"Is it a milestone?" Iris Cooper asked. The Bakerhaven First Selectman pulled her sweater around her shoulder with one hand while balancing her coffee and muffin in the other. It was late October, Connecticut foliage season was giving up the ghost, and early winter winds were whipping mini tornadoes of dead leaves along the street.
Sherry Carter, ambushed on her way into Cushman's Bake Shop, shrugged evasively. Sherry wore a baby-blue turtleneck and suede jacket, new for fall. "Cora says at her age they're all milestones."
"You mean she won't say?" Harvey Beerbaum asked. The expression on the portly cruciverbalist's face indicated that such behavior was inexplicable, if not downright subversive.
Sherry smiled. "There are two things my aunt refuses to remember. One is birthdays. The other is wedding anniversaries."
"Of course, when you have as many wedding anniversaries as Cora, that's understandable," Iris Cooper said. No one quite knew how many former husbands Cora had.
"But she only has one birthday," Harvey persisted peevishly. "How old was she last year?"
"What a question!" Iris Cooper exclaimed. "It's not polite to ask a woman's age!"
"You asked if it was a milestone," Harvey pointed out.
"That's entirely different. Milestones are important. They need to be noted, celebrated, commiserated with over." Iris frowned. "Is that correct usage? I wish Cora were here to tell me."
Sherry Carter suppressed a smile. If the truth be known, her aunt Cora wouldn't know a grammatical mistake if it stood up on its hind legs, stuck its thumbs in its ears, waggled its fingers, and said, "Nyah, nyah, you ain't got no culture, does you, Miss Puzzle Penning Person?" Sherry actually wrote the nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column her aunt got credit for. Cora merely supplied the sweet-faced, white-haired, grandmotherly picture that accompanied it.
Harvey and Iris didn't know that.
"Come on," Harvey insisted. "What are we going to do?"
"What do you mean?" Sherry said.
"Well, we have to have a party."
"Cora doesn't want a party."
"Nonsense. Everyone wants a party. Isn't that right, Iris? Cora is our town's most famous citizen. She should certainly be celebrated."
"Who should be celebrated?" Aaron Grant said, strolling up. The young reporter had clearly overslept. His shirt was unbuttoned and his tie was untied. He had shaved, but his curly dark hair was dry and uncombed, indicating he hadn't showered.
Sherry's face lit up when she saw him. "Ah, just in time. Aaron, will you please help me explain Cora wouldn't want us to make a fuss."
"Make a fuss about what?"
"It's her birthday," Harvey Beerbaum said.
"Really?" Aaron said. "We should do something."
Sherry groaned at this unexpected sabotage. "No, we shouldn't. Cora wouldn't want us to do anything. She's a very private person."
"Very private people do not do TV commercials," Iris pointed out. "Come on, Sherry. Cora's had a hard time of it lately. I bet her spirits could use a lift."
"Cora's just fine," Sherry retorted. "She was going to get married, it didn't work out. If I told you how many times Cora thought she was going to get married and it didn't work out . . ."
"Nearly as many as the times it did?" Aaron asked mischievously.
Chief Harper came out of the bakery carrying a coffee and a cranberry muffin. He'd already nibbled the top off the muffin, and looked somewhat sheepish about it.
"Eating on the run, Chief?" Aaron asked.
Harper flushed. "Aaron Grant, if you put that in the paper . . ."
"Oh, I think we'll come up with something better, even on a slow news day."
"You could write about Cora's party," Iris Cooper suggested.
Chief Harper frowned. "Party? What party?"
"It's Cora's birthday," Iris informed him.
"Really," Chief Harper said. "Is it a milestone?"
"See?" Iris Cooper told Harvey. "That's the way to ask."
"Why? It doesn't get an answer."
"No. But it's the proper form of the question. I thought you were a wordsmith, Harvey."
"Pooh." It was one of the prissy man's strongest epithets. For a second he considered apologizing.
"What's this about a party?" Chief Harper was clearly torn between wanting to finish the conversation and wanting to get to the police station to eat his muffin. The good man seemed just on the verge of jamming the pastry into his mouth.
"We're planning a party for Cora," Harvey Beerbaum told him. "To celebrate her birthday, whichever one it may be."
"I'm telling you," Sherry said, "you can throw a party, but Cora isn't going to come."
Harvey Beerbaum was undaunted. "All right, then. We'll throw a surprise party."
"What?" Iris Cooper said.
"Certainly," Harvey said. "That's precisely the thing to do. Plan a secret party as a big surprise."
