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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four

ACT I

Frank pulled up beside a black and white cruiser and shut the engine off. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. It wasn’t normally Frank’s nature to intentionally procrastinate, he preferred to confront his problems head-on, but this was an exception. This was not a place he really wanted to be and any delay in facing what lay ahead of him was welcome.

Unable to delay any longer, he opened the car door and stood up. The scene was already swarming with official vehicles and uniformed officers taking notes as they gathered evidence. Frank had expected no less, not for something like this.

Not far from him an area surrounding a tree and park seat had been taped off and Frank headed that way. The uniformed officer guarding access nodded to him and lifted the tape so Frank could duck under.

“You got my message,” Officer Tony Collins, an old friend, greeted. “I’m really sorry, Frank.”

“Thanks, Tony. Who’s got the lead?”

Collins nodded his head toward a small group of men to one side of the exclusion zone. “Foster from the department, but you you’ve got Ericson from I.A. calling the shots.”

“Internal Affairs is here already? That’s fast.”

Collins gave him a tight-mouthed shrug but said nothing.

Frank nodded and headed on toward the group. He could see the internal affairs officer Lars Ericson talking to the medical examiner, with Pete Foster and his partner John Davis standing nearby. Whatever the four men were discussing it looked to be intense and Frank could tell the medical examiner wasn’t happy. He didn’t know Ericson personally but from everything he’d heard the man was a hard-hitter who liked to be in control. He certainly seemed to be in control of this scene.

Ericson was a hero in the internal affairs department and a man with a great many influential friends both on and off the force. There were bets going round on how long it would be before Ericson made his move into the political arena. Most people described Ericson as tough and a man who could get things done, but there were also some who called him a shark. Frank could see for himself the way the tall, well-muscled man was intimidating the much smaller and physically weaker medical examiner that Ericson was the type to use any means available to maintain his power.

As soon as Frank came within earshot, whatever disagreement the men were having was abruptly ended.

“Just have a copy of your findings sent to me in the morning.” Ericson ordered.

The M.E. was still clearly unhappy but made no further protest as he went back to gathering his evidence. Frank kept his eyes away from the shroud covered body on the ground. He wasn’t ready to deal with that just yet.

“Detective, is there something I can do for you?” Ericson asked, holding out his hand in welcome, and a smile on his face.

Frank returned the courtesy and introduced himself. “Detective Frank Harper, I was wondering if I could take a look at the scene?”

“Is there any particular reason, Detective Harper?”

“Yeah, I knew him.” Frank nodded toward the body, “I was Officer Cook’s supervisor when he was just a rookie out of the academy. I can’t believe he’d kill himself. He was a good guy.”

Ericson shook his head. “I’m not sure you knew him as well as you think you did, Detective.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Officer Cook had good reason to make this terrible decision today.”

Ericson gestured to the two other cops standing a few feet away. “Officers Foster and Davis, here, were on their way to serve a warrant of arrest on Cook. It seems he got word that we in internal affairs were investigating him and he took the easy way out rather than face an investigation and eventual charges.”

“Investigation… what kind of charges?”

“I’m not sure this is any of your business, Detective, but since our suspect has already extracted his own punishment, I suppose it’s a moot point. William Cook was under investigation for extortion, corruption and perverting the course of justice. If he hadn’t taken his own life, he could be sitting in a cell right now facing a very long prison term.”

Frank was stunned, Bill Cook was corrupt? It had to be some kind of mistake. The young man he’d trained had been so eager and determined to do good for the community that he actually reminded Frank a little of Milt Hardcastle. He had the same black and white belief in the law and the solid strength of character to do what was right, no matter how hard it got. How could that all have changed in such a short amount of time? It didn’t make sense.
While it had been a few years since he’d trained Billy, they had spoken often. Frank was sure he would have caught at least a hint of something being wrong. When they had last spoken, a few weeks before, Billy had been the same as always, a little nervous at the upcoming prospect of getting married but nothing secretive. There had been nothing that had given Frank the slightest cause for concern.

“Detective?”

Frank realised that he hadn’t responded the first time Ericson addressed him. “Sorry, just trying to get my head around this.”

“I understand,” Ericson said in a soothing tone. For reasons Frank couldn’t define, that compassionate tone annoyed him.

Frank cleared his throat. “Has anyone spoken to Julia Turner yet?”

The other three men exchanged looks.

“I’m not sure…” Ericson began.

“Billy’s girlfriend, well, fiancé actually, they were going to marry next month.” Frank thought it odd that the man investigating Billy for serious crimes would be unaware of the man’s personal life, but he didn’t say so.

“No, I don’t believe anyone has contacted his relatives as yet.”

“Mind if I do it?” Frank asked. “I know her. It would be better coming from me.”

“I think that would be a good idea. Look detective, I really don’t mind if you take a look around the scene, just remember to preserve the integrity of any evidence. It’s clear this case is going to be ruled a suicide but it’s still important to be thorough.”

“Thanks. Can you tell me anything more about what happened?”

Ericson gestured to the officer behind. “Officer Foster?”

