lethal luncheon (puzzle lady mystery a short story)

Lethal Luncheon, a short story

Parnell Hall

Copyright © 2004, 2013 by Parnell Hall

Published by
Parnell Hall
, eBook edition, 2013.

Published by Parnell Hall, 2013.

Originally published by Berkley Prime Crime in
Death Dines in
, 2004.

All rights reserved. Written permission must be secured from author/publisher to use or reproduce any part of this work, except brief quotations in critical reviews or articles.

ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-936441-64-8

Table of Contents

Lethal Luncheon

Books by Parnell Hall

“D
O WE
really have to go?” Cora Felton whined.

Sherry Carter piloted the Toyota around a curve in the road, and glanced sideways at her aunt. “That’s a silly question, Cora. We’re in the car on our way to lunch. Of course we have to go.”

“We could turn around.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“We could stop at the Friendly’s. I could get a cheeseburger and a hot fudge sundae.”

“I thought you were on a diet.”

“All right, I’ll get a coffee Fribble. Coffee isn’t fattening.”

“It’s coffee
ice cream
.”

“What’s your point?”

“Cora, we have to go to the luncheon. You’re donating a dish. It’s for charity.”

“But I can’t cook.”

“You can’t do crossword puzzles, either, but that’s never stopped you.”

Cora Felton’s sweet, grandmotherly face graced her niece’s nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.

“That’s unfair,” Cora protested. “Did I
want
to be the Puzzle Lady. I never wanted to be the Puzzle Lady. That was your idea.”

“And a pretty good one, too. You owe your TV career to it.”

Cora Felton did breakfast cereal commercials as the Puzzle Lady. The residuals paid for the house she and Sherry shared in Bakerhaven, Connecticut.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it,” Cora said. “When I think of all the aggravation it’s caused. Like this damn luncheon.”

“It’s for orphans,” Sherry said reprovingly. “Try not to call it a ‘damn luncheon’ with reporters present.”

“Oh, no,” Cora said. “God forbid I should able to speak my mind. What’s this dish I’m supposed to have created?”

“Glad you asked. You should have the recipe, in case someone asks you for it. It’s in my purse.”

Cora went through Sherry’s purse, came out with a recipe entitled
Cioppino: Puzzle Lady Style.

“Cioppino? What’s that?”

“Fish stew.”

Cora made a face. “Then why couldn’t you just
say
fish stew? Why so pretentious with all the big words?”

“You’re the Puzzle Lady. You’re supposed to
know
words.”

“I’m supposed to know
English
words.”

“Cioppino is English.”

“Sounds Italian.”

“It’s of Italian derivation. It’s still English.”

“Oh, dear,” Cora said, looking over the recipe. “All these ingredients. You really mix them? I have trouble making toast and jam.”

“Could you try not to admit that?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be at my deceptive best. So what am I supposed to do at this damn lunch? I mean at this charity luncheon to aid a worthy cause?”

“Nothing. You donate your dish. You sit down and eat.”

“Sounds simple enough.”

“Then you give your speech.”

“Oh, hell!”

“You
are
the luncheon speaker. Or had you forgotten?”

Cora groaned. “Believe me, I’ve been trying.”

The sign over the door of the community center read, FEED THE KIDS, INC. Cora’s eyes lit up when she saw it.

“Don’t you dare!” Sherry hissed as they went up the front steps.

Betty Flagstaff, co-chairman of Feed the Kids, Inc., met them at the door of the dining room. “Ah, Miss Felton,” she gushed. “We’re so honored that you could come.”

“How could I resist?” Cora smiled. “Feed the kids ink is such a noble sentiment. When I think of some of the kids I’ve known in my day, well, I just wish I’d thought of it then.”

Betty Flagstaff was a large woman, who either had no sense of humor, or thought it best to pretend not to notice the remark. “That’s wonderful. And what have you prepared for us?”

Cora, who couldn’t for the life of her remember what the dish was called, said, “My niece, Sherry, has it. May I present Sherry Carter, who was kind enough to drive me here.”

“And carry the dish,” Sherry said. “It’s a fish stew. Cora calls it cioppino. I hope you don’t mind her using the Italian derivation.”

