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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four

ACT II

Mrs. Emmers got a fairly quick escort to the door and polite but hasty farewell from Hardcastle. He only popped back into the den for a moment, having snatched his jacket from the closet. He was clearly warming to the project.

“Won’t take long,” he assured McCormick.

“I think I oughta go with you. I’m usually pretty good with faces.”

“Uh-uh.” Hardcastle shook his head as he donned the jacket. “You heard what Vicky said. You make him nervous. Me,” he reached up, straightening his collar, “I’m just another old duffer who probably knows a lot of folks who’ve passed over Jordan.” He flashed a crafty smile. “You might want to find us some kinda table, and make sure there’s a fresh pot of coffee.”

He headed toward the door, leaving McCormick—head cocked. He was pondering just how much Warlow might already have gleaned from the chatty Mrs. Mulvaney about her closest neighbor.

00000

Hardcastle strode up to Ella’s and rapped the knocker briskly, having tempered his expression into something less aggressively interested and more neighborly. Ella seemed surprised to find him on her doorstep.

“Mark already stopped by.”

“I know. Thanks for looking after things for us.” Hardcastle smiled broadly. “He mentioned you had some company. Sorry if he got in the way.”

“Oh, no,” Ella managed a smile of her own and then seemed to remember she had more company on the porch. “Won’t you come in? Seems like we hardly get to visit anymore.”

“I was just thinking the same thing myself.” Hardcastle let her usher him into the foyer. “Here we are, right next door to each other and nobody ever drops in.” He glanced around, trying not to look like he was doing so. There were no signs of the other man. He sighed. “I thought maybe you’d like to come over—a little coffee, maybe take a look at the roses.”

“I couldn’t—”

“And bring your friend, too. His name’s …?”

“Owen.” Mrs. Mulvaney shut her mouth firmly on that, then seemed to ease up after a moment. “You know, Milt, he’s a most unusual young man. Very … perceptive.”

“You don’t say.”

She nodded with a touch of eagerness, unable to restrain her enthusiasm for the subject. “Now I know what you’re going to tell me. Nancy always said you were the most level-headed man she knew.” Ella looked at him fixedly for a moment, then sighed. “Don’t you ever wish …”

There was a long pause, but before she could find the rest of the words, footsteps were heard in the hall and a moment later a man appeared in the doorway to the parlor.

Ella looked startled, but there was an almost immediate change in her expression. It was genuine affection, and a beaming smile. She reached out for the young man’s hand. He was about McCormick’s age, with a slight build and large, dark eyes. His hair was nearly as dark, a thick shock of it that seemed to need to be frequently pushed back from his forehead. He let himself be led in by Mrs. Mulvaney.

“This is Owen Warlow. Owen, my dear neighbor, Judge Hardcastle.”

Hardcastle winced slightly at the title but Warlow didn’t seem to have registered any alarm.

“We’ve known each other for ages, haven’t we, Milt? Us, my Harold, and Milt’s Nancy—we were quite a foursome.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Judge.” Warlow’s hand was surprisingly unfishlike. A natural grip, he wasn’t trying too hard. “Ella’s told me some about you.”

I’ll bet she has. Hardcastle maintained his own grip for a moment longer and said, half to Ella and half to Warlow, “McCormick mentioned you were having some sort of, ah, session here earlier.”

Ella smiled a bit nervously. Her hands fluttered like birds. “Oh, that—”

“It was a sitting,” Warlow interjected. “A séance, to use the common term. Though not much of one.” He shrugged diffidently. “Sometimes the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.”

“I think it was the ether.” Ella patted him consolingly on the arm. “Or too much astral resistance.” Then she turned back to Hardcastle. “But I don’t think you’re interested in spiritual things, Milt.”

“Oh, I’m interested in lots of things.” Hardcastle peered at Ella with what he hoped would pass for honest curiosity. “You know my housekeeper, Millie?”

“The one who didn’t stay very long?”

Hardcastle nodded. “Yup. She said she had some kinda gift.” He frowned slightly. “’Course she didn’t think it was much of a gift. She saw stuff.”

“Channeling?” Warlow asked politely. “Clairvoyance? Precognition?”

“That last one. She saw the future.” Hardcastle’s frown stiffened a little. “And she was pretty good at finding lost stuff … keys and things.”

