SAY GOODBYE TO THE JUDGE FOR ME

Disclaimer: I don't own these guys, wish I did...the show would have lasted for a lot more years! I originally wrote this story as a script, only to learn the show had been cancelled. Now, I've discovered fan fiction and hope someone out there will enjoy the story!

Description: A hit man, finally put in prison by Hardcastle, is out for revenge.

Feedback welcome at mhay18@shaw.ca

SAY GOODBYE TO THE JUDGE FOR ME

by Arianna

"So, are you clear on what I want done?" demanded Alexander Manning, aka The Sandman. He was in his early forties. Lean, almost aesthetic in appearance, he looked more like a professor of literature than a convict, but the faded clothes he wore, and the supervised visitor's room in the penitentiary told a different story.

"Yeah, Sandy, I'm clear. Don't worry...it'll be done, just the way you want," Rick Owens responded, with a surly look toward the guard at the barred door. Owens sported jeans, faded blue shirt and a black leather jacket, a broad leather belt at his waist. Stocky but not fat, a sundarked visage and heavy brows made him look surly even when he was wishing the world a good morning, not that he often did.

Manning gave Owens a bitter, ruthless smile as his eyes got a faraway look, as if he was imagining a very satisfactory future. Owens shuddered at the look, and sincerely hoped Sandy never took against him. Even in the pen, the man was dangerous. More than dangerous, he was a killer, and he'd never failed to deliver on a contract. This time, no one was paying him. This time it was personal.

With nothing more to say, Owens stood and took his leave. He'd already decided who would do the hit and he was scheduled to meet the man in two hours to give him the details. Without a backward glance, and moving by the guard as if he was invisible, Owens made his way out of the prison visitor's hall, down the long, dreary corridor. He waited until the security door slid aside to let him out, and finally passed through the dingy waiting area out into the sun. Gods, he hated prisons. He hoped he never had to spend any lengthy time in one.

Not quite two hours later, he sauntered into the grimy coffeeshop and made a face at the overwhelming smell of grease and smoke. He spotted Edwards in a corner booth and smiled without humour. One of the things he liked about Edwards was the fact the slimeball was always on time. Actually, it was about the only thing he liked about him...that and the fact Edwards was terrified of him and would do whatever he was told to do.

Owens slipped into the opposite booth and signalled the weary waitress for a coffee. Once it was served, he leaned forward. It was time for business. "Leo, good to see you. Thanks for agreeing to meet me."

Edwards' eyes slipped away from Owen's, unable to hide the grimace at the sarcastic tone. Like he had a choice. Forcing his eyes back, he nodded, "What can I do for you Rick?"

Owens gave his stooge a half smile as he reached into the pocket of his leather jacket. "Why, I like to think of it as doing something for one another," he said as he slipped a thick brown envelope across the melmac covered table.

Edwards palmed the envelope, sliding it over and down over the edge of the table. Tilting his head forward, he opened it and thumbed through the wad of fifties. His lips formed a silent whistle, and his eyes had a greedy light as they looked up. He was a gambler, and he could never get enough cash. This grubstake would last a while. "Who do you want killed?" he mumbled, hoping he was joking. Owens usually asked him to do a little B&E, sometimes there was some guy to rough up, but he'd never paid so much before.

"Funny you should ask," Owens responded as he slid a second bulky envelope across the desk. "You'll just do your regular job as a pool man...only on someone else's route. I'll make sure the regular guy won't be well enough to make it tomorrow. Everything you need is in the envelope...don't touch the tip of the dart, not if you want to live to spend the money."

Edwards paled at that. Poison. "Now, look here, Rick, I ain't never...."

Owens' eyes went cold. "Too late to say 'no' now, Leo. I'd sure hate to attend your funeral, but, hey, everybody's got to die sometime. He lives, you die. It's that simple."

Edwards shuddered at the look and the words. Edwards wasn't kidding. He swallowed hard, his eyes skittering around the coffee shop, wishing he could just disappear. But, there weren't no place to disappear to, and Owens knew it. Reluctantly, he picked up the envelope and slipped it into his pocket. "Tomorrow?" he said, his mouth dry.

"Yeah, early...you know, the early bird catches the worm!" and Owens laughed. It wasn't a pretty sound.

*********


Hardcastle was whistling as he loaded the tackle box and fishing poles into the bank of his Chevy pickup. He looked up at the crystal blue sky with a half grin of satisfaction. It was going to be a great day. Or, it would be if McCormick got his his butt in gear. "McCormick!" he bellowed, scowling. "What's takes him so long?" he muttered.

Mark shook his head at the sound of his name and grinned. "Just like a sick moose!" he said in a cheerful aside to the pool guy. "So, where's Mike today?" he asked. This was a new guy, one Mark hadn't seen before.

The guy just shrugged. "Dunno. I was just told to pick up his route today. Must be sick or somethin'."

"Too bad," Mark returned sympathetically. "Well, let me show you around." Just then, another bellow came from the front of the house, making the pool guy jump nervously. "Hey, don't worry about it! His bark's worse than his bite," Mark assured him as he led the way to the pool house, pointed out the equipment and stock of chemicals. "If we need any supplies, just leave them and put it on his tab," Mark said with a smile. "Need anything else?"

A third bellow echoed, sounding decidedly ferocious. McCormick rolled his eyes and grinned. "He just likes to order me around...you know how it is," he said with a smile and a wave as he turned to head around the corner of the house, shouting, "I'm coming, I'm coming! Keep your shorts on, Hardcase!"

He'd gone about ten feet when he jumped and slapped the back of his neck with his hand, "Ouch! What the hell was that?" he muttered casting a quick look around. Felt like a bee. Shrugging, he turned to continue his amble around the house, his hand massaging the bite on the back of his neck.

When he came around the corner, he saw the Judge standing with his arms crossed over his t-shirt, one of his favourites, the one with a picture of Blind Justice holding her scales, saying 'She's got more balance than you!'. He was tapping one booted toe and scowling furiously under the rim of his Yankees ball cap. "Would you get a move on, McCormick. At this rate, by the time we get outta here, it'll be time to come back!"

"Would you relax, Judge! It's not like there's only one fish in the sea, you know!" McCormick replied goodnaturedly, well used to the Judge's irascible manner. "It's not my fault they sent a new pool guy this morning." Mark was wearing his jeans, an opennecked white t-shirt outside his pants, his Blue Jays cap, and was carrying a knapsack and the bucket of bait he'd picked up in the garage.

When the Judge just threw up his hands in disgust and turned to get into the truck, slamming the door, and turning on the ignition, Mark muttered under his breath, "I know, I know, the Old Man of the Sea has been looking forward to this fishing trip for a week!" He dumped the gear into the back of the pickup, scooted around the side as the Judge revved the motor, and jumped in, slamming the door. "So, are you ready to go?" he asked innocently.

The Judge snorted as he put the truck into reverse, at which point Mark opened the truck door and jumped out. "I forgot to get the mail...you know, one of my regular 'fetch and carry' duties," he said with a smirk, "Meet me out front!" He jogged off, not waiting for the exasperated exclamation behind him. He chuckled, getting a kick out of driving the Judge a little crazy.

The pickup squealed to a halt by the mail box, and McCormick jumped in. Taking in the surly look on the Judge's face, he grinned brightly. "Hey, you're the one who's always telling me we have to be responsible, pay our bills quickly, not leave any evidence we're out of town. For all you know, someone's staking out the house and a box full of mail would be like taking out an ad saying, 'Open House: Come rob us, we've gone fishin'!'"

"Shut up, McCormick, you're driving me crazy," grumbled the Judge.

Mark snickered and started leafing through the pile of envelopes he'd picked up from the box, muttering as he tossed the paper rectangles and flyers down beside him on the seat, "Junk, junk, bill, junk, more bills... doesn't anybody write letters anymore?"

"Do you?" asked the Judge, "Oh, sorry, I forgot, you don't know how to write, do you?"

"Very funny, Judge," Mark responded, then continued, "Flyer, junk, bill...."

"Will you forget that stuff, McCormick! We're going fishing!" The Judge took a deep breath of air, his eyes aglow. "We're going to enjoy the great outdoors, roughing it like men! It's gonna be great!"

McCormick, still ruffling through the mail, muttered sarcastically, "Yeah, great. We're going to tempt helpless and harmless little fishes with fancy, bright coloured lures and make them suffocate when we pull them outta the water. Real he-man stuff, Judge!"

"Oh for the love of Pete. Will you quit whining?" Hardcastle returned, disgusted.

McCormick looked up with a long suffering look on his face. "Judge, you know how much I just love roughing it in Gods' country. The last time, as I recall, it took us two months to walk home...and that was only after we had to trap other he-man types to save our necks! Honestly, Judge, I'm telling you, too much fresh air isn't good for you. Interferes with our adaptation to pollution, confuses the body...."

Hardcastle rolled his eyes and snorted. "You are such a baby, McCormick. I'm trying to make a man of you!"

Mark grinned, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief, "Yeah, right! Admit it! You just want me around to carry all the gear and to gut the disgusting, smelly, slimey fish after you've murdered them!"

Hardcastle snorted. "'Disgusting, smelly, slimey,'" he mimicked in a singsong voice, before returning to his natural gruff sarcasm, "I thought you said they were helpless and harmless little fishes...."

"While they're in the water, Judge. When they're dead, they're disgusting," Mark retorted, then his attention was caught by an envelope. "Hey, Judge, look at this!" He held up an off-white, recycled paper envelope stamped San Quentin Penitentiary, as he continued in a mystified voice, "Why would someone there be writing to me?"

"Maybe because it's where you really belong...or maybe, one of your old buddy's misses you. How should I know?" the Judge growled. "Open it!"

McCormick threw him a pained look as he tossed the other mail aside, and slipped a thumb under the edge of the envelope to rip it open. He then extracted a single piece of paper, with a single paragraph typed on it. Frowning, he read aloud, "Dear Mr. McCormick, Please tell Judge Hardcastle that I've never forgotten what I owe him. Now that the time is growing short, I would like you to say good-bye to the Judge for me."

Mark cast a speculative look at the Judge, muttering, "Sounds more like one of your buddies than mine," as he continued, "I apologize form making you the bearer of my tidings, but I'm sure he'll understand. By conveying this message through you, I can be certain he will always remember Saturday, October 11, 1986."

Mark looked up, "October 11th? Judge, that's tomorrow!"

"I know what day it is, McCormick," Hardcastle returned, frowning thoughtfully, the date sending up warning flares in his mind. "Who's the crackpot who signed it?"

Mark looked back down at the letter. "It doesn't give a name, just 'Your's sincerely, The Sandman.'" and then had to hurriedly brace himself on the dash as the Judge suddenly hit the brakes sharply.

"What?" shouted McCormick, looking around madly to see what the Judge had almost hit.

Hardcastle abruptly wheeled the pickup to the side the road, threw the truck into 'park' and reached over to grab the letter out of McCormick's hand. "Give me that!"

Mark gave an exaggerated jump of surprise, letting his voice rise an octave, as he challenged, "Hey, that's my letter! What's going on? Who's the Sandman? Wait, don't tell me, he's one of your old cases, right! One of your old fans?" But, the smartmouth remarks dried up when he saw how pale the Judge had become. Frowning, he said with more concern, "What is it, Judge? You don't look too good."

