Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Three

I didn't believe in Jack the Ripper. But when I tried to fall asleep, shadows danced on the windowpanes and a single bare tree limb scratched eerily above my bed.

I got up, pulled on leotards and told myself I wasn't tired. I laid Cleo's pistol in front of me and began sewing the first thousand beads onto a new costume bra. Hours later, I awoke face-down in the bead bowl.

Had it been a gunshot that awakened me? No, it was just the Wichita Eagle, which had whacked my front door.

The dawn sky was pale cornflower blue. I smelled soil and damp and gasoline. On my front lawn, rabbits bounced through the chickweed. No murderers were abroad.

Feeling more cheerful, I did three hundred crunches for my upper abdominals and slammed down a cup of coffee. Then I picked up my needle again, put my newfound Arabic language tape in my jam box and spun up the volume.

"Sabahul khayr, Sayyid Abdul," the tape said in a crisp voice of command. It reminded me of Yasser Arafat. I answered in Arabic, then English. Then I added some extra phrases. After all, what if I was ever detained in the Middle East? "Sabahul khayr, Sayyid Arafat. Good morning, Mr. Arafat. The State Department welcomes your assistance."

"Hello? Anybody home?"

Had I heard something? No. It was just the hiss of the tape.

"La atakallamul-Arabiyyata jayyidan. I don't speak Arabic well, Mr. Khadafy. Please, no, no! Put away the gun. I'll talk. I'll talk."

"Miss Delilah? Carmen. Answer me. Who's in there?"

"Uridughurfa, min fadlika. Ma a twalett. I would like a room, please, Mr. Hussein. With a toilet. You can beat me and torture me, you loathesome dictator, but you'll never break my spirit."

"Open up. This is the police."

I had Saddam squealing along on rewind when I heard a loud, splintering crash.

The murderer was here! It was broad daylight, and he was kicking down my front door.

I tried to call 911, but the phone was gone. I rooted for it desperately, flinging scarves and finger cymbals into the air. Spangles and tambourines rolled across the floor. My fingers locked on the gun.

I never thought to run out the back. Instead, I rushed for the dance studio. The front door gave a final shiver, then slammed back against a mirrored wall. In the dimness I saw the silhouette of a man charging toward me.

I fired.

There was a sickening crack as my bullet hit glass. Glittering slivers of mirror flew like shrapnel from a spot just left of the door.

I had somehow dropped the gun, but I snatched up vases and urns and continued the assault.

"Jesus Christ," the murderer shouted. Dodging the glassware, he grabbed me and twisted my wrist behind my back.

It was Officer Bentley.

He wore pressed khakis and a polo shirt with a little alligator on its size extra-large chest. The creature was pressed right between my eyes.

"Mmmph," I said, collecting a mouthful of fuzz.

Bentley let me go and rushed into the sewing room.

I heard a tremendous whump, as if he'd slipped on sequins and caught his ribs on a table.

I thought he was insane. In fact, I ran out the front door and halfway across the yard before curiosity got the best of me. Then I hid behind a dark blue Volvo and watched through the upstairs windows as its owner stalked from room to room.

Interesting. Although Officer Bentley was crazy, his car was as respectable as a pinstriped suit. I peered through the windows, marveling at its midnight blue cockpit and its unstained leather seats. Obviously, no one lived in this car.

Finally, Bentley came out the front door. I saw he had found the Arabian Nights scimitar I keep under my bed.

I have never before seen a man in an Izod shirt and tasseled loafers wielding a sword. He seemed to have some familiarity with the weapon. He was testing balance and weight while he talked to the shrubs near the porch. "Come on out, Carmen," he told them. His voice was low and smooth. "I know you're in there."

I must have made a noise while deciding whether to run for it.

He looked straight at the Volvo. His face twitched; it was so quick, I wasn't sure. He laid down his weapon and sat on the porch steps, leaning back on one elbow. If the lawn had been mowed, and the sword sheathed, the scene could have been a cover shot for Midwest Living.