“Really?” Ella’s eye had gotten a little wider. “You never told me, Milt. I would have loved to talk to her.”

“She was kind of shy about it.”

“Such gifts need to be sheltered,” Ella murmured. “Nurtured.”

“Hmm.” Hardcastle nodded. “Anyway, no séances, nothing like that. It was like pulling teeth to even get her to talk about it.”

“Poor dear,” Ella sighed. “It’s such a strain. Now Owen, here, he’s quite open about his gift. Aren’t you, Owen dear?” She patted him again. There was no flinch, but Owen didn’t seem all that open at the moment.

“I’d really like to see how it all works,” Hardcastle said. “How do you know who you’re going to connect up with from the Great Beyond?”

Warlow stared at him briefly, as though weighing his sincerity. If so, clairvoyance didn’t seem to be his strong suit. He sighed, as if the burden of his own gift was fairly weighty.

“Certain locations call to certain spirits—like the places where they lived, or died—but some of them are real bullies. We don’t always have a choice of who we channel.”

“Sounds dicey,” Hardcastle observed.

“Yes,” Warlow nodded, “but I find the spirits take care of me.”

“Oh, Milt,” Ella said cheerfully, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if Owen could get in touch with Nancy? It’d be just like the old days.” Her face lit up.

Hardcastle felt a twinge of guilt as he nodded along dutifully. “It’d be interesting.” And then, to salve his conscience he added, “McCormick is more into all this stuff than I am.” He turned toward Warlow. “You met McCormick?”

A slow blink from Warlow and then, “No. Not that I recall.”

“He and Millie—my housekeeper—got on like a house afire. She had his number right off the old psychic switchboard.” Hardcastle grinned, purposefully offensive. Let no one say he hadn’t given fair notice to his quarry.

“Some people are more attuned to the astral planes,” Warlow said mildly. “They may not be channeling, but they project a more significant aura.” He turned toward Ella. “It might have been what I noticed earlier.”

“I ought to have introduced you—”

Warlow smiled. “These things have a way of working out.” His smiled expanded to include Hardcastle. “Like I said, the spirits take care of me. They call to me.”

“How do they feel about four p.m., my place?” Hardcastle said speculatively.

Warlow cocked his head briefly as though he were listening and then straightened, gazing directly at the judge.

“No objections,” he said, “and I’m feeling pretty psyched.”

00000

Hardcastle strode in, looking more puzzled than pleased.

“The poker table?” he said, squinting dubiously at the green baize, six-sided top, complete with corner drink holders. It was set up in its usual spot in the den, lacking only beers and chips to make it look right at home.

“You said a table,” Mark protested. “It’s a table.”

“Maybe a tablecloth or something. Dress it up a little.”

“So he’s coming?”

“Four p.m.,” Hardcastle slapped his hands. “flying in on the astral plane from the Great Beyond.”

“I dunno if you should joke about stuff like that. He might be full of hooey, but …” McCormick frowned. “Four?” He glanced at his watch. “That’s only a half-hour.”

“You find the tablecloth. I’ll rustle up the coffee cups.”

00000

The appointed hour arrived, and with it the expected guests. They might have been expected, but McCormick twitched at the first chime of the front doorbell. He’d just finished unfolding the tablecloth and settling it into place.

Hardcastle was already moving for the door. There were voices in the hallway, Ella’s soprano and Hardcastle’s bass-baritone bracketing a measured tenor. McCormick shut his eyes for a moment, just briefly, trying to hear the disembodied voice in some different context. He opened them again and sighed. It wasn’t familiar.

The judge and the two guests entered. The man who belonged to the voice now stood silent, only his eyes slowly surveying the setting. The glance paused for a moment on McCormick, who barely had time for a tentative smile before the pale young man was looking to the right, stepping forward toward the table as if drawn to it.

It wasn’t the poorly disguised poker table that drew him, though. He was standing at a spot to one side of it, just in front of Hardcastle’s desk. He drew in a slow breath and then let it out, looking back toward the judge.

“She’s unhappy.”

McCormick couldn’t help himself; he snapped a quick glance at Nancy Hardcastle’s picture, in its place on the shelf. She looked her usual, serene self. The judge, on the other hand, did not look happy.

