This was previously published in Four aces beat a full house #1, vol. 3. Mark's real father, Sonny Daye visits Gulls Way.

Past Sins

Sis

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Judge Milton C. Hardcastle leaned on the kitchen cabinet and frowned. It was one of those days – no, amend that – one of those weeks. The notorious Sonny Daye was visiting Gull’s Way again. Slick con-man, night club entertainer, former safe-cracker, and unfortunately Mark McCormick’s father. Sonny wasn’t a bad guy actually, just a trifle shady and self-centered, but he was the kind of person that would never have gotten over Hardcastle’s threshold if it weren’t for his relationship to Mark.

Sonny had shown up a week ago, claiming to be ‘passing through’ and of course he had ended up staying at Gull’s Way. He had offered to bunk in the gatehouse with Mark, but Hardcastle had insisted that he take a bedroom in the main house. It made more sense of course, since the judge had plenty of spare bedrooms, but he wondered if part of it was the fact that he didn’t really care for Sonny and Mark to spend all that time together. Past experience had not been encouraging. The first time they’d met Sonny, Mark had almost been killed courtesy of some of his dad’s friends. The second time Sonny had shown up, he’d given Mark a deed to a bar and grill which had come with its own unique set of problems. It too had gone down the drain. That had been several months ago and now Sonny was back again, with just himself. Maybe. Hardcastle couldn’t help it; he didn’t trust the guy. And having him in the same house was no picnic. He wished Sonny would just pass on through and not just for himself. Outwardly, Mark appeared pleased to see his dad (well, sometimes), but he was also quieter, a little more reserved, changes only the judge would notice. Sometimes conversations would be relaxed and easy and then other times the tension would be so thick you could cut it with a knife. Mark was basically an easy going person, but he was also sensitive, and the judge knew it would be hard for him to get over the pain of Sonny’s desertion when he was five years old, if ever. And charming as Sonny was, he didn’t seem actually sorry that he’d done it. He’d accepted it even though Mark hadn’t.

The judge sighed and started making coffee. Maybe breakfast would be a good meal.

“Hiya, Milt.”

Hardcastle steeled himself and turned around. “Morning, Sonny.”

“What are we having for breakfast?”

“Same as usual – eggs, bacon, toast.”

“Sounds good to me.” Sonny took his usual seat and opened the paper. Hardcastle started on the eggs. How did I get this job, he wondered.

“Hey, Judge. I’ve been meaning to tell you – I think it’s great that you’re sending Mark to law school.”

Hardcastle turned and gave him a broad grin. “Well, I’m really pleased you feel that way.”

“Did I ever tell you I wanted to be a lawyer?”

“Nope. I thought you always wanted to be a singer.”

“That too. I’m interested in a lot of things – real renaissance man, you know what I mean?”

Hardcastle was saved from having to think of an answer to that one by McCormick’s entrance. “Good morning,” Mark said to no one in particular.

“Top of the morning, Kid.” Sonny said cheerfully.

Hardcastle grunted, but looked at Mark carefully. He was looking pretty solemn but then he’d been looking that way a lot lately. Did the kid have shadows under his eyes or was he imagining it? McCormick walked up next to Hardcastle. “Anything I can help you with?”

“Toast. It’s one of your specialties when you don’t burn it.”

Mark grinned and ducked his head but that was it – no snappy come-back, no smart alec wit. Hardcastle felt a sudden surge of irrational anger.

Sonny did most of the talking during breakfast, but then talking was one of his talents. The judge noticed McCormick was only picking at his food, and he wondered what the kid had on his mind. Either he was thinking too much, or he and Sonny had had some sort of ‘discussion.’

Sonny laid a hand on Mark’s arm and Hardcastle concentrated on the present.

“Hey, Markie, I noticed there’s a Chinese restaurant in town and that’s my favorite cuisine. Since it’s Saturday, why don’t we make a day of it – you know, go to lunch and then take in a movie or something.” He poked Mark suggestively in the ribs. “Maybe something dirty, huh?”

