Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Twelve
There must have been three hundred people in Pharoah's parking lot. There were families with video cameras, farm boys in ballcaps, senior citizens playing poker. They were framed by the false fronts of vintage brick buildings; it might have been a Chamber of Commerce snapshot advertising Wichita's family values. That is, until I climbed from my car.
"That's her," a woman shouted. "She's the one who did it."
“Get her photo!”
A newswoman rushed at me with a camera crew and a microphone. "We're in Pharoah's parking lot with Delilah the Temptress. Delilah, can you tell us--"
I outran her. At the back door, I forced a smile and a wave to show that murder suspects were fun people. Then I saw Nevada in the crowd.
He bowed and doffed his giant black hat.
"I need a roadie," I called. I really meant a bodyguard. A friend.
He smiled sweetly and followed me inside.
The fire marshall would have been impressed with the night's crowd. Inside, it was standing room only, with a Rio Carnival air. Lamplight flickered on overexcited faces and empty bottles of wine and beer.
Only one table still had seats. It was front and center, and occupied by a lithe, cool woman with long blonde hair. Why, it was Giselle. She was beautifully pale. There was no, absolutely no, color in her face.
I watched Gamal usher a crew of boys to her table. They looked barely old enough to drink. Giselle slightly inclined her blonde head. They sat down, and looked at her once in some awe. Then they began to pound their fists and shout, "Bring on the girls!"
Nevada looked around skeptically. "Tough crowd," he said. "Darling, give me a mic and let me set the stage."
"Can you?" I said.
He nodded. "You just leave it to me."
It was too late to do anything else.
Nef was backstage, draped across Vito. Dunya and Sher peeked nervously from the wings.
It was showtime. Nevada grabbed the mic and strode onstage.
"Good evening and welcome," his voice boomed over the suddenly-hushed crowd. "It's Saturday night at Pharoah's Club!"
You would have thought we were in Vegas.
"Starring, tonight, Scheherezade, the storyteller of The Arabian Nights.”
I elbowed her. She ran onstage.
"And Nefertiri, wife of the King."
The man was good. He announced all of us with such presence, such enthusiasm, such spontaneous well-informed commentary, that the crowd was on its feet.
"Let's give a big welcome to our choreographer, our artistic director, that Egyptian Enchantress Dee-lilah."
The energy onstage was so tangible, I faced into it like a wind.
It became a wonderful night. We worked hard. We had to move fast to hold the interest of that rough and rowdy crowd. Nevada lent us his energy and blessed us with confidence. When we began to flag, and the crowd began to thin, he took the stage to offer a prayer for dear Jezebel, the little gal who died dancing. The place filled again to packing.
After the last show, I gave Nevada a hug so hard it made him stagger. "You saved us," I said. "With all this awfulness, I was sure we would flop."
"You had the talent. All I said was 'hi.'" His fingers crawled around my waist. "Let's go out front. There's someone I want you to meet."
After the dancers had taken their grand bow, all alive and healthy, Pharoah's crowd had magically disappeared. Ayisha locked the doors and turned on the overhead fluorescents. The only customers left were friends of Ibrahim and Ayisha, who sat at a huge table by themselves, chatting in Arabic and staring at the wine stains on the tablecloths.
Giselle remained composed and pale at her table, like the skeleton at the feast. Nevada led me there.
She was wearing ice-blue and drinking mineral water. She extended a limp, cool hand that reminded me of a market trout.
I pumped it vigorously.
"I was fascinated to see your show," she sighed. "David insisted. He said it would be droll."
"You did very well, for folk dance," she added.
Behind us, Ibrahim and Ahmed emerged from the kitchen. Ibrahim was carrying food. Ahmed was glowering.
"I don't care what anybody says," Ibrahim told me. "I think you are innocent." He slapped down a huge plate of eggplant moussaka, hummus, pita bread and taboula. Then he glared at Ahmed. "You cannot shoot her. Not here in America." They went off toward their friends, arguing about whether I should be blindfolded at dawn.
According to custom, Ibrahim's kitchen was now closed. If I wanted second helpings, I could get them myself. I liked the system. It made me feel like family.
"The food's great here," I said to Giselle. "Have you eaten?"
She shuddered a little.
I beckoned to Nef and Dunya and Sher. "This is Giselle. She dances with the Met." And has decorous sex with Bentley.
I wiped off the smirk. Giselle looked a bit affronted.
"And this is Vito," I added, pointing my fork at the hunk. "He keeps Nef out of trouble."
"Someone tried to murder me, too."
No one responded. Nef sulked off toward the bar. She returned with a tray of diet colas, in glasses. With ice. I drank mine down.
"You certainly have a hearty appetite," Giselle said. Her eyes appraised my waistline, then went admiringly to Vito. Vito's shades, in turn, admired Dunya. Interesting.
"Well, Giselle," I said, "a woman's figure needs some curves, especially in this dance. Take that little body wave of Dunya's: the one she combines with a rond de jambe." I snatched a glance at Vito, who was listening. "That step wouldn't be half so charming if she didn't have a bit of softness to ripple against her abdominals."
But why was I wasting time matchmaking? I could expedite a murder investigation.
"Have you trained Bentley," I asked Giselle, "or is he natural?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The man showed up at my door this morning," I said, "and announced that he was going to clean my house."
Faces fell across the table. Giselle's fell, no doubt, because her man was running another woman's vacuum cleaner; Nevada's, because he'd forgotten to steal something incriminating; my dancers' because-- I didn't know.
