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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four

EPILOGUE

Arrests were made, though the first round did not include Vera Delaroe. Little Joey was asking to talk to the state’s attorney as soon as he was out of sight of Frankie and the boys. Harper guessed that the man would prefer turning state’s evidence and even pleading guilty to his uncle’s murder rather than face the wrath of the man’s daughter.

A squad car was detailed to give Mrs. Emmers a ride home. She was not all that appreciative of the timely rescue, but she seemed to approve of Warlow’s attempt at a distraction.

“At least all that spiritual nonsense came in handy,” she said tartly to Hardcastle, still well in earshot of the other two.

Hardcastle finally brought the casualties back to the estate. Misty seemed to have forgiven Warlow for her imprisonment. She jumped into his lap as soon as he’d sat down in the closest wingback chair.

McCormick didn’t get any hero’s welcome, but he was the first one to notice the flashing red light on the answering machine. He tapped it, as Hardcastle was returning from the kitchen with a bag of ice.

“I wanted you to be the first to know—the doctor says Tinker is out of danger. No internal bleeding. He does have two cracked ribs, poor dear—” There was a rustling, as though she were chucking the poor dear gently under the chin even as she spoke.

“Like little chicken bones,” Hardcastle interjected, half to himself, “they’ll heal fast.”

“—I’m going to stay a while longer and call a cab later. You just look after Owen and Misty for me, will you?”

Hardcastle hit the stop button and glanced out the window. “Just as well, the evidence techs are still checking things out over at her place.” He turned to Warlow and McCormick, wearing not-quite-matching battered faces. “You two can wake each other up every couple of hours, can’t ya? I’m bushed.”

It was nearly dawn, with a hint of pink behind them in the eastern sky, as McCormick led the other man down the drive toward the gatehouse. He was dead tired. He almost understood what Warlow had said earlier that night. His two encounters with the Other Side had left him feeling punch drunk.

He hadn’t noticed at first that Warlow wasn’t keeping pace with him, not until he gotten a good lead. He turned to wait for the other man to catch up. Misty, who’d been trotting faithfully at Warlow’s heel, had dropped back as well. She was now a few paces behind him, alert, stock still, and growling softly.

It wasn’t Warlow. By now McCormick had enough experience with these things to recognize the phenomena. He could only kick himself for forgetting about the gun that was pointed at him now, the one he vaguely remembered Warlow having gotten his hands on in the aftermath of the Delaroe séance.

The face and stance were not those of Mark’s uncle, but the whole situation had an eerie déjà vu that took him back with a sudden jerk of recollection to an early morning a year and a half earlier.

“Warlow,” he said, “it’s me, you’re you—this is crazy.”

“Good-bye,” the man said. It was a voice Mark had only heard once, uttering that very same word.

“What the hell?” Mark had barely glimpsed Hardcastle, hurrying toward them with his gun in hand, before he took advantage of the distraction the judge had provided and charged toward the man in front of him.

“Dammit,” Hardcastle hollered, undoubtedly unhappy about having his sightline interfered with.

Mark was only relieved that Warlow’s reflexes hadn’t been replaced by those of a hired killer. He intercepted the gun, and took the gunman down with a roundhouse blow that knocked him to the ground. The follow-through brought McCormick to his knee, still grasping the barrel of the snub-nose revolver almost convulsively.

“You okay?” Hardcastle was there, looking down at him. Mark managed a nod.

The judge squinted down at Warlow and gestured with his own gun. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah, I think.” Mark lifted one lid. Warlow turned his head and muttered, then blinked. He looked like Warlow, only a little worse for wear.

“Then what the hell was that all about?” Hardcastle said, sounding completely exasperated. Misty was at his feet punctuating the question with yips of her own.

“I think,” McCormick hesitated, shook his head, then finally plowed on, “I think it was the ghost of Jake Thomas—you shot him the last time he tried that. And that was,” he looked around, getting his bearings, “it was right about here.”

“What happened?” Warlow muttered more audibly.

“You tried to kill me,” Mark patted him down, and handed the one and only gun to the judge. “Again. Is he coming back?”

