Students from our Belly Sculpting class. Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Eleven

I went back to my car for the .45 and its ammo. Unfortunately, the gun went off while I was loading it. When the echoes of the gunshot and my scream had died away, it sounded to my half-deaf ears as if someone was on the stairs. I picked up the gun, and aimed, and searched, but no one was there.

I had blown a hole in the sewing room wall. The plaster had cracked in a crazy-quilt pattern. I hung a picture over the mess and rescued the last container of coffee yogurt from the fridge. Why did I ever think coffee yogurt would taste good?

Only then did I listen to my phone calls. There were two wrong numbers and a message from Cleo. When I tried to call her, I learned that John's hearing aid had broken. We had a discordant, shouted conversation about diarrhea and foreign water supplies. The windows were open. I hoped the neighbors enjoyed the show.

Last, there was a fascinating message from Professor Cluff. "In the morning, Carmen," he said, "you will please call my office. Goodbye."

He'd said, "please." I was thunderstruck.

I turned out the lights and propped myself in my sewing-room chair. I had armed myself with heavy-caliber artillery, a thermos of coffee, a flashlight and my portable phone. In torn jeans and boots, I felt incredibly macho.

I might have had half a chance if I hadn't snoozed off.

I never heard the squeak of burglar cutting window glass, but I did wake to the sound of someone pushing up the sash. The sound was long, soft, drawn-out, like a sigh from the grave.

My heart pounding with fear, I pushed the emergency button on the phone.

"911," said a female voice close to my ear. "This is 911. Hello? Hello?"

A black-clothed figure like a ninja slithered over the sash. It seemed too wiry, too intent for Nevada.

"Nevada?" I said. "Jesus!"

I dropped the phone and grabbed the .45.

The gun was too heavy to aim, even with two hands.

What the hell.

I locked a finger over the trigger and tried to keep the barrel from bouncing on my knees.

"I don't care who it is," I called. "Put your hands up or I'll shoot."

The dispatcher's last "hello" was drowned in the sound of a gunshot, the shattering of glass, and a long horror-movie shriek, which must have come from me.

I sat there, deaf and stunned, knowing that I hadn't yet pulled the trigger. That shot had come from the stairs. Then I must have clenched my fist, because the gun went off, kicking my knuckles against my chin. My chair fell backwards with me in it.

I scrambled to my feet in the dark and groped for the weapon. It went off one last time as I reached the window.

In the distance, a car engine raced urgently to life. Then I heard another gunshot and a sudden, splintering crash.

I peeked over the sill. One block down, a car had spun sideways, hitting a truck and blocking the street. It was a banana-hued BMW.

Nevada would never own such a slick car.

The ninja climbed out slowly, a hand pressed to its skull. It shook its head, then took off in a powerful run.

As I crawled through the window after it, I heard rustling in the nearby forsythias. Then all was still. The shrubs were fragrant and delicate in the dark, and they looked wholly innocent. But who or what was in them? I pointed my gun at their little hearts and jumped. I landed in plie and ran like hell.

I had chased my burglar barely half a block when the police arrived. Two squad cars squealed along my street with sirens and flashing lights, closely followed by a Volvo. The Volvo came around the corner on two wheels.

Life is definitely unfair. I had been minding my own business in the sanctity of my home when I'd gotten caught in the midst of a murderous shooting. Suddenly I was detained by four fully-armed police officers who had all drawn their weapons. With them was Bentley, who sported a holster, a day's worth of blond beard stubble and tasseled loafers without socks.

"Drop it, Carmen," he said. "No, no! Lay it gently on the ground."

I let go of the gun.

Two of the officers examined the car wreckage. "Tire's been shot," said one.

"Not by me," I said.

Five pairs of skeptical police eyes met mine. In that icy glare, I began to shiver.

I hugged my elbows tight to my chest. "Bentley," I said, "a ninja just climbed through my window. It wasn't Nevada. I don't know who he was."

"How many times did you pull the trigger?" Bentley said.

"I don't know. I got scared and shot the wall, but, honest to God, I heard a shot first. The gun went off again when I was looking for it. And, oh, it went off once when I was loading it."

One of the officers shook his head.

"Where did you get this gun?" Bentley asked. He picked it up and examined it.

I was ready to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with one exception. I wasn't going to confess to gun theft.

"It's Nevada Joe's," I said.