Foster, the older of the two cops, gave Frank a cool look. “Not much to tell. Dispatcher told us he was taking a meal break and we knew he liked to stop here. When we got here we saw his cruiser and pulled up alongside. Saw him over by the tree, and I guess he saw us too. We heard the shot. We found him like that. He was already dead. I guess he didn’t want to do any jail time.”

“No witnesses?” Frank asked.

“Other than two police officers? That’s hardly necessary,” Foster said.

Foster’s tone was a little abrupt, but Frank could understand it. Finding another officer dead was hard for a cop, regardless of the circumstances.

“Ok, I’ll just take a look and get out of your way,” Frank said, moving toward where the body of his friend lay.

Ericson called out to him.

“Detective Harper?”

Frank turned and looked back at the internal affairs officer.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Detective, but you may want to be careful not to associate yourself too closely with William Cook. While he is no longer a person of interest to internal affairs, the investigation into his illegal activities is ongoing. You don’t want to be caught in the fallout that is sure to come.”

Frank met Ericson’s gaze for a moment before he moved on. He had the strongest feeling that he’d just been threatened.

Frank lifted the sheet from the body and laid it to the side. It wasn’t a pleasant sight but Frank had seen worse. There was a fair amount of blood, mostly around the young man’s head and chest but aside from the obvious head injury there wasn’t much damage and no unexpected bruising. Billy lay on the ground a few feet from the tree. His uniform was neatly pressed with crisp and careful seams, his shoes clean and polished. All the former neatness and attention to detail made the fact that the shirt was now slightly untucked all the more obvious. One applet was left hanging from the shoulder by only a few threads. It looked like someone had pulled at it, and pulled hard.

That wasn’t a lot to base a suspicion on but Frank felt the first stirring that not everything was as it seemed. He tried to put aside his innate liking for the man and looked at the body before him with a purely investigative eye. There was something not right, something more fundamental then the rumpling of a previously neat shirt. It took Frank several minutes to figure out what that something was. Bill Cook had been a lefty. The wound to his head was on the right hand side. Frank stared at the injury for a long time, feeling a cold hard core of anger settle deep inside him. Foster and Davis had lied.

Frank didn’t want to believe it but he couldn’t help but to suspect that not only had Billy been murdered but it had been fellow cops that had committed the crime. He looked over toward Foster and Davis. They stood either side of Lars Ericson, looking more like bodyguards than cops. Was Ericson involved?

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 manipulated 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.

He rested a hand on the covered shoulder of his dead friend.

“Ah, Billy, what did you get yourself mixed up in?” he asked the silent young man.

Frank knew he wasn’t going to be able to lie to Julia. He’d have to tell her of his suspicions that her fiancé death was not a suicide. Once she found that out, she would demand that Frank bring his killers to justice. Frank already knew it would be a promise he would make. It was a promise he had already made to himself.

“I’ll find out what happened to you Billy, but I’m going to need a little help. Lucky I know just the right guys.”

***

Nothing was clean.

Mark dug deeply into the small mound of clothing that had piled up beside his over-full laundry basket, looking for something to wear that was not too offensive. He gave up and pulled out his favorite shirt instead and shook it out. He reasoned that if he couldn’t be clean then at least he could be comfortable. Once dressed he liberally applied his deodorant spray, both under his arms and over the shirt, in the hope that the perfumed scent would overpower any less pleasant odors. He looked at the laundry basket in despair.

“I really need to wash some clothes,” he muttered to himself.

Looking in the mirror he did his best to fix his hair. After a few minutes of trying he gave up on that too.

“And for once the judge is right. I could do with a hair-cut,” he told his reflection.

He put the brush away and used his hands to slick down the worst of the curls a little. It didn’t work.

Finally finished doing what he could for his appearance Mark left the little bathroom. His bed was nearly as dishevelled as he was. Mark didn’t have the time to bother with it so he grabbed the edge of the rumpled top blanket and pulled it up as neatly as he could. The bed looked a bit lumpy in the middle but at least it, sort of, looked to be made. He puffed a short laugh when he considered that he would never have been able to get away with making his bed like that while he’d been in prison.

“Guess freedom is a messy bed,” he muttered.

“McCormick!”

Mark rolled his eyes, the judge was going to be on his case again today, he could just tell.

“McCormick, are you in there? You awake yet? It’s breakfast!” The judge bellowed from just outside the gatehouse’s front door.

“Yeah, hang on, I’m coming,” Mark yelled in the general direction of the door as he headed down the stair.

He’d only made four steps down when he realised he’d left his civil procedures lecture notes on his bedside table. He wanted to go over them during breakfast, maybe get the judge to clarify a few points he wasn’t sure about before he headed in to his classes.

“McCormick!” The judge’s yell was accompanied by the older man barging in through the door.

The shout and the movement distracted Mark for an instant and he missed the step. Falling forward up the steps, he felt one knee come down hard on the step-edge. It was only the hand he still had on the rail that stopped him falling all the way.