"He thinks the critical clue to Jez's murder is right there." I stabbed for emphasis with a piece of pita bread. "He cleaned the whole downstairs. Giselle, he even tried to take out the trash. Almost ruined my accounting system."
"You keep your accounting system in the trash?" Giselle provided a pregnant pause, then added, "And what did you do while he cleaned?"
"I rehearsed," I said. "Of course. Speaking of, someone broke my best cane. Then they threw it out. All I have left are the splinters in my carpet. And would you believe it? Bentley's taking those splinters to the lab."
Nevada yawned. Why wasn't this working?
I continued. "I'm going to have to get up early tomorrow morning, before he comes by and destroys all my costumes. He put four bolts of chiffon on top of the black velvet."
I scraped up the last of the taboula and drained my diet cola.
"Poor dear, you look starved," Sher said. She carried our dirty glasses to the bar.
While she was gone, I attacked the moussaka. "You should try this, Nevada. It's better than chicken-fried steak."
"I doubt that." He eyed the plate with limp distaste. "Bentley was supposed to be here. Wonder where the hell he is? You can never count on him."
What went wrong? I was boring everyone.
"Did Bentley find any clues?" Sher had returned with a tray of fresh drinks.
"I bet he went through there like a tornado," Nef said. "Some of those finicky men have a real wild streak."
Suddenly, everyone began to look more animated.
"Maybe he kicked down another door, or tore the plaster off the walls," said Dunya.
Giselle looked bewildered.
"Maybe he slit the mattresses with a razor," Nef added, her eyes sparkling. "But neatly, of course. Let's go see."
Nevada put on his hat. "Are you done, little darling? Let's find out if that wolf in a button-down collar has huffed and puffed and blown your house down."
"Let her eat," Sher said. "If I know Delilah, she skipped lunch to rehearse. It was a great show tonight, wasn't it? Reminded me of the Opera Beledi."
"That was a stage production," I explained to Nevada and Vito and Giselle. "We rented a concert hall and hired a live band, pardon me, orchestra. The show sold out."
"And the newspaper gave us great reviews," Nef said. "And we were sewing costumes at the last minute. I still remember stitching Sher into that costume. I ran the needle right through the flesh of her hip."
Giselle may not have been impressed by us, but I bet she was now.
"I was so nervous," Sher said, "I didn't even notice, until I saw Delilah's eyes. They were huge. But it was too late to do anything, so I just went on with the thread through my skin." She laughed. "Do you remember, Nef? We went to a coffee shop afterwards and you cut me free with sewing scissors. Larry almost passed out."
The ice thawed, then. We swapped war stories while Giselle sipped mineral water, looking stunned. Nevada brought us drinks, then I took a turn at the bar.
The party was rolling grandly along when I squelched it.
"I hate to interrupt this," I said, "but I have to either go home or inject coffee intravenously." I always collapse after a big show, but tonight I could have slept on one of Ayisha's tables.
"I'll go with you," Sher said. "I want to see what's happened to our studio." She turned to Nef. "Aren't you coming?"
"Absolutely," Nef said. "I've always thought David Bentley was a secret Dr. Hyde. How about you, Dunya?"
"I am going home," Giselle announced. She rose majestically in her blue dress. Her chest was flat, but her checkerboard-muscled stomach was flatter.
Nevada bowed over her hand and kissed it. "Goodnight, then, fairy princess."
To my surprise, haughty Giselle looked pleased.
"We were supposed to sit together," Nevada said, watching her float toward the door. "But Bentley ducked out and I got drafted."
"You all know each other?"
"From New York," he said.
"Were you all in school?" I said. "Nevada--"
"Let's go, darling. Maybe we'll catch the wolf red-handed."
I was so sleepy, I hardly remember the rest. I do recall running a red light. I saw it, but not until I was a half-mile down the road.
At home, I hung onto a chair while my friends searched the house. I heard them laughing and opening the doors of closets. I badly wanted to follow, but my legs were as heavy as lead.
I had made as much noise as I could when coming in the house. I hoped Bentley had had the sense to wriggle into that secret crawlspace and close the door behind him.
Evidently he had, because they returned to the sewing room empty-handed.
"Wow," Nef said. "It's creepy in here. Look, your cassette tapes are alphabetical."
"And your books are sorted by the Dewey Decimal System," Dunya added.
"I don't think he crushed the velvet too badly," Sher said. "And he even washed your dishes."
"I think we should go home," Nef said. "Look at Delilah. She's exhausted."
They trooped to the door. Dunya had Nevada by the hand; she was tugging him along. Vito walked beside them. His shades turned my way. That stony face looked puzzled.
"Goodnight," Nef called. "Don't let the cleanness give you nightmares."
"She ain't safe here, all alone." Nevada's voice came from a great distance. "I think I'll stay the night."
"Oh, no you won't," Sher said, laughing. "She's too tired for your salvation, preacher."
“Little girl, I want you to know I resemble that remark—"
The door opened and closed.
I staggered into the office and collapsed on the bed which Bentley had so recently excavated.
I heard cars drive away. I heard silence, then someone bustling around, tidying up dishes.
Why was Bentley doing dishes again? It was strange, lying in bed like this while he clattered through my cabinets.
Slumber floated forward like a pillow pressed over my face. I tried to struggle but my body wouldn't move. As darkness flowed over me, I realized that something was dreadfully wrong.
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