Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Twenty-five
My audience was a bit stunned, so I led the applause and left the stage. After a moment, everyone converged greedily on the snack table. Evidently I'd convinced them that the poisoner was only after me.
I saw Dunya pour tea, drink it down immediately, and pour more. She wandered into the kitchen, taking the cup with her. Sher poured tea and drank half of it, then set it on a table. Dr. Cluff poured tea and kept hold of his cup. Nef poured tea and sat it on a table next to another teacup. Then the crowd swirled around the table and all the cups were lost to my view. This was not comforting. I was supposed to drink tea in front of the audience – and I wanted it to be unpoisoned.
At 14 minutes, 47 seconds, the gorilla loped out from the wings, dragging his fiddle gently across the stage. Then, slipping into the crowd, he played the first few bars of "Wabash Cannonball" to conclude intermission.
This, I thought, is going to be a good party after all.
The gorilla, though, stopped his song in mid-note. He sawed a few times, experimentally. I swear I saw him wince. He stopped the show and, for what seemed like eternity, tuned the instrument. Did he think this was the symphony?
Finally he returned to center stage and drew that bow across the strings. Music swelled. It was wild and sad and different than before: the authentic voice of the wandering Romany, and he played it like a native son. He played with anguish, with passion, as if the campfire was crackling and night was at hand.
The gypsies were supposed to perform. They stood enchanted, instead, with teacups in their hands.
I nudged Nefertiri.
She took the stage and slowly lifted both arms. The gorilla began a new song: a drinking song, masculine, dramatic and filled with pathos. It was Russian. I knew the words:
"You've gone, your lovely shoulders disappeared
in the dark of the night
Where the rings fell in the green.
I cannot pick them up
Nor can I bring back the love of my dearest.
This, then, is the end of happiness."
Nef danced with haughty authority; her movements echoed the music's grief. I realized that this was, ironically, her goodbye. She had fought to steal my studio. I had accused her of it, right here in front of everyone. There were two reasons, now, why we would never share dance again.
The melody, slow and soulful, became faster, lighter and more merry, until with banging tambourines, the others joined her, spinning.
At last the party was in full swing. Even Dr. Cluff was dancing, Lebanese style, with twisting hips and bold arms. As for me, I had fallen in love.
Tonight Nevada played with such fire, such feeling that the very strings of his instrument were living beings. Tobacco drool or not, I would marry him. I would leave my studio to wander in his gypsy Winnebago. I would climb his tree in the jungle, share his bananas under a tropical moon.
I flung my house key onto the stage.
Dunya brought me a cup. Wordlessly, she handed it to me: a delicate thing made of white china, filled with dark amber tea. Her eyes met mine for half a heartbeat. Then she turned away. Yes, I was supposed to drink the tea and pretend to die, in order to provoke a confrontation. Cleo was supposed to get me safe tea to drink. This must be it. But where did it come from? There were so many teacups sitting around right now, they could all be poisoned. Our clever plan was insane.
Cleo was standing at her perch, watching the party with a grim look on her face.
I looked up at her and raised the cup and my eyebrows. “Is this okay?” I mouthed.
“You sure it's ok?”
Cleo nodded twice.
“Really, really sure?”
She grinned and gestured. “Drink up!”
Geez. The show must go on. I held that cup and banged a spoon against a glass.
"It's time," I announced, "to solve a murder."
The gorilla backed toward a duffel bag and a violin case at one corner of the stage. Everyone else took their seats.
"Are you ready?" I said. "Has anyone solved the crime?"
A single tear tracked Dunya's cheek.
I smiled cheerfully. "Well, then, I'll solve it myself. I'll begin by telling you why Jezebel was there in my house. Jez wanted my famous red costume. Ahmed wanted Jez. They agreed to sneak into my house, dress Jez in the costume--"
I wished Bentley were here.
"--and do it in the mummy case."
There were giggles and whispers. Ahmed blushed.
True, Bentley couldn't fit into that box. I had measured it, though. And I had measured Ahmed. Even with his belly, there was just enough room.
