McCormick stood at the pay phone in the corridor, a finger in one ear to keep out the competing noise, and the other ear pressed firmly against the receiver.
“Uh-huh—I’d say it’s serious—expulsion at least; it might come to criminal charges even.”
He listened to the voice on the other end, irascible but undeniably comforting. He let it wind down, then responded, “Yeah, I’d appreciate it—the dean’s office, in Dodd Hall. Thanks.”
He hung up the phone, then returned to waiting room and sat, trying not to fidget. He knew he’d made the right decision—that phone call. He knew when push came to shove, that man could be counted on . . . if he could get here before a final decision was made. Mark checked his watch, then the wall clock. They showed the same time. He could hear voices in inaudible discussion on the other side of the door to the dean’s office. Time passed slowly, but not nearly slowly enough as he waited to hear his fate.
The buzz of the secretary's phone startled him.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, listened for a moment, then replied, “certainly, sir.” She hung up, gave Mark a noncommittal look and said, “Please go in now, Mr. McCormick.”
As he entered the office, he saw Dean Thomas sitting behind his desk, looking peeved. Professor Hawksworth stood, superior and disapproving, by the window. The floppy diskette lay in the middle of the desk top.
Indicating it with a finger, the dean spoke. “We have checked, Mr. McCormick. This is a copy of the final exam for Professor Hawksworth’s class. Would you care to explain how you came by it?”
Mark was careful to speak calmly and evenly. “I don’t have any explanation. I never saw it before the professor found it in my briefcase.”
There was a knock on the door and it opened almost immediately. The secretary stuck her head in and said, “Excuse me, Dean, there’s a man out here who insists on seeing you.”
“He’ll have to wait.” The dean was not happy and his annoyance was evident in his tone of voice.
The door suddenly opened further and Frank Harper stepped past the secretary. He flashed his badge. “Lieutenant Harper, LAPD. Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but we've had a report of a theft—possibly a very serious theft.”
McCormick kept his face straight, but couldn't restrain his sigh of relief.
The dean and the professor glared at each other; neither appearing pleased. The dean spoke first, saying grumpily, “Who the hell reported it?”
Harper returned his badge to its pocket and pulled out his notebook, flipping it open. He glanced down at it and then back up. “A Mr. Mark McCormick—said it's some sort of important document on a computer diskette.”
McCormick spoke up, barely stifling his smile. “A final exam.” He pointed to the floppy on the dean's desktop. “There.”
Harper frowned down at it, then looked at Dean Thomas and Professor Hawksworth. “This is the item? It’s been recovered?”
“Yes.” The two men spoke in unison, evidently unhappy about having this become a public issue. They exchanged sharp glances, their faces showing nearly identical irked frowns.
The lieutenant pulled out a cello-bag, donned a plastic glove, and reached across for the diskette.
“Wait!” Professor Hawksworth objected, hand outstretched.
“It’s only a copy,” McCormick pointed out. “And it’s evidence.”
“I suppose you all touched it?” Frank inquired in a resigned tone.
McCormick said happily, “I didn't.”
The dean and the professor both scowled at Mark, then at Harper.
Harper shook his head slowly as he inserted the disk into the bag and then sealed it up. “Lawyers, huh? Don’t they teach you guys anything about the chain of evidence?” Ignoring their reactions, he took a marker from his pocket and jotted something on the bag, then deposited it in his pocket. Looking up, he said, matter-of-factly, “I’ll need statements from everybody.”
The afternoon sun slowly lowered itself toward the ocean and a light zephyr was freshening to become a strong breeze.
“So, I'm suspended, indefinitely. Until Frank's finished investigating.” Mark looked across to the judge.
Hardcastle sat quietly, face grim. Finally, he spoke. “So what I want to know is, do they only allow you one phone call?” Seeing the younger man shake his head in negation, the judge allowed himself to shout, “So why the hell didn't you call me?”
Mark winced a little, then looked straight at Hardcastle. “Because Frank has a badge and evidence bags.” He then looked off toward the setting sun, shading his eyes with his hand. He finally sighed in resignation.
“And maybe . . . because I didn't want you to come stomping in there raising a fuss about it. I mean, everybody there knows about you already.”
The scowl set a little deeper on the judge’s face. “You still worry that people’ll think you only got in because of me? Because I thought we’d settled that a long time ago.”
Another head shake, this one more emphatic. “Not everybody. But I already told you Hawksworth doesn’t like me, and now here he is, front and center in the smear campaign. People listen to guys like him.”
“What about that girl, Amy?” Hardcastle inquired. “She’s not listening.”
McCormick relaxed slightly. “Nah, she’s a friend. And I get your point; I’ve got more friends than enemies, and not just the students. I know that. But still, how would it look if you were riding to the rescue every time something happened to me?”
“I kinda thought that was the way things worked,” the judge said in a mild tone. “And vice versa. You telling me I'm wrong about that?”
“No-oo.” McCormick turned back to face him again. “But think how it looks, okay? And besides, there's stuff I can handle by myself, you know.”
“Like the thing that happened yesterday morning—I guess I was never gonna hear about that, huh?”
“Not if I could help it,” Mark said with a grim smile. “Anyway, that was settled.”
“Not quite—looks like. Unless you think the two things are completely unrelated.”
“No,” Mark grudged. “I hate coincidences. But I still think I can handle stuff by myself once in a while.”
“Then how come Frank? That's not by yourself.”
Mark shrugged. “Sometimes you need a cop.”
“Okay, fair enough.” Hardcastle rubbed a hand across his chin. “What about this suspension? Final exams are next week.”
“Yeah, that’s a problem. We’re on the clock to get this settled.” McCormick leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I hope Frank comes up with something.”
Professor Hawksworth gripped the receiver in his hand tightly. “Involving Powers was the best way to address the situation,” he insisted. “In any event, he's not that bright and should have been weeded out long ago.”
The voice from the receiver hardly sounded placated. Hawksworth frowned, thinking perhaps he ought to have distinguished more clearly between Powers’ lack of academic potential and a perfect abundance of craftiness. He finally settled for a simple reassurance concerning the outcome.
“You shouldn’t worry so much. McCormick will be completely discredited. Then, after a suitable interval, I'll explain to Powers about fingerprints and scandal and see that he realizes it's in his best interests to seek a different career.”
He nodded as the voice at the end of the line muttered and squawked.
He finally sighed impatiently and murmured, “And I am certain that our benefactors will be pleased by this lagniappe to their original commission. Their interests in the standards of this institution run with ours. Don't worry about it. Everything is well under control.”
He hung up the phone and sneered at it. Some people lacked the stomach to wield authority. He got up to turn on the overhead light in his office. He hadn’t realized how late it had gotten while he’d been mulling over the day’s events. He heard a tap at the door. His secretary had long since departed for the day.
“Who is it?” he said sourly.
Audra West opened the door just enough to be seen. She cleared her throat nervously.
“Come in, Ms. West,” he invited, with hastily-repaired cordiality.
“Thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t make an appointment.”
“Nonsense,” Hawksworth smiled, “you know my door is always open to students.”
Audra nodded, still looking uncertain. He gestured toward a seat and waited for her to settle herself in it.
“How can I help you?” he finally prodded.
She frowned, not making eye contact. “I needed to talk to you, to tell you something important. It’s something I did—but it's not as bad as it seems.”
Hawksworth nodded and made an encouraging gesture.
“Well,” she wetted her lips and then took a deep breath. “Randy Powers and I were in the library last night and he said he took some of Mark McCormick's notes without asking him. Mark was sitting just a couple of tables over and Randy asked me to get the notes back into his . . . Mark's, I mean, briefcase without him knowing. So I did.”
She leaned forward, the words coming even quicker. “Mark didn't do anything wrong, Professor! It was Randy. Randy and me, I guess. But I didn't know! I thought it was just notes, you know how it is! I swear! If I'd known, if I'd realized what was really going on—”
She stopped abruptly, swallowed, and then added. “Do you believe me? You have to believe me.”
Hawksworth said nothing, turning away from her to stare at the wall of his office.
“You can suspend me, if you want.” Audra kneaded her hands together, eyes starting to tear up. “I mean, I did do something wrong, I guess, even if I thought it was just somebody's notes. A prank or something. I'm really, really sorry, but I had to set the record straight.” She stared down at her hands, now clasped in her lap, and fell silent.
The professor turned back to face her, his expression unhappy but sympathetic. “I respect your desire to do the right thing, Ms. West. This is, of course, a serious offense and action must be taken, but I can see you were misled by Mr. Powers. Now you only wish to see justice done, no matter what the personal cost to you—is that correct?”
Audra nodded, dabbing at her face with a tissue.
“That is admirably forthright,” Hawksworth said with a consoling smile. “I think I can relieve you of some of the responsibility for what happened. It sounds as if you were an innocent tool used by Mr. Powers. Wouldn’t you agree?”
At her hopeful nod, he continued, “I think you should leave it with me for the night. Let me sort it all out. I will explain things to the dean in the morning and we'll take it from there. It might even . . .” he paused, musing, watching as she brightened slightly, “it might be possible, just might, I say, be possible to keep your part in this from becoming public knowledge.”
“Oh, Professor Hawksworth, that would be . . . that would be wonderful!” She took a final swipe at her eyes, then stood, beaming at the man across the desk from her. “Thank you so much for understanding—and for helping.”
“The truth should be rewarded, don't you agree?” He smiled and escorted her to the office door. “Now don't even think about it for the rest of the night. It's safely in my hands.”
Audra West walked down the steps of the faculty building, carefully watching her steps in a darkness lit only by streetlights. Professor Hawksworth observed her departure from his office window. In the shadows across the street, Randy Powers also watched her walk away.