Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Twenty-four
I met Cleo at four o'clock at Pharoah's. I'd brought a costume for her, an ethnic-style tunic which was completely covered with large silver spangles. "Come on, Cleo," I said. "Put it on. You'll earn a hundred dollars."
She was already clad in jeans, though, and well-entrenched on a tall rampart constructed of extra tables in the back of the room. Surrounding her were a sound board, a tripod, a video camera and a James Bond-looking pistol she called a Glock.
"You need me right here," she said. "You do the dancing, I'll collect the evidence."
"Think it'll work?" I said.
"Cleo, I still don't see how you can do it."
"You said you trusted me."
Now that it was too late, I realized I didn't. I stood there, frightened, clutching a dozen helium balloons.
Tonight, Pharoah's was especially festive, Egyptian style. The brass lamps had been polished, their little lights gleaming on bouquets of carnations and roses. These fresh spring scents blended with the smoky smells of lemon and spice coming from the kitchen.
Ayisha had provided us with a beautiful table sparkling with pitchers of fruit drinks, exotic salads and desserts, and a great gold-plated samovar of bubbling-hot mint tea. She saw me as I slipped past. "Delilah, have some baklava. Come have some tea."
A last meal? I loaded up a plate, scraped it clean and swallowed a tall glass of an icy cantaloupe drink spiced with cardamom. Then I went backstage and changed into a raven-haired wig and the infamous purple costume.
Yes, the purple costume was mine. Bentley, smugly and ignorantly seated on the evidence, had rumbled the Caddy into my alley, then stalked off without speaking. After a bit of pressing, the costume was ready to go. It was a beautiful thing, with yards of royal purple chiffon, and strands and strands of purple bugle beads trimmed with little golden balls. I had added a few more yards of chiffon in the form of, yes, seven veils.
The Dance of the Seven Veils is a classic: the great Mary Garden first scandalized a Chicago audience with it in 1910. She had worn her veils as Salome. I was wearing them now as Hercule Poirot.
Lying in my hospital bed, I had promised to catch the murderer. I meant it, especially now that I knew the malicious and spiteful truth.
"Cleo," I said, "if this turns out badly, don't let anyone pull off my wig."
I waited in the wings, veiled, while everyone arrived.
Sher came in gypsy costume, looking sad and lugging a twenty-pound dance bag.
Dunya arrived, also in gypsy, covered in ruffles and pumped full of energy. Dr. Cluff's hand rested on the small of her back.
Both dancers rushed backstage. Dr. Cluff took a seat at a front table. He was coolly dressed in white. Casual as Rick in Casablanca, he crossed his legs, flicked a match and lit his cigarette.
Tonight, everyone would be in character.
Dunya and Sher stopped short when they saw me in the shadows.
Dunya said, "Delilah. That purple costume. Is that it?"
"Cleo's back," Sher said. "I brought her a diet drink. Do you want one? You look dry."
"No, thanks," I said. Geez. "You take a seat in the crowd. I'll cue you when you're supposed to dance."
Dunya frowned at me. "You're going to solve the case and you're not going to let us help. Right?"
Sher fixed her eyes on my left hand. "Delilah," she gasped, "who gave you that gorgeous ring?"
Yes, I'd worn Nevada's tacky ruby. Why? The man may have cast me to the wolves, but his ring looked good with purple. Besides, I wanted to show it off.
"Is it real?" Dunya grabbed my hand. "I thought preachers were poor."
I put on a country accent. "It ain't nothing, little darlings, but a pore reflection of the passion that burns within his heart."
They both giggled.
"Look. There's Nef." I spotted her by the door, her gypsy costume bright and cheerful, her little face tense. She was alone.
"Where's Rex?" I said. "I thought he cared about her."
"Oh, he's on a business trip," said Dunya. "Overseas. When he comes in tonight, he'll find out his bodyguard's been poisoned and his wife went out dancing."
I said, "Go on out front, ladies. I need you there."
