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$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles (Puzzle Lady Series #13)

$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles (Puzzle Lady Series #13)

4.5 4
by Parnell Hall

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"Groucho Marx meets Jessica Fletcher!"--RT Book Reviews

When young attorney Becky Baldwin hires Cora Felton to make a blackmail payment drop, it couldn't go worse: she stumbles over a corpse and a puzzle, and someone steals the money. Becky
won't tell her who the client is, but the most likely suspect is Cora's least favorite ex-husband,


"Groucho Marx meets Jessica Fletcher!"--RT Book Reviews

When young attorney Becky Baldwin hires Cora Felton to make a blackmail payment drop, it couldn't go worse: she stumbles over a corpse and a puzzle, and someone steals the money. Becky
won't tell her who the client is, but the most likely suspect is Cora's least favorite ex-husband, Melvin, who claims he's being framed by a psychopath with a grudge. Soon Cora finds herself in a no-win situation. Solving the murder will either put Melvin's neck in the noose, or incur the wrath of a cunning, cold-blooded killer who delights in playing deadly mind games and may be targeting her niece Sherry and Sherry's new baby girl.

$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles is another delightful entry in Parnell Hall's entertaining Puzzle Lady series, featuring new puzzles by Will Shortz that help readers solve the mystery!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Hall’s well-plotted if padded 13th mystery featuring PI and puzzle lady Cora Felton (after 2011’s The KenKen Killings), lawyer Becky Baldwin persuades Cora to deliver a blackmail payment, in the amount stated in the book’s title, on behalf of an unnamed client. When Cora opens the lid of the Dumpster at the abandoned gas station where she’s to make the drop, she finds a man inside, shot in the temple. A piece of paper protruding from the dead man’s pocket turns out to be, no surprise for this puzzle-themed cozy series, a sudoku. In the subsequent murder investigation, Cora and friends rehash events at length and bicker to the point where the reader has to wonder if they really care about solving the crime. At one point Brookhaven, Conn., police chief Dale Harper asks Cora to answer “in simple, declarative sentences.” Cora’s evasive, bantering replies may exasperate those who aren’t already Hall fans. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“One of the Puzzle Lady's finest hours, faster paced than most, with the obligatory puzzles to help solve the case.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Fun, two words, 11 letters: P-A-R-N-E-L-L H-A-L-L. Hall, a master of the comic mystery, brings back Cora Felton, the Puzzle Lady....Cora faces numerous situations, including blackmail, murder, the return of an ex-husband–and her niece and nephew-in-law's new baby. Add Hall's wit and razor-sharp dialogue, and '10,000 in Small Unmarked Puzzles' is another winner in an amusing series. Complete with crossword and Sudoku puzzles, Hall's latest is sure to appeal to anyone who likes brainteasers, whether of the crime or the riddle variety.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Great fun for series fans.” —Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
One of the Puzzle Lady's former husbands comes back to haunt her yet again. While Cora Felton waits for her niece Sherry, who actually constructs the crossword puzzles attributed to Cora, to give birth, she's reluctant to take on a job offered her by the stunning young attorney Becky Baldwin. But when she does agree to deliver a blackmail payment, she finds herself in the soup. Inside the dumpster at a deserted service station she finds a dead body and a sudoku, just the type of puzzle she happens to excel at solving. She hides the money in an old gas pump just before the arrival of Police Chief Harper, with whom Cora's meddling in earlier cases (The KenKen Killings, 2011, etc.) has led to quite the love/hate relationship. Anxious to get to the hospital where Sherry's about to deliver her premature baby, Cora must call her lawyer to get away from the police. Becky refuses to reveal her client, but it appears to be Cora's least-liked ex-husband Melvin, who claims that he's being framed by an enemy with a grudge. Since the first $10,000 in blackmail money has disappeared, Cora agrees to make another drop, this time at a cemetery where she discovers a second corpse. It puts no damper on Cora's curiosity when the police arrest Melvin. Instead, she continues to look for the killer, putting herself and family in danger. One of the Puzzle Lady's finest hours, faster paced than most, with the obligatory puzzles to help solve the case.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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Puzzle Lady Series , #13
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$10,000 In Small, Unmarked Puzzles

A Puzzle Lady Mystery

By Parnell Hall

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Parnell Hall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01145-9


"Just keep calm," Cora said as she piloted the Toyota around the curve.

"Keep calm?" Sherry said from the backseat. "You're the one driving like a maniac."

"Don't distract her," Aaron said. He had his arm around Sherry and was squeezing her hand.

"Distract her from what?" Sherry said. "Skidding off the road?"

"Hold on," Cora said. "I'll get you there."

Cora was driving Sherry to the hospital. Sherry had just gone into labor, which seemed to panic the expectant great-aunt more than it did the expectant mother. Cora had fallen all over herself bustling Sherry into the car. Aaron had been lucky not to be left behind.

