Same old—not my characters, just having fun.



CHAPTER 1: The Disappearance

Hardcastle was awakened by the ringing phone. A quick glance at the clock found him bolting upright in bed. Calls at 4:00 in the morning were never good. He went to bed before Mark arrived home from his date, and his first thoughts were for his young friend.

He answered the phone a bit gruffly, reflecting his concern, "Hardcastle here."

"Milt, oh Milt, I'm sorry to bother you…but have you heard from Frank?" It was Claudia Harper's frantic voice on the phone.

"Claudia? Claudia, what's the matter?" The Judge felt no relief to find out the call wasn't about McCormick. Frank was one of his oldest and closest friends, and the emotion evident in his wife's voice was equally concerning.

He heard her take a deep breath and slowly let it out. When she continued, she sounded only the slightest bit calmer, "Milt, I'm sorry. Um, Frank called earlier tonight and said he'd be home by midnight. I fell asleep, and when I woke up he still wasn't home. I figured maybe he got caught up in a case—or maybe he was working with you. When I called the station, they told me he checked out at 11:15. That was nearly 5 hours ago."

The Judge ran his hand over his face and sighed. "I'm sure it's nothing Claudia, but I'll make a few phone calls. How 'bout Mark and I come over?"

"Oh Milt, do you mind? I'm worried sick."

"Of course we don't mind, Claudia—we'll be right over. Frank'll probably be home by the time we get there." Hardcastle spoke with a confidence he didn't quite feel.

As soon as he hung up, he dialed the gatehouse. He was pleased to hear the groggy voice on the other end; at least Mark was where he was supposed to be. Without any preamble he fired into the phone "Hey, kid, get dressed and meet me in the garage. We're going to Frank's house."

Mark was immediately awake sensing the tone in Hardcastle's voice, "What's the matter, Judge? Is Frank okay? Claudia?"

"Don't know. Maybe nothing, but Frank didn't make it home tonight." The Judge heard a muffled damn before the phone was hung up with no further response.

Walking out the back door, the Judge noted absently that the warm ocean breeze that greeted him was in diametric opposition to the chill of his mood. McCormick was already in the garage tying his shoes when he arrived. Pulling out his keys and heading around the Coyote to the driver's side, Mark spoke quickly, "I'll drive."

"Nah, we better take the truck," the Judge relented. "We may need the 3rd seat." The last part was said quietly but Mark understood the implication.

On the drive to the Harper household, Milt reviewed what little information he had.


Frank tried to open his eyes. He was still in darkness. He listened carefully, and was only able to detect a few faint noises. A low humming, something that sounded like a fan, and an intermittent drip—most likely from a faucet. No other clues were forthcoming.

And his head was splitting.


Hardcastle and McCormick pulled into the Harper's driveway and both took a nervous look around as they climbed out of the truck. Claudia was waiting with the door open—the disappointment on her face indicating her hope that the car was her wayward husband returning home.

She ran into the Judge's arms, her eyes still red from crying, and clung to him as they walked into the house and headed directly for the kitchen. With Claudia seated at the table, the Judge went for the phone while Mark began to make some coffee.

Mark sat at the table with Claudia while the coffee brewed, trying to keep an ear open to the Judge's conversation with the precinct. Claudia, was an experienced 'cop's wife.' She was from the Jersey shore, where her father and two of her brothers were on the force. She understood, but had never been in this position before. Frank had been hurt on the job in the past, and had even been shot while attending a monthly poker game at the retired jurist's home. She had never, however, not known Frank's whereabouts.

The conversation on the phone had ended, and Mark met the Judge's eyes and watched him take a deep breath. The Judge raised his eyebrows showing his exasperation and joined them at the table. When he didn't offer any immediate information, both Mark and Claudia became alarmed.

"Milt, just tell me. Where's Frank?" It was Claudia who found her voice first.

"Claudia, nobody has heard from Frank." He waited a breath and then continued slowly, knowing the next piece of information would change the intensity of the conversation. "Frank's car is still in the lot at headquarters, but nobody has seen him."

"Dear God, Milt, what does that mean?"

The Judge ran his hand over his face and replied quietly, "I'm sorry, I just don't know."

Mark stood abruptly, drawing attention away from the stalled conversation, "I'm heading down to the station. I want to take a look at his car. Maybe they missed something."

The Judge recognized Mark's need to do something—to not feel helpless. Over the past three years, Milt had watched Mark and Frank's relationship grow to one of mutual respect and friendship. They frequently met for lunch or took in a ballgame—especially when Claudia was visiting with her family. Milt was glad for their relationship and the camaraderie they shared.

"Sure, kid, you go take a look and call us. I'll be here when you get back."

Mark gave Claudia a quick hug and kiss, accepted the keys to the truck from the Judge and headed downtown.


Mark arrived at police headquarters and was alarmed to see police tape encircling Frank's car. He jumped out of the truck and jogged over, stopping the first officer he saw. "Jim, hey Jim, what's going on? Why the tape?"

Officer Jim Larkin turned, and quickly recognized Mark. By now he was well known and liked by many of the officers under Harper's command. "Mark, what are you doing here?"

"Claudia called us. Hardcase is with her and I thought I would come and find out what you know."

