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Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter EighteenMore beautiful composition from dancers Daria and Zahavah, and photographer David Staples.

Bentley followed Sher home in his Volvo. I offered to ride with her, which was a mistake. She drove faster than Bentley, faster even than me, blinking back tears and running the windshield wipers furiously in the starry, clear darkness.

We arrived, squealing sideways, at a sprawling suburban house of clapboard and brick. Bentley was close on our heels.

Sher did not invite us in. She rushed into the house and banged the screen door. Bentley and I followed her across the porch, past the yellow glow of the bug light, and into an unlit living room. We squinted at chairs and end tables and costumes strewn around in the dark. She returned in minutes with a thick garment in an expensive plastic bag. She thrust this at Bentley.

"I know you," she said bitterly. "You'll chop this one up, too."

Bentley took the bag. "I promise we won't. We might unsew the lining."

"Well, listen to this, David Bentley," she said. "If I'd known Jez killed my husband, I would have strangled her. I would have shot her and stuffed her in that coffin and let her kick and scream."

"Did you do any of that?" Bentley said.

"No. And I didn't kill Larry, either. I just thought I did. Get out!"

She slammed the door and yanked down the shades.

We stood there, chastised.

"She thought she killed Larry? How much poison did the man swallow?" Bentley reached for the doorbell.

I caught his hand. "I'll explain."

Reluctantly, he let me herd him toward the car. "Why does she think Jezebel killed Larry?"

"Jez and Larry were having an affair," I said.

"And someone poisoned them both. I'm sorry, D.T., but I almost have a case." He started the car. "First I'll take this to the lab. Then I'll put Sher in a lineup and see if Dr. Cluff recognizes her."

"You can't do that," I said. "You don't have the evidence."

"Yet," he said.

"It'll humiliate her," I added. "It'll ruin her costume. And besides, a whole line-up of women dressed as belly dancers? You don't have the skill to pull it off."

He looked down his nose at me. "You think."

"Bentley, I know. Believe me, it takes work to look that good."

He shrugged. "So far," he said, "We have two murders, an attempted murder and a puzzle. If I'd lured Nef out to a warehouse on the river, I wouldn't artistically poison her. I'd hit her over the head and throw her body in the water."

"Sher says Nef made up her own murder attempt just to get some attention," I said.

"Possibly. You're not in a hurry, are you? I want to drive this to the lab."

It was almost midnight when we pulled into my driveway. Giselle had left three messages on my phone machine. The first one was icy; the second, worried; the third, furious.

I retreated into the sewing room as Bentley dialed the phone. I heard, "But, Giselle, I-- But I was at work the whole--" and, fatally, "I'm a cop. I swore an oath. You can't drag me off to the florist's when a killer's on the--"

Bentley banged down the phone.

I crawled into bed, leotards, shoes, and all, and pretended to sleep.

I heard the office door open.

"D.T.?" Bentley whispered.

He crossed the floor. I felt the scratch of a blanket tucked in against my shoulders. Large fingers, surprisingly long and graceful, brushed the hair from my face.

I peeked from under my lashes. He was standing at the bedside, watching with a half-smile. He leaned over to check the lock on the window and pulled the shade.

"Goodnight, D.T. Don't get up and go prowling, now. Tomorrow's a busy day."

With that, he closed the door.

I rolled onto my back. So he thought I was faking sleep, that I had secret evening plans?

I wished I did.

I heard the zip as Bentley opened his sleeping bag, the sound of him plumping his pillow. A shirt rattled on a hanger. Around the house, lights clicked off meticulously. Then in my studio, I heard the sound of a safety coming unfastened from a large police handgun.

Yes, Bentley was stubborn and smug. But he was also lying supine on my silky Turkish carpet, ready to leap up in his undershorts and fight to the death for me. Maybe he'd like to talk or something. I combed my hair, applied lipstick and fastened on that pretty gold aluminum necklace. I tiptoed to the door and listened.

I heard it softly, first, in the dark: a rhythmic sound like the growling of a laryngitic tiger. Gradually the volume escalated until the mirrors began to shake.

Bentley was asleep.

I sighed. I checked the cubbyhole in the attic. Too bad. James Bond was gone forever. I clicked on the kitchen lights and rattled coffee cups. I made coffee. I dropped my spoon. Three times. Bentley continued to snore.

I finally settled down with popcorn and a videotape of Love in Karnak, a classic Egyptian movie. I was watching Mahmoud Reda flirt with Farida Fahmy when I heard a gentle, eerie tapping at my office window. I remembered the horrible fate of Dunya's sister's cousin's friend, who'd been stranded in her car on a lonely highway. She had heard a tapping like this one. She'd found her dead boyfriend hanging from a tree branch, his lifeless fingers scraping the roof. After that, the maniac had killed her, too.