The expectant parents were headed for the new hospital, a two-story structure of stone and steel built in 1978. The old hospital had closed in 1984, so there was only a six-year span during which Bakerhaven had two hospitals. Nonetheless, the residents still referred to the hospital by the mall as the new hospital.

"How are the contractions?" Cora asked.

"Wonderful," Sherry said. "I have a deep, abiding love for all of you. Do you have any more dumb questions?"

"I'll think of some. Aaron, did you bring her something to bite on?"

"Bite on?"

"Like in the movies when they're digging out the bullet without anesthesia."

"I'm fine," Sherry said. "Cora. I need you to focus. The Puzzle Lady column."

"What about it?"

"You have to turn in the puzzles so people think you write the damn thing."

"They're not going to be impressed if I turn them in wrong."

"It's not a problem. I'm your secretary. I send out the crossword puzzles you create. I'm on maternity leave, so you have to send them out yourself. You're somewhat spooked by the technology. You hope you get everything right."

"You can say that again."

"No, I don't mean it. That's the part you're playing. It's your excuse for any problem with the puzzles that you can't deal with. Anything you have to ask me about. Any technical, secretarial problem having to do with the functions of the computer programs. You're the genius who scrawls crossword puzzles on the backs of napkins. I'm the functionary who deciphers your handwriting and prints the things out."

"Couldn't have said it better myself. Could I actually hire a functionary while you're in the hospital?"


"Why not?"

"Because I write the puzzles. Because you couldn't construct one if your life depended on it."

"That's cruel and hurtful. I'll put that down to labor pains. You're clearly delirious."

"Will you watch the road?"

"I'm watching the road. It hasn't moved since I've been on it."

"You just missed the turn for the hospital."


"Come on, Cora. I'm not the first person in the world to have a baby."

"Yeah, well, you're early," Cora said.

The baby was premature. Sherry going into labor had caught everyone off guard.

"Five weeks," Sherry said. "That's nothing these days."

"Easy for you to say. They'll knock you out with drugs; you won't feel a thing.

They won't even give me a valium."

Cora hung a U-turn, headed back the other way.

The telephone rang.

"Is that your phone?" Sherry said.

"If it is, I'm not answering," Aaron said. "No, not mine."

"Well, it's not mine," Cora said. "I don't have one."

It continued to ring.

"You wanna look in my bag?" Sherry said.

"You don't have to answer," Aaron told her.

"Yeah, but I can if I want to, right? I mean, having a baby doesn't cut you off from the world." Sherry snapped open the phone. "Hello ... oh, hi, Becky ... yeah, Cora's here. She can't talk, she's driving ... yeah, she's driving me to the hospital. ... No, nothing's wrong, I'm just having a baby. ... Thank you, but I haven't had it yet. I'm not sure of the protocol, but I think you're supposed to wait until there's an actual infant. So, what do you want with Cora? ... No, she's driving. You tell me, I'll relay the message ... You're in trouble and you need her help." Sherry looked up from the cell phone. "Becky's in trouble and she needs your help."

"Tell her I'm busy," Cora said.

"She'll be right there," Sherry said, and hung up.

Cora's mouth fell open. "Didn't you hear me? I said no."

Sherry scrunched on the edge of her seat. "Cora Felton. If you let my having a baby make you give up the things you love, you'll end up hating me and the baby. A sharp, young attorney at law wants your help. You're not going to blow her off just so you can run around the hospital driving everybody crazy. Aaron and I can handle the baby thing just fine. You drop us off, and go help Becky Baldwin." Sherry looked out the window. "Assuming you ever get us to the hospital."


"You just missed the turn again."


Becky Baldwin, easily Bakerhaven's lawyer most likely to be mistaken for a Miss America finalist, had a law office down a side street over a pizza parlor.

"Garlic and eggplant," Cora said, sniffing the air. "Wanna put a side bet on it?"

Becky pushed the long blond hair out of her eyes. "What do you mean blowing me off like that?"

"Like what?"

"One thing you should know about cell phones. If you talk loudly next to a cell phone, the person on the other end can hear. 'Tell her I'm busy.' Now, is that what you tell a person who has an emergency?"

"You're a lawyer. You don't have emergencies. It's not like you're a doctor with a dying patient. If you don't bail out your client, tough rocks, he sits in jail. What's an hour or two? Probably do him good."

"My client's not in jail."

"Then it's not an emergency."

"Yes it is."

"Is it a kidnapping?"


"Is someone's life at stake?"

"Not really."

"You wanna play twenty questions, or you wanna tell me what it is? If it was really an emergency, I wouldn't think you had this much time to waste."

"Actually, I do."

Cora stood up. "I'm going back to the hospital."

"No, wait. My client's in trouble. They need you to get them out."

"They? You have more than one client?"

"Not necessarily."