"Oh, should've figured." After a brief pause, he met Mark's eyes, "we don't know squat." The frustration was obvious in the seasoned officer's voice. "It's like he vanished off the face of the earth. A team went over the car and didn't find anything. You got any ideas?"

"Me? No. We got a call from Claudia when Frank didn't come home. Mind if I take a look?"

The officer looked at him questioningly, but knew well enough that if there was anything they might have missed, Mark would be sure to find it, "sure, feel free, but put on a pair of gloves okay? The team may need to take another look."

Mark nodded and accepted the latex being handed to him.

He slowly circled the car, running his gloved hand over the surface. When he got to the driver's side door, he squinted and quickly squatted down to look at the door lock. The lock looked intact, but a deep gouge was evident that ran about four inches diagonally down from the lock.

"Hey Jim, toss me a flashlight" he called over his shoulder.

Jim walked quickly over to the kneeling ex-con with a pensive expression. "Whatcha got" he asked intently as he freed his flashlight from his belt and handed it over.

Flicking on the flashlight, Mark flashed it on the door and ran his gloved hand the length of the scratch. "Take a look at this, Jim, what do you think?"

Officer Larkin leaned in to take a closer look. "What? That? That's just a scratch. All cars have them Mark. What's the big deal about this one?" he shrugged, catching himself before he rolled his eyes in frustration.

Mark stood to face him, "The big deal is" he returned brushing the dirt from the knees of his jeans, "that I just waxed Frank's car and there were no scratches on this side. Maybe your 'team' better get their butts back down here and take a closer look."

Mark returned his attention to the car, and followed the angle of the scratch. Under the car—below the scratch he saw a spot. Shining the light he stopped short of touching it, realizing it may be evidence. "Take a look at this—is this blood?" Mark's voice had taken on an anxious tone.

By this time, the forensic team had reappeared. They took a sample of the substance and their preliminary suspicion concurred; it was indeed blood.

Mark stood there as the team completed their second sweep of the crime scene. He began to run a theoretical scenario by the officers, "see here," he pointed, "it looks like Frank may have reached the car and had his key ready to open the lock." His gloved fingers followed the curve of the scratch, "If he was grabbed, the key could have made this gouge as he was pulled back. If there was a struggle, it would make sense that the blood would drop there." Again, he pointed to what remained of the stain. Stopping himself, he stood erect and looked at each officer in turn.

"Could've happened that way," the forensic team leader responded, nodding slightly. "It's the best working theory we've got right now. Let me take that to the Captain. Anything else you want to take a look at?"

Mark thought for a moment. "Yeah, can I get a look in the trunk?"

The officer looked at him questioningly.

Mark sighed. "I don't even know, I just thought I'd notice if something were out of place. I checked out his spare tire yesterday, that's all."

The officer opened the trunk and motioned Mark over. It was empty and clean. "Nah, that's the way it was, clean as a whistle."

The trunk was slammed shut, harder than was actually necessary to accomplish the task.

"Maybe we should move the car and check underneath?" Mark suggested, trying to come up with any idea that might shed some light on where Frank was.

"Good idea. Nothing else to find here." The officer looked around and realized it would be difficult to move with no keys. "Should we tow it?"

Mark grinned for the first time during the tense pre-dawn hours, "only if you want to do it the hard way."

Jim moved back in, "Scott, we're running on the clock here. Let's just let Mark move the car. Frank wouldn't mind."

Rolling his eyes, Scott agreed and gave the simple instruction, "do it."

Mark slid in the front seat, and momentarily torn between not wanting to make it look like he kept up on this particular skill and the total efficiency he knew he would always possess, he went quickly to work starting the car. Within seconds the engine purred to life and Mark shifted the car into reverse and moved it backwards in to a rear parking spot. Under other conditions, the two cops would have found the irony of the situation amusing, but there was nothing light about this scenario.

As they examined the area that was under the previously parked car, a single file folder lay in the now illuminated space. "Damn, now how the hell did we miss that?" the consternated officer mumbled.

Mark, having removed his gloves prior to 'starting' Frank's car went automatically to pick up the file when Jim stopped him suddenly, reminding him that they were still dealing with evidence.

"That's probably the file we loaned him yesterday. He was going to make some copies and bring it back. Take a look—you'll see who it belongs to."

The officer picked it up with a gloved hand and opened it carefully. The file bore the name of one Sam Bardis. Mark thought for a moment unsure of the file's significance. Bardis was a two-bit hustler known for his insurance scams. Recently, however, Hardcastle had heard through his sources that he may have taken on some partners. The boys with the violin cases were known to him, but he couldn't figure out how Bardis fit in. He knew they would eventually figure it out. They shared their suspicions with Frank and he had asked to see Milt's file. Frank learned years ago that the Judge's instincts were golden.

"I wonder why this was under the car? How did it get there?" Mark mused. "If we can show it to the Judge, maybe he can tell us if anything is missing out of the file."

The officers looked at each other and it was Jim that finally spoke. "Let's get this inside and see if a copy was made. If not, we'll copy it and you can take it back to Hardcase…uh, Judge Hardcastle."


Frank was staring at the crack of light that he could see under the door. His head was still throbbing, but at least he could focus. The detective in him started to mentally catalog as many details as his head would allow given the incessant pounding that was proving to be quite a distraction.

