Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter One
Thursday was chaotic, spontaneous and disorganized. It was a perfect day, in fact, for a singing telegram agency. The phone rang constantly, and the calls were crazier than I was.
I was forty minutes behind schedule when an intensely respectable lady from the MoMs Club called. Mrs. Margaret Pettegrew, president of the Matrons of the Museum, begged me to send her a gorilla.
"Well, hi, Maggie. A gorilla this time?" I jammed the phone into my earring and put on my lipstick. "Got lots of 'em. How many do you want?"
"Just one," she said. "For my daughter's birthday. But make him a big one. Huge and hairy and," her voice dropped, "wild. He can play Vivaldi, of course?"
A gorilla for her daughter? I squinted skeptically into the phone while struggling to hook the strap of my costume bra. It caught. Then I sang out, "Of course he can! All our wild gorillas are skilled musicians."
Not. My one gorilla had the flu, and he couldn't even whistle. "Maggie, may I call you back?" I said, fluffing my wig. "I have to, um, dance for a senator in Topeka at exactly two o'clock."
"Really, dear. You only have an hour to get there," she said. "Now don't you dare hang up. I also want," this time her voice dropped even lower, "a cop. One with quite large pectorals."
I'd heard of the act called Hot Cops: Muscles. Nightstick. Velcro. "Hey, so do I," I said. "But this town doesn't have 'em. Call you back."
I flung the receiver toward the phone and ran for the door. I heard the phone clatter to the floor and Maggie's faint "hello?" as I rustled down the front porch steps in chiffon veils and coins.
It was a gorgeous April day, the sky relentlessly blue, the wind gusty and crisp. Soon, the thunderstorms would soak the dry Kansas soil, the air would warm up, and my sandalled toes and bare stomach would stop freezing and shivering.
I hadn't had time to grab a coat. I now had fifty-eight minutes to drive my battered Ford a hundred and fifty miles north, thrust the senator into his office chair, and tie my veil on his head in front of video cameras. I loved this life.
Too bad it would soon involve murder. The murder would happen today, in an hour and thirty-five minutes, at the very moment the senator began to blush. Before nightfall, my best friend, Jezebel, would lie dead. Poor Jezebel.
Poor Jezebel? Part of me says, "Hah!"
But let me explain my own rather bohemian career, and how my best friend became my most obnoxious enemy. My name is Delilah the Temptress, and I am the owner of "Balloons Away!". Singing is a small part of our job. Gorillas snarl anniversary greetings, tap dancers deliver flowers and candy. We provide nerds and gypsies and clowns, even Vulcans from the Starship Enterprise.
That's what I do for a living. But at heart, I am an artist. When I am not delivering balloons and wild animals, I follow the footsteps of famous dancers Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Nagwa Fouad. In short, I love and perform raks sharki, the Oriental art form called the belly dance. I live the legend. I am a stunningly gorgeous redhead, with a lusty deep bosom, skin like poured cream, and eyes as dramatic and dark as the Nile. This isn't easy. Take away the beads, the chiffon, the bra pads, the wig, the facials, the sit-ups, the make-up and the high heels, and you have Carmen Narramore: brainy, scholarly, with limp brown hair and a shy smile.
At least, I used to be brainy. In high school, while other kids hung out at Dairy Queen or drag raced their cars, I sat in the library van, reading about Babylon and the rose-red city of Petra. I won scholarships. And eventually, I moved to Wichita, the sort-of big city with the university: good bookstores, local beers, handsome young farm boys with bookbags and ball caps. But most of all, I was drawn to the classes of Professor John Cluff, who was known for his fierce temper and his exotic field of study: the urbanized bedouin of the Middle East.
Three years ago, Dr. Cluff sent two promising young graduate students to Egypt to conclude their research. That trip, though, went fatally, seductively awry when my best friend Eugenia dragged me into Le Meredien hotel in Cairo. We sat in the nightclub, drank Stella beer, and watched a completely confident woman shimmy and snake until four in the morning. The next night, while Eugenia compiled field notes, I was back at the bar.
