Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Twenty-two
To my delight, Bentley did not call headquarters to turn in the gun. Instead, he ordered me to sit still while he cased the fridge.
He emerged with a bowl of hummus and a stack of flat loaves of pita bread. He brought this into my studio, balanced on the remainder of the six-pack. We all sat cross-legged on my carpets. Bentley devoured the food. Unruh and I helped. Giselle watched, shuddering.
"David," she said, "you're becoming crude. How can you sit at a murder scene and eat?"
Bentley crammed pita bread into his mouth. "Think Vito's an eyewitness, D.T.?"
Giselle interrupted. "David, when did you start drinking beer?"
He absently handed her one. "No, can't be. If he actually saw the poison go into the bottle, he wouldn't have swallowed."
"Maybe he didn't realize what he'd seen until after he drank from it," I said. "And that's why he tried to shoot."
"This beer is disgusting," Giselle announced.
"Perhaps," Bentley said, "we're missing the facts. Why would a seasoned bodyguard abandon his drink while a poisoner's on the loose?"
Giselle's voice rose to a commanding shriek. "David, stop this. Vito is dying while you're gorging yourself on bean paste and beer. And I haven't even eaten."
Bentley looked surprised.
"Why were you so late tonight?" Giselle added. "I had to cancel the music auditions. Again. We're about to get married and you don't even care."
Unruh retreated to the National Enquirer. I retreated to the back porch. I sat on chilly cement steps while they shouted, looking out at a flickering street light and the cats who prowled the alley.
After awhile, Bentley joined me there. His tie was gone and he still held a beer can. "She's changing back into her clothes. We're going out to dinner."
"You'll have to go to an all-night diner," I said.
He looked at his watch. "Oh."
"Better call it breakfast. Knowing you, you'll go to police headquarters first and question everyone."
Bentley shrugged, then began to concentrate. "D.T., this murder doesn't fit, either. It wasn't artistic. Vito just passed out on the carpet."
"No, he didn't. Like Larry and I, he was struck in the midst of his work. It was pitiful to see him lying there with his black belt all limp and his holster empty."
He snapped his fingers. "You're right. Know what I like about you, D.T.?"
"Aside from my charm?" I said.
"Everyone sees that. What I like is your insight. I don't have it; you have it but won't use it. I bet if you harnessed the chaos between your earrings, you'd know instinctively who the murderer is."
This irritated me. "Right now," I said, "my earrings are busy worrying about Vito. Think he'll live?"
"I hope so. He's got police protection," Bentley said. "Which of our suspects did it?"
"Any of them," I said. "Except for Nevada."
Bentley crushed his beer can on the cement, making me jump. "It's Ahmed, damn him. He's guilty as hell, but there's no hard evidence."
"He's bizarre, Bentley. Why did he drive around my house instead of going in? Especially when he saw a man's truck parked outside." I mused. "Jez was wearing my costume for a mysterious purpose and Ahmed was afraid to go in."
"I always did wonder," he said, "what goes on in this house."
"And now you'll never find out. You're abandoning the case."
"In less than forty-eight hours," I said, "the murderer will be roaming the city, and you'll be off on your honeymoon."
"I'll postpone it."
"Giselle will be thrilled to death."
"About what?" She had emerged on the steps behind us, cool and fresh and victorious.
"We were talking about your honeymoon," I said.
"Ah, yes," she sighed. "It's been so long since I've been to the vineyards of the Loire."
On a cop's salary?
"Bentley," I said, "that also doesn't fit."
He didn't answer. He took Giselle's arm as he walked her to the Volvo. I heard the strains of Prokofiev as they drove smoothly away.
Not long after that, Cleo breezed through my back door without knocking. She sported a bright red sunburn and a voluminous peasant blouse of crinkled Mexican gauze. Her hair glowed auburn under my kitchen light. It looked professionally done.
"Ooh, you look thin," I said. "And the hair is great. Did you ruin the bathroom?"
"That's what John said? He's a pistol. See what I brought you?" She hugged me a bit painfully, then held out a sack.
