McCormick’s second ride to the police station in one day was the traditional kind he was more familiar with—backseat, handcuffs, the works. It made sense, he supposed, for a guy already who’d already been questioned as a witness in two other deaths and had just been discovered standing over the corpse of his accuser.
It surprised him a little, though, that once he was delivered to the authorities, they didn’t quite know what to do with him. He found himself sequestered in the same interrogation room that he’d spent part of the morning in, presumably waiting for the ADA and the cops to take up where they’d left off. It was about an hour before someone showed up, and that was Hardcastle, looking solemn, but not without hope.
Nearly another hour passed. The judge didn’t seem to be in a mood to talk, though, or maybe he didn’t think there was much to talk about. For McCormick’s part, he was just circling the “what-ifs” and the “might-have-beens”.
He finally said, in what must have come out as a fairly random observation, “Mattie’d dropped me off at home. I would have been there by myself. It wouldn’t have been much of an alibi.”
He thought about what he’d just said and then winced, thinking he’d struck pretty close to the other issue—his alibi for the first murder.
“Hah,” the judge scoffed, “as bad as being found right there with the body?”
Mark didn’t have to ponder that one; he already had—at great length and part of the time in handcuffs.
“No, not as bad as that.”
He never had a chance to get told just how bad Hardcastle thought that it was. At that moment the door opened. Frank Harper and ADA Kohler stepped in. It didn’t seem like a full quorum. McCormick glanced past them, waiting for the rest but that seemed to be it. He wondered if it was the lateness of the hour. Kohler didn’t look too happy to have been called in from his home.
Frank took a seat. Kohler seemed momentarily reluctant to join them, but finally did the same. Mark cast a puzzled look at the judge, who seemed pretty serene for guy who’d provided an alibi to a suspected serial killer.
Frank pulled a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and unfolded it. “This is just a preliminary report—a swipe test for nitrites, not particle imaging.” He pushed it toward Hardcastle. “Positive, the sleeve of Hawksworth’s jacket, and his wrist, but not his hand.”
Hardcastle nodded. “Makes sense; it’d been about sixteen hours—he’d’ve washed his hands at some point.” He reached for the paper. “He looked kinda rough around the edges, though.”
“He looked dead,” Kohler said grimly.
“I don’t mean this evening—I’d noticed it when I saw him earlier today. I’d been chalking it up to all the plotting. But now I’m thinking he never had to get his hands this dirty before. I bet he didn't even go home last night—either it shook him up, or he didn’t want to risk some neighbor seeing him coming in late.”
“Because he hadn’t shaved, and he still had on the same suit?” McCormick’s brow was furrowed. “No, he still might’ve stopped off at his place. We used to joke about that jacket. It was like his uniform.”
“Okay,” Kohler looked irritated, like a man whose airtight assumptions had suddenly sprung a leak, “so he might’ve shot that Powers kid . . . but why?”
“You send somebody yet to interview those two students, London and Nagel?” Hardcastle asked.
Harper nodded, “I did it myself. Did you have to send them all the way up to Bel Air?”
“I wanted my client’s two best witnesses out of harm’s way. We still don’t know what happened to Hawksworth, do we?”
“No obvious external trauma,” Harper said, as though he were quoting the ME’s on-scene opinion.
Hardcastle hooked a thumb at McCormick. “But just ’cause the obvious suspect didn’t do it doesn’t mean he wasn’t murdered. And if he was, we don’t know who or why—only that it might be somebody Hawksworth was working for. Someone with an interest in the outcome of the hearing.”
“Wild accusations,” Kohler threw his hands up, “based on idle speculation.”
“I think we’re running out of domesticated accusations,” Hardcastle observed dryly. Then he turned back to Harper. “And those girls—”
“Valerie Nagel confirmed what you told me. She encountered Audra West the night she was killed and Ms. West seemed upset. She said someone had asked her to put a disk in Mark’s briefcase without his knowledge. She also said she’d told Professor Hawksworth, and he told her he’d take care of everything.”
