"What am I doing here?" thought McCormick as he leaned back in the chair at the local college watering hole. "I don't belong."
He didn't know what the judge was thinking sending him undercover as an over-aged student to try to gather information on a murder that happened years ago. And he didn't know what he had been thinking to even consider going back to school to finish his education. Now he was surrounded by kids who talked a language that he only half understood wondering how he'd finish his homework, do all the work he had waiting for him back at Hardcastle's estate, and investigate a murder. It only reminded him that his shot at a diploma had passed him by a long time ago.
It was true that if he added all the classes that he had taken, piecemeal, over the years that he would nearly have four semesters completed but some things aren't meant to be no matter what promises you had made in the past. It's not like anyone really expected him to be educated. Look at Hardcastle. For someone who claimed to have read his file forward and backwards, the judge seemed to be totally unaware that he had any education.
Still it was hard to tell. Ever since Hardcastle had accepted the invitation to be a guest lecture at his old college, he had been extolling the virtues of college education and the special breed of people that were trying to grab the brass ring. He wasn't sure if the judge was running him down, trying to goad him into admitting that he had taken college classes, or using some weird type of reverses psychology to encourage him to consider returning to school.
But after two days of college, the only thing he had learned is to be more careful about the bets he made with Hardcastle.
FLASHBACK-TWO DAYS AGO
"Judge, I'm begging you," pleaded Mark. "Don't make me do this."
"What's wrong with you, McCormick," Hardcastle said as he proudly displayed his old college letter sweater. "I'd think that you'd be proud to wear a piece of history. It shows you're part of the college tradition. A legacy. You'll fit right into anywhere with this on."
"I'll look like an escapee from an Andy Hardy movie. Besides it's way too big for me."
"Yeah, you are a little on the puny side. That's going to hurt you on the football field," the judge added with a mutter.
"What did you say?" McCormick asked suspiciously.
"No," said McCormick as he pointed his finger at the judge. "You said something."
"It's nothing you need to worry about. Now you lost the bet so you got to wear the sweater."
"I would have won that game if you hadn't tripped me."
"I did not trip you. It was a legal block. It wasn't my fault that you fell over your own feet. Besides you're the one who insisted on going double or nothing for pulse rates."
"But the whole week, judge."
"Oh come on, McCormick," Hardcastle said as he held the sweater up to Mark's chest. "You'll really turn heads in this."
"Yeah," said McCormick as he held his nose. "The smell of mothballs has a way of doing that."
So he had started his first days of classes dressed in an oversized smelly reject from 'American Graffiti' and tried to blend in while standing out like a sore thumb. He could feel the other students staring at him as he walked into his first class. It was American History, a subject of which he had no interest. Hardcastle had signed him up for it along with three other classes; all without any input from him. Maybe that's why he had been in such a bad mood.
Despite his age, he felt like a geeky kid who had just started in a new high school as he listened to all of the whispering around him. But if his age and the sweater weren't bad enough, the class professor had focused in on him and was peppering him with questions which made him even more uncomfortable. He had tried to be polite and hoped that she would move her attention to another student but she didn't seem to get the message that he wanted her to leave him alone.
Then something snapped when she asked him what he had been doing when he had been younger instead of going to school. He had been honest with her and answered time but he had thrown in the look.
The look was something that you learned in the street and perfected in the joint. The one you gave to the other inmates harassing you in the prison yard or who were trying to get to personal. It said that I can take you and I'm not scared of the consequences. It was a warning that they needed to back off while they still had a chance.
And it usually worked. They might throw back a challenging look but once they realized that you were willing to fight back they left you alone. The memories of the times it hadn't worked could still cause him to wake up in a cold sweat late at night.
It had certainly worked on the professor. He wasn't proud when he saw the hint of fear that blossomed in her eyes or the wave of uneasiness which rippled through the classroom. The professor, though obviously flustered, completed her lecture but kept casting nervous glances at him as if she expected him to pull a gun out at any moment. When the class was over, the other students had given him a wide berth as they filed out.
The good thing about his outburst was that it had given him an opening to talk about Gina's brother after he had spread the rumor that he knew Kenny from prison. There were more than a few people who remembered the murder and the scandal from a few years ago. So, at least, the judge would be pleased.
The bad thing was it gave them something else to talk about. By the end of the second day, they were looking at him in a new light. Now he wasn't an over-aged student in a bad smelling sweater; he was an over aged student in a bad smelling sweater who was an ex-con. Beside the renewed whispering, there were a few nervous looks, the subtle checking of purses and wallets as he walked by and, worse, a few invitations to be a special 'guest speaker' at a sociology and two criminal studies classes. He had tried to decline as nicely as possible but he could feel his smile tightening at each curious inquiry about why he thought people became criminals.
Now he sat in the local waterhole, nursing a drink, as he tried to kill time between his last class and meeting with a cheer leader who claimed to have all the inside information about Kenny's old girlfriend, Susan.
"Mind if I join you?" came a voice from somewhere in front of the table.
It was the distinct New Jersey twang that elicited enough interest to make Mark open one weary eye. The person who stood in front of him was a shortish black-haired man whose nose had been on the wrong side of a punch more than once. McCormick estimated the man's age was somewhere between his own and the judge's. The smile was friendly enough but there was a reflection of a lifetime on the hard streets in his eyes. Mark's first thought was the man belonged to campus security but his suit appeared too expensive though the gaudy tie gave it a personalized flair that he approved of.
"Might be a goon trying to scare me away," thought McCormick though his intuition didn't identify the man as a threat. Curious, Mark pushed the extra chair out with his foot and gestured for him to sit down.
