Swan Dive: Exclusive Excerpt

Swan Dive by Kendel Lynn is the 3rd cozy in the Elliott Libson series, and this time a poisoned cupcake leaves one Sugar Plum Fairy dead, and a slew of plausible suspects peaking from behind the curtain (available March 17, 2015).

This exclusive excerpt is reprinted by permission from Henery Press. All rights reserved.

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.

Chapter One

(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.

“Lieutenant.”

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.

“Lexie Allen, our dear friend, and one of the loveliest dancers to grace this stage, passed away earlier this evening.”

Gasps and exclamations filled the room. Shocked utterances followed soft questions. “What happened?” “When?” “Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t have any answers. But the police would like to speak with you, especially if you saw Lexie Allen immediately before tonight’s performance.” After I gently explained the ongoing investigation, I invited them to stay for coffee while the police took down their information.

As they filed up the carpeted aisles toward the exit, I returned backstage. Courtney sat in the Mouse King’s dressing room. She was crying on the small sofa, seated between the Mouse King and the Cavalier. I recognized him and his costume from the year before. Dancers hovered around them. All crying.

“What happened?” A girl in a pink nightgown asked. “Lexie was fine when she got here.”

“She said she wasn’t feeling well, so she asked me to take the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Courtney said. She plucked at the appliques on her fluffy tulle skirt. “She didn’t look that bad.”

“I checked on her,” the Mouse King said. “She didn’t move.”

“We’ll get their statements later,” Ransom said from behind me. “Right now, we need to clear this area.”

I left the group to their sorrow. “I’ll check with Carla, head to the front,” I said, just as Matty walked up.

“Thank you for helping with the food and drinks and setup in the lobby,” I said. “And for staying so late.”

“Of course,” Matty said. “You’re my date. I’ll take you home however late it is.”

“If you need to get going, Gannon, I can take her home,” Ransom said.

Matty stiffened, but didn’t reply. With words. He simply put his arm around my waist.

I stood between them. Matty Gannon and Nick Ransom. The former, one of my best friends, and the latter, my first love. Matty’s boyish good looks and casual demeanor in contrast to Ransom’s handsome sharp features and polished appearance. One the headmaster at Seabrook Preparatory, the other a lieutenant with the Sea Pine Police. I’d sort of been dating them both for about two months. They made me nervous.

“I’ll be here very late, Matty. You really should go.” I walked three feet away from Ransom, putting distance between the two. “You have morning classes tomorrow, and this will go on for hours. Carla can drop me at home.”

He hesitated, but then leaned down to kiss my cheek. “Okay. But call if you need me. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? We don’t have a date tomorrow,” I said and glanced at Ransom.

He, too, looked at Ransom, then back at me. “The tree lighting at the Ballantyne,” he said and walked away.

“Oh, right, sure, tomorrow, then,” I said smoothly and half-waved at his retreating back. I put my hands on my cheeks and sighed. Two officers cut in front of me while three more dancers fluttered by. The soft orchestra playing in the background had been replaced by the industrial racket of clanging equipment.

Ransom took my arm and led me to a quiet corner. We stood barely six inches apart, and he spoke softly. “Sorry this evening ended the way it did. It’s difficult when you know the deceased.”

“Did you find her parents?”

“At home. The captain spoke to them about a half hour ago.”

“I’ll call Mr. Ballantyne as soon as I leave.” I sighed deep, from the bottom of my soul. To lose a loved one was tragic. To lose a child at Christmas was cruel.

I left Ransom backstage and walked through the theatre. It was vacant. A heavy velvet curtain covered the stage, its bottom puddled on the floor. The Nutcracker was over, the patrons were leaving, and Lexie Allen would dance no more.

 

Chapter Two

  

(Day #2: Friday Morning)

  

I woke the next day from a troubled sleep. The skylight over my bed showed a clear Carolina blue sky. Not a reflection of my mood. I replayed the night before in my mind. The sight of Lexie on the sofa. Her parents getting a knock on their door from the captain of the Sea Pine Police. The crying dancers. Nick Ransom and Matty Gannon.