Floor. Wood. Cold. Hands cuffed in back. No shadows to indicate any furniture between him and the door.

He tried to roll over to see if he could stand. The pain in his head was equal to the intense needles in his arm. His failed attempt at standing led him to believe he had been in that position for a long time. Then he noticed the tear in his pant leg and blood. His blood. No wonder he couldn't stand. He had a bullet in his leg. His grin would have been unexpected—if anyone had been around to see. Some detective I make…I didn't even know I'd been shot.

He rested his head wearily against the floor as his eyes began to slowly close. He'd rest just one minute more before he'd attempt a daring escape…


Claudia had handled the news, or rather lack of it, as well as could be expected. She'd been around cops all of her life. She put on another pot of coffee, and then excused herself to go get dressed. She had called her sister and asked her to come and stay with her. Claudia wanted Mark and Milt to head downtown, knowing they could uncover what the police may miss. Frank trusted the pair with his life, and she shared her husband's confidence.

They stayed until Claudia's sister arrived promising to call every hour whether they had any new information or not. Then, they headed directly downtown.


The precinct was a media madhouse. The press had gotten wind of the disappearance of the popular police lieutenant. The Judge and Mark crossed through the police barricade easily and went directly to Frank's office where they found Lt. Mike Delaney sitting behind the desk.

Mark sat heavily in one chair while Milt leaned on the desk and met the lieutenant's eyes. "Tell me you have some news."

Mike rubbed his chin and dropped his eyes, "I'd love nothing more than to tell you we've got something—but…" His voice broke, and he quickly turned his back to the duo.

Milt sat down, and let out a wheezing sigh. "I know you're doin' everything that can be done, Mike. We just thought we may be able to help."

Mike turned back around to face his friends, "I heard that you found our only lead, Mark. Someday we'll get you on the force…"

Mark gave him a slight grin, "I'll settle for getting through this crisis without making any promises that I can't keep."

The lieutenant grinned back, "fair enough, Mark."

All three of the men were startled when the phone rang. The lieutenant stared briefly before answering after the second ring, "Lt. Harper's office, this is Delaney."

His expression remained neutral, but he nodded as he spoke, "Of course, we appreciate all the help we can get." As he hung up the phone, his eyes met the Judge's, "FBI is sending somebody. They're not claiming jurisdiction…yet…"


Within 30 minutes an agent from the FBI arrived and was given a detailed update. Special Agent Kellie Porter carefully reviewed all of the information along with the Bardis file. When she finally spoke, her concern for the missing Lieutenant was apparent, "I'm sorry. Frank's a good man. We worked together on a bank robbery last month—finally caught the guy up in Reno. He put a lot of hours into that case after that security guard was shot."

"Yeah, I remember" Hardcastle agreed. "The security guard was a retired cop. He was just helping out his son-in-law with security part-time."

The silence was brief before Porter got down to business. "Okay, let's see what part of all this we missed" she said as she adjusted her chair closer to the desk and spread out all of the files.

While no specific evidence suggested Bardis was involved, the coincidences were too powerful. An APB was issued for questioning only. They knew with no explicit threat that no Judge would issue an arrest warrant, but when they found him, the intended to bring him in for questioning.

The coffee flowed freely as they continued to discuss the evidence and their working theories. As promised, the Judge called Claudia regularly—even though there was nothing to report.


Several hours later, the announcement cut like a knife through the tension in the room. "Bardis is here. How should we play this?" Mike questioned.

Kellie was the first to respond, "Can we start by playing it straight and see how far we get?" the annoyance was evident in her voice. Continuing more resigned, "Who knows him best?"

All eyes turned to the Judge. He responded with a half-grin, "Our paths have crossed several times over the past 25 years. He was active when I was still a cop."

Kellie met the easy smile. "Okay then, I'll want you behind the glass to observe. You can let us know if you think he's telling the truth. I'll be in there with you. Maybe we'll come up with a plan together."

Delaney and Larkin nodded to each other and it was Larkin who spoke first, "I guess it's you and me, Lieutenant. You lead and I'll sit back and pay attention."

Lt. Delaney grinned his response, and they both straightened a bit as they saw the look of concern on the FBI agent's face. Delaney responded, "don't worry Kellie. We'll handle it your way to start. We want Frank back in one piece."

As they stood, the Judge looked at Mark as it dawned on him that he was not given a role. He readily interpreted the look on his face and didn't want him to feel like a 'dunsel.' The kid made him sit through re-runs of Star Trek when John Wayne wasn't filling the screen. So far he was the most useful member of this team, and he didn't want him feeling otherwise.

"Kid," he snapped quickly, "get your butt in gear. You're with us. We need your eyes and ears in there."

Mark grinned and nearly jumped out of the chair, happy to be included. He knew his input was valued at the precinct, but he didn't have a lot of contact with the FBI. Grateful for Hardcase's instruction, he led the way to the observation room.

Delaney and Larkin entered the interrogation room. They looked at Bardis and began the rapid salvo questioning. "When's the last time you saw Lt. Harper?"

Bardis was a 'regular' customer at this precinct, and had a lot of contact with Lt. Harper over the years. "Hey, man, I'm clean. I haven't seen him in months. I heard what's goin' down, but I tell ya, I've got nothing to do with it."