“I don’t think they have matinees, Sonny. How about just a regular movie?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“I think ‘Star Trek IV’ is on.” He turned wide blue eyes to Hardcastle.

The judge felt at a loss. He got the feeling he was expected to do something but didn’t know what. “I think lunch sounds like a good idea; it would give you two a break from my cooking.”

“Wanna come, Milt?” Sonny asked openly.

“Nah, I –“ Hardcastle began, but he stopped when he saw Mark’s face. “Well, I can’t make it for lunch but why don’t I meet you for the movie. I like science fiction,” he finished lamely.

Mark smiled broadly. “Yeah, I know it’s your favorite kind of movie. I’ll check the paper for starting times.”

“I need to go see Frank anyway. I’ll meet you two at the theater.”

Mark looked up. “Frank? Is it about a case?”

“No. He’s my friend, McCormick. I thought I’d just drop by for a visit.”

Lieutenant Frank Harper really wasn’t in a good mood (a usual state of affairs when he had to work on Saturday), but when Hardcastle dropped by with a bag lunch for both of them, he decided to take a break. He knew the judge probably had something really important on his mind to spring for lunch so he decided he might as well relax and listen – he’d hear it anyway.

“This looks good, Milt. Hope this isn’t a bribe for some sort of information.”

“Nah. Sonny’s in town and he and Mark are having lunch so I thought I’d stop in and see you.”

“Oh.” So that’s what Hardcastle had on his mind. “How long is he staying this time?”

“Well, he’s been here all week, but he keeps saying he’s just passing through.”

Frank leaned forward, looking concerned. “With a guy like Sonny that could mean anything from two weeks to six months. How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” There was a long pause. “No, I’m not. Damn it, Frank, he shows up at my house when he feels like it, eats my food, sleeps in my bed and gets Mark all worked up. But I can’t kick him out and I don’t think I should. They have to give each other a chance.”

“I thought so. How’s Mark taking it?”

“Okay, I guess. It’s hard to tell. He doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t act like he’s too happy.”

“Yeah well, I met Sonny last time he was here and he’s likable enough, but not exactly a good father figure. Not like you.”

“Oh come on, Frank.”

The lieutenant spread his hands. “Just stating facts, Milt. Mark’s looking for something that he’s never going to get from his dad. Sonny can be a good buddy, but he’s not going to give Mark what you give him.”

“Mark and I are best friends. Sonny’s – “

“Mark’s biological father. And yeah, you guys are friends, but that’s only part of it, and you know it.”

“What have you been watching – Dr. Joyce Brothers? I didn’t come here to get a Dear Abby speech.”

“Then what did you come for?”

“To eat lunch. And to give Mark and Sonny a chance to…talk things over. We’re gonna meet for a movie afterward.”

“Oh, what are you going to see?”

“Star Trek IV.”

“Oh yeah. I know how you’ve been looking forward to that one.”

“Can the sarcasm Frank, and eat your lunch.”

Sonny and Mark were late. Not surprisingly. Mark was rarely on time, and Sonny didn’t seem the type to be overly concerned with responsibility. Of course they were only five minutes late, but that meant Hardcastle had to lean against the side of the theater and wait around with a bunch of little kids. Everyone had almost gone in when Hardcastle saw Sonny and Mark walking toward him. He watched them approach with a mixture of feelings. The judge had usually been able to define his reactions to people; he either liked them or he didn’t. He didn’t care much for Sonny, but that had somehow gotten caught up with his feelings for McCormick, which even though the judge didn’t like to admit it, were pretty strong. After all, the kid was his best friend, wasn’t he?

Hardcastle noticed he was grinding his teeth, and forced himself to stop. He pointedly ignored the voice in his head which seemed intent on arguing that McCormick was important to him for a lot of other reasons too. He had had best friends before, but it had never been quite like this. He hadn’t tried to change their behavior patterns, mold their character, or make sure they were hanging out with the right kind of people so they wouldn’t get into trouble. And when they got angry, he’d walk away, they’d meet later, have a drink and forget about it. When he and McCormick fought, it was like going to the wall. Sometimes he got so mad he could hardly see straight. You only did those things and got that mad when it was your – kid. At that point Hardcastle gave the voice in his head an uppercut. He blinked and came back to the present.