Hardcastle had looked up from the letter to stare out of the windshield. "My god," he whispered to himself, as if he was alone, "he can't mean...." The Judge looked at McCormick, a strange, haunted look in his eyes, then he tossed the letter aside, put the truck in gear, and gunned it, hauling the steering wheel hard to the left as he turned the truck around on the highway to head back toward the city.

Mark once again had to hold onto the dash as he was thrown against the car door by the hard, fast u-turn. "Judge! Are you trying to get us killed! Slow down, already! Judge, what are you doing?"

"I'm going back, what does it look like I'm doing?" Hardcastle muttered, almost as if something was caught in his throat.

"No? Really? I'd never have guessed. C'mon, already. I know everything's on a 'need to know' basis with you, but could you give me a hint, here? Who is this guy? Why are we going back?" When there was no response other than a decidedly grim look on Hardcastle's face, McCormick did his best imploring whine, "Judge...?"

"I have to check this out. Would you just shut up and let me drive?" Hardcastle responded, but there was no ire in his voice. To the contrary, he sounded scared. And scared wasn't something the Judge ever sounded.

McCormick looked at him, not sure whether to be appalled or worried. "Hey, Judge, if this guy's bad news, we can take care of him...."

Hardcastle threw McCormick a quick look before he concentrated again on the road ahead, gunning the pickup, passing everything in his way. "He's more than 'bad news', McCormick. His name is Sandy Manning. He was a free lance hit man before I put him away."

McCormick raised his eyebrows and made his 'oh gee, I'm scared' little boy grimace, then shook his head, "But you did put him away, right? And, from the post mark, it looks like he's still there. So, what're you worried about?"

Hardcastle just kept driving, muttering at the idiots in front of him to get out of his way, as he again swerved to pass, and had to pull in sharply to miss an oncoming truck.

"Geez! Judge!" Mark said, wincing, as he threw up his arms to protect his face and ducked. "Maybe I should drive."

Hardcastle just shook his head sharply, but didn't say anything.

"Okay, Judge, you've got my attention. This guy has you worried. So, what's with the date? What happens tomorrow?"

Hardcastle gritted through his teeth, "Tomorrow, he'll be executed."

The mockery left McCormick's face at that. "Oh," he said quietly as he sat back against the seat. "Weird."

"I hope that's all it is, kid," the Judge muttered as he kicked up the speed another notch, hoping to attract a cop so that he could get a police escort. If what he feared was true, there wasn't a second to lose.

*********


'There's never a cop around when you need one,' Hardcastle thought to himself anxiously, but he made record time nonetheless. When he wheeled into the Emergency parking lot of their local hospital, Mark looked around, confused. "What're we doing here? I thought you were going to check this out," he said, holding up the letter.

"Yep, that's what I'm doing, checking us out," the Judge said gruffly as he jumped out of the truck. "C'mon."

Puzzled, McCormick got out of the truck and called across the hood, "Us? Judge, I don't understand...."

Hardcastle sighed as he strode toward the entrance, tried to sound reassuring without much success. "Look, it's just a precaution, okay, nothing to worry about."

"Precaution? Who's worried? Why should I be worried? You almost get us killed driving like a maniac, you won't tell me what's wrong, now we're going into an emergency ward to get 'checked out'...."

While McCormick was objecting strenuously, Hardcastle had pulled up in front of a pay phone and was patting his pockets, "Shut up and give me a dime, McCormick."

Mark pulled a quarter from his pocket, and pulled his hand back as if it had been bitten when the Judge grabbed it from his hand. "You're welcome. Now what're you doing?"

Hardcastle was punching the numbers into the phone with enough force to push them into next week. His eyes narrowed, he just shook his head impatiently at McCormick as he started to speak into the receiver, "Give me Lt. Frank Harper," he growled without ceremony, one finger tapping a tattoo on the phone box as he waited, "Frank, it's Milt Hardcastle, listen. McCormick just got a letter from that viper Sandy Manning...you know, The Sandman...yeah, you heard me.... I know, just listen. We're at Southmore Memorial Emergency. Will you call in the authorization for the blood tests...yeah, both of us.... Okay, by the time you get here, we'll probably have the results.... Fine, thanks Frank. See you," he said, as he slammed down the phone and stomped through the entrance to the Emergency department, McCormick trailing after him.

McCormick was looking increasingly confused and worried. "Judge, why do we need blood tests? If this guy is going to shoot us, our first clue won't be iron poor blood!"

Hardcastle just waved a hand back at him, code for 'hold your horses,' as he approached a woman in a white coat at the desk. The woman was busy, writing in a chart and didn't look thrilled at being interrupted. "Ah, excuse me, nurse...." Hardcastle began, only to be interrupted with a brisk, "I'm the doctor," statement.

"Don't mind him...he still thinks Father Knows Best," McCormick said with an engaging grin. She winced and shook her head, going back to the chart.

"McCormick, would you shut up!" the Judge growled, sotto voce.

"I'm not the one who just insulted the doctor!" smirked McCormick.

"Baa!" the Judge snarled, turning back to the doctor. "I'm sorry, miss er Doctor. I'm Judge Milton C Hardcastle, and I'm expecting a call from Lt. Frank Harper, LAPD, about some blood tests."

"Hmm...well, I'll let you know when we hear from him," she said turning away.

Hardcastle watched her go and sighed as he looked at his watch. Frowning, he looked around the room, pounding one fist into the other palm, his lips pursed.

McCormick watched him for a moment. This was strange, even for the Judge. Something was definitely upsetting him. With a sigh, he sidled in close, saying softly, "Look, it's obvious something's worrying you, and I wish you'd tell me what it is. I don't feel like playing twenty questions! If this guy's going to shoot us...."

"He doesn't use guns, McCormick," Hardcastle said, looking up and around the waiting area before turning to look at his protege. "He uses poison."

McCormick's brows crept up toward his unruly brown curls. "Poison? So that's why...."

"The blood tests, yeah," Hardcastle replied impatiently checking his watch again. When the phone rang, he jumped and headed back toward the desk. He watched the nurse take the message, saw her frown, ask a question, nod, hang up, then she stood and walked briskly out of the work station. Hardcastle tapped his foot, sighing heavily, rolling his eyes, then nodded when he saw the doctor coming toward them.

He wasn't happy about having to have forms filled out in triplicate with their names, addresses, insurance numbers, doctor's names and so on before their blood samples were taken, but they were finally finished and led into a small examining room. McCormick leaned forward, whispering, "You think he poisoned us?"

"It's a possibility," the Judge replied, sounding tired. Finally, the technician arrived, took a vial of blood from each of their arms, and packed up to go. "How long until we get some results?" Hardcastle asked.

"It's a rush order. Shouldn't take too long," he answered over his shoulder as he strode briskly away.

McCormick watched him go, then turned to the Judge, with a hopeful look, "I guess this means we're not going fishing?"

"Don't look so happy about it, McCormick," the Judge snapped with a disgusted look as he headed out of the room, back to the reception area, just in time to meet Frank half jogging in through the door.

When he noticed Mark dabbing at the site of the extraction with a ball of cotton, he frowned. "Don't tell me they just finished taking the blood," he said as he rolled his eyes.

"Well, you know, Frank, we have to be sure we have all the proper forms filled in accurately, and that they are all in order," Mark explained in a painstaking voice.

"Cut it out, McCormick. Thanks for coming down, Frank. They said the test wouldn't take too long."

"Good," Frank nodded, then continued, "You say he sent the letter to Mark?"

"Yeah, show him the letter, McCormick," the Judge said, his voice flat. Mark pulled the letter from his back pocket, where he'd shoved it when he got out of the truck, and handed it to Frank. After a moment to read it, Frank looked up at the Judge, sympathy shining in his eyes, then he turned to look at Mark. Hands on his hips, Hardcastle looked at the floor and shook his head, then he, too, looked up at McCormick.

Not liking the silence or the look in their eyes one bit, Mark held up his hands and took a half step back. "Hey, just one minute. Why are you both looking at me like that?" When both men hurriedly looked away, he paled, saying softly, "You think I'm the target! But, that's crazy! No offence, Judge, but I'm not the one who sent him up the river. Why would he come after me? Who cares, never mind why. Where do we find this guy?"

Hardcastle shook his head, tried to sound brusque, but his voice was thick with worry, "Don't be an idiot. We know where to find him. Look at the postmark."

Mark looked down at the letter, feeling stunned. "Right, San Quentin...the execution.... When?"

"Ten a.m. tomorrow morning," Frank said, sounding unhappy.

"Ten a.m.," Mark repeated, "That's not much time to get him to tell us the antidote."

"You're assuming he'd tell us anything," the Judge said, somberly.

"You're assuming there even is an antidote," Frank chimed in morosely.

McCormick looked from one to the other, his mouth slightly agape. "Wonderful," he muttered as he looked around, found a chair and sagged into it.

"Hey, look kid, we don't know anything yet, okay. He might just be trying to scare us." Mark looked up at the Judge, the considerate tone scaring him even more. Hardcase never talked to him like he was fragile, at least, he never had before.

"Yeah," Mark echoed, trying to be positive, "or maybe it's just his idea of a really sick joke." He didn't feel any better when both men nodded, but looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. He sank back against the chair, his feet sprawled out in front of him, his hands loose on his thighs. They thought he was going to die. He couldn't take it in. It was too sudden, too crazy. This couldn't be real. It had to be a nightmare. Yeah...and he'd wake up soon. God, he hoped he'd wake up soon.

They waited silently for long minutes, until finally the doctor entered the reception room, took a quick look around, then approached them. "I'm Dr. Melissa Sheridan, Judge Hardcastle, and you must be Mr. McCormick," she said as she turned to Mark, who had stood up when she approached. He nodded while the Judge introduced Frank Harper. The doctor nodded and shook the police lieutenant's hand.

"We've finished the tests," she said, with a slight sigh. "Mr. McCormick, I'm sorry, but, if you would come with me, we'll get you admitted."

Frank looked away suddenly, biting his lip. Hardcastle looked sick as he turned to face Mark, placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder. Mark looked like he'd just been sandbagged. "Admitted? No! I don't...." He turned away from the doctor, to face Hardcastle, a lost look on his face. "Judge, help me here. What's going to happen to me?"

The Judge frowned, and swallowed hard as he turned to the doctor. "Is there someplace we can talk privately?" he said, with a glance around the busy waiting room.

"Certainly, come with me," she said, and turning, she led them down a long, white corridor to an office. There was a desk, a couch and a couple of chairs. She moved around to sit behind the desk, and motioned them to take seats.

Frank perched on the couch, while Hardcastle gently pushed Mark into one of the chairs, then sat down beside him. He looked at him quietly for a moment, dreading what he had to say. "Mark, the Sandman has always used a particular, very lethal, poison. As far as we know, there is no antidote...and, if there is one, we don't even know where to start looking for it. I'm sorry, son...." Hardcastle's voice cracked, and he blinked as he looked away.

McCormick looked at him, shocked, not yet really believing what was happening. "But, can't the doctors do something?" he said, looking back at Dr. Sheridan, as he registered the fact that Hardcastle had called him 'Mark' and 'son'... and he'd looked like he was going to cry. Frank was sitting silently, staring at the floor.