Delaney fired back immediately, "Nobody is accusing you of anything, we just thought, since we think Harper was carrying your file when he was taken, you might know why. We heard you took up with some heavy hitters—way out of your league. We thought maybe they had something to do with it. Tell me about Mr. Clementi."

"You're kidding, right" Bardis couldn't quite maintain his cool exterior. The sweat was beginning to bead around his hairline.

It was Larkin who spoke with an intensity that sent a chill through the room. "You're sweating an awful lot for a man with nothing to hide."

Behind the observation mirror, Hardcastle put the pieces together quickly and spoke to the FBI agent, "cut him loose."

Her obvious disbelief was echoed in her response, "what?," but Mark only grinned at the Judge, already on the same page.

"Trust me. This will work. Stay here." With that, he was out the door and entering the interrogation room before the agent could formulate a response.

Mark had to quickly grab the Agent's arm as she started to follow the Jurist in objection, "trust him, he knows what he's doing."


The Judge spoke the moment he entered the room, "Mike, cut Bardis loose."

He received the same look to total disbelief from both officers.

"You heard me, cut him loose. Then, go pick up Anton Clementi."

Hardcastle watched as a smile crept onto the officers' faces. They spoke in near unison, "got it, Judge."

Bardis was looking between each of the men in the room, not understanding what was happening. "Why are you picking up Clementi? What's going on here?"

"You don't need to concern yourself with that anymore. But, if it helps, I'll give your regards to Anton myself" the Judge was turning to exit the room.

"You CAN'T do this to me! I never said anything. Do you know what he'll think?"

"I can imagine what he'll think. However, it is strictly coincidental. I'm sure he'll understand that."

Bardis dropped his head heavily on the table, "he'll kill me."

The Judge paused his exit and turned back in quiet reflection, "we can protect you. Give you a new identity. Just give us something here and Clementi will go away for a long time."


The questioning was completed efficiently and the DA was brought in for Bardis to iron out the details of a protective custody arrangement. When all the facts were revealed, Bardis confirmed that Anton Clementi had taken Lt. Harper. Bardis had inadvertently targeted one of Clementi's family members in an insurance scam. When Clementi found out, he used it to blackmail him into doing a few jobs for the 'family.'

The jobs grew in intensity and violence, and Bardis tried to get out from under Clementi's thumb. In an effort to keep Bardis doing his dirty work, Clementi took Harper, threatening to lead the police to Bardis as the perpetrator. Apparently, Clementi had a long relationship with Harper, going back all the way to when he was a beat officer. Harper was the only officer to ever arrest him, and he'd held a grudge ever since. This kidnapping served several purposes for Clementi—to keep Bardis in line and to pay back an old debt.

The primary focus now was to determine where Clementi may have taken Harper. They didn't think he left the city, but none of his known addresses or warehouses showed any sign of recent occupation.


It was nearly midnight when Mark started snapping his fingers. "Hey, where's Clementi's early record, the one from when Frank was still in uniform?"

"Why, what've you got?" Hardcastle asked as he looked under the various papers trying to find the information Mark requested.

"Maybe nothing…but maybe a place to start looking. We have all the addresses of his properties, but I saw something about his mom and some property she had."

"So, she had some property. They were estranged. He hasn't seen her since Frank sent him up for fraud when he was still one of the Colletti brothers' minions." Although the Judge didn't know where Mark was going with this, he knew how his mind worked well enough and handed over the file to Mark.

"Well, maybe she left him some property?" Mark said hopefully.

"Doubtful, Mark." Officer Larkin chimed in. "The records show she didn't have any contact with him after that arrest. As a matter of fact, she was the one who turned him in. She knew he was going down a bad path."

"Is she still alive?" Mark was nothing but practical.

"Ah…let's see…" Jim looked through three files. "Doesn't say. Let me check the computer." He left the office and came back within five minutes carrying a piece of paper. "Sorry Mark, looks like she's dead."

"No, no that might be a good thing…" All eyes were on Mark after this latest comment. "Sorry, I didn't mean it the way it sounded. See, if she died and didn't have a will, any property she had may have gone to Clementi automatically as her only next of kin."

Still seeing the blank faces staring at him, he lowered his eyes and continued quietly, "I just thought it may be a place to start that nobody knew about."

"Damn, why didn't we come up with that?" was the immediate and unfortunate response from Agent Porter

Mark's head snapped up quickly to face her, annoyance clearly etched into his features, "we did come up with that, just now."

The Agent quickly backpedaled, explaining, "Mark, I didn't mean my comment the way it sounded either. It's been a long day, and you just discovered the only lead we have. Let's follow it."

The Judge patted Mark on the arm and stood. "Okay, where do we start?"

Jim stood, too, "Mark, let's hit the computer and see if we can find out where she lived, and what she owned."

As they left the room, the Judge stood and retrieved the freshly brewed coffee, "Agent Porter?"

The Agent looked up at him, caught in a yawn, "yeah, that'd be great, but please, it's Kellie." After a brief pause, she continued, "I didn't mean to offend Mr. McCormick, really, I guess I didn't realize how frustrated I was.

The Judge waived her off, "Mark knows that; it's been a long day all around."


