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A Chorus Line-Up

Joelle Charbonneau

  Praise for

  Murder for Choir

  “Joelle Charbonneau brings a professional’s eye and experience to Murder for Choir, and readers will enjoy her heroine Paige Marshall’s take on high school show choirs. Music and drama lovers who can’t get enough of Rachel, Finn, Kurt, and the gang will have enormous fun with this delightfully witty take on ‘Murder, She Sang.’ Encore, encore!”

  —Miranda James, New York Times bestselling author

  “Charbonneau hits all the right notes with her show choir coach sleuth.”

  —Denise Swanson, New York Times bestselling author

  “An intriguing mystery . . . I’m looking forward to future entries in this series.”

  —Donna Andrews, New York Times bestselling author

  “Imagine if Stephanie Plum joined the cast of Glee, then someone proved to be more felonious than harmonious.”

  —Deke Sharon, vocal producer of NBC’s The Sing-Off

  “Like a little harmony and humor with your homicide? You’ve found your match in Joelle Charbonneau’s Murder for Choir; it’s a heckuva fun read.”

  —The Maine Suspect

  “Murder for Choir has plenty for both mavens of the performance world and those who never set foot in a theater. It’s a very promising start to a new series.”

  —Fresh Fiction

  Berkley Prime Crime titles by Joelle Charbonneau




  A Chorus




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

  USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

  A Penguin Random House Company


  A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

  Copyright © 2014 by Joelle Charbonneau.

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

  BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63754-8


  Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / January 2014

  Cover illustration by Paul Hess.

  Cover design by Rita Frangie.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



  Praise for Murder for Choir

  Also by Joelle Charbonneau

  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 1

  A singer knows she’s arrived when a limo picks her up and whisks her off to a luxurious hotel, where she’s greeted by hundreds of roses and cards wishing her well before her starring performance the next night. The fact that I currently rode in a yellow bus with duct-taped vinyl seats, surrounded by a bunch of high school kids hopped up on sugar on the way to a Holiday Inn, spoke volumes about the career choices I had made. Sadly, no matter how much I wanted to be an opera star, at this moment I was not.

  “Ms. Marshall, could you help me, please?”

  I sighed at the sound of the voice of Music in Motion’s captain, Chessie Bock—who, despite her strong singing and dancing abilities (or perhaps because of them), was a pain in my proverbial backside. Up until a few months ago, Chessie had gone out of her way to speak to me only when absolutely necessary. During those exchanges, she was pushy and unpleasant. But dodging gunfire had made a serious adjustment on Chessie’s personality. Since then, she’d felt it necessary to consult me on everything that involved the Prospect Glen High School’s competitive show choir as well as on all facets of her life. Lucky me.

  “What’s wrong, Chessie?” I asked as across the aisle my boss and the official leader of this adventure, Larry DeWeese, chuckled.

  Thus far on the trip from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville, Tennessee, Chessie had needed help with geometry (not my best subject) and chemistry (really not my best subject), and tips on how to apply eye shadow so your eyes looked their best onstage. Minus the bus hitting a large pothole as I was demonstrating the correct technique for using eyeliner, the final request was actually helpful. Music in Motion was currently en route to the National Show Choir Championships, where they would compete with the other top twelve teams in the country. Each team had to win several contests throughout the season in order to be awarded the coveted invitation to compete at this final event. With that kind of competition, we needed every advantage we could get.

  Chessie took my question as an invitation to walk up the center aisle of the bus and slide into the seat next to me. She then looked over her shoulder to make sure that no one was listening. Oh joy. After being trapped for eight hours on a bus with eighteen high school students, I wanted peace and quiet. Not more drama.

  Still, I asked, “Is everything okay?”

  Chessie bit her lip and shook her head. With another glance behind us, she whispered, “Megan has a sore throat.”

  After listening to them talking nonstop for eight hours, I’d be surprised if all the students on this bus didn’t have sore throats. “I’m sure it’s nothing. But if it is, we’ll deal with it.”

  I had a bag of zinc lozenges, zinc vocal spray, and a host of other remedies to make sure my singers were in top shape by the end of this week. While I still wasn’t sure I knew how to teach teenagers, I was more than equipped to handle their vocal dilemmas.

  Unfortunately, Chessie wasn’t willing to let the issue slide so easily. “She had a sore throat yesterday, too. I heard Megan tell Breanna that she was scared to tell you or her parents. She didn’t want anyone to say that she couldn’t come compete. But I thought I should tell you in case you want to give the understudies a heads-up. I know they’ve been practicing, especially since Megan’s sister had to go on for her during the winter concert, but they might need some extra rehearsal time.”