"He gave it to you?"

I nodded.

Bentley swore bitterly.

"Can I show you the house?" I said. "Someone really did break in. I called 911, but then everything began happening."

The police measured the angles of the shots and finally took a report. I was charged with nothing. The .45 had been anything but concealed, I had obviously been afraid for my life and no one had been injured. All four uniformed officers did take turns chewing me out. They were quite fluent.

When they were done, I said, "You're not going to go, are you? I'm being stalked by a ninja. And you haven't found the bullet that broke my window."

They didn't believe me. One cop, younger than Bentley, remarked, "Ninjas, ma'am, are known to be friendly to humans. Especially the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I can write a report if you want. Attempted assault by an unidentified amphibian?"

Finally, everyone left; that is, everyone except Bentley.

He sat, this time carefully, in my sewing room chair. A cold breeze from the broken window ruffled his hair. "If you have coffee in this madhouse," he said, "I want some."

I poured from my thermos. I hoped it would burn him.

"Time's up," he said, wrapping long, thick fingers around the cup. "Who did you try to kill yesterday?"

"I'll tell you the whole truth," I said, "if you promise not to arrest me."

"I have every intention of arresting you," he said. "I'll do it with pleasure."

Then he wasn't going to learn a thing.

I pulled on a sweater, then found a broom. It wasn't as good as the one I'd broken on Vito, but it would do. I swept up spangles and plastic jewels, turquoise and glass shards and dust, then put everything in Tupperware. I'd sort it all later.

He watched silently.

"Are you just hanging around, hoping I'll reveal how I murdered Jez?" I said.

He looked revolted, and not just from the taste of the coffee.

"I'm on to you," I said. "You pretended to let me help with the case so I could incriminate myself."

He sighed. "I could take you downtown, but I don't want to do that. Just level with me. What goes on in this house?"

"Nothing 'goes on'. I dance. That's all I ever do."

He actually looked hurt. "Carmen," he said, "I just don't believe it. With tears in your eyes, you swore to me that you didn't have a .45 pistol. The very next morning, I find you running down the street with this in your hand." He displayed the gun.

"Okay. I surrender." I held out my wrists. "Last night I went out with Nevada Joe."

"Ah, yes. The man you didn't have a relationship with."

"Right. And Bentley, he didn't give me that pistol. I swiped it from the glove compartment of his truck."

It went downhill from there. Bentley sat unmoved while I gave him the facts. I suppose they must have sounded incredible.

He said, "You're telling me a fundamentalist preacher prowls your house when you're gone. The first time, he stole those publicity photos. God only knows why. The second time, he took a .45 and waited by the door to shoot the first person who arrived."

"Yes," I said.

"Or maybe he wasn't the one who was shooting at your visitors, after all. Tonight, a new prowler came: a European-style cat burglar who drives a BMW getaway car."

"Exactly," I said.

"The prowler was repelled by a Dark Angel who descended from upstairs and started firing." He rolled his eyes. "The questions bothering you are, first, did the Dark Angel shoot your visitors, or did Nevada? And second, is the Angel good-looking?"

"Now you've got it."

He closed his eyes, looking pained, and ran a hand through his hair. "Carmen, I've tried so hard to help you and you're killing me."

"What on earth have I done?" I said.

"You're insane. You're telling me Nevada swaggered into your house on the day Jezebel died, even though he didn't know you from Eve."

I nodded.

"When you met him, he was dribbling brown tobacco slime into a can at the Minus Six. When you learned he was also a prowler and a murder suspect, you were absolutely hot to go out with him."

"Yes, Bentley, yes," I said. "To help solve the case. And by the way, he bought me a very large steak. And torte Grand Marnier."

"You didn't even eat when you went out with me." Bentley crossed his arms and turned his face to the wall. I watched those long legs stretch beneath my sewing table. They were lean and well-muscled beneath the (heavens!) wrinkled khaki. His bare ankles were as hairy as my gorilla's. I bet he snored like a train.

"Listen, handsome," I said. "I know this all sounds incredible, but it's true. Nevada was in my house on the day Jez was killed. The two of them got into an argument. She tried to strike him with my favorite cane. He grabbed it; it broke in his hand. Look at his right palm. You'll see the cut."

He raised an eyebrow.

"I saw that cane lying broken in my house the day Jezebel disappeared," I said. "After we found her, somebody swiped my publicity photos. The cane disappeared then, too."

