Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Two

It was a grand opening no one would forget. Police came by the carload. We dancers sat in limp and disappointed horror, commiserating with Ibrahim and Ayisha. Ayisha turned on bright fluorescent lights. In their blue glow, we all looked drawn and pale as poor Jezebel. Gamal thoughtfully made us coffee, then wriggled as close to the body as the police allowed.

Scheherezade, one of my dancers, insisted on covering Jezebel's face with a napkin. Sher flung down the napkin with her head turned aside. I couldn't look at Jez, either. I'd caught one quick glimpse of her half-open, sultry, dull eyes, that slack mouth that looked almost confused, and that was all I could handle.

With her face covered, though, she looked even worse. Costumes, like ships, have a personality, almost a soul. That faceless body, sprawled akimbo in my red beads, looked just like me. It was worse when the emergency medical technicians checked for life signs. I was glad when the police put her on a gurney and covered her and took her away.

When she was gone, Sher poured herself into a chair. She sat staring at the wall, all wilted arms and legs, raven hair drooping over haunted violet eyes. Sher's husband had died just a year before. The poor guy had killed himself and she had found him.

Nef plopped down beside her, looking deeply sympathetic. "You poor thing," she said.

"Oh, God, it has to be an accident," Sher said, trembling. "I hope it is. Because I really told her off about, well, about something. It was God's honest truth, but I was mean about it and maybe...."

Nef squeezed her hand. "Oh, Sher, you can't blame yourself. How could you know? It wasn't like you were best friends or lovers."

Sher choked on a sob.

"Let's talk about something fun." Nef smiled. "I loved that choreography you did tonight. I think I've seen you do it before."

"You probably saw Jez," Sher said. "She stole it from me. That's why we fought." She began to cry in earnest.

"Nef." I pulled her ponytail until I had her attention. "Go bring me some coffee. Now."

Nef stared at me, innocent-eyed.

Behind me, I heard a strong male voice. "Miss Delilah."

I twisted in my chair. "Yes, Mr. Officer?"

It was, of course, my victim cop. His name, I learned, was David Bentley. Officer Bentley's cheek was freshly scrubbed, his collar damp, his face grim. He thrust my veil at me. "You're coming with me. Now. You're going to answer a few questions."

Oh, oh.

He marched me across a cold concrete parking lot and into his squad car. He slammed the door as a few patters of rain smacked the windshield. I sat there in the brisk darkness near his shotgun, sipping my coffee and beginning to shiver.

The squad car rocked as he dropped into the driver's seat; I caught my coffee. He leaned over me for a long, intimidating moment. Then he pulled a little card from his wallet and slowly read me my Miranda. “You have the right to remain silent,” he began. 

It was dreadful. He was huge and stoic and I couldn't get him to smile.

“Anything you say will be used against you in a court of law.” 

Even though I was innocent, I felt the cold stones of Alcatraz piling up around my feet.

“You have the right to an attorney during interrogation; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” He pocketed the card and stared at my chiffon.

I wriggled.

He did not respond.

Geez. This guy hated me. He probably wanted to lock me up for all eternity. All I did was embarrass him in public.

"Well?" he said.

"I'm innocent," I answered. "I don't need a lawyer."

"You think so?" He picked up a neatly hand-lettered report and began to read in a satisfied tone, "Suspect expressed no remorse until emergency medical crew arrived. Then suspect began to shriek." He continued in a perfect deadpan, "'She's dead, she's dead. You can see she's dead. Please don't CUT THE COSTUME.' Is that quote accurate, ma'am?"

"Suspect?" I quavered. "I'm a suspect?"

"No, ma'am. You're THE suspect. For murder."

Oops. I had tipped over my coffee. It dribbled off the radio and puddled around Officer Bentley's shiny black shoes. "Officer Bentley," I said, "she wanted to steal my show. It would be just like her to sneak into that mummy case and make the grand entrance herself. Maybe she just smothered there."

"Who locked her in?"

I heard a squish as his foot moved beneath the brake pedal.

"The lid kept swinging open," I answered. "Someone probably latched it to keep it closed."

"Convenient."

"No, really," I said. "A friend and I moved it here this morning. He was grumbling about how heavy--" I stopped. "When did she die?"

"Don't ask me. I'm not the coroner."

With a little chill, I remembered my own venture into that box. For a moment, there had been the stuffy, tight blackness of an authentic ancient tomb. I'd had trouble breathing. Then I'd flung back the lid and summoned laughter. Jezebel had grinned down at me. I'd climbed out to safety.

She had not.

"I guarantee you, she would have pounded and screamed," I said. "I closed myself in there, and it scared me to death."

