The judge and Ms. London faced each other over a small plastic table in the nearest coffee shop.
“So you know that Professor Hawksworth accused Mark of cheating, then?”
At the judge's nod, she went on. “Well, I spoke to him, to Hawksworth, and told him there was no way Mark could've copied from Randy’s paper because Randy was sitting behind Mark. It had to have been Randy who’d copied from Mark.”
Hardcastle nodded again. “Seems like Hawskworth must’ve believed you—it all got dropped pretty much right away.”
“Uh-huh. The professor told me he'd handle it and that Mark was in the clear. And you know that floppy that was in Mark's briefcase? I might have an idea about that, too. See,” she leaned forward over the table and spoke in a lower tone, “I was talking to some of the other students, right after class – I was pretty upset about it. I told them I didn’t think Mark had stolen the exam. What sense did it make? He’s the guy setting the curve in that class. Audra was there. She said some stuff about being sorry it had happened.” She frowned, as if recollecting her exact impression. “It could have been just sympathy, but there was something in the way she said it. So I asked her what she meant and she backed off. Got all nervous and said she didn't mean anything.” She gave Hardcastle a knowing look. “Real nervous.”
Hardcastle tilted his head and hmm'ed. “Sound to you like she maybe was the one who did the actual dirty work?”
“Yeah.” She cocked her head. “And you know none of us had heard anything about the exam being for sale so how did Professor Hawksworth know about it?”
She finally tasted her coffee, found it not worth bothering about and shoved it to one side. “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!”
Hardcastle smiled at her. “I'm glad you're on our side. You’re gonna make a helluva defense attorney someday, kid.”
Amy smiled back, but shook her head. “I’m going into tax law.”
“You change your mind, you let me know.” The judge pushed his own coffee aside. “I could get you a summer job at one of the smaller shops—you can get a lot of hands-on experience at one of those places. It'd be a shame to waste the bulldog in you.”
She dimpled at him and slanted her head. “I'll think about it. I really liked accounting as an undergrad, but torts has been kinda fun.”
Hardcastle groaned and said, “You're one of a kind. Still, it’s a waste.”
Amy shrugged. “I’ve still got time to decide.” Her smile faded just as quickly as it had appeared. “Too bad Audra didn't.” She edged forward in her seat again. “But there is someone else you ought to talk to—Valerie Nagel. They were pretty close. If Audra told anyone anything, I think it would have been her. I asked Val—but she wouldn’t say anything. She’s nervous. We all are.”
It was late afternoon by the time Mattie dropped Mark off back at Gull’s Way. He thanked her for the ride and waited patiently for her to take her cue, say de nada, and leave him to mull things over in peace. Instead, the car didn’t budge as she studied him with what appeared to be her usual degree of perception.
She finally said, “I thought I had you cheered up a little.”
He shrugged. He couldn’t deny it; for a moment or two, back in that coffee shop, as he’d been thinking through the chain of events, pondering motive, method, and opportunity, he’d been almost completely distracted. He thought it might be an indicator of how well Hardcastle had him trained—see a problem, fix a problem. But that didn’t address the reality: that most people saw him as the problem—automatically, reflexively.
“Maybe it’s law school,” he said dourly.
Mattie looked startled, though she seemed to get what he meant and almost immediately lodged a protest. “But you’re good at it. I’d say you’re a natural if I didn’t know from Milt how damn hard you’re working—”
“No,” Mark waved her defense aside, “it’s not about that—if I’m good enough at it or not. I might be.” He frowned. “Hardcastle thinks I am.”
Mattie gave that a decisive nod. “Damn straight.”
Mark smiled at the motion—seconded and carried pretty much unanimously by his small but dedicated support team, and then almost at once his smile faltered. His effort and abilities didn’t change the big picture.
“It’s not really about me. Or maybe it is, in a way,” he said quietly. “It’s about whether they can accept me.”
“Them—professors, students, future colleagues, clients, judges. Law is what happens when people get together and decide what’s right and what’s wrong—”
“And you think they’ve labeled you as part of the wrong, and that’s that?”
“Seems that way sometimes. I guess I thought I’d put it all behind me once my parole was up. Start fresh, a clean slate.” He quirked an out-of-place smile. “You know this has been a really strange year.”
“Stranger than it would have been if you hadn’t started law school?”
He cocked his head. Leave it to Mattie to come up with a question that hadn’t occurred to him.
“No, probably not,” he finally conceded. “I thought about trying to get back into racing once or twice. Heck, I even put out some feelers to a few old buddies; that’s what got me that gig in Arizona last year.” His smile went a little thin at the memory of that disaster. He sighed. “A couple people said they’d keep me in mind, but sponsors—they don’t want a driver with too much history. Hell, even getting a job as a mechanic . . .” He shook his head. The smile was back. “And I’d only worked two half-shifts at ‘Hardcastle’s Repo and Repair’ before I needed to make bail.”
“See,” Mattie said encouragingly, “things could always be worse. Here you are, out on your own recognizance without even needing to post bond.”
She reached up, through the open car window, and patted him on the arm. “Don’t worry; we’ll get you through that hearing tomorrow, and back to studying for your exams.”
“Tomorrow . . . yeah. But maybe after that—”
“You’re thinking maybe a monastery? That’d be such a waste.” She flashed him a smile and a wink, both meant to be reassuring. “Get some rest, okay?”
He tried to return the smile, if only to show he’d appreciated her efforts at cheering him up. He didn’t doubt her enthusiasm for the task ahead and only wished he shared her confidence.
He waited until the tail lights of her sedan disappeared around the curve of the drive, with a slow count to a hundred after that. Then he sighed and turned, heading for the Coyote.