Staring up at the bright sky, I organized the day in my mind. Today was the annual Christmas tree decorating at the Big House. Every year we chose a theme, then commissioned custom ornaments from artists around the country. The first grade class from Seabrook Prep would trim the tree. As headmaster, Matty Gannon would supervise (and hang most of the ornaments). We almost postponed decorating a week because of a flu outbreak, and I was nervous not enough time had passed for the germs to have lost their potency. There’s only so much I can do with hand-sanitizer. But everyone from Matty to the teachers to the school nurse assured me the children were well, and I couldn’t just lie around my cottage all morning and be mopey and blue. A luxury for another day.

I showered and dressed in white capris and a red linen tunic, a privilege of a warm-climate December, then walked down the stairs of my beach cottage. It had whitewashed walls, rag rugs on the floor, and a compact kitchen. I ate my cereal over the sink and watched the lights twinkle on my tiny Christmas tree. Beyond the tree were several vintage Santa carvings, each dolled up in a beach theme. One with a surfboard, one in sunglasses, one on a bike. Beyond that was the sliding glass door that led to the deck that led to the sand that led to the ocean. After a brief internal pep talk, I rinsed my bowl, grabbed my hipster handbag, and went out the door to the garage.

Normally I would ride my bike the two miles to work, but it was already after nine. And morning exercise would not improve my mood. I put the top down on my Mini Coop and tucked my hair beneath a colorful canvas hat so the stray red curls wouldn’t blind me while I drove.

The Ballantyne Foundation’s Big House was exactly that: a big house. It sat on a hill overlooking all of Oyster Cove Plantation, situated squarely between the ocean, the golf club, and the heavy iron entrance gates. The Ballantyne’s had owned their South Carolina land since the sea mountains formed Sea Pine Island however many million years ago. Of course, I’ve only worked there for the last fifteen. I’m not that old.

I parked in the circular drive and entered the grand foyer. A custom silk beauty of a spruce rose eighteen feet between two curved staircases. The perfect size for the two-story entry. The Big House was almost fifteen-thousand square feet–and that didn’t include the Ballantynes’ private residence on the third floor, only the public spaces, offices, ballroom, kitchen, library…

We put up the tree two weeks before Christmas Day and took it down one week after. No eight-week-Thanksgiving-until-January endless holiday season. This wasn’t Disneyland. But our dedication to splendor and fantasy rivaled those Imagineers. The annual Ballantyne Christmas tree always bore fresh ornaments, never the same theme as another year. We’d commissioned everything from porcelain partridges and pears (along with the other eleven days of Christmas) to hand-forged silver bells. That’s not to say every idea was successful. The year we did snowflakes (no two alike), it took six months to rid the Big House of all the glitter. Those little sparkles were everywhere.

Enormous boxes sat in front of the spruce, their lids stacked in the far corner. Each box was divided into four inch squares with a single ornament tucked in each one.

“Last night sucked,” Tod Hayes said as he walked up beside me. He was the Ballantyne administrator. He wore his hair trimmed, his clothes neat, and his expression droll.

“Your night sucked? Dude, it was nothing compared to mine,” I said.

“I went with the captain to see the Allens.”

“You did?”

“It was agreed someone from the Foundation should be there and Lieutenant Handsome felt you were indispensable at the theatre.”

“Oh, Tod, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Must have been awful.”

“Awful, awful, awful,” Zibby Archibald said as she slowly entered the foyer. At eighty-seven, she may have been the most senior member of the Ballantyne board, but probably had the youngest spirit. She wore a wide brim straw hat with gigantic hot pink poinsettias pinned to every visible surface. She’d dyed her hair to match the flowers. She took one look at the ornaments and shook her head. “Dearie me.”

Tod glanced down. “You said it, sister. The children will be here at two sharp.”