There was the sound of a heavy thump moving rapidly up the steps toward him. Moments later the arm Mark had used to brace himself against the steps was yanked upward. For an instant he was worried the limb would be ripped from its socket the judge pulled him up so fast.

“Damn it, McCormick, you trying to kill yourself?” Hardcastle snapped at him.

Mark jerked his arm from the older man’s grip. “I’m fine, Judge. Or at least I was before you tried to rip my arm off!”

“Well, if you weren’t trying to throw yourself off the top step, I wouldn’t have to.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Judge, I just tripped. And I wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t keep barging in here.”

The judge mumbled something that Mark was pretty sure had something to do with the fact that the judge owned the gatehouse but he chose to ignore it.

Mark brushed himself off and headed on up the steps. He tried hard not to let how much his knee was hurting him show. The judge would start hounding him to have it looked at, if he knew, and Mark just didn’t have the time. The only problem was the injured knee hurt so much he wasn’t entirely sure he could trust it not to give way on him.

“Look Judge, I’ll be down to breakfast in just a minute, ok?”

“You sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah, Hardcase, I’m fine. I’ll be over to the house in just a minute.”

He must have been convincing because the judge, still grumbling under his breath, left him alone.

Once the judge was safely out of the gatehouse Mark let himself grimace with the pain throbbing through his knee. He hobbled over to his bed, sitting on the edge to take the pressure off. Easing up his pant leg, Mark inspected the damage. There was already good amount of bruising and the knee had started to swell up a bit. It looked like he’d be stiff and sore for a few days but he didn’t think he’d caused any permanent damage. Mark pulled his pant leg back down then lay back on the bed while he waited for the worst of the pain to ease. He could only give it a few minutes. He didn’t want Hardcastle to get worried about him and come charging back over here.

Mark looked up at his bedroom ceiling and sighed. “That would be about right. I spend three years crashing through windows, jumping out of moving cars, off trucks and trains and tackling every bad guy that comes along, and then I hurt myself tripping on the damn stair!”

***

Milt found himself effectively circling the kitchen table. The eggs were ready, the table set and the coffee percolating in the bench-top coffee maker the only thing missing was McCormick. He had to fight his natural instinct to head back over to the gatehouse and make the kid come clean about his leg. Only he couldn’t, McCormick had made it crystal clear he didn’t want him interfering, and things had been tense enough around the estate as it was. But, damn it all, Milt just knew that he was hiding the fact that he’d hurt himself.
It had taken a year off his life to see the kid stumble and fall like that. For one terrible instant Milt had been sure McCormick was about to take a header from near the top of the staircase. He’d still be picking up what was left of him if that had happened.

Milt just wished he knew what was going on with McCormick. The young man was a little high-strung, always had been, but in recent weeks it seemed that they couldn’t say two words to each other without ending up in an argument. Milt hated to admit it but he was worried the other man would soon start to crack. He was simply overworking himself and studying too hard.

McCormick had been doing so well balancing school work with their cases. Then an assignment had come back with a less than perfect result and things had changed. McCormick was moody and exhausted all the time, not surprising given how little sleep Milt knew he was getting.

Every night, to all hours of the night, McCormick’s lights were on in the gatehouse. And he wasn’t eating, that was something Milt thought he’d never see from the younger man. Even when McCormick was injured or sick, something they had been through far too many times, his appetite had always been the first thing to recover. Milt sometimes used McCormick’s return to perpetual hunger as a signal that he’d turned the corner and was on his way back to health.

It had become a struggle to get the kid to sit at a table long enough to eat, and when he did there were the ever present notebooks. After a few mouthfuls of food, something in his journals would capture the young man’s attention and he would forget to eat. But worst than eating, in Hardcastle’s opinion, was the kid’s sense of humour evaporating.

Over the years that McCormick had lived at the estate, his warped sense of humour had in equal parts annoyed and amused the retired jurist. Now that it seemed to be totally absent, Hardcastle found that he missed it. Something had to give, something was going to give, and Milt just hoped McCormick could make it through without immolating himself before it did.
Just when Milt decided that he was going to have to go back over there and physically drag the kid to breakfast, foul mood or not, the kitchen door opened and McCormick arrived. He was moving a little stiffly but not too bad. And, yes, there was a notebook, the exposed pages covered in McCormick’s scrawl, under the kid’s arm and a whole satchel of books dropped near the leg of the table. It looked like it would be breakfast with a side order of the law again today.

Tension was still a little high between them so Milt decided to let things settle, he dished up the eggs and brought over the coffee before taking his own seat. McCormick visibly relaxed when he realised that the argument of earlier wasn’t going to be continued. For a short while they ate in silence until eventually McCormick flipped to a page in his notebook.

“Judge?”

“Yeah?”

Milt knew a question about the law was coming. He admired McCormick’s dedication to his studies but he was becoming obsessive. Still, he’d promised he would give any and all the support that he could. If that meant answering questions about the law and its interpretation at every meal, Milt would do it.