Eugenia returned to America untouched, with a hastily scribbled, politically correct dissertation filled with fake footnotes. I returned with a wild and smoky dance wish and a passionate, half-hysterical work I was not ready to defend.
When I realized this, I was afraid to even speak to Dr. Cluff. How could I tell him I had squandered my sabbatical?
The answer came soon, on his sixtieth birthday. A delegation of graduate students asked, in a whisper, if I'd be willing to dress up, catch him in the dean's office, and....
"Oh, Carmen, don't. You'll embarrass yourself," said Eugenia, who was then still my friend. "I mean, you don't really know how to dance."
Belligerent and inspired, I put on the costume and marched all the way to the dean's office. As I clicked and swished down those long, cool linoleum halls, stage fright struck. At the door, I decided to run. Unfortunately, Professor Cluff saw me first. "What is this nonsense?" he scowled. "Bah! I don't have the time for it."
I was trembling enough to send my coins all a-jingling, and there was a subtle vibration shimmying up from the sheer depths of my veils. But I noticed that his eyes were fixed hypnotically a bit south of my face, and those stern cheeks had begun slightly to flush. For the first time ever, he had met an equal adversary.
In short, I gathered my courage and tied him to a chair with my veil. The undergraduates whooped and cheered, and the dean grinned in poorly concealed glee. Before I was done, Professor Cluff's face was the congested color of an eggplant.
"This prank," he hissed, "goes beyond all decency. Stop it at once."
I didn't stop, though, until the music faded. Then I took my last bow.
"You did it," Eugenia exulted. "Wow. What the hell. You can always find another professor." She looked around. "Maybe."
She was right. How could I ever go back to class? But that didn't matter. A frail graduate student named Carmen Narramore was gone forever. Delilah the Temptress had found her true calling.
I settled down to a sensual Oriental life in an old Victorian house south of campus, which also became my studio. I studied dance. I traveled to New York and Los Angeles, then came back to Wichita to shape nurses and lawyers and lady truckers into graceful works of art. I studied ancient Egyptian wall frescoes, the travel journals of the Victorian explorers, even antique documentary films. Slowly, my business grew. Forty students began to take class in my first floor studio: grannies and students and children, all undulating and stretching and vigorously doing sit-ups.
It would have been artist's heaven, if not for Eugenia. She was not just my friend. She was my Frankenstein monster. Eugenia had always lacked scholarship, but she made up for it with ambition.
"Carmen," she once said, "someday I am going to be famous, and you are not. Say, can I borrow your notes?"
"Someday, you are going to be notorious," I answered. "And I am not."
"I'm going to be successful," she said. "Like Mae West or Billy the Kid."
While I was destroying my academic career with finger cymbals and a veil, she was accepting a tenure-track job in the anthropology department. After she acquired a Mercedes and a condo, she called me on the phone.
"Carmen," she said. "I mean, Delilah. They're thinking of making me an Assistant Professor."
"Congratulations," I said. "Say, how'd you get that Mercedes?"
"I want to sign up for your little dance class," said Eugenia. "Not that I would ever be half as good as you, of course. But I'd like to see what I can do."
I should never have showed her a single step.
Eugenia still taught anthropology by day, but at night, she cast off her tweeds and became the wench Jezebel. Jezebel was a cheap, pretty redhead with a chest like Delilah's. There the resemblance ended. I was art, she was sleaze. I flirted; she begged. And worse, she was beautiful. Her thick red hair was a color, not a wig, and her chest was purest, silkiest silicone.
"It's fun to teach, isn't it?" she said. "Oh. You didn't know. I'm teaching a few students too. Not very many." Soon after that, I caught her performing in one of my best costumes. Three were missing. I feared the worst. Of course she founded her own singing telegram agency, and began swiping my clients. After that, it hardly mattered when she seduced Ahmed Ali. Ahmed was a small, round man who liked to wink very slowly at young dancers and say he was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Min. He talked his Middle Eastern friends into getting us gigs. He was my number one groupie until Jezebel stole him.
