“Where'd my aunts go?” asked the judge, looking into dark corners and behind trash cans.
Harper rubbed the top of his head moodily. “I had Sergeant Roth take 'em inside. Figured they'd be more comfortable there.”
McCormick grinned at him. “They were really getting in the way, huh?”
Frank sighed and nodded. “Yeah, a little. Milt, I told Roth to find a comfortable place and to keep an eye on 'em. But at this point, I need to find out exactly what they saw. You wanna come along and help out?”
“Sure.” Hardcastle stepped to the nearest door, the metal door that opened into the alley. “This where they said the guy came out?”
“Mm-hmm. It's already been gone over and I want to check out where it leads to.” Frank led the way through the door and into a large room with shelves covered in various linens. “Towels? Sheets? Must be where the truck pulls up with the laundry. Phillips,” he turned back through the door to call to a uniformed officer. “Find out the laundry schedule, will you?”
“You know who has keys to this place yet?” Mark scrutinized the door lock, then strolled over to the open door leading to a hallway to do the same with that lock.
Frank ducked his head in a semi-affirmative motion. “Sounds so far like the manager, the victim out there, had keys to everything. Helps us in a way, because he seemed to be real careful about that, 'specially with the doors leading to the outside. Mark, you see anything there?”
McCormick shook his head and straightened up from his crouch. “Nah. They both look okay, but that could just mean they were picked by an expert.”
“Hmph. Figures.” Frank strode off into the hallway and turned right.
The judge cocked an eye at Mark, and they both followed, around a corner and into the hotel lobby. Behind a long mahogany counter stood a tall, slightly-built man with thinning hair and a ramrod posture. Frank approached him, flashing his ID.
“You in charge here for now?” Harper returned his badge to his pocket and glanced at the plaque on the counter. “Mr. Henley?”
The tall man cleared his throat, stood even straighter and nodded sharply. “I am Albert Henley, Assistant Manager of this establishment. And I am pleased to see the police in my new capacity of Acting Manager, manager pro tem as it were. I can assure you, Lieutenant, that there will be changes here at the Empress Hotel – changes that are long overdue. A solid financial footing, that's the ticket. A new approach, a wider clientèle --”
Mark nudged Hardcastle, who muttered, “That's snooty for customers,” at him.
“A more fashionable offering of menu and décor,” continued the manager pro tem. He spread his hands, gesturing at the lobby. “Tradition, but elegance; hospitality with grace and class. It is not impossible to achieve, I assure you.”
Frank held up a hand. “I'm sure you're right. But right at this moment, I need to get into the victim's – Mr. Howard's – office. Can you let me in and can you tell me where Sergeant Roth went to?”
Henley sniffed disparagingly. “It is not a thing to which we are accustomed, having the police here, I assure you. But I sent Sergeant Roth and his charges to the manager's office. Miss Poole, Mr. Howard's personal secretary, has the keys and will admit you.” He fingered his tie briefly, then stood once more at attention. “Style, class, a certain ambiance. You will see changes, sir. Great changes, and very soon, I assure you.”
“That's swell. Terrific,” muttered Frank with a wave of the hand as he walked away. “I assure you.”
Around another corner, past a Grecian column, was the manager's office, behind a door clearly labelled Manager. Inside they found a moderately attractive thirty-ish woman behind a desk, mopping at her eyes and sniffing. The plaque on her desk read, “Anne Poole, Manager's Secretary”.
“Miss Poole?” Harper once again showed his badge. “I'm Lieutenant Harper and I'm looking for Sergeant Roth and two older ladies. I think they went into the manager's office.” He pushed a thumb toward the door behind her desk. “But I need to talk to you for a bit if you're up to it.”
Miss Poole nodded, sniffed once more and pulled herself upright. “Yes, the sergeant brought two elderly women here. Then he left them inside while he went for some tea.”
The judge groaned, Mark smacked himself in the forehead, and Frank rolled his eyes to the heavens. “He left them alone in there? Milt, come on. Miss Poole, I'll be out in just a minute to speak to you.”
Harper pushed the door open, the other two right behind him, to find the aunts poring over various materials on the manager's desk.
“Oh, good, Milton,” said Zora, looking up. “I want you to look at these financial statements. There's some funny business going on here.”