He wasn’t wrong. The question, when it was asked, involved a point of the law. Time seemed to fly by as the pair discussed the problems and evolution of the federal rules of civil procedure as compared to the state rules and where the line between the two had become blurred.

Milt didn’t notice the time slipping away until a glance at the wall clock told him it was nearly eight.

“Hey, what time is your lecture, anyway?” he asked.

McCormick looked to his watch. “Oh, hell, sorry Judge, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to be there in an hour!” With that he was up and out of his seat, rapidly putting away his notes and packing up his bag.

“Hey, what time you coming back today?”

“Umm, I don’t know, Judge. Late; there are some resources I need to use at the library in the protected section. I’ll have to read them there.”

“Okay, but don’t leave it too long, ya hear? There’s a good movie on tonight.”

“Huh, yeah, sure, Judge. Just don’t wait for me, okay?”

“Sure, kid.”

Only seconds later Milt heard the distinctive roar of the Coyote firing up and the kid heading down the driveway. Milt looked across the table to the other place setting and the barely touched plate of eggs. He sighed and got to his feet to clear away the used dishes.

***

Mark got to the campus just before his lecture started. Traffic had been good until he hit the city, and then he’d been caught behind one slow car after another. Unfortunately, his class was pretty far from the parking lot and by the time he made it to the lecture hall he was late. Maybe if he’d been able to run he might have made it in time, but his knee was sore and had stiffed from the drive.

He stopped just outside the closed doors to listen and determine if the lecture had already begun. It had. Professor Hancock was a stickler for punctuality, and this was far from the first time Mark was going to be late for one of his lectures.

Hancock liked to make an example out of students who arrived late or annoyed him with questions. Mark seemed to do both regularly. Mark just hoped the old coot didn’t hold a grudge when it came time to grade him. Most of the students in this class opted not to turn up at all rather than take the embarrassment of entering Hancock’s class late. Mark had to admit he was currently tempted to do the same, but he couldn’t. Not only did he not want to miss anything, he felt he owed it to the judge.

Mark was very aware that it wasn’t his money he was spending. Hardcastle was the one footing the bill. Mark wasn’t going to waste a single cent of the judge’s money, at least not on purpose.

As expected Professor Hancock stopped his presentation in mid-sentence and turned to stare at Mark the moment he opened the door. If he hadn’t felt so embarrassed, Mark would have smiled at the almost cartoonish picture the bespectacled man made standing there like that.
He could feel the eyes of the class on him as he found a seat. It reminded him of prison, when you got this kind of attention inside you knew you were in trouble. He reminded himself he wasn’t a convict anymore, he wasn’t even on parole.

Mark tried to concentrate on the material being presented but his mind kept drifting to the estate. The hedges needed work and he hadn’t cleaned the pool filters in an age. The judge was too cheap to hire someone else and the service did a terrible job. Mark had noticed the old guy had started trying to do the jobs himself.

The judge was pretty fit, but some of that work was hard. Then there were the cases. He’d been too busy with school to help. It was just a matter of time before the lone ranger saddled up and tried to ride solo. The thought terrified him. The guys they went after played for keeps. Hardcastle out there alone was a recipe for disaster. Without someone to back him up, the old goat was going to get himself killed. For all he knew the judge could at that very moment be chasing down a drug dealer.

***

Milton C. Hardcastle, retired judge and a pillar of the community didn’t look the part at that moment. He wore work clothes that had long since seen their best days, old gym shoes and a faded baseball cap while he dragged one of the larger trimmed branches toward the pile he’d already made. The day was perfect for doing outdoor jobs and the judge had been going hard enough to have worked up a sweat. This was usually the kind of job he’d conscript McCormick into helping him with but after this morning’s adventure, tripping on the stairs, he had changed his mind. Besides, some hard exercise could only be doing him the world of good.

He heard the sound of tires on gravel and knew someone was coming down the drive. It wasn’t McCormick. He could usually recognize the engine in the kid’s firecracker long before he’d hear something as mundane as tires on gravel. He dumped the branch on the pile and headed toward the front of the house. He would finish up the other branches after he’d seen to his visitor.

Walking to the driveway he raised a hand in greeting and smiled. It was Frank. He hadn’t seen Frank in a few weeks. It would be good to catch up with his old friend.

Frank pulled up in front of the house and got out. “Hey, Milt.”

Frank was smiling but Hardcastle could easily see there was something wrong, his friend looked tired and stressed.

“Hi, Frank, what’s up?”

Frank shrugged his shoulders. “I got a problem, Milt.”

“Oh, legal or personal?” Hardcastle asked, waving his friend toward the front door.

Frank followed him up the steps and into the house. “Legal… personal... both, I suppose.”

“In that case you might want a beer?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Hardcastle fetched a couple of beers. He handed one to Frank and cracked open the other as he led the way to his den.

“Where’s Mark?” Frank asked.

Hardcastle looked at his watch. It was nearly 3:30 PM. “The law library.”

“Oh, right. How does he like life as a student?”

“Truth is, right now, I don’t think he likes it at all, Frank.”