Fortunately, Jezebel couldn't dance. Then I might have killed her myself. Instead, she was murdered because of her penchant for grand larceny and her fascination with an antique Egyptian mummy case.
The mummy case was Ahmed's last gift to me before Jezebel stole him. He had shipped it from his brother's shop in the Khan el Khalili, and assured me it was a genuine antiquity. I knew better. Still, it was beautiful: a woman's figure of painted gold, arms crossed over her chest, her face and dress colored turquoise and carnelian and ivory.
Carmen Narramore would have put on little glasses and copied the hieroglyphics on the lid. But Delilah laughed, and crawled inside, then emerged, draped in red, like an ancient female pharoah.
"Cool," said Jezebel. "I want to do that."
"It's airtight," I said. "You'll have to hold your breath."
"I want to do it anyway."
I scheduled a photo session. My dancers stood the mummy case on end in my studio, brought in costumes, and took turns stepping out to the flash of the camera. The project took three days, but it was art.
I lined the rough interior with felt and screwed on hinges and a latch so the lid wouldn't swing, then announced that I would repeat the event live at Pharoah's Egyptian nightclub. Pharoah's, opening Saturday, was an international victory for a town 1500 miles from New York. It had trendy brass rails, ferns, even a raised stage with a curtained backdrop. And it was mine. Well, mine and my troupe's.
"Enjoy your photo," I warned Jezebel, "but keep your hands off my gig."
We deserved Pharoah's. We had earned it by dancing at a little Egyptian restaurant called the Pyramid Cafe. The Pyramid was run by Ibrahim, a tall man with a perpetual cigarette dangling from his mouth. Ibrahim was run by Ayisha, his tiny, take-charge wife. Outside, trucks whined by on the interstate. Inside, we danced between tables while Sayyid Ibrahim cooked, Ayisha slung the tabula, and Gamal, their ten year old son, banged the caps off the beer bottles.
They must have saved their money, because now they were opening a dinner club, Egyptian style. And Jezebel wasn't going to get it. Not that she didn't try.
"You're really going to shut yourself inside that mummy case?" Jezebel said. She stared at a chip in her nail polish. "It's airless. You'll smother to death right there onstage."
"Oh, pooh," I said.
She shrugged. "What if it falls over with you in it? Won't that be a sight?"
I realized she was jealous, especially after she began to smile at Ahmed and play with the buttons on her blouse.
"They'll love me," I said. "And you won't even be there."
"I wish I could," she answered. "But I'm booked. Ahmed asked me to dance. I turned it down."
That was Wednesday night. I went to bed furious. I had had it with Jezebel. I was going to throw her out of class. Thursday night, I waited eagerly for her on the front porch steps, but she never came.
After class, I prepared for the big show. I laid out my wig, the little brass cymbals that slipped on my fingers, my silver high heels... and realized my best, my sexiest, most fabulous red costume was missing. This was larceny. It was more than a costume. It was a feat of engineering; it was an identity. It had a plunge bra with uplift, covered in long strands of red beads. Below that were my hips and their wide, tailored belt that cupped and draped and appeared to make me two inches thinner. Beneath the beads of that belt, a long, fringed skirt rippled like wildfire.
I had sewn that costume myself, bead by tiny bead. It had taken nine months. I could have sold it any time for two grand. I prayed it was lost somewhere in my house: behind the sarcophagus or under the video camera, or even between the stuffed camel and the fridge. But deep down, I knew Jezebel had stolen it. I dug my fingernails into my palms in fury.
Soon, Ahmed began dialing my phone number. "Jezebel is so innocent," he said. He was as serious as a heart attack. "Delilah, what if something bad has happened?" By ten o'clock, he had called me five times.
I finally recorded a message that said, "Ahmed, Jezebel isn't here. When I see her, I'm going to strangle her," turned on the answering machine and fell asleep dreaming I had both fists clenched in her thick red hair.
On Friday, Jezebel didn't show herself. By eight o'clock Saturday morning, Ahmed was pounding my front door.