“Ladies, ladies,” said Harper, holding up his hands palms out. “You're witnesses in this case. You can't be interfering with possible evidence.”
May looked at him with patent disbelief. “But we're not interfering, Lieutenant. We're investigating.”
Hardcastle took her by the arm and led her to a chair. “Now, you know you can't be doing that, either. Just sit here for a while and let us do our jobs, okay?”
“But, Milton,” Zora gave the judge a stern look, “it's not exactly your job then, either, is it? Yet here you are --” she spread her hands and gestured at the three men, “all working together. So, we're going to be working with you, that's all.”
Mark grinned at the older man. “She does have a point, Judge.”
Harper's shoulders slumped and he cast another glance at the heavens. “Just tell me exactly what you touched and tell me where the . . . the dickens is Sergeant Roth.”
“Why, he very kindly offered to get us some tea.” May looked surprised to find that Harper didn't automatically realize that.
“I'll bet one of you suggested it, then started to comb through the place, didn't you?” Hardcastle placed himself beside Zora and began to look through the financial statements.
Zora pointed out three specific items while saying, “We might have mentioned that we normally have a cup of something about this time of day, but I won't have you scold him, Lieutenant.” She gave Harper a minatory glance.
“You know, Frank, they're right about this. There's some kinda monkey business with the books alright. Come over here.” The judge ran a ruminative thumb over his nose. “Check these expenditures and then look at those deposits.”
May spoke up from her chair, where she'd been casually thumbing through the manager's appointment book, palmed while everyone else's attention was on Zora's pronouncement. “And I think that nice secretary knows something. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear that the victim was indulging in a bit of hanky-panky and she's aware of it. After all,” she held up the appointment book, “she does handle his schedule, she told us that, and every Tuesday night, there's an entry for 'Lois' here”.
“I'll go talk to her,” offered Mark before Frank could lose his temper completely. “Let me take that, okay, Aunt May?”
She handed over the appointment book and McCormick handled it carefully before taking it to the outer office, where he wrapped it in a handkerchief.
Anne Poole looked up at him. “Is that Mr. Howard's book?” she snuffled. “He was such a wonderful man. Who could have done this horrible thing?”
“Well, we're doing our best to find out,” McCormick reassured her. “Can I ask you about a regular 'date' he seems to have had every Tuesday night. It's listed as 'Lois'?”
“Oh, yes,” one final sniff, then a watery smile. “That's his weekly bowling date. At Lois Lanes. What a cute name, don't you think?”
“Ah. Lois Lanes, right. I get it, very funny. Bowling. Superman, Lois Lane.” Mark looked a bit disappointed, so Miss Poole hastened to fill him in.
“Mr. Howard was an extremely attractive man. He could have had any number of affairs, but he was very happily married. For fourteen years next month.” Miss Poole shook her head sadly. “He was a special person, you know. Charming and intelligent and hard-working. His wife will be devastated by this. She just adored him. All of us did.”
McCormick thanked her, then turned suddenly at a knock on the door to the corridor. He opened the door to find Sergeant Roth with a tray holding two steaming cups of tea.
“Mark! Thanks. Oh,” suddenly Roth looked apprehensive. “Harper's in there, huh? Um, hey, can you take this in to Hardcastle's aunts? I really ought to get back to the body. The van'll be there any minute to take it away. Oh, sorry, ma'am,” at a muffled wail from Miss Poole.
McCormick shrugged, smiled, and took the tray. “You owe me one, y'know.”
As Roth left, the judge appeared in the doorway. “Oh. Tea. Hey, listen, Frank wants to get the aunts downtown to make their statements. And,” he added sotto voce, “to get 'em away from here before they investigate any more. Can you drive 'em over there and we'll meet up with you in a bit?”
“Sure.” Mark set the tray down on the secretary's desk, whereupon Miss Poole snatched a a paper napkin to supplement her dwindling supply of tissues. “We'll get the statements going and then Frank can talk to them when he's done here.”
The judge turned to corral his aunts, then twisted his head over his shoulder to add, “And for Pete's sake, keep 'em out of any more trouble, okay?”
“So I talked to the widow Howard,” said Harper. He looked at the plate of brownies, then sternly made himself look away again.
Zora proffered the plate to the lieutenant again. “Was that the tall blonde in the hallway? We saw her out there and thought she looked truly stricken. Are you considering her a suspect?”