“Why not? I thought it would be right up his alley, lots of pretty, unattached, young women. He can’t be finding the study that hard. Mark’s a smart kid, and with you around he’s turning into a walking law encyclopaedia. He’s always quoting criminal case precedent. You said he was doing well, and getting good grades.”

“Yeah, he is doing well, but a few weeks back the grade on one of his assignments slipped. It was still a solid pass but not as good as he was hoping. It shook the kid up. I don’t know what he’s thinking but he’s pushing himself too hard. If he doesn’t ease off he going to break himself clean in two.”

“It can’t be that bad, Milt. You know Mark, he gets a little excited and carried away sometimes but he’s a tough kid. He’ll settle down.”

“I hope so, Frank.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Short of taking him into custody and forcing him to take a break, I don’t think so.”

“I’m not sure there is a law against studying too hard, Milt, but I’ll look into it.”

Hardcastle laughed. “Thanks, Frank. So what kind of trouble are you in?”

“Are you sure you want to hear it? It sounds like you’ve got enough to be worrying about.”

“Nah, not much I can do about the kid, except give him a break on some of the chores and keep harping on him to take better care of himself. Not that he ever listens to me. I might as well see if I can help out a friend.”

“Thanks.”

“So, spill, what’s up?”

“Milt, did I ever tell you about Bill Cook?”

“That rookie cop that saved you when that dealer got the drop on you a few years back?”

“Yeah, that’s him.” Frank stared at the beer in his hand.

“What about him?” the judge asked after a few moments of silence from his friend.

“He’s dead. I just came from informing the family.”

“Ah damn, Frank, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too, the internal affairs agent at the scene told me he shot himself. He said Billy was under investigation for a multitude of charges, including corruption charges. It’s not true, Milt.”

“I hate to ask this Frank, but are you sure? Sometimes it’s the guy you’d least expect who’s on the take.”

“I know that, Milt, I’ve been a cop long enough to have seen that for myself, but not this time. Billy Cook was a good cop, an honest cop. Hell, he reminded me a lot of you. There is no way he would have done any of the stuff they’ve accused him of. And I’ll tell you something else, he didn’t shoot himself. That was no suicide I saw today, Milt. It was murder, plain and simple.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Left-handed men don’t shoot themselves through the right temple, for a start.”

“That’s a pretty good start,” Milton admitted. “What else have you got?”

Frank spent the next few hours discussing the physical evidence he had found at the scene and his suspicions about the odd behaviour of the internal affairs agent, Lars Ericson, and the two cops who had supposedly witnessed his friend’s suicide. Neither man noticed the sun going down and the sky darkening. They had only had the one beer each then had stuck to coffee after that. At some point the discussion moved from the judge’s den to the kitchen table, where they had nearly covered half the surface with papers filled with notes and theories.

“What do you know about these cops? Foster and Davis?” the judge asked.

Frank shrugged. “Not a lot. Both have solid records in the department. There’s no evidence of any excessive spending, no signs that they’re on the take. I’m treading a fine line here, Milt. You know what it’s like. There’s a line that you don’t cross as a cop, but if they did kill Billy, and I’m certain they did, and then I want them to pay for it.”

“You know how I feel about that whole blue code of silence rubbish, Frank. The law is the law and it’s for everyone. I hate it when dirty cops try to hide behind their shields and expect good cops to protect them from their crimes.”

“I know, Milt, but I work with these people and the code does more than protect the guilty, it protects honest cops from being crucified for doing their jobs. You know as well as I do there is a right way to do these things. If I do it right I’ll have the whole department’s support when we take these guys down. There is nothing cops hate more than a cop killer. These guys, regardless of who they are, have killed one of our own. I just have to make sure that is the message that gets out there.”

“All right, Frank, he was your friend and it’s your career we’re risking here. How do you want to handle it?”

“Well, I know one way I can keep the department from fracturing, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Frank.”

“I need to go to the captain with this. He needs to know, so that he’s not blind-sided. And I can take a look directly into Billy’s affairs. Try to prove that he wasn’t on the take. But, as much as I’d like to, I won’t be able to go after them. Not without a whole hell of a lot more support from the chain of command. That’s where you come in. You and Mark can look into Lars Ericson, Peter Foster and John Davis without any blowback hitting the department.”

“Sounds alright to me... except, I’d rather keep McCormick out of this for now.”

“Milt, are you sure? If I’m right, these guys have already killed a cop in broad daylight. One retired judge doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch. It would be safer with Mark to back you up.”

“The kid’s got enough on his plate, Frank. I wasn’t kidding before, he’s finding the going really tough right now, and I don’t want to add to it. If it looks like the case will heat up then I’ll bring him in on it okay?”

“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 straightforward plan to me. I like the idea.”

“Milt, that’s because you haven’t heard it all yet.”

“Go on...” Milt said guardedly.

“You need to go through channels, Milt. Official channels.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Milt, but you’re going to have to let Commissioner Emhart know what’s going on.”

“Why? He’s a jackass!”

