From even a short distance away, it might have looked like a chance encounter between two colleagues, each strolling across the campus green at twilight on a late spring evening. There was no one close enough to overhear as the first man snapped, “What is it that was so important it couldn’t wait until office hours tomorrow?”
The second man visibly bristled, but kept his response measured as he observed coolly, “This is not the sort of thing suited to office hours.” He permitted himself a small smile. “But, trust me; you’ll be glad to hear this. The problem we’ve discussed—I believe a solution has presented itself.” He appeared utterly self-satisfied as he added, “The time has come.”
The first man frowned, then looked around warily, suddenly alert for passers-by. He needn’t have bothered. They were completely alone in this square of greenery, tucked away in the section of the campus devoted to the school of law. It was the uncommon solitude that could only be found during Dead Week, the seven days preceding final exams. The campus was paradoxically deserted during a time devoid of regular assignments and classes and devoted, instead, to the single-minded preparation for tests that could make or break those that took them. So it was that these two men—far beyond such petty worries—found themselves in splendid seclusion.
But secluded or not, the first man seemed to have his own set of concerns.
“‘The time’?” he said cautiously. “What time?”
“The moment we’ve been waiting for,” the second man purred. “The matter of interest to our, ahem, benefactors.”
The first man turned sharply to face the other. “That matter? Are you sure? After all this while, nearly the whole year, I was beginning to think—”
“I’m certain,” the other man said crisply. It was clear he did not like being questioned, even by a superior, but he was also not stupid. He forced a small smile and continued almost amenably. “I’m surprised it took this long for him to trip up, but we both knew it had to happen sooner or later. Eventually that type reverts to form. And connections—even good ones—can’t shield a lesser man forever.”
The first man nodded in sage agreement before asking, almost eagerly. “So, what happened?”
The other waved the question away. “Some highly irregular answers on my most recent quiz. I think it will be best if you hear the details officially at the proper time. I’ll be speaking with him tomorrow morning and I anticipate I’ll have him in your office before the end of the day.”
The first man looked hesitantly pleased. “You’re absolutely certain?”
The other man hid his annoyance in a deep breath and a long look around at his surroundings—the venerable buildings of the law school, his alma mater as well as his lifelong workplace. He smiled fondly for a moment, and when he finally spoke it had the air of a non sequitur.
“I do believe this is my favorite time of the whole academic calendar. The tradition of it.” His smile took on an impish twist as he leaned in, half-whispering, “Not to mention that little frisson in the air.”
His smile faded and he drew himself up stiffly. “I can assure you, it may have taken longer than anticipated, but the besmirching of this institution is nearly over. By this time tomorrow, Mr. McCormick will have become yet another casualty of Dead Week.”
* * * * *
Mark McCormick came out of gatehouse that sunny morning swigging from a mug of coffee. He strode briskly to the Coyote, which was parked in front of the main house, and deposited his briefcase in the passenger seat. The last few gulps of coffee went down quickly and he turned to set his mug on the curb next to his car.
“Hey, don’t do that!” Judge Hardcastle pushed through the screen door of the main house, carefully toting his own nearly-full mug.
McCormick turned and looked at him with surprise.
The judge trod down the brick steps and reached to take the empty mug. “You left it there yesterday and I nearly kicked it into the fountain. See? That chip right there.”
Mark peered at the mug and frowned. “Sorry. You take it in for me? I don’t want to be late, ’specially today.”
“Sure. You still worried about Hawksworth?” Hardcastle took a pull on his coffee.
“Yeah, a little. Don’t get me wrong,” McCormick added hastily. “I think he’s a good teacher, really knows his stuff. But he just doesn’t like me for some reason.”
“Listen. Not everybody’s gonna be your biggest fan. But you’ve got that course aced. Maybe,” the judge shrugged, “he thinks car racing’s silly or he’s got a bug about older students. Who knows? Who cares? You just suck in anything he can teach you and you’re done with him in another week anyway.”
Mark looked around, at the yard and the hedges and the fountain. “Dead Week. I was really looking forward to this, you know. A whole week of just studying, no classes or exams. I thought maybe I could get some work done around here, too.” He shook his head despairingly. “Hah.”
