It was early Saturday afternoon, and Mark sat in the Judge’s den, slouched in Hardcastle’s overstuffed chair, with his legs stretched out on top of the stool in front of it. A few minutes ago he had come in to take a break from working in the yard. He was dressed in a sweat-soaked t-shirt, ragged cut-off shorts, and dirty sneaks, and he had a glass of iced tea in his hand. He had just flipped the TV on, and the channel he was watching was starting an old black-and white western film starring Tom Tyler, the day’s offering on “Action In the Afternoon”.
Even though he was now going to law school during the week, his tuition paid for by Hardcastle, Mark had still arranged with the Judge to do chores around Gulls Way as a means of helping to pay for his room and board at the estate.
Just then the Judge came into the room. He had been out doing errands, and when he saw Mark lounging in his favorite chair all sweaty and dirty, his eyes got as big as saucers.
“McCormick!” he shouted.
Mark jumped up. As he did so some of his iced tea sloshed out of his glass onto the floor.
“McCormick! Whattaya think you’re doing sittin’ in my favorite chair in those old grubby clothes!?” Hardcastle bellowed. “Why aren’t you outside cutting the north forty?”
When he realized that the storm that had just blown in was only the Judge, Mark calmed down, putting an ’Oh, it’s only you’ smirk on his face.
“Wall, gee, Yer Honor,” he drawled in his best Slim Pickins voice, “I didn’t realize the north forty still needed doin’. I just came in to rest fer a minute after sloppin’ the cows and milkin’ the hogs!”
Hardcastle’s face screwed up like he was going to have a stroke or a heart attack or something. Then the front doorbell rang.
“Now you jest stay right there, Yer Honor!” Mark said, as he sprinted past Hardcastle in the direction of the door. “I’ll get it. It’s probably jest ol’ Mary Lou Barnburner from next door anyways!”
Relieved that he had gotten out of the room before Hardcastle could think up a suitable retort to his sarcasm, Mark yanked open the front door.
Now it was his turn for his eyes to open wide.
“Barbara!” he exclaimed.
Standing on the stoop was Barbara Johnson. He hadn’t seen her since she had given him the Coyote almost three years ago, and left the area to go to law school in another state.
“Hi Mark!” she said cheerily as she came inside. She made as if to give him a hug, but Mark backed off and put his hands up.
“Barbara, there’s nothing in this whole world I’d rather do right now than to give you the biggest bear hug you’ve ever had — but I’m pretty grungy right now!” Mark apologized.
“Still doing the Judge’s chores for him, huh?” Barbara replied, smiling.
Mark looked embarrassed. “Well ... no ... not exactly,” he stammered. “We’re kinda equal partners here now, y’know. He does some chores, and I do some chores. We both work together to keep the place looking nice!”
Just then Hardcastle stormed into the entryway. “McCormick!” he yelled. “If you don’t get back outside in the next 10 seconds and start mowing that grass, I’m gonna cut your pay in half and take away your car privileges for the next week!”
He stopped when he saw Barbara standing in the doorway. Mark just squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced.
“Hi Judge. Remember me?” Barbara asked, trying to suppress a laugh as she did so.
“Sure I do!” Hardcastle replied, now a little embarrassed himself. “It’s good to see you again, Barbara! How are you?”
“Just fine!” she said. She stepped forward and hugged him (to Mark’s consternation). “You haven’t changed a bit!”
“Yeah, well, you know how us, uh, more mature guys are — we sometimes get set in our ways a little bit concerning some things!” Hardcastle tried to explain.
Barbara looked back at Mark. “I still think he’s cute!” she laughed.
Mark looked like he was about to throw up. Hardcastle preened, his face turning slightly red around the edges.
“Yeah, well, he usually gives a lousy first impression,” Mark finally mumbled. “But when you get to know him, then he’s really a bear!”
Hardcastle elbowed him. “Don’t you have some chores to do?” he grumbled. He turned back to Barbara, trying hard to ignore McCormick. “I thought you were in law school,” he asked her.
“I was,” she replied. “Just graduated last week. I’ll be starting a new job as a paralegal down in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks. So I thought I’d come see you guys. Right now I’m on vacation!”
