Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Ten
I performed a gypsy-gram on Friday afternoon for a family of real gypsies. In this conservative part of the Midwest, gypsies live in ordinary houses of siding or brick, with a red hand painted on the front window. I passed through a wall of clinking beads and into a tiny room where a gypsy king sat, fifty and frightened, in front of his wife's crystal ball. His family screamed with laughter as I read him a bawdy fortune and danced to the music of my tambourine.
By the end, he had recovered enough to try to talk me down ten dollars. While I was collecting it, a wrinkled old woman snatched my hand and ran her fingers along the lines of my palm.
"You are not a gypsy," she told me, "but you will marry one of the Rom. He will be handsome and young but very poor. Still, you will be happy together." She kissed my cheek.
"Well, thank you," I said, touched. Then I recovered and hugged the birthday boy. "Young and handsome? I'll take this one."
They laughed again. I made my exit.
On the drive home, though, I dreamed wistfully of passion-dark Romany eyes until the very moment I parked in the alley behind my back door. Then I surveyed that empty, ominous house.
Someone was probably waiting inside to shoot me.
I crawled to the door on my knees. I grabbed the nearest thing handy: a shawl of assiut, a valuable antique fabric ornamented with bits of pure hammered gold. It didn't match Romany Gypsy, but this was an emergency.
I arrived at the Dead Cow only fifteen minutes late.
Nevada stood outside, whistling a merry tune. He wore a spectacular black hat that could have kept the rain off an entire posse, black preacher's pants and a shirt as snowy as a born-again soul.
The Dead Cow matched: all smoked glass and railroad timbers, with horse harnesses and lassos draped artistically on the walls. A restless, happy crowd waited for tables around its coup de grace: a taxidermist's cow that lay on a giant pedestal, belly swollen, legs stiffly thrust toward the ceiling.
The restaurant, wildly popular, had cropped up last year like a brick-and-mortar mushroom in Old Town, Wichita's restored warehouse district. The professors and the journalists had instantly boycotted it, but the townsfolk and I believed they were snobs. Except for the cow corpse, the place was first class.
Nevada walked me inside, his greedy fingers on my arm. "You sure are pretty. You're all dressed for country dancing."
"Ever go fishing at night?"
"You seem to have forgotten poor Jenny," I said, wriggling away.
He steered me into a booth. He slipped in beside me, hip to hip, until my forehead hit the brim of his Stetson.
He laid his keys and wallet on the table, tossed off the hat, then leaned back in the seat until his belly had room to expand. After we'd ordered, he turned to me with a melting look of candor.
"To tell the truth, hon," he said, "I thought we might team up. The devil's own evil has been brewing in that house of yours."
"You should know, shouldn't you?" It just slipped out. To cover more gaffes, I inserted salad: lettuce and red onion rings smothered in hunks of Ranch dressing.
"Because I knew little Jenny?" he said. "Now, darling, I don't go around accusing folks of murder. But someone talked her into that devil's coffin. Suppose one of your dancers said, 'Hey, Jenny, get in the box. I'll let you out.' And then locked the lid."
"Jezebel would have kicked," I said.
"Not right away," he answered. "Or think of this: what if one of your dancers locked her in that box as a joke? Suppose that dancer got called away. Another dancer came in. She was supposed to let Jenny out. But she secretly hated her. So she just grinned and sat there and watched her die."
"That's very complicated," I said. "And it's gruesome."
"Yeah. It's murder, darling."
"Who is this imaginary murderer?" I said. "Me?"
"Doesn't have to be. Everyone was jealous of my little Jenny."
"Your little Jenny," I said, "was a bitch."
"She was a beautiful child of God. Hell, nobody but me appreciated her."
"Ahmed did. Weren't you angry when she married him?"
He thought about it for a moment, pursing his lower lip. This accented the outthrust of his chiseled jaw. "Sure, but only because she was being such a fool. She was like my little sister."
"No man ever saw Jez as a little sister," I said. "And you went to a revival with her the night before she eloped. That was a date, Nevada."
"Okay," he sighed. "I was jealous. I tried to get over it by fixing the transmission on my truck. But I was so shook up and so mad, I drove a screwdriver clean through my hand. It didn't hurt half as much as my broken heart. We were gonna get married on my, I mean our, show. We were gonna take all the ratings."
He looked me in the eye. "I didn't kill her. I sure wanted to shoot his ugly ass, though."