Hardcastle scoffed at him. “You wouldn’t’ve had time to do anything here. And I wouldn’t’ve let you. You just concentrate on studying right now.” He paused to examine the coffee mug once more, running his thumb over the chip. “Still, it is a shame to have the make-up class tomorrow just because the professor was off making big money leading that seminar. It’s not like professors are poor anyway, but that guy rakes it in and everybody knows it.”
Mark sighed. “Yeah, well, at least today’s just a review Q& A. After tomorrow’s make-up with Hawksworth, I’ll be knee-deep in books ’til the finals. It’ll all be over soon.”
Hardcastle slapped him heartily on the back. “You’ll do fine. You got me for a back-up, right? So get going already.”
McCormick looked at him sidewards, then smiled and nodded. As the Coyote roared off down the drive, the judge shook his head, smiling himself, and took both empty mugs back into the house.
* * * * *
Professor Hawksworth’s secretary looked up from her files and saw that curly-haired student approaching. Yes, Mark McCormick, Ms. Trask thought, checking her appointment book. He looked very nice today, in his light blue buttoned-down shirt and tan khakis. Not like some of the students in their jeans and untucked t-shirts. “Good afternoon, Mr. McCormick,” she said looking up as he arrived at her desk. “The professor is ready for you. Please go right in.”
“Thanks,” smiled McCormick. He moved his briefcase from his right hand to his left as he gripped the doorknob and pushed open the door into Professor Hawksworth’s office.
Hawksworth, a large man with an angular face, was ensconced behind his classic mahogany desk—an antique, not university issue. The stacks of papers and files that occupied his work surface advertised him as a busy man, and it was a long moment before he glanced up from what he was reading and finally took in his visitor.
“Mr. McCormick, come in.” The greeting was crisp and accompanied by a perfunctory finger pointing to a straight-backed chair positioned directly in front of the desk.
Mark was barely seated before Hawksworth, scowling down at the papers before him, took a breath and said, “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.”
McCormick held up both hands, palms out. “Hang on a minute. Let’s get some more evidence here before you pass sentence. What about the other students who were sitting around me? Can’t we ask them if they saw anything? In fact, maybe the other paper is the copy. You ever think of that?”
The professor gazed at his clasped hands on the desk and said, “Hmmm.” It was a wordless assessment that obviously included all the more unfortunate bits of the accused’s permanent record.
“Okay,” sighed McCormick, “but I’m supposed to be able to face my accuser, right? So get him in here and question us together.”
“I am your accuser, Mr. McCormick, and the university’s code of ethics is not required to make provisions for your constitutional rights.” Hawksworth pushed back from his desk. “And I have no intention of revealing the other student’s name to you —”
“Wait,” McCormick interrupted, “You know there was a student sitting right next to me, um … it was Amy—Amy London. You could talk to her and ask her if I was copying from anyone.” His brow wrinkled and he added, moodily, “Unless it’s her paper that matches mine. But you can’t just condemn me based on what you’ve got so far.”
“I intend to investigate the situation fully.” The professor closed the folder and stood, looking as if he wanted to end the interview. “But for now —”
“In fact, I’ll be seeing her in a study session later,” added Mark more enthusiastically. “I’ll just ask her to come over here or give you a call about it. How’s that? I know there’s just been some kinda mistake somewhere; we’ll get it figured out.”
“Yes, yes,” said Hawksworth, looking increasingly irritated. “Have her call me, by all means. I’ll be glad,” he muttered grimly, “to get this settled.”
McCormick bade Ms. Trask farewell and strode away. His cheerfully determined demeanor only lasted as far as the hallway before he halted, took a deep breath, and let his shoulders slump.
“What next?” he asked himself morosely.
* * * * *
His mood didn’t improve any during an interminable torts review. He’d signed up for the session weeks ago, back when surviving torts had seemed the most important thing in the world. How things could change.
As soon as the Q & A session ended, he shoveled his notebook into his briefcase and hustled to intercept a student sitting one section over.
“Hey, could I talk to you?”
Amy London looked up from gathering her own notes and flashed a quick smile. “Sure, as long as it isn’t about torts.”
He shook his head, and found himself looking around nervously to see if anyone was in a position to overhear.
She picked up on it, and said, more seriously, “What’s the matter?”
He hemmed for a moment, and then explained—the aggravating interview with Hawksworth, the accusation. He hadn’t gotten very far before Amy drew herself up.