The lieutenant sighed and glanced meaningfully at the judge, who avoided his gaze. “I can't talk about stuff like that with you ladies. You know that.”
“Oh, yes, of course. And we so appreciate you waiting for us while we went back to Malibu for the brownies.” May smiled benignly at Frank. “We'd really appreciate seeing your evidence room.”
“And perhaps the morgue?” added Zora with a hopeful look. “We'd love to have a chat with your medical examiner, too. I've had an idea about a mosquito who bites a murderer and the detective swats it so the M.E. can use that new procedure – DNA testing – to determine the murderer.” She dimpled winsomely at Harper. “But an expert's opinions would be so helpful.”
“Uh, well, I don't know about that DNA staff,” Frank hesitated then went on, “but Mark, why don't you find Sergeant McElroy and tell him I said to give these ladies the grand tour?”
On her way to the door, Zora elbowed the judge gently. “It really does pay to have a 'friend in the business', Milton.”
Hardcastle grunted, then shot a look at McCormick as he left. “You keep them outta trouble, you hear? And look up Grover v. South Dakota for the constitutional law section.”
“Studying for finals? When are they?” Frank offered the plate to Hardcastle as Mark pulled the door to the office closed.
He shook his head and patted his stomach, saying, “No, no. With my aunts around, I'm fuller'n a tick on a dog. Yeah, finals start in just over two weeks and I'm afraid he's really getting behind with my aunts here.”
“Ah, Mark's a pretty bright guy. He'll be fine.” Harper bit blissfully into a brownie and smiled. “You think you could get the recipe for Claudia?” he asked hopefully.
The judge snorted. “I'll ask.” He paused and rubbed his forehead wearily. “Listen, Frank, I know this is a weird situation, but they are the only eye witnesses you have. Yeah, they're a handful, but they're also accurate and observant. If they say the gunman was short, wearing a hat and overcoat, then you look for a short guy with a coat and hat.”
“Yeah, but they can also get in the way. And cause problems.” Harper scrubbed the dome of his head. “I gotta talk to the widow now. You wanna sit on on this?”
Hardcastle nodded. “If it's okay with you. I am kinda involved in this, ya know.”
The Lieutenant went to the office door, opened it, peeked out and signaled to someone down the hall. “Could you bring Mrs. Howard in, please?”
Mrs. Howard, wearing a simple but expensive black dress, entered the office and looked around briefly before extending a hand to Frank.
“Mrs. Howard, I want you to know we're all very sorry for your loss and we'll do everything in our power to catch the assailant. Please sit down.” Harper waved her to the chair in front of his desk.
Hardcastle bent assiduously over an open file on the cabinet he'd been leaning against to give the impression that he wasn't paying much attention. He flipped a few pages, then glanced briefly at the new-made widow.
The new-made widow cleared her throat then spoke. “Please ask me anything you want, Lieutenant, but I'm afraid I won't be of much help to you.”
Frank picked up a pen and arranged his notes in front of him. “Obviously, the first thing we need to know is if your husband had any enemies that you knew about. Anyone who'd benefit if he was … um, not around.”
“No. None.” Mrs. Howard cleared her throat again. “There were differences of opinion at times, at the hotel, I mean, but nothing major. And even if there had been, Myron was retiring in five weeks. Anyone who wanted to take his place at the hotel had only to wait.” She paused for a moment. “We were finally going to take that cruise to Australia.”
Harper murmured another condolence, nearly inaudible, then took a breath and asked, “What about women? I mean, were there any times that you--”
Mrs. Howard, shaking her head, held up a palm to stop him. “My husband and I were happily married – very happily married – and I had complete confidence in his affections, as he had in mine. There were no affairs, no peccadillos, I assure you of that. Never. Myron was an attractive man and there have been some women who expressed, covertly, an interest in him. But we … well, we felt sorry for them and were sympathetic toward them. It was rather sad, actually, when he ...” she broke off suddenly. “There are some things, Lieutenant Harper, that are very personal to other people. Must I tell you about them?”
“Ah, well, if they're pertinent to the case, yeah, I'd like to hear them.” Harper tapped his pen on the desk a few times. “How do you mean, personal?”