Less than an hour later they had found the information they needed. Clementi's mother did not have a will, and probate records show that the property was distributed directly to the gangster. His inheritance was considerable. They had three addresses to check; three possible locations where Frank could be. Unmarked cars were dispatched to each site.

The Judge and Mark anxiously waited for word. When it finally came, it was dusk outside.


Chapter 2: The Switch

Two of the properties were empty, and showed no sign of recent inhabitance. The third was a cabin about 40 minutes northeast of the city. The local county sheriff called in alerting the team of activity at that location. Three squad cars were dispatched to meet the local officers on the scene. The Judge and Mark rode in the lead car.

Within the hour the cabin was fully surrounded, and under cover of darkness, the police approached the cabin. Mark and Milt covered the back while several LAPD officers moved to the front and sides. Two plain clothes officers knocked on the front door. Although no answer was forthcoming, they stayed on the front steps hoping to provide a mild distraction to anybody on the inside.

Mark quietly approached the back door and pulling out his little black case he stealthily unlocked the door and entered. Milt stayed outside as planned and tried not to pace.

Mark found Frank in the second room he checked. He approached silently and quickly knelt beside him and put two fingers on his neck. Relieved, Mark took a moment to give his thanks upwards. "Frank, Frank can you hear me?" With no immediate response, he whispered a bit louder, "come on Frank, give me a sign here."

Frank let out a groan and tried to turn his head to Mark's voice, "Mark?"

"Yeah, Frank. It's Mark. I've got to get you out of here. I've got to get you out now!"

The small grin on Frank's face was unexpected, "then what the hell are you waiting for…let's get going." His voice was no more than a whisper, but it was all Mark needed to hear to move into action.

He supported Frank around the waist, and helped him put his arm around his shoulder. They moved slowly back through the house towards the back door. Frank's left leg was dragging as he could not longer feel it.

As they exited the house, Frank whispered, "they've got files in there..."

"What is it with you guys? Must be some cop thing…can't just get away cleanly" Mark quipped as he transferred Frank into the waiting arms of the Judge. He paused as he watched them retreat back towards the cover of the woods, and the waiting officers.

He ducked back into the house and made his way back down the hallway, stopping in each room. Not immediately seeing any file, he checked the closets and finally spotted a briefcase on the floor. He quickly grabbed it and checked its contents as he walked towards the back door.

He froze when he heard the sound of gunfire in close proximity and instinctively hit the floor when the glass from the rear window shattered. He heard the requisite warning from the police as the gunfire continued. Pushing himself off the floor, and staying low, he made his way out the back door.

His eyes searched the distance between the house and the woods, and he heard Hardcastle yell, "get down McCormick."

What happened next didn't register as Mark's legs collapsed under him; a sharp pain in his back forcing him off balance and falling forward.


Milt was awash with relief when Mark stepped out the back door with Frank in tow. He quickly moved to help when he heard Frank whisper, "they've got files in there…" Milt met Mark's eyes and was about to protest when Mark quickly transferred Frank to the Judge and darted back into the house. Hardcastle didn't have time to argue—and kept walking Frank back to the woods and the waiting squad car.

Just as they reached the cover of the first trees, gunshots rang from the house. Milt snapped around quickly in time to see the window shatter. He saw Mark trying to find his way out of the house. "Get down McCormick" Milt's fear was easily distinguishable in his tone. He watched helplessly as Mark was thrown face forward, unable to break the fall with his arms.

Frank, too, looked on in horror. "Mark…" his voice being nothing more than air. He felt Milt start to let him go and turn to go after Mark, "Milt, wait, you'll never make it."

Two steps later they all hit the ground as machine gun fire erupted. The police returned fire behind the minimal safety of their squad cars. They all watched helplessly as a van cut across the clearing, stopped, and grabbed Mark from the ground. Before he was completed encased in the vehicle, they sped away continuing to keep the police at bay.

"Don't just stand there—let's get after the van" it was the Judge who first moved to intercept.

One of the police officers grabbed the Judge's arm. "Judge, we can't, the tires are blown."

Milt reached across him and grabbed the squad's radio. He quickly dispatched another ambulance and provided what information he could on the van that was carrying Mark. When he had done all that he could—he turned back to Frank.

"Stay with me here, Frank. We're going to get you to the hospital."

Frank looked up at his long-time friend, his voice barely audible, "Milt, where's Mark? What just happened?"

Hardcastle signed, "I think Mark was hit—and they grabbed him."

Before Frank passed out, he heard him say, "I'm sorry."


The APB on the van provided no immediate results. Feeling helpless, Milt accompanied Frank in the ambulance to the hospital and made sure an officer went to pick up Claudia. Milt was torn between his two best friends. He needed to make sure Frank was going to be okay, but needed to help bring Mark home. Frank was taken immediately into surgery to remove the bullet from his leg, and Milt didn't want to leave Claudia alone.

Milt called the precinct from the nurses' station as soon as he got Claudia settled. He was immediately patched through to Delaney. They were following up on all leads, but there were too few to be helpful. The van had disappeared.

After learning that Frank was in surgery, Delaney assured the Judge that he would call with any news. He informed him that a squad car had been dispatched to the hospital to be on standby for the Judge when they did find the van.

It seemed like an eternity passed before the surgeon came out to the waiting room. In reality, the surgery was finished in under an hour. Milt hadn't wanted to tell Claudia about Mark's disappearance as she had enough to worry about.