“Of course not,” Betty said. “You know,” she confided in Cora. “I must tell you, I’m a crossword puzzle buff myself. And I’m not that keen on foreign words in puzzles, I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

“Hell, no,” Cora said. “Frankly, I’m not that keen on English words, either.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Betty said, with zero comprehension. “Well, if you’ll just sign in there.” She pointed to a long table on the side of the room behind which a formidable looking woman presided over name tags, pens, magic markers, and a guest list. “Cecily will be glad to help you.”

“I’ll be happy if Cecily doesn’t bite my head off,” Cora whispered, as she and Sherry walked over.

Cecily, however, had no such intention. On seeing Cora, the dragon lady’s face dissolved into a succession of smiles, winks, and titters, each one more hideous than the last. “Ah, Miss Felton, how are you? It is such an honor to have you with us. You don’t have to sign in, I will do it for you. You don’t even have to print your name tag. We did it in advance.”

Cecily held up a name tag with the blue outline
Hello, my name is.
The name
Cora Felton
had been printed in the middle in block capitals by some machine or other.

“You, young lady. I have you right here.” Sherry watched while Cecily located “Cora Felton Guest” on the list and checked it off. “Here’s a magic marker. Try to print neatly.”

“This is my niece. Sherry Carter.” Cora Felton beamed. “I think she should print that on the name tag instead of ‘Cora Felton Guest,’ don’t you?”

Cecily found that enormously funny. “Now, what you
do
need to print is the name of your dish. Use one of the folded cardboards. Then we can stand it up in the buffet line.”

Cora, who had forgotten what she had supposedly cooked again, said, “Sherry, could you do that for me? Sherry has such nice handwriting, and mine is atrocious.”

“Of course,” Cecily said. “Just put the name of the dish, and then Cora’s name, so people will know who cooked it.”

“In theory,” Cora said under her breath.

“I beg your pardon?”

“And what do we do then?”

“Put the dish on the buffet line, and find your place at your table.” Cecily consulted her chart. “You’re at table ten. You’ll find place cards by your plates.”

“They have assigned seats,” Cora groused, after she and Sherry had stowed the fish amidst a myriad of casseroles, pastas, roasts, and assorted side dishes.

“You’re lucky you’re not sitting on a dais,” Sherry whispered back.

“Amen to that. So where’s table ten?”

“The tables have stands in the middle with numbered cards on them. Do you think it might be a clue?”

Cora muttered something that couldn’t possibly have been a clue in any crossword puzzle in any daily paper in the country, and pushed ahead of Sherry into the middle of the room.

The tables were round and seated eight. Most were already filled. Cora and Sherry got to theirs to find six people waiting. All were women. Some were as old as Cora. None were as young as Sherry. All were nicely, if casually, dressed in sweaters and blouses and pullovers and smocks.

The two empty plates at the table sported place cards. One read “Cora Felton.” The other read “Felton Guest.”

Cora and Sherry sat down and smiled at the women around them, who all began talking at once. It was impossible to hear anything, but hidden somewhere in the cacophony was the sentiment that they were happy to have, if not Sherry, at least Cora there.

When the noise had died down, a rather large woman with a triple chin seated directly across the table from Cora declared, “We
waited
for you.”

The women were all wearing name tags, so Cora was able to identify the speaker as Marcy Fletcher. From that simple statement Cora was able to ascertain that waiting for her had been Marcy’s idea, that none of the other women were particularly pleased about it, and that Marcy blamed Cora for making her endure their wrath.

“That was too kind, but not at all necessary,” Cora said. “You must be starving. Please dig in. And perhaps someone can explain to me what this luncheon is all about.”

A woman with a face flat as a pancake said, “It’s for charity.”

According to her name tag, the woman
was
Charity, but she didn’t seem to notice the coincidence. Cora was tempted to point it out to her.

“You mean you came here without knowing what it’s all about?” a henna-haired woman said. Her name was Phyllis, and she clocked in at a good two hundred and fifty pounds. “I think that’s admirable.”

“I think it’s stupid,” Wendy said. Wendy had a haughty look, and undoubtedly thought many things stupid. “Why would you want to come to something if you don’t know what it is?”

“It’s for
charity,”
Charity insisted.