“Ashley,” the young man continued, “it’s something about Palm Springs.” He shrugged. “Vague. Kind of disorganized. Some of them are that way. The sad ones barely whisper.”

Mark had a sudden flash on the white-tape outline of the young woman who’d been strangled two years earlier in the very spot where Warlow was standing.

“Ashley … Austin,” he murmured.

He caught a scowl from Hardcastle, who, come to think of it, had decamped to the gatehouse shortly after the body had been discovered. The judge would have described it as preserving the crime scene, but perhaps psychics weren’t the only people who heard whispers from the dead.

“Ah, sorry,” Mark muttered. And then, to Warlow, “Should we move the table?”

The young man shook his head. “It shouldn’t interfere. Violence focuses the astral forces.”

McCormick glanced at the judge again, thinking maybe Warlow was about to get his astral forces seriously focused but, no, Hardcastle was in control, stepping forward to pull out a chair for Ella Mulvaney. Then they were all getting settled.

“The lights?” Mark asked.

Warlow shrugged as if it made no difference. Mark succumbed to a sense of tradition, headed for the light switch and sent the room into spectral shadow. He took the seat across from Mrs. Mulvaney, with Hardcastle on his left and Warlow on his right. There was a momentary silence that grew awkward. Warlow’s eyes were already shut.

“Is there anything we have to do?” Mark asked quietly. To his surprise Warlow answered, but the voice was deeper, with a harsh edge.

“Shut the hell up.”

Mrs. Mulvaney, in the middle of reaching for Warlow’s hand, pulled back, looking startled. Warlow’s eyes jerked open. He was staring around him, as though taking it all in for the first time. Then his gaze turned left, settling on McCormick. His eyes narrowed.

“Looks like you’re doing okay for yourself, sonny boy.”

Mark froze. The voice, a baritone growl, struck at some primal level that the words barely reached.

The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in a sneer. “Found another sucker to sponge off of, huh?” The features were still Warlow’s, but the expression not. It was a face distorted by hate. “Always figured you’d land on your feet.”

“What the hell—?” It was Hardcastle who’d found his voice first.

“Let the man talk.” Mark heard his own low growl, almost as if he, too, were possessed. “It’s what he’s here for, right?”

The man sitting in Warlow’s chair eased back, never taking his eyes off McCormick. “You oughta thank me. A punk like you—if I hadn’t toughened you up a little—”

Mark focused on the incongruity—Warlow’s thin, pale face in the place of the coarser, reddened one of memory. He forced a bland smile and caught a glimpse of Ella Mulvaney’s shocked expression out of the corner of his eye. He said nothing. Let the man talk.

“What happened to that smart mouth of yours?” The man shook his head. “You and that slut who—”

There was a shout. It was Hardcastle again and the single word was “No!” but even that wasn’t brief enough to beat McCormick to the punch, backed by a lunge from his side of the table and knocking Warlow, chair and all, onto the floor.

Mark found himself, one hand grasping the man’s shirtfront, the other pulled back for a second blow. Someone clutched at his elbow. It was Mrs. Mulvaney. Hardcastle had made it out of his own chair and looked ready to intervene. Warlow blinked up at him blearily. He was going to have a shiner.

Mark relaxed his grip and settled back on his haunches, muttering, “Sorry.”

Hardcastle motioned him away and then turned to Warlow, helping him up and righting his chair. He got him sitting down and handed him a handkerchief; a trickle of blood was coming out of one nostril.

The judge gestured vaguely toward the kitchen. “Get some ice.”

Ella scooted out of her chair, casting one worried glance back at the tableau.

Warlow murmured, “Bad, huh?”

It wasn’t clear if he was referring to his face, the attack, or what had provoked it. Mark was only relieved to hear the return of the mild, blessedly unfamiliar, tenor voice.

“You don’t remember?” Hardcastle asked gruffly.

Warlow shook his head cautiously, reaching up to rub the back of his neck and then touching his nose tentatively. “Anger—just anger. The angry ones, they want to be heard. Some of them are bullies.”

“That one was,” McCormick said quietly.

Ella returned, holding a dishcloth, wrapped into a lumpy bundle. She flicked on the light switch as she entered.

