The blast echoed oddly and was followed by screams and shouts. The two men scrambled out of the truck and headed toward the house at a run. Mark was in the lead, taking the steps up onto the porch two at a time, and bursting into the foyer. There was a cacophony of voices—questions and interjections, and heads sticking out of doorways on the first floor. From upstairs came more yelling and doors banging.
Someone shouted from above, “He’s hurt!”
“Call 9-1-1,” Hardcastle said as he pushed past the anxious cluster in the hallway and followed McCormick up the stairs.
“Are you a cop?” a kid on the second floor landing said anxiously. McCormick gave him a reassuring wave and brushed by.
Another distraught student beckoned urgently and pointed toward an open door. “He’s in there. I dunno; I think he’s dead.”
McCormick peered in, the judge joining him a moment later. In the puddle of light from the desk lamp, they could see Randy slumped over on his desk, a gun on the floor next to him. Mark stepped in, touching nothing. He approached the figure at the desk cautiously, though it was now apparent that it was a corpse with a single gunshot wound to the right temple. Randy's head had come to rest on a piece of paper on which was scrawled, in letters big enough to read among the blood splatters, I can’t handle this anymore. They’re following me and they’re going to frame me. I didn’t do it.
Sounds of bustle from below heralded the arrival of the campus police. They were at the door of the room a moment later, guns drawn. The judge looked at them, and cleared his throat, uncomfortably.
“We were, ah, just in the neighborhood. Heard the shot. Came on up to see what was going on.”
The older of the two campus cops took a step forward, frowning down at the corpse and touching the neck to confirm the obvious.
Hardcastle cocked his own head slightly, looking steadily at the wall to the right of the body. “Mighta been two shots . . . two, real close together.” He pointed at a spot on the wall he’d been studying.
The cop looked up, following Hardcastle’s finger to a punched-out divot in the plaster.
“Yeah,” the cop nodded, “happens sometimes. They’re not as steady as they think. First shot goes wild.” He waved his partner off to summon the rest of the authorities then looked back at the corpse. “Kids,” he shook his head, “they don’t know what they’ve got. Happens sometimes, ’specially right before finals.”
Then he squinted at the two concerned citizens again. “You're Judge Hardcastle, right? Thought I recognized you. But still . . . both of you need to step outside. We’ve got a crime scene here.”
Back at Gull’s Way, in the den, McCormick had stopped even pretending to study.
“Maybe we pushed him too hard.”
Hardcastle stopped prowling the floor, long enough to scowl at him. “You heard what I heard and you saw what I saw—two shots.”
Mark shrugged. “Like the cop said, he missed on the first one.”
The judge threw him an irked glance. “Hell, somebody shot him, then put his hand around the gun and fired again—bingo, positive gunshot residue test.”
“Who? We were sitting right there. You’d think we woulda noticed someone slinking around up to no good. Unless you think one of his housemates offed him.”
“It’s a big house,” Hardcastle told him, “easy enough for someone to go in and out without us seeing. You said it yourself: we’re out of practice at the stakeout thing.”
McCormick looked doubtful. “And the letter?” he said just as the doorbell rang.
The two looked at each other. Hardcastle went to the door and saw Frank Harper, just as he leaned impatiently on the bell again. The judge grimaced and opened the door. Harper stepped by him, heading for the den without a greeting.
“At least I don't have to ask if you have an alibi for the time of Randy Power’s death,” he said to Mark grimly. “What the hell were you two doing hanging around there anyway? Oh, and you were right,” he nodded toward Hardcastle. “The second bullet’s in the plaster.”
“Toldja,” Hardcastle muttered.
“No ballistics yet, but both are .38s.”
McCormick shook his head. “I'm not sure that’s really going to cheer us up, but thanks, Frank, for letting us know.”
“There’s something else, though.” Harper frowned, and seemed suddenly reluctant to continue. “We got an ID on those two partials from Mark’s floppy.”
“It’s not mine.” McCormick protested.
“The diskette that was recovered from your briefcase,” Frank enunciated clearly. There was another pause, and no further protest from McCormick before the lieutenant went on. “The prints are a match for that student who was found strangled.”
There was a long pause as he gave a hard look to Hardcastle, and then at McCormick.
Frank sighed wearily. “You sticking with your alibi for two nights ago?”
Mark glanced at the judge, who was avoiding looking back at him. Quietly, the judge nodded. McCormick kept silent.
Harper gave their obvious interplay a grimace and a sharp nod. Then he took one step closer to McCormick and said, “They want you downtown for questioning.”
To be continued . . .
“Some of us are worried about Mark and what happened to him, not to mention knowing that any of us could get the same treatment. Somebody could take a dislike to us and frame us the same way. ‘Disciplinary hearing’—hah, it’s a kangaroo court. A few of the others,” she hesitated for just a second, “they think Mark's different. You know, because he's an ex-con and they're not. But the rest of us get it – he's not different at all. He's one of us and he's innocent until proven guilty!”
“I thought things would settle down. I’d go to law school, maybe make something of myself. Things’d be normal.”
Frank shot him a look. “Questioning. You’re a potential witness. We question witnesses. The ADA and a couple of detectives are just gonna poke around a little. You’ll make a few smart remarks. You do have some notion about how that disk got in your bag, don’t you?”
“Nothing that’ll stand up in a court of law.”
“Well, lucky for you it’s ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”
“That only works for citizens,” Mark said glumly, “not ex-cons.”
“Since you wisely haven’t taken this past the exploratory stage, and the crime in question is most likely a misdemeanor, I’d advise you let the university handle it.” She turned her head to include the police detectives in her remarks. “If Mr. McCormick is found liable for the theft, you’ll be able to take the matter up again. If he’s innocent, you won’t have wasted a spot on some overworked judge’s docket.”
She frowned at McCormick—a simple, no-nonsense, all-purpose frown, as though she were trying to lend some weight to her next remark. “If they don’t take my advice, and maybe even if they do, you’ll need a lawyer.” She cocked her head and added, “As a judge, I’m not eligible, but I’d recommend that you refuse to discuss the matter further at this point and—in light of the minor nature of the charge—demand recognizance bond.”
There was a shriek, short but piercing. It came from a woman he recognized distractedly as a fellow-student, Valerie Nagel. She was standing just behind the judge, looking over his shoulder, wide-eyed at the scene. She turned away suddenly, retreating to the hall. Her place was taken by Amy London. Who was calm, though she, too, looked shocked.
“He’s dead,” McCormick said quietly.
“I think the deck’s been stacked against McCormick since this started, and I’m pretty sure I know who was doing the stacking.”
“Well, I dunno if it all makes sense yet; it might not to you guys, anyway. Just do me a favor, will ya? Have the techs bag Hawksworth’s hands. I’d like ‘em to run a residue test on him—his jacket, too.”
Frank was staring. He finally said, “He definitely didn’t shoot himself.”
“No, but I’m thinking with a little luck I might be able to solve two deaths for you at least.”
Tune in for the exciting season finale conclusion
Monday, May 28, at 9/8 Central