Cora Felton may look like everyone’s favorite grandmother. But the white-haired, bespectacled Puzzle Lady swears, smokes, gambles, and is even dodgy on the subject of how many husbands she’s had. So it strikes her long-suffering niece Sherry Carter as amusing when Cora announces, “I’m tired of living a lie!”
The inspiration for this sudden burst of honesty is a promotion by Granville Grains featuring the Puzzle Lady on a bus tour of televised personal appearances. Cora can’t think of anything she’d like to do less–except maybe quit smoking–than travel the supermarkets of I-95 hawking the new and improved Corn Toasties to her legions of fans. And someone else mustn’t want her to go either, because they’ve left a knife planted in her front door with a crossword puzzle attached. But when Sherry solves the puzzle she can’t decide whether the enigmatic message is a threat, a love note, or– creepier still–both.
Like it or not, Cora and Sherry must take their show on the road, along with a makeshift TV crew that includes a smarmy producer with a bad hairpiece, an abrasive director, an overambitious publicist, and two overgrown child-actors with some very adult problems. Throw in a few uninvited guests, including a roly-poly munchkin who’s had an unrequited crush on Cora since high school and Sherry’s abusive ex-husband, and you don’t need to be a puzzle expert to know this trip is going to be murder!
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Nominated for the prestigious Edgar, Shamus, and Lefty awards, Parnell Hall is the author of six previous Puzzle Lady mysteries. He lives in New York City, where he is at work on his next Puzzle Lady mystery.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He couldn't believe it! She hadn't answered his letter. True, he hadn't left a return address, but there were so many other ways. And a clever woman could find them. And she was not just a clever woman, she was a brilliant woman. When it came to delving, investigating, figuring things out.
So why hadn't she?
The thought that tortured him was, What if she had? What if she'd devised some clever means of communication that he was too slow to grasp? What if she had already answered him in one way or another? What if her answer was waiting for him right now?
But what kind of answer could it be? An ad in the Personals column? What Personals column? And what newspaper? How would he know?
No, there was only one way she could communicate. Only one way he expected her to. Only one way that made sense.
After all, she had a nationally syndicated crossword-puzzle column. And how simple it would be to slip a word or phrase into the puzzle. Meaningless to everyone else, but a wink and a nod to him. And wouldn't that be delicious. To have a secret. Their secret. In plain view, on display, for everyone to see. If only they had perspicacity to glean the hidden meaning. To crack the secret cypher.
Each morning he snatched up the paper, flipped to the Entertainment section, and solved the puzzle, always in under five minutes. For the next half hour he would study what he'd done, searching for a clue.
Which never came.
It infuriated him. Was it possible she hadn't gotten the letter? He had written care of the paper, not having her address. It was only a local paper, but still, they would forward it, wouldn't they? And the breakfast cereal company. He had written her care of that too. She was the spokesman for the company. Surely they would send her mail.
If not, he would have to get her home address. He hated to do it. It would make him seem like an obsessed fan. Like that nutcase who kept showing up at David Letterman's.
And it wasn't that way with him. It wasn't that way at all. He was her confederate, her peer, her equal. Theirs was a true meeting of the minds.
If only he could arrange the introduction.
Should he nudge the breakfast cereal company?
Or maybe it was time for a special delivery.
"I'm tired of living a lie."
Sherry Carter looked at her aunt in amusement. Cora Felton did not look like a liar. The white-haired, bespectacled lady looked like everyone's favorite grandmother, the type that baked pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, cookies at Christmastime, and cupcakes for no particular reason on any given occasion. Sherry, of course, knew better. Cora smoked, swore, gambled, had only recently given up drinking, and was somewhat hazy on the subject of how many husbands she'd had. "Mine or other people's?" was her usual deflection.
"Good lord, Cora. Do you have another husband I haven't heard of?"
"It's entirely possible, but that isn't what I meant." Cora pointed at the computer screen, on which Sherry was composing a puzzle in Crossword Compiler. "I'm tired of being the Puzzle Lady. I'm tired of feigning an expertise I have not got."
Sherry nodded approvingly. "See? You even sound like the Puzzle Lady. Do you realize how much more elegant and refined your speech has become since you've been doing it?"
Cora responded with a remark that could hardly be considered elegant or refined by any stretch of the imagination.
"Aunt Cora!" Sherry remonstrated.
"Oh, pooh," Cora retorted. "I'm the Milli Vanilli of the crossword-puzzle community. A hollow subterfuge that has stretched way thin."
"You're mixing metaphors."
A toy poodle scampered into the office and yipped around Cora's feet. She bent down, scooped him up. He nestled against her chest, nuzzled under her chin.