“Well, at least we can eat the salads now,” whined a mousy little type with the name tag
Monica Nuthatch.
Monica wore glasses that would have been thought geeky in the fifties. What they were thought now, Cora couldn’t even imagine. Monica snuffled her nose as she dug into her salad, and managed to look less like a mouse, and more like a rabbit.

“Now, now, now,” said the last woman at the table, the woman seated to Cora’s right. She was middle-aged, but looked younger. Her blonde hair hung to her shoulders. Her ribbed, double-knit, turtleneck sweater looked comfortably warm. She had an easy-going air about her, of a woman who is happy with herself, and completely in control. “We’re delighted to have you here. If the truth be known, the women couldn’t care less about their salads. They just want to eat them so they can go through the buffet line. They can’t wait to see what people brought this year. We all can’t. But that has nothing to do with you, because no one goes through the line until Betty gives the order.” She smiled knowingly. “Betty likes giving orders.

“Oh, but here I am babbling on. And I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Felicity Grant. I’m the co-chairman. I helped put together this little lunch.”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, stop with the false modesty,” Marcy groused. “You’re proud of it, and you know it. Felicity got this project off the ground in spite of Betty. You would not
believe
the back-biting that goes on in those meetings. It’s
horrible.
I swear, if it weren’t for this woman nothing would get done.”

“Marcy, really,” Felicity said.

“Again with the false modesty. We had a dinner meeting. Well, we
almost
had a dinner meeting. Turned out we had a speaker and no hall, and whose fault was that, I ask you? Had to send the checks back, and what a job that was. Who
was
the speaker that time?”

“Marcy.”

“What, I’m talking too much? We’re all family here. It’s not like she’s a reporter or anything. I mean, you think she’s gonna stick this in her next crossword puzzle?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Cora assured her.

“Of course you wouldn’t. So why make a fuss? But Betty goes ballistic if she breaks a fingernail.” Marcy, while talking, had managed to wolf down her salad. “Okay, I’m done. Can we eat for chrissakes? I’m starving.”

“You’re the one who wanted to wait.”

“And aren’t you glad we did? How would it be if our guests showed up and our table was empty? Come on, come on. People are beating us on line.”

That was certainly true. Betty had apparently given the order, because at least half the women in the room were scraping back their chairs.

“Please don’t wait on my account,” Cora said. “Go, I’ll be right behind you.”

That was all the invitation the women needed. As if Cora had fired a starter’s gun, Marcy was up and practically bowling people over to get a place in line. Charity, mousey Monica Nuthatch, and the mountainous Phyllis were right on her heels.

“Disgraceful,” Wendy said. She said it while tagging along behind.

“I wouldn’t want people to think I’m not happy to be here,” Cora said, “but would it be impolite not to sprint?”

“Not impolite, just imprudent,” Felicity said. “Your favorite dish is apt to be gone.”

“I’ll risk it.”

“Suit yourself.” Felicity hesitated. “But if you don’t mind, I had my eye on that spinach quiche.”

Rather sheepishly, Felicity got up and hurried toward the line.

“And just how does this all feed children?” Cora demanded of Sherry. “It seems to me they’re just feeding themselves.”

“They paid to be here. I think twenty bucks a head.”

“They paid to be here
and
cooked the food?”

“That’s right.”

“Because they like kids or because they like food?” Cora snorted. “How come we didn’t pay?”

“You’re the luncheon speaker.”

“Oh. Right. What am I gonna say, Sherry?”

“You’re gonna tell them about crossword puzzles.”

“I don’t
know
anything about crossword puzzles.”

“It’s all right. They don’t care. Just tell them anecdotes about your TV career.”

“What TV career? All I’ve done is a few commercials.”

“Cora,” Sherry said. “This is the fourth or fifth time we’ve had this conversation. Let’s go see if anyone ate your fish stew.”

There were nearly a hundred women ahead of them at the buffet table, but as Cora and Sherry queued up to get their trays, Betty Flagstaff swooped down on them.

“Oh, no, no, my dears,” Betty clucked. “Honored guests do not wait in line. Come, come, come.”

Betty plucked Cora and Sherry by the shoulders and marched them to the front of the line.

