The two vehicles shot down the small dirt road, the pickup a short distance behind the sedan. One shooter fired some shots out of one of the rear windows of the car back toward the pursuing truck. Hardcastle zig-zagged back and forth as he drove, trying to make himself as difficult a target as possible. He put his pistol out of the driver’s side window of the pickup with his left hand and fired back at the sedan.
One of Hardcastle’s bullets found its mark. The left rear tire of the sedan exploded with a loud bang, and the car went into a sudden swerve. It skidded some yards before tipping over onto its left side. It rolled completely over once, then came to rest back on its wheels. A big cloud of dirt and dust billowed up around it.
Hardcastle pulled his truck off to the side of the road and jerked it to a stop. He jumped out of the cab and jogged over to the sedan.
Some of the dazed occupants of the car were just stumbling out of the vehicle when Hardcastle came up on them. He pointed his gun at them and waved his arms.
“All right, all of you — drop your weapons, get up against the side of the car, and spread ’em!” he yelled.
The car’s occupants slowly obeyed. There were four of them altogether, all dressed in dark suits.
Mark and Cindy came up behind Hardcastle. Mark stared at the dark-suited men leaning against the crumpled-up car.
“Judge, there’s something that’s giving me a bad feeling about this,” Mark said. He walked over to one of the men, reached under the man’s arm into the inner pocket of his suit coat, and pulled out what looked like a wallet. He turned and walked back to Hardcastle.
“What have you got there?” Hardcastle asked him.
Mark flipped open the wallet and looked at it. A funny look came over his face.
“It’s the guy’s ID,” Mark said. “Judge, you’re not gonna believe this.”
“What? Who are these guys?”
Mark held the wallet up. It had an professional ID card on one side of it, and a shiny metal badge on the other side.
“They’re feds,” Mark announced.
* * *
Down at police headquarters Mark, Cindy, and the judge all sat in chairs in front of Frank Harper’s desk in his office, waiting. They all had glum looks on their faces.
“Well, Tonto, this is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” Hardcastle snarled.
Mark looked at him. “Me? What did I do?”
“Oh, nothing!” Hardcastle said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You just dragged me out of the social event of the season to go chasing around a closed cemetery after hours, and made me shoot at some guys who turned out to be federal agents, that’s all! We’ll be lucky we don’t all end up in San Quentin for the rest of our lives!”
Mark shifted in his chair. “Well, if we do, Judge,” he said with a wan smile, “I can introduce you to the right guys who can get you all the Potato Poopies and Pinky Fizz you want.”
Hardcastle’s only response to this was to grimace and growl.
A few minutes later Lt. Harper came into the room. He carefully closed his office door, locked it, and then walked over to his desk. He sat down in his chair.
Mark, Cindy and Hardcastle stared at him. Frank just looked back at them, not saying a word. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair.
“Well?” Hardcastle said.
Harper continued to stare at them.
“You know,” he finally said, his voice a monotone, “I’ve been a cop for a lot of years. But I can honestly say that I’ve never known anyone else in my life who can get into the scrapes that you two get into almost every day of the week.”
“And the translation of that is ... ?” Hardcastle replied.
Harper leaned forward, putting his elbows on his desk and rubbing his temples with his fingers, as if he had a crashing headache.
“Milt — those guys you brought in tonight are with an arm of the Defense Department,” Harper said. “Specifically, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC. Their job is to locate and recover the bodies of deceased military servicemen all over the globe, and then ship them back home.”
“Then what were they doing digging up a grave in a local cemetery in the middle of the night?” Mark asked. “And why was the coffin they dug up filled with money?”
“Those are good questions, Mark,” Harper replied. “I wish I had the answers. Those guys weren’t real open with us about what they were doing out there. And I’m not at all sure that I have the authority to question them about it.”
“Well, I sure as hell want to know what they were doing out there!” Mark said. “And why they were firing shots at us!”
A ’you’re not going to like this’ look came over Harper’s face.
“What happened?” Hardcastle asked. “Frank, what did you do with those guys?”
“I had to let them go,” Harper admitted.
“You let them go!” Mark shouted.
“There was nothing else I could do, Mark,” Harper replied wearily. He looked at his watch. Normally he was not up this late. “Those guys have federal immunity. Unless I can prove they’ve done something illegal I can’t hold them.”
“What about digging up a coffin full of money? Isn’t that illegal?” Mark insisted.
“Not if we can’t prove that they buried it there in the first place — and that the money came from an illegal source. The feds, particularly JPAC, have the authority to exhume anyone they want, anytime they want.”
“What about that coffin full of money?” Hardcastle asked.
“We’re checking on that now. I sent a couple of officers out to the cemetery.”
Mark and Hardcastle stood up. Harper knew exactly what was on their minds.
“Go home, all of you!” he admonished. “Try to keep your noses out of trouble, for a few hours at least! We’ll take care of this!”
Hardcastle looked like he was going to say something in return, but then suddenly he changed his demeanor. He rubbed his palms together.
“Well, okay, good — then I can get back to my party!” he exclaimed.
“Party?” Harper asked.
“Yeah — my annual Halloween party,” Hardcastle explained. “Didn’t you get the invite I sent you?”
Harper thought for a moment. “Oh — yeah. That. Actually, I did,” he said. “I’ve just been so busy lately, I forgot all about it.”
“Well, stop by on your way home,” Hardcastle told him. “I’ll save some of my homemade punch for you!”
“Fine. Wonderful,” Harper mumbled.
* * *
Back at Gull’s Way, Mark, Cindy and Hardcastle sat on the couch together in Hardcastle’s den while the Halloween party continued on around them.
“Judge, there’s a whole lot of things here that don’t make any sense,” Mark was saying.
“I know it,” the judge replied.
“Federal agents charged with bringing the bodies of deceased servicemen back from overseas don’t dig up graves here in the U.S. in private cemeteries in the middle of the night,” Mark went on. “And how did the particular coffin they were digging up get stuffed with cash? And where did the cash come from? I’ll bet there was almost a million dollars buried in that grave.”
Cindy sat between them, now wearing one of Mark’s coats over her leotard. She had no idea what was going on.
“You two certainly have some interesting problems,” she commented.
Mark chuckled. “Cindy, you don’t know the half of it,” he replied with a smirk.
“There’s got to be some kind of record somewhere of who buried that casket,” Hardcastle mused. “... And where it came from.”
“Jake McKee,” Mark said.
“Jake McKee. He’s the old caretaker of that cemetery. He lives in a little cottage right on the grounds. I was taking Cindy there to give him a little fright when we came upon those federal grave robbers.”
“Does he keep the cemetery burial records?”
“As far as I know. He’s got an office right there in his cottage.”
“Then let’s go see him.”
“Now?” Mark protested. “It’s almost midnight! And what about your party?”
“It’ll keep til we get back,” Hardcastle replied. He was already up off the couch and on his way out of the room.
Mark and Cindy looked at each other.
“I guess he really wants to know what’s going on here,” Mark said, shrugging. He got up and started to follow Hardcastle. Cindy got up with him.
Mark stopped, looking quizzically at her.
Cindy shrugged. “Look, I can’t quit now,” she told him. “I’m in this too. I want to know what’s going on as well.”
Mark smiled. He took Cindy’s hand, and they both followed after the judge.