Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Seventeen
We stood with Dr. Cluff in the gloom of a huge hallway. He spoke. "I never thought the Dean of Students would try to break down my door."
I gasped and peeked out the window.
Bentley said, "You know why we're here, sir."
"I saw the tape," I said. "I mean, I didn't watch it. I only saw a few seconds and then turned it off because it was so--"
Bentley stared at me, amazed.
"So private," I finished.
"I'll be back with a warrant to conduct a formal search, sir," Bentley said. "Then I'll drive you downtown for a statement. In the meantime, I have to apologize for D.T.'s, er, Carmen's behavior. She was afraid you'd erase all her dance videos."
So we were playing good guy/bad guy, and I was the bad guy. Okay.
"You killed Jez because she was blackmailing you, Doctor," I said. "You were afraid you'd have to leave the university in disgrace, so you met her at my house and murdered her."
I could have sworn that Professor Cluff smothered a smile. Then he drew himself up to lecture height. "Carmen, your dissertation is exactly like your behavior today: impassioned, certainly, and not without talent, but with all the errors of haste."
"Behavior?" I said. "Professor, if we're talking about behavior--"
"Officer Bentley," he continued, "I'm well aware that you're here without the approval of your department. I'm not afraid of a man who is going to lose his job. But I have always been terrified of Carmen. Please sit down. I'll be right back."
He ushered us into a parlor with only a Victorian settee and two rather exotic chairs. The rest of the room was filled with canopic jars, small ushebti statutes, pieces of jewelry and other artifacts. Reproductions, I hoped. I sat on a chair that resembled the low throne of King Tut: gilt arms, and a carved depiction of the king and queen created of blue faience and carnelian. Bentley had an unstable rocking chair woven of rushes, also from King Tut's tomb.
I was examining the beautiful little throne when Dr. Cluff returned with a complete Persian tea.
Bentley and I glanced at each other. Now, seriously, how could we drink? We'd probably be found dead in some grotesque embrace in the Volvo.
Dr. Cluff poured out the tea and passed cream puffs as Bentley read him his Miranda. Then the professor relaxed on the settee and began to speak. His voice was poised and mellow. "Carmen," he said, "you were right. There's no fool like an old fool. I did fall in, er, love with Dr. Mouser. Then I discovered her cheap and shallow nature. She swore she cared passionately for the culture of the Ghawazee, but I caught her in flagrante delicto."
I gasped. "You don't mean it."
"Yes." His fingers pinched the tiny handle of his china teacup. "I caught her falsifying interviews with the Banat Mazin."
"The daughters of the last remaining Ghawazee," I explained to Bentley.
Bentley scribbled furiously in a little notebook.
"How awful for you," I said.
The professor's eyes flashed. "There was worse: she debauched my own work by adding flawed phonetic translations from the Arabic. Of course, I renounced her in the trade journals before Prophet Among the Ghawazee ever went to press."
"You should have disowned her," I said.
"I had every intention of presenting her adultery to the tenure committee, but it was too late." He winced and dropped his voice. "She told me she had, once, made a videotape. I offered money. It was never enough."
"That's a motive for murder," I said.
Bentley's pencil paused. "Sir, did you murder Eugenia Mouser?"
"I wouldn't lower myself," the professor said. "On the day Eugenia was killed, she ordered me to meet her at Carmen's studio. She demanded ten thousand dollars in exchange for the tape."
"Why my house?" I asked indignantly.
"I found it humiliating," Dr. Cluff said. "When I arrived, I found Eugenia wearing a red dance costume, very elegant, by the way. She held a tape in her hand. I tried to give her the money, but now she wanted twenty thousand. My God, Carmen." He looked stricken. "I'd sunk low enough to bargain with her when I heard steps on the porch. It was one of your dancers. I snatched the tape from Eugenia's fingers and ran. But she had tricked me once again. She had been flaunting the wrong tape."
