Last Week, ON HARDCASTLE and McCORMICK – Virtual Season 4:
“By this time tomorrow, Mr. McCormick will have become yet another casualty of Dead Week.”
“I'm very sorry to tell you that your responses on yesterday’s case summaries are identical to those of another student. Would you like to tell me how that might have happened?”
The professor took up a fountain pen and fiddled with it idly, now almost ignoring the accused. McCormick stared at him, open-mouthed for a moment. He finally gathered himself and shook his head.
“No, I mean—I can't . . . are you saying I cheated or something?”
Hawksworth looked up. He frowned. “If you have no other explanation, then I'm afraid we'll have to go with the obvious one.”
“Ethics,” he said gravely, “is the cornerstone of the practice of law. Without it, no one can hope to enter the profession.” He paused, surveying the room, all eyes now locked on him, then he began again, this time with a heavy sigh of disappointment. “A master copy of the final exam for this course disappeared from the desk in my office yesterday.”
Professor Hawksworth fixed his stare on his target, beckoning with one finger and a chilly, “Could you please join me for a moment, Mr. McCormick? Bring your briefcase with you, if you please.”
McCormick frowned but followed that with a quick shrug and then reached down for it before coming forward. He lifted the briefcase up onto Hawksworth’s desk, and spread the top open, waving a hand casually as if inviting the man to help himself.
The professor reached into the side pocket and felt the familiar contours of a floppy diskette. Hawksworth kept his expression rigid as he pulled the object out and held it up. He made sure everyone got a good look at it. Then he raised his eyebrows in a silent question.
McCormick looked bewildered. “That’s not mine.”
Frank Harper found his way to the back of the house.
“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?”
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. “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.”
And now, the exciting conclusion of Dead Week . . .
The ride to the police station was a disturbingly familiar one for McCormick. He should be grateful, he thought, that he wasn’t making the trip in the backseat of a squad car. This was far more civilized, sitting in the front, alongside Frank in his unmarked fleet car, like a couple of old friends on an ordinary errand—which they were: friends—even if the errand was far from ordinary.
And he’d noticed that Frank hadn’t even read him his rights yet, though that meant little, since he also hadn’t asked any questions. It had been a quiet trip so far. Mark supposed this awkward interval was one of the reasons the judge had bowed out on accompanying him. His main excuse had been his intention to look into the earlier accusations.
McCormick was past protesting that he preferred to handle things himself, in fact he sorely wished he had legal council right now. It was a fine thing to be told by your presumptive lawyer to, “Just stick to the facts, will ya?” and another entirely to do it when your questioners might know more of the facts than you did.
He sighed, drawing a quick glance from Frank, who said, “It’s just questioning. It’s not like you’ve never been through it before.”
“Yeah.” Mark gazed out the window, south over the Pacific, then finally back at Frank. “You know, I thought it’d be different.”
Mark shrugged slightly. “Everything. Or at least some stuff . . . after my parole, I mean. I thought things would settle down. I’d go to law school, maybe make something of myself. Things’d be normal.”
“It is different.”
Mark nodded in concession. “Thanks for letting me ride in front.”
Frank shot him another look. “Questioning. You’re a potential witness. We question witnesses.”
“Hardcastle is a witness, too.”
“Yeah, a hostile one,” Frank snorted. “And don’t worry. He can spot a fishing expedition when he sees one, otherwise he’d be backseat driving right now. 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.”
“Such a simple matter. You said you were certain. And now this unholy mess.” Dean Thomas clutched the receiver with more intensity than it required. His voice was purposefully low, though equally intense. “Two people are dead—and the police are involved. I hold you responsible. Have you no control over your students? None of this is going to make our benefactors any happier.”
The placations from the other end of the line didn’t suit him any more than the man’s earlier reassurances had.
“I’ve got Judge Hardcastle coming for a nine o’clock,” he snapped in response. “The man refuses to be put off. No—it’s better that I see him. I’ll handle it. You . . . you try not to say anything that we’ll both regret.” Thomas barely waited for the other man’s response. He wouldn’t trust it anyway.
As it was, he’d barely gotten the receiver back in the cradle, before his secretary buzzed him, her soothing, hushed tones coming through the intercom. “Sorry to disturb you, Dean. Mr. Hardcastle is here and he wants me to remind you it’s after nine.”
“Send him in,” Thomas said, trying to keep his tone pleasantly businesslike.
The door opened a moment later and Judge Hardcastle strode through, planting himself firmly in front of the dean's desk, his brows lowered and his attitude apparent.
“You know they’ve taken McCormick downtown for questioning.” It was a statement, not question. Dean Thomas didn’t deign to nod before Hardcastle plowed on.
“I’m an alumnus of this university and a member of the bar—not to mention there’s a good chance I’m going to end up on Mr. McCormick’s defense team, if it comes to that. All of which means I have standing to ask you about those original charges.”
The dean neither agreed nor dissented, only cocking his head just slightly, in a position that might have expressed doubt.
Hardcastle ignored the gesture, fastening his famous glare on the man's face. “I want to know exactly how this was handled. McCormick's prints weren't on that diskette and another student's were, I know that much.” He clamped his mouth tightly shut and waited, impatiently, for a response.
Dean Thomas said calmly, “Mr. McCormick probably knows a great deal more about forensics than the average law student. In any event, the diskette containing the exam was found in his possession. You can't dispute that.” He eyed his paperweight, gilt-covered scales of justice in miniature, and added, “It doesn’t matter what the police intend to do, there will be a disciplinary hearing. As to how the charges have been handled, that will all be under the purview of that committee.”
The judge kept his stare fixed on the dean. “A hearing—when?”
