It’s Opening Night at the Ballantyne Foundation’s production of The Nutcracker, but it’s curtains for the Sugar Plum Fairy. When her body is found backstage, fatally poisoned by a cupcake she baked herself, rumors turn to suicide.
But Elli Lisbon, director of the Ballantyne and coordinator of the ballet, smells something rotten amidst the sugar and spice.
As Elli applies her PI-in-training skills on the troupe of suspects, she discovers an eccentric herbalist, a temperamental chef, a stalking choreographer, and a bevy of backstage secrets.
Between her off-the-record investigation, duty as director, and highly-charged love life, she finds herself caught in a dance to stay one pirouette ahead of a half-baked killer.
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SWAN DIVE by Kendel Lynn | A Henery Press Mystery. If you like one, you'll probably like them all.
Read an Excerpt
An Elliott Lisbon Mystery
By Kendel Lynn
Henery PressCopyright © 2014 Kendel Lynn
All rights reserved.
(Day #1: Thursday Evening)
I was sitting front row center of the Sea Pine Island Community Theatre waiting for Act II of The Nutcracker when I received a short text: Emergency. Sugar Plum Fairy dead. Dressing rooms. Now. It was from the artistic director. A drama queen if ever there was one. This was the fifth "emergency" in the last two hours. The fourth text included the words "catastrophe" and "maimed." One of the nutcracker soldier's tassels had popped off.
"Another crisis backstage," I said to Matty Gannon, my second best friend, though we'd recently upped it to dating status. "Be right back."
I hated leaving my perfectly placed, a perk of being Director of the Ballantyne Foundation. Of course, it's not that perfect when you have to depart while everyone else is still seated. I tucked my program into one of the deep pockets of my long skirt, carefully lifted it above my ankles, and made my way to the center aisle. It wasn't without casualties. I stepped on three feet, kicked two shins, and I'm pretty sure I felt up Zibby Archibald, the oldest member of the Ballantyne Board.
A minute later I passed through the backstage door and into a world of harmonious chaos. A juxtaposition of beauty and industry: massive can spotlights, dangling ropes, and dancers swishing by in gossamer costumes with fanciful feathers.
A girl dressed in a fluffy blue tutu and twinkly tiara grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side. "Is my crown straight?" she asked. "One of the mothers jammed it on my head and I'm locked out of the dressing room."
"It looks lovely," I said.
"Courtney! Places. Places now! Stop dillydallying," Inga Dalrymple said. The artistic director was a thick but tall woman, a mashup between a football linebacker and a basketball forward, and all dolled up for opening night. Black sequined long-sleeve top, matching sequined tuxedo pants and black ballet flats. The store bought kind, not the actual dancer kind. She smacked the foot of a carved wood walking stick onto the hard floor. "Go!"
Courtney skittered away as Inga approached me. "Over here," she said and turned without waiting to see if I followed.
We walked down a long corridor, past children dancers and their mothers, around rolling trunks and a tangle of cables to a plain brown door. The names "Lexie Allen" and "Courtney Cattanach" were typed on a sheet of paper and taped to the front.
I peeked inside, glanced around the room. A large lighted mirror with big Hollywood movie star lights dominated the center with an assortment of makeup brushes in shapes I'd never seen before. A vase of pink roses sat on top near a tidy basket of fresh fruit and a platter of cupcakes. Costumes and shoes were scattered willy-nilly around the room, buried by clothes upon clothes, as if a closet exploded, coughing up garments and spitting out hangers. And there, dressed in sweats, nearly blended into the background, was Lexie Allen. Half on the sofa, half on the floor. Clearly dead. Her face twisted in agony, a light ring of foam on her top lip.
I gasped and my hand flew to my mouth. "Oh my God ... Oh my God." The Sugar Plum Fairy was dead. Actually dead.
Inga pulled me back into the hall and snapped the door closed. "The Mouse King found her about ten minutes ago," Inga said. "I checked, and she's not breathing."
"Oh my God. Are you sure? What happened?" I leaned against the closed door with my hand on the knob.
"I don't know what happened, and yes, I'm sure. She wasn't feeling well before the show, so Courtney took over as Sugar Plum Fairy. Maybe something Lexie ate? A seizure? Her mouth is foamy and she's hunched over. She's not bleeding. I called 9-1-1 already. Said they'd be here ..." She glanced at her watch. "Right now. Any minute. I don't know what's taking so long. Why is it taking so long?"
"I'm sure they're on their way," I said, slowly nodding as I tried to absorb the situation.
Sweet, vibrant Lexie Allen, college student and Sugar Plum Fairy, lay dead ten feet away. She was the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Allen, who were dear friends of Mr. and Mrs. Ballantyne, of the aforementioned Ballantyne Foundation, where I worked. To make matters more emotional, the Ballantynes were the closest thing I had to family. To make matters more complicated, the Ballantyne Foundation had sponsored this production of The Nutcracker.
The orchestra played the first bars of the second act and Inga smacked her stick on the floor.
I stopped nodding. "We need to cancel the performance," I said.