Eventually I came out.

I stayed at arm's length.

"Where's the man you were talking to?" he said.

I rubbed bruises on my shoulder and ribs. "Talking to?"

His face was blank. His voice went falsetto: "'Please, no, no, put away that gun. I'll talk. I'll talk.'"

"Oh, that." I began to smile. I couldn't wipe it away. "I was talking to a tape. I was practicing my Arabic."

"You were talking to a cassette tape?" His gaze was level, but his eyes glowed with anger. "You're insane," he said.

"I'm insane?"

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he opened his eyes and glared at me again. "Carmen, how many of your neighbors do you think called the police?"

"Probably half a dozen," I said. "And my name's Delilah."

"Half a dozen?" He began to redden. "I'd better use your phone to tell the dispatcher the scene's under control."

I stood in front of the door. "Are you going to go wacko again any time soon?" I asked.

"Delilah. Do I really have to call you that?"

"Yes," I said.

"A killer is at large and I think he wants you. I heard you shrieking for mercy. I assumed it was a hostage situation. Now, where's your phone?"

He found it under a heap of pillows in the dressing room.

After he made his call, we negotiated a truce. His part of the bargain was to repair all the damage. My part, I realized, was to keep his embarrassing faux pas a secret. I could hardly wait for dance class.

He drove off to the lumberyard while I employed a broom.

I whistled happily as I swept. Life was fun again. Last night, I'd almost been murdered. Even Bentley knew I was marked for death. But this morning, a handsome man had kicked in my door, and that made up for everything.

By the time I heard him return, I had fixed a diet drink and was back at work on my beading.

He came in, blinking and squinting.

"Hi," I said. "You still swagger as if you're wearing your gunbelt."

"Where are you?"

"I'm right here," I said indignantly.

He scanned fabrics and spangles and tables. Finally he found me, wedged in between fifteen yards of patterned velvet and bits of stage backdrop.

"Interesting," he said.

Delilah lay in pieces all around me, her thick, red gypsy hair on a wig stand, her ample bosom on the table, flopping about under my needle and thread. Offstage, my curves were all in my hips. My hair, the color of dishwater, hung over a damp bandana sweatband. With the costume off, what did I have to recommend me? Tights, extra-long. A stomach that looked thin if I stood tall enough. Abdominal muscles.

"Did you try to look like Jezebel?" he asked.

"Jezebel tried to look like me," I said. "I was first."

He scooped a potted plant from a chair, sat down and stared at the gorilla, who loomed in a dark corner. "This place looks like the back room of Madame Tussaud's wax museum. Where do you sleep?"

I assumed the question was rhetorical.

"Say," I said. "Is David your middle name?"

"This is going to hurt you," he answered. "But I'm not Reginald Bentley."

"The thought never entered my mind."

"It's okay. Everyone wants to know." He crossed his legs, knee to angle, without creasing his crisp trousers. "I didn't intend to spend my day off doing house repairs. I thought I'd take you through Jezebel's apartment."

My needle paused.

"There's a killer on the loose," he said, "and I intend to apprehend him."

"Get in line," I said. "Why are you sure Jezebel was murdered, when your superiors think she died in an accident?"

"Morales is not my superior," he said.

I shot a glance at his stern, rigid chin, his stubborn blue eyes. Beneath the spray starch, David Bentley was as relentless as crabgrass. I liked that.

"Listen, Bentley," I said. "Someone searched my house while I was gone Saturday night. They stole some publicity photos that were taken in the mummy case."

"Significant," he said. "Did they get the negatives?"

I thought about it. "I laid the photos on a table, but I left the negatives in their little envelopes."

"Better leave on the lights tonight," said Bentley. "And lock all the windows. Your burglar will be back. Now let's see those negatives."

"I can't find them," I answered. "My house ate them."