"Did you actually see this cut?"

"Yes," I said. "It looks exactly like one I gave Vito."

"You injured Vito the bodyguard?"

"Nevada said he gouged himself with a screwdriver," I said hastily.

"But Nevada isn't the type to commit murder."

"Maybe," I said. "But someone did commit murder, and that person is going to kill me, too. Are you on my side or not?"

He shrugged. "I have to be. I can't abandon you."

"I'm thrilled," I said.

"You should be. I'm overlooking the fact that you live like Annie Oakley with an arsenal of weapons. But what I really hate," he said, "is that you lied about Nevada Joe."

"I only told you one small lie," I said. "About gun theft."

"Oh?" Bentley answered. "I don't believe it. You're sleeping with Nevada, hoping to marry him for his money."

"Money?" I said. "He's got money? How much?"

Bentley looked flustered. "Well, he's an evangelist, isn't he? Never mind."

"Never mind?" I said, incensed. "You call me a gold digger and now you say never mi--"

He raised his voice until he was louder. "Ballistics is going to tell me whether you lied about--"

"You have a great technique," I shouted. "You pretend you're my friend. You smile and coax and flex your pectorals until you get everything you want."

He looked surprised. "Carmen," he said, "I'm not even close to getting everything I want. I'm going to search your house."

"Not Carmen," I said. "Delilah. And go for it. I have nothing to hide."

"I'll be thorough. I have the time." He was completely calm now, even genial. I wanted to hit him. "I've been suspended. Only for three days, but it goes on my record."

"Bentley," I said. "What did you do?"

"The chief told me to lay off this case. I gave him my opinion of that order." He drank the last of his coffee and started up the stairs. They creaked beneath his weight.

"Hey. Why should you leave the case alone?"

"I guess Morales must have read him the riot act," he said, looking over his shoulder. "Something about an 'unseasoned young officer' and 'all legs and no credibility'." He reached the second floor and disappeared around a corner.

"Morales wouldn't know a murderer if one pulled a gun on him," I said, more or less to myself. "I guess you're better, even if you are a pain."

"Well, thanks." Bentley grinned down at me from the second floor landing.

He was as mellow now as he would ever be.

"Bentley," I said, "why did you get kicked out of school?"

"I ran a man's head through a wall," he answered. "One thin little piece of wallboard a half-inch thick and some wallpaper. That's all."

"Pretty brutal," I said. "You might have killed him, you animal."

"Sorry, D.T. I knew where the studs were."

"Seriously? What did you do, measure the wall before you struck?"

He leaned forward, both hands on the bannister. "I was the class hero until the faculty heard about it. Then I had to go. Well, I chose to go. I thought I had potential in law enforcement."

"I was hoping you were a Hell's Angel or a gigolo," I said.

"I ran his head through the wall," he repeated, savoring the memory. "And after I pulled him out, I took that damned fiddle and broke it over his head."

"Nevada?" I gasped. "You ran Nevada's head through a wall?"

"Sure. He even argued to keep me in school. He knew he deserved it."

"For what?" I said.

But he'd dropped to his knees on the carpet at the top of the stairs. "Say, D.T., I think I've found something."

"Why do you call me D.T.? It sounds like bug spray."

"I can't keep calling you Delilah the Temptress, can I? Look here." He held a bullet casing between finger and thumb. It matched the casing I'd found earlier.

"It wasn't Nevada, then," I said, squinting up the stairs. "It couldn't be, because I have his gun."

"You think he's got just one gun?" Bentley asked.

He disappeared again. I heard him open a bedroom door. He sucked in his breath. "Sweet Jesus," he whispered.

"Bentley. Is it a body?" I rushed up the stairs.

There was dismay on his face. "Are all those boxes full of books? We'll have to look through every one of them."

"Oh, so it's 'we'?"

"Pitch in, D.T." He began stacking books on the floor in rectangular blocks. Each time he emptied a box, he neatly flattened it. I had thousands of books. Soon, he'd reach gridlock.

I sat cross-legged, refusing to complain. Then I realized I could practice a little one-upmanship and assist the police at the same time. I took a flashlight and attacked a closet. Behind that closet, I remembered, was a cubbyhole leading to an attic crawlspace. It was too small for a human, but it was truly the only place I hadn't already looked.