“Hearsay.” The ADA looked stubborn. “Anyway, someone still might’ve killed the West girl—not knowing she’d already spoken to the professor.”
McCormick was so relieved to hear that the top of the suspect list was now occupied by “someone” that he almost missed the judge’s retort.
“Nope, I told ya I met with Hawksworth earlier today. He didn’t say a word about it then. He seemed determined to pursue the disciplinary hearing against McCormick.” He looked at Harper again. “What did the lab say about Randy Powers' note?”
Harper looked smug, “Like you thought; from the pattern of the stains it looks like the paper was moved into position after Powers' head hit the table—all consistent with someone else having been in the room when he was shot.”
Hardcastle smiled, looking satisfied. “Go through Hawksworth’s files; I'm sure you’ll find stuff with Powers' handwriting—enough that Hawksworth could have duped up the note.”
Kohler grimaced as though he had swallowed something hard. It was a long silent moment before he finally turned toward Harper and said, “In light of the conflicting evidence, and the ME’s preliminary finding that Hawksworth had been dead for at least an hour prior to the police being summoned, I am advising no charges against Mr. McCormick at this time.”
McCormick followed Hardcastle out of the station. He thought he ought to have been more relieved, but there was an odd, flat feeling, as though he were standing in the eye of the hurricane—just enough time to take a breath or two, and the air heavy with the expectation of more to come.
They made it out to the truck without the storm breaking. Mark even had enough time to think that maybe he’d been mistaken. They climbed into the truck, Hardcastle behind the wheel—Mark even contemplating asking to be dropped at the university: the lot near Hawksworth’s building where he’d left the Coyote earlier.
No, don’t bring that up right now.
He thought it would be better to wait until tomorrow—after all he could catch a ride in with the judge to attend his hearing. But even without the fateful reminder of his earlier trip out, the silence didn’t last. As soon as the judge had backed out of the space and maneuvered onto the street, he let the question drop casually.
“So, why did you go over to Hawksworth’s office?”
Mark thought about lying, but he’d already decided, a long time back, that it was just a waste of effort with Hardcastle. It wasn’t that he’d never be able to pull one off—he might, rarely—but the end result was more guilt and second-guessing than he was willing to put up with.
“I wanted to talk to him.” That was no answer, but it gave him a moment to frame the real one.
The judge didn’t even dignify that stalling tactic with another question. The first one still stood.
“Okay,” Mark said quietly, “I think I was planning to tell him that I’d resign from law school.”
There was a moment of silence before Hardcastle said, “But I thought you liked law school . . . well, except for torts, and nobody likes torts.”
“Yeah, well, I did like being there—I still do.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Just tired of all the crap, I guess. Nobody even bothers with a line-up as long as I’m around.”
“Fact of life,” Hardcastle said bluntly. “Live with it.”
Mark turned toward him with a shocked expression.
“Better yet, learn how to fight back. And do ya think you were maybe a little hasty buying into Powers’ suicide?”
Mark frowned at the shift in subject and finally said hesitantly, “Maybe . . . but it wasn’t all that crazy. Law school’s tough . . . and we were following him around.”
“That’s ’cause he needed following around. Look, he was a cheater, and cheaters cheat; it’s their M.O. If they get caught, they don’t kill themselves, they just find another way to snooker the system.” Hardcastle cast him an impatient glance before he plowed on, “I think Hawksworth killed Audra West, and Powers never thought he’d be next, just tried to figure out how he could turn a profit on it.”
McCormick thought about that for a moment and then made a face and said, “Yuck . . . but as long as he didn’t off himself because Tonto was on his trail, I guess I should feel better.”
“Good. It’s a start.”
It really must have been a start, because, contrary to his expectations, Mark actually got some sleep that night. It helped that Hardcastle had dropped him off on their way home, so he could retrieve the Coyote, and all without any more clucks and tsks about his earlier trip to Hawksworth’s office.
The next morning, though, Mark didn’t feel up to heading over to the main house for his usual breakfast with the judge, feeling queasy enough without adding bacon and eggs to the mix. But he was up—clean and pressed and wearing one of his soberest suit coats. He was adjusting his tie for the umpteenth time when he heard a sharp double-rap on the gatehouse door.