Sonny and McCormick had stopped and were standing on the sidewalk talking – or rather Sonny was talking. McCormick just seemed to be listening and his face was expressionless, something which Hardcastle knew could mean any number of things. It was part of the kid’s armor, something Hardcastle had had to get used to when Mark had first come to live at Gull’s Way, and something Mark had relied on less and less as they had become more open with one another. But this last week Hardcastle had seen it in use again and often – way too often. He was grinding his teeth again.

Everyone heard the car before they saw it. There was a screeching of brakes and a late-model sedan careened around the corner right behind Mark and Sonny. Hardcastle moved, but he knew he’d never reach them in time and there would be nothing he could do if he did. Mark and Sonny turned and Hardcastle saw McCormick try to shove them both out of the way, but he didn’t quite make it. The car bounced up on the sidewalk, missing Sonny but side-swiping Mark. It barely grazed him, but it was enough to knock him to the sidewalk – hard. A few seconds later, the car stopped itself by ramming into an empty storefront.

There was an aftermath of screams, sirens, and panic but Hardcastle hardly heard it. He single-mindedly made his way over to McCormick. Sonny was already there getting ready to turn the kid over. “Don’t move him!” Hardcastle barked and Sonny flinched. McCormick moaned and stirred as Hardcastle laid a hand on his back.

“Judge?”

“It’s okay, Kid. Don’t try to move.”

“I’m fine – I think. Am I in one piece? Help me sit up.”

Hardcastle eased him into a sitting position. “You sure?”

“Yeah, but the sidewalk hit me harder than the car did.”

“I bet you got a nice set of bruises – in fact, the left side of your face is already changing color. Maybe we should have you looked at.”

Mark shook his head. “I’m all right.” But his heart was hammering in his chest, and he could hardly catch his breath. This seemed pretty silly considering how often he ended up in dangerous situations because he was working on a case with Hardcastle but then he was prepared for something to happen. This business of almost getting killed while walking to the movies was for the birds. Dimly he heard his father’s voice. “That was close, Markie. You scared us to death, didn’t he Judge?”

Hardcastle was looking at Mark closely. “Think you can stand?”

Mark nodded mutely. Sonny put his hand on his elbow, but it was the judge who lifted him to his feet. He felt shaky and weak-kneed, but Hardcastle’s arm was around his shoulder, heavy and comfortable. “Take a couple of deep breaths there.”

Mark did and it helped.

The judge handed Sonny the keys. “Go get the truck, will ya? It’s parked around back.”

“Yeah sure, Judge.” Sonny hesitated a minute and then left.

“Sorry. I feel stupid.”

“No reason to feel stupid. You had a close call. You’re always complaining about the danger I put you in – you shouldn’t have tried walking down the street by yourself, Kiddo.”

Mark laughed weakly. “I should have known you’d be able to turn this into an argument for your side. Tell me Hardcase, is everything that happens a case for law and order?”

“Practically everything, McCormick, practically everything.”

By now the police and an ambulance had arrived. A cop eventually wandered over who knew both of them and after finding out Mark was okay, told them he’d call them later if he needed a statement. He refused to comment on the accident, saying they didn’t know what happened yet. As the cop left, Sonny drove up in the truck.

Mark faltered. “Hey, my car’s here – I can’t –“

“You’re in no shape to drive.”

McCormick hated to admit it but Hardcastle was probably right. He was a little shook up. He felt for his car keys and then handed them to Sonny. “Could you drive the Coyote home?”

Sonny looked at the keys and then at Mark. “Sure, why not? Always wanted to drive that monster anyway. See you guys later.”

By the time they were half-way home, Mark was practically back to normal, and by that night he was his usual smart-mouthed self. From the calls Hardcastle had made, they learned that the driver of the car, a middle-aged businessman, had had a heart attack and had been trying to put on the brakes when he lost control. Fortunately no one had been hurt and the driver was in the hospital in stable condition.