I saw his anxious face peering in my front window. A few chest hairs curled between the heavy gold chain at his throat and the open buttons of his slick polyester shirt. I let him into the studio. "Take it easy," I said, rubbing my eyes. "She's probably still in bed."
"She's not at home," he said. "Where else could she be?" He paused. "Nowhere. Not anywhere. We have to find her. She's my habibi, my darling, the only one I will ever love." His eyes roamed my tattered housecoat, exploring its rips as if hoping to see through.
I had a sudden, ignoble thought, which I acted on immediately. "I bet she's at Pharoah's Club, trying out the stage," I lied. "We're, um, supposed to meet there this morning. And, say, Ahmed, would you just slip that mummy case into the bed of your truck?"
He grumbled and panted about its weight. I finally had to put down my coffee and help. At last, we heaved it into his little red Toyota and fastened the tailgate. He stood anxiously in the street, twirling his car keys, while I pulled jeans from the dryer and wrestled them on.
I was almost glad to be awake. Cleopatra would already be there at Pharoah's. Cleo was a foreman at a machine shop. She could deal with anything from table manners in Morocco to bad belly-gram checks. She'd help me catch Jezebel.
I climbed into Ahmed's little truck and pulled on my sunglasses. The morning glittered sunlight yellow and dandelion green; it smelled of warm, mowed grass. In the distance, I heard a lawnmower symphony and the throaty baritone of a chainsaw as we bumped and squealed our way west toward Pharoah's.
I thought that Jezebel was probably at the hairdresser, polishing her nails and planning an outrageous stage entrance.
When we arrived, Ahmed shot a glance at the bar.
"Cleo?" I said.
He brightened. "No. Nefertiri is here."
"Oh, no," I said. "Don't tell her anything about Jez."
"Delilah, she is so nice. Don't you like her?"
"Hey. Ahmed, pick up the other end of this thing."
We dragged the mummy case onstage and balanced it upright. For a few minutes, I fiddled with measuring tape and chalk to get it placed just upstage of the curtain. There was enough room behind the curtain for me and the case, but just barely. The case tottered back and forth as Ahmed twisted toward Nef and tried to look charming.
"Relax," I said. "Nef won't have you. You don't have enough money."
"Don't be too sure," he said.
As he rushed off toward her, I sighed happily and sat stage left and surveyed my new turf. Pharoah's was wonderful and it was, hopefully, all mine. A fragrant smell, of lemon juice and coriander, floated from the kitchen past lush potted plants, wine dark tablecloths, jeweled brass lamps. A little fresh air drifted in from propped-open doors.
The place was empty at this hour except for Ibrahim and Ayisha, busy in the kitchen, and all their male relatives, who clustered idly around the bar. I saw a huddle of men's dark heads nodding in eager conversation. Inside the huddle, I knew, would be Nef.
I crowded into the group. Sure enough, she was in there, being herself. This irritated me. Let me explain: blonde ponytail, healthy tan, thong leotard, runner's muscles. She sat on a barstool in her Lycra, chatting up the men and looking innocent as a Madonna. Nef was my star student and she knew it. In the studio, my little prima knew everyone's secrets and generally leaked them. Onstage, though, she was just adorable.
"Tried out the stage, Nefertiri?" I said.
"A little. It's kind of slick."
"Let's run through--"
She looked at her watch. "I have to go pick up my little boys. They've won their game by now. But Cleo's here somewhere. You can practice with her."
"Cleo didn't forget thirty-six counts during dress rehearsal," I said.
"Oh, Delilah. You're cute." She smiled, forgiving me. "Wearing your red costume tonight?"
"Nope," I said.
"Why not?" Her eyes went to my hips, snugged into those jeans. Then she looked down at her own stomach and tried to pinch fat. "I'm out of shape, too. I never have time to work out. But gee, my children come first. You know how it is."
"Listen, Nef," I said. "We have to find Jez."
She nodded. "Guess what? She offered me the second show at Pharoah's on Saturday nights. For a whole twenty-five dollars." She looked friendly. "I told her where to put it."
While we talked, she had lost the men's attention. They were now focused on the stage, or rather under it. "Y'allah," someone said. "There's a dead man under there."
