Murder for ChoirJoelle Charbonneau
“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 of the
Cat in the Stacks Mysteries
No recital today…
Everything was quiet as I walked through the door that led to the back of the theater. The houselights were dark, but the work lights illuminated the grand piano on the stage. The lid was upon the piano, making it hard to tell if someone was seated behind it.
I walked down the steps toward the stage. Sure enough, I could see feet. Someone was sitting at the piano. I climbed up the escape stairs, walked around the piano, and felt the world tilt on its axis.
A backstage door slammed, and it echoed in the theater. On a normal day, the sound might have made me jump. Today, my feet were rooted to the floor. Slouched over the piano, head resting on the keys, was North Shore High’s choir director, Greg Lucas. A microphone sat on the piano keys a few inches from Greg’s mouth. I doubted he’d be speaking into the microphone anytime soon, seeing as how the microphone’s cord was wrapped tightly around his throat…
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MURDER FOR CHOIR
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / July 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Joelle Charbonneau.
Cover illustration by Paul Hess.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
Interior text design by Laura K. Corless.
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For my students who inspire me each and every day.
Like any stage production, publishing requires a large cast to turn a manuscript into a book. I consider myself the luckiest girl ever that I am surrounding by amazing people who have helped bring this book to the shelves.
First and foremost I have to thank my family for all of their encouragement and support. I especially need to thank my mother for her smiles; Andy for his willingness to be my first reader (no matter how painful that sometimes might be); my son, Max, for his laughter; my father-in-law, Joe, for his unfailing belief in my talent; and my aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family for their amazing cheerleading abilities.
Every day I thank my lucky stars to have the support and guidance of my amazing agent, Stacia Decker, and the entire team at Donald Maass Literary. Your unwavering faith in me is appreciated more than I can say.
I also owe a huge thank-you to my wonderful editor, Michelle Vega, for her love of this story and insightful help in making it stronger. Also, much gratitude to Natalee Rosenstein for her leadership, Paul Hess for his awesome art, Rita Frangie for the amazing art design (my cover rocks!), and to the entire Berkley Prime Crime team. You are all amazing.
Last, but by no means least, I want to extended my heartfelt thanks to the booksellers, librarians, and readers who pick up this book. You make everything possible.
Table of Contents
If Dante ever added a tenth circle of hell, this would be it. Prospect Glen High School’s field house was packed for the third day of show choir camp. Choir students from four different high schools were tripping over their feet doing jazz squares, and I was stuck in the middle of it.
Two girls with bleach-blonde highlights and glitter makeup strutted by me, pointed, and giggled. Great. Even the high school kids were treating me like an outsider. I didn’t think they were from my school’s show choir program, but they might be. After two days on the job, I could only spot the fourteen kids in the top choir. They were the ones I was responsible for. The rest were assigned to Larry. As far as I was concerned, he could have them all. Too bad I needed the job.
“There you are, Paige.”
I turned to see Prospect Glen’s glamorous answer to Martha Stewart walking toward me. Felicia Fredrickson’s brown eyes peered at me from under her frosted bangs. “Larry is looking for you. He could use a little help with the vocal clinic in the choir room. I think it’s getting a t
ouch out of hand.”
Yesterday, a group of kids pushed the piano up against the storage room door with Larry in the room. Two hours passed before anyone realized he was missing. I could only imagine what was happening now.
According to Felicia, the camp was supposed to foster goodwill and bonding among the students. So far the Larry debacle was the only group bonding I’d seen.
I turned and hurried down the hall, Felicia trailing behind me. The music room was located in the Fine Arts wing of the high school, clear on the other side of the massive building.
“We really need to talk about this year’s costumes.” Felicia’s heels clicked against the linoleum floor. “The last coach insisted the girls wear orange dresses with purple sequins. I don’t care how good they sing, only a blind man or a football coach would award first place to a team wearing those colors. But there was no talking her out of it.”
