Judge Groves and McCormick sat in a pleasant coffee shop near the police station. Mattie’s arrival had been acknowledged by polite nods from a couple of the patrons, but she and Mark were otherwise left in peace once coffee had been provided. For a while, though, it looked as if Mark was taken her advice to heart and had no intention of discussing the matter any further.
“I’m going to represent you at the disciplinary hearing,” Mattie said quietly.
He looked up sharply from his coffee.
“I thought it was some kind of conflict—you’re a judge.”
“This is a university disciplinary hearing, not a court of law. I’m a free agent.” She didn’t get much reaction to that. Mark seemed to sink back into some dark thought, studying his coffee.
“Hey,” she finally said, “it's me, Mattie the Inside Straight, remember? I never saw a long shot I didn’t like—and this isn’t even a long shot. You can take that to the bank.”
That got a small chuckle from McCormick, though he sobered almost immediately.
“Listen,” she went on, doggedly cheerful, “Bummy Bumgarner wants to know if there’s anything he can do. I even heard a couple of cops down at that station saying the whole thing must be a frame-up. You're not alone in this.” She stopped, still gazing at him, then sighed and took a sip of her coffee.
McCormick finally noticed the silence and glanced up. “Ah, thanks. That’s nice to hear.” His smile was tentative and didn’t seem to come easily. “And I'm glad you're representing me, but . . .”
Mattie leaned over the table toward him. “‘But’?”
“I think Hardcastle is starting to be sorry about the alibi he gave me,” he said quietly. “It was almost a lie, you know. Maybe he wants to put a little distance between us—between him and me, I mean.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Mattie impatiently. “You’re in a funk. Your judgment’s messed up. He’s out there right now, digging into this thing, and he wouldn’t have given you that alibi if he hadn’t believed in it, foursquare.” She reached out to nudge him, recapturing his attention. “And, hey, did you ever consider that maybe he’s thinking you’re better off with him at a little distance? At least as long as he’s over there at the university, rattling cages.”
She sighed and looked grave, pulling out a note book and opening it to a page on which she’d already scribbled a few notes.
“Anyway, we’re going to start at the beginning, the theft. Come on, Dimples, work with me here. Clearly Audra had her mitts on that diskette. You think she must’ve slipped it into your briefcase the evening before?”
Mark straightened a little, took a slug of coffee, and gazed at her intently. “Yeah, I was working in the campus library and she was there, with that guy Powers, the one who’d been caught cheating. They were a few tables over from me, and then she came over to where I was sitting and started talking.”
“Had she done that before?” Mattie waved a hand. “I mean, was she in the habit of chatting you up whenever she saw you?”
Mark said nothing. He was staring fixedly.
“What?” she said, trying to get his attention again.
“Oh—I just thought—Powers had the appointment right after mine that evening, in Hawksworth’s office. He must’ve just gotten told he’d been caught. Hawksworth made it sound to me like the guy was going to be suspended at least.
“So, what’s he doing heading straight to the library after news like that? Hell, I don’t think he even went there on good days. So he went there just to pass the thing to her, and have her plant it on me.”
Mattie considered that for a moment, then nodded again. “Okay, but is this line of questioning leading us anywhere?”
Mark sat up a straighter still. “Think about it—he’s gonna do this thing in one of the most public places on campus, on one of the most crowded nights of the year. This had to be an impulse—he did it on the fly. I think he’d just gotten his hands on it. So who stole the earlier copy? And why did he suddenly decide to plant it on me?” He paused, and then frowned. “I mean besides that I make such an all-around good suspect.”
“These are all interesting speculations,” Maggie said, “but can we just nail the hand-off? This Audra person was right there, next to your briefcase?” At his nod, Mattie pressed the issue. “Was she touching it? Could she have touched it, even opened it and slipped the diskette in without you seeing her do it?”
Mark nodded, thoughtfully. “Yeah, sure she could. It was sitting on the table between us. I couldn't see her other hand.” He knitted his brows in memory . “I guess I wasn't really paying all that much attention anyway.”
“She was distracting, huh?” Mattie said with a quirk of a smile as she glanced down at her notebook. “I think that’ll do for opportunity. Do you remember anyone else who was there? You said the place was crowded. Anyone who might remember you and Audra or even this guy Powers?”