It was Hardcastle’s standard method of announcing that he was coming in and, true to form, the man entered almost immediately. He eyed McCormick judiciously and apparently found everything ship-shape.
“You gonna fiddle with that thing all day?” He pointed at the tie. “Time’s a-wasting.”
“Can’t help it—feels like a noose. Why the hell do they need to have this hearing if you’ve already proven Hawksworth was behind everything?”
Hardcastle didn’t state the obvious—that he hadn’t actually proven anything yet. Instead he offered a shrug and said, “It’s a committee, and committees need to meet. It’s what they do. Besides,” he added, suddenly more serious, “we want them to meet. A nice public hearing where they get told all the facts and then throw the case out. Everything in the open and above-board, that’s what you want. Now hustle, will ya? We don’t want to be late. Mattie hates it when a defendant comes straggling in, especially when she’s defending them.”
They’d climbed into the Coyote with enough time to spare, especially since McCormick was behind the wheel.
“No tickets, kiddo,” Hardcastle reminded him. “You won’t just tick off Mattie if we don’t show up on schedule. I checked—the disciplinary code has a ‘no show’ default policy for all hearings.”
“Both hands on the wheel and in the ten-two position, Kemosabe.” He pulled out onto the PCH, fully intending to be a model of driving probity. He just wanted the morning to be over so he could—knock wood—go back to sweating the upcoming exams.
Being a model driver, he glanced at the rearview mirror, then frowned. A dark sedan, being driven with far less probity, had moved up as if to pass but was now hovering just behind him, so close that the plate wasn’t visible. Mark slowed slightly, hoping that was all the encouragement the other driver needed to execute the maneuver before the next curve. No—still sitting behind him, too close for their mutual speed.
Hardcastle was now aware of their shadow, too. He muttered something that Mark didn’t quite catch before he felt a solid tap on the Coyote’s back end. Mark reflexively hit the gas, zipping forward, though he knew speed wouldn’t help much on this winding road.
The sedan surged forward, closing again. He glanced sideward; the glove compartment was open and Hardcastle was rummaging in it for his gun.
“Judge, no,” he pleaded, eyes back on the road but voice urgent, “we’re not gonna do a shoot-out on the way to my disciplinary hearing.”
Hardcastle already had the weapon out and had been positioning himself for a clear shot. He reluctantly held fire. Mark maneuvered wide on the next curve—a blind one—and then braked sharply, relieved to see no oncoming traffic. Another jolt rocked them as the sedan clipped the Coyote’s front driver’s quarter, spinning them further left.
The larger, heavier sedan was barely slowed by the impact, and shot past at nearly full-speed. There was no time to watch it depart. The Coyote, no longer under control, slammed into the guardrail before coming to a stop.
They sat, just off the outer side of the road, with only the railing between them and a serious drop. The dust settled around them.
“Lucky,” Hardcastle said.
“Luck? Hah. That was superior handling.”
“Yeah, but the bad guys got away.” The judge gestured down the road, looking peeved. “You shoulda let me shoot 'em.”
“Uh-uh.” Mark shook his head. Then he shot a questioning look at Hardcastle. “Who were those guys, anyhow? You been out riding the range again?”
“I’m not the one they’re trying to get thrown out of law school.”
McCormick looked grim as he maneuvered the slightly-dented Coyote back onto the road and then floored it.
Despite further superior handling, they were almost late. McCormick screeched into the lot nearest to Dodd Hall, grateful to find a space. He and the judge clambered out, Mark taking the lead.
Mattie was on the front steps of the building, frowning as she checked her watch. She opened the door and gestured them in as they approached.
“They were asking for you a few minutes ago.”
Mark glanced at his own watch as they hustled down the hall. He protested “But it’s only ten now.”
“You want to argue with your judge? Room 107.” She pointed to the right as they came to the cross hallway.