This tapping sound grew louder, maniacal, more insistent. Finally I could stand it no longer. My nerves singing, I snapped up the shade. There, framed in the dark, was the smiling, sweet face of Nevada Joe.

He gestured for me to lift the sash.

I did it as softly as I could. "What's up?" I whispered.

He reached out a hand. "Thirsty, darling? Let's get a margarita."

Did that Raphaelite countenance hide the soul of a kinky mass murderer?

"Delilah, honey. You've spent how many days with Bentley, and you ain't frustrated? Hell, I hear him snoring. What's the matter with the man?"

True.

Nevada pressed his advantage. "Got something mighty important to tell you."

"Let me get my purse," I whispered. Outside, the night smelled of crushed grass and wild roses. The first crickets were just beginning to sing. I reached for the Reverend's hand and climbed out into the night.

We went to the Minus Six, which didn't close until three. The dark little room smelled thickly of stale beer. The jukebox played she-done-him-wrong songs. We grabbed a booth in the back. Nevada handed me money.

"Darling, you buy the drinks," he said.

Murder etiquette was beginning to evolve.

I came back with two margaritas. "Lay it on me, Nevada. Tell me something outrageous."

He took my hand and pulled me into the booth beside him. A good six inches remained between us. It felt like the Grand Canyon.

He stared wistfully into my eyes. "Delilah, honey, marry me."

"I didn't mean that kind of outrageous," I said. "I meant, did you murder her?"

"No! Listen. I'm getting out of the preachering business before it kills me." He fingered the mother of pearl snaps that harnessed his brand new Western shirt. “I'm putting a touring band together."

"Country music?" I guessed.

"I've got a voice, you know."

Boy, did I.

That voice, now, grew deep with longing. "I want to sing my heart out every day, and darling, I want you lying beside me every night in my Winnebago. Marry me."

He paused.

"I'd line you up with shows from here to Miami."

"Oh, really?" I said. "And where would I rehearse?"

"Hell, we'd rent time at the dance studios."

I imagined myself the star of smokey-stale belly dance gigs in Minus Sixes all across the South. "Nevada," I said, "No. I can't leave Balloons Away! and my troupe. Besides, I hardly know you."

He dropped my hand. "I suppose it'd be different if I was someone else: if I lived in a big mansion and drove a Jag; if I could take you shopping in New York and Paris."

"Istanbul and Cairo," I suggested. "Say, are you rich? How can you afford a Winnebago?"

He curled a lip. "I double-mortgaged my trailer. Bought my guitar at a pawn shop. But I'd be rich as a king with you at my side. How about it? Say yes."

To a man who wouldn't even tell how he knew Bentley?

Nevada knew how to sneak me from the house at night, but I knew how to get him off the subject of marriage. "About this band," I said. "Going to play the Grand Ole Opry?"

"Already played there." He shot me a glance, then slowly began to drink. After living with Bentley, I recognized this dodge.

"Nevada," I said, "if you tell me about the Grand Ole Opry, maybe... you never know, darling."

"Don't play games with me, woman. Let's just cut to the chase. I," he took a deep breath. "I think I saw Miss Jenny's murderer."

He looked like he needed help. I bought a second round of margaritas.

"I was in your house that afternoon," he began.

"I know."

"Drink your drink, honey. You ain't gonna like this."

I drank, although I was already feeling tipsy.

"Jenny wanted me to denounce you on my show. She showed me a mighty sexy picture of you, all in red. She said you were the city's most shameless ho', and that you had corrupted her virtue and-- heavens, darling, don't hit me with that purse. It's a deadly weapon."

I unslung the purse and sat down.

Nevada swallowed. "Well, I sure hated to condemn a famous, ahem, and get sued for libel. And besides, the Lord says to reform a sinner. So I, well, I. I, um--"

"So you went there to seduce me."

"Jesus! No. I went there to convert you." He turned scarlet.

"You mean, Bible in hand?" I said. "Really?"

"Yeah. I knocked on the door. Through the door, you said, kind of husky-like, 'Come on in, lover.'"

I was too shocked to stutter.

"There you were, just like your picture: skin-tight red beads, and a skirt that started way too low. Damn! I could see--" He coughed. "I mean, I could see by the look in your pretty eyes that you recognized me, and--"

"Nevada, this never happened," I said.