"Impossible. The second act just started, the dancers are on the stage," she said. "We cannot stop now. We already went on without her." Her face paled to the color of milk and she looked visibly shaken. "I need you to handle the police. You're one of them, right? Some kind of volunteer? I'll handle the dancers until it's over."
People would be mortified when they found out we carried on as if we didn't care. But what could we do? Run on stage and broadcast the news to a theatre filled with families?
I thought about all the children in the audience. Every third patron had a grandchild with them. It was opening night, not a seat empty. I didn't want to traumatize them by announcing the Sugar Plum Fairy was dead. She held a special place in their hearts this time of year, only two or three notches down from Santa and the Elf on the Shelf.
I put my palm out in the stop position. "Let me think." There were hundreds of people in the theatre. The police would need statements. At least I thought so. I wasn't actually one of the police and I wasn't a volunteer. I was a PI-in-training and my training had yet to involve a dead ballerina on opening night. "Okay, let's do this," I said. "Keep the show going. I'll work with the police to coordinate interviews once they arrive."
"Coordinate interviews with whom? You can't mean the entire theatre? Over food poisoning?" She clutched her throat. "Of course. If she ate something spoiled, others might, too. Like bad sushi? She always eats sushi from that market on the corner."
"I don't know." I pictured the look of agony on Lexie's face. Her foamy lips and crumpled body. I doubted a box of gas station sushi did that.
The oversized exit door in the very back swung open. A burst of evening breeze blew in ahead of two Sea Pine police officers. I recognized one of them, Corporal Lily Parker. She was tall, leggy, and if she switched her uniform for a tutu, one might mistake her for a principal dancer in the company. Parker held the door as two paramedics hurried in pushing a gurney.
"Over here," Inga said. She led them to Lexie's dressing room and they rushed inside.
I pulled out my cell as Matty Gannon walked up. "Everything okay?"
"One of the dancers died," I said softly.
"One of the dancers died?" Matty asked.
I held up a finger. "Give me two seconds." I dialed Carla Otto, head chef for the Ballantyne. "Bring hot chocolate and cake to the Sea Pine Community Theatre. We're hosting an after-party for three hundred people in less than one hour."
"What are you talking about? The benefactor's benefit party isn't until next week."
"Lexie Allen passed away in her dressing room and the police just arrived and we can't let anyone leave until the police interview each of them," I said. "Unlimited funds for whatever you need. Just get here."
"On my way," she said.
I wasn't worried about what she could produce in thirty minutes. I once watched her turn out a gourmet spread with only a jar of pickles and can of spam in ten minutes flat.
"It's awful," I said to Matty after I hung up. "Lexie Allen. A friend of the Ballantyne family. I knew her. I just talked to her like two days ago."
"What can I do?" Matty wrapped his warm hand around mine.
"Help Carla when she gets here. I'll try to keep the backstage chaos from spilling into the theatre. Perhaps one of the crew can get tables for the lobby?"
The back door opened. Another cool breeze swept in, this time bringing the spicy scents of sandalwood and Cuban tobacco. Nick Ransom. The ex-love of my life and the current lieutenant of the Sea Pine Police.
Matty squeezed my hand and nodded at Ransom, who nodded back. Matty walked up the long side corridor toward the front of the building and Ransom walked straight to the dressing room and spoke with Corporal Parker.
I walked over, my long dress swishing with each step.
"... not breathing when she found her," Parker said and checked her notebook. "Inga Dalrymple. With a y. Says she called 9-1-1 right away. Then spoke to Elliott about finishing the show."
"The show must go on?" Ransom said.
"Until you absolutely need to speak to the audience," I said. "Carla's on her way with cake and coffee to serve after the performance. This theatre seats three hundred. That's a lot of interviews. Going to take some time, and that's after you finish working back here and talk to the crew and dancers. I'm assuming since she died alone, and not accidentally, there will be a full-scale investigation."
The door to the dressing room next to Lexie's opened and a young dancer came out, tears streaming down her face, streaking her glittery makeup. "Is Lex, um, is she really? Were the ambulance people able to help her?"
Behind her in the open room sat two more dancers. A little girl in a white snowflake costume and a guy in gray velvet pants and royal purple vest. A mouse head with a severely long nose and enormous crown sat on his lap. He stared at Ransom and me, his face drawn in sorrow.
Corporal Parker led the girl back into the room. "I'm sorry, she's gone," she said. "Did you know her well?"
Before I could hear the answer, Ransom turned to me. "How about you? Did you know her? Isn't this a Ballantyne production?"
"Yes and yes. Though I didn't know her well. Her parents are friends of the Ballantynes. I've seen Lexie a few times over the years. Kind, sweet girl. We just held a luncheon this week. She's a student at UNC Charlotte, I think. She used to dance here on the island at a local studio. Inga Dalrymple's Dance Company, next to the Bi-Lo on Cabana Boulevard. Lexie and her friends have done this production three years running now."
A group of dancers rushed by and a crewman with a headset barked orders into his mic. I stepped over two long cables to get out of the way.
Inga marched down the long side corridor from the lobby. A woman with highlights to the point of actual multi-colored blond stripes marched behind her.
"Unacceptable," Inga said to the woman. "It's opening night."