"I'm scared for you," Sher said. "But I'll go if you want me to."
Dunya stayed a moment longer. She threw her arms around me. "I don't like it, but good luck," she whispered.
With marriage or murder?
She slipped out to the tables. I saw her laughing and whispering, pulling a chair close to Sher's.
Last came little Ahmed and the Princess Fatima. She had arrived, like a little Darth Vader, in a face mask and a black cloak-like wrap called a burnous. These, though, she cast aside to reveal a beaded black evening dress over a figure like Jezebel's.
"Wow," I said. The lady was a knockout.
Everyone else stared, too. Ahmed, dressed in an outfit of starched Western regalia, put a hand on her arm. He looked disconcerted. "My dove," he said, "you should cover. You are embarrassing the professor."
She lifted her chin and shook off his hand. This was America and tonight she could dress as she wished.
It was five o'clock. Somewhere Bentley, in passport and black tux, was waiting for his bride at the altar. Nevada was -- I knew where he was! -- He stood there too, Bible in hand, saying, "Dearly beloved, we gather to unite this couple in holy matrimony." No wonder he wouldn't come.
From her vantage point, Cleo looked at me, winked, and tapped her watch.
I picked up a massive copy of Webster's Unabridged, its cover modestly draped with paper, and emerged, similarly draped, onstage.
I had taped notecards inside. I read, "This is a tale as dark as the Arabian nights: a tale of dark deeds, of love and jealousy. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a tale of murder and betrayal. Tonight, we are all going to assist the hand of justice. Everyone must help. No one must leave this room because one of us--" I peered theatrically from face to face "--is the murderer."
I definitely had everyone's attention.
"I alone know the murderer's identity," I said. "By the end of tonight's show, everyone will know."
Yes, I was the bait. I laid down the book, which must have weighed twenty-five pounds. "This mystery, my friends, is shrouded in many veils: transparent yet misty as purple night."
I nodded to Cleo, who turned to the sound board. Music soared, eerie and rhythmic. I spun, dervish-like, until one of those purple veils flowed, free, in my hands.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said, pausing, "there are two keys to this mystery: premeditation and the word Jezebel. Jezebel's death was a theatrical, choreographed murder. Remember that. And as the story unfolds, remember, friends, to search for the second Jezebel."
I removed the second veil and let it flutter into the crowd. The music faded. With a gesture, I held my audience. "On that fateful Thursday, Jezebel tricked me into leaving home. While I was gone, she planned to visit my house with her new husband, Ahmed. She was wearing my red costume when she died. Did she come to steal it, or for some other reason?"
"That afternoon," I added, "her plans went awry. A friend gave her a poisoned drink and stuffed her into the mummy case."
"Was the murderer Dr. Cluff, whom she was blackmailing with an intimate videotape? He was there."
"Was it Sher? Jezebel seduced and murdered her husband. Sher was there, too."
Dr. Cluff puffed grandiosely on his cigarette. I swear I saw him smile. Sher sat with her hands clenched in her lap.
I continued. "Was it Nevada Joe, her jilted lover? He was there. So was a mysterious woman, veiled," I swept my hand down, "in this costume."
"Who was she, and why did she come? Was it Sher, returning for revenge, or Dunya, who loved Dr. Cluff, who was jealous of Jez, who had an academic grudge?"
Dunya's pert face turned a deep shade of crimson. She said, "If you think for one minute, Delilah, that I was jealous of that low down, red-haired tramp, you're crazy. She couldn't conjugate a sentence in English, let alone translate Arabic folkways. Besides--"
"Dunya, my dear," said Dr. Cluff, "let her ramble. This is how she works."
"Thank you," I said. "Was the murderer Nefertiri, Jezebel's partner in singing telegrams? Together, they were trying to put me out of business."
Nef's smile froze.
I realized that by 7 p.m., when Pharoah's opened to the public, I would be rich in enemies.