He poured out more tea for himself. "What's wrong, dear? You don't like cream puffs? Let me bring you baklava." He disappeared down the hall.
Bentley and I took that opportunity to dump our tea into the houseplants.
"Sympathize with him," Bentley hissed. "Butter him up."
Dr. Cluff returned with a plate of fragrant walnut pastries. I winked at Bentley. "Really, Professor, I'm surprised you were willing to pay all that money. Where's your backbone? People still talk about the time you confronted an angry mob of mullahs in Mecca."
"You think I'm afraid for my reputation?" Dr. Cluff smiled a tiny, inscrutable smile.
"Aren't you?" I said. "You broke into my house three times."
"I did not," he said. "Once, I dropped by to discuss your dissertation. I opened the front door and was met with cannon fire. A few mornings later, I tried again. I was still on the lawn and had to dodge bullets."
"Did you see who shot at you?" I said.
"Why?" he answered. "Haven't you hired a gunman?"
"Today, you came a third time," I said. "and swiped all my videotapes."
"Tut, Carmen. Those hard words are not necessary."
"Aha," I said. "You might as well confess now, Doctor."
Bentley turned a page on his notebook. "You said, sir, that when you left Jezebel in Carmen's house, you saw a dancer at the door. Can you describe her?"
"Hmm, maybe," Dr. Cluff said. He looked at his watch and pursed his lips for a moment. Then he began to speak, slowly. "She was wearing Tyrian purple. The exact color is embodied in a wall fresco in the Palace of Knossos in Crete."
Bentley wrote, looking frustrated. "Her face?"
"She had mythical hair," Dr. Cluff answered. "Do you remember the legend of Tristram and Iseult?"
"He means her hair was black-black," I supplied. "Raven black."
"We'll bring you photos," Bentley said. "Think you'd recognize her?"
"I'll try," Dr. Cluff said. "But at the time, I was too ashamed to look at her face."
"Was she veiled?" Bentley asked.
"No. But there was a great deal of fabric. Reminded me of a sari. You know how to wrap a sari, don't you? Let me explain."
Bentley made a strangling sound.
"And of course, she carried a purse."
Bentley pounced on this. "What did it look like?"
Dr. Cluff struggled silently and in vain for an allegory. If she was one of my dancers, her bag probably looked like luggage for the Pony Express.
"It was brown," he finally said.
I almost wondered if he was deliberately wasting time.
Bentley rose and shook the professor's hand. "Sir, as much as I sympathize with your situation, I'll have to have that tape. I'll be back with a warrant as soon as the ink dries on the paper."
"Just a moment. I'll get it for you."
Dr. Cluff left the room and returned with an entire duffel bag of videos. He handed the top one to Bentley. "This is it," he said, almost cheerfully.
"Thank you," Bentley said.
"By now, it's blank," Dr. Cluff added. "I've been erasing it as we drank our tea."
Bentley began to look green.
I made one last, desperate grab for information. "Professor, why didn't you confide in me? I would have given you the tape."
"You certainly would not have," Bentley said.
Dr. Cluff smiled another tiny smile. "After you made a copy, perhaps. I was afraid, Carmen, that you would take advantage of your find."
I said, "You think I'd blackmail you?"
"I was afraid that you would critique me."
My jaw hung.
Suddenly, Dr. Cluff was back to his old, formidable self. He glared at Bentley until Bentley squirmed like a schoolboy. "I did not kill her, young man. But if I did, you couldn't prove it. Now, good day."
With that, he showed us the door.
Bentley drove home sedately to the rhythm of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Evidently this setback had restored him to his calm, confident self.
"Dr. Cluff is quite a tiger," I said. "He deserves his name."
"Yes," Bentley answered. "I like him. I'll have to show him the dancers' photos and see if he can identify one of them."
"I'm surprised he was willing to talk," I said. "You know what? He gave Dunya a motive."
Bentley raised an eyebrow.