Marcy, who was still halfway back, gave Cora the fisheye as she went by.

“This is not winning us any popularity contests,” Cora whispered.

“Wanna object?” Sherry whispered back.

“No. I’m tired. I wanna eat.”

Cora and Sherry took trays and plates, worked their way down the buffet table. Progress was slow, as the women in front of them were taking their time choosing their dishes.

Cora loaded her plate with ravioli, pasta salad, fettuccine.

“Little heavy on the starch, don’t you think?” Sherry cautioned.

“You want me to put some back?” Cora said ironically.

“You might wanna leave room on your plate.”

“So I won’t eat the fish stew. I can have that at home.”

“I hope someone eats it,” Sherry said.

She needn’t have worried. By the time they got there, the fish stew was almost gone.

So was the spinach quiche. There were three pies. Two tins were empty, and the third pie was half gone.

“Damn,” Cora said.

“What’s the matter?”

“The spinach quiche looks good, but I don’t dare take it.”

“Why not?”

“Felicity wants it.”

“It’ll be gone by the time she gets here.”

“Right. If I have a piece, she’ll blame me for it being gone.”

“So you’re not going to have one?”

“No.”

“In that case, take one and give it to her.”

“I still won’t have one.”

“No, but you’ll be doing a good deed.”

“I’m not a Boy Scout. What’s in it for me?”

“I’ll take a piece and give it to you.”

“You don’t want quiche?”

“No.”

“Then why don’t you give your piece to her?”

“I want you to get credit for it.”

“Why?”

“It will make up for giving a lousy speech.”

Sherry and Cora were the first ones back to their table. Marcy came next, proudly bearing a heaping plate that could easily have fed a dozen children. The rest of the women followed with plates piled nearly as high.

Cora gave her niece a look which Sherry understood perfectly. Compared to the other servings, Cora’s seemed modest indeed.

Felicity was the last one back. “Missed the quiche, damn it,” she said as she sat down.

“No, you didn’t.” Cora presented the spinach quiche with a
ta-da
gesture. “Pardon my fingers. I haven’t had a communicable disease since my fifth husband, Melvin. He was a bit wild.”

Felicity was delighted to get the quiche, though somewhat put off by the comment. “It does look awfully good. Are you sure you don’t want it?”

“She can have mine,” Sherry said. “I’m not that big on quiche.” She cocked her head ironically. “I had chicken pox in the second grade, Cora.”

“Probably safe.” Cora handed her quiche to Felicity, and took Sherry’s.

Felicity, reassured the women were joking, accepted the quiche. For a moment conversation stopped as the women all dug in.

“Don’t eat so fast,” Sherry whispered out of the side of her mouth.

“Why?”

“As soon as you’re done you’ve gotta speak.”

“I’ll get you for this,” Cora assured her.

Sherry grinned, attacking the veal casserole.

Cora had just finished her portion of medallions of something that she narrowed down to veal, lamb, or venison, when Betty Flagstaff descended on the table with all the subtlety of a steamroller. She stepped up behind Cora and Felicity, clapped a meaty arm around each, and declared, “Is this something, or is this something?”

Cora was quick to admit that it was, indeed, something, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy Betty Flagstaff, “We are so delighted that you’re here, and so delighted that you’re going to speak. The women just can’t wait. I’m going to introduce you when they start dessert. That way there’s no chance anyone will finish lunch and sneak out for a cigarette. That would never do, now, would it?”

“Certainly not,” Cora said virtuously. “Well, if I’m going on, I’d better run to the Ladies.”

Cora pushed back her chair, grabbed her floppy, drawstring purse, and hurried in the direction of the Women’s Room.

She was in luck. No one was there. Cora whipped out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and took a greedy drag. How anyone could eat a huge lunch like that and not finish it off with a cigarette was beyond her. It would be hard enough under normal circumstances. To have to get up and speak while going through nicotine withdrawal was out of the question.

Cora took a last drag, held her cigarette under the tap water. She threw the soggy butt in the wastebasket and sailed out the door, just as two women came in. Whether they’d be able to breathe in the smoke-filled bathroom seemed a close point, but there was nothing Cora could do about that.

