Read Lethal Luncheon (Puzzle Lady Mystery, a short story) Online

Authors: Parnell Hall

Tags: #Mystery & Crime

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.

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