As consciousness began to slowly seep into Mark McCormick’s mind, he thought, “Oh no, not again.” Now waking up is always a good thing; however, waking up from being unconscious has to be on the bad side of good. And even that has levels. Waking up after being unconscious for a minute or two in a familiar place surrounded by concerned family and friends was not too bad. Waking up after a longer time lying in a hard hospital bed surrounded by grim-faced nurses and doctors was worse. And if you had the patented McCormick-style of good-bad luck, you woke up after an undetermined amount of time in a strange place restrained, and surrounded by scary-looking guys who would like to see you never wake up. As McCormick lay on the cold floor and tried to move his restrained arms; he realized that his luck was running true to form.
McCormick turned onto his back and tried to sit up. As he slowly brought up his head, he noted that his hands were cuffed in front of him. His first thought was of escape. But the room was spinning in a way which made the bile begin to bubble in his stomach. McCormick realized that there would not be any big escape attempt at this time. Instead, he laid back on the floor, closed his eyes and tried to remember how he had gotten into this particular mess.
* * * * *
Earlier that morning:
It was another beautiful day in Los Angeles and Hardcastle’s favorite ex-con was stretched out, shirtless, in his favorite old pair of cut-off shorts, soaking in the sun. After a particularly hard game of early morning gorilla basketball, and with several hours of yard work and school work planned for the afternoon, McCormick was taking a deserved rest while Hardcastle harassed California’s finest for a while.
Actually, with the foul mood Hardcastle and been in for the past couple of weeks, it was a pleasure to have him off the estate. Heck, it was a pleasure to do yard work and be out of his sight. And all because Hardcastle’s other ex-con had managed to get under his skin for a third time.
News that J. J. Beal had filed an appeal on his recent conviction had Hardcastle annoyed. Finding out that Beal had a good case for making a successful appeal made him angry. Discovering that the appeal was based on one police officer falsifying evidence and another officer altering documentation to cover up the false evidence left him mad enough for people to be worrying about the physical safety of said officers. Hardcastle had spent a good two hours hollering about shoddy police work and officers taking short cuts in their work. And that if Beal was able to escape his full punishment, it was an insult to the every law abiding citizen in the nation all the way back to George Washington. Hardcastle swore that Beal would only win the appeal over his dead body.
McCormick grimaced as he thought back to when he made his initial mistake of trying to calm Hardcastle down. He had pointed out that there had been a lot of evidence gathered from the multiple crime scene left behind by Beal. During the collections of the fingerprints left by Beal in the Corvette, an officer had failed to log them into the evidence room. He had left them in an unsecured desk for several days. The chain of evidence had been broken. When he had discovered the collected prints, he had compounded the problem by having his buddy in the evidence room falsify the date that the evidence had been turned in. Now Beal and his attorney wanted the fingerprints and everything recovered from the Corvette thrown out as fruit from the poisoned tree.
Even a first year law student could see that the prints were likely to be thrown out as evidence. But so what? There were multiple people who had seen Beal take the car. The car would have been searched as a recovered vehicle, so anything found in the car could still be used as legitimate evidence. Beal could win the skirmish but lose the war.
McCormick remembered the cold look that Hardcastle had given him. Hardcastle had informed him that his police, in his city, had let him and its citizens down. Now the District Attorney was talking about dropping the grand theft auto charges against Beal. He had claimed they needed to protect the reputation of the police and save the city the cost of an appeal. The District Attorney had wanted to surrender before the first round had even been fired. Beal had been flown back to Los Angles to have the appeal heard. Back in the county jail which had held him over two years ago. Back in his city, to try to give justice one last black eye. Beal had thrown down his gauntlet and Hardcastle was determined to take the challenge.