His eyes flickered with surprise. Then they became impassive again. "I'm sure she did scream." He consulted his report. "I understand you recorded an outgoing death threat on your answering machine. Were you angry because she stole your lover?"

"I what?"

"Don't deny it," he said. "His father owns a hundred and fifty camels and a Learjet. And Ahmed has only one wife."

"Ahmed has a wife?" I gasped. "What does she look like?"

"That," he said, "is immaterial."

My eyes widened. "You think I killed my best friend for a hundred and fifty camels and a Learjet?"

"Yes, ma'am. But I can't prove it. All I can book you for is lewd conduct and assaulting a police officer." He wrote them both down with a flourish. He pulled his handcuffs from his belt and laid them clinking on the dash.

"But I didn't. I couldn't. I would never--"

Was that a smug little grin on his face?

"You're not really going to book me for assault," I cried.

"I could."

He was trying not to laugh.

"You jerk," I shouted. "You creep with a badge." I jumped out of the squad car and into a light rain. I slammed the door. "Do it, then. Make my day."

I gave him sign language and started to walk off.

"Miss Delilah." He rolled down the window and hung his elbow over the side. "Someone must have locked her in that coffin right there in your house. You probably spent the night sleeping with a dead body."

I gasped.

"The murderer knows a lot about you. I'd keep my eyes open and my doors locked."

"Dear God," I said.

He dropped one eyelid in an incredibly lecherous wink. "Be seeing you." He started the squad car and put it in gear. "Dead or alive."

That night, I searched the house for murderers, a troublesome operation that involved crawling under fabric-draped sewing tables, banging sticks in closets, and finally rushing the damp, nasty cellar with a baseball bat.

In the course of the search, I found three pounds of expensive glass beads I didn't know I had, a mummified bag of french fries and an Arabic language cassette tape. I also realized that my best cane had disappeared. This was a hand-carved prop for folk dancing. I'd noticed Thursday night that its delicate little handle had splintered. That was bad enough, but now someone had had the nerve to throw it away.

I also found a window that didn't lock.

And I, well, I wondered whether things hadn't been disarranged.

Ordinarily, people know when their homes have been searched. For me, this is impossible. My old Victorian house is a sprawling two stories. On the first floor is the dance studio, with generous wide windows and lots of mirrors, and off that is a dressing room heaped with pillows and potted plants and pieces of dancewear. I also have a sewing room, precariously piled with bolts of fabric. To one side is a little office. There, under a white quarry of paperwork, lies a VCR, and under that is a bed. The second floor is really junky.

Yes, it's chaotic. But even I wouldn't dump a sequined skirt on the floor, or let stacks of cassette tapes scatter across the tables. Furthermore, I couldn't find my publicity photos, the ones we had taken in the mummy case.

Who in the world would steal photos?

I pulled my shades. Outside, little driblets of rain had turned to hail which swished and clicked on the new spring grass. No one would be abroad tonight, lifting up my window sash while ice thumped his forehead. Still, I spent a seriously uneasy night.

Morning dawned innocent and dewy; birds and wind chimes sang in a blustery breeze. On days like this, I usually flung open all the windows to watch the curtains flutter, but today that would let in the murderers. So I opened only the window beside my sewing machine and went right to work. By nine o'clock, I had chased out two mockingbirds and a police detective.

His name was Morales, and he was flexible. While I ran my sewing machine, he questioned me from the depths of a tapestry pillow. I would have given him a chair if I had been able to find one.

He sat there cross-legged, a little roll of flesh pooching over his belt buckle. Socks and hairy legs emerged from the cuffs of his navy blue trousers. Beneath these were black wingtips, shined to a mirror-bright military gloss. He looked like a very self-confident shoe store salesman who happened to pack a sidearm.

Detective Morales had the nerve to grin at my offer of help. "Mysterious murder isn't as common in real life as it is in the movies," he said. "This looks like an accident."

"Who locked her in?" I said.

He scowled up at me from the pillow. "Look, ma'am. You think someone sneaked into your house and persuaded Miss, er, Jezebel, to climb into a mummy case. And then he locked her in, sat down on the floor, and waited for her to stop screaming. Real life isn't like that."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "Someone searched my house while I was gone Saturday night."

He looked around in astonishment. "How would you ever know? I mean, yes, ma'am. Was anything missing?"

"My publicity photos," I said.

"Very valuable?"

"Try hiring a photo studio for three days," I said.

"It'll go into my report." He winked. "I bet you read murder mysteries."

I almost wished for Officer Bentley.

"What if someone did kill her?" I said. "What if the killer comes after me?"

Detective Morales flailed in the pillow. He was trying to stand up. "I'm sure you're scared, but it's not very likely, Miss Delilah." His smile was patronizing. "Want to show me the exit?"