“The nerve—him a professor of law. Civil procedure—hah. I have half a mind to—” she broke off with a frown. “You know who’s doing the cheating in his class, don’t you?”
McCormick shook his head, looking puzzled.
“Randy Powers, that’s who. Him and his damn sense of entitlement.” She leaned in slightly. “You know he even offered me cash one time if I’d show him one of my briefs.”
She froze for a moment. McCormick, at no small cost, kept his expression absolutely serious. She cracked first—grinning and blushing slightly. “You know what I mean—that weasel. I’ve got to talk to Hawksworth—it’s about time somebody did.”
“What if it’s not Powers?”
“Oh, it’s him all right.”
She didn’t wait for anymore negativity. He watched her turn on one heel and stalk off. He was heartily glad he’d let the double entendre go unappreciated.
“I see. Yes, of course.” Hawksworth drummed his fingers on his desk as he listened to the insistent female voice on the phone. “Yes, it does seem apparent what happened. I appreciate the information, Ms. London, though I wonder why it wasn’t brought forward earlier. Hmm? But I’ll certainly let Mr. McCormick know that he is no longer under suspicion in the matter.”
The voice on the phone unleashed another indignant burst. Hawksworth answered, “No, I can’t confirm your impression. The situation will be dealt with, though. Thank you again for your input.” He hung up abruptly and sat back, looking displeased. After a moment he leaned forward and pressed the intercom button on his phone.
“Ms. Trask, please get in touch with Mark McCormick and make an appointment for him to see me here at six this evening. And then make an appointment with Mr. Randolph Powers for six-thirty.”
He heard his secretary’s concerned voice over the speaker. “Working late again, Professor?”
“Yes, yes. It’s always something.”
He flicked the button off, sat back in his chair again, and regarded the opposite wall with malevolence, then suddenly hurled his pen across the room, scowling violently.
* * * * *
Mark tapped lightly on the professor’s door and opened it when he heard a faint, “Come in.”
Hawksworth looked up from the papers on his desk and beckoned McCormick in, waving him to a chair. “Mr. McCormick. Punctuality is a true virtue. Thank you for coming.” He straightened the papers and placed them all inside a file folder, then sighed and clasped his hands on the desk. “I am very sorry for my accusation of this morning.”
McCormick nodded slightly. “Amy talked to you?”
“Yes, she did, and it seems evident that you could not have copied anyone’s papers, but that the student directly behind you could, and did, copy from yours. I have an appointment with him in a half-hour. After I speak with him, I will have to report the incident to the dean. The guilty party will most likely be expelled.” The professor leaned back in his chair and regarded Mark soberly. “I hope you will accept my sincere apology.”
“Oh, sure,” McCormick waved it away. “I knew there was just a mistake somewhere. But about the guy behind me … do you have to kick him out?” He shifted in his chair, fidgeting slightly. “I mean, couldn’t you give him a second chance? Maybe there’s some extenuating circumstance we don’t know about.” He forced a smile. “Heck, he had to be pretty desperate to copy from me.”
“Desperation is no excuse,” Hawksworth said firmly. Then he appeared to relent as he issued a slight sigh and said, “I’ll listen to his explanation, and keep an open mind. Expulsion is not an action the university takes lightly, but we must all be responsible for our actions, as you know, and this is no exception.”
A tap at the door interrupted him, and a male face peeked into the office.
“Oh, I didn’t know there was someone else here.” The young man drew back, but the professor’s voice stopped him.
“We’re done now, Mr. Powers. Please come in.” He turned back to Mark. “Thank you again for coming, Mr. McCormick. I will bear in mind what you’ve said and will be in touch if I have any further questions.”
He shook Mark’s hand, waved him toward the door. He then motioned the other student to enter. Mark departed, casting one quick sympathetic glance back toward Powers.
“Please, sit.” Hawksworth made sure the office door had closed, then murmured, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
Randy Powers looked only mildly perturbed. “If it’s that research topic I had the extension on, I’m going to have it in by the end of the week.”
Hawksworth studied him. His gaze was unrelenting.
Powers finally squirmed slightly, adjusting himself in the seat. “Not that, huh? My midterm—I figured I’d make up the points on the final next week.”