Shaking his head, McCormick thought how Hardcastle refused to admit when the fight was lost. No references to obscure legal precedents or bluster was going to change the facts. And Hardcastle was going to have to realize that Beal might have to spend 98 years in jail instead of 100 years. But the thought of Beal not being sentenced for taking the Corvette had made Hardcastle angry. Angry at the police, angry at the DA, angry at the weather, the birds, the trees, the flowers, and his live-in slave. For the past week, it had been mutterings, gorilla basketballs that had gotten too hard core, and an inability to be pleased at anything Mark said or did. It was hard not to take it personally. He hoped that with the appeal now scheduled to start, life would return to normal.
For the umpteenth time, McCormick thought that everyone was missing the main point. He had even tried to broach the idea to Frank; but everyone was more interested in the police officers and the falsified evidence and nobody was asking the other questions. J. J. Beal, as everyone felt obligated to tell him, was a very smart man. Someone who had a reason for everything that he did. A master planner. So why this appeal and why now? Other than the non- inconsequential pleasure of annoying Hardcastle, Beal had to know that they were talking about a small part of a very long sentence. Why go to all the trouble? And how had he even found out about the falsified evidence? He had to have a partner somewhere. McCormick couldn’t help but think that the appeal was just a small step in a larger plan. If Hardcastle ever calmed down enough to talk about it; he would try to bring it up again. But now it was time to work on an even tan.
Stretched out on the lounge chair, McCormick began to drift into a light sleep when a hand reached out to his shoulder and gave him a light shake.
The rough voice said, “Time to go McCormick.”
“Jeez, Hardcase. I’m just taking a short break,” McCormick said with a slight whine in his voice. Blocking the sun with his right arm, McCormick looked up. But it wasn’t the gruff face of his friend; instead it was the smug smile of J. J. Beal. McCormick tried to sit up, only to be roughly pushed back into the chair by Beal. Allowing himself to roll with the push, McCormick used the motion to roll out of the chair and onto the cement on the other side of Beal.
“What the hell are you doing here?” McCormick said as he rose to his feet prepared for a fight.
“Take him,” Beal said with a faint chuckle at what he considered McCormick’s less than impressive resistance.
A large meaty hand reached out and steel-like fingers roughly dug themselves into McCormick’s shoulder and pulled him up. McCormick felt himself effortlessly spun around as a fist was struck deep into his stomach. If not for the man’s iron grip, McCormick was sure he would have dropped to ground. The man wrapped his right arm around McCormick’s neck cutting off oxygen and blood. McCormick tried to shout for help but was finding it difficult to even breathe. Through squinted watering eyes, McCormick watched as Beal slowly began to walk towards him.
“Now we can do this the easy way or you can make it difficult,” Beal said as he pulled gauze and a small brown bottle from his pocket. “But I think your new friend Sal, here, would prefer the hard way.” Beal soaked the gauze and began to lift it to McCormick’s face.
McCormick tried to struggle within the giant man’s arm but it was no use. His kicks and swings just seemed to amuse the man.
“This punk ain’t no trouble,” Sal laughed as he lifted McCormick off the ground and tightened the grip across his neck. McCormick’s face turned red as he gasped for air. He went slack and hung like a rag doll in the giant’s grip.
“You did it too hard. Let him go,” Beal ordered.
Sal loosened his arm and had casually watched as McCormick dropped to the ground.
“Knew he was a light-weight,” Beal sneered as he prodded McCormick with his foot. “He’s out cold.”
“You want I should cut him a little?” Sal said as he pulled out a small knife.
“No, I told you that we need him alive. Just grab the cuff.”
“Yeah, but if you leave a little blood, it lets people know that you’re serious. Shakes ‘em up.”
Beal paused and considered Sal’s words. “You’re a smart man,” Beal said with a smile.
Beal reached down to pick up McCormick. But McCormick took that opportunity to spring into action. He pushed his feet quickly against the ground, and raised his head to slam into Beal’s chin.
“Damn!” Beal said as the blow to his chin drove him back.
McCormick knew it was a lost cause but he wasn’t going to go down to Beal without a fight. He grabbed Beal’s shoulders and lifted his knee straight into Beal’s groin. His face lit into a satisfied grin as he saw the pain in Beal’s watering eyes. “I’m not the lightweight,” McCormick sneered.