"Dunya has a crush on Dr. Cluff. And sure enough, Jezebel stole him."
Bentley nodded. "She wasn't the dancer he saw, though."
"Who knows? She might have worn a wig. Sher has a black wig," I said. "And a brand-new purple costume. It hasn't even made its debut."
"Is she witless enough to wear it to a murder?"
"She wouldn't murder Jez," I said. "She simply doesn't fly off the handle. Even when her husband died, she was polite and friendly to everyone."
"How did he die?" Bentley said.
"He killed himself with an overdose of pills."
I thought of poor Larry, lying face-down in the diamonds that had symbolized eternal love. The irony had been almost artistic.
A chilled flutter of fear began beating in the depths of my stomach. I pulled my veils tight around my shoulders. "Oh, no, Bentley," I said. "Oh, my God."
Bentley pressed his foot to the accelerator and reached for his cellular phone. "Take a deep breath, Carmen. Describe the M.O."
"He was a gemologist. She found him at his work table, lying dead in a pool of jewels. He was making a diamond ring for their anniversary."
I hung onto the dash as Bentley spread rubber on the curbs. He did this while arguing with someone named "Sergeant," then someone named "Chief." He had bounded up my porch stairs and grabbed the interior phone before I could gather my skirts and climb out of the Volvo.
I heard: "Giselle. I have to-- Oh. Am I late? Listen, go without me. I'm digging up a body. Should finish by nine. I'll wash up a bit and take you to dinner. Giselle, I--"
He stared at the phone, puzzled. "She hung up."
"Bring flowers when you see her," I said, "and absolutely do not repeat anything the coroner said, or report what you saw when they opened the coffin."
"But it's interesting," he said. "Do you have Sher's number? I have to call her, too."
"Tell her to come over here," I said. "She doesn't need to watch."
Bentley spoke politely to her and winced quite a bit. Finally, he hung up the phone. "She's coming. And I'm getting out of here before it happens."
Under the amused eye of Officer Unruh, Bentley rushed out to his car and returned with a crinkly-crisp garment bag. In a very few minutes he had dressed, shaved, splashed on cologne and fiddled with a half-Windsor knot on an Italian silk tie.
He grabbed a navy blazer and flung open the door.
Sher stood on the steps. At the sight of him, she burst into tears.
Bentley looked bewildered. I chased him off, then seated Sher in a chair and brought her a diet drink. I had begun serving these in sealed bottles to deter would-be murderers.
"I thought this was all over," she sobbed. "But now everyone will be gossiping. Especially Nef."
"If Larry was murdered," I said, "don't you want to know?"
Suddenly, the tears dried. Very quietly, she said, "Yes."
"Sher, was someone having an affair with him?"
"That's what doesn't make sense," she said. "I didn't think he even liked her, but I guess you don't have to like a woman in order to hop in bed with her."
"Sher, who was it? Answer me."
"I think it was Jez."
So she did believe it.
I began to shiver. Sher was the kind of woman who would stop a vicious gossip session with a few quiet words. She always seemed too busy improving herself to be jealous of anyone else. She was a nice girl. Nice girls didn't murder their husbands and their rivals. They didn't leave their dance teachers poisoned in the studio. Still, I slipped quietly into the kitchen and dumped my drink down the sink.
Class that night was definitely a danse macabre. Sher stood in the back row wearing a ghastly smile. I filled the air with lame jokes. By nine o'clock, I thought my face would crack.
I stood by the door, but no one took the hint. Nef had lost her car keys, so everyone fanned out for a fifteen minute search. While Nef and Vito combed the dark parking lot, Dunya coolly and thoroughly examined the contents of Nef's purse.
"Dunya," I gasped.
She winked at me.
I barely had time to close my mouth when Nef came inside with her bodyguard.
"Did anyone find them?" Nef said.
Dunya lifted the keys by a finger. "They were under the shelves," she said. "You must have dropped them there, clumsy."