“Well, we’re awfully glad you did!” Mark told her. As he did so he elbowed Hardcastle aside and escorted Barbara back out the door.
Hardcastle just stood there as they walked away, with a ’he just did it to me again’ look on his face.
* * * * *
Later, after he had gotten cleaned up, Mark took Barbara out for dinner to Barney’s Beanery, just down the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Afterward they came back to Gull’s Way. The sun was just setting, and there was a cool, pleasant breeze, so they settled next to each other on twin lounges near the edge of the bluff above Seagull Beach, just behind the main house. Hardcastle’s pool was nearby. The blinking lights of various small pleasure craft could be seen bobbing here and there on the waves of the bay, and across the water Santa Monica could be seen in the distance, misty through the gathering twilight.
“Y’know, I still miss your dad,” Mark told Barbara. “Every day.”
“I know,” Barbara replied. “I do too. I think about him a lot.”
They sat for a while in silence, just watching the bay together.
Then: “So why did you decide to go to law school, Mark?” Barbara asked. “That kind of thing doesn’t sound like your style.”
“What do you mean, ’not my style’?” Mark replied, a little hurt by the question. “You think I can’t make it in the academic world?”
“No, no — it’s not that,” Barbara tried to reassure him. “It’s just that you always seemed to be an out-on-the-street, pedal-to-the-metal, under-the-hood type of guy. Not the type who would be satisfied to sit in a classroom all day writing notes and researching convoluted legal cases in dusty old law books.”
“Well, I’ve changed a bit since I met Hardcase,” Mark told her. “He’s shown me that there’s more to life than just racing cars and living day-to-day and hand-to-mouth. He’s spent his life helping people, and seeing that justice gets done, and that the little guy gets a fair shake in life. And he does it all within the law. Hell, he uses the law to do it. I admire that. I guess I’ve decided that I kind of want to be like him.”
Just then Mark raised one eyebrow.
“But if you tell him I said that I’ll deny it!” he quickly added.
Barbara looked back at him. “I believe you, Mark,” she said. “ I think you really have changed. I’ve always liked you, but I’m seeing a totally different side to you now that I’ve never seen before. And I have to confess that I like what I see.”
Mark smiled at her. “I really like what I see, too,” he said. He leaned over toward her, and they kissed.
* * * * *
The next morning Mark and Barbara went together to the cemetery where Barbara’s father Flip was buried. Once there she bent over and laid a bouquet of flowers on the grave.
But just as she straightened up again the crack of a gunshot echoed over the cemetery, and a bullet ricocheted off the edge of Flip’s grave marker.
His reflexes honed from years of ducking bullets with Hardcastle, Mark immediately grabbed Barbara and pulled her down to the ground with him. Quickly they both scrambled around to the other side of Flip’s gravestone.
“You stay here!” Mark told Barbara. Before she could do anything to stop him, Mark got up and ran over to an adjacent grave marker, ducking behind it.
He studied the cemetery. Based on how the bullet had hit Flip’s gravestone, Mark triangulated approximately what direction the bullet must have come from. He ran over behind another marker, and then repeated this action, slowly making his way around the cemetery.
After he had done this half a dozen times he caught sight of a man standing behind a large mausoleum. He was holding a rifle, and from time to time he peeked out from around the corner of the structure, trying to catch another glimpse of his intended targets. He did not see Mark, who was now only a few yards away from him.
Mark picked up a stone and tossed it at a nearby marker. When it clinked off the stone the rifleman turned to see what made the sound, bringing his weapon up and leveling it in that direction.
That’s when Mark, still hot from the idea of someone taking a shot at Barbara, barreled forward and took the rifleman to the ground with a full-body tackle. Maneuvering on top of the would-be assassin he threw a powerful roundhouse punch at the guy’s jaw, knocking him cold.
He got up off the unconscious shooter, dusting himself off. He noticed that the gunman was young, no older than his middle twenties. He almost looked like a high school kid.
“It’s all right now, B.J.!” he shouted to Barbara. “I got him!”
Barbara came running over, just as Mark was wrapping the guy’s belt around his wrists, hog-tying him.
“Oh Mark!” Barbara gushed, hugging him. “That was a really dangerous thing to do!”