Hawksworth templed his fingers before him, still saying nothing. He finally narrowed his eyes, glancing toward the now-closed door, and then back at Powers. “You recognized Mr. McCormick?” At Powers’ nod, he continued. “He’s made a very disturbing accusation, Mr. Powers. It was in regards to you. He tells me that you copied from his work during last Thursday’s pop quiz.”
Powers looked at him, mouth agape. He finally pulled himself together with a desperate effort and said, “It’s not true!”
“Unfortunately, he makes a credible witness. He was very convincing. I was reluctant to believe him, but …” the professor gestured toward the file folder, “I’m afraid the facts speak for themselves. He held up a palm to forestall the objections Powers was about to launch.
”I’d like to be lenient, truly, but Mr. McCormick is invoking the university’s code of ethics. He’s adamant that the school’s reputation rests on your expulsion. He even said he’ll take the matter to the press if it isn’t handled to his satisfaction.
“It’s a pity, really,” he tsked. “Your sterling family history: three generations of reputable, honored attorneys—such a respected heritage.” Hawksworth shook his head sadly. “All that to be destroyed by some … some former convict who entered these hallowed halls not by virtue of hard work and application, but merely by knowing someone. It’s a shame, a real shame.”
He looked at Powers, head bent in despair. An expression of disdain crept over Hawksworth’s face. He let the student sit, miserable and silent for a few seconds, before he continued.
“In addition to that, a copy of the final exam has gone missing from my office. I had it right here,” he tapped the surface of his desk, “earlier today, and now?” He held up his hands, palms up.
“I’m certain it was here when I spoke to Mr. McCormick this morning,” the professor muttered, “and shortly after he left I noticed it was gone.” He lifted his head suddenly, his chin jutting. “The gall of that man … that felon. There’s no proof of what happened, of course. It’s just fortunate that I have a spare copy.”
He held up a floppy diskette. “Modern technology, what would we do without it?” He opened the top right-hand drawer of his desk and slipped the diskette inside. “Don’t worry, he won’t profit from it. I intend to make considerable revisions to the questions between now and the exam. It just seems so unfair that there’s no proof against McCormick. I’m sure if his perfidy were exposed …”
He sighed, leaving the other half of the corollary unspoken, and finally turned his attention back to the stricken student to the side of his desk.
“I am sorry about your misfortune, Mr. Powers, but there seems to be nothing I can do for you. I’ll be reporting Mr. McCormick’s allegations to the dean tomorrow. As things stand, I expect they’ll believe what he’s saying about you.”
He stood, extending his hand to clasp the young man’s comfortingly, then led him to the door.
“I wish you luck in your future endeavors,” he said, with a note of deep sincerity.
Powers managed to nod, though he looked otherwise lost in his own thoughts at that point. Hawksworth could almost hear the gears turning in the younger man’s head, rusty as the mechanism might be. The professor watched his him leave.
He stood quietly for a moment, listening to be certain his visitor had departed, then he moved back to his desk. He examined the sleeve of his favorite tweed jacket and plucked a thread off it. He opened the top drawer slightly, placed the thread over the edge and closed it again carefully.
“Now, if only he’ll be so obliging as to leave fingerprints,” he murmured to himself, “I’ll have two birds in one snare. Really, the arrogance of some people—depending on connections instead of ability. Feeling a certain sense of prerogative, are we, gentlemen?”
He smiled to himself as he gathered his briefcase and coat. He flipped the light switch off and left his office—with the door behind him carelessly not-quite latched.
* * * * *
McCormick had intended to head to the library after he’d left Hawksworth’s office. Instead, the walk had turned into a ramble. His sense of relief hadn’t quite erased his earlier worry, and it was tempered by thoughts about the replacement victim.
He’s not a victim. He cheated.
Yes, true, but to have one mistake cost that much. He shook his head. Hardcase was right on that one. Lady Justice was a tough old broad.
He drew up short at that thought and then glanced down at his watch. It was already almost seven. He ought to have called home earlier, to tell the judge he wouldn’t be making it home for dinner. He knew why he hadn’t—not wanting to explain his earlier confrontation with Hawksworth. And now that the matter was apparently settled, why get the judge’s blood pressure up unnecessarily? Still, he thought he should check in.
He spotted a pay phone near one corner of the quad and headed for it, patting his jacket, and then rummaging through the side pocket of his briefcase for change. He finally had what he needed, dialed, and got through.