My heart bumped in my chest when I saw that its little latch was unfastened. I excavated footwear and hairpieces, and pulled it open.

My nose detected a wave of cool air, a musty, half-damp attic smell. There was a hint of something sour.

The hole was bigger than I remembered. It wasn't pleasant, but I could slip my shoulders into the opening. Inside, the space angled from three feet to three inches in height and the roof trusses were studded with nails.

My heart was beating hard but the thought of Bentley's mockery pushed me forward until everything but my feet rested in the attic. I peered around with my worthless flashlight. Its battery was dying. It gave only a wan yellow puddle of light.

My arms were in demi-seconde, feeling for clues, when I encountered something cold and slimy-slick as a coagulated bucket of blood.

I screamed.

I heard books tumble to the floor. Then strong hands gripped my ankles and gave a mighty jerk.

"Stop," I shouted. I dropped my flashlight and covered my face. "There are nails everywhere."

"I thought you were being murdered." Bentley's hands slid up to my hips and fastened on. No doubt he had a logical reason for this. "What did you find?"

"I dropped my flashlight," I said. "I can't tell. A dead animal, half-eaten, with the entrails hanging out."

Bentley began pulling again.

I clung to a rafter. "Maybe it's not an animal. Maybe I could use your flashlight. If you have one."

To my surprise, his hands left my hips. He handed me a massive flashlight. "Be careful," he said.

I wriggled back in. What I found was no animal. It was a half-eaten quart of coffee yogurt, spilled on the insulation between the rafters.

Yogurt?

I flashed the light some more, and gasped.

"What is it?" Bentley called. His face was silhouetted in the little doorway like a cat's at a mousehole. "I can't see a thing."

Spread on a piece of plywood was a rough boy scout camp. There was a blanket: mine. There was a canteen, a box of crackers, a wicked-looking gun and five boxes of ammunition. There was a Swiss Army knife and a device that looked like a headset and microphone. And there were three books: How to Kill a Man in Seven Blows, The Poor Man's James Bond, and Gone With The Wind.

"What is it? D.T. Answer me."

"I do have a Dark Angel. He's been living in my attic." I crawled out backwards and handed him the flashlight.

He squeezed himself in, one shoulder at a time. He was in there forever.

"Wow," I heard him say. "This one's a classic."

"This one what?"

"Well, the gun's a classic, too. Israeli army issue, 1965, or I miss my guess. How did he get hold of it?"

"Damn it, Bentley," I said. "A homicidal maniac's been camped in my wig closet and all you can do is read Gone with the Wind."

He came out smiling. "He's got the Bionic Ear. It's a surveillance device. I wonder how well it works."

"I wonder why he didn't murder me." How long had he been here? Mrs. Quint had seen him. She thought it was Bentley.

"I'm going to pack and move out," I said, hugging myself. "Today."

He patted my arm consolingly. "It's okay, D.T. If he wanted to kill you, he could have done it any night."

"Some cop you are. I'm living with a maniac and you didn't even know."

He took me by the shoulders and melted me with those deep blue eyes. "Don't you see? This is wonderful. It's my big break."

"Pardon me?"

"Tonight's your night at Pharoah's," he said. "Right? You go. I'll wait here and catch him for you."

"You'd better," I said. "Under no circumstances will I come back tonight to this empty house."

A corner of his mouth twitched. "We'll spend the whole night together. Where do you sleep, by the way?"

"When this case is solved," I said with dignity, "I plan to clear off the bed."

"You'd better do it today," he answered. "I think something critical is hidden somewhere in this house. At least two other people are after it. We have to find it. Right now."

"Right now?" I looked at my watch. "Bentley, I just can't. I have to practice. I have to finish my choreography and tape music."

"You'd rather have your throat slit than improvise your show?"

"Well." He put it so crudely. "I don't want to bomb at Pharoah's."

He whistled under his breath. "You're a real artist, Delilah. I admire that. You go ahead and practice. I'll look for the clue."

"Great," I said. "Don't forget to fold all the fabric."

I turned up the music to drown out the slamming of drawers and the thump of fabric bolts unrolling on the table. Soon, these sounds faded completely. They were replaced by an ominous silence.

I shrugged and continued to rehearse.

After a couple of hours, he began trying to drive me out of the studio. He evidently thought he could succeed by popping in every two minutes with silly questions like, "Is 'El Hassan' filed with 'Hassan' or 'Elkoury'?"