  I studied Chessie’s pretty face, trying to see whether there was another agenda lur
king behind those big brown eyes. Chessie was never one to let an opportunity to snag someone else’s solo pass her by, and Megan had one that Chessie had angled for. Chessie’s eyes were wide with concern as she nervously twirled a lock of long dark hair with her fingers and waited for my reaction. There was none of the calculation that typically went along with Chessie’s power plays. Unless Chessie had taken a really good acting class in her spare time, her concern for Megan was completely sincere. Chessie didn’t just want to shine this weekend. She wanted to win.

  “I’ll talk to everyone later about what they need to do this week to stay healthy for the competition.” I gave Chessie what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “If Megan or anyone else looks like they’re worried, I’ll pull them aside and talk to them in private.”

  Chessie stood and smiled back. “Great. I told Eric you wouldn’t think I was being catty. And don’t worry about him. His cold is gone, and he promises that he’s going to go to bed early and get lots of sleep before the preliminary competition on Thursday.”

  And I was going to go downhill skiing in hell. I remembered taking a couple of overnight field trips when I was in high school. We quickly figured out that whatever chaperones were roaming the halls did so only until our rooms were quiet. A half hour without shrieks or giggles meant the chaperone could go to sleep and the rest of us could venture out into whatever town we were visiting. Any night that we got more than four hours of sleep was considered a wasted opportunity to experience life. Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about having rested performers a few days from now. The good news was every other show choir was going to be equally fatigued. Teenage misconception about the necessity of sleep was the great equalizer.

  Even better, I wasn’t the person the school put in charge of this adventure. That job was squarely on the shoulders of the head of the choir program, Larry DeWeese. If the principal knew that Larry had locked himself in the music room storage closet—twice—he might not have been so keen to trust Larry with keeping a close eye on our students. On the upside, I had learned how to jimmy open a lock. So, if one of my kids got a case of stage fright and barricaded herself in the bathroom, I’d be able to get her out. Being back in high school had certainly broadened my life experience.

  “Devlyn’s right, Paige,” Larry said, sliding into the seat Chessie had just abandoned. “You’ve worked miracles with those kids. Especially Chessie. The school board and Principal Logan agree. They’re going to renew your contract for coaching Music in Motion and offer you an additional one to direct next year’s musical. Isn’t that great?”

  Great? Um. That wasn’t the word I’d use. When I’d started this gig, teaching show choir was the last thing I’d wanted to do. I only took the job because I needed the paycheck until I got my big break. Now that I had gotten a chance to sing for one of the most publicized versions of The Messiah in recent history and landed new management, my phone was starting to ring with offers.

  I’d managed to squeeze in a couple of gigs in between show choir competitions, but Alan, my new manager, told me he was certain bigger things were on the horizon. If events worked out the way we both hoped, Prospect Glen was going to need a new show choir coach. Something Larry should have already figured out from the hints I’d been dropping. Unfortunately, Larry was either totally oblivious or being incredibly passive aggressive. At some point, I was going to have to be more direct. But the happy grin on Larry’s face and the squeals of laugher behind me told me now wasn’t the time. Not unless I wanted to feel like the Grinch that drop-kicked Christmas.

  Larry smiled. “I just thought I should let you know about the offer so you’re ready to answer when they ask.”

  “I promise I’ll have a suitable reply ready by the time the school year ends.” Hell no was probably a little too pointed. I’d have to work on that.

  “You might need one a little sooner.” Larry’s smile grew even wider. “Principal Logan and four of the board members will be in Nashville for the final round of competition. They’re going to offer you a new contract when we win.”


  “Of course, we have a lot to do before that happens.” Larry pulled out his phone. “I don’t think we’ll get to Nashville in time to load into our staging room today.” Larry sighed. “Jim isn’t going to be happy about leaving the band’s instruments in the bus overnight.”

  Jim Williams was the head of the Prospect Glen instrumental music program. He also was in charge of the Music in Motion band, who were traveling in the bus behind us. In the great choral director/orchestra leader tradition, he and Larry didn’t always see eye to eye.

  “You can use my room to store the instruments.” I had already agreed to store the costumes since we didn’t want to risk anything getting spilled on them before showtime. “That way we know nothing will happen to them before they’re loaded into the facility.”

