Cora Felton pulled the heavy knit sweater around her shoulders, crinkled her nose, squinted her eyes against the sun, and declared: “I. Hate. Fall.”
Her niece, Sherry Carter, smiled indulgently. “You don’t hate fall, Cora. You’re just not used to it.”
“I’ll say.” Cora Felton kicked her foot absently at the dead oak and maple leaves that adorned the front lawn. “We don’t have seasons in the city. It’s warmer or colder, and that’s it. Unless you go to the park, and why would I do that? There are no stores in the park.”
“That’s very true,” Sherry agreed. She hiked up the sleeves on her green fleece pullover, stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans, and tilted her chin up. “Just breathe that morning air.”
“I can breathe it inside,” Cora muttered. “That’s why we have windows. What are we doing out here?”
In point of fact, Sherry Carter had lured Cora Felton out to the lawn of their tidy little Connecticut house in the hope that the brisk November air would take the edge off Cora’s hangover. Sherry’s aunt had been cranky at breakfast and seemed on the verge of mixing her second Bloody Mary, always a bad sign. Sherry loved her aunt dearly and looked out for Cora’s welfare, usually against Cora’s will.
Sherry smiled. “Cora, we’re out here for just the reason you said. To notice the seasons. Something we don’t do in Manhattan. I mean, isn’t this a gorgeous day? And here we are, on a beautiful woodsy lot, on a deserted country road, no neighbors to speak of, the only sign of civilization the power line up the driveway. What’s not to like?”
Cora Felton smiled, her patented trademark smile that lit up the picture that adorned the nationally syndicated crossword-puzzle column that ran under her name. “Sherry, sweetheart, it’s nice. It’s just not New York. I mean, take food, for instance. In my apartment, I open the kitchen drawer, I got twenty or thirty menus from the best restaurants in town that can be there at the drop of a hat. Can you name me one restaurant in Bakerhaven that delivers?”
“You could take a cooking class,” Sherry suggested.
“I’d rather get married again.”
“At my age, a husband wouldn’t be nearly as annoying as some teacher telling me what to do.” Cora yawned and stretched. “Well, that’s enough of nature. Time for a drink.”
“Little early in the day to be drinking,” Sherry ventured.
“It’s fall,” Cora replied. “There’s a time change. We set our clocks back. I’m still on daylight savings time.”
“It’s ten in the morning.”
“What’s your point?”
“You remember why we came out here?” Sherry asked. “We were going to walk around the house. So far we’ve managed to get down the front steps. Not good enough, Aunt Cora. We’re going to stroll the perimeter of the property.” Sherry took Cora’s arm, led her away as she talked. “At least the tree line. I like the sound of that, don’t you? The tree line. Doesn’t it sound like we have a couple of hundred acres, instead of only one?”
“You’re awfully talkative this morning,” Cora grumbled. “Without really mentioning anything. And you’re in a awfully good mood. Was Aaron here last night?”
Sherry flushed slightly. Lately she’d been seeing quite a lot of the young Bakerhaven Gazette
reporter. “Aaron stopped by after work. Why do you ask?”
“I have no sex life of my own at the moment, I have to live vicariously. I didn’t see his car when I got home. I guess he didn’t stay over.”
“And you couldn’t go home with him, since he lives with his parents. It must be tough being young.” Cora stopped, looked around. “Okay, this is the backyard. I remember it from last summer. There’s the picnic table, there’s the grill. As I recall, on various occasions you made hamburgers, steak, and a couple of kinds of fish. How’m I doin’ so far? And look at these leaves.” Cora kicked her feet. “They’re so deep back here you can hardly walk. Tell you what, if there’s a rake down in the cellar, maybe I’ll clean ‘em up.”
“There’s no cellar. It’s a prefab house built on a slab.”
“There’s no cellar?”
“You don’t know we don’t have a cellar?”
Cora smiled and patted Sherry on the cheek. Her cornflower blue eyes twinkled. “Then I guess I can’t rake the leaves. Well, it’s the thought that counts.”
Cora took two steps, struck a pose, jerked her thumb. “Come on, pardner. Let’s check out the north forty.”
Sherry Carter smiled to herself. Her plan was working. Once around the house and her aunt was in a much better mood.
Cora rounded the corner of the house and stopped abruptly, looking toward the road. Sherry hurried to catch up with her.
