Author's note: A special thanks to Jaz for the beta and for lending me a certain celestial being.
Milton C. Hardcastle stood in the front door of the main house, the screen pressed against his nose, as he craned his neck looking for signs of life over at the gatehouse. "It's 11:00am McCormick. What's the problem?" he mumbled aloud, wondering if it was just about time he went over there and roused the kid from his slumber.
It's not like they had made plans for today. It was two weeks before Christmas, and they had been going all out for the last few days, traipsing all over greater Los Angeles looking for Henry Willard's stash of stolen money. With that mystery finally wrapped up and Henry and his cat all settled in their new apartment, the Lone Ranger and Tonto were due for some well-deserved down time. McCormick had done more than his share, as usual, and had certainly earned at least one day of sleeping in. The retired judge harrumphed loudly and returned to the den, just as the phone started to ring.
McCormick sat at his desk in the gatehouse, head held firmly in his hands. The phone was pinned to his ear by his shoulder and he was trying desperately to get his point across to someone on the other end that just didn't seem to understand.
"Pink. Yes, pink, not that depressing gray. You have the size; now read me back what I said." He listened for a moment. "Yes, that's correct. I understand. I'll send the payment out today. Thank you."
He cradled the receiver and sighed. This little project was long overdue, but he was so glad it was finally in the works. He was filing away a stack of brochures when the judge came thru the door, bellowing his usual greeting.
"McCormick?" the judge yelled, not as loudly as Mark thought he deserved, given that it was so late in the morning and he hadn't shown up for breakfast.
Mark started shuffling papers, hastily shoving them into his top desk drawer. "Yeah, Judge, I'm here. Sorry it's taking me so long to get going this morning. I had some stuff to take care of." He finished 'filing' and started down the stairs.
"Anything I need to know about?" Milt asked, curiosity and then concern evident in his eyes.
"Nah. Just Christmas stuff. You do celebrate Christmas, don't you Judge?" he asked, grabbing his sneakers on the way down the stairs.
Hardcastle made himself at home at the small table, grabbing an orange and starting to peel. "Yeah, wise-guy, I do, although not like I used to. But you're here now and we'll figure out something".
Mark gave that some thought. A year ago he would have never thought he'd be spending the holiday with a retired judge, let alone the one who sent him to prison. He spent the last two Christmas' in San Quentin, courtesy of the man in front of him and the State of California. Shaking his head, he smiled and pulled on his shoes.
"You know, Judge, it's still really hard for me to believe that your crazy idea has paid off, but it has - and I think we're doing some good out there."
The sincerity in the kid's voice caused the judge to stop mid-chew. He thought of a number of snappy comebacks, but instead let a smile spread from his eyes on down. "Ya think so, do ya? I think so too." He sectioned his orange and handed a piece to his young friend.
Mark sat down at the table, accepting the offer. They chewed in silence for a bit, each lost in their own thoughts. Hardcastle broke the reverie with a statement.
"Frank just called."
He watched McCormick closely, looking for any sign of guilt or panic. He was getting pretty good at reading the kid. His expressions were a dead giveaway.
McCormick looked up at the judge and sighed. "Not another case already. It's almost Christmas. I was hoping for some time off."
Hardcastle popped another orange wedge in his mouth and continued. "He was wondering if you were okay. Seemed to think something was wrong with you, maybe you might be going to 'The Big Hunting Ground in the Sky' sometime soon."
Mark furrowed his brow, trying to think why Frank would assume such a thing. A second later realization dawned on him, and he smiled.
"Poor Frank. He must have seen me yesterday afternoon." He got up and started back up the stairs.
"Where were you yesterday afternoon?" Hardcastle asked, trying to remember what went on yesterday.
Mark fished around in the top drawer of this desk, found what he needed and came back down.
"Yesterday, when I was over in Santa Monica picking up a new tail light bulb for the 'Vette, I stopped in at Fergusson's Monuments." He handed the judge a granite headstone brochure and once again sat down. "Frank must have seen me go in."