“Because he’s Commissioner Jackass, Milt, and he has to be kept in the loop or this could go very badly for me. Worse, Ericson, Foster and Davis could literally get away with murder.”

“Can’t you just send him a memo or something? Why does it have to be me that talks to him?”

“Because it IS you Milt. You’re not exactly Emhart’s favourite person either you know. You’ve called him a jackass twice, in public! I heard he has a dart board in his office with your picture on it. Face it Milt, people either love you or they want to kill you. Either way you make a lasting impression. You start looking into the favorite son of internal affairs without letting Emhart know and he could shut me down.”

“Oh all right, I’ll talk to him, but he’s still an idiot.”

“Thank you, Milt.”

Both men could hear the Coyote coming down the drive. Frank wasn’t entirely sure but he thought he heard the high performance engine miss-fire and splutter slightly. The only time he had heard the Coyote sound like that was after the poor guy had been forced to make his pride and joy drive across terrain it was not designed for. Even then the repairs were done as quickly as possible, which was never fast enough for McCormick.

The judge looked to the clock. “Huh, it’s later than I thought, and the kid’s home at a reasonable hour for once.” He began to tidy up the notes. “Frank, don’t mention this to McCormick, ok?”

“You’re really sure about that, Milt? Mark isn’t going to like you going out on your own.”

“Yeah, I’m sure, and the kid isn’t my damn nursemaid!”

“Milt, you know I didn’t mean it like that, and you know, damn well, Mark doesn’t see you like that. That man would do anything for you, and you know it.”

Hardcastle sighed, relenting at the censure in his friend’s tone. “Yeah, I know that, it’s just things have been a little on edge lately.”

Any reply Frank intended to make was interrupted by Mark’s appearance.

“Hey, Frank, you here for dinner?” Mark glanced to the clean and empty kitchen benches and stove top. “Huh, I guess not. What’s up, Judge? I thought we were going to watch the movie tonight.”

Hardcastle started in surprise. He’d completely forgotten asking McCormick to come home early enough for them to watch a movie together. The discussion with Frank had completely wiped it from his mind.

“Of course we are. I just thought you’d like to have pizza tonight.”

“Yeah, sounds good. What’s all this?” Mark asked, looking at the last pile of papers on the kitchen table. His eyes narrowed in suspicion “Are you guys working on a case?”

“Does this look like one of my files? No, I’m just helping Frank out. Relax, McCormick, and order the pizzas will you?”

“Okay, okay, let me get in through the door will you?” McCormick put his book bag down and used his foot to shove it against the wall. Failing to hide a grimace as the movement stressed his sore knee.

Frank could see what Milt was talking about. Mark looked terrible. The younger man had always been a skinny guy, but now he looked positively malnourished. There were dark bags beneath his eyes and if Frank didn’t know any better, he would have thought the man sick enough to be bedridden.

“Mark looked over to him. ”Are you staying for pizza, Frank?“

”No, in fact I’d better be going. Claudia will be expecting me home. Thanks, Milt, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.“ Frank took his leave through the kitchen door.

”What do you want on the pizzas?“ he heard Mark ask as he closed the kitchen door behind him.

”Anything, you want.“

”Okay, now I know something is going on,“ Mark’s comment carried and Frank knew he’d made his escape just in time.

On his way past Frank was amazed at the state of the Coyote. Mark usually kept this car in mint condition, which, considering all the action it got to see was amazing and a testament to Mark’s diligence. Right now it could only be described as ’dusty.’ It was obvious that Mark hadn’t had the opportunity to clean it, let alone give it the maintenance it needed. To see it like this, it wasn’t right.

***

Mark got nothing out of the judge. The man simply scooped up the papers and whisked them away before Mark had a chance to see what was on them. Hardcase being all secretive and unwilling to even discuss the ’help’ he was giving Frank was suspicious as hell. But no matter how hard McCormick tried, he couldn’t get the judge to say what was going on. The fact that the older man not once simply said ”No, McCormick, I’m not working on a case,“ had the younger man worried. Hardcastle never lied to him, never directly at least, but the man was an expert at avoidance and redirection.

McCormick realized he wasn’t going to win this one. When the judge got stubborn like this there was just no shifting the old donkey.

”Right, fine, don’t tell me. Just don’t be chasing down bad guys on your own, okay? Promise me that much.“

”You worry too much, kid. I’m not stupid you know? Order the pizzas, will ya?“

Mark did as he was told, though it didn’t escape his notice that the judge still had made him no promises, and they settled down in the den to wait for the food to arrive. He did a little reading and the judge flicked through his notes. Mark couldn’t help glancing up at the older man from time to time. It was a case, damn it, Hardcastle had that look. But it was just as obvious that he was not going to be included. Mark went back to the fundamentals of constitutional law text he was trying to study. He couldn’t concentrate. He found himself reading the same paragraph over and over again, but nothing was sinking in. He let his mind wander a little.

McCormick thought it through rationally. So Hardcastle didn’t want him in on whatever case he had cooked up with Frank. That didn’t mean Hardcastle was going to work solo, right? Frank would never let him get away with that.