A blue Nissan was coming up the drive, but with the sun glinting off the windshield, Sherry couldn’t see its driver.
“That’s not Aaron’s car,” Cora observed. “Who can that be?”
The Nissan pulled to a stop next to Cora Felton’s red Toyota. The door opened, and a nebbishy little man in a herringbone tweed suit climbed out. He ran his hand over his bald head, pushed thick-lensed glasses up his nose, then turned and carefully and deliberately locked his car door in a decidedly fussy manner.
Cora Felton’s face fell. “Prim, prissy, picayune, precise,” she muttered. “It’s what’s-his-name. The walking thesaurus.”
“Harvey Beerbaum,” Sherry murmured.
It was indeed the noted cruciverbalist, whose crossword puzzles often graced the pages of The New York Times.
He spotted Cora Felton, smiled, and waved.
“Oh, my God, look at his face,” Cora muttered under her breath. “He wants to marry me. Sherry, promise you won’t let me.”
“Aunt Cora — ” Sherry hissed.
“He doesn’t want to marry you.”
“What, you think I’m too old?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Sherry, you let me marry that man, I’ll never speak to you again.”
“You’re not going to marry him.”
“What if he asks me?”
“Just say no.”
“What are you, Nancy Reagan? I have a problem with marriage proposals. You know how many times I’ve been married?”
“I lost count after Henry.”
“So did I. Back me up, Sherry. Here he comes.”
The puzzle-maker came bustling across the lawn on little cat feet, with a neatly tied bow tie around his chubby neck and a beatific smile on his baby face. All he needed was a fat bouquet of flowers or a jeweler’s box with an engagement ring to pass as a hopeful suitor. Harvey Beerbaum was empty-handed, and yet he looked so animated that for a split second Sherry began to share her aunt’s apprehensions — the man was going to ask for Cora’s hand.
Fortunately, on reaching Cora Felton, Harvey Beerbaum did not fall on one knee. Instead, he grabbed both of her hands, clasped them joyously, and declared, “Miss Felton! Miss Felton! Have you heard the news?”
Cora’s brain was not working at lightning speed, yet she was clearheaded enough to grasp the concept that a marriage proposal as yet unmade was unlikely to have been reported by the media. “No, I haven’t,” she replied. She extracted her hands from his, straightened her sweater. “What news?”
Harvey Beerbaum could scarcely contain himself. He grabbed Cora’s hands again and positively beamed as he made his announcement.
“We’re a team! You and I! We’re cohosting a charity crossword-puzzle tournament!”2
“I won’t do it.”
“I hate crossword puzzles.”
“That’s not the point.”
“And I can’t do them.”
“You don’t have to do them. You’re not a contestant, you’re the host.”
“How can I be the host when I don’t know squat about puzzles?”
“You don’t have to. It’ll be just like your TV commercials. You just smile in a knowing way and everyone thinks you’re smart.”
“It’s not like my TV commercials. My commercials are for breakfast cereal. They’re thirty seconds long, and I have a script. I don’t have to ad-lib. I don’t have to pretend to know anything I don’t. You put me in a roomful of cruciverbalists who think I’m a crossword-puzzle whiz, we got major trouble.”
“Drink your coffee.”
Sherry and Cora were seated at the kitchen table. The large, eat-in country kitchen was the best feature of the modest ranch house. Sherry and Cora hung out in it more than they did in the living room, which was still cluttered with unpacked boxes from when they’d moved in the previous spring.
Cora took a sip of coffee, made a face. “This is bad, Sherry. Is it decaffeinated?”
“Cora, don’t start.”
“Sherry, I need the caffeine. You talked me out of the Bloody Mary, then you give me decaffeinated coffee? Have a heart.”
Cora’s enormous drawstring purse was on the table in front of her. She pulled it open, rummaged inside, came out with a pack of cigarettes.
“I thought you weren’t going to smoke in the house,” Sherry said.
“No, you lost that battle.” Cora pulled out a yellow plastic lighter, fired up a cigarette, took a greedy drag. “In fact, it was in the prenuptial agreement.” Cora ticked them off. “You don’t tell me what to drink. You don’t tell me I can’t smoke. You don’t criticize my choice of men.” She waggled her finger. “Unless I ask you to. For future reference, if I say, ‘Don’t let me marry that man,’ the correct response is not, ‘He isn’t going to ask you,’ it’s, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t let you.’” Cora exhaled noisily. “I don’t see why that’s such a difficult concept to grasp.”
“I stand corrected.”
Cora blinked. “You mean I won the argument. Something’s wrong here.” Her eyes widened. “Of course there is. You got me off the subject. The crossword-puzzle tournament.”
“It’s not a big problem.”
“Not for you. You’re a whiz at crosswords.”
“Yeah, but no one knows it,” Sherry pointed out serenely. “Our problems are really the same. I have to hide my expertise. You have to hide your lack of it.”
“What a load of bull,” Cora shot back. “You don’t have to stand in front of a roomful of people and say, ‘Hi, I’m Sherry Carter. I’m a very famous person who knows nada about crossword puzzles. I’m pleased to meet you. Now then, do any of you have any questions about crossword puzzles that I won’t know the answers to? I’m eager for an opportunity to demonstrate my abysmal lack of knowledge on the subject.’ “
“See, Cora, you have a way with words. You’ll do just fine.”
“That’s sarcasm. I can do sarcasm just fine. But I can’t use it as a host.”
“Oh, no? If Harvey Beerbaum’s cohost, I certainly could.”
“And so could I,” Cora agreed. “But would you want me to?”
“No, of course not. But you don’t have to. It’s a charity event. You smile, look pleased, and shake the winner’s hand.”
“Oh, yeah,” Cora snorted. “Easy for you to say. How about working with Harvey Beerbaum? He’s a nerd and a nudge and all he wants to do is talk shop. I mean, how long can I keep nodding and smiling before he realizes I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s gabbling about?”
“You’re getting all worked up.”
“It’s the caffeine in the coffee.”
“I knew it! Sherry, I need the caffeine.”
“Clearly you don’t.”
Cora had a horrible thought. “And what if that’s the point? What if he knows I can’t do crossword puzzles? What if asking me to be his cohost is just a ploy to prove I can’t?”
“Boy, are you paranoid,” Sherry scoffed. “Which is it? Are you afraid he wants to marry you or afraid he wants to expose you?”
“Sherry, please. Let me turn it down. When did he say it was — first weekend in December? We call up, we say we’re sorry, we didn’t realize we’re going to Spain that weekend, then we book a flight and go.”
“Wherever. You name it. The point is, we’re not here.”
“You can’t do that, Cora.”
“It’s for charity. And it’s your hometown. You do it, it’s nothing. You back out, it’s news. PUZZLE LADY THUMBS NOSE AT CHARITY, WON’T HOST LOCAL EVENT.”
“They wouldn’t print that.”
“You know they would. PUZZLE LADY WON’T WORK UNLESS PAID. REFUSES TO DONATE SERVICES TO HELP THE HOMELESS.”
“Is this for the homeless?”
“It’s for charity. What charity is not really important. What’s important is what’s-his-name already said yes. Accepted in your behalf. Now, I agree, he had no right to do that, he’s way out of line. But, unfortunately, in this case that doesn’t matter. Harvey Beerbaum put you on the hook and there’s no tactful way to get you off.”
“But I didn’t say yes. I told him I’d have to think about it.”
“He took that as a yes.”
“How do you know?”
“If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have left. Right now he’s downtown telling everybody you agreed to do it.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Because I couldn’t. It’s a no-win situation, Cora. It’s just one of those things. As long as you’re the Puzzle Lady, there will be situations we can’t control.”
Cora took another drag on her cigarette. “Maybe it’s time to admit that I’m not the Puzzle Lady.”
“I don’t think so, Cora.”
“Why not? The column’s established. People love it. Who cares who writes it?”
“People don’t like to be fooled. There’ll be a backlash.”
“Maybe initially. But once it dies down — ”
“Your career will be over. Maybe the column will survive, but the column doesn’t pay for this house. Aren’t you filming another TV spot?”
“Yeah. Next month.”
“As the Puzzle Lady?”
“See?” Sherry said. “You admit you’re not the Puzzle Lady, and it’s bye-bye TV ads. There goes our best source of income, and what would we do then?”
Cora stubbed her cigarette out in the saucer of her coffee cup. “I’d probably have to get married again.” She took her glasses off, rubbed her eyes, groaned. “What a nightmare. Okay, so I don’t admit I’m not the Puzzle Lady. So what do I do now?”
Sherry smiled and spread her arms.
“You cohost a crossword-puzzle tournament.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Puzzled to Death by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2001 by Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.