"Was it Nefertiri?" I repeated. "No. Nefertiri spent the afternoon at home, dancing, while her children watched a videotape of a G-rated movie."
"One suspect remains, and that is Ahmed. He says he dropped Jezebel off and returned later. He says that when he entered the house, no one was there." I turned to him. "Ahmed, when Jezebel learned that you were a wealthy sheik, did she ask you for money?"
Ahmed sat very still. I was glad. I thought he might choose that moment to shoot.
I lifted the third veil to my face and spoke through the fabric. "It all makes sense. That is, until you examine the illusions. For instance, why would the infamous Dr. Cluff, known as the Tiger of the Nile, allow himself to be seduced and threatened by a junior faculty member?"
"What if Sher's husband hated Jez? What if Nevada Joe chose Jesus over Jezebel? And what if Nefertiri had, after all, no alibi? The illusions are sheerer than you think."
There is a mesmeric trance dance called the guedra which is performed by the women of Morocco. Shrouded like a corpse in my third veil, I let its movements pull me into the underworld.
Dr. Cluff watched with the coiled, feline energy of a hunter. Dunya had pulled out a little scrap of paper and a ballpoint pen, but she wasn't writing. She jammed the pen's point unconsciously and repeatedly into Ayisha's new burgundy tablecloth. Nefertiri yawned and leaned toward Sher. Sher's eyes followed Nef's finger to a stain on her brand-new costume skirt.
Cleo winked and gave me thumbs up.
I danced myself back to the scene of the crime. "One by one, that day, Jezebel mocked the people who hated her. Dr. Cluff came first. He gave her the money she demanded, but she deliberately let him take the wrong videotape. Then Sher came, hoping to find me. She was outraged to find Jez there instead, wearing my costume. She accused Jez of theft and adultery. Jez laughed at her and, she says, chased her out with a sword. Next to come was Nevada. They fought; he wrestled her into the mummy case and locked her in."
"But he was seen by the mysterious woman in purple," I added. "She entered the house and freed Jezebel. They must have left together, because when Ahmed returned, they were both gone. At least, so it seems. At some point in this story, Jezebel was already dead."
I had been inspired by the eeriness of my mission and the ghostlike guedra. To a haunting electric guitar solo, I whirled, fourth veil in hand, until the hairs stood up on the backs of their necks.
As I finished, a dark shape caught my eye.
My gorilla had come!
Nevada loomed blackly in the wings, waiting for his cue.
I peeled back a sequined wristband and peered at my watch. It was only five-thirty and the wedding was way across town. What had happened?
The gorilla made an unmistakable circling motion with one fat, hairy finger. To dancers the world over, it meant, “turn.”
I turned back to the audience. "On the day Jezebel died," I repeated, "she mocked her enemies. But at last, each of them won a private revenge."
"Why was Dr. Cluff there? Not to buy an intimate videotape, because he had never made one."
Princess Fatima whispered to Ahmed. They looked puzzled.
I put my hand on my hip and stepped out of character. "Look, folks. The man in the video had a droopy derriere. He looked like the backside of a basset."
Everyone looked at Dr. Cluff, then at me. Eyebrows raised.
"Why, then, was I there?" he asked, bypassing the more embarrassing question.
I planned to answer this one later. "Sher never reported the stolen costume," I said, "because she, too, had been blackmailed. Jezebel had coaxed Sher to perform with her, just once. Then once again, and again, until she was trapped. Sher paid for Jez's silence by handing over her best choreography. We all thought Jez copied it. We should have realized that she didn't have the skill. Jez even told me the truth: that Sher had given it to her."
"On the day Jez died, Sher did not leave my house at swordpoint. She had been frightened by a more invisible weapon. Yet she decided she would no longer surrender to blackmail. This was a serious blow. Jezebel needed that choreography to remain competitive with me."