Dr. Sheridan spoke with a formal, almost clinical, detachment. "The lab is working on the analysis of the organic compound we found in your blood right now. Of course, we will do all we can, but it's a very complex, multifaceted compound. They will need to conduct a great many tests, and each one takes time...."

Mark looked away, back at the Judge, cutting into her explanation. "Time. How much time are we talking about here?"

The Judge looked from Mark to the doctor. It was a question he couldn't answer. They'd never known when the Sandman's victims had been infected, so no one had ever known how long the poison took to kill its victims. Dr. Sheridan looked down at the blotter on her desk, then looked back into Mark's eyes. "From what we can surmise, the poison will run its course in the next thirty to thirty-six hours."

"Oh no," the Judge whispered as he passed a hand in front of his eyes. Mark gaped at her. "Thirty-six hours? You're saying I could be dead by tomorrow night? How long will your tests take?"

When she just lifted her hands, shaking her head, murmuring, "We'll work as fast as we can." he sank back, stunned, appalled...horrified. And angry.

"No," he said, shaking his head, unwilling to accept it. This couldn't be true, couldn't be happening.

"I'm sorry, Mr. McCormick," she said, standing, "but, we need to get you admitted...."

"No," Mark said again, his voice flat.

"Mark, they just want to help you," Frank said quietly.

"I said NO! I'm not spending my last day in a hospital!" McCormick exclaimed, then turned to Hardcastle. "Judge, please...you can't leave me here...."

"Okay, okay," Hardcastle replied, laying a calming hand on McCormick's shoulder. He looked into the younger man's desperate eyes, then turned to the doctor. "Is there anything you can really do for him, if he stays?"

Dr. Sheridan looked from one to the other, then shook her head. "Honestly, no, not unless we learn something in the lab. We can only keep him comfortable." Mark shook his head as he snorted softly, "Comfortable!"

Hardcastle patted his shoulder, as he continued to the doctor, "If you could tell us what to expect, we'd know when to come back...." Hardcastle stopped and swallowed, before his voice cracked. He was trying hard to hold it together for the kid, but he felt as if there was a vise around his heart. He wanted to yell at somebody, but there was no one to yell at.

Nodding, the doctor marshalled her thoughts, thinking about what they knew so far about the constituents of the compound, and of what they were known to do to the human organism. Looking up at McCormick, she began, "You probably already have a headache." He nodded, almost reluctantly, hating to admit any of this was real. She continued in a steady voice, "You'll begin to have flu-like symptoms, aching joints, stiffness, abdominal cramps. These symptoms will worsen as time passes. In about twelve hours, you will likely be in severe pain, eventually so severe you may not be able to stand or walk on your own. After that, your vision will begin to deteriorate until you are blind, and you will begin to have difficulty breathing. At some point after that, it is probable that you will slip into a coma.... it's unlikely that you would wake again if you reach that stage before we identify the antidote. I'm sorry."

Mark leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, his elbows braced on his thighs. "Yeah...so'm I," he whispered.

The doctor's professional facade slipped a bit. He was so young. "We'll need more blood samples to work with. And, when the pain becomes unmanageable, we can help ease it."

Mark sat up again and gazed at Frank and then at Hardcastle. "I just don't see how I could be poisoned without knowing it...I can't understand how this happened...."

Hardcastle shrugged. He didn't have the answers. Bitterly, he reflected he didn't have any of the answers Mark needed right now. Dr. Sheridan looked thoughtful as she replied, "It must have been an injection of some kind." Mark just shook his head. He thought he'd remember some maniac coming at him with a needle full of poison. Dr. Sheridan came around the desk, saying, "If you'll come with me, we'll take the blood samples we need."

Mark nodded and stood. Before he followed her out of the office, he turned to the Judge, "This won't take long...you'll wait for me outside?"

"Sure, kid. I'll be at the truck, unless you want me to come with you?" Hardcastle responded with a gentle voice.

Mark pasted a crooked grin on his face, "No, Mom, that's okay. I'm a big boy now and needles don't scare me anymore."

Hardcastle tried to grin back, tried to match the kid's courage, but ended up only being able to nod, as he looked away, blinking. Mark touched him lightly on the shoulder. "Hey, Judge...it'll be okay. You're the Lone Ranger, and I'm your sidekick. We'll figure out how to beat this."

Hardcastle nodded again, cleared his throat, "Sure we will, kid. Sure we will."

Mark nodded, gave a quick nod to Frank, as if to say, 'Take care of him,' and then he followed the doctor out of the office.

Hardcastle rubbed a hand over his mouth as he watched the kid go, his other hand bunched into a fist. Frank stood beside him, a hand draped heavily on his shoulder. "C'mon, Milt, I'll walk you outside."

As they walked out into the sunshine, Frank said, "I'll call the warden, get him to lean on Manning."
Hardcastle snorted. "Well, unless there's a torture chamber out there I don't know about, there's no way to force him to tell us anything."

Frank nodded. He knew that. But, he had to start somewhere. He looked at the Judge he had respected for more than twenty years, and thought the man had aged another twenty years in the last twenty minutes. "I'm sorry, Milt. I know what Mark means to you." He stopped, when Hardcastle just nodded sharply and looked away. He didn't want to talk about that. He wasn't ready...he might never be ready to talk about what Mark meant to him.

Hardcastle looked up into the sky, biting his lip, thinking. "You know, Frank, the kid had a point. How did the Sandman get to him?"

Frank shrugged. "It had to be sometime yesterday or today. The poison seems to act very fast."

The Judge nodded. "Look, you go ahead and call the warden. Maybe they can tell us who visited Manning recently...he has to have someone on the outside helping him. And the files might give us something on his known associates. McCormick and I will work on how they got to him...maybe that'll take us somewhere."

"Okay, Milt, I'll be in touch," Frank said, with a wave, then turned to jog over to his car.

Hardcastle walked slowly over to his truck and leaned against it. Squinting, he looked up at the sky as if it might hold the answers they needed. "There's got to be an antidote, somewhere," he said fiercely in a voice raspy with emotion. "God, please...it has to exist."

He was leaning there, still, arms crossed, head down, when Mark came back to the truck about a half hour later. "You okay, Judge?" he asked, his eyes troubled.

Hardcastle's head snapped up at the sound of his voice. "Me, sure, I'm just great. Why wouldn't I be? More to the point, how're you?" When McCormick hesitated and looked away, the Judge muttered, "Well, I guess that was a stupid question. Sorry, kid. C'mon, let's head home."

Mark looked back at him and grinned, a warm look in his eye, as he headed around the vehicle and opened the door on his side, "Gonna check the old files, Lone Ranger?"

"Yeah, kid," the Judge said as he climbed into the truck.

McCormick didn't say much as they drove back to Gull's Way, just stared out the window at the passing world, as if he was trying to memorize it all before he ran out of time. The Judge threw worried looks at him, but didn't say anything, respecting his friend's need to absorb what had happened to him.

When they pulled into the drive and were getting out of the truck, McCormick asked, "So, what'll you look for, in the files, I mean?"

Hardcastle rubbed the back of his neck. "We've got to find out how he got to you. If we can do that, it might give us a lead to follow. I'm going to check the files to see if there's anything there that indicates how he used to administer the poison."

McCormick nodded, then turned to look out at the ocean. "I'll be with you in a minute, Judge. I just want to take a walk. I need to...." he broke off, having trouble finding the words.

Hardcastle cut in, "Hey, you don't have to explain, kid. Take your time."

"Thanks, Judge," Mark replied quietly, then walked away across the sloping yard. Hardcastle watched him go, a deep aching sadness in his eyes. He wiped a hand across his face, then turned and headed inside. There wasn't time to get maudlin. He had to find a lead.

*******


Mark wandered down to the shoreline, then picked up a handful of stones to skip over the waves. He tossed one after another, not sure if he even really wanted to think about what was happening to him. God. He could die. Tomorrow. It didn't seem real. Except for the headache, he felt fine.

But, he couldn't ignore what the doctor had told him. And, what frightened him most, was the way Frank and the Judge had acted...like they didn't really think there was much hope.

Death. He'd thought a lot about death in his short life. His mother had died when he was a kid. Kate died in that stupid wrestling ring. He and the Judge had almost been killed up in the mountains last year. He'd lost other friends, too many. Shrugging, he thought in a macabre way, that at least there'd be people he'd know there, wherever 'there' was...if it was 'there' at all.

He shivered and rubbed his hands over his arms, suddenly feeling chilled. He knew it was just anxiety causing him to shiver, just as it was making him feel breathless. Looking out at the world around him, he had the oddest sense of everything being so crystal clear, as if the light was different today. And, at the same time, he felt as if he was muffled in cotton, not quite there...removed somehow.

And, he thought about the Judge. God, this would kill him...bad choice of words. But, it would hurt the old guy. He'd also lost too many people he cared about, and who cared about him. McCormick wasn't fooled by the Judge's gruff ways. He knew the Judge cared about him, and it would drive him crazy if he couldn't do something to stop this from happening.

He thought about Sonny, then. Some Dad he'd turned out to be. Still, they'd at least made some contact. Mark wouldn't ever trust his father, not like he trusted the Judge, and he was never really sure how Sonny felt about him. But, he wondered if he should let Sonny know...and then he wondered where Sonny was.

Dying. He was dying. Right now. God. He put his hand over his eyes, and sank down onto the sand. He felt the tears burn, but he didn't want to cry. It would feel like giving up. And, he wasn't ready to give up...he didn't think he ever would be ready to do that.

But, he was afraid. He didn't want to die. Not yet. There was so much he still wanted to do. He was just beginning to get his life together, beginning to amount to something. He'd been thinking, maybe, he might try law school even. The very thought of it made him grin, when he imagined how Hardcase would react to that. But, now there might not be time. There might not be any more time for anything.

He wished there was someone he could talk to about all this. But, there wasn't. His best friend was the Judge...and no way could the Judge handle talking about this stuff. Emotions were about the only thing that scared the Judge, but he just couldn't talk about feelings. He'd bottled them all up for too long.

Mark felt lonelier at that moment, then he ever had in his life.

And, he felt angry. It wasn't fair. None of it. Sighing, as he swallowed past the lump in his throat, he reflected that life wasn't about 'fair'...it was just about living...until you died.

And he was dying.

But, until he died, he was alive. And he was going to live every last second of it.

********


Hardcastle dragged out his box of files, and started to rummage through them, needing this distraction. Not distraction, exactly, because he desperately wanted to find something, some bit of information, that would give them a lead...that would give Mark a chance. But, so long as he was busy doing research, he couldn't think about what was happening. He could hold the emotions away, put a wall around them.

But, he noticed his hands were shaking. And, he noticed his eyes were damp. Irritated, he brushed the moisture away. He didn't have time for tears. He had to focus all his time, and his energy, and attention, at finding a way to stop this...and, if he couldn't, well, he'd have all the time in the world after....to mourn.

"Damn it!" he muttered, furious that this was happening to Mark. It was all his fault. It was because Mark was his friend. More than his friend. His best friend. The most important person left in his life.

And, Mark was dying. He could lose him, just like that. God, the kid was so young. He didn't deserve this!