"Think he's the killer?" I said.
"Maybe. He could have poisoned her," Nevada said. "She would have been already dead when he put her in the box. That's why she didn't kick."
"They went together to my house and he handed her a glass of poison? Nevada, that's screwy."
"Hell, I could poison one of you gals any day of the week. I'd just hand you a diet drink in the can. I could pump it full of arsenic or cyanide or even gasoline. Them drinks taste so awful, you'd swallow it right down."
"Not likely," I said. "Besides, Bentley said she suffocated."
"Well, she's buried now, poor child. There's no way to check." He stared listlessly at his plate. A giant slab of prime rib had arrived. It was about the diameter of the swollen cow in the foyer, yet he hadn't taken a single bite.
"You know someone tried to kill Nef, too," I said. I gave him the details.
"So that's why she's running around with that muscle-bound creep. Darling, it don't fit. Whoever killed Jez was slick and had it planned. Whoever befuzzled Nef into a midnight meeting was going to hit her over the head."
"Well, what does fit?" I said.
"Damned if I know." He poked idly at that hunk of prime rib.
For a moment, I felt sorry for him. But I was also tired of being accused of murder. "Maybe you killed Jezebel because she refused to star on your new TV show. You were furious, and besides, her death would be great publicity."
"That," he said, looking wounded, "is a hit below the belt. Damn it, woman, don't you think I've got talent? You think I have to commit murder to take the ratings?"
"You invited me here," I said, "because you think I did it. Do you think I have to commit murder to bring an audience into Pharoah's Club?"
He laughed, a rumbling-in-the-throat chuckle that vibrated the white cotton stretched across his belly. "We're alike. You know it?"
"I don't think so," I said.
He attacked his steak with knife and fork. "Jenny wanted to stop dancing, you know. She was afraid to tell you."
"Nevada, I don't believe it. I'd rather believe Bentley was a Hell's Angel."
"I'm serious, darling. Why else did she marry that big-bellied idiot?"
"Five oil wells and a free trip to Egypt," I said. "And to one-up me. It's a status symbol in my circle to marry an Arab. It makes you instantly authentic, except that he expects you to stop dancing."
"There. You said it yourself."
"But she wouldn't have stopped," I said. "Not Jezebel."
"Maybe." He ordered a beer. "He's my favorite suspect, but he ain't the only one. How about that sour old man who was buzzing around her all the time?"
I looked up from my plate, puzzled.
"Skinny professor from the university."
I dropped my fork, food and all.
"No. Not Professor Cluff," I said. "Have you ever met him?"
"Just at the funeral."
"He makes the Puritans look wild. He would never date Jez. He wouldn't even look at her. Not if she was naked."
"I doubt that," Nevada said. "Before she died, she told me she was going to meet him one last time and tell him to buzz off."
Knowing Jez and Dr. Cluff as I did, I had a hard time thinking of a shrinking violet under assault by a lecherous old prof. She was probably trying to plagiarize one of his papers.
"Take your pick," Nevada said. "Ahmed, the professor or one of your dancers. It had to be one of 'em."
"Unless it was you or me," I added. "I don't think it was Ibrahim or Ayisha. They didn't know Jez very well." I had drawn this conclusion because they still liked her.
"Still, you never know what people are really like." His voice became melodious. "For instance, I never dreamed David Bentley would marry such a stuck-up stick of a gal."
This time, I dropped no silverware.
Nevada was watching closely. "He ain't told you? Hell, he's getting married in two weeks. She's a looker, too. And rich."
My stomach turned over. Suddenly, I'd had enough rubbery, cold, dead cow. "How do you know Bentley so well?"
"We went to school together, in New York," he answered.
Nevada's jaw gaped. Then that foolish expression widened into a broad grin. "Wait till he hears it!" He laughed until he cried, until he had to take his napkin to wipe his eyes.
As he did, I caught sight of a thin, jagged sore, still pink and brown and red, in the palm of his hand: a screwdriver scar made during a blue collar repair of a broken heart.
My pulse was pounding so hard I thought I would faint. I had one chance. I laid my own napkin over his keys and excused myself to the ladies' room.
Once in the parking lot, it didn't take long to find his vehicle. Of course it was a pickup truck, striped in horrid shades of aqua and camouflage and rust.
I clattered the key against his door lock. It turned. In the back window was a gun rack with a rifle. In the glove compartment was a very big and heavy pistol. It gleamed a tarnished silver in the glow from the dome light.