I dug in. There was a foursome of castanets. I slipped them into the palms of my untrained hands and clacked experimentally. They sounded like dull clumps of lumber.
Tomorrow I would begin practice.
Beneath the castanets were a stack of postcards. This was no routine gift. Every postcard bore the photo of a flamenco dancer, her costume frozen for pattern-making. "Yes," I said. "Yes!"
She had wandered into the kitchen. "Hey. I didn't know you drank beer."
"This is Bentley's beer," I said. "It's awful."
"Not bad for a dollar fifty-nine."
I laid down the castanets. "Cleo, now Vito's been poisoned. Why Vito?"
"I tried to warn him," Cleo said. "He wouldn't listen. You know how these young men are." She wriggled into my sewing chair with the last of the beer and hummus. I sat cross-legged on the table and played a castanet concerto. In the studio, Unruh held his ears.
After the finale, Cleo said, "It makes me mad, Delilah. That rotten, low-down son of a--"
"Bentley thinks the killer's cracking under pressure."
"Don't you believe it. That poisoning was an act of sheer meanness. Sure, the kid knew something, but he couldn't have proved it. Someone couldn't resist making a human billboard out of him."
"Tell, Cleo," I said.
"Why? It's as obvious as the nose on your face," she answered. "Use the tips of your fingernails on those castanets. One at a time."
I clicked the castanets near the ceiling fixture, fingernail by fingernail. They sounded a bit better.
"By the way, there was a commando living in my attic," I said. "He used to come down and shoot people for me."
"He read Gone With The Wind and ate yogurt," I added.
"Then he disappeared. What do you think of that?"
"Are you pulling my leg, girl?"
"Honestly. He shot at Dr. Cluff and maybe even Nevada."
Cleo chuckled. "Did he get 'em?"
"Must have wanted to miss, then," Cleo said. "The Reverend's bigger than a forty yard competition target. Now put those castanets in your purse and put your mind where it belongs."
"Where is that?" I said.
"On murder. What happened, exactly, on the day Jez died? No wild stories or guesses, now."
"Okay. Jez gave me a bogus belly-gram that got me out of the house all Thursday afternoon. Then Ahmed dropped her by on some secret mission. We don't know what this was. We do know that it involved wearing my costume, and frightening Ahmed."
"She wanted to frighten Ahmed? Now, Delilah."
"While she was there," I said, "she blackmailed Dr. Cluff with a blue videotape. She threatened Sher with blackmail too, then wrestled with Nevada. Each one of these people left her alive. She must have been killed by a woman veiled in purple, or by Ahmed when he returned in a red Cadillac."
"You sure everyone's telling the truth?" Cleo said.
I thought about it. "No. Nevada has a secret past he won't divulge. Dr. Cluff hasn't been straight with me, either. I can't imagine him falling for Jez, or knuckling under to blackmail."
"As for Nef, I just want to slap her. I think she was sleeping with Vito. Everybody believes she faked her own murder attempt to get some attention."
"Do they?" Cleo said. "What do you think?"
"I think we've got to solve this before we all get bitter," I said. "Yesterday, I found myself wishing Nef had actually been the murderer. Then I'd have a reason to tell her off."
Cleo chuckled. "You'd have to break her alibi. Believe me, no group of boys big enough to play baseball is going to stay glued to a kiddie show while mom slips out and murders someone."
"Even Dunya's changed," I said. "Do you know what? She's a pickpocket. And she has a secret, too. Sher's miserable because she didn't kill Jez herself. I'll never figure it out."
"Yes, you will. You wrote a report big enough to win a doctor's degree."
"My dissertation?" I said. "I never finished it."
But Dr. Cluff's words came back to mind: "Document that wild assertion in paragraph four, clean up those abominable errors of grammar, and you'll be ready to defend."
Cleo said, "I thought old Cluff liked your work."
"He just pretended to, to get into my house."
"Carmen, your dissertation is exactly like your behavior today: impassioned, certainly, and not without talent, but with all the errors of haste."