Running a hand through his hair, Milt thought he'd give anything if he could only change places with the kid.

Looking up from a page he'd tried to read three times already, the Judge looked around the study. He could see Mark everywhere in it...draped over a chair, munching popcorn, giving him a hard time about John Wayne. Pushing the vacuum around, that ridiculous apron around his waist, usually when the Judge was trying to concentrate on something, just to tease, to make him laugh. No one else ever made him laugh, not like Mark did.

No one loved him like Mark did, either, and he knew it. Hardcastle bit his lip to keep it from trembling. And swallowed hard, to drive the lump down from his throat. But, that didn't help much. It just lodged around his heart.

He knew the kid would need to talk about this. He shouldn't have to face it all alone. And, he wouldn't be alone...Milt would be there with him. But, he couldn't talk about it. He'd lose control. Probably cry. And that wouldn't do Mark any good.

He'd been alone so long, he'd actually given up thinking anyone could mean this much to him again. But, he trusted McCormick, trusted him with his life. He knew Mark would never let him down, ever. The kid had integrity, and grit. And he had more compassion in his little finger than half of LA put together.

The kid had been dealt bad cards most of his life. It had just started to get better for him, and now this. It wasn't fair! Hardcastle passed a hand over his eyes and leaned back in the chair. He had to pull himself together. He couldn't do the kid any good if he fell apart.

"Damn it!," he snarled again, under his breath. "Damn it all to hell."

********


It was an hour later when the Judge left the house and headed down to the beach. He found Mark on the sand, staring out at the sea. McCormick heard him coming, and turned to give him a quick, almost shy, look before turning back to the ocean. "You know, Judge, it's a really beautiful day. I mean, just look at it," he said, waving a hand to take in the cloudless sky, the flowers blooming on the edge of the sand, and the peaceful, eternal sea. When Hardcastle didn't answer, Mark continued softly, "I'm having the hardest time believing this is happening to me. It's like some kind of bad dream, and I keep expecting to wake up."

"I know, kid. I'm sorry," the Judge responded equally quietly.

Mark heard something in his voice which made him turn to the older man, searching his face. "Judge, this isn't your fault."

Hardcastle shrugged as he looked up at the gulls who were weaving and playing in the light wind off the sea. "Yeah, it is. It's because you're my friend...."

"Just you hold it right there, Judge! This is not your fault. You didn't poison me...that maniac is responsible. If you start feeling all guilty and responsible, you're just falling into his trap. No matter what, Judge, you can't let him win like that!" Mark spoke with passionate deliberation. It was bad enough to die...thinking Hardcase would blame himself for the rest of his life was insupportable.

Hardcastle squinted as he moved his gaze to the ocean's endless waves. He couldn't look at Mark. He just shook his head, afraid his voice might crack if he spoke.

"Judge, look at me," McCormick said, and when the Judge didn't respond, he took Hardcastle and turned the resisting man, until they stood face to face. Finally, Hardcastle looked up into his friend's eyes. Mark shook him gently, as he said, with a grim smile, "I swear, Hardcase, if you blame yourself for this, I will haunt you for the rest of your miserable, stubborn life."

Hardcastle humphed a bit at that, as his eyes slid away, blinking furiously. He wanted to make a gruff, smart come back, like that would be a bad thing, but he couldn't do it. The thought that he might not see McCormick again was tearing him apart.

Mark saw the pain in the older man's eyes, and looped an arm around his shoulders, drawing him back toward the house, deciding it was time to change the subject. "Look, I've been trying to figure out how he got to me. I mean, the doctor said it was more than likely an injection, but you know I don't take drugs, and I haven't even had a vitamin shot lately...comes from being in perfect health," he joked, knowing he was being macabre, but not knowing how else to act.

Welcoming the discussion of practical matters, the Judge replied, "The files indicate that some witnesses recalled the victims complaining of an insect bite or sting. It was really a dart...."

But, Mark had stopped walking, his hand going to the back of his neck. "The bee sting!"

"What bee sting?" the Judge demanded, turning to look at him.

"This morning...I thought I'd been stung by a particularly vicious bee," Mark replied, "on the back of my neck...."

Hardcastle frowned and turned Mark around to examine his neck. "Where did this happen?"

"I was just coming back from the pool, after showing the new guy the equipment in the shed," McCormick's eyes widened with a new awareness. "You don't think?"

The judge clapped McCormick on the shoulder, finally feeling like they were on to something. "That's got to be it! C'mon, kid, we got work to do!" he said over his shoulder, since he was already jogging up the lawn, back to the house.

"Now you're cookin'!" McCormick called out, as he jogged after him.

He couldn't help but grin when he heard the Judge shout, "You got that right, kid!"

As soon as he was back in the house, Hardcastle moved into his study and grabbed up the phone book. In moments, he was jotting down the company's address. "C'mon, kid, let's go," he said, heading back out of the room.

McCormick, who had just followed him into the room, swivelled around and followed him back out. "Judge, we could just call them," he suggested.

"Nope, I wanna look into their eyes when I interrogate 'em!" Hardcastle returned as he slammed out of the front door, heading to the truck.

"Interrogate? Look, Judge, this guy might not have done anything, it might have been a real bee!" Mark said. "Besides, if you go in there with guns blazing, they'll just get defensive and hostile."

Hardcastle waved back at him, impatient, as he climbed into the truck. "I'm the judge, and ex-cop, remember. I know what I'm doing! Get in!"

McCormick rolled his eyes, but couldn't hide his grin. "Right, Kemo Sabe, I'm right behind you!" As soon as he'd jumped into the truck, Milt gunned it and pulled away, burning rubber as he swerved out of the drive onto Pacific Coast Highway. "Hey, take it easy, Judge! I know I'm dying, but there's no need to get me killed!"

"That's not funny, McCormick!" Hardcastle growled.

"No? Well, neither is your driving. Slow down before you get us both killed," Mark responded, more worried about the Judge than himself at that point.

"Shut up, McCormick and let me drive," Hardcase threw back at him.

Mark leaned back, an arm stretched along the open window ledge, grinning. Good, Hardcase was yelling at him again. It felt like old times.

In less than twenty minutes, the pickup pulled into the parking lot of the The Pool People Maintenance Company. Hardcastle jumped out of the truck like a man half his age, and stormed into the office. The receptionist looked up to ask him how she could help him, but he waved her down and headed back along the short row of offices until he found the one marked, Gerry Raymond, Manager. With a sharp knock on the door frame, he barged right on in, McCormick hard on his heels.

"Remember Judge, be nice!" Mark teased, trying desperately to maintain his normal, lighthearted demeanor. It was a stretch.

Hardcase shook his head, then turned to face Gerry Raymond, who had stood in surprise when they barged in. Hardcastle assessed the man for a moment, seeing a harried, middle aged man in a wrinkled white shirt, sleeves rolled up, collar open. "How can I help you gentlemen?" Raymond asked, trying for control of the situation.

"I'm Milton C. Hardcastle, one of your clients... Gulls' Way, 101 PCH. You sent a new guy out to take care of the pool this morning."

"Yes, Judge Hardcastle," replied Raymond, remembering the Judge's title from their files. He'd been a longtime customer. His wife had originally signed the maintenance contract years ago. "I hope there was no problem," he continued, frowning.

"I'd like the guy's name and address. There's something we need to talk to him about," Hardcastle said abruptly.

"I'm sorry, we don't usually give out our employees' addresses, Judge. You understand the confidentiality," Raymond explained. "But, if you have a complaint, I'm sure I can help you."

"What happened to the regular guy, Mike?" the Judge asked, trying a different tack for a moment.

Raymond's face clouded. "He got beaten up last night, on his way home. He'll be alright, but he was in no shape to come into work this morning. Why, what's going on?"

Hardcastle's eyes narrowed at this information as he looked back over his shoulder at McCormick, then turned back to Raymond. "Looks like we're onto something here. It's urgent that we talk with the man you sent today," the Judge hesitated, then continued, "You could say it's a matter of life and death."

McCormick rolled his eyes at that and snorted. Hardcastle cast him a sympathetic look and shrugged, as Raymond responded. "That sounds a little melodramatic, Judge."

Hardcastle's posture stiffened, and he screwed up his mouth before responding with a ferocious scowl. "You think so? Well, how's this for melodrama. Either give me the guy's name and address or come down to the station and be questioned as a material witness in an attempted murder case. So, what do you think about that? Hmm?"

Raymond was clearly taken aback. "Murder? What are you talking about?"

"Well, you see Gerry, I don't really have time to explain it all to you, just give me the damned name and address!" Hardcastle roared, causing Mark to move in, to pat him on the shoulder to calm him down.

McCormick grinned winningly at the startled manager, as he explained, "A friend of his is in serious trouble, and we only have a matter of hours. If you could help us out with this, we'd really appreciate it."

Raymond looked from one to the other, then nodded, having made up his mind. "Alright," he said, turning to the rolladeck on his desk. "He only does casual work for us. His name's Leo Edwards. Here's his address." Hardcastle took the card Raymond handed to him, glanced at it, nodded and with a quick 'thanks' turned and headed out of the office. McCormick said, "Thank you, we appreciate it!" and turned quickly to follow his friend when his name was bellowed from the outer office.

"So, where's he live?" Mark asked as he jumped into the truck and Hardcastle put it in gear. "Burbank," the Judge said, tossing the address card at McCormick, who caught it and gave it a quick read, as the Judge pulled out of the lot, turning left along the thoroughfare.

As they drove, Hardcastle gave a quick glance at the clock on the dash. It was almost two o'clock. He grimaced. Time was moving too fast. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mark curl a little, his arm held against his abdomen. "You okay, kid?" he asked, then could have bit his tongue. What a dumb question.

Mark just nodded, his voice a little strained. "Yeah, just a few cramps, that's all. I'm alright."

Just a few cramps? 'Dear God,' Milt thought, 'how fast does this damned stuff work?' But, he didn't say anything. Just nodded and drove on. Halfway there, he stopped at a phone booth to call Frank to ask him to meet them there.

A half hour later, they pulled up outside a seedy looking boarding house which was badly in need of repair. What lawn it had, was mostly scrub trying to survive in a sea of dirt. Frank got out of his car and came to meet them.

"Thanks for meeting us, Frank," Hardcastle said briefly.

Frank nodded. "Sure, no problem. Mark, why don't you wait here. If he sees you, he's likely to take off."

Mark, looking over Frank's shoulder saw Edwards amble out of the boarding house, take one look at them, and dash off in the opposite direction. Pushing past Frank, and taking off after him, Mark shouted, "I think he just did!" Frank took after Mark, while Hardcastle jumped back into his truck, and gunned it, heading after them.

Fueled by fury, Mark pounded down the block after Edwards, and closing the gap, took a flying leap, knocking the other man to the ground. Scrambling up, McCormick pulled the man to his feet and pulled back his arm, intending to slug him, only to have his arm grabbed by Frank. "Easy, Mark, we need him conscious."

"Yeah, right," Mark responded, lowering his arm, but he gave Edwards a good shake. Frank grabbed the man's arms and spun him around, cuffing his wrists. Hardcastle pulled up as Frank roughly turned Edwards back around and shoved him off toward Frank's car. McCormick headed over to the pickup, his gait stiff, when he suddenly stumbled and fell to his knees, doubled over, gritting his teeth against the pain which had just stabbed through him.