I helped hoist him to his feet. "You can use the front door. Just pass all the fabric bolts, and turn right at the gorilla."

"I can't get through there," he protested.

"You can if you suck in your stomach. No, not that way. Heavens, don't step there! Follow the path."

When he reached the studio, he bumped into one of my mirrors.

"Here," I told him. "See the knob? The narrow mirror is a door."

I gave a sigh of relief as Morales walked dizzily down the porch steps and into the sunshine.

"Remember," he said, "there's no need to be alarmed." With that platitude, the bottom step slid sideways under his feet. He did a hasty samba and clung to the railing. "If this was murder, Miss Delilah, we'd be right on top of it."

I waved goodbye, then rushed to phone Cleo. "The police don't care," I wailed. "They're going to eat their donuts and watch us die."

I heard her low, rich chuckle. "It ain't that bad. Now, listen, get everyone together and we'll make ourselves a plan."

"But I don't even know how to begin," I said.

"I do."

The dancers came, one by one, and sat, stretching, on my carpets. Scheherezade drooped into my studio first, red-eyed, sniffly and pale. Her hair was stringy, and she'd hidden her magnificent figure under some ratty sweats even I wouldn't wear.

"Here." I handed her a blue leotard. "It'd be beautiful with that black hair of yours."

She looked down at her sweats. "No, thanks. I'm too upset to doll up."

"Do it," I said. "It's a matter of principle. If I had your body, I wouldn't wear anything at all."

I got compliance and a watery giggle. While she was changing, Cleo arrived with a beer can and a tool box. She was wearing jeans and a tee shirt that read, "I Have PMS and a Handgun." She fixed my window latch, humming to herself. She was as happy as a cat in an aviary.

"Murder puts you in a good mood?" I grumbled.

She twisted screws into the woodwork with short, quick snaps of her screwdriver. She wiggled the latch. "There. No, I'm not happy, just satisfied."

"Because Jez is dead?"

"Because I'm going to nail the murderer." She looked out the window. "Oh, oh. Here comes a gal who knows too much."

Nef tapped up the steps, looking thrilled, wearing high heels and a fur over her leotards. "Poor Jezebel," she gushed. "I wonder if the killer was one of her, um, customers."

The last to come was an intermediate dancer. She was young and cute, with masses of curly brown hair and wide Orphan Annie eyes.

"Hey, Dunya," said Cleo. "You holding up okay?"

"I couldn't sleep last night," Dunya said. "Did you sleep, Delilah? I searched my whole apartment, looking for murderers."

"Murderers." Nef laughed. "How many did you find?"

"Very funny," Dunya said in a soft little voice. "I'm glad you're so happy. You didn't like Jez, did you? But I thought she was pretty. I'm going to find out who killed her."

"Thatta girl," said Cleo.

I gave Cleo the floor.

We sat in a semicircle on the Turkish carpets in my studio, flexing our arches and lengthening our backs. Cleo stood before us, tall and suddenly stern. She crossed her arms and looked each of us over. I remembered that she was a shop foreman. She seemed tough enough now to bargain for the union.

"First," she said, "we pool our resources. Delilah, what have you learned?"

"Nothing. That idiot on the police force," I said, referring to Morales, "believes Jez smothered by accident."

"Not Jezebel," Nef smirked. "Jez was born to be murdered. Everyone hated her." She shot a glance at Dunya. "Well, everyone who really knew her." Then her gaze wandered to Sher. "Of course, some of us had more reason than others."

Sher pulled a thread on my leotard sleeve. She picked the thread, then let it go. Pick. Pick. Pick.

"Some of us even fought with her," Nef prompted.

Sher looked sadly up at Nef. Her expression said, "How could you?"

Nef didn't flinch.

Sher's violet eyes grew hard. "All right. I hated her," she said. "She spied on me. She stole every piece of choreography I ever set to music. I was going to buy a $200 truck and ram it into that shiny new Mercedes of hers. Then I thought, gee, I can choreograph another dance. She's not good enough. So I forgave her, and spent the money on beads."

Nef looked skeptical, but it made perfect sense to me.

"So arrest me," Sher said. "You can't make me feel worse than I already feel."

"We know you didn't do it," I told her. "None of us would be tacky enough to put her in that beautiful mummy case and have her tumble out dead."

"And in your gorgeous red costume," said Nef. "It just has to be someone from the outside."

Cleo smiled.

"If I was going to kill Jez," I added, "I'd phone in a belly-gram to a vacant house and just shoot her."

"And throw her body in the landfill," added Nef.

"And get rid of the gun," said Sher.

"She was poisoned," said Dunya.

"What?"

"That's why she didn't kick and shout," Dunya said. Her voice dropped to a little whisper. "You'll see. The coroner will find her just bloated with poison."

