Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Five

We returned to find an angry police officer sitting rigid behind the wheel of his Volvo.

"I'm sorry we're late. We've been sleuthing," I told him.

"We didn't learn a thing about Cleo," said Nef. "But we met Nevada Joe. God, he's a hunk."

Bentley looked startled.

"And he's crazy about Delilah," she added. "He stuck to her like a fly on a watermelon."

I said, "He says he took his sweet little Jenny to a revival Wednesday night. I can't believe she'd drive within a mile of a religious service."

"I believe it," Nef said. "I'd go with him anywhere."

Bentley emerged from the Volvo and meticulously locked the driver's door.

Sher and Dunya were on the porch, waiting.

Bentley opened my front door, which I'd forgotten and left unlocked. "Hi, Sher. Hi, Dunya. I have to talk to each of you. It won't take very long."

They all looked horrified as the truth sank in.

"My babysitter has to go home in ten minutes," said Nef. "Bye."

He caught her elbow and crooked a finger at Sher, who was edging down the sidewalk.

"Sorry," she said. "I have to go to work."

"He thinks one of us bloated her full of poison." This self-satisfied stage whisper was, of course, Dunya's.

"Oh, hush." Sher looked irritated. "All right. We'll get it over with. Me first."

"He's already cross-examined me," I said, as Bentley lead us into the dance studio. "It didn't hurt a bit."

Bentley commandeered the sewing room as an interrogation chamber. The room was lit solely by desk lights. The gorilla loomed ominously over his shoulder.

Sher sat in front of him in a straight-backed chair, twisting my finest silk veil and looking nervous.

"Bentley," I said winsomely, batting my eyelashes. "I'll just sit here quietly. Okay?"

"Out," he replied.

To my intense frustration, those of us in the studio couldn't hear a word. Bentley was in there alone like judge and jury; he was going to upset my whole troupe and ruin my rehearsals. He was going to hurt my friends.

I decided to play a videotape and take their minds off murder. I'd discovered I had footage of tribal women in Algeria, and had even taken the trouble to label it. Someone else must have taped over it. We were now watching a late-night TV bedroom scene. A woman in spike heels wrestled someone under the covers. I saw the backside of a dessicated old man.

"Wow," said Nef. She was glued to the set.

I yanked out the tape and replaced it with a video of the famous Egyptian dancer, Nagwa Fouad. I had put the prima on pause to study her feet when Sher returned. Her hands were shaking so hard she could hardly drink water.

"Well? What did he say to you?" I asked.

Her voice was listless. "You know. Where was I the night of. That kind of thing."

"Is that all? Really?" Nef was on her like a homing pigeon. "You look awfully upset."

Sher shrugged. "He's polite, but that doesn't mean he's a nice guy."

"I know," I said. "Here, try this new step." We went over it again and again. Finally, Sher was calm enough to dance instead of pondering the mysterious, fascinating, shocking thing Bentley had divulged to her rather than to me.

When her turn came, Dunya stomped back into the studio. She sank face down on my studio carpets and braced her chin on her elbow. In this position, she stared, disgusted, at the wall. "He thinks I made it up. Because I killed her."

"Don't let yourself think about it," I said. "Look at this videotape. It's Nagwa Fouad."

Nef came back crying. "He's right," she sobbed. "Any one of us might have done it."

Was that all Bentley had said?

"Nonsense," I told them. "This murder wasn't just wicked. It was gauche. The only one who's sleazy enough to be the murderer is Jezebel herself."

Nef gave a great sniff and dried her eyes.

I looked at her with some sympathy. Then I said, "Everyone pay attention. I've just learned a new step. Right shuffle, left shuffle, arabesque right. Got it? Rehearse it. We're adding it to our routine Wednesday."

I had them doing spins and even smiling a little when I heard Bentley at the door. He'd been watching with an expression of curiosity.

"Goodnight, D.T.," he said.

"Goodnight, Columbo."

I gave a sigh of relief as his Volvo purred off in the night.

***

Since Jezebel died, the telegram business had absolutely exploded. Everyone wanted a belly dancer like the one who was murdered. I spent Tuesday morning dashing to belly-grams throughout the city.

I usually liked belly-grams. For fifteen minutes, I would seat my male victim in a chair and make him watch me dance. He would blush and squirm. With my hip, I'd pound that chair and sometimes his shoulder. Then, while his friends laughed and snapped photos, I'd pull him up to dance.