Hardcastle jumped out of the truck and ran to him, dropping to his knees beside the younger man, a supportive arm around his shoulders. "Hey, kid, easy," he said, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

Mark hissed as he straightened up. Gasping a little, his face pasty, he just shook his head for a moment, then muttered, "It just hurts a little."

"Yeah, I can see that," Hardcastle responded drily. "Here, let me help you up," he continued, standing, putting a hand under Mark's arm. Nodding, McCormick gratefully accepted the support, which only scared the Judge more. Normally, the kid would bat his hand away indignantly, snapping that he'd be fine, was used to standing up on his own, had been doing it for years.

But, Mark didn't say anything like that this time, he just leaned against the Judge for a moment, then pulled away. "I'm all right. Let's go see what this turkey has to say," he said, one hand on the truck to steady himself as he walked around it and climbed in.

"Yeah, sure thing, kid," Hardcastle said. By the time he'd pulled up behind Frank's car, the detective had finished Mirandizing the suspect.

McCormick eased his way out of the truck and walked purposefully over to stand behind Frank. "Just give me a minute with him, Frank," he said, his eyes flashing a promise of pain at Edwards.

"Keep him away from me!" Edwards whined, pulling away.

"You hold still," commanded Frank to the suspect, "and you take it easy," he said over his shoulder at Mark before turning back to Edwards. Good cop, bad cop was always a useful routine, even when only one of you is a cop. "You'd better do some fast talking, or I might just turn you loose. Then, you'd have to deal with him by yourself!" he said, pointing his thumb back over his shoulder at Mark.

"You can't threaten me, I got rights," Edwards shot back, trying for bravado.

Hardcastle had come up to stand beside Mark, and he shook his head sadly. "You see, Mr. Edwards," he explained, "Mr. McCormick here really doesn't have anything to lose, and ultimately, I'd have to say that as his killer, he'd be saving the taxpayers of California a whole lot of time and trouble if we just let him have you. There's nothing to say that you have to be taken to jail."

Edwards just sneered at him and turned his head away.

"You see, Frank, he's not going to tell us anything. It's hopeless. Let me have the satisfaction of killing him before I die," Mark said, sounding eminently reasonable.

Frank sighed. "Maybe you're right. If you refuse to identify him, I guess I'd have no choice but to let him go." Frank reached into his pocket and ostentatiously pulled out the key to the cuffs.

Edwards watched him, his eyes widening in sudden fear. "No, wait...you can't do that. You're a cop. You can't just let him kill me!"

Frank looked like he was thinking about that, then he just shrugged. "You know, I think I can. He's my friend, you're a scumbag, and right now, I don't have anything to hold you on if he won't identify you. So, turn around," Frank said waving the key, "unless, of course, you had something meaningful to say to me."

Edwards looked at the key, looked up at Mark, and then the Judge, and finally back at Frank. Each face was hardened against him, and he believed they were serious. "This is coercion...you couldn't use nothing I say at a trial," he tried one last time to save himself.

Again, Frank just shrugged. "Don't care. If you don't tell us what we want to know, Mark here is going to die...and, if he does, I promise you, you will pay for it."

Realizing he was beaten, Edwards slumped back against the car. "What do you want to know?"

Frank just gave him a pained look. "You must be even dumber than you look."

"Alright, alright. It was a guy named Owens, Rick Owens. He bankrolls me from time to time for doing him favours, see. He gave me a picture of this guy, a dart and a blowpipe, and told me to stick it to him this morning. I don't know why, and I don't care."

"Where do we find this Owens?" Hardcastle demanded.

Edwards shrugged. "He lives over in Century City. 1601 Northside Avenue."

"Right," Hardcastle said, slapping McCormick on the shoulder, "let's go."

Frank turned Edwards to shove him into the back of his car, calling over his shoulder, "I'll send backup!"

Hardcastle just nodded as they jumped into the truck, pulled a U-turn and hit the gas.

*******


The black and whites had already arrived by the time they pulled up outside the apartment building. One cop was keeping watch for them at the door, his expression grim. "Judge," he nodded, when the two men approached him, "my partner's upstairs. You're not going to like this."

Hardcastle threw him a worried look as he pushed by, McCormick right behind him, into the lobby, and then into the elevator to the 16th floor. "What do you think he meant by that?" Mark asked, afraid he knew.

Hardcastle looked at his young friend, noting the pallor, and the haggard greyness that was showing through the tan under Mark's eyes and around his lips. He shrugged, "We'll know soon enough, McCormick. Don't buy trouble before it happens."

McCormick gave him a wan smile. "Yeah, right," he sighed as his eyes turned up to the indicator light, watching the floor numbers pass by. Finally, the doors opened at the sixteenth floor. Apartment 1601 was directly across from the elevator, and it's door was wide open. Hardcastle knocked sharply once on it as they passed into the hall inside, and along it to the living room.

They saw the police officer first, and Hardcastle spoke, "I'm Hardcastle, this is McCormick, what's...."

But, Mark had looked beyond the cop, and touched the Judge's arm, interrupting him. "He's over there, under the window," he said, his voice empty.

Hardcastle looked across the room and saw the body. Owens had a bullet hole between his eyes, and he looked like he'd been dead for some time. "Damn it," growled the Judge.

"I've searched the apartment, Judge Hardcastle...the door wasn't forced, there's no sign of a struggle. The neighbours didn't hear anything...." the police officer's voice tailed off as he realized neither man was really listening to him.

"Nobody ever hears anything, do they, Judge," Mark said bleakly as he leaned back against the wall.

Hardcastle just looked at him, then took his arm, guiding him to the door. "C'mon, kid, let's get outta here." Mark nodded and let the Judge lead him away, back out to the elevator and then out of the building. Neither of them spoke until they were beside the truck.

"Do you think he was killed because of..." McCormick, paused, not knowing how to put it, "being involved in the Sandman's plans?" he finished, not really wanting to refer to his own impending death in a more direct fashion.

Hardcastle shrugged. "Who knows? Dirtbags like him make plenty of enemies."

Mark leaned against the pickup, looking toward the west, at the sun sliding down the sky. "Well, I guess that's it, then, huh?"

Hardcastle followed his gaze and squinted at the sun. "No, that's not it. We're not giving up. C'mon, kid, let's go home and figure out what to do next."

Mark gave him a steady look. "Judge, he was it...the only lead we had. What else is there?"

Hardcastle looked away, his jaw tight. "Just...get in the truck, McCormick. It's not over."

Mark shook his head, and rubbed his hands over his face. "Okay, Judge, whatever you say," he said finally, turning to get into the truck. Hardcastle stomped around and got in on the other side. He sat there for a minute, staring straight ahead, trying to think of something to do, something to say. "Mark, I'm not going to give up."

Mark slid down on the seat, his head propped against the back of it. "I know, Judge. You're right, let's go home. There has to be something we haven't thought of. Maybe, maybe Frank has heard something from the warden by now."

Hardcastle nodded, started the ignition, and steered the truck back into the flow of traffic. He wished he could believe the warden would have good news for them. But, he didn't.

********


Warden Martinez stared at the prisoner who had just been shown into his office, not even bothering to try to hide his loathing. He nodded at the guard, who left the office, closing the door behind him.

Manning returned the warden's gaze with maddening equanimity. "Hey, Warden, I heard you wanted to see me. Isn't it a little early to be saying 'good-bye'?"

Ignoring the insolence, the warden said, "I understand you sent a letter to Mark McCormick in Malibu."

Manning cocked an eyebrow as he dropped uninvited into the chair on the far side of the warden's desk, "Yes, so?"

"Mark McCormick has been poisoned and there's every reason to believe you're responsible."

Manning smirked as he shrugged and held out his hands. "I could point out that I have a pretty good alibi for where I've been," he said, looking around the office, "but, hey, I have nothing to lose, do I? Sure, I had him poisoned."

The warden sighed as he shook his head. "Why? What did you hope to gain from this? You've never even met McCormick."

Manning relaxed back into the chair. "Why? Because I want to cut a deal of course. I'll give up the antidote in exchange for a full pardon."

"You know that's never going to happen," the warden stated flatly.

Shrugging, Manning looked away. "Then Judge Hardcastle better say good-bye to his friend."

The warden leaned forward, angry. He remembered McCormick. He'd always liked the kid. "Be reasonable. McCormick's never done anything to you. He doesn't deserve this!"

"Reasonable? I think I'm being very reasonable," Manning countered sharply. "I've given fair warning, enough time for them to figure out what's going on, and I've offered to exchange one life for another, mine for McCormick's. Hardcastle is responsible for me being here. He's the one who decided on the death penalty. Well, he'll never forget it, will he? And, he'll never stop regretting it. If I can't live, I can at least go out knowing he'll suffer my death for the rest of his life." Manning smiled coldly. "Oh, he'll get the antidote, alright. He'll learn what might have saved his friend...it'll be my parting gift to him. But, it won't do McCormick any good."

The warden glared at him, then pushed a buzzer on his desk. When the guard came back in, all he said was, "Get him out of my sight." Then, once the door had again closed behind them, he sighed and picked up the telephone. "Get me Frank Harper at LAPD," he said.

*********


When Frank pulled into the drive, he spotted Mark outlined against the sunset, standing on the edge of the bluff over the sea. Getting out of the car, he watched him for a moment, then, his head down, his gait discouraged, he walked into the house, and then into the study.

Hardcastle looked up when he came in, a last spark of hope in his eyes dying when he saw Frank's face. "What?"

Frank sank into the chair opposite Hardcastle, then looked up at him with a sigh. "I've just had a call from Joe Martinez up in San Quentin." Hardcastle nodded, recognising the warden's name. "Manning's admitted that he set all this up. He wants a deal. The antidote for a pardon."

Mark's voice came from the doorway. "But, you can't do that, can you, Frank?"

Frank looked up and stood. He shook his head, "No, we can't. Mark, I'm sorry."

McCormick ambled into the room, waving off the apology, motioning Frank to sit down again as he took another chair. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees, he said, "Frank...I'd never expect that. It would be ridiculous. Every murderer from here to Maine would be pulling the same trick if Manning got away with this." Leaning back, his arms on the sides of the chair, he said reflectively, "At least we know there's an antidote. He'd have to have it, somewhere, on the off chance we'd make the deal."

Hardcastle looked over at him. "You're probably right, kid, but there's not much comfort in that. The question is, where has he hidden it?"

Mark just nodded and leaned back, closing his eyes. He was tired. And the pain had been getting worse. A lot worse.

Hardcastle frowned as he looked at McCormick, not liking the way the kid was fading so fast. He knew Mark was in pain. He could see it in the kid's eyes, and in the way he moved. He bit his lip and looked away, frustrated and furious that this was happening, that he couldn't stop it. Sick at heart, hating it, he couldn't stand it. He couldn't stand watching the kid die.

Frank watched the play of expressions across the Judge's face, understanding, feeling much the same way. Helpless. Angry. Sad beyond words. Leaning forward, he said, "Milt, Manning said something strange to the warden. He said he'd give you the antidote, as a good-bye gift. Only, he said it would be too late to do any good." Frank glanced at Mark and away.

