Inside the gatehouse, Zora knelt on a plump cushion, gently probing at the lock of the front door. May watched anxiously, darting glances between her sister and the watch on her wrist..
“Listen for it,” advised McCormick, squatting next to Zora. “Don't jab at it, more like the touch of a butterfly wing.”
“How poetic, Mark,” murmured Zora. There was a barely audible click, she crowed in glee, and turned the knob to demonstrate that the door was successfully unlocked.
Aunt May clapped her hands. “Well done, Zora! And in only thirty-three seconds, too.”
Mark helped a beaming Aunt Zora to her feet, then straightened the cushions and extended a hand to Aunt May. May knelt down and reached out her hand for the picks without taking her gaze from the lock. Silently, Mark handed them over and May went to work.
The hush continued, Zora closely eying her watch, until May said, “Got it!” and the lock clicked.
“What the he- ...eck are you doing?!” Hardcastle pushed through the glass doors leading to the gatehouse patio and glared at the small party impartially.
The aunts looked at their older nephew in displeasure and Zora wagged her finger at him. “Milton, I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that.”
May shook her head at him, then suddenly smiled. “We've been learning to pick locks,” she chirped gleefully.
“McCormick,” growled the judge.
“Now, Judge,” Mark held up a hand, “you haven't heard the case for the defense yet.”
“Defense?” sniffed Zora. “There's no defense needed here, Mark. We're simply doing our 'homework' for the L.A.D.I.E.S. competitions, that's all. Just as you're about to start on your own homework.”
Mark nodded with enthusiasm. “Yep, that's right, Judge. And I've already looked up Grover v. South Dakota. That was a big help, made a lot of stuff clear. Thanks, Judge.”
“Oh, don't slobber on me, McCormick.” Hardcastle ran a hand over his face, then sighed and shrugged. “Just don't go picking locks except as a hobby, okay?” He looked at one aunt then the other. “You want to show off to your friends, that's one thing, but you get busted for breaking and entering, don't call me to set up your bail.”
“Certainly not,” said May placidly. “We'd call Mark for that.”
As the judge growled, Zora hastened to wave the small group into the gatehouse living area. “Now, Milton, I was thinking about the case and it seems to me we ought to be able to assist the police a little further. I mean, surely we can use ratiocination to solve this murder.”
May nodded in agreement as she lowered herself onto the couch and patted a cushion for McCormick to join her. “That's exactly right, Zora. We haven't really put our minds to it yet. There's just been too much going on.”
“What's ratiocination, Aunt May?” McCormick stretched an arm out on the top of the sofa. “Like figuring out it by just thinking about it?”
The judge nodded as he sat in the armchair. “Yeah, like Sherlock Holmes.”
Zora beamed at him in approval. “Yes, it's deduction, dear. Using your intelligence to find out the culprit.”
“As Augustus Lyon always says in Lex Portly's books,” added May, “'Factual evidence with reasoned analysis'.”
“Let me just get us all some nice lemonade before we start to solve this case.” Zora hurried into the gatehouse's tiny kitchen, where the others heard glasses clinking and cabinets opening and closing.
Hardcastle nestled into his chair a little more and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lemonade would be nice, I hafta say. Look, Aunt May, I know you want to help but could you just once leave it to the professionals?”
May smiled at him patronizingly. “Of course, Milton. But if we do think of something you could call that Lieutenant Harper we liked so much and tell him about it, couldn't you?”
Mark got up to take the tray of drinks as Zora entered the room. “Yeah, Judge. What would it hurt to talk things over? You never know if one of us might remember something important or start a train of thought.”
Zora handed Hardcastle his glass as Mark passed May hers.
The judge took a healthy sip, coughed and held up his glass to examine it. “What's in this stuff?”
“It's Luckenback lemonade, dear.” May took a sip from her frosted glass. “Lemonade made with a little bourbon and club soda. Mark's having a nonalcoholic beer since he has to study after this.”
McCormick nodded his thanks and took the bottle from her. “C'mon, Judge. Let's try to ratiocinate this out. It's not going to hurt and I think they're making sense here. Let 'em take a stab at --”
“Watch those metaphors, Kiddo.”
“-- At figuring this out.” Mark took a sip from his bottle, grimaced and put the bottle back on the coffee table.
“I dunno. You look kinda like a normal person, then you go acting like they do. What's a person supposed to think?” Hardcastle took another swig of his lemonade, then added, “A guy could get used to this stuff.”
Zora nodded primly. “Well, we could go through Method, Motive, and Opportunity like the classics in the 30s.”