Mark’s bruises looked a little worse that evening and he moved stiffly, but he seemed to be in a good mood. The only concession he made to his aches and pains was to go to bed a little earlier. As soon as the door closed behind him, Hardcastle yawned. “Well, I think I’ll hit the sack too. Coming Sonny?”

“Nah, I’ll be up in a little while Milt.”

“Turn out the lights down here when you leave, will ya?”

“All right.”

Hardcastle had just finished taking his shower when he heard a soft knock. He belted his robe and opened the door to see Sonny standing there.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Milt? I noticed your light was on.”

Hardcastle shrugged and stepped aside, wondering what was behind this.

Sonny looked around. “Nice bedroom.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Hardcastle sat on the bed. “Have a seat.”

Sonny sat in a chair, looking anywhere around the room except at Hardcastle.

“Well, you gonna tell me what’s on your mind?”

Sonny was quiet for a minute, the grinned broadly at Hardcastle and spread his hands. “Ah, what the hell, Judge. I noticed something important today.”

“Oh?”

Mark was really shook up earlier – well, I mean, I can’t blame him. It was pretty scary.”

“Is there a point to this Sonny?”

“Kind of.”

There was another silence. Hardcastle sighed heavily. “Well, you want to tell me what it is?”

“I felt like a third wheel out there today. I mean, it was just like I wasn’t around – he depended on you for everything.”

“That’s just your imagination.”

“No, don’t try to con a con. You were the hero. I was just the guy that fetched the truck and drove the car.”

“Those things needed to be done.”

“Oh yeah, sure. Who’s kidding who? Mark doesn’t need me.”

“Maybe you’re forgetting that it was Mark who looked you up.”

“Yeah, but then he didn’t know what he was gonna find. It must have been a real disappointment to find out his old man was a nightclub singer and not a tough guy like you.”

“Now wait just a damn minute –“

“Oh come on Judge, let’s be realistic about this. You want to know what I get to listen to all the time?” Sonny didn’t wait for an answer but forged ahead. “I’m tired of hearing what a great guy you are. Hardcastle did this. Hardcastle did that. There’s nothing you don’t know about. You’re a whiz at the law, you single handedly tamed the Oregon wilderness –“

Hardcastle shifted uncomfortably. “McCormick doesn’t know anything about the out-of-doors. It just seemed like I knew a lot because we were lost.”

“He depended on you – he depends on you all the time. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”

“Well –“

“Hell, according to him you’re a cross between Clarence Darrow and Davy Crockett. I mean you never do anything wrong. Not like his ‘ol dad, the constant screw-up. I mean, what do I know?”

“More than I do apparently. McCormick’s always quick enough to tell me when he thinks I’ve made a mistake. I really think you’re reading too much into this. I think the main problem is that the kid doesn’t know you too well – nobody told you it was gonna be easy to get back into Mark’s life. This is something you’re going to have to work at.”

Sonny looked resigned. “Nah. I’ve been thinking about it and it’d probably be best for everybody if I just left. I can get packed in about 30 minutes and be on my way. I’ll send the kid a card or something later.”

The silence in the room was so thick, it was oppressive. Sonny squirmed, knowing he’d said something wrong.

Hardcastle walked over to him and not wanting to feel at a disadvantage, Sonny stood up too. He knew he should have gone with his first instincts and just left. Sent them both a card.

Hardcastle stopped short and said in a voice low with anger. “Now you listen here. This is a nasty habit you’ve got of leaving every time things get a little uncomfortable for you. How many times do you think you can do this anyway?”

“As many times as I want to. This is between Markie and me.”

“Sure. You take the easy way out and somebody else gets to pick up the pieces. Well that somebody is me Buster, and that gives me a stake in this. If you wanna leave, fine, but you at least have the decency to say good-bye.”

“Hey, this is the way I am. Dependability isn’t my strong suit. I’m doing the best I can.”