Mark opened his eyes at that, and sat up, looking toward the Judge. "This guy is a real piece of work. He doesn't miss any trick does he, to torture you, Hardcase. You can't let him get to you."

Trying so hard to control himself, he was almost shaking, Hardcastle looked over at Mark, studying him silently, thinking that even now, even with the pain and the death sentence hanging over him, the kid was worried about him. "Torturing me? By God, Mark...he's killing you," he finally rasped out past his clenched jaw.

McCormick gazed back at him, until, no longer able to face the pain in the Judge's eyes, he looked away. "I know," he said quietly, then he stood and walked out of the room.

Hardcastle raised a hand, as if he was about to call him back, but then his hand just dropped, and he slumped into his chair, a hand across his eyes.

Frank watched him for a moment, then stood and put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Milt," he said, then turned to leave. At the door he paused for a moment, saying softly, "We'll keep looking...where he lived, his known haunts, and we'll keep following up on his known associates. We won't give up...I'll let you know if we find anything."

Hardcastle nodded, but he didn't take his hand away from his eyes. Nor did he speak. Frank turned and left the house.

********


Hardcastle stood in the doorway, a shaft of light spilling out from behind him across the darkened yard. McCormick had disappeared about half an hour before and the Judge had decided it was time to go look for him. Squinting into the dark, rubbing his arms against the chill air, he finally spotted the long, lithe form leaning against a tree. Mark was standing with his arms crossed, quietly looking up into the sky.

The Judge wondered what was going through the kid's head. McCormick hardly made any reference to what was happening to him, seemed to be trying to carry on as if everything was more or less normal. Except, when he'd get a faraway look in his eyes. As if he was staring into eternity.

And, McCormick was trying to hide how much pain he was in. 'Probably doesn't want to worry me," thought the Judge wearily. Pain. Physical pain. Emotional pain. The kid was trying to deal with it all, without any time to get used to the idea of what was happening to him. It was like being on a roller coaster, when you knew a stretch of track was missing, and you were going to fly into an abyss, but you were helpless to stop it, and didn't even have time to really think about it, and you just tried to hold on.

Hardcastle shook his head, then ambled over to stand beside him. "What are you doing out here, McCormick? It's almost two o'clock in the morning."

Mark glanced at him with a half smile and shrugged. "I don't know, couldn't sleep. Wanted to see the stars...."

He'd been staring up at the sky, wondering where Heaven was, and if it was. And, if it was, would he get to go there. He hadn't lived a perfect life, not by a long shot. But, he wasn't a bad person. He tried not to hurt people. But, he'd killed Weed Randall. Would there be a price to pay for that...a price beyond the memories, and the nightmares and the self loathing he couldn't quite shake?

And, he'd been trying to hold out against the pain. Everything hurt, more than hurt. Sharp daggers of agony kept shooting through him, making him want to double over. But, he didn't want to give in. He was afraid if they went back to the hospital to get some medication, that they might not let him leave again.

God, he was tired. But, he didn't want to waste a moment of time sleeping. He loved this world, and he wanted to be in it, aware of it, for as long as possible. If he fell asleep, he might not wake up again. He didn't want to just slip away. He wanted to know what was happening to him.

The Judge shivered again, and rubbed his arms. "Well, you've seen them. Come back into the house before you catch pneumonia."

McCormick chuckled as he gave Hardcastle an ironic look, "Judge, catching pneumonia isn't really a big worry for me right now."

"I'm sorry, kid, that was a stupid thing to say. I wasn't thinking," he muttered, angry with himself.

Pushing away from the tree, McCormick draped an arm around the older man's shoulder. "Ah, that's alright, Judge. You're old...you can't be expected to remember every little thing," he teased.

Hardcastle harrumphed and pulled away, hating himself that he couldn't seem to accept the kid's attempt at affectionate humour. Even now, with time running out, he couldn't respond with his own feelings. He loved this kid, but he couldn't seem to find a way to tell him. "Shut up, McCormick, I am not old. But, I am cold. Come in...you need to rest."

He turned to leave, but halted when McCormick said softly, "Judge, I can't...."

Turning back, he demanded, "Can't what?"

Mark looked down, again crossing his arms across his chest, as if trying to hold something inside. He shook his head tightly, then finally responded. "Rest, I can't rest." He looked up at the Judge through the unruly curly bangs, his brilliant blue eyes catching the meagre light of the stars. "I'm afraid to go to sleep, Judge. I know it's silly, but," he shivered, then turned away suddenly, leaning hard into the tree, curling a little into himself as he groaned, "Oh god...."

Hardcastle hastened to his side, and put an arm around him, supporting him. "What is it, kid? What's wrong?"

Gritting his teeth, Mark shuddered. "The pain, Judge," he said, his voice tight, "it just keeps getting worse."

Hardcastle pulled Mark toward him, supporting him with a firm grip. "C'mon, we're going to the hospital."

Mark tried to pull away, "No!"

"Yes. You need something for the pain, and you need it now. I'm not going to just stand here and watch you suffer, McCormick!" the Judge argued back, then softened, "Don't worry, kid...I won't leave you there. I'll bring you back home."

"Promise?" Mark asked, hating the fact that he sounded like a scared kid.

"Yeah, I promise. Now, come on."

Leaning heavily against the Judge, Mark let him lead him to the pickup, and help him inside. When the Judge got in and started her up, Mark leaned his head back against the seat, whispering, "Thanks, Judge."

"Sure, kid, just take it easy," he responded quietly, then drove more sedately than usual, trying to keep the ride as smooth as he could so as not to cause the kid any more pain...and also because it's dangerous to drive fast when your vision is blurred with unshed tears.

********


Hardcastle supported Mark into the emergency room and, once there, they put McCormick into a wheelchair and took him straight to the lab. The Judge was surprised to see Dr. Sheridan working over a microscope. She straightened when she realized who had just entered the lab.

"Judge Hardcastle, Mark?" she said, studying her patient intently. "It's getting bad," she said, not waiting for an answer, but turning immediately to go to a cabinet, pull out a syringe and a vial, and then, when she'd filled it, returning to Mark's side. "Roll up your sleeve,' she said. Hardcastle helped Mark push up the sweater's sleeve, then stood back, watching as she looped a band of rubber around Mark's arm, tied it, felt for a vein and inserted the needle in one smooth motion.

Mark looked away from the sight of the needle. He'd always hated them, and he didn't want to disgrace himself by fainting. Hardcase would never let him live it down. Well, maybe he would, just this once. But, if he fainted, they'd admit him. So, he just looked away and gritted his teeth. When she withdrew the needle, she pressed a small wad of cotton on the site, saying, "Hold this."

Mark put his hand over the cotton and pressed down with his fingers, looking up at her. "That'll hold you for the next few hours," she continued, "and we really should get you into a bed."

He just shook his head, biting his lip to suppress a groan as he wondered how long it would take for the medicine to work. Hardcastle rested a hand on his shoulder as he asked the doctor, "Are you making any progress?"

She looked away. "Only if you count finding out a lot about what doesn't work. We're narrowing it down," she sighed, "but that's about all."

Mark looked up at her, a tired grin on his face, "Well, they say, 'if at first you don't succeed,'"

"I know," she finished, "Try, try again. We're not giving up, Mark. There's still time."

McCormick leaned back in the chair, finally relaxing as the pain receded. "Thanks, Doc. I appreciate what you're trying to do." Against Hardcastle's protests, he pushed himself up from the wheelchair. "I guess I'll be seeing you later." Tipping a salute to the technicians in the lab, he forced a smile, "Keep up the good work! And...thanks."

He turned, holding a hand out toward the Judge. Much as he hated to admit it, and refused to use the chair so long as he didn't have to, he still knew he needed some support. Hardcastle moved close, putting an arm around his waist as McCormick looped his arm around the Judge's shoulder. "Home, James," McCormick said with his best patrician accent.

"Don't push it, McCormick," the Judge growled, but his heart wasn't in it. With a nod to the doctor, he helped his friend out of the lab, down the long corridors and finally out of the hospital, to the pickup. He got McCormick settled in the seat, closed the door and then went around the truck to the driver's side. He threw a glance up at the stars, muttering, "I don't ask for much...but the kid deserves better than this. You gotta give him a break." Then he climbed into the truck, and drove back to Gulls' Way.

******


Frank looked up from his paperwork as they entered his office the next morning. "Milt! Mark! I wasn't expecting you," he said as he got up and called out to the work area for someone to bring a chair, which he then made Mark sit on. He laid a hand on Mark's shoulder for a moment, asking softly, "How're you doing?"

Mark looked up him, brows raised, a quizzical smile on his lips, "Oh, I've had better days."

"Yeah," Frank muttered, "I guess you have." He headed back around the desk as Milt leaned up against the wall.

"We just thought we'd drop by to see if you've come up with anything," Hardcastle explained.

"Yeah," Mark chimed in, "and to get him out of the house. He's been pacing around like a lion with a sore tooth." Hardcastle glared at him, then decided to just ignore him, as he turned his gaze back to Frank.

Frank just shook his head dejectedly. "You know I'd call if we found anything. The warden talked to Manning again this morning, asked him to reconsider, but Manning just laughed at him." He winced, as he looked over at Mark, "Sorry, Mark...it was a long shot, but we had to try."

McCormick nodded, "It's all right, Frank. I know everybody's doing everything they can, and I appreciate it. We've just hit a dead end." When the other two shifted uncomfortably, he grimaced, "Sorry, poor choice of words."

"Dammit," Hardcastle burst out, "There must be something we're missing, that we haven't thought of...."

Mark looked up at the clock, which marked the time at 10:01 a.m. "I don't know, Judge, maybe there isn't anything else. Maybe there never was an antidote, and it was just a way to keep us running in circles. Maybe he was the only one who knew the answer." Standing slowly, stiffly, every muscle and joint in his body aching, pain a constant knife in his gut, he turned to Hardcastle, "C'mon, Judge, let's go home. I'm tired."

Solicitous, Hardcastle reached to give him a supporting arm. "Maybe it's time we went to the hospital, kid," he said quietly. Mark had long gone past being pale, to being gray, his face lined with pain.

"No, not yet," McCormick replied as he reached across the desk to shake Frank's hand. "Frank, thanks for your help. Maybe, maybe I'll see you later, okay?"

As he took the young man's hand, and held it in a firm shake, he laid his other hand over their clasped hands, knowing Mark was trying to say good-bye and didn't know how. Frank didn't know how either. "We'll keep trying, Mark."

McCormick gave him a tight, thin lipped smile, then turned and left the office.

Watching him go, Frank cursed under his breath. "Dammit, Milt, I wish there was something more we could be doing!"

"I know, Frank, and so does he," Hardcastle replied heavily as he turned to follow McCormick out, moving slowly, looking old and tired. "See you later."

Mark had gone on ahead, and Hardcastle was alarmed to find him leaning against the outside wall, almost doubled over in pain. "That's it!" he said gruffly, "I'm taking you to the hospital." He reached to pull Mark toward him.

McCormick looked up at him, his curls falling over almost into his eyes. Eyes that were shiny with tears. "No, Judge, please, not yet," he gasped. "Once I go in there, I won't be coming out. I'm not ready for that yet. Please, let's just go home."