Cora returned to her table just as a loud blast of feedback attracted everyone’s attention to a lectern at the front of the room where Betty Flagstaff was wrestling with a microphone.

“Oh, dear,” Felicity said. “You’re going to miss your tiramisu.”

“My what?” Cora said.

Sherry cringed. It was no easy task keeping up the ruse that Cora was the Puzzle Lady, and not she. It would have helped if Cora had a slightly more extensive vocabulary.

“Your dessert,” Felicity said, pointing to the rich confection behind Cora’s plate.

There was one at each setting. The eight servings of tiramisu formed a circle in the center of the table.

“It looks obscenely delicious,” Cora said.

Felicity frowned at the adverb. It occurred to Sherry there were also times she wished Cora had a
smaller
vocabulary. .

Another blast of reverb quieted the room.

Betty Flagstaff, smiling the helpless smile of the electronically impaired, said, “Good afternoon, ladies. And welcome to this charity luncheon sponsored by Feed the Kids, Incorporated.”

“I like ‘Ink’ better,” Cora said.

“Shhh!” Sherry whispered.

“I’d like to thank my co-chairman, Felicity Grant, for making this afternoon possible. I may do the work, but Felicity writes the checks. I’d also like to thank our committee heads.”

Betty named them. One turned out to be Marcy Fletcher, who acknowledged her applause as if it wasn’t nearly enough.

“And now,” Betty went on, “it gives me great pleasure to introduce our speaker for this afternoon. It is someone you all know and love, whether you can do crossword puzzles or not. If you can’t, all I can say is, you’re just not trying. Because I can, and I graduated in the bottom third of my class.”

That self-deprecating remark drew an appreciative laugh.

“So, without further ado, allow me to present Miss Cora Felton, the Puzzle Lady, who has come here this afternoon to explain how to construct a crossword puzzle.”

Cora rose to applause, cast an I-told-you-so glance at Sherry, and marched to the lectern, wondering what excuse she would use to get out of explaining how to construct a crossword puzzle. It was not going to be easy. A blackboard had been set up to the left of the lectern. Clearly she was expected to use it.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. There are
some
gentlemen here, aren’t there?” Cora smiled. “Not that I’m looking to get married again, still one never knows.”

That remark drew a warm laugh. Cora took heart, plunged ahead. “Well, I can see that I’m going to have to talk fast, because that dessert that you’re digging into looks absolutely scrumptious.”

Cora glanced over at her table to see if Sherry had taken note of the fact that she’d said
scrumptious
instead of
obscenely delicious,
just in time to see Felicity Grant fall face first into her aforementioned dessert.

T
HE COP
was not happy. And who could blame him? He had a room full of two hundred women who couldn’t go home until he said so.

The cop wasn’t sure if he should say so. He didn’t appear that adept at murders. A local chief from a small town, it was a good bet he’d never had one. His opening remark, “Did anyone see what she ate?”, doubtless would have been inappropriately funny, had the women not been so traumatized.

After the ambulance had taken Felicity’s body away, the cop managed to herd the seven remaining women from her table off to one side of the room. It was to them that he addressed the remarks regarding Felicity’s last meal.

Of the women, only Marcy Fletcher seemed composed enough to answer questions. “She ate exactly what we ate. No more, no less. None of us are falling over dead, now are we?”

That declaration was just insensitive enough to rouse some of the others out of their shock-induced stupor.

“That’s not quite true,” Charity said. “She had the piece of quiche.”

The cop zeroed in on that remark. “What piece of quiche?”

Cora groaned.

“She gave her a piece of quiche,” Charity said.

“Who did?” the cop demanded.

“I did,” Cora said. “I gave her my piece of quiche. I assure you there was nothing sinister about it.”

“You gave her your piece of quiche?” the cop said insinuatingly.

“Good interrogation technique, Chief. But I already told you I gave her my piece of quiche. Could we move on?”

“Why
did you give her your piece of quiche?”

Cora sighed. “She said she wanted quiche. But she was near the back of the line, and the quiche was almost gone. So I took a piece for her.”

“You took a piece of quiche just for her?”

“That’s right.”

“So you planned this in advance? You knew that you would be giving your piece of quiche to her?”

“Yes. That’s why I took it.”