I followed their pointing fingers. There was a body in the dark beneath the boards.
Well, in a sense. I watched a single hand grope toward a Craftsman toolbox. Steel toed work boots wriggled to and fro. Then jeans became visible, yellow with sawdust.
"Give her some room," I said. "It's Cleo. She's rewiring the lights."
"Cleopatra?" Ahmed gasped. "Ya habibi." He began to leer. Beneath her jeans, her legs were long, shapely, well-muscled.
A husky, deep voice came from the cavern. "That you, Ahmed? Listen, big guy. Go throw the breaker, then bring me a beer."
Cleo crawled out and dusted off short, sandy curls with a bare hint of gray. She winked at Ahmed and glanced my way. "Hey. What's wrong, honey?"
"Jezebel's gone," I said. "So is my red costume."
"Oh, yeah? She said she'd give me a thousand dollars if I'd steal it and hand it over. I should have called the police."
"We have to do something," I said. "We have to find her by nine. By a quarter to nine! I'm afraid she'll steal the show."
Cleo ground out her cigarette. "I'll round her up. You go home and rehearse."
I went home and chewed my fingernails instead. Cleo called at eight o'clock. "Haven't laid eyes on her anywhere," she said. "Now I'm puzzled, too."
I wore a second-best costume for my grand debut, and flung a raincoat over it as I raced back to the club. The dusk sky was hazy and blue, but still as a tomb. The earth was holding its breath, waiting for a storm to roll in from the southwest.
Tonight, while thunder provided the drumroll, Jezebel and I would wrestle, center stage? How elegant.
I sneaked backstage, searching for her. She wasn't in our chilly little dressing room, or inside the vegetable bins, or even behind Ibrahim's greasy, huge stove. She was either in the walk-in freezer or no place at all.
I wandered to the bar to survey my audience. Brass lamps on the tables cast twinkles of light like big yellow stars. In them, I saw the sequined silks of Egyptian women, students in tie dye, the black shine of bikers' leather. There also gleamed the badges of two beat cops in uniform. I peered into the starry darkness for a better look. One was a cheerful-faced guy in his fifties who carried a copy of the National Enquirer. The other was tall, broad-shouldered, with a short blond mustache and the bearing of a Marine.
Nef glided forward and whispered in my ear. "See the cops? I think they're with vice."
"Vice?" I was startled.
"I bet they're after Jezebel. She probably knows them personally."
The tall one consulted his watch, looked annoyed, then walked to the bar. He stood beside us in apparent indifference. His thick shoulders, though, were slightly tense. Aha! He knew we were there.
He was extremely handsome, in a stiff sort of way. Under the macho, he looked a bit shy, as I had once been. He was almost refined, in fact, a man who might respond well to sophisticated repartee over espresso and wine.
And, yes, he was built. I realized I had never harassed a cop before.
I gave him a big wink. "Hi, Officer. Why don't you sit up front?"
The officer was not dumb. He retreated to the snuggest corner in the back, where no dancer, not even a mouse, could assault him.
I started the show.
He was far too promising to abandon. I can still recall his hunted eyes reflected in that yellow lamplight as I came after him, squeezing past crowded tables and scooting chairs aside. Behind us, the audience began to clap in cadence. His buddy even helped me move the last table. It wasn't fair. I had two hundred allies and he was alone. For a moment, I felt sorry for this sensitive, refined officer of the law. Then I wrapped my veil around his neck and plastered his cheek with a thick red lipstick kiss.
Jezebel never came. When it was time for the finale, I slipped backstage to my mummy case. The curtains closed, the chorus danced. I stood invisible in the blackness, waiting for my cue. I fumbled with the latch, which was, surprisingly, wedged tight.
Then it happened: the latch popped free, the curtains began to open. Frantically, I flung back the lid. And froze.
I knew she had a trick up her sleeve.
As the audience stared, Jezebel made her grand entrance. Dressed in my priceless red costume, her hair perfectly coiffed, she leaned forward with slow drama and tumbled, dead, across the stage.