Warlow seemed to consider the question for a moment before waving it off. “I’m usually more in control. It’s just ’cause I’m tired.”

“Oh, good.” Mark looked at him askance then offered him a hand up. “You get the first shift on the couch.”

00000

Morning came and went, lunchtime, too. Eventually Misty made her needs known. McCormick felt worse, rather than better, and Warlow was even paler and more silent than usual.

Misty got to visit the rose garden, then the three of them headed for the main house, by way of a circuitous route that avoided all previous Gull’s Way death scene sites known to Mark. They entered via the kitchen door, in search of coffee and whatever would pass for kibble. They found a note on the table informing them that Hardcastle had gone, after all, to give Mrs. Mulvaney a ride home.

McCormick rustled up sandwiches, and a small plate of minced bologna for Misty. She accepted it warily but at least didn’t snap at him when he set it down.

“That’s progress,” he said, taking a seat across from Warlow, and eyeing his own sandwich warily. It was possible that his stomach had written a check his teeth couldn’t gnash. He sighed, tore off a corner, put it in his mouth and chewed carefully, noting with some satisfaction that Warlow was doing the same.

He frowned as he chewed. Warlow looked up and caught him at it.

“I’d say I was sorry,” Warlow said, “but you kinda started it.”

“Hmmph,” Mark muttered. “Don’t call a guy’s mom a—” he paused and cleared his throat. “What you called her.”

“Ahh … sorry.” Warlow swallowed, looking uncomfortable. It might have been the results of the more recent blow, but he looked contrite.

Mark was aware that he was still frowning at the man, but it wasn’t in disapproval.

“Anyway,” he finally said, “it’s weird”.

Warlow nodded absently.

“No—not all that stuff.”

Warlow cocked an eye at him. That expression redoubled the odd feeling.

“You’re familiar,” Mark said. “I know I know you from somewhere.” He leaned back in his chair, trying to bring the recollection into focus. “I’m usually good with faces.”

“Not that good.” Warlow risked a wry smile. “I recognized you right off. The name anyway—but I wasn’t sure till I saw you.”

“Not Quentin. Not Strykerville.” McCormick squinted. “Where?”

“Jersey. You were right about that.”

“Not as Owen Warlow.”

“No, I changed that.”

“Why?”

“The old one didn’t suit me—‘Worlowski’.”

McCormick’s frowned cleared a little as a memory kicked in. “Big family, bunch of kids—lived across the street from my mom and me?”

“Yeah, I had six older brothers.” Warlow smiled. “A whole stickball team, and me to shag the balls.” His expression sobered. “I liked your mom. She was nice. I would never have said anything like—”

McCormick waved the apology away, back to frowning deeply.

Warlow—nee Worlowski—reached down and scooped up Misty, who’d finished her bologna, and propped her in his lap.

“I’ve always been good with dogs,” he said. “I helped you catch a stray mutt one time. You really wanted a dog.”

“But that was—”

“Me.” Warlow’s smile was back, in now steady contrast to the bruises.

“—Arlene Worlowski.”

“I told you I didn’t have any cojones,” Warlow pointed out, surprisingly cheerful about it.

It was like one of those drawings—a vase that suddenly becomes two faces. Mark could now see it: the striking resemblance to a gangly tomboy he’d once known.

“But—”

“I made the transition about eight years ago. The external transition. I’ve always been what I am inside.” Warlow shrugged. “I didn’t realize, though, that it came with a price.”

“Surgery?” McCormick winced. “Shots and stuff?”

“Idiot,” Warlow said affectionately. “That wasn’t the expensive part. My dad came from a big family, too—all boys and him the youngest.”

“So?”

“He was the seventh son, and me, I became the seventh son of a seventh son. The manifestations,” Warlow moved his less-stiff hand in airy circles, “didn’t really kick in until after I’d accepted myself.”

“Arlene Worlowski—”

“Is no more,” Warlow said solemnly. “Just me, Owen. Hey, I looked after your dog after they came and took you away. So that wasn’t your dad, huh?”

McCormick shook his head. “My uncle—my aunt’s husband.”