Frank would keep him safe. Well, as safe as anyone could. It was a hard task sometimes. Hardcase only had one speed when he went after a bad guy, flat to the floor and no brakes.
Maybe old guy wanted to keep him out of it so he could concentrate on school. Mark knew his tuition fees were high. When he’d added all the extra costs to the fees and came up with the total he’d tried to get the judge to back out of the bet.

”A bet is a bet, kiddo, you worry about the study and I’ll worry about the fees,“ was all the judge would say on the matter.

A knock on the door interrupted his musings and he was going to get up and fetch the pizza but the judge beat him too it.

”Nah, I got it,“ The older man told him as he headed for the door.

They ate their pizzas and Hardcastle turned the movie on. During a commercial break, halfway through the epic, Mark picked up his text to check the details to a casual question he’d just thought up. He was still reading the text when the movie ended an hour later, completely oblivious to the judge’s concerned looks.

”Hey kid, it’s time to call it a night.“

Mark looked up from his book to realize the movie was over. ”Oh, yeah.“ He got to his feet. Unexpectedly, he staggered a step as his forgotten injured knee threatened to give out on him.

He was stopped from falling by the Judge’s vice-like grip on his arm. ”Whoa there, sport. Are you all right, McCormick?“

”Yeah, sorry, leg’s asleep still.“

”Probably time the rest of you got a little sleep too, you think?“

”Sure. Night, Judge.“

”Goodnight, kiddo.“

Three hours later Hardcastle looked out of his window. He was dismayed to see the lights were still on in the gatehouse. This had to stop but it wasn’t like he could get mad at McCormick for being a conscientious student.

***

Milton Hardcastle considered himself a reasonable man. He had built a successful legal career on the principle that logic and reason were goals to be strived for in every undertaking, but at this moment he was finding it hard to keep any semblance of rationality or control.

Commissioner Emhart was not at all happy to have to receive the retired judge that morning and he’d tried to keep him waiting as long as possible, hoping the man would simply go away. He was even less impressed when Hardcastle had all but bulldozed his way into his office. He had finally agreed to allow the judge five minutes of his time.

Milton had promised that for Frank’s sake, he would be polite and reserved, but in less than a minute his patience had worn thin with the pompous posturing and grandstanding of the other man. From the start Hardcastle could feel his temper beginning to rise. In the end he’d simply snapped at the man and told him to shut up and listen. Emhart’s mood worsened.

”All right, Hardcastle, I’m listening and you have four minutes left. What is so very important that you couldn’t wait for an appointment like everyone else? I am a busy man you know?“

”And you’re going to be a lot busier, mostly trying to avoid the press and difficult questions if you don’t listen to me.“

”Are you threatening me with something?“ Emhart demanded.

”What? No, of course not, I’m actually trying to help you. You idiot.“

”I had to take that kind of abuse in your court room, Your Honor, but I do not have to take it in my office. Here you will address me correctly or you will leave.“

Milton took a deep breath and tried to calm down, ”Okay, that was uncalled for, but just listen, this is important. Do you think I’d come down here, to you, if it weren’t?“

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?“

”Yes, sir?“

”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.“

”I’m not. What do you know about an internal affairs agent by the name of Lars Ericson?“

”Ericson, you’re looking into him? You’d better have water-tight proof. Ericson is a narcissistic, elitist pain-in-my-butt but he’s got a reputation as a man on the move, and he doesn’t always play by the rules. I know better than to annoy him. He was the lead in that corruption mess up in San Francisco. The mayor there hailed him as the driving force that cleared a particularly nasty nest of vipers out of the force there. After that, everyone wanted him, including our esteemed mayor. It was considered a coup for our internal affairs department to get him. Since he’s been here he’s reportedly been doing good work.“

Hardcastle raised an eyebrow. ”You seem to know a lot about him.“

”Of course I do. The man has ambitions. I keep a close eye on all my potential competitors. Doesn’t mean I like the man, though I do like him better than some.“ Emhart said, with a sour look towards the judge.

”Well, I don’t care about his ambitions, not yet anyway, and I do intend to annoy him. I have good reason to suspect he had a young beat cop killed and I think he’s been involved in a lot of other things too.“

”Are you going to send your little stalking horse in undercover again? Not that I care about your convict friend, but that simply isn’t going to work. You and he made quite the impression last time. They’ve been using that case and your pet con as training material over in internal affairs. He’d be made in a minute.“

”First, McCormick is a private citizen now. He’s paid his debts to society. And second, the kid is too busy with his law studies to be involved in this. So, no, I wasn’t planning on sending him in.“

”Well, good, Ericson is a lot of things but he isn’t stupid. I don’t want to have to be explaining to the press how I ended up with a dead civilian, ex-con or not, when this all washes out.“

Hardcastle nearly growled in anger at the callousness, but Emhart either didn’t hear it or ignored it.