“We better get the rug,” Zibby said. She walked across the foyer and grabbed a corner of the twenty-foot hand-loomed wool rug that covered the floor, then hauled it toward the ornaments. She moved faster than I would’ve thought possible. That sucker was heavy.

“Whatcha doing, Zibs?” I asked.

“These Nutcracker sugar princess ornaments are little Lexie lookalikes,” she said and heaved the rug over the boxes. “The ballet chief was parking in the lot when I came in. Wouldn’t be decent for her to see these.”

“The boxes have lids,” I said.

Zibby patted my arm. “Well, if we didn’t have the rug.”

The foyer door opened and Inga Dalrymple walked in. “Elliott, I was hoping to talk to you.” She paused, looked at Zibby’s hat and hair, then cleared her throat. She raised her voice as if speaking to a large crowd instead of three people standing seven feet away. “We all know losing Lexie was tragic and terrible and I can’t even think about it. But I’m here to assure you, our main sponsor, the performances will continue.”

I started to speak, but she tapped her stick on the bare hardwood floor and continued. “It was a hard decision, but it’s done. It’s a distressing situation, but I’ve got a distraught troupe, frantic parents, and hundreds upon hundreds of ticketholders all calling to find out what’s going on. So this is what’s going on. The show.”

“Even tonight’s?” I asked.

“Especially tonight’s,” she said. “Which brings me to the second reason I’m here. We need to dedicate this evening’s performance to Lexie. And let the audience know a scholarship, sponsored by the Ballantyne, will be named in her honor. Is that possible?”

“To do, yes, but not for tonight’s performance,” I said. “I’ll need to present it to the board—”

“It has to be today.” She lowered her booming voice to a normal octave. “Please. I can’t stop to think about Lexie. Or what happened. Or the show going on without her. I need to get this settled and move on to the next thing. And the next and the next.”

Zibby ambled over and pattered her hand. “A lovely gesture, Inga. I’m sure the scholarship will get undisputed approval.”

She was right. Who would turn it down? “We can make the announcement and say it’s in the works,” I said.

Inga nodded once, then cleared her throat again. “Thank you for your support.” She turned on a heel and walked out.

“I’m not sure keeping the performance schedule is such a good idea, but the scholarship is,” I said.

“You have bigger fish to fry.” Tod gestured toward the rug-covered ornament boxes.

“Right, the ornaments.” This year’s theme: The Nutcracker, featuring replicas of the Sea Pine Community Theatre’s production costumes. Including the star of the show, Lexie Allen as the Sugar Plum Fairy. “These hand-painted ornaments took weeks to commission, craft, and ship. We need a Plan B for the decorations before the children arrive at two this afternoon.”

“Yes, I do believe that’s the situation,” Tod said. “It’s almost ten now. In case you need a recap.”

“What are we recapping?” Carla said. Light patches of flour speckled her white chef’s coat and she held a large stainless mixing bowl filled with cookie dough.

“I have an idea,” I said.

  

Three hours later, I emerged from the kitchen frazzled, but triumphant. I don’t usually spend so much time in the Ballantyne’s kitchen. Or any time in any kitchen, including my own. But an emergency calls for all hands on deck. Even my perfectly sanitized ones.

I carried a tray of cookie dough ornaments through the sunroom and out the double doors to the terrace. The sun was high and the sky was clear and the lap pool sparkled in the most delightful way. My childhood holiday vacations were spent peering out the window at snow-covered streets. Freezing, frigid, ridiculously cold wish-I-could-go-play-outside holidays. White Christmases were totally overrated. I’ll take sun and sand, thank you very much.

I set the tray on a patio table and cranked open the large market umbrella. Two dozen children chased each other around the back lawn, dodging around the oak trees and towering magnolias.

Zibby spread out ornaments on two other tables while Tod set out paints.

“How clever you are,” Deidre Burch said as she walked down the steps to the deck. Another longtime board member, Deidre wore her gray hair in a swingy bob held back by orange readers on a beaded chain. “I worried about those ballerina ornaments. Horrifying to see hundreds of little Lexies on that tree.”

The kids scurried up to the tables on the deck. A young boy coughed and I moved two steps to my left. Away from the kid. “Not sure how long it will take to both paint and hang, but probably more entertaining for the children,” I said.

Matty came out from the house carrying a five foot bag of popcorn. “Who wants popcorn?” As the kids screamed they all wanted popcorn, Matty directed one to grab the box of thread and another to set up an assembly line.

“You pop all that?” Deidre asked.

“Are you nuts? We called the movie house and Matty picked up a bag of pre-popped.”

I watched Matty with the children. Kind and patient, easy-going and good-natured. Throw in tan and athletic with soft brown hair and warm brown eyes, and there wasn’t a reason that boy was still single.

Once he had a handful of kids stringing buttery garland, he came over. “Hey Elli,” he said and leaned over to kiss my cheek. “Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m okay. A long night and all that, but this decorating should keep me busy.”

“This is just phase one,” Tod said. He carried another tray of cookie ornaments. “We still need to get them on the tree.”

“Let me just say that I got this dilemma fixed in less than three hours,” I said. “I’m on my game, people.”

“And what a dilemma,” Deidre said. “So sad. So much wrong. Those poor dancers. You know Lexie was staying at my rental in Sugar Hill? Her and her three friends. Breaks my heart.”

“By the way,” Tod said to me. “Lieutenant Handsome is in your office.”

“Right now?”

“Yes, that would be why I’m telling you. Right now.”

That was unusual. Ransom didn’t normally visit me at the Big House. I brushed my clothes with my hands in case random kitchen dust had landed on me and my glance caught Matty’s. “Be right back,” I said with a tentative smile.

Mr. Ballantyne had converted the music room into my office when I officially became director nearly nine years earlier. Tall windows dressed in wide plantation shutters ran along the entire side wall, leaving sunshine stripes on the dark wood floors.

Nick Ransom sat in a side chair in front of my desk, one leg of his tailored suit casually crossed over the other. He was the first boy—man—guy?—I ever loved. We met in college and he broke my heart when he left without a word. Actually, he left seven words on my answering machine. He went on to the FBI and I went on without him.

I breathed in his familiar cologne. Some days I just wanted to reach out and touch his face. Make sure he was really here.

“Hey, Nick. What a surprise.” I took two quick squirts from the hand-sani pump on my desk and plopped into my chair. “It’s nice to see you.”

“You, too. But this is a business visit, not a personal one. To fill you in on the Lexie Allen case. As a courtesy.” He took out a small notebook and leafed through the pages as if checking his notes. “It looks like an accidental poisoning.”

“Accidental?”

“Could be suspicious, but likely Lexie accidentally poisoned herself. Turns out she was quite the cook. She was into baking recently, especially exotic ingredients. She used toxic berries in a batch of frosted cupcakes. Ate one before the performance and it killed her.”

“Toxic cupcakes?”

“Looks that way. She had several similar-looking berries in jars on the kitchen countertop. Mixed up one nightshade with another. Ended up with belladonna. We checked fingerprints on all the containers. Only Lexie’s. Her roommates confirmed she’d been baking lately, nearly every single day. Two of them got sick from something she made two days ago. Wouldn’t eat anything after that. Too risky.”

“Belladonna jars?” I shook myself. Accidental poisoning? That made no sense. He was throwing information at me rapid-fire and I barely kept up. Though I wasn’t actually asking smart questions. “Why would she have toxic berries? Why would she make such a thing? Why would she eat cake?” I assumed dancers had some sort of health ritual that did not involve berry-filled frosted cupcakes.

“Another possibility we’re exploring, though not publicly, is suicide,” he said without answering my questions and closed his notebook.

“Suicide?”

“Made for a very dramatic scene, which is not unusual for a young adult. Especially an artistic one. She bakes the cupcakes, gets dressed for the performance, dies right before going onstage in front of all her friends.”

“She was wearing sweat pants, not a tutu,” I said.

He shrugged. “The poison probably hit her more quickly than she expected.”

“Sure, sure.” I heard a hoard of kids rush down the hall and into the foyer. All giggles and shouts and footfalls and coughs. I took another squirt from the pump. “Just so I’ve got it,” I said slowly. “You’re saying Lexie Allen kept poison berries in her kitchen, and either she grabbed them by mistake, or deliberately to kill herself?”

“The evidence is stacking up that way,” he said and stood. “I’m sorry, Red. I know this one hit close to home. We’ll get it wrapped up quickly.”

He looked sympathetic. Genuine, sincere, kind. And full of shit. I’d known Nick Ransom since our first evidence class in college more than twenty years earlier. He was sharp, intense, and extremely thorough. He didn’t keep his cards close to his chest, he kept them face down on the table. Like Harvey Specter negotiating a settlement with an unwitting adversary about to sign away the rights to his own company.

“No foul play?” I asked.

“It doesn’t seem so.”

“And all the crime scene techs, police personnel, interviews, and investigating at the theatre? You were there most of the night.”

“Standard procedure,” he said, looking me straight in the eye.

I waited two full blinks and then thanked him. “I appreciate the heads-up. Nice of you to keep me in the loop.”

“Just making sure you’re up to speed, so you don’t feel the need to get involved.” And there it was. In case I’d missed the point of his “update.” We walked down the hall and into the busy foyer. “I know you’ve got your hands full this time of year,” he added.

Matty lifted a tiny girl up close to his shoulder so she could loop a string of popcorn around the tree. A boy hung a colorful ornament on the lowest branch, keeping his other hand pressed into Matty’s leg for balance, and a third promptly dropped her ornament on the floor. It splintered. Crying ensued.

“Indeed,” I said.

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said and left.

Leave me to it is right, I said to myself as I stalked straight back to my office. The phone rang as I grabbed my hipster handbag from the bottom drawer.

“Elliott! Hello!” Mr. Ballantyne shouted into the phone. The line crackled, though I could hear him clear as the sky outside. “This is a terrible day for us, my dear Elli. Terrible! Vivi is devastated.”

“It’s awful, sir,” I shouted back. I lowered my voice. He was in Guatemala, not on the moon. I’d only spoken to him briefly the night before, and he sounded the same. And I couldn’t imagine how sad Vivi, his wife, was. She was as gentle as a kitten on a stack of down pillows. Together they’d run the billion-dollar Ballantyne Foundation since the day Edward Ballantyne inherited it from his father over fifty years ago. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss, sir. I stayed at the theatre, but Tod spent time with the family last night.”

“He’s a good boy, our Tod,” Mr. Ballantyne said. “I’m not sure what happened to that lovely young lady. Poisoned of all things. Certainly a strange state of affairs. We must do something.”

“I’m already on it,” I said.

“Good to hear! I spoke to the captain this morning. Let him know we’d want to poke around a bit. I don’t mean to contradict their good judgment, but it can’t hurt to make sure. He said he’d send over the lieutenant.”

“He just left, sir,” I said. “I’ll put all my attention on the case.”

“I expect nothing less, Elli, dear,” he said. “We’re off to another refugee camp outside the city. The trains are running today. Stay on top!” And with that, he clicked off.

I wasn’t sure if he meant me or the refugees riding the rails north to freedom. But I definitely planned to stay right on top of things here.

Two minutes later, I tracked down Carla in the foyer organizing ornaments while Matty and the kids painted another batch out on the terrace. “Aren’t you popular, chicken? Two suitors in one day. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“One suitor and one suit,” I said. “Nick Ransom just gave me a soup sandwich. Accidental. Suicide. Stops by as a courtesy. Ha. Someone hurt that girl on purpose and he knows it.”

“He said it was accidental?”

“Yep. He crammed a twenty-minute briefing into a five-minute conversation. Hoping I’d ignore the obvious and he’d keep me off the case.” My director duties at the prestigious Ballantyne charity sometimes stretched beyond board meetings and charity balls. I’m also the real world counterpart to Archibald McNally, performing discreet inquiries for the Foundation’s faithful donors and closest friends. Getting my PI license and working with the police enhanced my skill set. Ransom wasn’t impressed.

“How did she accidentally kill herself?” Carla asked.

“Poisoned berries, he said. Apparently she liked to cook with exotic ingredients and mixed up her nightshades. One called belladonna. You ever hear of such things?”

“Sure. Deadly nightshade. Not sure they’re poisonous after you cook them, though.”

“Mamacita, don’t mess with Santa Claus,” Zibby sang as she wobbled up to the tree. She’d hung an ornament from her left earring and wore a popcorn strand around her neck. “Mamacita…she’s the one to see.”

Carla snapped her fingers. “You said it. Mamacita has the most exotic botanicals in the South and she’s right here on the island. Now that’s cooking with some love. If anyone has nightshade, it’s Mamacita.”

“I’ve never heard of her,” I said.

“Recommendations, that’s how she rolls,” Zibby said.

“Behind the Gullah Catfish Café off Marsh Grass Road,” Carla said. “Sublime garden and greenhouse.”

“If you say so, then I’m headed out,” I said. “Probably be gone most of the day.”

“Knock twice and take a gift,” Zibby said. She turned to Carla. “You ever buy her alligator butter? Dab it on a slice of green olive and eat it on a saucer…”

Their conversation faded as I went to the terrace to find Deidre. She was finishing up the last ornaments, carefully placing them on a large steel tray. She’d put her reading glasses on her nose to inspect the paint jobs. The cookie ornaments were shaped like various candies: canes, bon bons, the ones with the twisty wrapper ends. The paint was bright and cheery and sloppy, as if painted by school children.

“Deidre, sorry to interrupt,” I said in a low voice so the kids wouldn’t hear us. “I was thinking about those poor dancers at your condo. Were they close to Lexie?”

“Two were her best friends, the other her boyfriend,” she whispered. “Could it be more tragic? They took their college break early to dance The Nutcracker at Sea Pine one last time. The Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King, the Dew Drop Fairy and the Cavalier. All the lead roles. Is that what the lieutenant wanted to talk to you about?”

“He was filling me in, as a courtesy,” I whispered. “Actually, I was thinking it would be a good idea if I took a look around the condo.” “You think it’s more than an accidental poisoning?” “Who said it was an accidental poisoning?” “Sugar, the whole island knows that poor girl got sick eating her own cupcakes,” she said and leaned in close. “Rumor is it was an accident. Unless you’re saying otherwise.” “I’m not saying otherwise.” Not out loud, anyway. “I only want to take a quick look. Dot an i, maybe cross a t.” She looked at me over the top of her bright readers. “Uh-huh. Someone from the ballet company is there now, cleaning things up while the kids are at rehearsal. You’re welcome to stop over. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind the company.” “Let me think about that, Deidre. I appreciate the offer.” Keeping someone company wasn’t what I had in mind. I needed to see what the police saw and see what was missing. Ransom clearly wasn’t considering this a joint investigation. He wouldn’t be sharing information and he had a head start. It was just too hard to swallow that Lexie baked poison berries into her own cupcakes. Accidentally or otherwise.

Copyright © 2015 by Kendel Lynn.

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Kendel Lynn is a Southern California native who now parks her flip-flops in Dallas, Texas. She read her first Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators at the age of seven and has loved mysteries ever since. Her debut novel, Board Stiff, was an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel. It features Elliott Lisbon, a mostly amateur sleuth who has a slight aversion to all things germy and is only five thousand hours away from getting her PI license. Along with writing and reading, Kendel spends her time editing, designing, and figuring out ways to avoid the gym but still eat cupcakes for dinner.

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