“Get him!” Beal shouted to the amused Sal. Sal raised his fist and plowed it straight into McCormick’s face. He dropped to the ground. The last thing he heard was Beal’s curses and Sal’s laughter as he fell into unconsciousness.
“I guess he showed you,” Sal said with a grin. “He’s got you singing soprano. Want me to cut him now?” Sal bent down on one knee and had brought his knife down to McCormick.
“No, I got a better idea. Something that will really shake up the old man,” Beal said as he pulled out a gun.
McCormick didn’t hear the crack of the gun or offer any resistance as he was cuffed and placed into the trunk of the waiting car.
* * * * *
“Jackass,” mumbled Milton C. Hardcastle as he drove towards his home after an unsuccessful afternoon with the District Attorney. He had gone to the meeting to give the benefit of his legal mind and personal experience with Beal, but they had tried to treat him like a hysterical housewife.
Everyone was more worried about the falsified evidence and the cover-up than about Beal getting way with grand theft auto. They thought it was better to cover-up the cover-up then let anyone question police procedures. But justice didn’t work in the dark. If the officers broke procedures then it needed to be known and the problem fixed.
The D.A. thought Beal was just a two-bit con who got lucky, found a loophole, and was trying to jerk the chains of justice. He reminded Hardcastle that even if they dropped one charge, the rest of the charges were enough to keep Beal locked up for the rest of his life. But that had been until he saw the cold look in Hardcastle’s eyes. Not while there was a breath in his body or a legal book in his hand would Beal serve one day less than his full sentence.
“Nice to know I still got it,” smirked Hardcastle. “Not that it works on everyone.”
He could already hear McCormick whining about how Beal could get away with stealing the Corvette while he went to jail for taking his own car.
With that thought, Hardcastle’s eyes glanced over at the prime cut steaks sitting in the seat beside him. He sighed as he thought of McCormick. He hoped the steaks would be enough of an apology.
He knew that he was letting his temper get the better of him. But where Beal and the Corvette were concerned, he couldn’t help it. Letting Beal escape punishment for taking the Corvette was like Cody taking the Coyote. And McCormick knew that and understood the anger.
McCormick had been trying to ride out the storm, but even the kid had his limits. Hardcastle thought back to the morning basketball game. It had been after the second sharp elbow in the gut and third deliberate trip that McCormick had grabbed the ball and walked off the court. No amount of sneers or insults could get him back on the court. He just mumbled something about the repossessing Hell’s Angels’ motorcycles as a safer line of work and disappeared into the gatehouse. Playing the martyr, McCormick had not responded to the call for breakfast; he just announced that he was going to do the lawn and left. But it was too beautiful of a day and if he knew his ex-con, he bet that McCormick was already goofing off at the pool. Well, let him. All that could be done about Beal was being done. And hopefully the newly motivated D.A. would get to send Beal back to San Quentin with his tail between his legs.
“What the…” Hardcastle said as he drove up to Gull’s Way. The gate to the estate was ajar. Hardcastle slowly stopped his truck, got out, and examined the gate.
“Not forced,” mused Hardcastle as a sick feeling began to form in his stomach. McCormick had insisted upon a new alarm system after the last revenge seeker had broken onto the estate. He was constantly reminding Hardcastle to use the new system, even if they were both just resting at the estate. McCormick wouldn’t be so careless. Not now.
“Beal!” thought Hardcastle. He walked back to his truck and pulled Millie from the glove box. Hardcastle drove onto the estate looking for any signs of a possible attack. He got out of the truck, holding his gun in front of him. He scanned the horizon but could not see any signs of life.
“McCormick!” Hardcastle yelled as he walked around the house. “Where are you?” Not seeing anyone, he headed to the back of the house.
“Oh God,” thought Hardcastle as he first spotted the crumbled figure by the pool. Heedless of a possible trap, he advanced towards the figure.