“There have been two cases in our marriage when Myron had to expressly tell a woman that he was not interested in her and would prefer to keep the relationship on a friendly basis rather than personal. I would much rather not name the two women, for their sakes. Myron was always very respectful--” She broke off and took a deep breath, then tried again. “He was always--” Mrs. Howard lifted a hand to her head. “If you'll excuse me, Lieutenant, I think … I think ...”
“Mrs. Howard, we can do this later, at your home, if you'd like.” Frank stood and offered a hand to help her out of the chair. “I appreciate your coming down here and if you need a ride home, we can have one of my officers drive you.”
She shook her head. “No, a friend drove me here. But thank you.” She stared out of the window behind the desk for a few seconds. “Now I have to go back to an empty house. Empty for the rest of my life.” She dragged her gaze back to Harper and a sad smile passed quickly over her lips, then disappeared. “I suppose I should cancel those cruise tickets.” She rose and walked quietly out the door, closing it carefully behind her.
Harper stood as she left and Hardcastle, who'd been maintaining a discreet presence during the interview, let out his breath with a whoosh. “That's a grieving widow, Frank, or I never saw one.”
“Yeah,” Harper rubbed the top of his head, “I think so, too. But you know we need to find out who those two women are. Maybe we can ask that secretary at the hotel, or that weird guy at the front desk. I probably shoulda pressed her a little for the names, but she kind got to me, you know?”
“Yeah.” The judge nodded slowly. “She's very believable, even that part about the 'other women'. I dunno, just a kind of feeling I got about her or something, but I completely believed her.”
Frank nodded, then sighed. “So, I'll send a woman officer out there in a few hours to talk to her. You know, offer assistance and then try to get those names. But we're not finding anything at the hotel that looks like there's been any problem, other than the books. And that's funny, too.” He sank back into his chair and reached for his notes. “The financial stuff is strange. The same amounts are drawn out for 'Expenses', then replaced two days later. If you're paying expenses, you don't re-deposit that amount right away. And it's $100 on the nose, all three times. Picayune stuff for a place that size, if we've got an embezzler.”
“Huh.” Hardcastle stood in thought for a moment. “Maybe somebody's short of cash and thinks of it as a loan? Could be.” He shrugged. “Listen, I gotta get out there and see what my aunts are doing. You let me know if anything comes up, okay?”
“Will do. Hey, don't forget the plate.” The Lieutenant handed over the now-empty brownie plate. “And thank 'em again for me, willya. But don't let 'em near any more evidence!”
“Some of those people in the mug books really look quite unpleasant, you know.” May tapped her chin thoughtfully.
Zora nodded in agreement. “But I thought their aliases were quite creative.”
McCormick opened the door of the truck and reached in for the small plastic step the aunts used to clamber in. “It's too bad none of them clicked for you. It'd make Frank's job a lot easier.”
“Mark, dear,” May placed a hand on his arm, “I think we ought to go the victim's home, don't you? We need to see how he lived, check out his surroundings.”
“Yes, indeed.” Zora smiled up at her adopted nephew. “It's so important in cases like these to get to know the victim as well as possible.”
McCormick closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, Aunt Zora, really, no. We've got to let the police take care of this. You remember what the judge said last time, right?”
May leaned out of the cab toward him. “Mark, are you really saying you won't drive us over there? In the interests of justice?”
“Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying,” McCormick stated definitively.
“Then we'll just have to take a taxi. Come on, May, get out of there and let's find a hackie.” Zora strode off down the sidewalk.
“No, no, no!” Mark ran after her, waving his hands. “Aunt Zora!”
She stopped, turned slightly and said, “Well?”
May trotted down the sidewalk toward them eagerly. “You'll take us there?”
McCormick sighed and slumped. “No. But--” he held up a hand to forestall their arguments, “I'll make you a deal. You wanted to learn how to pick locks, right?”
The aunts nodded enthusiastically.
“Then I'll show you how, back at the estate.” Mark looked at them sternly. “But we're staying out of this case from now on, okay? We're going to let the cops do their job and we're going to bake and sightsee and have some tea. Or bourbon,” he added with a shrug.
May looked at Zora who returned her gaze. “We agree,” they said in unison. “Unless,” May added, “we find a new clue that the police haven't turned up.”
“Deal,” said Zora. “Now, where do we find some lockpicks?”
Mark smiled at his two aunts. “That's not going to be a problem.”