I tended to agree, but what did I know? Show choir was definitely not my area of expertise. Singing was. Real singing with good pitch and dynamic changes. From what I had heard so far, show choir singing was deemed impressive if it shattered eardrums.
“I don’t mean to pester you, Paige, but we really do need to select costumes by the end of this week. While I was in Florida for the summer, I came up with the idea of using black and white with electric green and blue accents. North Shore High School wore black and pink last year, which means those colors are taboo this season.” I must have given Felicia a blank stare because she reverently added, “They won most of the first-place trophies in the Midwest competitions.”
“Why the rush?” I asked. “I thought the competitions were all scheduled for the spring.” In fact, I was certain of it. Part of me was really hoping I’d get a call from a casting director so I could leave this job long before the competitive season began.
“We can’t wait until the spring.” Felicia’s eyes widened with horror. “The choir always has their costumes made in time for the Fall Concert. That gives us time to make adjustments. The wrong fabric or a couple of incorrectly placed sequins can make or break a team’s ability to execute their routines.”
I’d have to take her word on it. In my performing experience, sequins rarely affected motor skills.
“So what do you think?” she asked.
I blinked. “About what?”
“Getting together to plan the costumes.” She laughed. “The sooner the better.”
“Can you meet tonight for dinner?” We could get the costume stuff out of the way, and I’d have a great excuse to skip my aunt’s most recent culinary disaster.
“I have a date tonight.” Felicia frowned.
Turkey surprise, here I came.
I mentally scrolled through my camp schedule. “I don’t have to teach any sessions first thing tomorrow morning. Why don’t we meet after breakfast and talk strategy?”
“That would be perfect.” Felicia beamed, and I found myself smiling back. It was nice to have a friend, even if she drank the Show-Choir-Is-King Kool-Aid.
We reached the choir room, and I swung the door open to reveal chaos. The room was huge, with high ceilings and built-in risers that accommodated eighty-eight chairs. Unfortunately for Larry, most of those chairs were currently unoccupied. A group of kids in the back corner were working on a tap routine. A few girls to my left were applying makeup, and the rest of the kids were doing what teenagers do best—flirting with members of the opposite sex.
Larry was sitting at the grand piano, working on the harmony of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with a group of boys. The song was to be part of the end of camp showcase on Friday, when parents and friends would come to see the campers strut their stuff. At the rate these kids were learning, they’d be ready to perform it around Christmas.
Stepping into the room, I watched several heads snap in my direction. Students I recognized from my choir nudged others near them, and the room quieted. The silence was gratifying.
Larry looked up from the piano with a slightly bemused expression. He spotted me near the door and smiled. “There you are, Miss Marshall. The sopranos are having trouble hitting the high notes. I thought you might be able to help them.”
A bunch of teenage girls scowled at me. I was guessing they were the sopranos. Before I had a chance to answer, a voice behind me boomed, “Why don’t I work with the girls?”
I turned and tried not to cringe as the director of rival school North Shore High’s show choir, Greg Lucas, swaggered through the door. His arms were muscular, his skin perfectly tanned, and his teeth whiter than any toothpaste commercial. Too bad both his height and his personality were stunted.
The high school girls tittered and sighed. I rolled my eyes. Greg didn’t appear to notice either reaction. As he shoved a silver pitch pipe into his pants pocket, his attention was focused on a beet red Larry. “This will give Paige a chance to see how a real show choir rehearsal is run. Right, Larry?”
Larry’s eyes looked ready to pop. “Paige is a pro-pro-professional, Greg. She doesn-doesn’t need help.”
A few girls giggled at Larry’s stutter. I gaped. I’d only worked with the man for a few days, but I’d never heard him trip over his words.
Greg walked over to Larry and clapped him on the shoulder. “I don’t doubt Miss Marshall’s professionalism. We’re all looking forward to hearing her sing at tomorrow’s master class. But I’m sure she’ll be the first to admit that performing opera is totally different than working with a performance choir. Right, Paige?”
All eyes turned toward me. Crap. Plastering a smile on my face, I said, “Yes, opera is different, but my background is also in musical theater and dance. Larry wouldn’t have hired me for this job if I wasn’t qualified.”