It was twilight by the time McCormick reached his destination. Between the lull of pre-exam week, and the lateness of the hour, he easily found a parking space around the corner from the law department’s office building. He hadn’t called for an appointment, but Hawksworth was notorious for practically living out of his office, and it didn’t surprise McCormick to see the light on in one lone window on the third floor. He took a deep breath and let it out, then pushed all doubt to the side and mounted the steps to the main doors.
The foyer was deserted and his footsteps echoed in the stairwell as he climbed the two flights. He wasn’t sure what he intended to accomplish, confronting the man. There was just the increasing certainty in his mind, that Hawksworth was the lynch-pin in this whole mess: that he had lied, most likely repeatedly.
And despite Mattie’s reassurances, he thought this might be his last night as a student of this university. If that was so, he wanted one last chance to confront his accuser, unencumbered by the niceties of the disciplinary hearing.
“But no matter what, don’t punch his lights out,” he muttered just under his breath as he passed through the outer office and rapped sharply on the door to Hawksworth’s inner sanctum.
There was no immediate response, so he followed the knock by firmly announcing, “It’s me, McCormick.” There was still no answer but the door swung inward on the force of a second, harder knock.
The professor was in, though not available. Mark froze in the doorway, trying to make sense of the sight of Hawksworth slumped, face down, on his desktop. He obviously wasn’t taking a nap. The man’s color was off and his eyes, half-open, were glazed and flat.
Mark crossed to the desk and only hesitated a moment before touching the man’s neck. He thought he felt a pulse. No, it was only his own, pounding in his fingertips.
There were sounds, though, voices in the hallway. He jerked back from the body nervously. The figures in the doorway had frozen, too—Hardcastle staring at him in disbelief for a moment, then shifting his gaze to Hawksworth.
“He’s dead,” McCormick said quietly.
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.
She was silent for a long second before she said, “I know he was annoying but—”
“It’s not what it looks like. I found him this way,” Mark protested, mostly to Hardcastle, who waved him silent as he stepped forward.
He cast a glance back to Amy. “Don’t touch anything. You and Val stay out in the hall. Call the cops from the phone out there.”
Amy nodded once and departed with only a quick glance back.. Hardcastle turned back to McCormick. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I wanted to have a talk with him.”
Hardcastle heaved a sigh of exasperation. “There’re reasons why defendants don’t make contact with witnesses. Avoiding stuff like this is right up at the head of the list.”
“Well, I just got here, and there he was,” he said sullenly, gesturing to the corpse. Then looked back at Hardcastle in puzzlement. “What about you? And them?”
“Witnesses for the defense.”
“Really?” His puzzlement took on a hint of surprise. Then he looked down at the corpse again. “Not strangled, not shot. Heart attack?”
“He’s been working too hard,” Hardcastle observed drily. “All those machinations take it out of a guy.”
“Yeah, well, I thought he was gunning for me,” Mark said firmly, “but I didn’t think paranoia was contagious.” He studied the dead man more closely, then shot another appraising glance at the judge. “‘Working too hard’?”
“Yeah, look, he hasn’t even shaved.” The judge pointed at the slightly mottled face. “Wonder if he even made it home last night.”
The cops arrived promptly, along with a couple of paramedics, who confirmed the obvious and got official permission from their base unit not to engage in acts of medical futility. Ms. London must have given the authorities a thorough description of what was awaiting them. The campus police were quickly followed by a contingent of the LAPD. This first collection didn’t include any of the detectives who’d been working the previous two homicides, but they seemed to be up to speed on who was the person of interest in recent events. One of them took out a pair of handcuffs while another started in, droning the Miranda to McCormick.
He’d only gotten as far as the first phrase when Hardcastle barked, “Don’t touch that!”
A third officer stepped back from the corpse, looking remarkably guilty.
The judge muttered in exasperation, “Don’t they teach you anything about crime scenes these days? I think we all oughta step out.”
The party adjourned just long enough to make it to the hallway, where Amy and Valerie stood, down by the pay phone, looking concerned. The Miranda was completed, with McCormick asked if he understood the gist of his rights. Then the handcuffs were applied.
He had only a moment to give Hardcastle a questioning look, which the judge, appearing preoccupied, waved away.
“Listen to the man,” he hooked a thumb at the officer who was tucking the Miranda card back into his pocket, “nothing out of you until you have your lawyer present.”
That protest was cut off by the ushering hand of the first cop, tugging McCormick toward the stairwell and presumably out to a squad car. Hardcastle was wearing his best all-purpose “don’t worry about a thing” expression, which lasted just long enough for the suspect to be escorted out.
Not even ten minutes had elapsed before the next wave of investigators arrived, a crime scene photographer and an evidence tech. It had been just enough time for Hardcastle to reassure his two witnesses and convince the campus cops that the young ladies needed an escort to Amy’s sister’s place in Bel Air.
“You stay there,” he said to the more serious of the two women. “And you stay with her,” he added, to Val. “That okay?”
“Good. I’ll let you know if it’s still on for tomorrow. This might not change anything.” He dismissed them with a smile and a nod, then turned and considered the door to Hawksworth’s office, maneuvering so that he could keep an eye on the activities inside.
“Can’t you guys stay home and watch John Wayne movies once in a while?”
Hardcastle twitched slightly. In his preoccupation, he hadn’t noticed the arrival of the plainclothes officers assigned to the campus murders. Frank looked unhappy as he glanced into the office and then turned back.
“Sorry, Frank.” The judge tried to look genuinely contrite. “I had some testimony I wanted the guy to hear.”
Frank shook his head in disbelief. “It couldn’t wait until that committee meets tomorrow?”
“It might’ve prevented that little shindig . . . but now I’m not so sure.”
“What are you saying?”
“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.”