It was picked up on the second ring. Mark heard the TV, faintly in the background behind Hardcastle’s “Hello?” He skipped over the details and went for the obvious.
“Don’t hold dinner. I’m gonna be late.”
“What, you got a date? How late are we talking here?” said Hardcastle.
McCormick sighed. He ought to have figured that he wouldn’t get away with just a quarter’s worth of conversation.
“Nah, nothing like that. Had a meeting with Hawksworth tonight—just to talk about coursework,” he added quickly, “I guess he does it with lots of his students, no big deal.” McCormick crossed his fingers and hoped the judge would believe him, then deftly changed the subject, “Oh, and I’ve got about an hour of work left at the library.”
There was a brief silence, as if the judge had picked up on the unspoken vibes and was trying to decipher them. He finally settled on, “Yeah—some good profs there. They do that—keep an eye on how things are going, give pointers.” Then he went on to more practical matters. “You haven’t eaten yet, huh? I got a couple of burgers to grill; that can wait ’til you get home. Give me a call right before you leave, okay?”
“Will do.” Mark said, and then, “Bye.” They both hung up at the same time.
* * * * *
Hawksworth had only been gone a short while before Randy Powers edged the office door open and quietly slipped in, glancing around nervously. Everything was deserted and silent. He tiptoed to the desk. Working quickly, he removed the floppy diskette from the drawer, took it back through the door to Ms. Trask’s computer, and began copying it to an identical diskette.
He heard two voices in the hallway and ducked down behind the desk. He held his breath, listening to the damnable whirr of the computer. The voices grew fainter. He raised his head, listening cautiously until they’d faded away completely. Then he took the original diskette and the copy from the computer, pocketing one. He re-entered the professor’s office and replaced the original in the desk drawer. He slipped out into the hallway, closing the door securely behind him.
Even Powers, who relied a lot on luck much of the time, couldn’t believe his good fortune. Sure, it was close to the end of semester, and the law library was a hotbed of activity that evening, but to have all the players right where he wanted him it was just … luck. He flashed a grin, then stifled it as he crossed toward a small table where a student sat alone.
The co-ed looked up from her work and smiled as he slipped into the seat across from her. He knew she liked him, and on any other evening he’d be content to just work that angle for its obvious profit. But tonight he had something else in mind.
He dropped his voice. “You know that guy, McCormick?”
“Oh,” she looked a little puzzled by the conversational turn, but to his annoyance, immediately warmed to it, “yeah, sure.” She hesitated a moment, as though she were weighing just how much to say, then settled for, “He’s got a hot car.”
It was obvious that she would have had more to say on the subject to one of her girlfriends. Randy forced his irritation back. He’ll get his. He let none of this surface, only displaying his usual, charmingly insouciant smile.
“I borrowed some notes of his. Just borrowed, you know?”
He had one eye on the man himself, sitting at a table across the room, busily taking notes and, so far, oblivious to his surroundings, with an untidy collection of books spread out front of him.
“I want to get them back to him before he misses them. It’s just a computer diskette, see?” He took it from his pocket, carefully holding it only by the edges. “He’s at that table, right over there in the reference section.”
Audra smiled knowingly, and took the diskette. “Sure, Randy.” She glanced over her shoulder at McCormick, then back at Powers. “For you, no problem.”
She rose, palming the floppy with her hand down at her side. Randy watched her stroll casually toward the reference section. As she passed the table she fluttered a wave at Mark with her other hand. He looked up, then looked around as if he momentarily wasn’t certain it had been aimed at him. Randy slumped a little, picking up one of Audra’s books for camouflage.
“Shh!” She mimed a finger at her lips, then grinned at McCormick. “You’re making way too much noise with all that reading!” She hitched a hip onto the edge of the table and leaned onto one arm so she could read the notes McCormick had just made.
“Umm,” he began, “I’m reading as quiet as I can. It’s my writing that’s making all the noise.” He glanced at his pen and frowned at it in displeasure.
Amy let out a peal of laughter. Then stifling it, she draped herself over his briefcase with the floppy diskette still in her left hand, hidden from Mark.
* * * * *
The burgers were grilled perfectly, and consumed with the intensity of a college student who was operating on too much adrenalin and too little sleep. If Hardcastle thought there was more to McCormick’s slightly distant air, he didn’t press it. Much.