Milt started to help Claudia to her feet but was waved down by the doctor, "Please, stay seated." She pulled up a chair and sat facing them. "Lieutenant Harper will be fine. We were able to remove the bullet, and there was very little damage to his femur or any muscle. He'll need therapy, but he'll be fine. I predict 100%. He was very lucky."

Milt turned immediately to Claudia. She looked into his eyes and started to cry, "thank God!"

Looking back at the doctor, she continued, "when can I see him?"

"He should be out of recovery in about 45 minutes. You can sit with him then. Someone will be out to show you to his room." With that the doctor gently patted Claudia's arm and departed.

The silence in the waiting room was thick, and Hardcastle almost didn't notice that Claudia had begun to talk. "You know, Milt, yesterday started like every other day. I got up early and made the coffee—and I even put in an extra meatloaf sandwich in Frank's lunchbox. He thought it might be a long day. He was waiting for bench warrants on several cases, and if they all came through, he knew he might be late. He loves meatloaf. He even told me once that I improved on his mother's recipe. The big improvement was to leave out the mint. Who in their right mind would put mint in meatloaf. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

Milt smiled and looked over at Claudia. He sensed that she needed a bit of 'normal' back in her life. She was taking control back. "Mint? It's amazing Frank grew up liking meatloaf at all."

"The secret is brown sugar. Just the right amount." Claudia nodded in close to Milt as if she was sharing a secret.

"That's where McCormick learned that. I couldn't figure it out, I just knew his tasted better than..." Milt's voice faded off as he remembered under what circumstances this day had ended.

Claudia looked up suddenly as if it had just dawned on her. "Milt, where is Mark?"

Milt was still looking at the ground and didn't immediately answer.


The jurist met Claudia's eyes. "I don't know. He didn't make it out with Frank. They got him and we haven't been able to find the van that left the scene."

Claudia stood suddenly and faced the Judge head on, "No, not Mark. I'm so sorry. It shouldn't have come down to a trade. Why did you let them do that?" Claudia was reaching hysterics and the Judge was on his feet trying to console her.

"It's not like that, Claudia, it just happened too fast. Mark got to Frank, but went back in to try to retrieve some files. He didn't make it back to us. Whoever they are, they have him now."

"GO FIND HIM, MILT! Don't do this to Frank!"

"Claudia, what are you talking about?" Milt's confusion shown on his face.

"How do you think Frank will feel when we have to tell him you didn't get Mark back. GO FIND HIM!" Claudia was adamant, and Milt had to admit that she made sense.

"Delaney's got all his officers working on it, and I wanted to be with you and Frank, too. I'd be helpless at the station."

Claudia could read the conflicting emotions in Milt's face. She understood it only too well, but Frank was going to be fine. The only job left was to get Mark back. In one piece. "Milt, Frank is going to be okay. I'll be here with him. Please, please go find Mark. He needs you, too," Claudia pleaded.

Just then an orderly walked over to the two friends, "Judge Hardcastle, there is a phone call for you."

The Judge looked the question to Claudia, and she quickly nodded. He followed the orderly and picked up the phone's receiver from the reception desk. "Hardcastle." His voice was horse, and a bit harsh.

Mike Delaney spoke quickly, "Milt, we found the van. They are holed up in a house not far from your place. It looks like the owners are on vacation. We wouldn't have seen them if it weren't for a pizza delivery boy who was pissed after being stiffed on a tip."


"Milt, the squad is parked outside the emergency room. He'll take you. I've got back-up on the way. The house is under surveillance and they won't get away from us…I promise." With that he hung up the phone.

Claudia was by his side, "Milt, is it Mark?"

Milt relayed the message and walked Claudia back to the waiting room. "Will you be okay?" he asked as he prepared to leave.

"We'll all be fine when Mark is home." Claudia gave him a quick hug and kiss and gently pushed him in the direction of the door.

Nodding, Milt walked quickly out.


Chapter 3: Smoke and Mirrors

Parked nearly a hundred yards from the suspected house, Hardcastle and Delaney found their way to lush garden and waited for backup. From what little they saw, the house was well guarded. They were so close to getting Mark back and finally ending this nightmare.

They were joined by several additional undercover officers, and they watched as they formed a perimeter around the house. With everything in place, they gave the signal to move. Milt didn't realize he was holding his breath. Just a few more minutes, kiddo and we'll get you some help.

But before the officers made it more than a few steps, an explosion threw them all to the ground. Milt immediately felt the heat, and as he tried to turn his head to see what was happening, a second explosion rocked the ground.

Dear God, Mark was his last thought before everything went dark.

Milt woke to Mike Delaney kneeling over him, "Milt, are you back with me?"

The Judge jerked awake, and the momentary confusion cleared quickly as he remembered the explosion. "Where's Mark? Did you get him out?"

The look on the Lieutenant's face told Milt more than he wanted to know. Told him what he already suspected.

"Milt, I'm sorry, nobody could have survived the explosion."

He tried to get up, but dizziness overcame him. Mike immediately helped him to the squad car, calling over his shoulder for an ambulance.

"I don't need an ambulance, I need to see Mark." He looked past Mike and tried to see the house. Stunned, he realized that there was nothing left…there was no way anybody could have survived. Fire units had arrived on the scene and were attempting to control the fire.

Milt was on his feet, staring blankly into the smoldering house.


Mark limped down the Pacific Coast Highway. He wasn't sure what time it was—but it had to have been several hours since he escaped from the house. He had been walking quite awhile. He wasn't surprised that nobody would pick up a hitchhiker with blood on his clothing; he was pretty sure he wouldn't want to ride with anybody who would. The bullet wound hardly hurt at all anymore, and it occurred to Mark that he may be going into shock.

Another mile or so and he would be home. The Judge would take care of him. He just had to make it there.


The Judge stood there nearly frozen for over 30 minutes while the firefighters fought the flames that destroyed the house. He was numb. He was lost in thought when the Fire Chief approached the squad car. "We knocked down the fire, but it will take a long time to sort through everything. Our forensic team will be arriving any minute.

Milt found his voice, but it was uncharacteristically weak, "Can you tell how many bodies there are?"

The Chief shook his head, "We won't know anything definitive until tomorrow at the earliest. I suggest you go home. Get some sleep. There is nothing you can do to help here." With that, he turned and started to walk away, stopping briefly to once again face the Judge, "I'm sorry sir."

Mike knew he had to try to get the Judge to leave the scene. Unfortunately, he didn't know how to accomplish this. He opted to start with the direct approach, "Milt, let's leave them to their jobs. I'll drive you home.

Milt was about to object, but stopped before he uttered a word. With slumped shoulders, he simply walked back towards the squad car and climbed in the passenger side. When Mike fastened his seatbelt, Milt spoke quietly, "I should go to the hospital. I should talk to Claudia and see how Frank is doing."

Mike took a closer look at his friend. Going to the hospital was a good idea, and he wanted Milt to be checked out. The explosion had, after all, knocked him unconscious.


Mark leaned heavily on the gate. He had made it home.

The last few yards up the long driveway were the most difficult. He could barely feel his legs and he had lost a lot of blood. Not seeing the Judge's truck in the garage, he continued up to the front door, realizing he did not have keys to get in. Swearing lightly under his breath, he looked for the spare key.

He couldn't immediately find the key, and knew that he wouldn't be able to stand much longer. In a moment of complete frustration after a very long day, Mark reached out and broke the pane of glass by the door knob, reached in, and opened the door. He took the steps down into the den and reached for the phone. He dialed 9-1-1, but passed out before he could ask for help.


In the squad car, they listened to the radio chatter as the clean up at the explosion site continued. Milt was staring out the window, and hadn't said a word in miles. The lieutenant was worried about his friend and was also grieving Mark. This was not a scenario that anybody had remotely envisioned. They would learn in the upcoming days what explosives were involved, and there would probably be official inquiries into how the end result wasn't anticipated.

As they headed up the ramp to the highway towards the hospital, an unexpected call came over the radio, "A 9-1-1- call was placed from Judge Hardcastle's estate just moments ago. There was nobody on the phone, and it appears to be off the hook."

Milt and Mike looked at each other and the Judge made a circular motion with his index finger indicating that they should turn around and head towards Gulls Way. Milt then leaned over unexpectedly and flipped the switches activating the siren and lights.

Mike cut the siren and lights as they approached Gull's Way. Two squad cars were already on the scene, but parked on Pacific Coast Highway keeping the house under surveillance.

The officers joined the lieutenant and former jurist in walking up the driveway towards the house. Milt waived two officers to the back of the house, and the other two accompanied them to the front. They were halted by the Judge as he noticed the broken glass on the front steps. Nearly in unison, the men drew their weapons and proceeded slowly. Hand signals were given and read, and the front door was opened inward slowly.

Milt entered first against the better judgment of the lieutenant. Although it was his house, and he certainly had enough experience to read the situation correctly under normal circumstances, these circumstances were far from normal. He knew the Judge was hurting, and may be affected by a concussion.

He entered slowly, gun drawn. He took the few steps to the den slowly, taking in each angle of his house. What he saw when he stepped into the den was so totally unexpected, he actually froze momentarily. Blinking his eyes hard, he didn't initially trust what he thought he saw.

"Mark!" Hearing the Judge shout, all of the officers entered the house. The Judge moved quickly to kneel next to his young friend, and he took a deep breath before reaching out to check Mark's pulse. Although he breathed a sigh of relief as he felt a pulse, it was much too weak.

"Mike—call for an ambulance. He's not doing well." With that, the Judge set out to assess Mark's injuries. Rolling him over carefully, he saw the dried blood on Mark's shirt. He gently ran his fingers over Mark's head and was thankful not to find any large lumps.

As Milt continued to check Mark out and wait impatiently for the ambulance, the officers continued to check the house. Within minutes they all came to the conclusion that Mark had broken the glass and attempted to call for help. What they didn't know was how he found his way home.

Lieutenant Delaney brought a blanket over, and as Milt reached up to take it he heard Mark cough. He took his hand after covering him and spoke directly to him, "Mark, can you hear me? Can you open your eyes?"

He was gratified to see Mark's eyes open, and surprised to see a small grin form on his face, "Judge…where were you? Takin' in a movie, huh?"

The Judge smiled, "yeah kid, where else would I be on a Saturday night?"

