“You don’t have to go.”
“Oh, yes I do,” Cora said. “You’re young, you’re in love, you just got married. You’re setting up your home. You don’t need some spinster aunt in the spare room cramping your style.”
Sherry smiled. “I don’t think a woman who’s been married fi ve or six times qualifi es as a spinster.”
“I don’t care what you call me, the fact is I’m a drag. I gotta get out of here.”
“Cora. Aaron’s been living here the last six months. Nothing’s changed just because we said ‘I do.’ ”
“Are you kidding me? Everything changes when you say ‘I do.’ You stop making allowances, treating each other nice, ignoring each other’s faults, forgiving each other’s sins. Good lord, girl, what’s the point of getting him hooked if you’re not going to reel him in?”
Sherry smiled. “You’re not that cynical. You’re talking tough right now because you’re not in love. Just let a handsome man come around, you’ll melt like butter.”
After a long courtship, Sherry Carter had finally tied the knot with young reporter Aaron Grant. The newlyweds were back from their honeymoon, and Cora Felton had brought up her avowed intention of moving out. The prefab ranch house Cora shared with her niece in Bakerhaven, Connecticut, was small, to say the least, particularly since they’d converted the third bedroom into an offi ce.
“You haven’t thought this through.”
Cora winced. “I hate that expression. It’s a euphemism for ‘You’re a dotty old lady with the brains of a tree stump.’ ”
“That isn’t what I said.”
“Of course, it isn’t. That’s what euphemism means. I don’t have to tell you. You’re the wordsmith.”
Which she was. Sherry Carter was a brilliant crossword puzzle constructor, whose puzzles appeared daily in a nationally syndicated column. Only no one knew it. At the time Sherry came up with the idea, she was keeping a low profile on account of her obsessive and abusive ex- husband. So she put her aunt’s name on the column. Which worked like a charm. No one observing Cora Felton’s benign, grandmotherly face, with twinkling eyes and beatific smile, could ever suspect that the amiable fraud couldn’t solve a crossword puzzle with a gun to her head.
“You’re the Puzzle Lady. When people ask you to solve a puzzle, what are you going to tell them?”
“I’m on vacation.”
“Permanent vacation? Are you never going to solve a puzzle again?”
“Works for me.” “What if someone brings you a crossword puzzle involved in a crime?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Why is that silly?”
“That isn’t going to happen.”
“It happens all the time. You can’t turn around without someone knocking on the door wanting you to solve a puzzle found at the scene of a murder.”
Cora smiled, spread her hands. “Exactly. I have used up my quota. The law of averages says it won’t happen again.”
“The law of averages doesn’t apply.”
“Of course not. We’re flipping a coin. Each time we flip it, it’s as likely to come up heads as it is tails. Isn’t that right?”
“Even if it’s come up heads ten times in a row?”
“Say I flip a coin. It comes up heads ten times in a row. Now I fl ip it again. Is it more likely to come up heads or tails?”
“Sherry, you’re my niece and I love you. But if you torture me with logic, I’m going to tie that supple body of yours in a knot.”
“You’re good at logic.”
“Human logic. Practical puzzles. Not this theoretical crap.”
“The point is, you can’t function without me.”
“Give me a break. You went off on your honeymoon; I did just fi ne.”
“You text- messaged me in Africa. You sent me a puzzle as an attached fi le.”
“Aren’t you proud of me for knowing how to do that?”
“I left you instructions a child could follow.” “Exactly. Kids are much better at computers than grown- ups. I think I did remarkably well.”
“I give up. If you want to leave, I can’t stop you. But, please, don’t think Aaron and I are driving you away.”
The kitchen phone rang.
Sherry scooped the receiver off the wall. “Hello?” Her face hardened. “You have to stop calling,” she said, and hung up.
“Dennis?” Cora asked.
Sherry frowned. “I’m going to have to get caller ID.”
“That guy is seriously sick.”
“I’d hoped my getting married would give him a hint. It seems to have just ticked him off.”
“Good thing you’ve got a restraining order.”
“Yeah, like that’s going to stop him. Particularly when he’s drunk. It’s not good. Aaron’s gone all day. I’m helpless here.”
“I could teach you how to shoot.”
“I don’t want to shoot him. I just want to be left alone.”
“That’s why I’m moving out.”
The phone rang again.
Sherry looked at it in exasperation.
“I’ve got it this time,” Cora said. She snatched the phone off the hook and snarled “Yes.”
A rather disconcerted voice on the other end said, “Cora Felton?”
Cora rolled her eyes for her niece’s benefi t, said, “This is she.”
“The Puzzle Lady?”
Cora managed not to groan. “That’s right.”
“This is your agent. Sebastian Billingham.”
Cora reacted as if the phone was hot. Her agent was, of course, Sherry’s agent. He handled the Puzzle Lady books Sherry published under Cora’s name. Next to Dennis, Cora couldn’t think of a person she cared less to talk to. Including Dennis, actually. Cora would get a kick out of bawling out Dennis.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Billingham. You want to talk to my personal assistant, Sherry Carter. She handles all my business affairs.”
Cora tossed the phone to Sherry and skipped out of reach before Sherry could hand it back.
Sherry looked at her aunt in exasperation, placed the phone to her ear. “This is Sherry Carter. How may I help you? . . . Uh huh . . .Uh huh . . .That’s good.”
Sherry frowned. “That’s not good? Why is that not good?”
Cora shot Sherry a glance as if to say, Can’t you do anything right?
“Uh huh . . . uh huh . . . uh huh,” Sherry said.
Cora found this less than illuminating. She spread her arms, made a face like Huh?
“Today?” Sherry said. “Well, you might have given us a little notice . . . What do you mean, you just found out? . . . I understand you’re not her agent.”
Cora’s mouth fell open. She tugged at Sherry’s shirt, hissed, “What do you mean, he’s not my agent?”
Sherry batted her hands away. “Trust me, you don’t want to tell her yourself.”
“Tell me what?” Cora demanded.
“Thank you very much. Okay. Good- bye.”
Sherry hung up the phone and turned to face her aunt.
Cora cocked her head.“What do you call it when you kill your niece? I know it’s matricide when you kill your mother. For that matter, what do you call it when you kill your agent?”
“It’s not his fault. He just found out and called to warn us.”
“About what?” “Minami is coming.”
“Who the hell is that?”
“The Sudoku Lady.”
Excerpted from The Puzzle Lady vs The Sudoku Lady by Parnell Hall.
Copyright © 2009 by Parnell Hall.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Edgar, Shamus, and Lefty nominee Parnell Hall is the author of the Puzzle Lady crossword puzzle mysteries, the Stanley Hastings private eye novels, and the Steve Winslow courtroom dramas. An actor, screenwriter, and former private investigator, Parnell lives in New York City.