Warlow wrinkled his nose, which seemed about the best description. “I’m glad … that he wasn’t your dad, I mean.”

“Nope, nothing like.” McCormick rolled his eyes. “My dad’s not angry, just completely unreliable—hell, he’s not even dead and I can’t reach him.”

Warlow was still laughing when McCormick heard someone pull in. He tensed momentarily, though everyone who was currently mad at him on this astral plane was busy fielding questions from the cops. And it was only another moment before he’d identified the vehicle by sound as Hardcastle’s truck, followed by Hardcastle’s tread on the back steps.

“How’s the patient?” Mark asked as the judge entered, tossing his keys on the counter.

“He looks better than you two. He’ll be home in a day or two.” The judge dropped into the third chair. “You were both crashed out when I left. I didn’t want to wake you with the news …”

Mark raised an eyebrow.

“Little Joey rolled over. Says he got into it with his uncle—who he also says has been whacking him around since he was a kid. He finally hit back. It was twenty years worth. The old guy went down and didn’t get up. He dumped the body in one of the canyons, and hustled home, then found you,” he nodded sharply at Warlow, “entertaining Vera.”

“I think he would’ve killed you then and there if Frankie hadn’t stepped in and tossed you out on your keister. And Frankie says Little Joey’s been working overtime the past three days, trying to convince everybody that you had something to do with the old man’s death.”

Warlow swallowed once, but said nothing.

“I think you oughta find another racket,” Hardcastle said pointedly. “This one’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Warlow petted Misty absentmindedly. “I suppose … or you might say the spirits take care of me.”

The judge looked at him sternly. “One of ‘em almost got you shot in my driveway this morning.”

Warlow sighed. “There’s the occasional malevolent influence.” He scooped Misty off his lap and into his arms as he stood. “I guess I’d better get her home.”

Hardcastle nodded.

“And I should say good-bye to Ella,” Warlow added, by way of assurance. “Sounds like it’ll be okay for me to go home, too.”

He nodded a farewell to McCormick, and headed for the back door—Misty’s chin resting on his shoulder.

Hardcastle sucked in his lower lip and watched him go. Almost as soon as the door was closed, he turned to McCormick. “I saved the glass; should I have Frank run the prints?”

“Nah,” McCormick smiled, “I finally got it figured out.”

“So you knew him?”

“No, not exactly.” It was a fairly enigmatic smile for a guy with a busted lip. “It was just that he reminded me of a girl I used to know.”




NEXT, ON HARDCASTLE and McCORMICK
Virtual Season 4:


Hardcastle paused, examined a sign that said, Manager’s Office in small type, then followed the arrow that pointed down a hallway to the left, “it’s not like you’re gonna be in the starting line-up. You’ll be a fill-in. Do some late inning work at first base in a blow-out, pinch-run a coupla times. Even if you don’t get into a game at all, that’s okay. You just have to get to know what’s going on in here, behind the scenes. Get the skinny on these guys. You know the deal.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this before; remember back when you had me in as a cop from Jersey? Get in, get the dope, get out? That worked real well.”

The judge snorted at him and pointed to a door on the left just a few feet up. “We got the bad guys, didn’t we? Now, lighten up and try to look like a ballplayer.”

* * * * *

Brickman took his place behind the batting cage and nodded at Mark to take a few warm-up swings. “Okay,” he called when Mark stepped up to the plate, “try a couple of fastballs.”

The pitcher, who uniform bore the number 6 and the name Sternfield, threw a lazy fastball right down the heart of the plate. Mark managed to foul it off to the right.

“That’s the boy,” Brickman called encouragement. ”Get zoned in on the heater now.”

Two more pitches were fouled off, then McCormick connected solidly with the next pitch and sent it to medium deep left field.

* * * * *

The judge walked quietly down the corridor to the manager’s office, cogitating, brow wrinkled. A sudden scuff behind him made him turn quickly, but not before the baseball bat landed solidly across his shoulders.

A bat clattered to the concrete floor and Hardcastle slumped down heavily beside it.



Next Monday, at 9 Eastern/8 Central


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