"I'm not logical, Cleo," I said. "I'm creative."
"Baloney," Cleo answered. "Analyze this murder, and write it all up. It's good to finish something every now and then."
"But I don't have the knowledge. Or the time."
"Hell, you can choreograph a whole dance production when you want to. If you'd gotten university funding to solve the murder, what would you do?"
"Dump it on a graduate student."
She kept at me until I lost my temper.
"Okay, Cleo. I'd trace Nevada through his gig at the Grand Ole Opry. I'd get Jezebel's business records and document the belly-grams that everyone did behind my back. I'd list them all in an appendix by time, amount, and social security number for the IRS. I'd enter a footnote that Dr. Cluff runs ten to fifteen miles a day and still has a rear like a droopy dog's muzzle."
Cleo looked surprised.
"Then I'd kidnap Nevada and make him sketch that mysterious purple costume. Costumes don't spring out of the ground. I'd check the consignment catalogs where people sell used dancewear. I'd check mail-order costume makers and fabric stores. I'd call every dancer who's ever had lessons in my studio and find out if it's hers."
"And then," I said, surprising myself, "I'd throw Bentley the hell out of my house."
We looked at each other.
"That's just the beginning," I said. "The belief that someone came into my house to murder Jez is only a hypothesis. If the scientific community was that lax with its reasoning, we'd still think the Phoenicians crossed the Mediterranean in dugout canoes."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Of course, I do have a time limit. Bentley's moving out Saturday, and then the murderer will try to bloat me full of poison. It'll serve Bentley right if I do shoot someone in the studio."
She smothered a smile. "You're saying you want to solve the case to get even with young David for marrying Giselle. But you're too lazy to actually do it."
"I am not lazy," I said. "I work like a dog."
"Then maybe you're a coward."
It went downhill from there. Cleo drove off looking smug. I was so angry I cleaned off my sewing table with the flat of my arm. Beads tinkled to the floor. I grabbed a lipstick pencil and a big roll of brown butcher's paper. I made coffee, found the phone, and drew an angry line of "Desert Rose" wiggling down the page.
What did that mean?
It meant that logic was taking some amazing twists and turns. Logic, though, didn't do that.
I called all my dancers. None of them could recall a single purple costume except Sher's.
I excavated the "C" shelf upstairs and found all the "Catalogs: Belly Dancing" that Bentley had shelved. Then I began to dial long distance.
I was lucky, although the costume makers weren't. Most of them work in their homes and are angrily available, even after midnight. I had made a good fifteen calls by the time Bentley returned, and had learned nothing except strangers' opinions of my character.
Bentley raised an eyebrow at the mess on my table. He took a step forward. I heard the crunch of tiny glass beads.
I dialed another number.
"Nevada," I said. "Oh, were you asleep? Can you come over tomorrow? Yes, I'd be verrry grateful. 8:00, then? Mmm. You, too. Bye."
Bentley brushed the glass from his shoes. "D.T., what's going on?"
I pointed the lip pencil at him. "Is it inherited? Or is it caused by too much sun?"
"Is what inherited?"
"Wrinkles. Loss of skin tone."
"D.T.," he said. "Giselle and I had a fight."
"The aging process isn't that rapid in Caucasians--"
"I cancelled the honeymoon."
"--so why is his rear so wrinkled?"
"Damn it!" Bentley rang his fist on the table, making the butcher paper slither sideways.
I stared, impressed.
The phone began to ring.
It was Cleo. "I've been talking long distance," she said, "with Princess Fatima."
Was Cleo trying to make up? "Princess Fatima," I said. "Didn't she teach a workshop in Cincinnati?"
"She's Ahmed's wife."
I stared at Bentley across the table.
Cleo said, "She's flying here on Saturday to pick him up. In their private jet."
"Oh, no," I said.
"Yup. He probably plans to solve the case with a bullet. I heard he's trying to buy guns. But it doesn't matter."
"Doesn't matter? Cleo, he'll shoot me."