"Friends," I said, "imagine Ahmed's frustration as he stood outside, watching visitor after visitor knock on my door. He couldn't chase them out. He had to wait. To kill time, he drove to a car rental shop and leased a hot car."
I stared down at the cup and began to shake. No. This was no time for fear. This was a performance, maybe my most important show ever. I was going to finish it.
"In the meantime, Dr. Cluff gloated over Jezebel's failure at blackmail. Sher came and left in tears. Nevada preached, wrestled, and locked Jez in the mummy case. Then came the woman in purple.
"But let me digress. The murderer, ladies and gentlemen, was indeed a Jezebel: a person as jealous and hateful as the biblical harlot who murdered Naboth for his vineyard. This Jezebel wanted my studio, my reputation, my talent.
"She came to my studio in this purple costume. Although she cleaned it, the police lab found a single, broken hair. It was wedged under the pad in the left bra cup."
This, of course, was a lie.
No one breathed.
"In her purse was the poison," I added. "She had come to lure me into a costume and into the mummy case. Instead, to her astonishment, she found Jezebel already locked in. She stood there awhile, watching the case shiver, listening to Jezebel scream.
"This was wonderful. She could poison Jezebel instead. If Nevada wasn't convicted of the crime, she'd make sure I took the blame. Then she'd poison me. She'd have two dance companies all to herself.
"She let Jezebel out of the box and fixed her a soothing, warm cup of tea." I gestured.
Sher started. Dunya began whispering furiously to her.
"As Jezebel drank," I said, "the murderer probably told Jez how to get by with murder: fix poison for Delilah in a warm drink, then pat her hand and smile after the last drop was gone.
"She probably laughed as Jezebel stumbled, frightened, to her feet, then gasped for breath and passed out. The murderer took Ahmed's dowry necklace from Jezebel's neck and hid it in my house to frame me. Then she put Jez, now dying, back into the box.
"Now she had two murders to her credit. The first happened after day Larry said he didn't love her. In revenge, she stopped him from loving his wife.
"The murderer was a woman who had been rejected by men. Larry had cast her off, her husband was always gone, Vito had ignored her. She was Jezebel's second in command, my own top dancer. And the reason she killed was," I waved a hand toward the Pharoah's stage, "this. Ladies and gentlemen, the murderer is Nefertiri."
With that, I tipped the cup to my mouth.
A look of horror crossed Sher's face. She leaped to her feet, but Dunya pulled her down.
I tipped the cup further. The liquid was almost to my lipstick line when I heard, no, felt, a deafening crack. The teacup ripped from my hand. It danced in pieces on the floor.
What on earth?
I looked up at Cleo. She lifted empty hands and pointed stage left.
The gorilla stood with its feet braced wide, a pistol clenched in its hairy paws. It looked incredibly, passionately virile.
"Yes!" I said. "Oh, God, yes!" Across the room, our eyes met. His were glassy and red. I searched for the eye holes beneath. This was definitely not Nevada.
I heard the rustle of fabric. Nef was slinking toward the emergency exit. She flung herself at the safety bar, one hand still clutching her purse.
"Grab her," I shouted.
The gorilla flung aside the gun and thundered forward.
Panting, Nef pushed open the door.
The gorilla clamped a viselike paw on her wrist and dragged her inside. He stood there a moment while Nef pounded helplessly with her fists. Then he nodded and pulled her purse from her hand. With the prize to himself, he began to rummage. Lipsticks flew out, checkbook, wallet, a crumpled envelope. The gorilla peered into the envelope, then poured himself a steaming cup of tea. Nef edged toward the door again, and bumped into Ahmed. Everyone had gathered closer to watch. She and the gorilla were in the center of a circle.
"W-what are you doing?" said Nef, half in laughter, half in tears.
In answer, the gorilla upended the contents of the envelope into the liquid. A little white cloud of powder puffed, then vanished.
A chill ran over me as I realized what he was going to do.
Nef realized it, too. She looked wildly for an escape. "This isn't funny. Officer Unruh! Help!"
But Unruh had disappeared.
The gorilla gave the teacup to Sher. She smiled and set it behind her on the snack table.