Hardcastle looked at the kid, wanting to weep at the pleading tone in McCormick's voice, at seeing him wracked with pain. "Mark, you need something for the pain."

But, McCormick just shook his head. "No," he whispered. "They won't let me leave again. Please, Judge."

Hardcastle pulled the kid to him, holding him against his chest, supporting him. "Okay, kid, whatever you want. C'mon, let's go home."

********


By the time they got back to the house, Mark was laying half curled in the seat, his head down, his eyes closed. Hardcastle didn't know if he was just resting or if he'd passed out. When he pulled into the drive, he turned off the truck and they just sat there silently for a moment, until Mark stirred. "Are you ready to go into the house?" the Judge asked, not sure he should even move him.

Mark pushed himself up and turned to open the pickup's door. "I'd like to go down to the beach for awhile," he said, "If you don't mind giving me a hand."

Hardcastle shook his head, and went around to help him out, then supported him as they moved slowly down the long, sloping yard to the shore. They'd just made it to the sand, when, spotting an outcrop of rock, Mark murmured, "Do you think we could stop here for a minute?" He reached out to grip the rock and leaned against it for a moment, then sank to the ground, his back against it.

Hardcastle knelt beside him, brushing the kid's curls out of his eyes. "We can do anything you want, Mark. We can stay here all afternoon, if that's what you want."

McCormick looked at him, "Thanks, Judge. I'd like that."

Hardcastle sat down in the sand, his knees bent up to his chin, arms crossed over his knees as he stared out to sea. They watched the waves, listened to them crash up on the shore, for a long time. Then, he felt Mark touch his arm, tentatively. He turned immediately, "What is it, Mark? Is there something you need? Is it time to go?"

McCormick shook his head. "Judge, I don't know how to say this, and I know you hate it when I get all mushy, but time is running out and I really want to say a few things, if you'll listen."

Hardcastle looked into those brilliant blue eyes, saw pain where he wished he'd only ever see laughter, and bit his lip. He didn't want to do this, but he knew it was something Mark needed. If he was honest, he knew he needed it, too. He nodded as he looked away. "I'm listening, kid," he finally replied, his voice thick.

McCormick took a deep breath, more like a shuddering sigh. "Judge, I know I've given you a hard time, but, you're the most important person in my life. You gave me a chance, believed in me, trusted me, when there was no reason why you should. Nobody else ever did. You helped me become a person I could be proud of...I know, I haven't done much, I'd've liked to have done more, but at least, I'm not a young, smartmouthed, punk anymore."

Hardcastle, watching him out of the corner of his eye, saw Mark smile at that last comment, and he had to blink hard against the tears in his eyes. "Mark, I....."

"Please, Judge, I'm not done yet." McCormick took another deep breath, fighting the pain, trying to keep his voice steady, to get through this. It was important. "I just want to thank you, Judge." He looked out toward the sea as he continued, "You've been my best friend, more of a father to me than Sonny ever was. I really respect you, and," he said with a rush, "I love you, and I hate how this is hurting you. I want you to promise me that you won't blame yourself for this. Please, Judge, it's important to me." He stopped, shivering, his voice cracking, unable to go on. Embarrassed, he brushed at the tears that had slipped onto his cheeks.

The Judge had looked away while Mark spoke, biting his lip, feeling the tears run down his cheeks. Without looking at Mark, he said quietly, "It's my fault, kid. He did this to you to get back at me." His voice cracked, so he stopped for a moment, to regain some control. "If I could change places with you...."

"I know, Judge, believe me, I know. But, the bastard set us both up. He knew this'd be harder on you than dying yourself. Can't you see, you have to fight it, fight him. I don't want to die knowing you feel responsible, when you're not. He was a killer...and he's killed one last time. You didn't do this, it isn't your fault. God, Judge, please promise me you won't let the miserable bastard win."

The Judge squinted his eyes as he looked up at the sky, seeking strength. "This is tearing me apart, kid." He paused, sniffed, cleared his throat. "You're young, McCormick, you should have years. You're a good kid, decent, brave. I couldn't be prouder of you, than if you were my own son...." His voice broke, and he put a hand over his eyes, his body trembling with emotion.

"Ah, Judge, don't...." McCormick said, as he turned and wrapped his arms around the older man. "It's alright. Really. Well, not really, I guess," he said with a crazy half chuckle, "I don't want to die, but it's not like I don't know lots of people on the other side...I'll be alright. We've done all we could." He rested his forehead against the Judge's shoulder. He didn't want to tell the Judge his vision was going, that touch was fast becoming the only way he had of making contact.

Hardcastle turned his head, so that his cheek rested against McCormick's hair. He frowned, wishing this came easier, wanting so much to say what was so hard for him to say. "You know how I feel...." he muttered.

"Yeah, Hardcase...I know you love me, too," Mark said with a soft laugh, teasing.

But, he smiled when he felt the Judge's head nod, in the affirmative. "Yeah, kid, I do," he finally managed to choke out, his voice not much more than a hoarse whisper.

Mark just hugged him harder, and said quietly, "That's why I want you to promise me, Judge, that you won't remember me with grief or guilt. I want you to remember me for the pain in the butt that I've been all these years. My smart mouth, and my stubbornness, okay?"

The Judge nodded again. Licking his lips, determined to do this, to tell McCormick something of what the kid meant to him, he said quietly, "Okay, kid, I can promise I'll remember your mouthiness, and your teasing...and the way you always covered my back, even when you thought I was crazy. I'll remember how you never let me down...and that I've never trusted anyone more."

"Yeah, Batman and Robin, right?"

"Right."

Mark pushed himself away from the Judge to lean back on the rockface. He knew he was losing it. The pain was so bad it was hard to even breathe anymore, and the world was growing dark. "Okay," he whispered. "Just remember, you don't keep your word, I'm gonna haunt you...."

Hardcastle heard the different note in his voice, and frightened, he turned to look at McCormick, just in time to catch the younger man as he doubled over, unable to suppress the moan of pain any longer.

"Mark!" he cried, pulling the man into his arms. "C'mon, kid, hang on!"

Panting, trying to get his breath, Mark looked up at the Judge, trying to see his face, "I think, it's time to go to the hospital. I...can't...fight it anymore." He curled up, moaning, "It hurts, Judge...it hurts so bad...."

"I know, kid. Look, just hang on. I'm going to call an ambulance...I'll be right back." When Mark nodded, gritting his teeth, the Judge laid him gently on the sand, then rose and ran back to the house. Mark laid curled on the beach, listening to waves he could no longer see roll into shore.

********


The high pitch whine of the siren sounded far away to McCormick as the ambulance sped toward the hospital. He could feel the Judge gripping his hand tightly, could hear him murmuring, "Hold on, son, please hold on."

"Missing something," Mark murmured, only semiconscious, but feeling as if the answer was just in front of him, if he could only reach out and touch it.

"Shh, Mark, don't talk," soothed the Judge, brushing his hair back from his face. God, his skin felt so cold.

"Going to give to you....." he muttered, struggling to understand.

Hardcastle watched the grim struggle, wishing he had a way to make this easier for the kid.

"How does a...dead man...give you something?" Mark mumbled, worrying at the puzzle in his mind, chasing the question around and around on an endless loop, one part of his mind realizing that he wasn't making sense. "Judge?" he whispered, wishing it wasn't so dark, so cold....

"I'm here, Mark, it's alright, son...." But, it wasn't all right. It would never be all right. Hardcastle bent his head over Mark's body, holding onto his hand as if he was holding onto Mark's life, anchoring it, not letting it go, Mark's words echoing in his mind. How does a dead man give you something?

Suddenly, just as the ambulance pulled into the emergency entrance, Hardcastle's head snapped up. "My God...that's it!" he said. The doors of the ambulance popped open, and they were pulling the stretcher out, pulling Mark away from him.

He jumped out, and ran along side, calling to the orderlies to stop. They looked at him like he was crazy, but they slowed enough for him to clutch at Mark's hand, and bend down, calling to him. "Don't let go, kid! You hear me! I know where it is...the antidote. I'm going to go get it and you'd better still be here when I get back. You hear me? Mark!"

Mark's glazed eyes stared up sightlessly, but he blinked as he whispered, a trace of a last faint smile on his lips, "Yeah...I'll try...."

"You'd better do more than try, McCormick! Don't you dare quit on me!" He let go of Mark's hand then and ran to the phone, pulling a quarter from his pocket. Desperate, he punched in the numbers, impatient until he heard the voice he wanted. "Frank! It's Milt. I figured it out. Manning's lawyer, Bellows, James Bellows. He's got an office over on Piedmont. Meet me there. Hurry, Frank! The kid's... he's not gonna last much longer." Not waiting for an answer, Hardcastle slammed the phone down and ran toward the rank of taxicabs.

********


Bellows was a highly successful trial lawyer, which meant he didn't have a personal life. Just as the Judge suspected, his office was open and he was working, along with innumerable law clerks and assistants even though it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Frank's car, siren blaring, pulled up just as Hardcastle was throwing money at the cab driver. They jogged into the building, their sense of urgency palpable.

"Milt, what's going on? What did you mean, that you'd figured it out?"

Pressing the elevator button, Hardcastle looked up, watching the lights, impatient. "How does a dead man give you something, Frank?" he asked.

"How does...." Frank frowned, and then his face cleared. "A bequest!"

"Bingo!" said Hardcastle as the elevator door opened. They rushed in and pushed the button.

When the elevator doors opened, Hardcastle virtually blew past them, storming into Bellow's suite of offices. "Bellows," he called loudly, not standing on ceremony, "Jim! I have to talk to you!"

Bellows came out of the boardroom, frowning, "What is going on out here? Milton? What are you doing here?"

Milton took Bellow's arm, drawing him down the hall toward his office. "It's an emergency, life and death. I need your help."

Bellows looked from Hardcastle to Frank Harper, as he pulled his arm from the Judge's grip. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about Sandy Manning. Are you administering his estate?"

The lawyer frowned, a distasteful look on his face, "The man's body is hardly cold, Milt. What could possibly be so important for you to storm in here like this?"

Hardcastle sighed. "He had a friend of mine poisoned to punish me. He's going to die in the next few hours if I don't find the antidote. Manning told the warden he was giving it to me, as a parting gift. So, I need to know if there's a bequest in his will for me. And I need to know now."

Bellows shook his head. "Milt, you know how it works. The will goes to probate...."

"I don't have time for that! Is there a bequest for me or not?" Hardcastle was trying very hard not to shout, but he was losing the battle.

Harper joined in. "Milt's right...a good man named Mark McCormick is going to die if you don't help us."

Bellows looked from one to the other and nodded. His role was to protect his client's interests, even after death. But, he knew the manner of man his client had been...and he was not about to be party to a game which cost another man his life. Moving to the safe in the credenza of his office, he knelt to punch in the combination. "He left a small package, which he said wasn't to be delivered to you until forty-eight hours after his death." Reaching in, Bellows sorted past several envelopes and parcels, then pulled out one that was three by five inches, wrapped in brown paper. Handing it to Hardcastle, he said, "I swear, I have no idea what's in there, but I hope it's what you're looking for."