"Oh, yes, it did. You had your face veiled, but I recognized the rest of you. I said, 'You're making a terrible mistake, woman. You're on the high road to hell.'" Nevada gulped his margarita as if it were iced tea. "Then I grabbed my Bible. It fell open to the Second Book of Kings. I read, 'The dogs will eat the flesh of Jezebel; her corpse will be like dung spread on the fields.'"

"How horrible," I said. "What happened then?"

"You picked up a fancy little cane and began to wale hell out of me."

"I knew it," I shouted. "I knew it."

"You were swearing like a sailor," he added. "I've never heard such words. Well, that little cane broke in my hand, and you came at me with those long painted fingernails."

We both looked down at my hands: stubby, unpainted, with pin-scratches and a single exotic ring.

Nevada took a deep breath. "Delilah, honey, it was self-defense. I wrestled you into that box, slammed down the lid, and sat on it."

My margarita lurched in my stomach. "Then you did kill her."

"No, I didn't. I sat there for a minute, listening to the shrieks blasting out of that box. Then I heard the front door open. Lordy! I ran like hell for three blocks."

I grabbed his wrist. "Who was at the door?"

He held up a hand for silence. "I was a-trembling and a-shaking, but I went to a pay phone to see if you was all right. A gal answered. I asked for you. She giggled and said, 'Is this Nevada Joe?' Of course I denied it. Then she said, 'Delilah's gone on a belly-gram.'"

"I figured you'd gotten out of that box, washed your mouth out with soap, and trotted off to work. Then, Sunday morning, I heard how Jenny died."

"But who, Nevada?" I shook his wrist. "Who came in the front door?"

"I wish to God," he said, "I'd seen her face."

"She wore purple, didn't she?"

He nodded. "But she was veiled."

“Two veiled women at the same time in my house?”

He shrugged.

"You're one of my burglars, aren't you? You broke in to steal the cane and my publicity photos."

"I wanted to see if I could recognize the gal at the door. I couldn't, and that's too bad. Maybe she's the murderer."

That was pretty flimsy, but I pretended to believe it. "So Bentley was wrong. He thought the photos were incriminating. He was sure you'd break in again, looking for the negatives."

"Shows how much he knows."

"Did you stake out my house after that, and shoot burglars for me?"

Nevada's eyes bulged.

"Oh," I said. "Then it must have been James Bond."

"What? No, I don't want to know." Nevada reached for my hand. "Will you take me, darling? I'm a low-down sinner who'd rather sleep in your bed than bring you to the Lord."

"I knew that," I said.

I almost fantasized a night with the man: lay-lady-laying across his big brass bed in some heartbreak hotel, Willie and Waylon crooning faintly in the breeze.... Then his cheek began to move as he worked that warm wad of minty nicotine.

I said, "You know chewing tobacco ruins the voice?"

"You're lying."

I had indeed made this up from scratch. "It's true. I read it in a medical journal."

He pulled a squat little can from his pocket and tossed it aside.

"Besides," I added, "it's bad for your image. Women don't like to kiss a man who drools brown gunk."

Incredibly, he took this as an invitation. He jammed his wad of snuff up into one cheek, wrapped both arms around me and slimed me passionately.

The taste of that minty brown syrup nearly made me swoon. "If you loved me," I whispered, "you'd swallow that."

His blue eyes looked into mine. There was a moment of indecision. His throat worked. Then a nauseous look spread across that classic face. "Okay, darling. Now say you'll marry me."

Half-fainting, I perceived this as a threat. "Uncle."

"What was that?" His lips grew closer, flecked with shiny specks of black.

"Uncle! I mean, yes."

He kissed me anyway. His lips slurped onto mine, then stopped. "Delilah, my love," he mumbled, lip to lip, "will you look at that?"

I followed his gaze to the dance floor. One couple had taken the grimy little stage. They slipped their arms around each other and began to two-step.

The man was short with a round belly, dark-skinned, with a flashy Roy Rogers fringed shirt. The woman, hardly taller, wore a skin-tight leopard print dress. She had a mop of curly brown hair and wide, Orphan Annie eyes.

"Well, I'll be damned." The Reverend's deep voice echoed off the walls. They both turned toward us.

It was showtime. I waved and smiled and unfastened Nevada's hot fingers. "Why, hi, Ahmed," I said. "Hi, Dunya. How fun! Come join the party."



Thanks for reading! You too can be a belly dancer. :) Come dance with us at Girls Night Out Friday, June 29, and bring your friends! Two free classes, a talk on belly dance, snacks, and a present if it's your birthday month. Read more on our home page! --Safira

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