"Cora likes surprises less than she likes birthdays," Sherry Carter warned.
Harvey Beerbaum was having too much fun to notice. "Oh, this will be delightful. We'll do it in secret. Cora will be the only one in town who doesn't know we're planning it. Then, on the night of her birthday . . . When is her birthday?"
"Sorry it's such short notice. Usually I start discussing Cora's birthday a good month or two before the event."
The irony went right over Harvey's head. "Then we'll have to move fast." His eyes widened at the sight of a jack-o'-lantern in the window of Cushman's Bake Shop. "Good lord. Is that . . ."
"Halloween? No, that's Wednesday. Too bad. It would have been a nice theme."
"Nice theme?" Iris Cooper said. "Why, Harvey Beerbaum. I suppose you'd like me to come dressed as a witch?"
"Not Halloween." Harvey tugged at his collar uncomfortably, noticing for the first time the First Selectman's nose was rather pointed and she was rather thin.
"Harvey, this is a bad idea," Sherry said.
"Oh, nonsense." Harvey was not to be stopped. "So, the party's Thursday, November first. That's all that matters. We can work out the details later. The important thing is, no one tells Cora."
"Harvey's planning a party," Sherry called as she entered the front door. Sherry was surprised Cora hadn't come out to meet her. Even Cora couldn't sleep through the entire afternoon. Sherry wondered if anything was wrong. "Hello?" she called again.
Sherry needn't have worried. Cora came bustling into the living room, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, clutching her drawstring purse. "Oh, it's you," she said. "I heard the door."
Cora's cornflower-blue eyes were wide. Her cheeks were flushed. She seemed rather agitated, almost flustered.
"Aunt Cora. Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be all right?"
That brought Sherry up short. The reason for Cora Felton not being all right was usually alcohol. Cora had been on the wagon for some time. Still, there was always the danger of a relapse.
"So, what have you been doing?" Sherry asked.
That flustered Cora even more. "Doing? How can I do anything when you drive off, leave me without a car?"
"Where did you want to go?"
"Nowhere. But if I wanted to, I couldn't. I'm trapped here all day long."
"It's three o'clock."
"That's not the point. The point is, we only have one car, so I'm stuck here when you go off to work and leave me."
"I'm a substitute nursery-school teacher. I average two or three days a month."
"And on those days, I'm stuck."
"You want me to get my own car?"
"We can't afford another car."
"Maybe you'll get one for your birthday," Sherry ventured tentatively
Cora's eyes narrowed. "Sherry. Don't you dare tell anyone it's my birthday."
"It's a matter of public record."
"Sure, if you knew to look. If you didn't know it was my birthday, you wouldn't know to look."
"Aunt Cora . . ."
"Why are we talking about this? No one knows it's my birthday. And don't you dare say a word. It's bad enough getting older without everyone making a fuss."
"You don't want anyone to know?" Sherry said.
"I always knew you were bright." Cora patted Sherry on the cheek, opened the front door.
"Where are you going?"
"Out for a cigarette. Since you won't let me smoke in here."
Sherry sniffed the air. "You've been smoking in here."
"Well, you weren't home."
Cora wrenched the cigarettes out of her purse and went on out. Sherry closed the door behind her. Cora frowned, fished in her purse for her lighter, lit up a smoke. She wished she'd had more notice of Sherry coming home. That was the problem with the office in the back of the house. You didn't always hear the car.
Cora managed to take another drag before Sherry burst out the front door.
"Aunt Cora! You're on-line."
"You can't walk off and leave the computer on-line. It ties up the phone."
"You expecting a call?"
"And when did you learn to use the computer anyway? I thought you barely knew how to turn it on."
"You left it on."
"But you can't smoke in the office. Do you know what it smells like?"
"Do you know what you sound like? My head's spinning. Pick a topic and go with it."
"Oh, get in here." Sherry pointed to the cigarette. "I mean, put that out and get in here."
Cora ground the cigarette out with her heel, followed Sherry meekly through the house, into the study. Cora placed the butt in the china saucer on the desk.
Sherry ignored the makeshift ashtray, pointed to the computer. "Do you know how many screens you have open?"
"No. How would I?"
"Well, for one thing you could count the little icons down here at the bottom. That will tell you how many programs you've shrunk."
"If you say so."
"What do you mean, if I say so? You opened and shrunk them." Sherry looked at her aunt in amazement. "Cora. You actually know what you're doing."
"Well, let's not get carried away."
"That's excellent advice, Cora. Coming from a woman doing seven things at once."