“So things were okay with Hawksworth today, huh? You were worried for nothin’, right?”
“Looks that way,” Mark replied, not looking up from the chip he was using to scoop up a final bit of potato salad. “Just went over the last pop quiz and stuff. I think he had meetings with a couple of us.”
The judge was nodding. “Like I told you, just learn what you can from him and don’t worry about the rest of it.”
“Oh, I’m learning from him all right.” Then, almost as if sensing he’d said too much, he popped the chip in his mouth, pushed the empty plate away, and leaned back with a satisfied smile and swallowed. “Sorry I was late, but those burgers were worth waiting for.”
Hardcastle let himself be led. “You shouldn’t go all day without eating, ya know. Brains need food to work right; yours probably needs a little extra.”
McCormick laughed. “I’m thinking extra dessert.” He jerked a thumb at the book he’d carried with him to the table, but dutifully set aside for the actual meal. “And, if you’re up for it, I’ve got a few questions about torts.”
“Nothing I like better with my apple pie than a discussion about contributory and comparative negligence and such.”
Grinning, the young man got to his feet. “Nothing except ice cream.” He started for the house, then paused. Turning back, he asked, “Hey, how’d you know I was gonna want to talk about the defense strategies?”
Slightly more at ease, Hardcastle returned the grin. “Some things never change, kiddo.”
* * * * *
The next morning, early, Professor Hawksworth entered his office and walked straight to his desk. He smiled as he saw a bit of thread from his jacket on the floor. He bent to pick it up, his smile widening further.
* * * * *
The usual chatter died away as Hawksworth entered the lecture hall. All of the nearly thirty students turned to face the platform that he mounted, the few latecomers settling themselves hastily.
The professor stood in silence for a moment, then lifted his chin and cleared his throat stentoriously.
“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.”
He grimly scanned the students, now wider-eyed—except for one, who ought to have had the whole night to practice the art of surprise, but apparently hadn’t bothered.
“I had my suspicions, based on who had both motive and opportunity, but without further proof, I was reluctant to make an accusation. This morning, however, I have heard a rumor that copies of the stolen exam are being offered for sale.”
He paused briefly while a startled murmur ran through the room. All of the students were fully alert now—this was the curve that was being affected.
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?”
There was minimal courtesy in the request and the young man looked grimly unsurprised at the summons. He stood and cast his own look around at his hushed colleagues.
“Bring your briefcase with you, if you please,” Hawksworth said
McCormick frowned but followed that with a quick shrug and then reached down for it before coming forward. As he reached the dais he said, “I—”
“You’ll have your chance, sir,” the professor cut in sharply, “once we’ve settled one thing. Do I need a warrant to look through your briefcase?”
McCormick spared one last glance back toward the class then said simply, “No, of course not.” He lifted it up onto Hawksworth’s desk, and spread the top open, waving a hand casually as if inviting the man to help himself.
Hawksworth took his time. The preternatural calm of the young man in front of him was disturbing. He supposed Randolph Powers might have proved as inept at this as he had at his studies, but somehow the professor doubted that. And even if this search proved a failure, his unspoken accusation had already planted the seeds of doubt in many minds.
But Mr. McCormick was remaining regrettably calm as Hawksworth ran out of possibilities. His quiet confidence didn’t waver for a moment, even as the professor reached into the final 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.”
“I’m certain it isn’t.”
* * * * *
Randy Powers sat quietly in the rising chatter. He wore a satisfied smile that was very nearly a smirk, despite his best efforts to look completely uninvolved. He spared one glance over his shoulder to the seat behind his. His unwitting accomplice, Audra West, was also sitting quietly. Her puzzled expression was gradually shifting to one of concern. Powers tried to catch her eye as she started to rise and realized she was oblivious to everything but McCormick’s continued protestations.
Powers reached out as she stepped past him to go forward, grabbed her wrist and pulling her closer.
She looked down, suddenly aware of him, and blurted, “I have to explain—” but since she’d kept that at a near-whisper, he knew the battle was already won. He was certain that in the mounting hubbub no one else was paying any attention to them.
“Bad idea, baby,” he hissed, quiet but determined. ”I’ll deny everything. You’ll get kicked out.” She hesitated, staring at him in disbelief, then sat back down. Powers watched her for a moment, not completely convinced he had her under control.