Mark looked at her. “More dangerous than getting shot like sitting ducks?” he quipped, smiling. She hugged him again.
Mark pulled the shooter to his feet. He was just beginning to come around.
“C’mon, let’s get this bird back to Hardcastle, and see what he can make of this,” Mark said. They headed back to the Coyote with their prisoner.
* * * * *
Back at Gull’s Way, Hardcastle was passing through his den, still dressed in his robe and carrying a cup of coffee, when he heard the Coyote pull up outside. He went out the front door to find out where Mark had been so early, and then stopped dead in his tracks on the front stoop.
Mark and Barbara were just getting out of the car. Tied across the rear trunk of the car was a struggling young man, who was also gagged.
“I didn’t know hunting season had started already,” Hardcastle quipped, in his best deadpan delivery.
“Yeah, well, the vermin are out early this year,” Mark shot back.
After getting a quick run-down from Mark on what had happened, Hardcastle went back inside and called the police.
A short while later Lt. Kelly Carlton pulled up in front of the house in an LA squad car. He got out of the car and stared at the man who was still trussed to the back of the Coyote out in the hot sun. Mark came out of the house to greet him.
“Mark, you better tell Hardcastle that that’s not exactly standard procedure for bringing in felons,” Carlton commented. “He’s liable to get his butt sued for police brutality.”
“Hardcastle didn’t bring him in,” Mark replied. “I did. I’m not a cop, and I ain’t got nothin’, so this creep can sue me all he wants.”
Carlton went over and started to untie the man from the Coyote.
“I think you better tell me the whole story here,” Carlton said.
After securing the prisoner inside his squad car, Carlton went inside the house to talk to Mark and Milt.
After hearing Mark’s story, Carlton asked him: “Ever see the guy before?”
“Nope. Have no idea who he is. And he won’t tell us anything about why he was taking potshots at us.”
“Do you really think he was trying to kill you, or was he just trying to frighten you?”
“I don’t know,” Mark replied, “but I’m kind of leaning toward the first one.”
Carlton thought for a minute. “Well, I hate to say it,” he told them, “but you guys have made a lot of enemies in the last three years with your Lone Ranger and Tonto routine. He could have been hired by almost anyone to do you in.”
“But what really bothers me,” Mark cut in, “is that it appears as if he was trying to shoot Barbara. Now why would someone want to harm her? She hasn’t even been in town for the past few years.”
Carlton shook his head. “I don’t know,” was all he could say in return. “We’ll do a thorough check on him down at headquarters, and if we find out anything interesting we’ll let you know.”
“Thanks, Carlton,” Hardcastle told him. Mark nodded his thanks too. Carlton turned and left.
When he was gone, Mark turned to Barbara. “What about it, B.J.?” he asked. “Is there anyone you can think of that might be after you for something?”
“No!” Barbara replied. “I’ve been in school the past three years, miles away from here. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to shoot me!”
Mark took her in his arms and patted the back of her head.
“Well, you’re going to stay here until we can figure this thing out,” Mark ordered. “We’re not going to let anything happen to you, that’s for damn sure!”
Realizing what he had just said, Mark looked over at Hardcastle.
“That is, if it’s all right with you, Judge!” he added.
“Sure, it’s all right with me,” Hardcastle replied. Then he got a funny look on his face. “But she stays here in the spare bedroom in the main house!” he quickly added, with all the gruffness he could muster. “I don’t want no extra-curricular hanky-panky going on around here!”
Barbara and Mark both laughed.
“Sure, Judge, sure,” Mark assured him.
* * * * *
Later that night, after Hardcastle had gone to bed, Barbara and Mark sat together on the couch in the gatehouse, kissing up a storm.
“No hanky-panky going on around here,” Mark whispered between lip locks.
Barbara started to laugh, when suddenly Mark shushed her. He craned his head up in the air, as if he was listening.
“What is it?” Barbara whispered.
“I don’t know,” Mark replied. “I thought I heard something.”
He listened again.
“Maybe it’s Hardcastle, checking up on us,” Barbara suggested.
“Maybe,” Mark responded. He got up and went over to the front door. He opened it a crack and looked out.
At first, nothing seemed amiss. But then, suddenly, the engine of the Coyote roared to life, where it was sitting in the driveway!