The Judge ripped off the paper, muttering, "So do I." Inside was a velvet box and a note. He opened the box and sighed with relief when he saw a small vial. "Thank God!" he said, nodding to Bellows, and signalling Frank with his head that they they had what they needed and it was time to go.

The two men ran down the hallway and into the elevator a clever law clerk, sensing the urgency, had put on hold. Hardcastle read the note as the elevator descended. "This is my gift, Hardcastle. I hope it only brings you pain."

Hardcastle just rolled his eyes as he crumpled it up and threw it on the floor, and they bolted from the elevator on the ground floor. Once they were in Frank's car, he turned on the siren as Frank wheeled away from the curb, roaring toward the hospital.

********


Frank had radioed ahead, so Dr. Sheridan was waiting for them at the entrance. She took the package from Hardcastle and led the way to McCormick, who was lying on a bed in a curtained corner of the Intensive Care Unit. He was surrounded by tubes and machines that hummed and beeped softly, measuring the pace of his heart and respirations, and which pushed fluids into his body, while taking other fluids away.

Hardcastle rushed to his friend's side and caught up Mark's hand as he leaned over him. "McCormick? Can you hear me?" Impatiently, he brushed back the curls, and shivered at the coldness of McCormick's skin. When there was no response, he looked up at the doctor, who was injecting a small amount of the purported antidote into the intravenous tube.

"He slipped into a coma just after you brought him in," she said when she'd finished. The Judge groaned, remembering she'd said it was unlikely McCormick could be brought back once the poison had this strong a hold on his body.

The Judge had noted the small amount in the syringe. "Is that all you're giving him?" he demanded.

She nodded. "We don't know what it is, or how much he should have. For all we know, it's more of the poison. Normally, I would never just inject something like this, but," she looked down at the silent figure in the bed, "he hasn't got time for us to run the usual, necessary tests. If this doesn't work, he'll die in the next hour or so. Even if it is the antidote, it may be too late."

Hardcastle eyes skittered away from her's as he sank onto a chair by McCormick's bed. He turned haunted eyes onto Mark's face, and he gripped the kid's hand with both of his own. She gazed at him with sympathy, before turning to leave. "I'll take this to the lab and see what we've got. If it doesn't kill him in the next fifteen minutes, I'll be back to give him more."

Hardcastle just nodded, but he didn't take his eyes from Mark's face. Frank touched him lightly on the shoulder, murmuring that he'd be outside if Milt needed him. Hardcastle didn't even notice him go.

Leaning closer to Mark, he said, "You have to hear me, McCormick. You promised me you'd hang on. We've got the antidote, do you hear? You can't quit on me now...not now that we're so close. Please, kid, please, you gotta fight."

But, there was no response. Mark lay silent and unmoving, his breathing laboured, the skin around his lips blue. The Judge leaned forward, raising Mark's hand in his own clasp, and rested his forehead against the hands. "Please, God," he whispered hoarsely, "Don't take him yet. Give him a chance to live. He's a good kid...he never deserved this.... Please."

********


Dr. Sheridan returned fifteen minutes later and injected another small portion of the antidote into the intravenous tube. She checked McCormick's pulse, noted his respirations, the continued pallor. She shone a light into his eyes, but the pupils were already pinpoint in reaction to the poison, so it was hard to determine if there was any new reaction. His limbs were still flaccid. He didn't seem to be coming out of the coma. She looked across the bed at the Judge, who watched her with hope filled eyes. Keeping her face clear of expression, she said simply, "We'll know soon."

She left quietly, nodding to Frank, who was hovering in the doorway.

They waited as the seconds and minutes crawled past. One hour, and then two. He'd last longer than he would have without the antidote, but there was no way of knowing if it could pull him back, or whether it was just delaying the inevitable.

So, they waited and listened to his breathing, willing it to continue. After a while, they noticed his breathing had softened, was no longer laboured...sounded like it was hardly there at all. Alarmed, Hardcastle stood up, staring at Mark's face. "C'mon kid," he muttered, "You're gonna be alright, you hear me!" Anxiously, he watched the machines, saw the lines falter, heard the beeps become irregular.

Frank had come into the room, and Milt threw him a haunted look, when both their eyes were drawn back to Mark's face when they heard a soft sigh. They both held their breath, Hardcastle squeezing Mark's hand tightly, unconsciously, not willing to let him go, waiting for him to breathe again. It seemed an eternity but was only a moment in time.

"Please, Mark," the Judge said softly, "breathe."

A long moment later, he sighed again, softly. They let themselves breathe, but Milt still held onto his hand.

Another hour passed, and they were daring to hope when Mark flat lined, a steady highpitched drone coming from the machine. In seconds, the area was a hive of urgent activity. Staff raced in with a crash cart, pushing Frank and Hardcastle aside. One nurse hopped up on the bed, starting CPR while another tilted his head back, to intubate him, sliding a long, curved metal instrument into his throat, and following it with a tube which was linked to an oxygen pump.

Dr. Sheridan raced in and grabbed paddles from the machine, while the nurse on the bed hopped off to make room. "Clear!" the doctor yelled then placed the paddles on Mark's chest, the bolt of electricity arcing his body off the bed. The steady drone didn't change. "Again, clear!" and his body convulsed again. Still no response. "50 cc's adrenaline!" snapped Dr. Sheridan, then grabbing the syringe, she plunged it into Mark's chest, into his heart. Again, she grabbed up the paddles. "Clear!". This time, when Mark's body relaxed after the convulsion, the heart monitor took up a steady beat. She nodded and sighed. They'd gotten him back.

The staff cleared out the equipment, and soon only one nurse was left, monitoring the instruments. Throughout it all, Hardcastle had leaned back against the wall, his arms tightly crossed over his chest, his face gray. Tears of fear had gathered in his eyes. Tears of relief now coursed down his cheeks. Frank had stood beside him, one hand firmly holding onto the Judge's shoulder, feeling the older man trembling under his grip.

Dr. Sheridan came to stand in front of them. "You should get some rest. We'll watch him closely, call you if anything changes." She was alarmed by the Judge's colour and evident exhaustion and didn't want two patients on her hands.

Hardcastle never took his eyes from Mark's face. He just shook his head. He wasn't going anywhere. Nothing and no one was going to make him leave McCormick's side. She shook her head, but let it go. Maybe it was better that he stayed. He likely wouldn't rest anyway. "Talk to him," she said. "The sound of your voice may help lead him back."

Hardcastle nodded, and went back to the bed. Taking Mark's hand in his own, he again sat by the bed, and began to talk quietly, reminiscing about their adventures, talking about old cases, telling the kid work was piling up at home so he'd better snap out of this soon, or he'd never get caught up on the chores. He talked until he was hoarse, and then Frank talked for a while.

Another three hours passed. They hadn't been able to think of anything to say for the past half hour. The Judge just kept a death grip on Mark's hand, not daring to let him go. Afraid if he did, the kid would slip away.

The silence changed, when Mark sighed heavily. They raised their heads, listening. Studying his face. Watching the machines.

"Hurts," McCormick whispered, his voice barely more than a wisp of breath, making both men jump to their feet and lean over him anxiously, but almost giddy with mingled hope and relief to hear him speak.

"What hurts, kid? What do you need?" the Judge asked, brushing Mark's hair back off his face with his free hand. McCormick's eyes flickered, blinked.

"My hand," Mark murmured, a little more strongly, as he winced and his eyes flickered open. "Would you let go before something breaks!" He managed a slight grin, "I need it...for clipping the hedges...."

Startled, the Judge loosened his grip, and grinned like a mad fool when McCormick winked at him. "Hey, Judge, am I haunting you?" he asked weakly, more than a little surprised to find himself still alive.

"I should be so lucky," the Judge growled. "No McCormick, it looks like you're too damned stubborn to die."

The smile faded back to the faint grin. "Wonder who I learned that from?" he mumbled, then closed his eyes, slipping into a natural sleep.

Frank pounded Hardcastle on the back, as they both sniffed and blinked hard, broad grins lighting both their faces.

*********


The next morning, Mark was already propped up on the bed, flirting with the nurses, when Hardcastle stomped in, looking as irascible as ever. "So, you gonna lie around here forever, McCormick? I swear you'll do anything to get out of a little work!"

"Judge!" Mark grinned, his eyes alight, "I was wondering when you were going to show up and bail me out of here!"

"Hummphhh," the Judge snorted. "You seem to have convinced that Dr. Sheridan that you need another day or two of shameless pampering."

His eyes twinkling, Mark lazed back on the bed. "Yeah, well, the doctor knows best, Hardcase. Guess you'll just have to manage without your favourite slave for another few days."

"Yeah, looks like it," Hardcastle responded as he pulled the chair over to the side of the bed and sat down. "How're you feeling, kid?"

"Okay," McCormick shrugged. "Really, Judge, I feel fine. Don't worry."

"Worry? Who's worried? Do I look worried?" But, he turned away before Mark could see the shadow in his eyes when he remembered those terrible moments when they'd almost lost him.

"Well, maybe not now...but you looked plenty worried yesterday. You remember, on the beach, when you told me how proud you are of me, and what a great guy I am. I was touched, Judge. Really touched. I always knew that deep down under that skin of leather, and in that heart of stone, I always knew you loved me!"

Hardcastle snorted. "Grow up, McCormick. I only said all that stuff because I felt sorry for you. If I'd've known we'd find the antidote, I wouldn't have bothered."

"Really? You are so full of it!" Mark exclaimed, his eyebrows up, and his eyes dancing, "Those tears sure looked real. I didn't know you were such a great actor, Judge...you could have a whole new career on the stage!"

"Yeah, well, I'm a man of many talents," Hardcastle murmured modestly.

McCormick laughed outright at that. "That you are, Judge," he grinned, "that you are!"

Hardcastle opened up the paper bag he'd brought along and threw a sack of popcorn at McCormick as he reached for the remote to the television which had been installed at his request earlier that morning.

"Shut up, McCormick! There's a good movie on....John Wayne!" Hardcastle grumped, trying hard not to grin.

"Ah yes, our hero!" McCormick snickered. "Wouldn't want to miss it!"

"Shhh! It's Rio Bravo, and it's great! You're going to love it!" Hardcastle glared at him, then settled back, tossing some popcorn into his mouth.

"Oh yeah, right, of course I will," McCormick replied straight faced, then blew it by snickering.

"Of course you will," Hardcastle affirmed, grinning to himself.

"Hey, Kemo Sabe," McCormick said in a loud stage whisper.

"What?" snapped Hardcastle, turning to face him.

"Thanks." Mark had heard how Hardcastle had raced in with the antidote, and how he'd sat with him through the long endless hours while he'd hovered between life and death. His tone was playful, but the look in his eyes told the Judge all he wanted to hear.

"Don't mention it, kid. Even the Lone Ranger needs a sidekick, and I'd hate to start all over breaking in a new one! Now, shut up and eat your popcorn!" Hardcastle did grin then, when McCormick threw popcorn at him, then they settled back to watch the movie.

They'd both pretend nothing much had happened, that everything had gone back to the way it was. But, they'd both said things that neither would ever forget...nor did they ever want to.


**Finis**



BACK to the Hardcastle & McCormick Fan Fiction Page.
1