"Well, let's see." Sherry began expanding and shrinking the icons at the bottom of the screen to see what they were. "You're on Amazon.com." Sherry shrunk the icon, opened another. "And on Barnes and Noble. And on the Advanced Book Exchange."
"I was comparing prices."
"And on the As the World Turns website."
"I missed an episode."
"How could you miss an episode?"
"I was on-line."
"No kidding. You're on eBay, where you appear to be bidding on a makeup kit."
"Right," Cora said. "I don't have a makeup kit. And you know how often I appear on television."
"And a hedge trimmer," Sherry said accusingly.
"Look how cheap it is."
"We don't have a hedge."
"What's your point?"
"You also appear to be in a chat room with someone named Ralph."
"Ralph is very nice."
"I'm glad you think so."
"Huh?" Cora leaned forward, peered at the message on the screen. Flushed slightly. "Well, maybe I misjudged Ralph. He certainly seemed nice."
"I'm sure he is. If you're particularly limber." Sherry shook her head. "I was wondering why I was getting so much spam lately."
"So much what?"
"Junk e-mail's called spam, Cora. Even you should know that. You attract it by the places you go on the Internet. And the places the people you contact have gone. I would imagine your friend Ralph has been fairly active."
"Are you enjoying beating me up like this?" Cora demanded. "So what was it you wanted to tell me, before you got distracted playing Humiliate the Aunt?"
"Oh. Nothing. It just occurred to me, you've got way too much time on your hands."
The phone rang. Sherry Carter scooped it up.
"Sherry, hi. It's Becky Baldwin."
Sherry instantly tensed at the sound of her rival, even though she and Becky had basically buried the hatchet. Becky was Aaron Grant's high school sweetheart, and she wasn't about to let Sherry forget it. And Becky was stunningly beautiful and a lawyer, to boot, a woman whose career was often of interest to young reporter Grant.
"What's up, Becky?" Sherry tried to sound casual.
"Actually, I was calling Cora. Is she there?"
"Yeah. Just a minute." Sherry covered the phone, passed it to Cora. "Becky Baldwin for you."
"You're kidding. What does she want?"
"She didn't say."
Cora took the phone. "Yeah, Becky. What's up?"
"You want a job?"
Becky Baldwin's office did not exactly inspire confidence. A one-room affair over the pizza parlor, it boasted an exposed radiator, cracked windows, and peeling paint. Judging from her office, it was hard to imagine the woman had any clients at all.
Becky, on the other hand, was as attractive as her office was drab. She had golden blond hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones, long lashes, and perfectly understated makeup, which was imperceptible on the one hand, but managed on the other to dramatically highlight her exquisite eyebrows and lips. Her purple pants suit was at the same time attractive and trendy and no-nonsense and businesslike. Becky looked as if she'd be right at home in some high-powered Madison Avenue law office.
Becky sat at her battered metal desk. Cora sank down in the overstuffed client's chair, and yanked her cigarettes out of her purse. "All right. Shoot."
Becky pointed. "Out the window, if you please."
Cora groaned. "Oh, hell, I forgot." She heaved herself from her chair, eyed the radiator under the window with suspicion. "Is that thing off? I burned myself the last time."
"They're not giving us heat yet."
"Is that so?"
Cora touched the radiator gingerly, ascertained it was cold. She reached over it and raised the frame window. She balanced herself on the sill, lit a cigarette, blew out the smoke. "I wouldn't wanna tell you your business, but frankly your salesmanship sucks. If I weren't bored out of my mind at the moment, I'd be out that door. But I'm here to tell ya, it's gonna take a pretty juicy case to keep me perched on this ledge."
"It's a good case."
"I don't want a good case. I want a rotten case with salacious details. Sex and scandal and murder and mayhem. Is that too much to ask?"
Becky smiled. "Actually, you're right on the money."
Cora blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Are you familiar with the case of Darryl Daigue?"
"He was arrested for rape and murder."
"Now you're talkin'! And you're his lawyer?"
"Then you'd better uncomplicate it, if you expect me to stick around."
"I've been retained by Darryl's sister."
"To act in his behalf?"
Cora snorted in disgust. "And you wonder why people hate lawyers. Talk about splitting hairs. I don't care if this creep hired you or the creep's sister hired you. As far as I'm concerned, you're the creep's lawyer." She frowned. "Unless he's hired someone else. Does he have another lawyer?"
"Not at the moment."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from And a Puzzle to Die On by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2004 by Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.