Mark took the turn and pulled up short. The space between him and the door at the end of the hall was crowded with students. He had a brief flash of thought—they must be having a lot of hearings today. But that wasn’t possible. This wasn’t a bunch of solemn, strange faces. He knew these people—
The chatter he’d been vaguely conscious of as he’d dashed down the other hall sharply dwindled as faces turned toward him. The group—there must have been twenty of them—stood aside to let him and his defense team pass.
McCormick hesitated for a moment then walked forward, still not certain what it all meant. Then came a quick slap on the back. Somebody—that’s Joe Perello—he’s an upperclassman, on the Law Review—said, “Go get ’em.”
“Yeah, you show ‘em,” someone else said. Someone patted him on the shoulder, and then the random words of encouragement picked up, back to a general murmur before he’d made it to the door of room 107. He glanced back for a moment, giving them all a nod and a cautious smile before turning to open it.
The conference room was packed—more students. It’s Dead Week, they ought to be home studying.
But they weren’t. Nearly every seat was taken, the rest were standing, two deep in places, against the wall. Mattie pushed him forward gently toward one of the last two empty chairs, up front. He caught sight of Amy London, and that other girl—Audra’s friend, Valerie. He did his best not to smile at them in gratitude. This would be a bad time to be suspected of collusion and he knew he was under scrutiny.
At the very front of the room, on a slightly-raised dais, sat Dean Thomas. Alongside him were three other uncomfortable-looking administrators.
“Have a seat, Mr. McCormick,” the dean said icily.
He did, feeling awkward under this much attention. Hardcastle gave him a nod, then edged back to the wall, where a couple of students made space for him.
Mattie didn’t sit. She introduced herself and was reluctantly given permission to present her client’s case. McCormick tried to focus. This was important. But her words kept slipping by him, ungrasped, as he tried to make the present fit with everything as he had believed it to be.
She pointed out that he’d been put under unfair suspicion based on circumstantial evidence; there might have been something in there about the Rights of Man, even a side reference to John Locke. It was charming and witty, and the audience broke into cheers at one point, quickly hushed and threatened with being put out.
And then she asked to call her witnesses.
In McCormick’s half-dazed state, the whole presentation seemed to have taken only a few minutes. He was startled to see the clock as the committee dismissed them, intending to confer in private. It was nearly eleven.
The hallway was still crowded, though a few students had wandered off—there was less than seventy-two hours remaining before exams were to begin. Some of his supporters were settling in, sitting along the walls in the corridor, pulling books out of briefcases and backpacks. Obviously they were prepared for the long haul.
Amy London said, half to herself, “Maybe we should’ve made signs.”
“No,” Mattie assured her, “this was fine.”
Even as the wait stretched out, McCormick stayed remarkably calm.
After the better part of an hour, Hardcastle gave him a considering look and finally said, “You’re taking this pretty easy, kiddo.”
Against all reason, Mark found himself smiling. “Hey, if they kick me out, it won’t be the first time I got the boot. But this,” he gestured to his supporters, “is . . . well, it’s—”
Just exactly what it was, he never got the chance to explain. Just then, the conference room door opened.
“You can come in, Mr. McCormick,” one of the administrators said gravely. He cast a quick look at the rest of the crowd, waiting expectantly, and added, “You can all go in.”
Mark saw Mattie cast an anxious glance at the judge, but almost immediately don a confident smile for him as they filed forward. The expressions on the administrators’ faces gave nothing away; they were constitutionally solemn. But it was only a moment after everyone had found their places in the room before the man next to Dean Thomas stood and began reading from a piece of paper.
“In the matter of violation of the university’s moral code, with reference to the theft and possession of examination materials, this committee finds Mr. McCormick to be not guilty. He is to be reinstated immediately to the student body, with full rights and privileges thereunto.”
The room erupted with shouts and applause, along with more slaps on the back from the students nearest at hand. McCormick looked around, shaking the hands that were thrust toward him, feeling more stunned than relieved—that would probably come later. Hardcastle, still standing among the others, was grinning at him as he flashed a thumbs-up.