"It doesn't matter," she repeated. "Because the princess wants to throw the sheik an American-style going away party. Tabula, shish kebab, balloons. Gorillas. Gypsies. Belly dancers. I thought we should hire Pharoah's for the party."
"For six actors and dancers," I said, "the price is five hundred dollars. Not counting what goes to Ibrahim and Ayisha."
"I got six hundred," Cleo said. "You're going to dance, then the gorilla will play gypsy love songs on his violin. For the finale, you're going to solve the murder."
"I scheduled the party before our show, at 5 p.m. Saturday. Get to thinking."
She hung up.
"D.T., I said I cancelled the honeymoon," Bentley said. "I can't lie on the beach wondering if you're still alive."
"Beach?" I said. "I thought it was vineyards."
"Cannes is reasonably close to the Loire. D.T., listen to me. Vito died an hour ago. You're in a great deal of danger and I'm not going to abandon you."
"Vito died?" I said. "I thought he was going to be okay."
"I'm sorry," he said.
I was more than sorry. I was angry, and afraid. Then I pulled myself together and lifted the phone.
Bentley held up a hand. "Don't tell anyone. I want to keep the killer off-balance."
"You mean, you trust me?" I dialed anyway. "Good. I promised Vito justice, and he's going to get it." I listened to the phone ring somewhere in Chicago.
"Do you know who did it?" he said.
"Do me a favor, Bentley," I said. "Bring me all of Jez's business records. Pretty please. Oh, hello, is this Cassandra's Creative Costuming? I'm sorry to bother you so late at night, but it's literally life or death. No, don't hang up. One of our dancers has been murdered and...."
Bentley left, shaking his head. He returned an hour later with a box full of papers, a bag of coffee beans and Giselle's footloose espresso machine.
By then, I had traced the purple costume. It had been a consignment item in Sacramento, placed on the market by a dancer in Philly who had gained too much weight.
The buyer had been Jez.
Two weeks ago, Jez had resold it to the same shop. She'd written a note to explain that it hadn't fit. The shop had issued a check which was still uncashed. And missing.
"I'm having it shipped by overnight mail," I told Bentley. "It'll be here Saturday morning."
"Good leg work," Bentley said. "Too bad it was a blind alley."
It wasn't, though. Jez had returned the costume the day after she died.
Thus fired, Bentley and I worked on Jez's business records until well past dawn.
They were ugly. Jezebel had tried to destroy my troupe. Almost all my principals had done belly-grams for her. Some students even took class in her studio.
Bentley cut short my pungent diatribe. "All's fair in love and, er, business. Besides, everyone would have come back to you eventually."
"In the meantime, how would I have paid the rent?"
"Sher would never have stayed with Jez. Didn't you say Jez stole her choreography?"
"Not to mention her husband," I said.
"Dunya would never have gone over to her," Bentley added. "Not after that 'F.' Besides, Dunya has a crush on Dr. Cluff. Would you take dance classes from your rival?"
I nodded, thinking. "Absolutely. Just long enough to kill her."
I continued to thumb through the records. Jez had paid Nefertiri a number of five dollar fees. They were probably finder's fees for belly-grams. I realized they coincided with a list of belly-grams that customers had cancelled on me.
"At least Nef didn't take class from her regularly," Bentley said. "Look. Some weeks, she didn't pay class fees at all."
I knew why. Nef didn't pay class fees at my studio every week, either.
I cocked back my coffee mug and aimed squarely for the window. Hands folded, Bentley just watched.
I took a deep breath and sat the mug down. I called Dunya on the phone.
"Nef used to teach for Jezebel," I said. "Didn't she?"
"This is Delilah," I said. "Nef used to teach for Jezebel."
"Well, uh," Dunya stammered.
"And Jezebel paid her in classes. Yes or no?" I said.
"I'm sorry, Delilah."
"Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"We didn't want to hurt your feelings," Dunya said.
When I'd hung up the phone, I pondered whether to cry.