“Here,” she said, nudging the judge aside. “Can you hold it or should I?” She said to Warlow. Her earlier horror had apparently vanished, replaced by sympathy.

Mark couldn’t blame her. The instantaneous satisfaction that he’d felt from throwing that punch had dissipated, too. The presence that had been so overwhelmingly apparent a moment ago was now just a fading after-image.

Warlow took the ice pack from her and nodded his thanks. “I’ll be fine.” He looked up at McCormick warily. “I take it that one was for you.”

“He seemed to think so,” Mark answered, equally wary. “He had my number, anyway. You don’t know who he was?”

Warlow shook his head. “No, just impressions.” He shuddered slightly. It might have been the cold as he settled the ice pack onto his face. “Your father?”

Mark snorted. “No. You missed him by a mile.” And then, in what must have seemed like a segue, he asked, bluntly, “You ever been to Jersey?”

Warlow hesitated for a moment and then shrugged. “Yeah, I’ve been lots of places.” He edged the icepack over and let out a quiet hiss followed by a distinct silence and no further elaboration.

“Maybe some coffee?” Hardcastle said, with a sudden, inappropriate cheerfulness.

Warlow didn’t have to make excuses. Ella took one further glance at him and shook her head firmly.

“I think we’d better get home. I have a nice beefsteak in the fridge that should suit.” She kept her hand under Warlow’s elbow as he got to his feet.

“Maybe we can give it another try tomorrow?” the judge suggested.

They were already at the steps to the hallway. Ella turned back only for an instant. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Milt. She glanced over at the shelf and the photograph. ”Poor Nancy, keeping company like that.“ She shook her head and ushered Warlow into the hall.

Hardcastle hustled to catch up and see them out the door. He returned a moment later, one eyebrow rising in jaundiced assessment.

”What the hell was that all about?“

”Ah … I told you about my uncle with the bottle cap collection?“

Hardcastle gave that a tentative nod, then cocked his head and squinted. ”Don’t tell me you were buying this guy’s hooey. Come on—he called you a couple of names. If I could play it back for you you’d see it for yourself. He was just stirring the pot and he misjudged how fast it would come to a boil.“

”He nailed it, Judge. I can’t tell you how, or even exactly what he did, but he nailed it.“ Mark frowned and flexed the fingers of his right hand. ”More like an exorcism than a séance.“

”Hooey.“

Mark glanced up sharply. ”What about Ashley Austin?“

”It was in the newspapers. He does his homework.“

”The very room. The right spot?“

”Lucky guess. Anyway,“ Hardcastle sighed, ”I mighta set you up as the target this afternoon.“

McCormick eyed him suspiciously.

”I said something over at Ella’s about you being better at this psychic stuff than me.“

McCormick drew back indignantly. ”A better victim, you mean?“

The judge gave him a half-shrug. ”I didn’t know you were gonna slug him. I thought I might do that … if he started conjuring up some hooey and said it was Nancy.“

”Thanks—for the vote of confidence, I mean.“ McCormick bent and straightened his stiffening fingers again. ”Sorry I let you down, but that voice —“

”Another lucky shot. That’s all.“ Hardcastle was already turning away, shaking his head. ”And we still don’t have any fingerprints.“

00000

The tablecloth was folded and the poker table stowed. No new ideas arose over the pork chops and fried potatoes. A lingering sense of failure persisted into the quiet evening. The two of them sat in the den, Hardcastle paying bills while McCormick thumbed through Prosser on Torts without much enthusiasm, absently flexing his right hand now and then.

”Basketball.“

Mark looked up, startled from his reverie on strict product liability by this one-word comment from the judge.

”Get the blood flowing.“ Hardcastle was already on his feet. ”The brain working. Heck,“ he pointed, ”it’ll keep your hand from getting all stiff.“

”I thought it was ‘rest, ice, and elevate’,” but Mark was already laying Prosser aside.

”Nah, basketball’s better.”

So the darkening night found them out on the court, elbowing for position in the key. There was twenty riding on the outcome—a twenty that had changed hands many times with a very slight preference for McCormick’s wallet.

And after a hard-fought struggle, with the score 19-20, he was poised to make the winning basket yet again, when they both heard it—

A woman’s scream.


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