"Next came the Reverend Nevada, but not as a jealous lover. Inflamed by Jezebel's own spiteful words, he came to preach hellfire and brimstone to Delilah the Damned. When he entered my house, he saw a red-haired woman in a red costume, exactly as he'd seen in a photo. He actually saw Jezebel, veiled and awaiting Ahmed. But he thought he saw me. He delivered a thundering sermon which infuriated her. She attacked with a Saidi cane. In self-defense, Nevada wrestled her into the mummy case. As he stood there, flustered and embarrassed," I winked at the gorilla, "the mysterious woman in purple came to the door."
"Was that woman Dunya, who skipped class at the university? Or was it Nefertiri?"
"Delilah," Nefertiri wailed, "you remember where I was. All afternoon."
"Honey," called Cleo from her video perch, "you rented two movies that afternoon. You rented 'Bambi,' but you didn't give it to your kids. They would have been bored and would have bugged you every five minutes. You put a different movie in the Bambi box. Those little boys spent the afternoon glued to 'Night of the Living Dead' while you slipped out the back door. The neighbors heard your finger cymbals on cassette tape."
Nefertiri's lip trembled. "I would never, never--"
Sher scooted her chair away from Nef's. "Oh, shut up," she said.
I continued. "The woman in purple did, indeed, let Jez out of the box. Nevada heard them laughing when he called on the telephone. Anyone could have given Jez the poison, then left, returning a half-hour later to stuff her unconscious body in the mummy case."
"Everyone had a gripe against Jezebel. No one had a decent alibi. Anyone could have acquired the poison. But only one person did commit murder, and I know who. Ladies and gentlemen, how did I find out?"
Dr. Cluff lifted the tip of his cigarette. "You began by deciding whether the murderer intended to kill Jezebel or yourself."
Too bad Bentley wasn't here to see this danse macabre.
As the gorilla and the crowd watched, I transitioned from speech into the zar, an exorcism rite that began in the Algerian wilderness. The zar is performed to a beat which echoes the human heart. It's expressed by demonic-looking jerks of the head and upper torso. It is very beautiful, though, and very wild. When I finished, I spun off the fifth veil.
As it dropped, I spoke directly to Dr. Cluff, who was making sure Cleo had videotaped this interesting piece of arcana. "Excuse me, Doctor. Only three people knew Jezebel would be at my house: you, Ahmed and Jezebel herself. Was Jez suicidal? Not a chance. So were you or Ahmed murderous?"
"Friends," I said, "speak to anyone at the American University in Cairo, and you'll learn that Dr. Cluff is a man of character and iron will. He would never have made, much less paid for, a blue movie. But he did have a motive for murder."
Dunya leaped to her feet, her gypsy ruffles quivering with anger. "He didn't kill her. He didn't do anything that you or I--"
Dr. Cluff, abandoning his Casablanca savoir-faire, gripped her elbow and plopped her back into her chair. "For heaven's sake, hush," he said.
I went on. "Dr. Cluff did have an immensely valuable and secret videotape, and those with dirty minds--" by this, I meant Bentley, "--thought it was pornographic. It was not. Dr. Cluff spent most of his life seeking folk tales that traced back to the Prophet Mohammed. He had videotaped a number of remarkable interviews with tribal elders and their wives. This tape was so rare and so priceless that he knew it was ripe for academic theft. He taped a few minutes of sleaze onto the beginning to deter nosey colleagues."
"Now, some of you can't imagine why this tape is hotter than a pistol. Think of a parallel in Christianity: what if you yourself could publish the exclusive story of Jesus' lost childhood? You'd rank in history as high as Schliemann, the man who discovered Troy."
"Schliemann," said Dr. Cluff, "was a fraud."
I ignored this attempt at one-upmanship. "Jezebel, of course, was attracted by the sleaze. She watched until she realized the tape's real value. Then she made a copy. She planned to publish the results first, in her own name."
"That was certainly an excellent reason to kill," Dr. Cluff said. He took a drag on his Moroccan cigarette. "Did I?"
