Disclaimer: The characters do not belong to me and no profit is being made.

Author's note: Yet another answer to Owl's story challenge.

One Step Closer

By Ceebee

"Judge? Judge!"

Mark McCormick bounded in the back door of the main house, wondering where the elusive Milton C. Hardcastle- bossman and slave driver extraordinaire had gotten off too. It was a beautiful Saturday morning—way to nice to be holed up in the den going over new cases and boring files. And that wasn't the judge's usual M.O anyway, as far as Mark could tell. He hadn't been around the estate all that long before he realized the judge had a routine: early morning basketball, coffee by the pool, and then, if the weather was nice, some outside chores—or the assigning of some outside chores for the judge's newest ex-con.

He made his way thru the house, concern etched where his laugh lines should have been. It wasn't like the judge to disappear this early in the morning. He checked the den and then stopped at the bottom of the stairs in the foyer.

"Hey, Hardcase!" He yelled from the bottom step. He listened intently, but heard no reply.

"Where could that ol' donkey have gone?" he said to himself, remembering that both the 'vette and the truck were parked in the driveway. He thought about going upstairs, but having only been a resident of Gulls Way for a little over 2 weeks, he didn't feel all that comfortable poking around in a part of the house he hadn't been invited into just yet. As he turned to go, he heard the 'ting' of something metal dropping on the floor above, followed by a long line of expletives gradually getting louder and more emphatic. McCormick winced.

"You alright up there?" he yelled cautiously, stepping onto the first step.

"I can't get this damn thing—"a gruff voice mumbled, not directed at anyone in particular.

Mark walked up another step.

"What'cha doing, Hardcase?"

Still hesitant to go where he wasn't invited, Mark waited, listening. Upon hearing another line of expletives, McCormick ventured up a few more steps. Finally he yelled, "I'm coming up", fully expecting the judge to start hollering at him. But the denial never came, so Mark shrugged and climbed the remainder of the flight.

When he reached the landing, he looked both ways, trying his best to determine from whence the cussing originated. He peaked around the corner into the only bedroom with the door open. Inside he could hear the echo of the judge's voice—quietly talking to himself.

Mark cautiously entered the room and approached the open bathroom door.

"What's the matter, Judge? Can't get your comb over to stay put this morning? If I were you, I'd try a little of that new fangled hair gel—"

"Shut up, McCormick. Don't you have some weeds to pull or something?" the judge groused, distracted with the task at hand.

The older man's face was puckered into a squint, carefully eyeing his right thumb, drawing it farther and farther away from his body in an effort to see something….something apparently very small and elusive. Scattered haphazardly on the vanity was every first aid supply known to man, including a few things McCormick didn't recognize.

"What happened?" Mark asked, leaning on the door frame, taking in the messy scene before him.

"Nothing, McCormick," the judge growled, tilting his head back and peering down his nose at his red, swollen thumb.

" I… just …can't….see…..the…..damn….thing…..there it is!" and with that, he grabbed for the tweezers with his left hand, knocking them onto the floor behind the toilet.

"Oh, for Pete's sake" he frowned, frustrated.

"Here, let me get that for you—" Mark started, but was stopped almost immediately by an angry bellow from the judge.

"NO! Go back out and finish the lawn. Better yet, go finish putting up that trellis you were supposed to do yesterday—"

"Judge, that trellis needs to be sanded and painted. It's all rough and full of—"

"Splinters. Now you tell me," Hardcastle finished, settling down a bit, remembering why the job didn't get done yesterday as planned.

Mark continued. "You knew what happened yesterday, judge-the flat tire on the way to the hardware store to get the sandpaper—I spent the afternoon fixing the fool thing. Is that where you got the splinter? You tried to do the trellis yourself? I would've gotten to it today—"

"Ya, well, I forgot about the truck. Anyhow, leave me alone and go sand that stupid thing." He reached behind the toilet, trying to locate the tweezers. Mark stood there, shaking his head. He certainly was a stubborn donkey.

"Judge, let me help you. Here—" He finagled his lithe body around the judge, reaching way over the other side of the toilet and retrieving the wayward tweezers. Hardcastle grabbed them out of his hand and proceeded to eyeball the splinter once again. Mark shook his head in frustration.

"C'mon, Hardcase. You have to sterilize those. Lemme just see—" He tried to get a closer look, but Hardcastle pulled his hand away.

"I'm fine, I told you. I can take out my own slivers. Been doing it for years." His voice held a prideful air, one that told Mark to back off and just leave the ol' geezer to his own devices. But as he watched Milt struggle to see the tiny piece of wood in his already irritated thumb, Mark just couldn't leave it be.

"Judge, I can get that out for you, and I guarantee you won't feel a thing. They used to say I had the best set of hands in the Tri-State area."

Hardcase dubiously looked up at McCormick.

"I don't think they were referring to your skill with a tweezers—more like hot wiring a car or pulling a B and E—."

"Well, whatever. I'm still steady as a surgeon. C'mon, judge. Just lemme give it a shot."

Hardcastle stood there, undecided. He had been trying to get this stupid thing out for awhile now, managing only to irritate it more. But the thought of allowing Mark McCormick, his most recent x-con in residence come near him with any kind of sharp object just sent red flags flying in his head.

"No."

Mark crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back against the door frame, a confused look on his face.

"I won't hurt you, Hardcase. Really, I won't. I just want to help." He said sincerely.

The judge looked at him long and hard. "Gotta start trustin' the kid at some point" he thought to himself. His desire to get on with his day finally won out and he sighed. Reluctantly, he handed over the tweezers and looked away.

Mark smiled. "Trust me, judge. You won't feel a thing. Now let me see that bad boy."

Hardcastle held up the affected digit and scowled. Mark gave it a quick look and decided his plan of action.

"Gotta needle?" Mark asked, surveying the myriad of supplies strewn about the countertop. The judge fished one out of a little tin and handed it to Mark, who promptly lit a match and held it under the business end of the tiny sewing implement. When he was satisfied with the blackness of the tip, he blew out the match and gently but firmly took Hardcastle's hand in his. Hardcastle winced, but didn't say a word.

"How'd you do this again? On the trellis?" Mark commented as a diversion, while slowly working his magic on the offending wood sliver.

"I told you—I…." Hardcastle never finished his sentence. Before he knew it, McCormick had the nasty splinter out and was holding up the needle with the little wood piece hanging from the tip. The judge stood amazed.

"Ah…I must've loosened it up for ya." He said, running some water over the now bleeding thumb.

"I told you I wouldn't hurt you" Mark said quietly, shaking his head and reaching for the band-aid box. He chose an appropriate sized strip, opened the wrapper and held it out as Milt dried off his thumb.

"Might take me awhile to learn that, kiddo. You know what they say—once you've been burned, you tend to stay away from the fire". He accepted the band-aid and wrapped it securely around his thumb.

Mark shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to walk away. "I know that better than anyone, Hardcase," he replied and headed for the stairs, the judge trailing behind.

"Than I guess we both have something to work on." He smiled as he looked at his neatly wrapped finger. "Feels better already" he commented, following McCormick out the door and down the stairs.

Mark stopped at the front door and handed Hardcastle a pair of work gloves he had left on the foyer table. "Wanna help with the trellis? This time, use the gloves."

Hardcastle smiled, taking the proffered protection.

"Now yer cookin'."

Finis.