May turned to her. “Oh, I was hoping to dissect the murderer's personality and psychological problems. You know, like Allen Broderick always does.”
“We could try sending anonymous letters to all the suspects, like in Eckley’s book, ‘Too Many Clues’ -- you know, where only the real villain believes it and shows up at the bus stop.” Zora sipped delicately at her lemonade.
“Look, how about we just go through what we know about Howard and what we know about the crime?” McCormick picked up his bottle, looked at it closely, then set it back again, even further from him.
The judge shrugged. “Okay. We got a guy with a good business reputation, running a hotel in good financial standing, who's retiring in a few weeks, and he's got no known enemies.”
“Except for a looney-tune desk clerk,” muttered Mark, looking darkly at his non-alcoholic brew.
May set her glass down. “We also know that the victim was happy in his marriage and had no personal money concerns. And those entries in the ledger look to me like someone covering up periodic pecadillos.”
“I agree,” Zora nodded. “Either his own or someone else's. Surely he had no need to take small amounts like that, one hundred dollars. Yet he must have been the one to make the covering deposits. It was clearly his signature on the bank slips.”
Hardcastle threw a long-suffering look at McCormick, who returned a bland smile.
“They were in the drawer of his desk, dear.” May answered the unasked question.
Zora took up the thread again. “So, a man with no known, or as-yet discovered enemies, no money problems, a happy marriage, goes into the alley behind a hotel. Why?”
“I was wondering if it was chance or if the killer made an appointment with him,” May spoke up. “No one would just wait around a dark alley hoping the manager would come out at some point, surely? That argues an appointment.”
“Not only that,” Zora continued. “You can theorize that the killer was familiar with the location, and that Howard had no need to fear them.”
McCormick settled back, arms across his chest, to enjoy the show. Hardcastle leaned back and closed his eyes, sighing.
“But we looked at his appointment book and there were no entries within an hour of when he was shot. Not only that, but wouldn't his secretary be aware if he stepped out of the office for any length of time?” May squinted into the distance. “Unless she was in on it.”
“And don't forget the fedora that shaded the killer's features.” Zora put a finger to her lips and frowned. “You don't see many fedoras these days. Especially in the daytime.”
May immediately responded, “Milton always looked so charming and suave in his fedora, too. I wish men would go back to wearing hats.”
Suddenly, the two women looked at each other and shouted, “Hats!”
Zora turned to Hardcastle. “Milton, the killer was wearing a hat!”
“Yeah, I know. I heard you say so.” The judge opened his eyes and bent a quizzical look at his younger aunt.
May took up the thread. “But men don't wear hats any more! Certainly not a fedora in the middle of the afternoon.” She cocked her head at Mark. “Don't you see? It was a disguise! A disguise for a woman!”
The judge shook his head. “Nah. I was there when Frank talked to Mrs. Howard. I'd be willing to swear she was really grieving and when she said he wasn't involved with anybody else, that was the truth if ever I heard it.”
“Well, of course not his wife, Milton.” May scowled at him. “His secretary. The one person who was familiar with that alley, had the opportunity to indulge in petty chicanery with the bank account, and knew Howard would be available at that time.”
Zora chimed in, “Don't you see? She's the obvious suspect. Howard wouldn't have thought twice about it if she said she had something to show him in the alley. Or just asked him to meet her there.”
Mark was staring at the judge now, and Hardcastle was staring back.
“A gun would be no problem for her to obtain, surely.” May began collecting glasses and putting them on the tray. “She certainly had the opportunity and the method available to her. And I can guess about the motive, as well.”
Zora nodded sagely. “Yes, indeed.”
McCormick finally spoke. “It does make some sense, you know. They might have something here.”
The judge pulled at his lip while he thought. After a moment, he grunted and rose from the chair. “It's worth checking out.”
“Don't you wish men still wore hats?” May asked Zora.
“Oh, yes. I miss that. Straw hats in summer, fedoras for formal evenings.” Zora sighed gently. “My Norbert looked so dapper in a straw hat.”
“You shoulda seen Milton in his fedora and tux in Washington,” said Mark with a tiny grin. “Hobnobbing with the politicos, swapping stories with the Supreme Court, dropping his tie in the onion dip.”
Hardcastle tossed him a perfunctory glare, then directed his attention back to his aunts. “Let me get hold of Frank about all this and McCormick and I will head down there.”
“Oh, no, you don't,” Zora was outraged. “We're the eyewitnesses and we should be there when the culprit is arrested.”
May fastened a gimlet eye on her older nephew. “We do have rights, you know.”