“The hell you are. You come here with this song and dance about how you’ve been thinking about things – how you want to get to know your son. Why does everybody have to change to accommodate you? If you want Mark to trust you, you’ve got to do some changing yourself.”

“I’m his father!”

“So what? Does that give you the right to walk all over him? Anybody can have a kid, Sonny – it doesn’t take a whole lot of talent. Raising them is the hard part – but then you wouldn’t know about that, would you?”

“I stayed as long as I could. I did my best. You wouldn’t know about that, since you’re perfect, but those years were hard for me. And why do I have to justify this to you anyway? Sonny Daye never takes orders from anybody.”

Hardcastle sighed, suddenly looking very tired. “Then I’ll make it a request, Sonny. I can’t make you stay. But you walk out of McCormick’s life again and I can’t guarantee he’ll ever forgive you for it. And I’m through defending you. As far as I’m concerned, you’ll be every bit the louse he’ll think you are – the same louse you were when you walked out on a woman and a five year old kid.”

Sonny put his hand on the doorknob but didn’t leave right away. “Nice speech, Judge. Goodnight.”

Hardcastle couldn’t tell if Sonny was angry or not but he didn’t slam the bedroom door when he left.

The judge sat down, feeling drained. He crawled into bed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep but knowing there was nothing else he could do. He’d given it his best shot – much as he wanted to, he knew it wouldn’t do any good to beat the guy to a pulp. He couldn’t deny that he’d half-way noticed the same thing Sonny had today, although he’d been too concerned with Mark to pay much attention. Mark’s reaction wasn’t unexpected really, but a small part of Hardcastle was secretly gratified and warmed that the kid had turned to him in a crisis. He didn’t want to acknowledge that he was jealous of Sonny but it had been an unpleasant jolt when Mark had looked him up in Atlantic City. Even if the guy was no great discovery, he was still McCormick’s father and Mark had held him in his heart for 25 years. He wanted to see Sonny go. But not like this – he knew what the expression on Mark’s face would look like in the morning and he dreaded seeing it. The kid always walked around expecting the roof to fall in anyway. He rubbed his eyes – he knew he was going to get a headache.

When he woke up the headache was gone, and it was 7:30 in the morning. The first thing Hardcastle did was look out the window and he was relieved and surprised to see Sonny’s flashy car still in the driveway. Maybe they would get through this after all.

Thankfully, McCormick was up early, and Hardcastle and Sonny didn’t have to say anything to each other about what happened the night before. The kid’s bruises were darker, but he seemed to feel better and he was still in a good mood. The judge couldn’t figure out why an accident seemed to have made McCormick feel so chipper.

Sonny announced over breakfast he was leaving and it dented Mark’s mood a little but he took it well. He had known from the beginning it would probably be a short visit and even though he was pleased to have Sonny back in his life again, sometimes living with him was a strain.

After they loaded the luggage in the car, they all stood around waiting for someone to say something. Finally Sonny, rarely at a loss for words, playfully nudged Mark’s jaw with his fist. “You do good in school and make your old man proud of you, hear?”

Mark grinned. “Okay. You take care of yourself.”

As Hardcastle and Sonny shook hands, the judge tried to see if Sonny was angry but the handshake was warm and the smile friendly. Maybe that was where Mark had gotten some of his easy going nature.

As Sonny cranked the car, he looked up at the judge and winked. “You’re a hell of a lawyer, know that?”

“I worked at it.”

“Bye guys,” Sonny said and honked his musical horn as he left.

McCormick turned to Hardcastle quizzically. “What did he mean about you being a hell of a lawyer?”

“Good guess. I look like one, don’t I?”

“I take the fifth.”

“Hey Kid, you look a little rough to take out in public but if you want to, I can pick us up a couple of videotapes, we can fix some Dagwood sandwiches and do some serious laying around.”

“Okay. I know how disappointed you are about missing ‘Star Trek’ yesterday, but you’re in luck. ‘Back to the Future’ is out on video.”

“That should go okay with a John Wayne movie. We’ll try it.”

“Only you could think of a double feature like that.”

“Now yer cookin’.”