He glanced around the sewing room, from bolts to boxes to little heaps of fabric scraps. For a moment, his eyes showed panic. Then he shrugged and upended the nearest box. Bits of elastic and velvet ribbon fluttered to the floor.

"No! Stop that," I said, flailing for spools of thread. "We'll start in the office."

Bentley found the negatives in the third sack labeled "photos," stuffed under my Balloons Away! desk.

For a long moment, he held them to the light of a window. Then he said, "I'll take them to the police lab and have prints made."

"No, you won't," I said.

We locked eyes.

"All I know about you is that you just kicked in my door," I said.

"I told you I was --"

"You rushed around my house with a sword."

"I simply --"

"For all I know, you're Jack the Ripper," I blurted.

He stared, stupefied, for a moment. Then a corner of his mouth barely moved. "If I get too dangerous, Delilah, just cut off my hair."

I discovered later that he palmed the negatives.

It didn't take too long for Bentley to fix the shredded door jamb and order a new mirror. He found, too, as Morales had, that my porch steps were ready to give way. He repaired those as well. I peeked out the window and watched him work. He could handle a hammer and nails almost as well as Cleo, although he was far more finicky. He even used paint.

When he was done, he washed his brush between dirty dishes in my sink. There wasn't a speck of dust or paint on those crisp trousers.

"If we're going to Jezebel's," I said, "give me a minute to put on some makeup."

I looked in the bathroom mirror in despair. In the studio, my burgundy unitard conveyed hard-working chic. In the harsh outdoor light, it would look threadbare and faded. My hair was beyond hope. Next to pressed, starched David Bentley, I looked like a street urchin. I shrugged and pulled on a jacket.

I was tying on sneakers over my leg warmers when the phone rang.

"Hello?" Bentley said. "Ma'am, I beg your pardon."

He handed the phone to me.

It was Mrs. Pettegrew, my museum matron, asking if I'd found her a good cop.

"Hmm," I said.

I put my hand over the receiver. "They have them in all the major cities," I whispered. "The cop comes in, handcuffs the woman and reads her her Miranda. Then he starts to take off his clothes. She has to do things like blow his whistle."

Bentley looked affronted.

"Well?" I said. "Thursday night at nine. Want a little extra money?"

As I studied his physique, Bentley began to scowl.

I tried to imagine him in his Fruit of the Looms and black dress socks, gleefully kicking off those alligator loafers, the little tassels twirling.

I gave her my regrets and hung up. "Say, you don't play the violin, do you?"

"I don't need a day job. Car-- er, Delilah. How often do you go on these crazy telegrams?"

"We never have strippers," I said self-righteously. "We're artists."

He waved a hand. "Not that. How often do you go unescorted to a stranger's house?"

I shrugged. "Five or six times a week."

"And the killer knows that," he said.

I shivered in my jacket as we left for Jezebel's.

I taped a note to the front door.

"It says I'll be back in time for class," I told Bentley.

It really said, "I'm in! I'm in! Come over right away."

We took Bentley's Volvo the short distance to Jezebel's. She'd lived four miles east of campus, in an elegant and expensive neighborhood. She had never invited me in, but I had driven past: shake shingle roofs, trendy garden flags, BMWs, lawns mowed on the diagonal.

Bentley drove smoothly and carefully, like a chauffeur. On cassette, a single violin scratched out a discordant, artsy composition.

"Prokofiev's Concerto Number 1 in D Major," said Bentley.

He had already acquired a key to the condo.

"What am I looking for?" I said.

He held open the door. "I don't want to prejudice you."

Prejudice happened the moment I saw her furniture. It was Eugenia furniture, plain and ugly, with vast stretches of smooth dark leather. "It's hideous," I said.

"It's modern," Bentley replied, "with maybe an Art Deco influence. Expensive. Very expensive."

It smelled, too, a little stale, as if a Cabernet Sauvignon had breathed its last in the kitchen while, in the living room, the leather had begun to decay.