Cleo gripped her by the shoulders. "Dunya. How do you know?"

"Simple. I have evidence," said Dunya.

Cleo let her go. We all held our breath.

Dunya scrambled to her feet, her baggy print dress bouncing around her ankles. "Last night, you see, I was talking to my channel and--"

Our faces fell.

"Dunya, honey," said Cleo, "we can't go to court with a Ouija board."

"Besides, poison doesn't bloat people," added Sher.

“Just because you're a nurse, you think you know –“

“I do know. Poison causes rigor or blueness around the mouth or--"

"Say, Dunya. Seen any more UFOs?" Nef said.

"You're all making fun of me," answered Dunya. "But I did see a UFO, and I do have a channel, and Jezebel was poisoned. She was!"

"We'll get hold of the coroner's report," said Cleo. "Beats arguing about it. Next?"

"I have a clue," I said suddenly. "Someone broke in and stole all our publicity photos."

Cleo raised an eyebrow.

"It's true," I said. "I can't find them anywhere."

Sher, for the first time that day, laughed out loud. She continued to giggle.

Dunya stared up at me. "Ooh, that's scary. What if the murderer broke in while you were asleep, Delilah? Maybe he stood there, watching you, wondering whether to pour poison down your throat."

Thanks.

"Most likely, he broke in because the photos did contain a clue," said Cleo. "And don't forget, he might be a she."

Nef interrupted, her eyes sparkling. "I know! The killer's a mass murderer like Jack the Ripper. You know, a man who hates beautiful, fallen women and collects their pictures before he--"

"We're not fallen," I objected.

"Jezebel was," said Nef. "Gosh, he could be anyone. Jack the Ripper looked perfectably respectable. He could be a doctor, an anthropologist, anybody."

Sher spoke up. She was still grinning. "Or maybe he's a member of the religious right, like Nevada Joe."

The Reverend Jehoshaphat Nevada was a tobacco-chewing, truck-driving local fixture. He hosted "Mission in the Morning" on country radio. Each day at 5:55 a.m., when the rest of us were thinking about coffee, he would pop the clutch on his rich bass voice and harangue suggestively against the sins of the flesh. Although fifty percent of the station's listeners were unaccountably late for work, his own reputation was as pure as an angel's halo.

"I don't think Nevada Joe did it," I said. "We would have found tobacco drool on her chest."

"Don't laugh," Nef said. "Sssh. Listen."

We all fell silent. Sher's face was white again. There was no sound.

"Nef, stop it," I said.

"You don't hear him, but he's out there in the dark," Nef said. "I bet he's lurking outside right now, waiting to kill us as we go to our cars."

"We'll catch him," Cleo said. "Sher, you're the most graceful. You sweet-talk Jez's landlord and get inside that condo. Nef, you're the most Junior League. You can sweet-talk the police. As for you, Delilah, get that coroner's report away from young David Bentley."

"How," I said, "am I supposed to do that?"

She just grinned. "If you wanted to, you could turn him to jelly."

"Maybe napalm," I said.

"Be nice to him. You never know," said Sher, smiling again. "He could be Reginald Bentley. Maybe David is just his middle name."

Reginald Bentley was Wichita's Richard Cory, a mysterious, fabulously wealthy philanthropist who funded boys' schools around the country. Sight unseen, he was by far the city's most eligible bachelor.

"Bah," I said. "He's probably Swinburne D. Bentley, who mints money in his basement."

Dunya was tugging Cleo's sleeve. "I want to help, too. I take anthropology classes, you know. I can ask questions at the university."

"Are you sure you want to?" I said. "There are some real characters in anthropology."

Suddenly, Dunya turned blush-red.

"Well, Dunya, I can sure use the help." Cleo winked at me. "But it's liable to be mighty dangerous."

Dunya looked thrilled.

"Well, Cleo?" I said. "How about you?"

"When I said I had a plan," she said, "I wasn't lying." But she wouldn't tell us what it was.

We agreed to meet two hours before class time on Monday. We would thoroughly search Jezebel's condo and solve the murder in time for warm-ups. As a back-up plan, Cleo would bring a lock pick.

"A lock pick?" I said.

Cleo just winked. "Delilah," she said, "I have a present for you." After everyone left, she handed me a giftwrapped box.

I lifted out a gun, a pearl-handled little number like those carried by dance hall girls in the Wild West. Cleo showed me where the trigger was.

"Make the first bullet count, honey," she said. "Shoot him right between the eyes."

"Thank you," I said. "How, um, practical. I'm sure I'll get lots of use out of this."

I didn't know then how wildly things would work out. My life would be radically different today if I hadn't owned a cordless phone.



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