“Not him,” Hardcastle sighed in relief as he saw the figure was too large to be McCormick. He didn’t recognize the man. He saw the piece of paper fluttering under the dead man’s body. Pulling it loose, he read the message.
“Didn’t take the car this time. Mark said goodbye. Be in touch.”
Lowering the gun, Hardcastle realized that he had been too late. Once again, Beal had been too fast and too clever. This time he was going to use McCormick for his revenge. Behind him, Hardcastle heard the phone begin to ring. Swallowing the dread which had risen in his chest, he brought the receiver to his ear.
“This is Milton Hardcastle,” he said answering the phone.
“Milt! I’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” said Lt. Frank Harper, in a rush. “Beal’s escaped from county.”
“How?” asked Hardcastle.
“No one knows. They’re still investigating,” said Harper with a touch of disgust in his voice. “One minute, he was locked up and the next he had a gun. He and a local thug grabbed a hostage and forced their way out.”
“How’s the hostage?”
“Wounded, but he’ll live. I know that you and Mark won’t like it, but these guys are dangerous. I’m sending a police car out there.”
Looking at the dead man on the ground, Hardcastle said, “It’s too late. They’ve already been here.”
Harper paused, “Mark?”
“Beal’s got him,” Hardcastle said with a weary voice. “But he left his partner. You’d better get down here.” Hardcastle hung up the phone and sat on the closest chair. Many scenarios ran through his mind, many possible plans and possible outcomes. But he could do nothing but wait. Without any information, the next move would have to Beal’s.
* * * * *
Though it had its amusing moments, Beal was getting bored waiting for McCormick to wake up. Part one of the plan was done and it was time to start part two. But before he would allow it to begin, he wanted to make sure his partner was too committed to the plan back out. Cautiously, he squatted next to McCormick and prodded him with the muzzle of the gun.
“Come on, B-Team. It’s time to wake up.”
McCormick groaned and turned onto his back. “What?” he asked looking through the gun and straight at Beal.
Beal stood up and motioned the gun toward a ratty old couch in the center of the room. With some difficulty, McCormick bent his legs under him and struggled to his feet. His muscles were sore and his movements were slow but Beal did not look like he was in the mood to be kept waiting long. As he walked to the couch, his eyes darted around the room, looking for any signs of the ape who had hit him. But they were alone. He sat on the couch, facing Beal and the open door. He considered rushing at Beal and trying to make a break for the door, but he realized that there was probably a nasty surprise waiting there.
With a malicious grin on his face, Beal walked around the couch until he was behind McCormick. He brought his mouth next to McCormick’s ear and said, “I think it’s time you met my partner.”
Beal looked up and shouted, “Come on in.”
McCormick was trying to maintain a level of nonchalance but he could not stop his mouth from dropping open in surprise when he saw the new player in the game. “Sandy?”
Sandy Knight, ex-police officer, stood in front of the two men. He looked over to Beal and said with a bored tone, “He’s seen me. Are you happy now?”
“Ecstatic,” answered Beal. “No backing out now.”
Straightening the sleeve of his buttoned-down shirt, Knight said, “I thought it was already too late, when you shot the guard. I’m in this until the end.”
“What are you doing here with Beal?” asked McCormick, finally realizing this was not some strange sick joke.
“Flagrant necessity,” answered Knight looking at him with a mixture of contempt and hate. “I have to commit a small evil to prevent a larger evil from happening.”
“What could possibly justify teaming up with an escaped convict who tried to kill Milt?” said McCormick, wondering what had happened to the man who was Hardcastle’s friend.
“Saving a dear old friend from a master conman who’s planning on killing him after robbing him blind,” said Knight coldly.
Cuff or no cuffs, Beal or no Beal — McCormick was not going to let Knight get away with an accusation like that. He rose ready to fight. But Beal grabbed both shoulders and pushed him back onto the couch. McCormick didn’t need to see Beal to know he was amused. If it wasn’t such a dangerous situation, he wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t be laughing at the absurdity of Knight’s accusation.