"Just put everything back where you got it," I said, "and don't tempt me to quit."

He didn't drive me out with the smell of catered pizza and fresh-brewed coffee. He didn't even stop me with comments like, "Not a bad combination, but it's too staccato for too long. You should intersperse an adage somewhere after that third measure."

I finally went nuclear, though, when he said, "Take a break. I've done a little cleaning. See? I've stacked all your fabric."

Sure enough, he'd thrown four bolts of chiffon on top of the velvet. The velvet was completely crushed.

"But that filmy stuff's lighter than velvet," he said, taken aback at my fury.

"Not twenty pounds of it," I shouted.

"Have a fit, D.T. Look here. I've combined all these little bags of beads."

"You unsorted all my beads?"

"You can find them now. They're right here with the needles and beading thread."

"You put my needles in with my beads?"

He barely cracked a smile. "Get back to the studio. You're on in seven hours and you look pretty rusty."

I decided I'd practiced enough.

It was a good thing, too. I caught him trying to carry out my office wastebasket. I usually saved my work orders there until all my belly-gram checks had come in.

While I rescued the trash, he gathered a huge stack of videotapes into his arms. "These aren't labeled," he said. "How can you tell what's on them?"

"By where they were placed," I said, gritting my teeth. "Get out of my house! I mean, make yourself useful. Put some plastic over that broken window."

"I'll use glass," he said.

Before he left for the lumberyard, he made a phone call.

"Hi, darling," he said into the mouthpiece. "It's me. I can't make it tonight. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. It's business... Tomorrow?" His voice dropped. It became almost gooey. "Mmmm. You too. Bye."

"Gag," I said.

"So don't eavesdrop." He went out the front door.

I had the dishes rinsed and stacked by the time he came back. He'd shaved, pressed his clothes, and covered his hairy ankles with patterned silk socks. I'd put my hair in a torn bandana and run my best tights. Oh, well. I hiked up my legwarmers and went back to work.

It is amazing how much a hyperorganized man and a screaming woman can accomplish. By six p.m., we had most of the downstairs in a depressing state of neatness, but we'd found no clues.

We still had to finish the upstairs, including more books, the bathroom and the closets, but it was time for me to dress.

"I forbid you to touch a thing," I said. "Even the trash."

"I'll just sit upstairs and read How to Kill a Man in Seven Blows," he promised. "Give me a house key. I'll slip in after dark."

I thought he would leave then, but he installed shelves in a closet while I put on my makeup.

"What's her name?" I called from the bathroom.

"Giselle. Like the ballet."

"Yeah," I muttered. "And I'm the Sugar Plum Fairy."

He had heard me. "No, really. Her mother was famous for the role. Giselle went to New York, herself, but she's back now. She's a principal dancer with Metropolitan Ballet."

"That Giselle." Suddenly, my makeup looked sallow and my stomach pooched. I sucked it in but it didn't help much. "Why'd she come back?"

"She was grateful for her success and wanted to give a little back to the community."

I knew what that meant. The competition was too stiff in the Big Apple.

"She wants to see you dance," he offered.

Sure she did. "Say, Bentley. Have you two ever done it in handcuffs?"

There was a long silence. Then he answered, "Have you ever done it in a belly dance costume?"

"This is art," I said rather loftily, sticking on false eyelashes. "I don't dance for male entertainment." I sprayed my chest with Firm Grip and fastened my bra. Reach inside, pull one up, adjust the other, straighten the strap.

"So you're getting married in a couple of weeks?" I said.

"Two weeks to the day."

I began to pin my belt and skirt and pantyhose and dance trunks together. As usual, I had begun trembling with stage fright. The pins stabbed into my hips and fingers. I wished Giselle could share the sensation.

"Do you know where my gold shoes are?" I called. "The ones with the two-inch heels?"

"Right here on the second shelf," he answered. "Now you can even see them. Aren't you glad I cleaned?"

I jammed them on, grabbed a veil and a dance bag, and shook his hand as I went out the door.

"Thanks in advance for saving my life, Bentley. And some advice: never marry a woman who won't do it in cuffs."



Thanks for reading! You too can be a belly dancer. :) Classes start Tuesday, May 1. Come join us for lessons! Check us out on FB by clicking on the top left of the home page! --Safira

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