"I want to know why my daughter isn't dancing in the Land of Sweets," the lady said and blocked Inga's path. "She should've been promoted from a gingerbread soldier last year. She's better than that other girl."
"Now is not the time," Inga said.
"It's the perfect time because I need an answer." She raised her voice to be heard over the applause. Music once again drifted from behind the thin wall.
Two crime scene techs carrying blocky cases excused themselves between the two women. Inga pointed them toward Lexie's dressing room. "They came in through the lobby," she said to me. "Wouldn't be so bad if they didn't have SPPD slapped all over their jackets." Inga was a yell-talker, her volume two notches higher than suitable social standards. In a cartoon, the imaginary power of her voice would've blown back my hair.
"Did someone notice?" I asked.
"Everyone noticed. At least the front house personnel and four patrons using the ladies room." She put her hand to her forehead. "Doesn't matter, I suppose. The performance is nearly over. Courtney just started the Sugar Plum Fairy dance."
"Wait," the mom said. "What's going on?"
"How many people are allowed backstage before the show?" Ransom asked.
"Dancers, choreographers, crew, lighting, orchestra, staffers, and well, just about anyone," Inga said, then pointedly glared at the mom. "And the parents. They're everywhere."
"Oh my God, her parents. Are they here?" I asked.
"Whose parents?" the mom asked.
Inga leaned on her stick. "They're second row. I spoke to them before the curtain went up. Told them she wasn't feeling well. They said she's been working too hard with this production and school and got up to speak to her. I don't think they stayed."
"Lexie Allen," the mom said. "You're talking about Lexie. I saw the Allens leave right before curtain. Everyone was already seated. Quite rude. Who leaves before the production starts? They walked straight out the front door."
The music from the pit swiftly changed and Inga blanched. "The last dance. The curtain is going to fall in minutes."
"I'm going to need everyone to stay in the theatre," Ransom said to Inga.
She pointed her stick at me. "That's your job." To the mom, she said, "Come with me. We'll talk out of the way. It's about Lexie ..."
My phone buzzed and I read the message. Carla had arrived. "I'll be in the lobby," I said and hurried to the front of the theatre.
Carla was in a flurry. Her wild black curly hair was held back by a scarf and her chef's coat was misbuttoned. She and a half dozen helpers hustled around several long tables that spanned the entire length of the lobby. They were laying out a dream spread straight out of The Nutcracker playbook: sugared plums, bon bons, candy canes, decorated cakes, colorful tarts, large coffee urns, and hot cocoa with marshmallows and shaved chocolate bits. Down at the far end of the lobby, Matty and two crewmen were setting up a high bar and rows of folding chairs.
"Carla, how did you ever do this?" I said.
"Unlimited funds and no less than five favors."
"It's perfect. And now we need to hold hundreds of patrons hostage for the next two hours." I figured I'd better grab the keys before anyone snuck out early. I hurried down the carpeted corridor in time to see the medical examiner, Dr. Harry Fleet, drag in the back door. He had dark skin, baggy eyes, and his clothes were rumpled as if he slept in a hamper. One might think he had been summoned to the theatre from a deep slumber, but I've seen him during the day. He looked the same.
He grunted hello and went straight to Lexie's dressing room. I got the keys from the theatre manager and went back to the lobby. I locked the entry doors, stuck the keys in my pocket, and rushed backstage. A warm flush crept up my neck and I started to pant. My full-length gown was heavy brocade and the running around was way more exercise than I was used to. Plus, the pins in my hair had abandoned their post and chunks of auburn tresses now flopped against my cheeks.
I found Ransom in the doorway to Lexie's dressing room, talking to a crime scene tech wearing protective clothing. "You have any idea how long you'll be?" I asked.
He glanced at the tech who looked over at Harry. "Take her out in about thirty minutes," he grunted.
"We'll need about another two hours to process the room," the tech said. "Who knows how long for the entire theatre."
"I'll ask Parker to put some officers in the lobby," Ransom said. "We'll get everyone's name and number, arrange interviews for tomorrow and this weekend if we need to."
I squeezed his arm. "Bless you. That's perfect."
Matty approached from the long hallway. "Elli, Carla's all set up front. Orchestra's about done."
I dropped my hand from Ransom's arm.
"Gannon," Ransom said.
They stared at one another and I looked at them in turn. Repeatedly. Another hot flash hit me. The room was crowded and I was uncomfortable around both men and my heavy dress was suffocating. I pulled the program from my pocket and started fanning myself.
Inga Dalrymple rushed to us. She stepped on my dress and I pitched forward into Ransom. "The dancers left the stage and the orchestra is still playing. Patrons are beginning to leave."
Ransom gently steadied me. "You're on."
I tucked away the program, squared my shoulders, and took a deep breath. Thirty seconds later I stood center stage beneath the dazzling lights. They were as hot as they were bright. A crew member handed me a microphone as sweat rolled down the nape of my neck.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention," I said. "There's been an accident backstage." People turned toward me. Some sat, others slowly retraced their steps down the aisle.
Excerpted from Swan Dive by Kendel Lynn. Copyright © 2014 Kendel Lynn. Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
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