Mark yanked the door open and raced out. He reached the driveway in front of the main house just as the Coyote was pulling away with a loud screeching of its tires.
“Hey! Hey!” he yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran.
At the same moment, Hardcastle also came running out of the main house, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. His robe flapped wildly in the night air, and he was carrying his shotgun in one hand.
“Around back!” Hardcastle yelled to Mark, when he caught sight of him. He waved frantically.
Mark quickly followed Hardcastle around the house to the garage in the back. They both hopped into Hardcastle’s ’64 Corvette. Hardcastle gunned the engine, and the car sped out of the garage and shot down the estate’s driveway.
Reaching the front gate they discovered that the thief had somehow shorted out the lock on it and opened the gate. The Coyote was already speeding south on the Pacific Coast Highway, and was now just barely in sight. Hardcastle pulled on the steering wheel of the Corvette and screamed out onto the highway. With the tires squealing he quickly straightened the car out and sped down the road in pursuit.
“Here — see if you can shoot the tires!” Hardcastle said, as he handed his shotgun over to Mark.
“Judge, are you crazy?” Mark shouted back. “You want me to shoot at my own car? I want that car back! It’s all I have left of Flip! ... Besides, if I trash it Barbara will kill me!”
The Coyote was some miles ahead of the Corvette by now. After rounding a curve in the highway it slowed down and approached a large panel truck that was parked by the side of the road. The rear doors of the truck were open. A pair of men were just pulling two thick wooden planks out of the back of the truck. When the planks were in place, the Coyote drove up the planks into the back of the truck. Once the Coyote was inside, the two men pushed the planks back up into the truck and quickly closed its rear doors. Then they ran around to the front of the truck and climbed up into the cab.
Completely unaware of this trick, a minute later Mark and the Judge roared by the truck.
After they had gone past, the truck pulled out onto the road and made a U-turn, then headed back up the highway in the opposite direction.
* * * * *
“Okay, okay, I think I got it,” Lt. Harper said wearily. “Somebody stole the Coyote.”
It was the next morning, and Hardcastle and Barbara were both sitting in front of Harper’s desk in his office at police headquarters. Mark was fretfully pacing the room.
“I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe this,” Mark was mumbling to himself. “I can’t believe someone stole the Coyote right out from under our noses.”
This was particularly embarrassing for Mark, since at one time he used to make a living repossessing other people’s cars.
“Take it easy, kid,” Hardcastle told him. “We’ll get it back. Don’t worry.”
Mark wasn’t in the mood to be comforted. “Yeah, sure, everything’ll be all right!” he said sarcastically. “Judge, I don’t exactly remember you taking that attitude when your official ’Wilt Chamberlain’ basketball disappeared! Or when those guys stole your yacht! Remember that?”
Hardcastle huffed and attempted to ignore Mark’s outburst. He knew the kid was upset.
Barbara got up and went over to Mark.
“No, really, Mark, everything will be okay,” she told him, stroking his arm. “Believe me. We’ll find the Coyote somehow.”
Trying to change the subject, Hardcastle addressed Lt. Harper again.
“Frank, is there anything you can give us on this, no matter how small? Anything we could use as a lead?”
“Well, there is one odd thing,” Harper admitted.
Now he had Mark’s attention too.
“What? What odd thing?” Mark asked.
“The guy you brought in that took a shot at you in the cemetery,” Harper said.
“What about him, Frank?” Hardcastle asked. “I thought he refused to tell you anything.”
“He did. But when we were finally able to ID him I noticed on his employment record that until just recently he worked for an outfit located in Las Vegas.”
“Judge, we’re trying to find the Coyote and you’re busy doing spotted owl impressions!” Mark interrupted. He turned to Harper. “What outfit, Frank?” he asked impatiently.
“A big real estate firm called Vegas Properties,” Harper replied.
Mark looked disgusted at this apparently minor revelation. “So what’s so odd about that?” he insisted.
Harper leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what’s so odd about it,” he said. “Vegas Properties is a subsidiary company of — Cody Enterprises.”
Now Mark looked like he had just been punched in the stomach.
“Cody Enterprises?” he repeated.
Mark finally sat down in a chair. He just stared at Harper.