"How's Frank? Did you get him to a hospital?"

"Frank's fine, it's you I'm worried about. I thought you were dead…" his voice trailed off as he maintained eye contact with Mark.

"Dead? Why the hell would you think that? I don't go down too easily."

"And yet I found you down on the floor. Care to explain that?"

"I woke up in a house, but I didn't know where I was. I…I could hear voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying. I was handcuffed to…um…a radiator. They thought that would keep me out of their hair. I guess they figure most people don't carry a pick in their sock. Guess you'll never make fun of me again, huh?"

"If you had a pick, why did you bust my window wiseguy?" The Judge's concern belied his words.

"Oh, sorry, the pick bent in the lock. I didn't take the time to remove it…I just wanted to get out of there."

"It's a good thing you did, kiddo. You don't know how close you came…" The Judge took a deep cleansing breath as he remembered the horrific scene.

"What do you mean?"

"We had an APB out on the van that snatched you. Just as we were about to take the house, it exploded. The entire house was burned to the ground. Nobody survived." The Judge took another deep breath. "I thought you died."

Mark met his eyes. "Sorry…Judge. Sorry you had to go through that."

His eyes were growing heavier, and his breath was becoming more labored.

Just as Mark's eyes closed, the paramedics arrived. They quickly went to work, taking vital signs and starting an IV. Within 10 minutes he was being loaded into the ambulance. The Judge climbed in the back without waiting for an invitation. Settling himself next to Mark, he picked up his free hand and held it as they turned down the driveway and onto the highway.



Frank and Claudia stopped by Gull's Way with a pan of lasagna and a bag of groceries. Mark was released from the hospital that morning, and they knew the Judge had spent most of the last week at the hospital watching over their young friend. They suspected the cupboard was bare and they knew Milt wouldn't leave Mark home alone right away.

Claudia went right into the house and put the lasagna in the oven to stay warm. After putting the groceries away, she made some iced tea and met the three men out back by the pool.

Milt stood and took the tray from her. "Claudia, you didn't have to do that—you're a guest here."

"Nonsense boys, I enjoy this, and…well…I owe you both so much."

Frank, still using a cane, was sharing the foot rest with Mark. He met Mark's eyes and nodded towards the Judge, "we both owe you. You saved my life."

"Ah, Frank, you've had my back enough times…and I got to hear some of the stories of you and the Judge. We're nowhere close to even here." Mark was obviously uncomfortable with the attention.

"Um, besides" Hardcastle cleared his throat, "you can't really thank me. If it wasn't for me you wouldn't have even been in this situation."

"Excuse me? What are you talking about?" Frank knew the Judge had felt guilty about the whole situation, and that this guilt was entirely unfounded. "No offense Milt, but you're not responsible for every con in LA."

"Yeah Hardcase," Mark threw him a lopsided grin, "I'm the only con you're responsible for, and I'm getting hungry. Don't I smell lasagna?"

Hardcastle appreciated the change in mood and made a note to thank Mark for it later. "Yeah, yeah, keep your shorts on. First I have something for Claudia and Frank."

Claudia came to stand next to Frank and looked the question at him. Frank's shrug told her he was in the dark, too. He pulled her gently on his lap and waited for the Judge to continue.

Milt took out an envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to Claudia.

"What is this, Milt? What have you gone and done?"

"Nothing more than you deserve after what you've been through. Go ahead; open it."

Claudia looked at Frank, and at his nod opened the envelope. Her eyes grew as big as saucers as she handed the contents to Frank. "Milt, we can't accept this. It's very sweet, but we just can't accept."

Frank blew out a whistle. "Well, Milt, I have to admit you have style. But I'm with Claudia. We can't accept this."

Mark looked between his three friends. "Is somebody going to tell me what it is?"

Claudia spoke quietly and with a lot of love, "It's a 2-week Mediterranean cruise, that's what it is, and it's entirely too much. Milt, we appreciate it, really, but it just wouldn't be right."

Mark looked at the Judge in awe. Damn, he could still surprise him. "Claudia, now you know I'm your biggest fan, and I would never disagree with you, but you better take it."

Claudia turned to Mark with a look of confusion on her face.

"You take that big lug of a husband of yours, and you get on that ship. Have a great time. Take lots of pictures. Come back and show me. It's the closest to Italy I'll ever get! I've lived most of my life vicariously anyway…it may as well include Italy!"

Frank looked on thoughtfully. "Well, if I apply your logic about this trip, Milt, I'd say you and Mark have to go with us. Mark spent more time than I did in the hospital. And you, I don't think you've slept in over 2 weeks. Seriously, why don't you guys go and take a break. You certainly deserve it."

Milt grinned an evil grin, and reached back into his pocket. This second envelope he handed to Mark.

With a look of disbelief, Mark tore open the envelope. "No way, Hardcase! We're going too?"

"Yeah, kiddo, we are. I think we could all use a vacation. And, what better way to relax than with friends."

Claudia and Frank shared a meaningful look, and at Frank's raised eyebrows, Claudia nodded. The decision was made.

"Milt," Claudia spoke quietly, and with emotion, "We can't think of any better way to spend our 'vacation' than with you guys. Thank you doesn't seem quite enough, but thank you."

Milt cleared his throat, and his final words were no surprise to anybody.