"Look at me," Cora complained. "I used to be tough as nails. Now I'm a dotty old woman with a dog."
"We don't have to keep the dog," Sherry pointed out. "He's here on a trial run."
"Shh! He'll hear you!" Cora hissed. "Buddy, don't listen to her. Cut it out, Sherry. I'm not getting rid of the D-O-G just to make a point."
"And just what point are you making, Cora?"
"I'm not comfortable taking credit for something I don't do. I think it's time you were recognized for your work."
"I don't want to be recognized."
"Why not? It's not like you're hiding from your ex-husband anymore. Dennis knows you're the Puzzle Lady. He also knows where you live. What have you got to lose?"
"My privacy, for one thing."
"Oh? But it's all right for me to lose mine?"
"It's not the same thing, Aunt Cora."
"You don't do anything."
"I beg your pardon?"
Sherry shrugged. "I create the puzzles. Losing your privacy is your entire contribution to the project."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!"
Cora jerked a pack of cigarettes out of her floppy, drawstring purse.
"I thought you weren't going to smoke in here," Sherry observed.
"That only works when you agree with me," Cora snapped. "When you argue with me, I gotta smoke." Buddy squirmed and yipped. "Oh, was I squeezing too tight?" She set the poodle down. "All right, I'll go outside. You wanna come, too, or should I finish this conversation myself?"
Sherry followed Cora down the hall through the living room and out the front door of the modest, prefab rental she and her aunt shared together. The house wasn't much, except for the location. On a scenic country road in Bakerhaven, Connecticut, with no near neighbors, the one-acre lot was an idyllic setting.
Cora stopped on the front step, but Buddy pelted by and yipped around the yard. It was mud season, and the tiny poodle's white feet were rapidly turning black.
"You'll wash him off before he comes in the house?" Sherry said.
"Why is it always me?" Cora groused. "Why don't you wash him off?"
"I do when you're not here."
"Yeah, yeah. What's this crap about I don't do anything? How does that have anything to do with you owning up to what you do?"
"It's a partnership. I supply the work, you supply the image."
"I hate the image. I gotta be decorous in public, while you run around in jeans and a sweater. Is that fair? You're young and attractive and you happen to look good in jeans and a sweater."
Before Cora quit drinking she had often appeared far from decorous in public, but Sherry wasn't about to point that out. "What's really the matter, Cora?"
Cora puffed in smoke, watched the dog cavorting on the lawn. "I told you what's the matter. I'm tired of the deception. I'm tired of pretending to be something I'm not."
"Cora. You've hated the deception from the word go. Why do you want to quit now?"
"Ah! There's an oh?"
"It's the damn cereal company."
"The damn cereal company that put you on TV? You'd like to give that up?"
"Sherry . . ."
"What have they done?"
"They've come out with a new cereal."
"And they want you to promote it?"
"That's wonderful, Cora. That probably pays our rent for a year. We might even think of buying this place, knocking it down, and building something better."
"I don't want to do it."
"Well, for one thing, it's not a new cereal. It's the same old cereal, it's just new and improved."
"I hate that. It's like saying, 'The stuff I've been selling you for years is crap, but, hang on, I got something better.' "
"All products do that. It's called progress."
"No, it's great. The product launch is a gold mine. So you have to tape some TV ads. What's the big deal?"
Cora exhaled an angry drag. "They want me to tour."
"They want me to make personal appearances." Her tone was scathing. "They want me to do supermarkets. Shopping centers. Malls. They want me to be there hawking their products. They want to let kids meet the Puzzle Lady. Like a Macy's Santa."
"What's wrong with that?"
"I'm not good with kids, Sherry. Kids have sticky hands and snotty noses. And a complete and utter lack of tact. They stand there and tell me to my face I look older than their grandmother. It's all I can do to keep from telling them that's 'cause their mother got knocked up when she was fifteen."
"I see your point. Can you do the ads and not the tour?"
"No. 'Cause they're shooting the ads on the tour." Cora snorted. "It's all this goddamned reality TV. They want real kids trying the cereal for the first time. Along with the Puzzle Lady. And I hate cold cereal. Give me ham and eggs and a buttered muffin."
Sherry Carter looked at her aunt. "You really want to do this? Tell people you're a fake, I mean?"
"I got some money put away. Not just from this, but from my alimony and property settlements. If ever there was a time, it's now."
"If you give it up, what are you going to do?"
Cora shrugged. "Hold a press conference. Do the Today Show. We could go on Oprah together, tell our story. I could abdicate the throne. Like the way I said abdicate?"
"I'm not going on TV, Cora."
"You may think you're not, but TV's gonna find you."
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