The cop glanced around to the other women. “And no one else at the table had quiche?”

“Actually, I had quiche,” Cora said.

The cop’s eyebrows raised. “I thought you gave your piece of quiche to her.”

“I did.” Cora gestured to her niece. “But Sherry gave me her piece.”

“Why?”

“I wanted quiche.”

“And yet you gave your piece away.”

“I gave my piece away because Felicity wanted quiche. I took Sherry’s piece because I wanted quiche.”

Cora could practically see the cop’s mind whirling, processing that.

“You wanted to eat quiche, but you didn’t want to eat your quiche. You wanted to eat another piece of quiche. You wanted the decedent to eat your piece.”

“Oh, for God’s sakes!” Marcy cried impatiently. “This is our guest of honor. She didn’t come here to kill the woman who invited her with a poisoned quiche.”

Sherry smiled at the misplaced modifier. She figured it was a good bet she was the only one who noticed.

The cop certainly didn’t. “Maybe not,” he said. “But at the moment, it’s my only lead. Did anyone else give her anything to eat?”

Monica snuffled, choked back a sob. Her lip trembled. “I“

“What is it, my dear?” the cop asked.

“I ... I think I passed the rolls,” Monica blurted, and burst into tears.

Marcy threw her hands to her head in disgust. “Give me a break. So you passed the rolls. Big deal. I think you’re off on the wrong foot, officer. Who said it had to be one of us?”

“I never said it had to be one of you. I’m just asking questions.”

“But they’re all aimed at us.”

“Well, who else is there? You were the only ones at her table.

“We were the only ones
sitting
there,” Marcy said.

“Did anyone else come to the table?” the cop said. “Did a waiter come around?”

“It’s a buffet,” Charity said. “There aren’t any waiters.”

“Did you really suspect a waiter?” Marcy said sarcastically.

The cop put up his hands. “Just asking. Did anyone else come around?”

“Betty,” Monica blurted. She immediately flushed and turned away.

“Who?” the cop demanded.

“Betty Flagstaff,” Charity explained. “The co-chairman. She came by to talk to Miss Felton.”

“Miss Felton. That would be you,” the cop said, pointing to Cora. “And you were seated right next to the decedent, weren’t you? To pass her your quiche.”

“Yes, I was,” Cora said. She couldn’t tell if the cop suspected her or Betty Flagstaff.

“What did the co-chairman come to talk to you about?”

“My speech.”

“I see. Did she also talk to the decedent?”

“I don’t recall.”

“Does anyone?”

No one did.

“That’s annoying,” the cop said. “It would appear that she didn’t, but then again we can’t be sure. When she talked to you, did you get up from the table?”

“No.”

“She leaned over to talk to you?”

“That’s right.”

“Which side? The one between you and the decedent, or the other one?”

“She leaned in between us,” Cora said.

“Aha. I think I’d better have a word with Betty Flagstaff.”

The co-chairman, clearly distraught, blinked through tears and tried to answer the officer’s questions. Neither her recollection nor her descriptive prowess were awesome. The cop was less than thrilled with her recitation.

“You remember talking to Miss Felton?”

“Yes.”

“But you don’t remember talking to the decedent?”

“No.”

“Could you be more forthcoming with your answers?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t make me drag it out of you. Tell me what you did.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say. I came to tell Cora I was about to announce her as soon as we began dessert.”

“You did that?”

“Yes.”

“And did the decedent say anything?”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“Yet you remember standing between Miss Felton and the decedent. You even put your hands on their shoulders.”

Betty Flagstaff could not have looked more devastated had the policeman actually accused her of the crime. “I think so. I’m so confused. It’s so awful.”

“Well,” the policeman concluded, sizing her up. “You have to admit, you had the opportunity. Now, I understand you and the decedent quarreled a lot.”

Betty Flagstaff wilted. She sank into a chair in horror, dissolved into tears.

Cora Felton cleared her throat. “Excuse me, officer.”

“Yes,” he said impatiently. “What is it?”

“I want to confess.”

The policeman kept his cool, but he was clearly taken aback. After a moment, when the startled gasps from the women had died down, he said, “Go right ahead. Ah, before you do, let me remind you that you have the right to remain silent, and—”

“Yes, yes,” Cora said. “I know all that. Not a problem. The only thing is, if you wouldn’t mind, I would prefer to make my confession in private.”