Nef lunged between Ahmed and Fatima and made a break for the door, but the gorilla caught her and wrestled her to the carpet. Nef, all teeth and petticoats and flailing legs, managed to land a few good kicks, but she couldn't bite through that thick mass of hair. Finally, the gorilla sat on her legs and squeezed open her jaw.
Sher lifted the cup from the table. I saw her measure Nef with her eyes. Then, standing over Nef's wriggling form, she aimed and poured. The amber liquid splashed down Nef's chin, across the gorilla's knuckles, and into Nef's mouth.
Nef screamed. "Oh, God, it hurts. It burns! You saw her, all of you. She killed me. She made me drink poison."
Dr. Cluff sniffed the teacup. "Smells like almonds. That's cyanide. One might say Nefertiri's upgraded her technique. This way, she makes sure the victim won't recover. Unfortunately, she's now the victim."
"I've seen it in the emergency room," Sher added, quite calmly. "She'll be dead in five minutes. Well, Nef, anything you want to say before you go?"
The gorilla had risen to its feet. It thumped into a chair and crossed its arms. Nef lay dramatically crumpled. I helped her sit up and straighten her dress.
Belatedly, Unruh ran from the men's room. I saw him toss a newspaper and his coffee mug sideways, staining Ayisha's good carpet.
We all shouted conflicting phrases until he understood what had happened.
"Call an ambulance," he ordered. "Everyone be quiet." Then, solemnly, "Nefertiri, you have the right to remain silent. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," trembled Nef.
"Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," said Nef, a little irritated. "Now let me--"
"You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned. Do you understand--"
"Oh, shut up," Nef snapped. "I don't have that much time."
I expected a teary goodbye to her little boys. Instead, she dripped venom. "Yes, Delilah, I did it," she said. "I killed them all: Larry, Vito, Jezebel. I wish I'd killed you."
She turned on Sher. "Larry hated you. You were a sloppy pig. He loved me."
Unruh continued to read the Miranda warning. When he finished, he pulled a notebook from his pocket and began to take notes.
"You killed me," Nef said, "but I murdered Larry. You can brood over that the rest of your life."
"But you didn't kill me," I said. "I win."
"Through stupidity. You were going to drink out of that teacup just now. You even guzzled poisoned coffee that night at the warehouse."
"No, I didn't," I said. "Bentley dumped it on the ground."
"See? It was just dumb luck. You drank every drop of my poison that night at Pharoah's. God knows why you didn't die then."
By now, Nef's face was white. Ayisha brought her a glass of water, which she pushed away.
"Why'd you kill Jez?" I asked. "She was your mentor."
"Mentor? She was second-rate at everything. She thought we should shoot you and hide your body in the mummy case, but I knew poison was much better. And then," her eyes gleamed, "I found Jezebel locked in there instead."
"You put the poison in a teacup,” I said. "Didn't you?"
She nodded. "I brought you another one the night I poisoned you at Pharoah's. I knew you wouldn't notice. Vito did, though. I told him I was going back for my purse, but he didn't believe it. That's when he started trying to catch me. He thought I was a dumb bit of fluff who'd poison his drink. He never realized I had the intelligence to poison his silly steroids."
"Why, Nef?" I said.
"You know how hard it is to build a dance business. I had to struggle to get free of my husband and those kids, and every time I did find a place to perform, you had wandered in there first. I couldn't get ahead with you in the way."
"You know," Sher said, satisfied, "I'm going to enjoy seeing you in jail."
"I think I'll take photos," Dunya added.
Nef's jaw dropped.
Sher began to smile. "If it was really cyanide, you'd have been dead in a minute."
"I should have told you," Dunya added, "I know how to switch cups. I switched Delilah's cup, and I switched yours. You got tea with sauce from Ayisha's kitchen: almond extract and Tabasco."
"Congratulations, Unruh," I said. "What a collar."
He began slowly to grin.
Only then did I notice the time. "Goodness, it's almost seven. Unruh, you take Nef downtown. We'll open Pharoah's. Hurry, ladies. It's showtime."
Thanks for reading! Come dance with us and be a bellydancer too! Learn more on our home page, or send us an email! --Safira