Book excerpt

$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles

A Puzzle Lady Mystery

Puzzle Lady Mysteries

Parnell Hall

St. Martin's Press


“Just keep calm,” Cora said as she piloted the Toyota around the curve.
“Keep calm?” Sherry said from the backseat. “You’re the one driving like a maniac.”
“Don’t distract her,” Aaron said. He had his arm around Sherry and was squeezing her hand.
“Distract her from what?” Sherry said. “Skidding off the road?”
“Hold on,” Cora said. “I’ll get you there.”
Cora was driving Sherry to the hospital. Sherry had just gone into labor, which seemed to panic the expectant great-aunt more than it did the expectant mother. Cora had fallen all over herself bustling Sherry into the car. Aaron had been lucky not to be left behind.
The expectant parents were headed for the new hospital, a two-story structure of stone and steel built in 1978. The old hospital had closed in 1984, so there was only a six-year span during which Bakerhaven had two hospitals. Nonetheless, the residents still referred to the hospital by the mall as the new hospital.
“How are the contractions?” Cora asked.
“Wonderful,” Sherry said. “I have a deep, abiding love for all of you. Do you have any more dumb questions?”
“I’ll think of some. Aaron, did you bring her something to bite on?”
“Bite on?”
“Like in the movies when they’re digging out the bullet without anesthesia.”
“I’m fine,” Sherry said. “Cora. I need you to focus. The Puzzle Lady column.”
“What about it?”
“You have to turn in the puzzles so people think you write the damn thing.”
“They’re not going to be impressed if I turn them in wrong.”
“It’s not a problem. I’m your secretary. I send out the crossword puzzles you create. I’m on maternity leave, so you have to send them out yourself. You’re somewhat spooked by the technology. You hope you get everything right.”
“You can say that again.”
“No, I don’t mean it. That’s the part you’re playing. It’s your excuse for any problem with the puzzles that you can’t deal with. Anything you have to ask me about. Any technical, secretarial problem having to do with the functions of the computer programs. You’re the genius who scrawls crossword puzzles on the backs of napkins. I’m the functionary who deciphers your handwriting and prints the things out.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself. Could I actually hire a functionary while you’re in the hospital?”
“Why not?”
“Because I write the puzzles. Because you couldn’t construct one if your life depended on it.”
“That’s cruel and hurtful. I’ll put that down to labor pains. You’re clearly delirious.”
“Will you watch the road?”
“I’m watching the road. It hasn’t moved since I’ve been on it.”
“You just missed the turn for the hospital.”
“Come on, Cora. I’m not the first person in the world to have a baby.”
“Yeah, well, you’re early,” Cora said.
The baby was premature. Sherry going into labor had caught everyone off guard.
“Five weeks,” Sherry said. “That’s nothing these days.”
“Easy for you to say. They’ll knock you out with drugs; you won’t feel a thing. They won’t even give me a valium.”
Cora hung a U-turn, headed back the other way.
The telephone rang.
“Is that your phone?” Sherry said.
“If it is, I’m not answering,” Aaron said. “No, not mine.”
“Well, it’s not mine,” Cora said. “I don’t have one.”
It continued to ring.
“You wanna look in my bag?” Sherry said.
“You don’t have to answer,” Aaron told her.
“Yeah, but I can if I want to, right? I mean, having a baby doesn’t cut you off from the world.” Sherry snapped open the phone. “Hello … oh, hi, Becky … yeah, Cora’s here. She can’t talk, she’s driving … yeah, she’s driving me to the hospital.… No, nothing’s wrong, I’m just having a baby.… Thank you, but I haven’t had it yet. I’m not sure of the protocol, but I think you’re supposed to wait until there’s an actual infant. So, what do you want with Cora?… No, she’s driving. You tell me, I’ll relay the message … You’re in trouble and you need her help.” Sherry looked up from the cell phone. “Becky’s in trouble and she needs your help.”
“Tell her I’m busy,” Cora said.
“She’ll be right there,” Sherry said, and hung up.
Cora’s mouth fell open. “Didn’t you hear me? I said no.”
Sherry scrunched on the edge of her seat. “Cora Felton. If you let my having a baby make you give up the things you love, you’ll end up hating me and the baby. A sharp, young attorney at law wants your help. You’re not going to blow her off just so you can run around the hospital driving everybody crazy. Aaron and I can handle the baby thing just fine. You drop us off, and go help Becky Baldwin.” Sherry looked out the window. “Assuming you ever get us to the hospital.”
“You just missed the turn again.”

Copyright © 2012 by Parnell Hall
Parnell Hall has been a finalist for Edgar, Lefty, and Shamus Awards. He is a former President of PWA and a member of Sisters in Crime. Parnell competes each year in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He lives in New York City.