"Come on, D.T.," Bentley said. "You'll feel better after we get some breakfast."
"I don't want breakfast," I said. "I want to kill Jezebel."
"Jezebel's already dead." He pulled the car keys from his pocket. "I'm alive. But I won't be for long if I don't get an instant injection of ham and biscuits."
We heard Nevada's voice at the door.
"Let him in. He's probably coming to discuss," I batted my eyelashes, "our future."
"He's coming to help design a costume," Bentley said. "Isn't he? Well, you already found it. I'll tell him you don't need him."
"Bentley, I need him."
Bentley was very satisfactorily annoyed by this comment.
Nevada strode in, smiling. His face looked slightly different. I realized his cheeks were both the same size.
He took off his hat and bowed a little. "Got a surprise for you, darling."
"Oh, that's wonderful," I gushed. "What is it?"
He shrugged off his jacket and rolled up one sleeve. I got a good view of the thick, fairly muscular arm I would be marrying. It was stuck to a round little platter of adhesive.
The platter was a nicotine patch. The man was serious.
"Hah," Bentley said.
I know a stage cue when I hear one. "Oh, Nevada." I puckered and pressed. "You did that for me."
Of course he did it to save his voice.
Nevada swiped a second kiss. "Little darling, I want to take you to breakfast. Bentley," he said, beginning to scowl, "can buzz off."
But Bentley preceeded us out, then meticulously locked the front door. "I was just persuading D.T. to have some supper," he said.
"Supper?" Nevada squinted into the sun.
"We've been working all night. Going to solve this puzzle before I have to, er--"
"Move out and leave me to be slaughtered," I finished.
"Hell, I'll keep an eye on you," Nevada said. "You can move out today, Bentley."
Nevada climbed into the driver's seat of that rusty old truck. Bentley hopped nimbly in the other side. I was stuck between them with the cracked plastic handle of the gear shift knocking one knee.
"Does it run?" Bentley said.
"Yeah. And I can get parts without sucking up to a damn foreign country."
They were in harmony, though, on where to go. It was called The Biscuit Trough: a truck stop five miles south on I-35 where platinum blonde waitresses slung huge crockery plates of biscuits and red-eye gravy.
They each ordered the buffet and began a speed and quantity competition. My omelet and I shrank back as gravy went flying.
"When the hell you gonna solve this case, Bentley?" Nevada said between gulps. "You've been at it since kingdom come."
"This isn't a television show," Bentley answered. "We don't reform all the sinners before the last commercial."
Nevada pushed back from the table. "Well, Bentley, I don't envy you. Your boss is mad, you can't solve this case and you're going to spend the rest of your life stuck at a high-faluting cocktail party while I," he took my hand, "get this pretty little prize."
"You think so?" Bentley said.
Nevada reached into his shirt pocket, then winked at me. "I said I had a surprise for you, darling." He pulled out a black velvet jewel box, the kind they sell at K-Mart. With a thick finger, he flicked it open.
Inside was a big, gaudy ring, suitable for a bellydancer – one who liked to overdress. It was a ruby, much too huge to be real, surrounded by an ostentatious display of cubic zirconia.
Nevada beamed at me. Bentley looked stricken.
"It's-- it's lovely," I said. "Such a dainty little thing."
Nevada slipped it on my finger. The fit was a bit large, but at least it wasn't adjustable.
"Well, Bentley?" Nevada said. "You should have listened to me. I told you I could find one."
"One what?" I asked.
"Are you sure you have?" said Bentley.
Nevada just smirked. He was gloating over me like a rancher with a prize cow. I wanted to drop his cheap plastic ring right back in his gravy. But I thought of Giselle and Cannes and the Loire, and I closed my fingers tight to keep it from knocking on my knuckle.
"Nevada," I said, "you won the best girl in town. Now, gentlemen, if you don't mind, I have a murder to solve."
Thanks for reading! Come dance with us and be a bellydancer too! See us dance at the Warren Old Town Plaza on Final Friday, July 27. Learn more on our home page, or send us an email! --Safira