“In private?” He managed to make it sound as if he’d just been propositioned.

“Keep your shirt on. You don’t have to rent me a room. If we could just step off to one side.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Be a dear, Sherry, and stay here and see that no one tries to listen in.”

Cora took the bewildered cop by the arm, dragged him off into the corner of the room.

“All right,” he said. “What is it that you want to tell me? You understand, of course, that you don’t have to.”

“For goodness sakes,” Cora said. “We’re alone. You could always
say
you read me my rights, and it would be my word against yours. Who are they gonna believe, you or me?”

The cop clearly had no interest in a discussion of the merits of the Miranda system. “Yeah, yeah, right. But tell me, you wish to confess to the crime?”

“The murder? Of course not. Sorry to get your hopes up, but I didn’t do it.”

“Then what do you want to confess to?”

“Withholding evidence.” Cora made a face. “Though I’m not really withholding evidence, I just haven’t had a chance to tell you. I mean, I wouldn’t wanna blurt something out in front of the other women, now, would I? So I’m not withholding a thing, and that never was my intention. I just have to confess that I happen to know something about the crime that you don’t.”

“Oh?” the cop said ironically. “And what is that?”

“I know who did it.”

C
ORA
F
ELTON
stood at the blackboard beside the lectern. The other women had returned to their tables. All but Betty Flagstaff, who sat in a folding chair up front. The officer stood behind her, with his hand firmly on her shoulder.

“So,” Cora said. “It’s time for me to earn my lunch. We have a murder to solve, and I don’t think any of you ladies are going to be too happy attending these luncheons until we do. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you a few things about this crime.”

Cora turned to the blackboard, picked up the chalk. “I’m supposed to talk to you about words, so let’s start with one.”

Cora wrote on the blackboard:

MOM.

Cora turned back to the women, smiled. “There you are. MOM. M-O-M. There are doubtless a lot of moms here; please do not think I am accusing you of the murder. If you stop to consider it, the idea that Felicity Grant was done in by a hundred angry mothers isn’t really going to fly. So what’s MOM all about? Well, the letters happen to stand for something.”

Cora wrote:

MOTIVE.

OPPORTUNITY.

MEANS.

“There you are.
Motive, opportunity, means.
The three elements of a murder.
Motive-,
who had a reason to do it.
Opportunity:
who had the chance to it. And
means:
what was the murder weapon, and who had access to it. How do you solve a crime? Trust your MOM.”

Cora shrugged. “So, what do we have here? The
means
is obviously poison. We’ll know more when we get the autopsy report. But it’s undoubtedly poison. Poison is a woman’s weapon. There are many ways to get one’s hands on poison. No problem there.

“And what is the
motive
? Well, Felicity Grant and Betty Flagstaff are the co-chairmen of this organization. In any situation of that nature, there is apt to be tension, resulting in a power struggle for who is top dog. So there’s your motive. Granted, not deep. Sketchy, surfacey. But as with the means of death, I’m sure more will come to light as soon as the police have time to look.

“That leaves
opportunity.
Did Betty Flagstaff have the opportunity to commit the crime? Absolutely. Just before dessert, she came to the table where I was seated next to Felicity Grant, put her arms over both our shoulders, and gave me a few instructions regarding my speech. Was that while we were still eating? Yes, it was, because we had not begun dessert yet. I know that for a fact, because Betty mentioned that I would begin speaking when the women began dessert.

“So, Betty Flagstaff had the opportunity. No problem there.” Cora raised her finger. “Except for one thing.” She smiled. “Me. I gave Felicity a piece of quiche. There are lots of witnesses. Everyone at the table saw me do it. I took my quiche, handed it to her. And she ate it. Every crumb. This casts serious doubts on the guilt of Betty Flagstaff. Why? Because, clearly, I had a much
better
opportunity.”