“With the end of term at hand, and finals next week, Mr. McCormick has already asked for the matter to be dealt with as soon as possible. I see no reason not to comply with his request. I’m scheduling it for tomorrow.”
“He’ll need counsel.”
“It’s not considered necessary. This is not ordinarily an adversarial procedure.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Hardcastle growled.
“We merely seek the truth.”
“There’s nothing ‘ordinary’ about these proceedings,” Hardcastle said. “In fact, I say this professor of yours has had it in for McCormick from the start.” He frowned and then added, “Counsel’s not prohibited, is it?”
“No,” Thomas said reluctantly.
Hardcastle gave that a single sharp nod. “Tomorrow, then. When and where?”
The dean cast a casual glance down at his appointment book. “Ten a.m., in room 107, this building.”
“A list of witnesses—”
“Not adversarial. Anyone who feels they have an interest, or can make a contribution to the facts, is welcome to attend.”
“Ten a.m., here.” Hardcastle gave him one last squinting look. “See you tomorrow.”
Then he turned and stalked out, leaving Dean Thomas scowling at his back.
“Milt, what brings you here?” Mattie Groves held out her hand to Hardcastle. “You never come to see me at the courthouse these days.”
A worried look crossed Hardcastle’s face as he took a seat by her desk. It was almost immediately reflected on Mattie’s expression.
“Oh, no. It's Mark, isn't it?” She dropped into her own chair and leaned forward. “Something’s wrong?”
“Nah, nah.” He waved it away. “Not like that, the way you think. He's fine.”
“What’s wrong?” Mattie said more insistently.
Hardcastle drew a hand across his face wearily, regarding his friend in silence for a moment.
“He needs legal representation,” he said bluntly, “at the university. He's been accused of stealing a computer diskette with a final exam on it.”
“Mark?” Her tone was incredulous. “You've got to be kidding!”
“Nope. Wish I was.” He even sounded tired. “He's gonna need somebody to defend him at the university hearing tomorrow. We'd have more time if exams weren't so close. I know it's short notice, Mattie, but would you do it?”
“I’m a judge, Milt. You know better than anybody—I can’t act as a defense attorney.”
“It’s strictly a ‘non-adversarial hearing’. Their words. And that’s except for the part where they kick his butt out of school if they don’t like the facts they come up with.”
Mattie let loose a low whistle—it would have been unexpected, to anyone who hadn’t witnessed her response to the unveiling of a royal flush at the poker table. “High stakes, huh?” She was checking her schedule even as she spoke. “I can switch things around here and have pretty much the whole day tomorrow open. But, Milt,” she narrowed her eyes at him. “Why aren't you defending him?”
The judge eyed her cagily. “Well, I mighta poked a stick in the hornet’s nest this morning—though the way I see it, things were already pretty stirred up.”
Mattie was giving him the kind of look that defendants dreaded.
Even Hardcastle wasn’t immune. He finally shrugged. “Okay, I gave the dean a piece of my mind. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. First a girl comes on to him in the library—”
“Well, I might be able to understand that.”
“Wait,” Hardcastle held up a hand. “The next morning a professor calls him down, right in front of the whole class. Asks to look through his briefcase—bingo—there’s the diskette the guy just told everyone he was missing.”
“And his nexus for singling Mark out was—?”
“Opportunity. He’d had McCormick on the carpet in his office the day before, accusing him of cheating on some quiz.”
Mattie’s eyebrows rose.
“That was disproved by another student’s eyewitness report,” Hardcastle assured her hurriedly.
“But,” Mattie said, “by virtue of being falsely accused the first time, he had a chance to steal the diskette from the professor’s office?” She whistled again. “We've got some kind of dramatic irony there. Any other evidence?”
“None. The girl—the one who was trying to snuggle up to McCormick in the library—her prints are on the disk. McCormick’s obviously aren’t.”
Mattie frowned in puzzlement. “So what’s the problem? The case is circumstantial at best. The physical evidence points to this girl—”
“Who’s dead. Murdered, the night before last.”
“McCormick was with me all evening.”
“I hadn’t actually asked that question, Milt.”
“Well, you should. McCormick’s with the cops right now, being questioned.”
Mattie’s jaw dropped—just slightly, and just for a moment. Then she snapped it shut and said, “Then what the hell are we doing here?”
In addition to Frank, there were two detectives and an assistant district attorney crowded in with McCormick in the interrogation room. Lieutenant Harper was mostly present in an observational capacity, and things were not going well. They hadn’t been going well for quite some time now.
After trying all of the standard techniques for initiating a productive conversation with a suspect, ADA Kohler had finally snapped.
“If you wanted your lawyer, why the hell didn’t you bring Hardcastle along?”
“Who says he’s my lawyer?” McCormick gave him a disgruntled look. “Maybe I can’t afford a lawyer. Maybe I need one appointed for me—hmm?”
“Okay, fine, get him a P.D.” The ADA threw up his hands in disgust and impatience.
A knock came at the door and then it opened. The desk sergeant peered in and said, “I got somebody here to see McCormick.”
The ADA scowled. “Hah. Hardcase, huh? Well, maybe we can finally get—”
“It’s me, Roland,” Judge Grove’s crisp, no-nonsense voice cut him off. “And you need to mind your manners.” She stepped in and gave the room's occupants a quick, surveying glance. “What are the charges?”
Harper smiled grimly and cleared his throat. “Theft, so far. The value of the stolen goods seems to be a matter of opinion.”
Mattie nodded her thanks to him and then glanced at the district attorney.
“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.”
“I’ll just leave you gentlemen to sort things out.” She graced the room with her best judicial smile as she pivoted toward the door.