In the coat closet, I was startled to find her other side. I popped the lid on a suitcase filled with marital aids. For a moment, I stared, shocked, at plastic rings and metal balls and wiggly condoms with little faces. Then I slammed the lid.

"Don't blush. I already saw it," Bentley said. "She has a CB radio, too. Wonder what her handle was?" He picked up a videotape. "Come look at this."

I hung back while he put the tape in the VCR. Is it prurient?" I said.

"Creepy," he replied. He pressed 'play'.

“Gee, thanks.” The tape was of me: in costume at the Pyramid, grinning madly at recitals, in leotards in the studio. I had commissioned the originals. I always filmed my students, too. But in this collection, I was always alone. The longer I watched, the eerier it became.

"Turn it off," I said at last. "I feel like she's been peering through my windows at midnight."

Bentley looked at me, a question in his eyes.

"I guess she wanted my choreography," I said.

"I don't think so." Bentley took the cassette from the player. "Looks like she wanted a pas de deux macabre."

"Hey, I'm impressed," I said. "You did your dance homework."

He looked amused. "You think I'd study to impress you?" He shut off the VCR with a shake of his head. "Well, that poor woman sure chose the right name."

"Bentley, please." Over the years, my students had made innumerable puns on Jezebel's name: that Painted Jezebel, that hussy Jezebel, that jezebel, Jezebel. The joke was exhausted.

"I'm not joking," Bentley said. "Like Jezebel in the Bible, she was consumed by jealousy."

"Nope," I said.

"Absolutely. Jezebel had Naboth stoned so she could take over his vineyard."

"Why, Bentley. Biblical scholarship, too?"

"Just keep shopping," he said.

I wandered into the bedroom and opened its closet. And there they were! My missing costumes, all three of them, lay tumbled on the floor. Joyfully, I caught them up and pressed them to my chest. Then I noticed something horrible, as if I'd grabbed a dead bird.

I think I screamed, and pretty loudly, too. No wonder. They had all been ruined. They were torn and filthy, as if they'd been tortured: ripped and stomped underfoot. The rest of her closet was immaculate.

Bentley was suddenly behind me. He took the shredded fabric out of my shaking hands. "What's wrong?"

"I made these," I said. "They have memories. They were like part of me."

"Sit down and take a deep breath," he said. "And don't ever scream like that. I'm sorry, Carmen. She definitely hated you."

My eyes stung. "But, Bentley, she had everything: her tenure track job, that cleavage, everyone's men. And she was beautiful."

"Maybe with her costume on," he said. "She didn't have what you have."

"Oh, really? What's that?" I rippled my left shoulder for effect.

But something behind me caught his eye. "Look at this," he said. He began thumbing through, of all things, a Bible. It was brand-new and large, with gold-edged pages. "Awesome."

Bentley, I realized, did not use slang. I expected a clue as big as Judgment Day. I peered sideways past his bicep.

He was staring at a photo of an extremely handsome man. The man was about my age, with a craggy chin like Bentley's, innocent blue eyes and long waves of dark blond hair. But unlike Bentley, he was every inch a cowboy, from the part in his Willie Nelson locks to the button-straining bulge over a massive silver belt buckle the size of a salad plate. This buckle must have inspired Bentley's comment. The photo was inscribed, "I love you, darling, but not as much as Jesus does."

"He sent me to Pharoah's to bust you," Bentley said.

"This guy?" I gasped. "Bust me for what? Who is he?"

“You don't know?”

He began opening Jezebel's dresser drawers. They were empty, as if she had packed for a trip. But under the bed, he found a single pair of men's boxers, tiger-striped, size 38, and a rumpled pair of jeans, size 38-28.

"Aha," I said. "She was sleeping with Ahmed."

"And when she wasn't," Bentley added, as if he couldn't believe it, "she was finding God in Nevada Joe."