"Oh, thank you," Nef gushed. "Let's go home."
It was about time.
Sher stood alone in my studio, biting her lips and twisting a scarf into knots. "Don't you dare stare at the walls," I told her. "You'll fret yourself to death. Why don't you start work on a Saidi dance?" I handed her a stack of Arabesque, a dance magazine. “There're some great ideas in here. We'll add it to our repertory.”
"I'm not a student, professor," she snapped, but she took the stack. She flipped through the first magazine with little angry jerks. Listening from my sewing machine, I heard the crackling sound of tearing pages.
It was nine-thirty when Bentley called on the phone. He sounded tense and tired. "We don't have the lab back, but the coroner thinks the man definitely died from an overdose," he said. "He thinks he'll find the exact same stuff: hydrocodone. Physical injuries limited to a few tiny nicks on the fingers of the left hand, as if he'd cut himself with his tools. The question is, was it suicide or murder?"
I relayed all this to Sher with my hand on the receiver. "Was Larry sitting at his table, or had he fallen sideways?" I asked.
"He had his forehead on the table," she said, "like he was taking a nap."
"So he swallowed a fatal handful of pills, then calmly went back to work on your anniversary present? Makes great sense. Sher, it had to be murder."
"She killed him. She killed him!" Sher buried a clenched fist in the pages of my best Arabesque. "I didn't kill him after all. Jezebel did." I heard a vicious little rip as several pages came free.
I felt another chill.
"Bentley," I said, "Come over. Right away."
"Fifteen minutes." He hung up the phone.
"I bet Jez was scared to death in that coffin, and I'm glad. I hope she screamed until her lungs bled." Sher stared fiercely at the destroyed magazine. "It served her right."
"Gee, Sher, the killer tried to get me and Nef, too. It didn't serve us right." I went to bring her another diet soda and her own bottle opener.
I heard her plop down in my sewing chair. "Oh, nobody tried to kill Nef." I found her staring, irritated, at a stain on my ceiling. "I bet she invented that belly-gram to get some attention. She succeeded. Now she has her own personal pit bull."
"Vito? I'm almost fond of him," I said. "He's no greasier than a car engine, and he does have an amazing body."
"You would, too, if you took steroids," Sher said.
"Pills? You've seen them?"
"I don't have to. I can tell by looking at his skin. Not to mention his size and his attitude."
For a moment, I pondered Vito's secret vice. Then I said, "Nef's that hungry for attention? How can she be, with all those kids?"
"Not to mention Rex," Sher said. "Those dark eyes, those tailored suits... If I had a man like that, I'd know how to treat him. But he isn't enough for Nef. She always wanted whatever Jez had."
"But Jez is dead," I said. "There are people I'd rather imitate."
"Delilah, you don't imitate anyone," Sher said. "But Nef sure does. She used to take classes from Jez. They even worked on some choreography together. Nef was pretty frustrated, staying home like that. She was a sucker for a little flattery. We all thought Jez was buttering her up so she could steal her from you."
"Why, thank you for warning me."
Sher smiled a little. "Jez wasn't very good and Nef's got talent. We knew she'd stick with you."
"Okay, maybe Nef staged her own attempted murder," I said. "But who tried to kill me?"
"And why?" Sher said. "Do you know too much? Or does someone just hate you?"
"Maybe they're jealous of my hair," I said. "Maybe they're too cheap to buy it. Frederick's of Hollywood, $79.95."
I heard the rattle of the doorknob. Bentley came in fast, without knocking. He wasn't out of breath but his silk tie was slightly crooked.
He gave me a quick once-over, looking for bullet holes, I suppose. Then he turned to my friend. "I'm sorry, Sher," he said. "We know you have a black wig and a purple costume. I'd like to take them downtown."
"You think I dressed up in my brand-new costume to kill Jezebel?"
"Did you?" he asked.
"No." She handed me my shredded magazine. "But, God, I wish I had."
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