Truth be told, Larry hadn’t been the one to hire me, but Greg didn’t need to know that. Larry shot me a grateful look. His color was starting to return to normal—a very pasty white.
Greg shrugged. “Have it your way. Although let me know when you want to learn the ropes from a real teacher. I’d be happy to help.” He leaned down and whispered something to Larry. Then, with a wink, he disappeared out the door.
With Larry looking like he was going to hyperventilate, I had no choice but to say, “Okay, everyone, let’s get to work.”
Aunt Millie’s bright pink convertible Cadillac was in the driveway when I pulled up to her house. The thing had white leather seats, gold rims, and the requisite fuzzy pink dice. All courtesy of the Mary Kay empire. Most women would look silly driving that vehicle. Aunt Mille and her car were a perfect fit.
I parked my blue Chevy Cobalt behind the Mary Kay Caddy and walked past the vibrant flower beds to the front door. In an effort to save money and travel time to my new job, I’d sublet my apartment in the city and moved in with my aunt. I was still getting used to the arrangement.
Don’t get me wrong. Living at Aunt Millie’s wasn’t exactly a hardship. She had a miniature castle in Lake Forest. Her neighbors consisted of business moguls, several members of the Chicago Bears, and a former guitarist from the Monkees. Aunt Millie’s house was small in comparison to her neighbors’—no indoor pools or basketball courts. Instead she managed to eke by with four bedrooms, five baths, and a gourmet kitchen that would make the chefs at Food Network salivate. Aunt Millie’s house ranked high on the amazing scale. If it weren’t for her beloved dog, the place would be perfect.
Quietly dumping my bag in the foyer, I cautiously crept through the house in search of my aunt. The cursing coming from the kitchen made her easy to find. Aunt Millie refused to hire a cook. She believed there was nothing she couldn’t master when she put her mind to it. In the three weeks I’d been living with her, putting her mind to it had resulted in four burned pans, three visits from the fire department, and six phone calls to the local pizza joint. Judging by Millie’s expression, today might be number seven.
Aunt Millie looked up from the cookbook she was squinting at over her pink-rimmed glasses. “How di
d it go?”
“Better than yesterday.” I glanced around the kitchen for Aunt Millie’s dog. “Where’s Killer?”
Aunt Millie’s pup was a prizewinning white standard poodle complete with pompon feet and tail. His name was Monsieur de Tueur de Dame. Or, in plain English, Mister Lady Killer. Millie called him Killer for short. Too bad the name fit the dog. Killer loved my aunt and hated everyone else. Aunt Millie thought it was endearing. I thought it was a reason to keep my rabies shots current.
Millie stood there assessing me. She was a sight to behold in her light pink cooking apron, polished nails, and perfect red coif. My aunt’s style looked a lot like Legally Blonde on crack.
“He’s in the backyard trying to attract the attention of Mrs. Wilson’s collie.” Aunt Millie sprinkled bread crumbs on top of her casserole concoction and gave a satisfied nod. She slid the dish into the oven with a smile. “So, how did it really go today?”
Sighing, I admitted, “Not great. The kids roll their eyes when I ask them to do breathing exercises, and the teachers aren’t much better. I’m the outsider, and they have no qualms about letting me know it.”
“This is only your second day. They’ll come around.” Millie took off her apron. Underneath was a tailored pink business suit that showed off the ample hips and the double-D cups I wished God had graced me with. I took after my mother’s side of the family—A cup all the way. Millie smiled at me. “Once those kids hear you sing their attitude will change.”
“I have to perform during the assembly tomorrow.”
“That’s perfect. What are you going to sing?”
Good question. I’d planned on doing something from Carmen. The Spanish-inspired music had lots of dramatic flare. But now I was rethinking the choice. From what I’d seen, these kids wouldn’t be impressed by anything sung in French. Maybe it was stupid, but I wanted to impress them. Which meant anything operatic was out.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “What’s your favorite show tune?”