The man sat in the chair, thrust out his hand, and said, "Hi. You don't know me but my name is Martin Kazinsky but you can call me Kaz."
"I'm Mark McCormick."
"I know," Kaz laughed. "You were quite the focus of conversation at the faculty luncheon this afternoon."
"Ah, security," thought Mark as he leaned back in the chair and gave the man his best choirboy smile. "I apologize if I said anything that may have upset anyone. I'm just here to take my classes and not start any trouble."
"I didn't say you were. Actually Professor Thompson said if I saw you I should apologize for her. She didn't mean to put you on the spot."
"Apology accepted. I can see you're probably busy so don't let me hold you up."
Kaz smiled at the subtle joke. "Do I detect some Jersey in your voice?"
"Great, he wants to play friendly," Mark moaned to himself. "Guilty as charged," he said. "I'm from New Jersey."
"Do you mind if I ask where you did time?"
"San Quentin," Mark answered as his voice went flat and he felt the look flare into his eyes. But he was surprised with what he saw in his inquisitor's eyes, an understanding which came from personal knowledge. "And you?" he guessed.
"New Jersey State for car theft."
"Small world, me too." McCormick's mind raced as he tried to figure how to play this new card as he struck a pose of polite interest and waited for Kaz to make the next move.
"Like I was saying," Kaz said as he raised his hand and signaled the waitress to bring a round of drinks. "I heard about you at the faculty luncheon today and I wanted to meet you as we got so much in common."
Kaz thought back to his recent run-in with Professor Thompson who had been talking nonstop about the criminal that had threatened her in her own classroom. A few questions revealed that the student hadn't actually said anything but she claimed she had seen the intent in his eyes. She had more than a few choice words about an administrative office that would allow an adult criminal to mingle with students who were practically still children. She, also, questioned about what a man like that could possibly do with a college education. All the time, ignoring her fellow professor who had tried desperately to get her attention before forcibly grabbing her arm and dragging her away.
A few minutes later, Professor Thompson approached him, embarrassed and contrite, as she offered her apologies which he had accepted without offense. He had heard it before.
"Here's my card," Kaz said as he slid it across the table.
Mark examined the card. He could tell by the high quality paper and fancy embossing that it had cost some serious coin. He didn't recognize the name of the New York law firm but the address was in a high class section of the city.
"You're a lawyer?" Mark asked surprised.
"Yeah, for about five years now. This is my boss' old school. He got an invite to lecture at the seminar but couldn't make it. He said if I'm ever going to make partner, I got to be able to do the lecture circuit. Plus I don't think anyone else in the office wanted to do it. So here I am."
"But a lawyer?"
Kaz laughed again. "I did what you're doing now. Last time I was in jail, I got tired of everyone deciding what my future was so I did something about it. Of course, I didn't have the hutzpah to start out on a college campus with all these kids. I did most of it inside or at community when I got out. And that was tough enough. So what's your major?"
"I don't have one."
"Yeah, I wasn't sure what I wanted when I started. I just wanted to be something more than what everyone thought I was. Next thing I know I'm finishing law school."
"But how'd you score a job here," Mark asked as he gestured with the card. "This looks like a high class place."
"That was hutzpah! I got a lot of doors slammed in my face but I finally found someone that was willing to take a chance and see what I could do. You never know what's coming for you in the future but you got to be ready to grab it."
"I know what you mean," Mark said thoughtfully as he considered the many strange and unexpectant turns his life had taken. "Do they ever get over the ex-con part?"
"Not everybody, but enough people will when you show them what you can do. I just wanted to tell you to hang in there," Kaz said as he started to get up. "I got to get ready for my lecture tonight, give them some of that of Kazinsky style. Maybe we can get together later tonight. I'd love to hear your story."
"Yeah, I'd like to hear yours' too."
"Just one thing that I got to know," Kaz said as he reached over and rubbed the old wool in his hand. "What's with the sweater? Did you lose a bet?"
It was a little over an hour later when McCormick dialed the judge's number."
'Hey, judge. I talked to a few people and I got some information on Kevin and the murder."
"I was thinking that instead of coming out tonight, I thought you could meet me out here tomorrow morning."
"There's a lecture I want to go to," Mark said as he waited for the snort of disbelief.
"What's her name, McCormick?"
"It's not about a girl, judge. There's a lecture tonight and I thought it sounded interesting." Mark held his breath as he waited for Hardcastle's response.
The judge paused then said, "If it sounds interesting then you should probably go to it, McCormick. You know you got a good head on your shoulders when you chose to use it. You're never too old to learn something. I was already married and spent a few years on the force when I decided to go back to college."
"So you think it's a good idea?"
"Never know when you're going to learn something you'll need in the future."
"Because you never know what the future will bring."
"Exactly. Except I do know that you still got to get to those hedges before the end of the month."
"I thought you wanted them done by the end of the week."
"Well," Hardcastle hedged, "I know you're probably going to be busy with the case and your classes. I expect them to get done but it won't kill them to get a little longer."
"Don't worry, I'm on it. Thanks judge."
Mark hung up the phone. Though they hadn't really said anything, he couldn't help but feel that he had just received the judge's blessing for his plans. He was surprised how much that meant to him. It wasn't going to be easy but with the money from his recent raise, hard work, Hardcastle's support and a little McCormick style it might be doable. He didn't know what was coming down the road but he was going to be ready to grab at his own brass ring. He pulled out the community college application and began to plot the first minute of his new future.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Give yourself one Trivia Masters point if you recognized McCormick's New Jersey visitor. Ron Liberman starred in "Kaz" from 1978-1979. He played Martin Kazinsky who spent six years in jail for car theft where he earned a law degree. Upon release, He was hired as a lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm.