Missed Cue

by Lynn Slaughter

When ballerina Lydia Miseau dies onstage in the final dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, homicide detective Caitlin O’Connor is faced with the most complicated case of her career. She strongly suspects that someone murdered the ballerina, and her investigation uncovers several people close to the star who had reasons to kill her. But the autopsy reveals no apparent cause of death. If Lydia Miseau was murdered, who did it, and how?

Meantime, there’s Caitlin’s hot mess of a personal life. She has a bad habit of getting involved with married men. She knows it’s wrong, so why does she keep entangling herself in unhealthy relationships? She’s finally decided to go into therapy to find out.



Paul wiped the sweat off his forehead as he tried to keep up with the endless stream of lighting corrections Victor Pesetsky, Ballet Études’ artistic director, screamed at him through his headset: “Slower fade! I don’t want to be aware of the lighting change!” “For God’s sake, she’s supposed to look fourteen, not like an end-stage liver patient! Too much yellow.” “You’re losing her! Keep that spot on Lydia.”

Paul chalked up Victor’s edginess to pre-opening night nerves. In the seven years he’d been with New Haven’s Ballet Études, Paul never failed to be moved by the magic Lydia and Alexander created when they performed together. And Lydia, beautiful, soulful Lydia, whose very presence gave him chills, had never danced with more assurance, or more convincingly imbued the role of fourteen-year-old Juliet.

Paul had lit dozens of ballets in his career and watched countless dancers in dramatic roles. He’d never encountered anyone who could more completely transform herself onstage than Lydia. After she swallowed the sleeping potion to fake her death in Act III, she danced with such despair and longing for her lover. Looking increasingly agonized, she stumbled about the stage until her collapse into slumber.

And then Paul’s eyes widened. Lydia did something totally unlike her. She missed a cue, the musical cue to awaken. Paul leaned forward, unable to process what he was seeing. Darlene, the stage manager, crept onstage from her spot in the wings, frantically whispering to Lydia to get up.

The conductor looked confused as the orchestra played on.

“Cut!” Victor shouted as he strode down the aisle, and the orchestra stopped playing in the middle of a phrase. “God damn it, Lydia, what the hell?”

No answer. Darlene ran to the ballerina sprawled on the funeral bed. She gently shook her, but Lydia didn’t stir. Darlene bent down, listening for a breath, a heartbeat. “Call 911,” she screamed.

Paul ripped off his headset. Dizzy, so dizzy. He stumbled out of the lighting booth and clutched the stair railing to steady himself as he raced down to the stage. To Lydia.

Chapter One

By the time Stan and I arrived at the theater, the stage area surrounding the funeral bed had been roped off. My chest tightened when I saw Chet Roberts, the medical examiner, who’d begun his preliminary investigation. Dancers, their faces wet with tears and streaked with ribbons of mascara, huddled in the wings. They reeked of sweat and hairspray.

“Please, no one leave,” I said. “I’m Lieutenant Caitlin O’Connor, and this is my partner, Sergeant Stan Bisso. All of you take seats in the audience. I’ll talk with you after I’ve checked in with the examiner.” I turned to Stan and gestured for two of the patrol officers to join us. “Will you clear the dressing rooms and tell everyone to come sit out front? Seal off the deceased’s dressing room.”

The officers nodded. I knew I had to talk to Chet. My limbs felt unnaturally heavy as I headed over to him. Two nights ago, he’d ended whatever it was we’d had together. He said he couldn’t leave his kids. Surely, I understood, didn’t I?

I was trying, but shards of pain pressed against my heart. “Anything?” I asked in the coolest, professional tone I could muster.

He sighed and held his gloved hands up. Deep lines creased his forehead. His intense gaze latched on to mine. How many times had I gotten lost in those dusky blue eyes?

I forced myself to look away.

“No sign of a wound,” he said. “Looks like heart failure. We’ll know more when we get her on the table.”

I nodded and knelt to examine the body. Lydia Miseau had been beautiful—delicate nose, high cheekbones, and coltish shapely legs. Her lean muscular frame reflected a lifetime devoted to the rigors of ballet. She didn’t look like anyone ready to die.

I moved downstage toward the audience of dancers, orchestra members, and theater personnel. The work lights burned brightly. Rivulets of sweat worked their way down my spine. I shrugged off my jacket.

A sixtiesh-looking man wearing a fedora ignored the order to remain in the audience and clambered up the steps on to the stage. Splotches of red spread across his tear-streaked face. “I’m Victor Pesetsky, artistic director,” he said, his voice trembling. “Lydia is my wife. She is in perfect health. I don’t understand.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss. You have my word that we’ll conduct a thorough investigation.”

“Thank you, but that isn’t bringing her back. She is my muse, my soulmate.” A fresh torrent of tears spilled down his face.

Must have been a May-December romance. Pesetsky was tall and gaunt, with piercing black eyes, a long, thin nose, and a shock of gray hair peeking out from under his fedora. My mother would have called him “distinguished-looking.” Distinguished or not, he was clearly much older than his late wife.

A wiry guy wearing jeans and a black turtleneck joined us. “Oh God, oh God. I can’t believe this. She was fine. This can’t be happening.”

“And you are?”

“Paul Gates, lighting designer. Lydia was my…my dear friend.” His whole body shook.

Pesetsky stepped between us, as though he wanted to cut off Gates. I wondered if he wanted to claim his spot as Lydia’s chief mourner, not this “dear friend.”

“I’ll need to talk with both of you,” I said. “But first, I want to say a few words to everyone.”

Gates turned to Pesetsky. “I’m so horribly sorry, Victor.” He reached for his arm, and the newly widowed director swatted him away as though he were a pesky fly.

Hmmm. Something going on with those two? Or was Pesetsky just a prickly guy? Of course, his wife had just unexpectedly died. I’d known plenty of survivors whose grief took the form of angry irritation at anyone who tried to come close. Sure enough, rather than take a seat in the audience with Gates and the others, Pesetsky held himself apart, pacing up and down the side aisle.

Stan appeared. “Dressing rooms are all cleared. We roped off the deceased’s.”

I nodded.

Stan’s perpetually sad eyes looked even droopier than usual. I had to admit Chet had nailed it when he said Stan reminded him of a Bassett hound, even though I’d felt defensive on my partner’s behalf. “Hey, his wife dumped him for some rich banker,” I’d said. “He’s entitled to look a little down.” Still, it was hard dealing with Stan’s sadness, not to mention my own shit and the pressure of working homicide.

I shook my head. Time to focus. I walked over to the pale stocky woman wearing a headset. “You are?”

“Darlene Bott, stage manager.”

“Do you have a microphone I can use?”

She grabbed a mike and handed it to me.

“And is there a place we can interview everyone individually?”

“Sure. We’ll put you in the Green Room.”

“That works.” I moved to the stage apron to talk to everyone. A hush settled over the audience of dancers and crew, as though the curtain had just gone up, and I was the reluctant star of the show. I gulped. Nothing to do but get started. “Again, my name is Lieutenant O’Connor. I know this is a terrible shock. Ms. Miseau may have died from entirely natural causes, but we need to do a thorough investigation. Plan to stay here until we’ve had a chance to speak individually with each of you.”

A few groans came from the evidently exhausted dancers.

I wiped the sweat off my brow. My blouse clung to my damp back. It was going to be a long night.


* * *


First was Victor Pesetsky, who slumped in and sank down on the lumpy loveseat as though he could barely hold up his long frame.

He heaved a heavy sigh. “I don’t know what I can tell you, Officers. My wife was the picture of health. How could this have happened?”

I took the lead doing the questioning while Stan took notes. “We won’t know until we get the results of the autopsy. Had she mentioned anything bothering her? Any sign that she wasn’t feeling like herself?”

He shook his head. “No, nothing.” He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his red-rimmed eyes.

“Were there any problems in your marriage?” 

He stiffened and glared at me. “What are you implying? I was devoted to my wife, Detective. I resent any suggestion that I might have harmed her. She was my life, my muse.”

“We’re not implying or suggesting anything. It’s our job to investigate.”

He pointed a shaky finger at me. “That may be, but I would never have hurt Lydia.”

“How about other people in her life? Did your wife have any enemies that you know of? Anyone who might have had a motive to want to harm her?”

“Of course not! Everyone adored her. She could easily have been arrogant because of her extraordinary talent. But she had the humility that only truly great artists possess. She was…one of a kind.” He buried his face in his hands, and his whole body shook with noisy sobs.

Was this an act for our benefit, or was the guy genuinely grieving? I glanced over at Stan, whose raised eyebrows mirrored my own. After twelve years of working homicide together, we knew you could never discount a grieving spouse.

“I’m sure we’ll have more questions for later, but that’s enough for now. Again, we are so very sorry.”

He nodded and took several heavy breaths as he mopped his face. He hauled himself up to standing and shuffled out the door.

Muriel Gaston came in next. She was impossibly tiny with doe-like blue eyes reddened with tears. “This is a nightmare,” she said, as she dabbed at her face with a crumpled tissue. “Lydia was my mentor. She cared about all of us in the company. How could this have happened?”

“We don’t know yet, but we’re certainly going to do a thorough investigation to find out. So, Lydia was your mentor?”

“Yes. I was her understudy for Juliet, actually for most of her roles. She was thinking about retirement, coaching me so I’d be ready.”

“And was she planning to retire soon?”

Muriel shrugged. “No idea. She talked about it, but she was dancing more beautifully than ever. She lived to dance.”

Hmm, I thought. And I bet you live to dance, too.

“How long had you been her understudy?”

She pursed her lips. “Three years.”

Quite a wait for your chance to become the company star. “That’s a long time to be an understudy.”

She shrugged. “I was learning so much from Lydia coaching me. I knew my chance would come. I didn’t mind waiting.”

I bet.

I shifted gears. “Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm her? Anyone she was having a conflict with?”

She shook her head. “Absolutely not. She was not only a brilliant dancer. She was genuinely a kind person.”

And so, it went. By the time we’d done our last interview, it was after midnight. Hours and hours of interviews with folks who sounded like broken records. No, no one had seen or heard anything or anyone behaving suspiciously. No, Lydia had no enemies. Everyone revered her, not only as a great dancer but as a warm, caring human being.

Even Gus, the janitor, sang her praises. “You know how it is,” he told us. “Some people act like you don’t even exist. But Miss Miseau, she always greeted me. My wife’s been real sick, and she’d ask about her, want to know how she was doing. She wasn’t snotty like a lot of them.”

“I could use a drink,” Stan said as we packed up our stuff.

“Me, too. Charley’s? Mind driving?”



* * *


By this hour, only a few stragglers remained at Charley’s Bar and Grill, a regular watering hole for off-duty cops. We slid into a back booth. Marlene, the waitress whose fire-engine red hair always reminded me of Ronald McDonald, approached. We ordered a couple of Buds, and I asked her if the kitchen was still open.

“Nico’s still here. He can fix you up. Long night, huh?”

“Yup.” We ordered a couple of burgers with the works.

“Any preliminary ideas?” I asked Stan after Marlene headed to the kitchen.

He shrugged. “They were all singing the same song about her.”

“Yeah. That really made me wonder. Maybe I’m jaded, but she couldn’t have been all sweetness and light. One of my closest friends from high school was into ballet, and you wouldn’t believe the stories she told me. It’s so competitive. And Miseau had risen to the top. I doubt you get there just by being sweet. Plus, I saw her dance.”

“You did?” Stan said, as Marlene set our beers down.

“Yeah. Last fall, I took my niece to see Giselle. Miseau was amazing. Talk about a fireball—she performed with such passion and reckless abandon. I don’t think you can fake those qualities on stage. She had to be a lot more complicated.”

“So, if she didn’t die of natural causes, who do you like for this?”

I’d barely made a dent in my beer, and he was already signaling Marlene for another. Oh God, here we go again.  

“Not sure. The husband’s obvious, although he did look pretty torn up. Picked up some possible tension between him and the lighting designer. And then there’s that Barbie look-a-like, Muriel Gaston, who’s next in line for Miseau’s roles. I’m sure there will be more when we investigate further.”

Stan snorted. “Gaston’s way too flat-chested for Barbie. I’ve never seen so many skinny women in one place. Do they ever eat?”

“I think so. But they probably burn it all off.” Interviewing dancer after dancer had reminded me that no one would ever describe my big-boned five-eight frame as petite. Athletic maybe, but definitely not petite. I’d spent my life bemoaning the fact I looked nothing like my mom who was petite and delicate, not to mention gorgeous. I was sure everyone who saw us together wondered if I were adopted.

Marlene brought out our burgers, and Stan asked for another beer, and then said, “Hell, just bring me a pitcher.”

Ever since JoAnne had left him, Stan’s alcohol consumption had shot up on an express elevator. He didn’t like me bugging him about it, but I had to try. He was my partner. I’d always had his back, and I needed him to have mine. Besides, I cared about him, loved him like a younger brother.

I put my hand over his. “I know you’re hurting. But all this booze isn’t helping. Not what you need right now.”

He pulled his hand away. “Stay in your lane, Cait. My life’s in the shit-can, and if a pitcher of beer helps me get through the night, well, so be it.”

“Have you thought about getting any counseling?”

Stan slathered ketchup over his burger and shot me one of his “get off my case” looks. “Have you, Cait?”

I flinched. Apparently, he subscribed to the “best defense is a good offense” theory. But I wasn’t about to launch a counter-defense. I knew I had a problem. “As a matter of fact, I’ve started seeing someone, a therapist. Maybe I can figure out why I keep falling for the wrong guys.”

His head reared back. “No kidding. That’s a step, Cait. Let me know how that works out for you... seriously.”

“I will. But when we finish eating, I’m driving.”



"Missed Cue" by Lynn Slaughter

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