The morning sun was shining, and waves pounded the shoreline far below the Gull’s Way patio. Hardcastle was pretending to read the morning newspaper over his coffee while McCormick pecked at his own breakfast. Neither man had said much so far that morning and that expectant silence persisted, even after they’d both heard a car in the front drive.
But Mark had pushed his plate away and Hardcastle’s newspaper was folded before Frank Harper found his way to the back.
“How's the investigation going?” Hardcastle said grumpily.
“So-so, I’d say.” Harper ambled over to the table and settled into a chair. “Your Professor Hawksworth got his prints all over the floppy—but he didn’t quite manage to obliterate two partials. No luck on those though, so far. Thanks, Mark,” he added as McCormick passed him a mug of coffee.
He took a sip and remarked, not quite casually, “Oh, and did you happen to know a student named Audra—Audra West?”
“Ah, yeah,” said McCormick slowly. “A bit. Nice girl, friendly.”
There was a pause before Frank’s odd choice of tenses finally penetrated his pensive gloom. He sharpened his gaze at the lieutenant. “Why?”
“Found this morning in an alley near her apartment building. Dead.”
The other two men exchanged glances over the table.
Frank frowned down at his coffee cup. “Looks like strangulation. The ME says she's been dead since about 10 p.m. There’s no motive and no suspects so far. Odd coincidence,” he added.
Mark stared at him. “Do I need an alibi?”
“Do you have one?”
McCormick shot a glance at Hardcastle, who looked back at him and then at Harper and stated, very clearly, as if for the record, “He was here, with me.”
Frank let out a breath. He put his mug down, still barely touched. “Okay. I just thought you ought to know what's going on. Thanks for the coffee . . . and the alibi.”
McCormick said nothing as Harper took his leave. As the sound of the car faded out, he muttered, “I hate coincidences. And I was in the gatehouse all evening, studying.”
“You were here. I was here. We just weren’t in exactly the same here,” Hardcastle said Jesuitically.
“I talked to Audra the night before last, in the library,” Mark said. “She came up to me, very friendly.”
Hardcastle frowned. “You think she’s the one who slipped the diskette into your bag?”
“I think she’s dead. And lots of people in that library saw us chatting—and that was the night before Hawksworth accused me of peddling the final. You still want to be my alibi? This could get ugly.”
“Somebody set you up. Somebody killed her. They teach you guys about Occam’s Razor, don’t they?”
“The simplest solution is the best,” McCormick muttered.
“Uh-huh. Now what do you know about that kid, Randy, besides that he’s a cheat?”
At half-past four, after a day which had been unusually fatiguing, Professor Hawksworth was finally headed for his car, which he’d parked in his assigned spot in the faculty lot. There was nothing between him and the solitude of his home except for a quiet drive. He reached to insert the key in the door of the vehicle.
His eyes jerked to the left as Randy Powers stepped out from behind the van parked next to his car. The young man smiled at him, though there was nothing particularly friendly in the expression.
“I’m glad I caught up with you,” Powers said. “You’re a little hard to find sometimes, you know.”
His tone was far too familiar, offensively so. Hawksworth gathered himself, considered simply getting into his car and driving away, then paused and turned fully toward Powers.
“My office hours are posted.”
“Yeah, I guess today’s been a little crazy, too. Not even enough time to rat me out to the dean, huh?”
Hawksworth contained his urge to scowl. He wasn’t sure how far to let this go—not certain just how dangerous this young man was. He opted for a mild rebuttal.
“Given what happened—the theft of the final exam—it seemed prudent to reconsider Mr. McCormick’s credibility as a witness. How would it look if I had acted prematurely on the word of a known thief?”
Powers leaned nonchalantly against the van, his hands in his pockets. He seemed to be considering his next move.
“You know,” he said, ratcheting his attitude down perceptibly, “I've been thinking. A lot. About everything that's happened in the last couple of days, really.” He smiled slyly. “I'm reconsidering my career choice.”
Hawksworth raised one eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Powers nodded. “I think I might take a year off, maybe go abroad.” He ignored the professor’s questioning expression and went on, as though he were still working through it for himself. “Of course I’d need some cash for all that . . . a long-term loan.”
There was a pensive pause, and then his tone suddenly sharpened. “I’m thinking real long-term . . . it’d be cheaper than you having to hire a lawyer.”
Hawksworth said nothing. He waited.
Randy was smiling again, though this time there was an edge to it. He made a show of looking around carefully to ensure no one was near enough to overhear before saying, “Audra was in your office last night, right before she ended up dead. How's that going to look for you?”
“I think we all know who’s responsible for Ms. West’s death,” Hawksworth snapped.
Powers shrugged. “Have it your way. I’ve got it all figured out. Maybe I'm no Rhodes Scholar, but even I know what's really going on now. And if I go down, you go with me.” He started to turn away.
“How large a loan?” Hawksworth hissed sharply.
Randy glanced over his shoulder and turned back. “$250,000—small potatoes, really, all things considered.” He grinned insouciantly, hands still in his pockets.
“I’m sympathetic to your difficulties,” Hawksworth paused and licked his lips, “but putting together that kind of cash will take time.”
Randy waved off that as an insignificant obstacle. “Tomorrow morning. Here. Eleven o'clock.” He stepped back.
The professor nodded briefly, then opened his car, slid in, and started it, without another word.
Randy Powers watched him back the car out and pull away. His smile warped into a sneer as he turned and walked away.
Parked behind a shady elm a half block away, the judge and McCormick had observed the scene from Hardcastle's truck. It had been all body language—nothing audible.
“Think he asked Hawksworth to explain what mens rea means?” Hardcastle drawled.
McCormick shook his head. “Probably not.”
Powers was skirting the parking lot, strolling toward campus, while Hawksworth had already taken off in the opposite direction.
“We can’t follow ‘em both.” Mark looked across at the judge.
“Stick with Randy.”
They were still in the truck, but night had fallen quite some time ago. The twosome sat quietly, parked down the street from a rambling old house that had been subdivided into apartments—student housing.
Hardcastle kept an eye on the house. McCormick, not quite ready to abandon all hope, was studying. He looked up from his book and muttered, “I’d forgotten how boring stakeouts are.”
The judge nodded, still peering out toward the lit window. “He’s sure as hell not doin’ much.”
“Sure he is; he’s studying. He gets to take the final.”
“You will, too,” Hardcastle replied reassuringly.
“It's hard to read in the dark. I need to get one of those little reading lights that clips onto the book. You think that would be too noticeable?” McCormick leaned his head back to rest on the seat. “This stuff is almost as bad as constitutional law.”
“Listen, quit fretting about it, okay? You're smarter than most of those guys out there.” The judge waved a hand in the general direction of the campus.
Mark looked over at him. “You really think so?”
“'Course you are. Don't be stupid.”
Mark opened his mouth to respond, then decided to let it go. What he offered instead was, “We’re out of practice on the stakeout front—no food.”
Just then they heard a gunshot from the direction of the house.