”So what are you planning?“

Hardcastle outlined the evidence Frank had brought him and the general plans they had roughed out. Emhart wasn’t at all impressed but he promised to give Harper his support. Milt wasn’t going to hold his breath waiting for Emhart’s help. He was doing this only as a favour to Frank. As long as Emhart stayed out of their way he would be happy.

***

The commissioner let Hardcastle out of his office as soon as they had gone over the information.

Emhart thought Hardcastle was an A-grade arrogant mule, but as much as he hated to admit it, Hardcastle, Harper and McCormick had really helped the department and his own career last time. If he played it right there could be a little political gain after this investigation too. He’d need to keep enough distance while it was in progress, at least until he knew which side would come out on top, then he could maximize his benefits. Ericson was a well-connected and dangerous enemy to have.

Emhart decided that it would be best to let Hardcastle do all the leg work on this. Keep out of the firing line himself.

He sat brooding over the conversation and the distaste of having Milton C. Hardcastle digging into department business, again. Lord help him, he may end up having to publicly thank the infernal man again. The thought left him scowling in distaste.

Jarvis knocked politely on his door before entering. ”Commissioner, is everything all right?“ Emhart looked up at his new aide. The man had only been working with him for a few months but he’d already found his work to be impeccable, and the man knew how to give him the respect he deserved, unlike a certain ex-jurist.

”I wish, Jarvis. There’re problems in the department, I’m afraid.“

”Oh, anything I can help you with, sir?“

Emhart thought about it for a minute. ”Yes, can you get me all the information we have on file for internal affairs agent Lars Ericson, and I’m going to need another hour to address this. Could you see to my schedule?“

”Yes, sir, right away.“

Emhart turned away from his aide as the other man left and stared out of his window, looking to the beautiful, busy cityscape. He had a lot to consider if he was going to bring something from this situation to his advantage.

Jarvis left, closing the door, and went to his desk. He hesitated for a moment before he picked up the phone and dialled a number.

”Lars, it’s Mike… Michael Jarvis here. I think you might have a problem. Commissioner Emhart just had a visit from an ex-judge, Milton Hardcastle.“ Jarvis wasn’t surprised when Ericson recognised the name and described the man.

”Yeah, that’s him. I think he’s started an investigation and it involves you. Emhart just requested your file.“ Jarvis listened to Ericson’s instructions for a minute.

”You’re sure? Yeah, okay, I’ll get it done and I’ll let you know if he comes back.”

He hung up the phone and began to carry out the biddings of both masters.

***

Ericson hung up the phone after issuing orders to his inside man in the commissioner’s office. It had taken him a lot of money, blackmail and favors to get Michael Jarvis placed in the commissioner’s office and for a while he wasn’t sure if he’d wasted his resources on the move. This one phone call had just more than justified the expense he’d gone through. Commissioner Emhart was a fool and when the time came Ericson wasn’t expecting any difficulty in removing the man from his position.

He knew who Hardcastle was, most people in Californian law-enforcement did. After Frank Harper had involved himself in the Cook case, Lars had looked into the detective’s connections and Hardcastle’s had been one of the files he had reviewed. His file made for very interesting reading. Not so much for what it directly said but for the connections Lars was able to make from it. Milton ’Hardcase’ Hardcastle had a weakness.

The file showed a tough as nails man, dedicated to the law but he was also a white knight who believed in reforming ex-convicts. Previous attempts at transforming criminals had been disastrous for the judge, but the latest attempt seemed to have been more successful.
So successful that the ex-con still lived at the judge’s estate even after the judge had lost any power over the man. It was clear that this particular ex-convict, Mark McCormick, meant something special to Judge Hardcastle. Lars thought that relationship could be something he could use.

Frank Harper sticking his nose into his business could a problem but Hardcastle getting involved would mean real trouble. The two of them actively working together against him was potentially disastrous. Lars suspected that was exactly what was now happening. It was too coincidental that just a day after he met Frank Harper at the unfortunate death of Officer William Cook, his friend, the ex-judge, had begun an investigation. Lars knew they didn’t have anything solid yet. But he didn’t have much time. He would have to deal with the situation quickly.

He considered his response for several minutes, idling tapping his pen against the clean, clear surface of his desk. Finally decided on the appropriate action, he put his pen back into its holder and picked up the phone, and dialed a familiar number.

”Foster? I want you and Davis to meet me in my private office in twenty minutes. I have job for you.”

He barely waited for the other man to acknowledge his instructions before he hung up. He got to his feet and retrieved his jacket from its hook on the wall. He slipped the coat on and headed out of his professional public office. Nodding to his secretary he informed her that he would be out in the field investigating a lead for the next few hours. His private office, where he was to meet Foster and Davis was easily fifteen minutes’ drive time from the internal affairs building. The location was perfect. Discreet and unobtrusive, the casual observer would think nothing of him, or the men under his command, repeatedly visiting the building. It was unfortunate that it wasn’t more convenient but even the distance offered a level of security that was important. He took great pains to keep his secret life secure and separated from his public profile.

He didn’t intend for a mere detective and retired jurist to jeopardise his carefully laid plans. He would do what he had to do in order to prevent that.


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