Cora suggested practices for Becky which probably would have kept her out of law school and might have even gotten her committed.

"Nice talk," Becky said. "I said they to avoid a gender-specific pronoun. I have a client. The client needs your help. It's serious and it's urgent."

"What is it?"

Becky sighed. "It's blackmail."

Cora searched in her floppy drawstring purse, pulled out her cigarettes.

"You can't smoke in here."

"Then let's go out there."

"I don't wanna go out there."

"I don't wanna be here at all."

"Fine. We'll go out there."

Cora and Becky went out of the office and down the steps into the side alley. The odor of pepperoni was almost overwhelming.

Cora lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, exhaled. "Okay, let's talk turkey. If you don't want me to know if your client's a man or a woman, you're not going to tell me who your client is. Which seriously decreases my interest in the matter. Plus the fact that blackmail's illegal, so whatever you want me to do is probably illegal. This is a very unappealing prospect indeed. Start talking. You've got two minutes or until I finish this cigarette, whichever comes first."

"I got a blackmail demand. For ten thousand dollars."

"In small, unmarked bills?"

"Isn't it always? My client wants to pay it."

"What do you want?"

"I want your help."

"In talking your client out of it?"

"No. In making the payment."


"Well, I can't let my client do it. And I'm not going to do it."

"I, on the other hand, am expendable."

"Don't be silly. This is right up your alley."


"It's a mystery. It's intrigue. You're being hired as a private investigator to do something new. You've never been involved in a blackmail, have you?"

"For good reason. People involved in blackmail get arrested. They go to jail. If you don't believe me, ask Chief Harper."

"I'd prefer to leave him out of this."

"I'll bet you would. The whole thing sounds fishy as hell." Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me this isn't something you and Sherry hatched up to keep me out of the hospital. Some secret signal she could text-message you, or whatever the hell it is people do now. Whenever you got it you were to call Sherry on her cell phone, tell her it's an emergency and you had to see me at once."

"You know how paranoid you sound?"

"Hey, when people are out to get you, you're not paranoid. You're either conspiring with Sherry to keep me from the birth of her baby, or trying to involve me in a blackmail. Either way, you're out to get me."

"I'm not out to get you. I'm on your side. I want you on my side."

"Making a blackmail payment."

"Unfortunately, that's my side. Are you in or out?"

Cora shook her head. "You'll have to give me more than that."

"Okay, come back inside, I'll show you the note."

"There's a note?"

"Of course there's a note. You can't have a blackmail without a note."

"You didn't mention a note."

"I was leading up to it."

"Spit it out, will you? First you say there's no time, then you pussyfoot around like we've got all the time in the world."

"Actually, we have until noon. That's when you're delivering the money."

"Delivering it to who?"

"I have no idea."

"You're doing it again."

"Sorry, but I have no idea. Come back inside, I'll show you the note."

They went back into Becky's office. She opened her desk drawer, took out a manila envelope. She reached in, pulled out a sheet of paper. It was a piece of white posterboard. Pasted onto it were words cut from newspaper headlines.


"Well, that's a little ambiguous," Cora said. "But it's gotta mean closed station, not closed Dumpster. Tell Chief Harper to stake out the abandoned Chevron station north of town and pick up whoever comes for the money."

"Yes, wouldn't that be nice," Becky said. "But then my client's good name would get smeared."

"Your client's got something she's willing to pay ten grand for, her good reputation ain't worth squat anyway."

"The actions of my client, whoever he or she may be, are not necessarily motivated by logic. It's a blackmail demand; my client wants to pay up. Whaddya say?"

"What blackmail demand? I see a request for money. I don't see a blackmail demand. I don't see any threat like: If you don't do what I say I'm going to send your wife that motel registration receipt. Or I'm going to prove you forged hubby's will. Or I'm going to tell the authorities where they can put their hands on the arsenic you fed Grandma."

"Nice fishing expedition."

"You can't just walk up and ask someone for money. You've gotta have a motivation. Otherwise, people would be blackmailing each other all the time. So, can we assume this wasn't the only letter? Or can we assume there was something else in the letter?"

"Actually, there was something in the letter," Becky said.

"Oh? What was that?"

Becky reached in her desk, pulled out a sheet of paper, passed it over.

It was a sudoku.


"Sherry put you up to this?"


"This is legit?"


"You have a client who wants me to make a blackmail payment at noon today?" "Right."

"And the client specifically wanted me?"

"No. The blackmailer specifically wanted you."

"You're deducing that because of the sudoku?"

"Can you solve it?"

"Of course I can solve it."

"You can't solve crossword puzzles."

"That's different. There are words involved. There's an infinite number of possibilities. With numbers there's only one answer."

"So solve it."

Cora took out a pencil, whizzed through the sudoku.

* * *

Becky took the sudoku, looked it over. "Yup. You're the one the blackmailer wanted."