  While I didn’t love the idea of sharing my space with a bunch of dusty instrument cases, it was better than the damage control I’d have to do if Larry and Jim got into a shouting match. Last time, Jim had refused to show up to rehearsal and Larry had stuttered for two days.

  Larry gave me a relieved grin. “That’d be great. I’d volunteer my space, but Devlyn’s rooming with me. Jim’s rooming with Mr. Mitchell.” One of the band boosters who came on the trip to supervise. “Actually, it’s probably a good thing we aren’t loading in today. I got an e-mail from Christine McCann telling participants the stage-left loading dock door is broken. That’s the one closest to our room. They should have the problem fixed by tomorrow morning when we officially check in.”

  I hoped so. Otherwise, I would be climbing over saxophones, drums, and trumpets all week. Was my life glamorous or what?

  While Larry rearranged tomorrow’s schedule to accommodate our new load in and read e-mails to make sure nothing else had changed, I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. I was already exhausted, and the first round of competition wouldn’t start until Thursday. However, it was recommended that we arrive several days early to practice in the space, participate in a master class series, and rest up before the first big hurdle—the preliminary round, where half of the choirs in each division would be eliminated. Normally, this wouldn’t concern me. My group was strong. The five first-place trophies we’d received over the past two and half months proved that my Music in Motion kids knew how to strut their stuff. But those competitions were open to any choir who wanted to pay the entry fee. This event was by invitation only. After looking at the YouTube videos posted online from some of the regional events, I knew we were going to need to be at the top of our game to make the cut and compete in Friday’s final round.

  “So what do you think?” Larry asked.

  I blinked. “About what?”

  Larry sighed. “About helping with Wednesday’s master class? This e-mail says they tried to get ahold of you but your phone has been going straight to voice mail. You must be having reception issues.”

  Or I could have shut off my phone so I wouldn’t receive any more texts from my aunt Millie or her live-in boyfriend, Aldo. There was enough drama on this bus as it was.

  “The good news is the chair of the competition decided to send me an e-mail before looking for another option. It seems that Donna Hilty had a family emergency, which makes her unavailable for Wednesday’s class. The committee would like you to stand in.”

  Donna Hilty was the coach of Nashville High School’s show choir and an accomplished country-western singer. Her résumé included concerts at the Grand Ole Opry, several CDs, and singing the jingle for a national chain of barbecue joints.

  “Why me?” I asked.

  “Because you’re famous.”

  I rolled my eyes.

  Larry laughed. “Everyone here knows that you’re the singer who helped catch David Richard’s killer. You’re also the most exciting new talent on the musical stage, ac
cording to the Chicago Tribune.”

  “I’m flattered,” I said, remembering how the same critic also said my high notes sounded thin and slightly strained. “But I think the committee should ask one of the other instructors. Show choir students aren’t terribly impressed by operatic singers.”

  I should know.

  “They’ll be impressed by you. I think you’ll enjoy doing it.” When I crossed my arms over my chest, he let out a sigh and admitted, “It’s something Greg Lucas used to volunteer for, and look how it helped him and his choir.”

  Since Greg Lucas was no longer among the living, I thought Larry’s pep talk left a lot to be desired. Still, I got the point. Greg Lucas had never been the poster child for educator of the year, but he had understood what it took both on and off the stage for his team to win. Which is probably why his choir took top honors at this competition three years running before his murder. Without Greg Lucas at the helm, the North Shore High School show choir had failed to place higher than third at any of the competitions they’d attended and hadn’t received an invitation to this event. Greg Lucas had been a less than stellar human being, but he excelled at schmoozing. I sucked at it, which no doubt had something to do with why I was trapped on this bus instead of jet-setting around the world, performing for adoring throngs. While wanting to get hired because of your talent was admirable, it was also stupid.

  “What time is the master class again?” I asked.

  Larry beamed and tapped the screen of his phone. “Ten o’clock to noon. You’ll be coaching the students with a guy named Scott Paris. He’s the instructor for the team from Atlanta. They gave me his phone number in case you want to coordinate strategy. You’re going to have a lot of fun, I promise.”

  Right. Two teachers from competing schools working with a room full of emotional, tired students guaranteed to doubt every word we say because our kids are going up against them. What could possibly go wrong?

  Over the next hour the kids ignored Larry’s requests to quiet down and the bus driver’s insistence that everyone stay in their seats. I ignored it all while going over the words to one of my favorite arias. Which was the only reason I didn’t look as if I’d shoved my finger into a light socket when the bus pulled into the hotel parking lot.