Mark thought about that one for a moment, narrowing his eyes in concentration.
“Um, yeah. Amy . . . Amy London, and couple of others. People tend to sit at the same tables most of the time. Habits, you know?” He looked a bit more hopeful.
Mattie smiled and passed her notebook and a pen across to him. “Write the names down for me.” She eased back in her seat, looking thoughtful as he wrote. “Now— motive. Tell me more about Mr. Powers and the meetings the day before yesterday.”
Hardcastle strode into Hawksworth's office, taking a seat across from the professor's desk without waiting for an invitation.
“I need to get a couple things straight about these charges you’ve leveled at Mark McCormick,” he said brusquely.
“No politeness, no pretense at cordiality? Civility is a lost art,” murmured Hawksworth. “Very well, we will dispense with it. What do you want to know?”
“Why did you single him out as the culprit?”
“Because he'd been in my office that morning.”
The judge visibly calmed himself and asked, in a cooler tone, “At your request—at a time appointed by you and with you present?”
“So you assumed he’d stolen the diskette during that visit?” Hardcastle added a note of doubt to the inquiry, not waiting for an answer before firing off a barrage of additional questions: “Had you shown it to him? Was it labeled, left out in the open? Was he the only person who visited that day?”
“Obviously not,” Hawksworth said with the beginnings of irritation. “I can’t remember every visitor.” In a supercilious tone he added, “Perhaps you would care to subpoena my secretary's appointment book.”
“I think that might be necessary, the way this is going,” Hardcastle snapped. Then he changed tacks, pouncing on the professor’s earlier answer. “So if he wasn't the only person who came in here, why did you suspect him?” He fixed the man with a glower.
Hawksworth drew himself up. The expression on his face suggested that the answer to that was obvious, but, even so, he had too much sense to suggest it to his interrogator. Instead, resuming an aggravatingly calm and superior tone he said, “I hardly think I need to answer all these questions. I’m not the one on trial here. The material fact is that I appear to have been correct in my suspicions regarding Mr. McCormick.” The professor stood, nodded toward the door and uttered an icy, “Good-day, Judge Hardcastle.
“Yeah, I've heard all I need to for now. I'll see you tomorrow,” said the judge with an insouciant wave.
Hawksworth scowled at his departing guest, and sat down heavily as soon as he’d departed. He reached across the desk for his phone, and dialed a number.
“Yes,” he said to the professionally pleasant female voice who asked if she might help him, “Please tell Winston that Professor Hawksworth would like to speak with him.”
He sensed the secretary’s momentary disconcertion at hearing her employer’s first name used by someone who wasn’t on a very short list. “I’m an old professor of his—law school,” he added casually.
The connection took a moment—evidence that events were being watched from afar. His former pupil sounded not at all pleased when he came on the line.
“I know you’re the ones who leaned on Dean Thomas,” Hawksworth said, with an air of certainty. “He’s weak, you know. He bends to everyone the way he bent to you. Now he’s unhappy because I did what needed to be done to take care of the matter. No,” he sighed, “don’t interrupt. I’m not a patient man. Surely you remember that?”
The man on the other end of the line had fallen silent. Half the battle had been won.
“Now, you listen to me. This has to be settled, and quickly. You’ve probably already heard that there’ll be a disciplinary hearing tomorrow morning at ten. Mr. McCormick, it seems, is not without resources. I’ve already been accosted by Judge Hardcastle. He intends to raise questions you don’t want answered.”
His former pupil still said nothing.
Hawksworth smiled and drove the argument home. “It’s simple, really. If the accused fails to appear at the hearing, he forfeits his right to argue his case. The ruling goes against him. It would be best for everyone if Mr. McCormick didn’t show up.”
Leaving the building, Hardcastle walked past a small coterie of students in a close conversational huddle on the steps. One, a petite blonde, looked up. She hesitated a moment and then started toward him, saying, “Judge Hardcastle?”
He halted and looked back at her with a questioning expression. “Yeah, that’s me. You’re—?”
“Amy London. I’m a classmate of Mark McCormick's.” She glanced around nervously, biting her lip.
Hardcastle nodded. “Oh—yeah, he’s mentioned you.” He raised his eyebrows interrogatively.
She leaned in slightly and said, in little more than a whisper, “Can we talk?”