Cora frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Like Cinderella. The glass slipper fits on your foot, so you're the princess."

Cora suggested ways Becky could use a glass slipper that had nothing to do with her feet.

"It's perfectly simple," Becky said. "The blackmailer wants the money delivered by someone who can solve the sudoku."

Cora stared at her. "How the hell do you figure that?"

"The blackmail note."

"It says nothing of the kind in the blackmail note."

"Not that blackmail note."

"There's another blackmail note?"


"One you haven't shown me?"

"Have you seen another blackmail note?"


"There's another blackmail note. I can't show it to you."

"Why not?"

"Because the client doesn't want me to."

"Why not?"

"It divulges matters he or she would prefer not known."

"It's really annoying to keep saying he or she. Can't you pick a gender and go with it?"


"This blackmail note that you won't let me see — the blackmailer says they want me to make the drop?"

"No. Just that they want someone in particular, and we'll be able to tell from the next message."

"And the next message is the one I read?"


"So you are deducing just from the sudoku."

"I'm deducing from being told I would be able to deduce. The sudoku is the only clue. Who do you think it points to? The Sudoku Lady? The blackmailer wants you.

My client wants you. I want you."

"It's nice to be wanted. It would be nicer to know why."

"Because you're an expert in these matters."

"It's my first blackmail."

"You know what I mean. Matters of discretion and tiptoeing around the law."

"Poppycock," Cora said. "There's no discretion involved. I take the blackmail money and leave it in a Dumpster. How difficult can it be?"

"I don't know. I've never delivered blackmail money."

"Is it in a briefcase?"


"How come?"

"Maybe a half a million. This is a piddling ten thousand." Becky opened her desk drawer, took out a manila envelope that had been folded and taped into a small, rectangular package.

Cora frowned. "That's it?"

"That's it."

"That's ten thousand dollars?"


"In small, unmarked bills?"

"It's in ten packets of twenties. Fifty to a packet."

"Are you sure? If this is a gag it could be paper cut in the size of twenty dollar bills."

"No, it's real."

"Mind if I verify that?"

"Only if you're taking the case."


"If you're not, it's none of your business. I'm sure my client wouldn't want me showing it to an outsider."

"Well, I'm not taking the case unless you can prove it's money."

"I can prove it's money."

"Go ahead and prove it."

"Not till you take the case."

Cora scowled. "Are you trying to piss me off?"

Becky smiled. "No, but it's an added perk."

"Show me the money."

"Take the case."

"Show me the money first."

"You drive a hard bargain," Becky said. "All right, I'll show you the money first. On one condition."

"What's that?"

"If it's ten thousand dollars, you'll take the case."

"That's the same thing," Cora protested.

"I can tell you six reasons why it isn't."

"I'm sure you could. All right," Cora said. "How about this? I'll agree to take the case on one condition."

"What's that?" Becky said.

"That there's ten thousand dollars in that package."

"How's that different from what I said," Becky wanted to know.

"It's entirely different."

"How's that?"

"I said it."


The abandoned service station was a mile and a half out of town on the southwest corner of North Street and Maple. Cora drove by from every conceivable direction. She saw nothing. Not that she expected to. Still, it occurred to her the blackmailer might be keeping an eye on the station. In which case her driving by so much might be pissing him off. Cora certainly hoped so. She wasn't the least bit happy with the situation, and wanted the blackmailer to feel so, too.

Cora checked her watch. Five minutes to twelve. Would the blackmailer mind if she was early? You wouldn't think so. But some blackmailers were pretty persnickety. At least the ones in the books she read. Granted, they were fiction. Even so, if Cora was going to do the job, she wanted to do it right. And it wasn't just a sense of pride. She didn't want the blackmailer, Becky, or the mysterious client pointing the finger at her.

Not to mention the police.

Cora shivered at the thought. And was instantly angry. She'd often played fast and loose with the police. But always on her own terms. That was why it didn't bother her. She was always in charge. But here she was, playing by someone else's rules in a game she knew nothing about.


Excerpted from $10,000 In Small, Unmarked Puzzles by Parnell Hall. Copyright © 2012 Parnell Hall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Parnell Hall has been a finalist for Edgar, Lefty, and Shamus Awards. He is a former President of PWA and a member of Sisters in Crime. Parnell competes each year in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He lives in New York City.

Parnell Hall, author of the Puzzle Lady and Stanley Hastings mystery novels, has also been an actor, screenwriter, and singer/songwriter. He is a former President of the Private Eye Writers of America and a member of Sisters in Crime. He has been a finalist for an Edgar, 2 Lefty, and 3 Shamus Awards. Parnell lives in New York City.

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$10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles: A Puzzle Lady Mystery 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Similar to many authors, Mr. Hall seems to be tossing off new books. The first couple were much better. It may not be worthwhile to continue the series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago