if things look like they’re going to heat up, well, we’ll talk about what that means. Maybe I’ll need your help or maybe I’ll just need to call the cops. It’s not like we’re never gonna work on cases together. It’s just that I know how much work law school is – I’ve been there, remember? So I want to give you a fair shot at it.”
Nodding slowly, knowing that there were a thousand loopholes in what Milt was offering, not least of which was the Judge’s own assessment of when he did or didn’t need help, but it was a lot better than nothing. “You promise,” Mark pushed with a narrow look. “No stupid stunts or dumb heroics. No going all Lone Ranger and damning the torpedoes. You tell me what you’re working on.”
“Agreed,” Milt replied and held out his hand.
Mark reached out and shook his friend’s hand, and he felt some of the tension that had been building for weeks ease from his shoulders. Later, he’d replay all that Milt had said, and allow himself to really feel the relieved happiness that was beginning to warm him, all the way through.
“Okay, then,” Milt said with a bright smile as he clapped his hands. Pushing himself up from the table, he said, “C’mon. We gotta ton of work ahead of us to go over all the different kinds of torts, the different sorts of cases and case law, and the crazier precedents. We’ll be lucky if we get done by Christmas!” He was already striding into the house, the words floating back over his shoulder.
Mark didn’t know whether to grin or groan as he got up to follow Milt into the house. “Slave driver,” he called.
“I heard that! An’ you’re not a slave,” Milt retorted, poking his head back out the door. “Slaves can be sold; I doubt I’d get much for you.”
Mark couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing. Milt grinned at him, his eyes twinkling, as he gestured for Mark to follow him, a hasty wave before he disappeared into the shadows.
“I’m coming, Hardcase,” Mark replied with a wide smile. He tucked his torts textbook under his arm and sauntered toward the house. “I’m right behind you, Judge – just like always.”
“So, you're here for some kind of club get-together. A mystery club?” McCormick helped himself to a few cookies, but remained standing.
Zora nodded and set down her glass. “Yes, dear. It's our L.A.D.I.E.S. club.”
“Ladies’ club? I thought they baked muffins and knitted socks.” Mark sampled a cookie, considered for a moment, then added two more to his handful.
“The Ladies' Amateur Detectives, Investigators and Examiners Society, Mark. We’ve been members for years and years.” May reached for her handbag. “I've got our invitations right here if you want to see them.”
Zora took up the tale. “Every year one of the chapters hosts a murder and as many of the members as possible attend that location and try to solve it.”
A silence fell and the aunts sidled, against the hotel wall, even closer to the corner.
The quiet voice murmured briefly, then May and Zora heard the loud voice gasp.
“No! You can't!” it was a combination of fright and pleading.
Then they heard a shot, immediately followed by a loud thud and footsteps fading away.
The aunts looked at each other and May said in a worried tone, “Is this the beginning of the mystery, or . . .?”
Zora took a deep breath and replied, “I think we'd better look,” and peered around the corner.
May peeped over her shoulder and her mouth opened in surprise. “That looks like real blood.”
Zora smiled up at her adopted nephew. “It's so important in cases like these to get to know the victim as well as possible.”
McCormick closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, Aunt Zora, really, no. We've got to let the police take care of this. You remember what the judge said last time, right?”
May leaned out of the cab toward him. “Mark, are you really saying you won't drive us over there? In the interests of justice?”
“Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying,” McCormick stated definitively.
“Then we'll just have to take a taxi.”
“McCormick,” growled the judge.
“Now, Judge,” Mark held up a hand, “you haven't heard the case for the defense yet.”
“Defense?” sniffed Zora. “There's no defense needed here, Mark. We're simply doing our 'homework' for the L.A.D.I.E.S. competitions, that's all. “
Next Monday, 9/8 Central