Hardcastle glanced at the brochure and handed it back to Mark. "Well, if that's what you're thinkin' of getting me for Christmas, kid, I appreciate the thought, but I've already got a headstone and a plot. I'm all set."
Mark fingered the brochure in his hand. "It's not for you, Judge, or for me. It's for my mom."
Hardcastle nodded and leaned back in his chair. "She died when you were a kid," he said, hoping the lead-in would encourage Mark to continue.
"Yeah, well, old enough to know what was going on. When she died, there wasn't anyone to take care of all the details proper-like." He looked down at his hands, turning the brochure over and folding it in half.
Hardcastle sensed the direction he was going and continued for him. "So she was buried in a potter's field, probably donated by the church. It's okay, McCormick. Happens all the time."
Mark shifted in his seat. "To me, it was just one more thing. One more thing that reminded me…" His voice trailed off, and he threw the brochure on the table. That you're a loser. He thought about that for a second. "It doesn't matter now. Anyway, I would go visit her after school sometimes. There was nothing there to remind anyone that she ever existed; no stone, no nothing. Just a little cement rectangle in the ground with her name and date. That first winter I couldn't even find her. Everything was covered with snow. So one day the following spring I stopped at the park on my way to the cemetery and dug up a little pine tree. I lugged that thing all the way to North Bergen and planted it on her plot." He smiled, shaking his head. "I figured that way I'd be able to find her in the winter, and it would look like a Christmas tree. She loved Christmas." He paused, lost in the memory.
"Pretty stupid, huh," Mark said quietly, looking away. The far-off look turned to disappointment.
Hardcastle watched as the young man looked as though he was trying to remember something that was eluding him. He gave him a second, and then replied, "Nope. Not stupid at all. So you're gonna finally get her a proper head stone. She'd appreciate that." Milt's heart ached for the kid. It was no wonder Mark rarely spoke of his past.
The ex-con looked down and away, studying his hands. "The Christmas before I left for Florida, I went to visit her one last time. The tree had grown a bit and it did look just like a Christmas tree. So I brought this angel I had given her for Christmas when I was little and I put it on top of that tree. I thought her angel would watch over her while I was gone, and I promised her that when I could, I'd get her a stone. Trouble was, years later when I had the money my priorities were all screwed up. Work and racing somehow got in the way, and I never kept my promise. I always felt badly about that." He shook his head sadly, his gaze never leaving his hands.
"It's never too late to keep a promise, kid. I think it's a great idea." He smiled, running a finger across his nose.
Mark looked at him, a small smile spreading across his face. "You think so? It'll take me awhile to pay it off. But I really feel like I'm accomplishing something lately. I'm saving some money, and I've made my first payment on it. Only three more to go. Hopefully in the spring they can install it. I'd like to be there when they do." He hesitated and then added, "You think…"
Hardcastle cut him off mid-sentence. "Sure. I'll even go with ya. You can show me around your old stomping ground. I hear they have good pizza in Jersey." He stood up to go, collecting his orange peels.
Mark leaned back in his chair and grinned. "Thanks, Judge," he said quietly.
The older man turned around and waved him off. "She's your mom, McCormick. She did a good job raising you, and I bet that was no easy task. She deserves to be remembered." He turned to go, then stopped. "I better go call Frank, let him know you're not dying any time soon. Poor guy." With a smile he winked and let himself out the front door.
"You're something else, Hardcastle," Mark replied, closing his eyes and smiling to himself. Then he laughed and looked up.
"You've got your angel, Ma, and I've got mine."
Far back in the corner of Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey stood a tree. It was tall and scrawny, but stood straight and proud, each bow bending under the weight of the newly fallen snow. On top, barely visible and nestled in years of growth, was the figure of an angel, worn from years of wind and weather but still standing guard, waiting for the fulfillment of a boy's promise.