Nevada had certainly been my photo-stealing burglar. He had broken my cane, perhaps while murdering Jez. Had he also been lying in wait to finish me off?
For a moment, I sat there, holding that gun. Then I transferred the thing to my own car, along with a paper box full of bullets.
I left his keys in the ignition. I couldn't smuggle them back in. I sneaked back to our table with a disarming smile.
He had finished his steak and was reading yesterday's newspaper. The headline read, "Prostitute Professor's Death Called Accident. Police Refuse To Investigate."
I wedged tongue into cheek. "Looks like that young reporter gave you some good publicity."
"Hell, no," he answered, "and I don't want it. I just want to catch the criminal. Say, darling, let's dance."
We two-stepped and I did not die, even though the two-step has three steps and I didn't know any of them. Nevada was surprisingly graceful, except for his roving fingers, which explored the underwires of my bra. I stomped all over him in my character shoes.
I thought we'd shake hands in the parking lot, but he insisted on following me home.
"I want to make sure that house of yours is safe," he said. "What's the matter, hon? Afraid I'll murder you?"
"Yes," I said.
He gave a great, gusty sigh. "Look. I'll come back outside before you even set foot on the porch."
When I hesitated, he said, "Honey, I know your address. You ain't hiding nothing. Where the hell's my keys?"
My heart thudded. "I never saw them."
"Damn. Must have left them in the car."
He got in and drove off. I followed his decrepit old truck all the way to my house. He knew the way exactly. Why didn't he have the grace to fake one wrong turn?
I tossed him the house keys. He bounced up the porch stairs in those pointed-toed boots.
I sat on the railing and watched the lights come on, one by one. It took a very long time and I wondered what he was up to. Finally, I heard an agreeable dulcet wailing.
Nevada Joe was playing my violin. To be precise, he was fiddling. I recognized the tune, "Wabash Cannonball."
To my astonishment, he played bluegrass, then Irish folk tunes. He was good enough for a recording studio. The music was spiritual and sweet and comforting.
No homicidal maniac could set beauty to rhythm with that much style. Maybe he was innocent after all.
Maybe I had found my gorilla!
I found him sitting cross-legged like a Turkish pasha on the carpets of my studio, eyes closed, sawing away. He'd tossed his hat into a corner.
I stood a good distance back. "I didn't know you could play the violin."
"Nevada, have you ever thought of working in the singing telegram business?"
He opened his eyes and stopped playing. "Why? You need an actor?"
"I am in desperate need of a gorilla next Tuesday," I said. "At one o'clock."
"Okay. What do I do?"
"First, see if the costume fits," I suggested.
"Sure you want me to do that?" That angelic smile was back. "You know what costumes did to you and Jenny."
I unzipped the gorilla's back, then retreated toward the studio. "Just remember that gorillas are herbivores, and known to be gentle."
He pulled off his boots and climbed in willingly. The costume was only a bit too large. Then he took the head from me and, with clumsy paws, fastened it on.
He dropped to a knuckle-dragging crouch, as though going into character.
The gorilla snorted and scratched a little. It looked smolderingly at me with its little beady eyes. Then it charged straight at me.
I screamed and ran into the studio. It ran behind, dragging its knuckles on the floor.
"Gorilla love to chase women," it snarled. It came at me again.
If Mrs. Quint was using her spyglass, she would have seen a beshawled, shrieking gypsy run from room to lighted room, pursued by a growling gorilla who wheezed and snorted and alternately fiddled verses from "Wabash Cannonball."
I fled upstairs, then downstairs again, getting trapped between the stuffed camel and the fridge. The gorilla grabbed me in a viselike hairy hug.
I was too frightened now to scream.
With one huge hand, it worked off the head. It was once again Nevada, and the look on his face said unmistakeably that he wanted to kiss me.
He looked soulfully into my eyes at point blank range. Then he let me go.
He climbed out of the costume and put it back on its rack, then jammed his feet into his boots. He stuck on his hat at a jaunty angle.
"See you Tuesday," he said.
He whistled his way down the sidewalk and into his truck, leaving a safe, bewildered woman behind.
Thanks for reading! You too can be a belly dancer. :) Classes start Tuesday, May 1. Come join us for lessons! Don't forget Girls Night Out on April 27! Read about it on our home page. --Safira