For the first time, there was dead silence in the room. No forks scraped against plates. No glasses clinked. There was no murmur of voices. The women were dumbfounded.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Cora said. “I’m not accusing myself of the crime. I’m merely stating the obvious. I had the best opportunity. That is absolutely obvious. It is obvious to anyone. We lose sight of how important that is because we are used to reading mystery books in which the obvious explanation is never right. In real life it almost always is. And in real life, we embrace the obvious explanation, at least initially, because we’re in shock, and our minds can’t handle anything else.

“Which is what happened in this case. The women at my table are all in shock at having one of their number topple over dead. When questioned, they give the usual unhelpful answers, until one of them, Charity something-or-other, recalls me giving her my quiche. Thus prompted, the other women chime in. It is the obvious answer, and the most likely too. A stranger in their midst, someone they don’t know, on whose actions they cannot rely, did something that could have resulted in the victim’s death. I not only had the opportunity, but my opportunity was observed by all. All embrace it.

“All but one.

“Marcy Fletcher comes to my rescue, pooh-poohs my involvement, asks who else it might be.

“And why does she do that? Because my passing the quiche was a coincidence. An accident. I was not
supposed
to be the person with the best opportunity. That person was supposed to be Betty Flagstaff. Who of course would check with her luncheon speaker near the end of the meal. And the luncheon speaker would be sitting next to co-chairman Felicity Grant. The place cards insured that. Just as they guaranteed which tiramisu Felicity would eat, allowing the killer to poison it well in advance.

“Unfortunately, the killer was a little too eager to pin the crime on Betty Flagstaff. And why not? If you want to take over an organization, what better way than to kill one co-chairman and frame the other for the murder?”

Cora jerked her thumb at the blackboard and looked out over the dining hall. “So, what have we learned from good old MOM? Can anyone tell me who did it?”

They certainly could. Some pointed. Some, buying into Cora’s classroom routine, actually raised their hands to be called on.

Cora beamed like a teacher watching her prize pupil recite, as the cop left Betty Flagstaff, marched to table number ten, and put his hands on the shoulders of Marcy Fletcher.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” Cora said driving home.

“No, not at all,” Sherry said ironically. “Someone got killed, and because of the quiche you were a murder suspect, but aside from that it went great.”

Cora piloted the car around a curve, cursed at an oncoming driver who had swung a little wide. She came out of the turn, stepped on the gas. “You know the best thing about it?”

“Sure. The case is solved.”

Cora waved it away. “No, silly.” She grinned, her trademark Puzzle Lady grin. “It didn’t involve a damn crossword puzzle.”

CIOPPINO: PUZZLE LADY STYLE

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 flat fillets of anchovies, drained
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cup water
1 (28-ounce) can of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dry thyme
11/2 pounds cod or halibut, cut into 2-inch chunks
Salt and pepper
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
16 to 20 raw mussels, scrubbed

In a large pot over moderate heat combine oil, crushed pepper, anchovies, garlic, and bay leaf. Let anchovies melt into oil.

Add chopped celery, onion, and bell pepper. Saute a few minutes and add wine. Simmer the wine until reduced by about half. Then add water, tomatoes, and thyme. Bring sauce to boil, and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer 10 minutes.

Season fish chunks with salt and pepper. Add fish and simmer 5 minutes. Add shrimp and mussels and cover pot. Cook 10 minutes.

Serve with crusty bread.

Serves 4.

Books by Parnell Hall

Stanley Hastings private eye mysteries

Detective

Murder

Favor

Strangler

Client

Juror

Shot

Actor

Blackmail

Movie

Trial

Scam

Suspense

Cozy

Manslaughter

Hitman

Caper

Stakeout

Steve Winslow courtroom dramas

The Baxter Trust

Then Anonymous Client

The Underground Man

The Naked Typist

The Wrong Gun

The Innocent Woman

Puzzle Lady crossword puzzle mysteries

A Clue For The Puzzle Lady

Last Puzzle & Testament

Puzzled To Death

A Puzzle In A Pear Tree

With This Puzzle I Thee Kill

And A Puzzle To Die On

Stalking The Puzzle Lady

You Have The Right To Remain Puzzled

The Sudoku Puzzle Murders

Dead Man’s Puzzle

The Puzzle Lady vs. The Sudoku Lady

The KenKen Killings

$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles

Arsenic and Old Puzzles

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Table of Contents

Short Story

Books by Parnell Hall