"You did not." I lifted a copy of Memories of Mohammed. "You simply beat her at her own game. You offered her a fantastic sum of money, which you never did pay, and kept her off-balance while you rushed your own manuscript into print."
"An acceptable analysis, Carmen," he said, "if a bit intuitive. There was, of course, an excellent reason for Jezebel to kill me, but not the reverse."
I turned back to the group. "Would Ahmed have poisoned a new bride who demanded money? No. Ahmed is a prince: wealthy, noble, trained from childhood to settle tribal disputes. If Jez demanded money, he'd divorce her. If she slept with another man, he'd shoot her. She would know exactly where he stood, including the very moment he pulled the trigger."
"I don't believe that," Nefertiri said. "He's a sly man."
"Ahmed," I said, "would you please empty your pockets?"
"No," he replied. "You are not the police."
"Ladies and gentlemen, he's packing heat," I said. "He came tonight to shoot me dead. Then he would have bought souvenirs and boarded his Learjet for the desert."
Fatima rounded on Ahmed, her elegant hands balled into fists. "You would kill this beautiful lady without a majlis, a trial? You ignorant man, you would never do such a thing at home."
"Be silent, woman."
"Silent? Aren't you a sayyid? And didn't your father's cousin say that the Prophet once said--"
Dr. Cluff and Dunya were both scribbling furiously on napkins. They looked frustrated when Unruh interrupted this precious scrap of folklore.
"If you please, sir." Unruh held out his hand until Ahmed produced a shiny, heavy, unnervingly large pistol.
"See?" I said. "No one came to my house to poison Jez. But a murderer did enter my house that day. The murderer came to kill me."
It was frightening to think that the same murderer was pondering, at this very moment, a quick final finish. I took a deep breath and danced.
As I unwrapped the sixth veil, even the gorilla seemed entranced. The mystery costume was just visible beneath the remaining fabric.
I stopped dancing so they could see. "The murderer came for me," I repeated. "But no one had reason to kill me except Jezebel herself. Jezebel hated me. She tried to stir that hate in others' hearts. She succeeded all too well."
"Which Jezebel," Cleo called, "are you talking about?"
"Exactly," I said. "We're looking for a murderer who is creative and organized. Each murder is an artist's portrait, a Degas noire painted in flesh. When the murderer killed Larry in the midst of his work, he, or she, left a message. Was it, "Diamonds aren't forever -- when you're dead," or was it simply, "He will always love me instead?"
"Ladies and gentlemen," I added, "the murderer also succeeded in killing Vito. I'm sorry. Vito died Thursday night."
Sher's face was suddenly pale. Dunya began to cry.
"Vito's death was a message," I said. "He'd solved the crime, but that's not why he died. He died simply because he insisted on doing his job. His portrait said, 'You think you can catch a murderer, do you?'"
"As for me, I knew no secret that would make me a target. I was a target just because someone hated me. I was painted as a beautiful failure. Jezebel was painted as a failure, too. The murderer told us, 'She'd die for the chance to open that show.' It all makes twisted sense, except for Nef's discordant brush with death."
There was no music as I danced off the seventh and last veil. I didn't need music. Everyone's eyes were fixed on the costume's moving shape. Sewn bead by tiny bead, the costume was more intricate, more individual than any fingerprint.
"Our murderer," I said, dropping that last symbol of illusion, "is a choreographer in poison. No one was going to be bludgeoned that night on the river. Ladies and gentlemen, someone was going to be poisoned: me! If David Bentley hadn't been there, someone would have found the party girl dead in her car, ready to celebrate a Happy Birthday, with her tape recorder propped on her lap."
"Now the veils are all removed," I said. "The illusions are gone. Who is the murderer? Do you know?
"But this is a party. Let's eat and drink, and wish Ahmed and Fatima goodbye. We'll start the show again in fifteen minutes. Then, perhaps you can tell me what really happened on that deadly afternoon."
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