Remembering the nightmare when he had been forced to kill Weed Randall Weed to save Sandy’s life while Hardcastle lay near death in the hospital, he looked back at Knight. “I saved your life,” McCormick reminded him.
Knight walked over to McCormick and roughly slapped his face. “You stole my life! Did you think that I wouldn’t figure it out? You set me up. You set us all up.”
McCormick’s mouth dropped open, again, as Knight continued his rant.
“I should’ve figured it out, when you said you knew Weed. But you were too cunning. Made me think it was my idea to re-open the case. What was it? Were you scared that Milt was finally beginning to listen to me and see you for the con, you are.? Is that why you decided to cut your losses by killing him?”
“I’m not the one that shot him!” shouted McCormick as Beal chuckled. “Weed did!”
“But you’re the one who got him the gun,” explained Knight. “That’s why you didn’t go with me to get Weed. You needed to make sure that the job had been done right. And when you saw that it hadn’t and Milt was going to live, you had to go back and get rid of the witnesses. That’s why Weed didn’t kill you. You were his partner. But you made a mistake. You weren’t able to kill me and I’ll see you never hurt Milt again.”
“You’re crazy,” said McCormick shaking his head.
“I never could figure out what he saw in a filthy con like you.”
“He likes me,” McCormick answered, the pride evident in his voice. “We’re friends.”
Knight visibly forced himself back to calm and turned a cool eye to McCormick, “Did you know that he has been visiting with me all along? He even pulled a few strings to get me an early release and get re-established.”
“Well, Milt’s a great guy. I’m the one that told him that he should look you up,” McCormick answered with a lie. “I knew you’d have a tough time.”
“We’ve been talking about teaming up. He’s ready for a change; he just doesn’t want to admit his mistake,” said Knight as he watched McCormick’s reaction.
“Never happen,” said McCormick cockily. “He didn’t want you then and he won’t want you now.”
“We’ll see,” said Knight. “Soon he’ll learn the truth about you and I’ll be back where I belong. I’ve got to go; Milt will be waiting for me.” With that Knight smoothly walked from the room, leaving the dumbfounded McCormick behind with Beal.
McCormick turned back to look at Beal. “You know he’s crazy?”
“Ain’t we all,” said Beal as he circled to the front of McCormick and pulled him to his feet. He marched McCormick to the one window in the room.
McCormick looked out and down. He could see that the room was raised above the tree line. And there were a lot of trees. He figured they had brought him to an abandoned ranger’s post. McCormick felt the muzzle of the gun brought to his temple.
“Now the way I see it,” explained Beal, “you have some slight use as a hostage if things start going wrong. Otherwise it’s just as easy to kill you now. There’s only one door out and it’s going to be locked. And it’s a long way to the ground. Out there, you won’t get far without a shirt and shoes,” he said gesturing to McCormick’s bare feet. “The more you cooperate, the easier it will be on you.”
“You know Knight’s planning on killing you,” said McCormick trying to sow some dissension in the ranks. “He won’t leave you alive to blackmail him.”
“He can try,” Beal said with a smile as he lowered the gun from McCormick’s head.
“You are planning to blackmail him, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” said Beal. “The way I figure it, if the old man had explained all the benefits of the job, I’d be the one riding shotgun with him. I’d be living the good life instead of you. Just waiting to cash in on the jackass’s will. I’m just getting what’s owed to me.”
“And what about me?” asked McCormick.
Beal turned them to face the center of the room. “You? You got food and water,” he said gesturing toward the refrigerator. “Something to work on,” as he gestured to McCormick’s cuffed hands. “I even brought your school books so you don’t fall too far behind. You got all that, and four days.”
As Beal started to leave the room, he stopped and brought his knee sharply into McCormick’s groin. ”And some payback.”
McCormick turned and shifted slightly to his right, so he took the brunt of the blow to his inner thigh, but the pain was still intense enough to drop him to his knees. He remained quiet as Beal walked from the room.
It was time to consider the angles.