Well-known Broadway playwright and TV producer Lyle Zacharias is throwing himself a lavish birthday party in his hometown of Philadelphia. Guests include his current wife, ex-wives, friends, former partners—not to mention Amanda Pepper and her own irrepressible mother, Bea. Yet when Lyle drops dead in the middle of a speech, it appears the likely perpetrator is none other than Bea, whose gift was fifty delicious, but apparently poisoned, tarts!
It's up to Amanda to clear her mother's name and find the real murderer…before he or she strikes again! But Amanda herself may be the next target! Who says teaching isn't exciting? With any more excitement, Amanda will have to retire before she hits thirty-one…if she lives that long!
Feeble laughter greeted his attempt at lightness. The collective mood roller-coasted, dipping into apprehension, murmuring questions like background music, then audibly relaxing when Lyle made light of his discomfort. It was nothing, then. We were still at a party. Life was normal and fun. And then Lyle winced and buckled forward and the anxiety level skyrocketed.
Lyle waved his hand, pushing away his physical problems, but he was bent way over, as if his cramping legs wouldn’t hold him. He put his hands to his throat, his face contorted with fear.
“Lyle! What is it?” Hattie cried.
His breathing had become so raspy I could hear it plainly at my table as it jaggedly pumped. “Throat,” he said. “Burns—hurts—”
“Is there a doctor in the house?” somebody called.
Shepard McCoy stood up.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Sybil screamed. “You’re an actor, you fool!”
But no one else had stood. No piece of Lyle Zacharias’s life mosaic had gone to medical school.
“A heart attack?” my mother asked.
“I’ve never heard of one like this,” the former schoolteacher murmured.
“Some horrible infection?” I asked. We were still paralyzed by etiquette. Dear Abby, is it proper to suggest that the host is desperately ill if he says he’s not and you might spoil his party?
“Baby, what is it?” Hattie shrieked. “Where does it hurt?” Baby was still gasping and the tears in his eyes seemed from pain.
I stood up and began wedging myself between seats, en route to the door, which seemed very far away. I angled myself to watch what was happening while I maneuvered. “Excuse me,” I said many times to guests who were too engrossed in the ongoing disaster to respond.
Tiffany stood by Lyle in red-spangled ineffectiveness, her hands half raised in the I-give-up position.
The room buzzed with nervous collective wing-fluttering as we absorbed the idea that the completely unexpected and potentially disastrous had indeed happened.
“Dizzy.” Lyle canvassed the room the way a drowning man might look for the disappearing horizon. I could not believe that the self-confident man who’d stood up a few minutes back had so thoroughly and swiftly become this disoriented, terrified creature. He even looked different—bloated and sallow.
I stopped where I was. His breathing was loud and rough, like sticks over heavy metal grating. He was disintegrating in front of us as if he’d been seized by something alien and inhuman. Now, in addition to the breathing, the pallor, the bloat, the buckling legs, and disorientation, his eyes had lost their moorings.
“No!” Hattie screamed.
He lurched forward. I made my way toward the dining room door, past the lace-clothed side table where the dark and white chocolate dream of a birthday cake waited.
“Who—” whooshed out of Lyle, “—kill me?”
Hattie screamed. The room buzzed with the single word as question and exclamation. “Kill. Kill! Kill?”
Wheezing like a fireplace bellows, Lyle forced more words out. “Who…poison me?”
I ran like hell for the phone.