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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four

ACT IV

He had a gun, and towered over Warlow. He scowled down at the small dog, who was clearly tensing for a spring. He gestured with the gun toward the closet door.

“In there, so I don’t have to waste a bullet on it.”

Warlow complied, opening the door and lowering the dog while muttering stern instructions to her. Misty complied long enough for him to shut her in, though she responded to the betrayal with a series of plaintive yips from behind the closed door.

A second man emerged from the back, also armed. He cast a wary look at the closet. There were puncture marks on the side of his neck and trickles of dried blood, as though he’d been the victim of a tiny, demented vampire. The first man limped forward, pushing Warlow in front of him with the muzzle of his gun.

“Mr. Delaroe wants to see you again.”

“What about these two?” the second man said, his sight line now taking in Mrs. Emmers, as well.

“No witnesses,” the first man said, as if on general principle.

“Wait,” Warlow interjected sharply and pointed at McCormick. “He’s an invocator.”

“Huh?” The second man had drawn up short.

“Like a magnet, only what he attracts is spirits.”

“Like you do?” the first man said warily.

“Different. Like bait is to a hook.”

“Huh,” the first man grinned, “he’s a worm.” He jerked his chin toward the second man. “Kill him.”

“You gonna tell Mrs. Delaroe you killed her only chance to find out what happened to her father?”

The second man’s jaw moved, like he was chewing something he didn’t care for the taste of.

He shot a glance sideways at his companion who shrugged and grumbled, “We’ll take him. Get rid of the broad.”

Mark cocked his head and stepped injudiciously between the second man and his new target.

“Look,” he kept his voice low and calm, like someone who could summon spirits at will, “you might get away with killing me, but do you really want to leave a dead lady in a Malibu home? Didn’t either of you guys ever listen to Meyer Lansky?”

Both men were staring at him blankly. Had it not been for the relatively innocent bystanders, it would have been the perfect moment to make a move. Mark sighed and let it slip by.

“Lansky … before your time I suppose. ‘We only kill our own.’ It’s excellent advice. Mrs. Emmers,” he hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Victoria, “is an honest citizen. She knows people. We’ve got some nice clothesline in the laundry room, barely used.”

The first man blinked, freeing his mind from the barrage. “Take her with us, too.”

Mark’s shoulders dropped slightly—it was not what he’d hoped to achieve, but still an improvement over giving Ashley Austin some company. He stepped back to the gesture of the second man’s gun. Mrs. Emmers held onto her stubborn look for just a moment, then finally rose to join the rest in the hallway.

They were frisked, then marched through the house, out the back door, and down to a limo that had pulled in tight behind the garage. A third man occupied the driver’s seat, leaving the odds further imbalanced against them. No opportunity for action presented itself during the ride and no questions were entertained by their two guards. McCormick still clung to Warlow’s supposition that this was Vera Delaroe’s party, that being the most optimistic possibility.

00000

Hardcastle didn’t try too hard to persuade Ella Mulvaney to return to Gull’s Way with him. For one thing, he figured she was perfectly safe there where she wanted to be, in the waiting room of emergency vet service. For another, he doubted that she’d be able to contribute much as a witness, until she had her mind relieved regarding Tinker’s condition.

On the other hand, she was perfectly at ease with his departure—encouraging, even.

“I don’t think I ever really understood those things you do, Milt,” she’d said in a low, apologetic tone, a half-hour earlier, as he’d sped down the PHC to the clinic. “I wondered what Nancy would think.”

There followed a soft, keening sound from Tinker. She’d shushed him gently and told him it would be all right, just a few minutes longer, then she’d lifted her chin. “I do understand it now. Those men—such evil.” She’d closed her eyes for a long second, and opened them again, turning toward him, carefully.

“Get them for me, Milton. They can’t be permitted to do such things … to hurt anyone else.”

Now, in the otherwise deserted waiting room, she sat quietly with only a handkerchief in her hands. Tinker was off in the treatment area. The vet had told her kindly he had hopes.

“You go now,” she said to Milt earnestly. “Do something about those men.”

He promised her he would do his best, not mentioning that his first move would be to hustle back to Gull’s Way and see if Frank Harper had made any progress with their main person of interest. He didn’t doubt that Warlow was connected with all of this in some way, and he was having trouble staying at the limit as he drove down the PCH.

He glanced at Mrs. Mulvaney’s house as he passed by. The lights were out and all looked peaceful, with no signs of a police investigation having commenced. The judge frowned, but he supposed it would make sense to start with the witness, now ensconced at Gull’s Way.

Oddly, it looked just as peaceful when he pulled up to his own home. There was a light on in the den, and Vicky Emmer’s Buick inexplicably parked out front and, even more inexplicably, no sign of Frank—nor even so much as a squad car. The gate house appeared dark and deserted.

The judge frowned as he mounted the front steps. There was no greeting as he let himself in, no sounds of conversation, no one in the den. His quick patrol of the first floor took him back to the kitchen. The light was on there as well, and the back door was unlocked and slightly ajar.

It was unsettling. He thought maybe they’d all decamped to the police station, though why Vicky might have tagged along was anyone’s guess.

He reached for the kitchen phone and dialed that number. The sergeant working the night desk was an old acquaintance, Bill Filmore, but he couldn’t offer any enlightenment.

“Harper worked the p.m. shift. He left about an hour ago.”

There hadn’t been any calls for him earlier, either, and no reports of any home invasions in their neighborhood.

Hardcastle thanked him, hung up and then dialed Frank’s home directly, holding on hard to the dwindling hope that McCormick had followed his instructions.

Frank answered. His “Hello?” sounded sleepy.

Hope vanished in a tiny puff of smoke. Hardcastle had to ask anyway, “McCormick didn’t call you, huh?” He found himself staring at the kitchen table, a single nearly-full glass of water at one of the places.

There was a moment of silent mental gathering from Frank’s end, and then, “Milt? You know it’s almost one in the morning?”

“Listen. I know. I’m sorry. It’s a long story and I don’t think I have time to tell it.” He was pretty sure he was at least looking a partial set of Warlow’s prints, but not certain that would do them any good right now. He tried to cut to the chase. “There was a break-in tonight at our neighbor’s. Mrs. Mulvaney. A home invasion—‘bout ten-thirty.”

“I didn’t hear. When did she report it?”

“She didn’t. There were two intruders. She had a house guest, guy calls himself ‘Owen Warlow’. I think maybe they were after him.”

“Why?”

“No idea. Just a guess, he says he’s a psychic. A medium—one of those guys. Anyway, Mrs. Mulvaney’s dog got hurt, bad. They’re like her kids, ya know? I drove her to the vet, told McCormick to bring the guy here—my place—and call you. He didn’t call, and they’re not here.”

“They never made it there?”

Hardcastle heard something, a small, scratching sound, faint and frantic.

“Wait a sec,” he said to the receiver.

He put it down on the counter and returned to the hallway. The sound was still faint but localizable. As he approached the closet door, an insistent yip joined the scratching. He turned the knob and opened the door.

Misty, suddenly silent, glared up at him as if he were a great disappointment. Then she stepped out, picking each foot up daintily, her toenails clicking on the tile floor.

Hardcastle hustled down into the den, picking up the closer extension. “They were here and they’re not here now. McCormick, Warlow, and another neighbor—her name’s Victoria Emmers.”

“That’s familiar—she’s the one who calls dispatch every time there’s a shootout by you guys?”

“She’s a concerned citizen, yeah,” Hardcastle said reluctantly. “She was concerned about this guy who was hanging out at Mrs. Mulvaney’s, too.”

“It is a long story, sounds like. Lemme make some calls, get the techs over to your neighbor’s place.”

00000

McCormick was thinking hard, trying to decide if the fact that they hadn’t been kept from seeing their route was a good or bad sign. His tension must’ve transmitted itself to the other two, sitting on either side of him.

From Warlow’s side came a whispered, “Vera’s place,” after they’d turned a corner into a neighborhood of expansive residential properties with hedges and high walls that insured privacy. McCormick wasn’t sure how much hope to pin on that fact, either, since it would be Frankie Delaroe’s address, too.

From Mrs. Emmer’s corner came only a considered sigh. She probably hadn’t heard Warlow’s whisper, and even if she had, she might not connect the name Delaroe with anything particular. She seemed to recognize the neighborhood by type, at least, and perhaps was under the impression that people who lived on two-acre lots didn’t believe in violence.

Mark was willing to let her keep her subscription to Better Homes and Gardens for a while longer, even though this particular estate, whose wrought-iron gates they were now passing through, had state of the art security cameras perched above the shrubbery, and a suit-coated thug standing guard inside the grounds.

They halted smoothly and the rear window was lowered to permit inspection, all part of a slick and apparently inviolate routine. The thug’s eyes tightened a little when he took in the back seat crowd, but he was too well-trained to say anything. He just stepped back and jerked his chin toward the house, allowing the vehicle to pass.

Their driver pulled up under a portico at the side of the house. There were more figures in the shadows there, none female. Mark cast a quick look at Warlow, who whispered, “The two on the right.”

Mark had already figured the end one for Little Joey—the moniker fit the short man in the flashy suit. He was glowering steadily at the car and its occupants. Next to him, though, was a predator of a different class. Frankie Delaroe had a professionally flat expression that would make his actions difficult to anticipate.

Little Joey was following Warlow’s every move, but his discontent seemed to deepen as McCormick assisted Mrs. Emmers out of the car. He cast a disapproving look at Frankie. “You said you wanted this psychic guy. What’s with the entourage?”

“Had a little trouble,” the number two goon said, scratching at his neck wound nervously and then stifling a wince. “He said this one,” he jerked a thumb at Mark, “knows stuff. I dunno about the broad. She was with ‘em.”

“I told you this was a dumb idea,” Joey muttered.

“I wanna know what he knows,” Delaroe said sharply. “ Inside. Now.”

00000

It was just under eight minutes before Hardcastle heard the approach of sirens, and a moment after that when a squad with flashing mars lights entered the drive: a couple of beat officers, unknown to Hardcastle, but a clear indication that Frank was taking the evening’s events seriously.

The lieutenant himself was only another ten minutes behind that. Hardcastle met him on the front steps.

“That neighbor of yours—”

“Mrs. Mulvaney?”

“No, the other one. Emmers, you said? Her address is on Cataldo?”

Hardcastle nodded. “Right across the road.”

“Dispatch logged a call from there about fifteen minutes before that home invasion. She reported a ‘suspicious vehicle’.”

“Everything’s suspicious to Vicky. What did she say it was doing?”

“Driving in her neighborhood, sounds like. You know how it is with the frequent fliers, Milt. The dispatcher said he’d send a squad to take a look.”

From the look on the faces of the two beat cops, they had clearly not been randomly ordered to Gull’s Way. Lieutenant Harper turned to them.

“It was your call, right?”

The men both nodded. The older one, whose nameplate read “Sloan”, said, “We’d just come on duty. Got the call, came over. We saw a vehicle—black Caddy limo, private plates—parked over on Sea Vista.”

“That’s right behind Ella’s place,” the judge muttered.

“We ran the number. No outstandings,” Sloan offered apologetically. “Registered,” he reached into his pocket for a small notebook and flipped it open, “to something called ‘Gela, Ltd.”

Frank turned to Hardcastle. “I wouldn’t have recognized it right off, either, but he’s been all over the departmental bulletins the last couple of days.”

“Who has?” Milt said impatiently.

“Joe Saderucci—mob boss—it’s one of his main holding companies. Rumor has it he’s dropped off the map. The capos are all in a stew; nobody seems to know—is he dead or what, and if he is, who killed him?”

“What the hell does that have to do with this Warlow character?”

Frank shrugged. “Maybe he knows something, or somebody thinks he does.”

Hardcastle frowned for a long moment and. “Joe’s got a kid, doesn’t he?”

00000

McCormick sincerely hoped Delaroe was making a successful transition between hit man and mob CEO. At least the latter occupation encompassed a few more varied approaches to problem resolution.

And Little Joey was looking at them as though they were a problem. Even the two henchmen, standing nervously at the back of Delaroe’s oversized study, seemed to be included in that assessment.

But Delaroe was still the guy in charge. He’d seated himself behind his desk—one of those modern, sleek, glass numbers. It was possible that people who knew him wouldn’t sit across a solid desk from him. Joey drifted over to Delaroe’s left, still looking twitchy.

“Talk,” Delaroe said, looking directly at Warlow.

“About what?”

McCormick could have sworn he’d heard the answer before Warlow said it. Maybe some sort of weird psychic vibe, or possibly because it was what he would have answered himself. Didn’t Hardcastle always say “Don’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked”?

Except when you’re talking to a hit man—though it was Joey who’d taken two steps toward Warlow, looking as if he wanted to get the first punch in.

“He’s a punk,” Joey muttered.

Frankie held up a hand, imperiously, waving the man back. It was then that Mark knew for a near-certainty that Joe Saderucci was no longer receiving mail on this particular astral plane.

“About Joe. Tell us everything you know.”

Warlow’s face was almost as impassive as Delaroe’s. Even with the bruises from earlier, he looked remarkably serene. “I’d say he’s a remarkably powerful man—”

“‘Is’?” Delaroe said suspiciously.

Warlow waved one hand airily. “Is, was.”

“He’s dead?” Delaroe hissed.

“Ask your wife,” Warlow said, meeting Delaroe’s eyes evenly. “I’m only a conduit. I don’t ask for affidavits.”

McCormick winced. Even Mrs. Emmers seemed to have stiffened in the chair next to his. Delaroe’s face had finally become readable, but it didn’t look much like a happy ending.

The man rose and opened his mouth—it would probably have been something like “Off with their heads!” since he was an executive-type now—but at that instant there was a sound from the front of the house—a key in a lock, a door opening.

Delaroe froze where he stood. Little Joey cast him a worried look. “You said—”

“Shut up,” Frankie snapped. It was manlier than going “Shhh,” but McCormick had a sudden flash of insight into the actual chain of command.

The warning was too late, anyway. There was a clicking of heels in the hallway and a inquiring tone. “Frankie?” She must have seen the lights from the front porch.

A moment later she was in the doorway. No one tried to stop her. She took in the three seated guests, her gaze fixing on Warlow. Then it shifted to her husband. Her expression was halfway between pleased and puzzled.

“You found him?”

There was an edge to the purr. She didn’t have to add: When were you going to tell me?

“I got all the way to Bear Lake. I couldn’t sleep. Aunt Syl said I should come back if that’s what I wanted.” She paused, looking briefly from her husband, to her cousin, and back again. Then she added, with a certain emphasis, “I’m glad I did.” She smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile. “I didn’t want to bother you calling first. I even told Marco, out front, not to wake you up; I’d let myself in. And look how thoughtful you are—a surprise.”

She crossed over to the desk and perched herself lightly on the edge, facing Warlow. “I want another session. Right now.”

Warlow dipped his chin in a solemn, single nod.

Mrs. Delaroe cocked her head consideringly. “We can use this desk.”

Mark noticed she hadn’t said “Frankie’s desk,” or addressed her husband in any way regarding the plan. Delaroe gave way without having said a word, stepped back slightly. The others moved into action, clearing space and bringing the chairs closer, as though they were perfectly accustomed to taking orders from the missus.

Mark leaned in slightly, toward Warlow, and said quietly, “I think this’d be a good time to keep both hands on the psychic steering wheel.” He got nothing but the shade of a smile from the pale young man, but a moment later, as they were being ushered forward to the converted desk, Warlow motioned for Mrs. Delaroe to take the seat opposite his, bracketed by her husband and cousin.

This left an empty space to Warlow’s right, and a subtle tug from him on McCormick’s sleeve, pulled him into that spot. Mrs. Emmers hadn’t gotten up to join them and Warlow seemed content with that. She stayed in her seat a few feet back, looking on at the proceedings with stern disapproval. At a nod from Mrs. Delaroe, one of the guards dimmed the light.

“I’ll need you all to concentrate,” Warlow said quietly.

Mark wished he knew what the hell the game plan was. Vera Delaroe’s eyes were closed. So were Warlow’s. Frankie and Joey were still regarding their guests warily. McCormick felt an unexpected pressure—the side of Warlow’s right shoe against his own left. What it was supposed to mean, he had no idea, but the contact seemed very intentional.

“Concentrate,” Warlow murmured again. “Focus on the critical spirit.”

McCormick suddenly thought he’d gotten Warlow’s drift, and though he wasn’t sure what good it would do, it would almost certainly be a lesser evil than having Joey Saderucci himself show up and start pointing a ghostly finger.

He concentrated. He hadn’t planned on closing his eyes; that just seemed to happen naturally. In the eerie silence he felt a sudden chill and heard a low grating voice.

“You little bastard—I told ya if you ever lifted a hand against me I’d—”

Mark’s eyes jerked open. Vera’s eyes were open as well. She seemed more confused than shocked by the tone and language. Frankie frowned in suspicious puzzlement, too, but it was Little Joey suddenly looked the angriest, shoving his chair back from the table and starting to rise.

He hadn’t gotten far—though far enough for Vera and Frankie to take notice—before it became obvious that Warlow’s face had turned toward McCormick, his features distorted by anger, his voice dropping to an unearthly growl. “I’ll—”

It was strength beyond Warlow’s own that suddenly levitated the desk from his side; Mark might’ve lent a hand with the heavy lifting once he realized which way things were going. The heavy glass rose nearly vertical before it came crashing down on the startled observers.

McCormick didn’t have time to appreciate the results—something lunged into him: Warlow, swinging with more force than seemed possible. Mark had just a moment, as he was going down, to wonder if Saderucci mightn’t’ve been the better choice after all.

00000

Sirens. Lots of shouting, but one voice nearer at hand telling him sternly to hold still.

“Huh?” It sounded muddled. His lip was getting in the way. Mark dragged his eyes open.

“Lie still; you’re bleeding.”

It was Mrs. Emmers, leaning over him, looking stern. The pressure on his lip was from her, pressing a handkerchief against it. His gaze drifted to Warlow, sitting on the floor, back against the bookshelves. He was holding what must have been one of the goon’s guns carelessly in his right hand—but not pointing at him, Mark was relieved to see. Warlow had a dazed expression on his face that was definitely his own.

The sirens had stopped and the rest of the room’s former occupants had dispersed—except for Vera Delaroe, who was standing by the window. She broke off her grim, assessing stare and looked back toward them, or, rather, at Warlow.

“That wasn’t my father,” she said petulantly.

He looked up at her wearily and sighed. “It’s not like placing an order from Sears and Roebuck.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Warlow shrugged, but it was not without sympathy.

“Joey,” she spat. “You saw what happened when …” she frowned, “when whoever that was started threatening. Anyway, Frankie never would have let you out of here that first day if he’d known daddy was really dead.” Her assessment of her husband seemed more a matter of practicality than faith.

She shot another sharp glance out the window. “The cops are outside.” Then looking back at her guests, having assumed an expression of calculated bafflement, she added, “I can’t imagine why—don’t tell me you were under any compulsion to be here.” She gathered herself, glancing down and stepping around the detritus. “I never liked that desk very much anyway.” Then she walked out of the room.

00000

Three squad cars and a warrant did wonders for circumventing private security. Finding the previously-spotted limo parked alongside the Delaroe home lifted Hardcastle’s spirits immeasurably. But it wasn’t until Frankie Delaroe himself and a handful of his henchmen were spotted, trying to make a break for it out the back, that the judge was certain they’d hit pay dirt.

Unlike the rest of the cockroaches Vera Delaroe came to the front door, greeting them civilly.

“I was just indulging in a little hobby of mine,” she said.

“Kidnapping?” Hardcastle inquired politely.

Her smile thinned as she ushered them in. She gestured toward a short hallway that ended at another door.

He was already moving toward it when he heard a familiar voice say, “Judge?” A step through the doorway brought him to a sudden halt.

Mrs. Delaroe, from somewhere behind him, added, “There was a little altercation.”

Vicky Emmers was kneeling among the wreckage. McCormick, with his lip split and one cheek bruised, managed what was probably supposed to be a jaunty wave. Warlow was behind them, looking distracted as he wearily flexed and unflexed his left hand.

“What the hell?” the judge muttered.

Mrs. Delaroe stepped up alongside him. “A séance,” she said coolly. “I’m afraid things got out of hand.”

“Kinda looks that way,” Hardcastle said disbelievingly.

She nodded once and then, after a half-moment, added, “If you see my cousin, Joey, tell him it’s not a matter of proof with me. I believe what I believe.”


NEXT ACT

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