True, it wasn't haute art. But it was a fun way to make a living. I would pretend I was an ambassador of sorts, introducing a new dance form to a loving and responsive public. Tuesday, the illusion grew thin.

I stopped first at a veterinarian's office to celebrate twenty-five years of living with the animals. His wife hid me in the kennels while he delivered a half-dozen kittens. At showtime, a giant rottweiler challenged me for center stage. We danced together, if you could call it that. The veterinary employees videotaped the event. Who did they film? The dog.

My next stop was a mechanic's shop and a midget named Shorty. Shorty was skinny and blond and roaring drunk. He made several incredibly lewd suggestions to my belly button, then flung himself at my waist. I couldn't pry him loose. It's difficult to dance while fastened to a midget.

The third belly-gram was at a biker bar. Jezebel had given me this one a week before she died. She was busy, she said. Could I dance for a senior citizen's breakfast club?

I parked out on the prairie, on west Highway 54, beside seven Harleys and a doberman, at a shack with painted-over windows. Before I could re-start the car and drive away, the tavern door opened. Six large, bearded men came out, wearing black leather jackets and wallets with chains. I put on my biggest smile, wished them all a happy birthday, and danced as if this show was my last. They watched politely, yelled “Hey, baby” and looked lecherous as if on cue, then tipped me $100. I drove off, thanking my lucky stars I hadn't encountered a really dirty-minded group, such as a convention of medical doctors.

When I returned home, I found good news and bad news on my answering machine.

First, I heard Cleo's low, husky, reassuring tones. She was in California, where her daughter had had emergency surgery. She read off a phone number. "I'm staying with my brother, John. Call me right away."

I dialed immediately.

"Eh? Murder! That's terrible," he shouted. "Capital punishment, that's what the sumbitch deserves."

"John?" I said. "Colonel John? Admiral Halsey? Can I please speak to Cleo?"

"Don't electrocute him. Use the firing squad. Firing squad! That's the ticket. Eh? Speak clearly, dammit. Cleo'll have to call you. She's at the hospital."

I felt a pang of disappointment. When Cleo had joined my troupe five years ago, she'd immediately fixed my accounting system, then raised the price of my belly-grams. I'd come to believe she could handle anything, even murder.

My next phone message was also good news, but less of it. Luckily, Mrs. Pettegrew had postponed her daughter's gorilla-gram a week. She gave me a puzzling new address. Next Tuesday, I, in costume, was to bring my wild, sexy beast to an attorney's office downtown. She reminded me to bring the violin.

But I had no gorilla. My actor had quit the business the day he recovered from the flu.

"Don't have a cow," he had said. "You can replace me in a minute."

How could I replace a large, extremely hairy primate, hopefully one that played the violin?

I ran an ad in the newspaper. No one had responded.

When the phone rang, I grabbed it.

"Is this Delilah?"

"Hello today from Balloons Away! You've got Delilah here, your birthday and anniversary FUN specialist. We sing, snort and deliver. And how can I help you?"

The voice was rather dry. "I see you've placed an ad in the classifieds."

"Yes, indeed. Can you grunt, roar and scare people? Are you willing to make fifty dollars in ten minutes? Have we got the career for you!"

"I already have a career." It was Bentley. "I wondered, I mean, I thought that, um, maybe--"

"Yeeees?"

He cleared his throat. "I thought we might have lunch."

"Lunch?" I said. "With a murder suspect?"

"Oh, that. The senator is quite certain you have a mole just to the left of your navel. After I examine it, you're in the clear."

I responded with silence.

"D.T., give me a break. First, we'll go to the morgue to see Jezebel. Before she gets too, er, old. Then I'll take you to lunch and tell you what I learned last night."

"Sounds romantic," I said. "A visit to the morgue, and then, bon apetit. By the way, what did you say to my dancers?"

There was a pause before he responded. His voice was thoughtful. "Not very much," he said, "but I struck some nerves. Sher's guilty about something. Dunya's hiding something. And Nef has nothing between her ears but fruitcake."

"Dunya's the fruitcake," I said. "And Sher's the kind of woman who pulls over when a cop's behind her, whether she's speeding or not. I think Nef was trying to seduce you."

"Wasn't very effective," Bentley said. "By the way, I'm at Jezebel's condo. She received a big package in the mail. It's from Turkey."

I heard a few grunts as he began to open the package. "Sure is tied up well," he said. "A pocketknife won't even cut it. Better make sure I don't damage anything." There was a long period of silence. "Oh-oh."

I hung up.

He was over within fifteen minutes.

He had brought the box. Inside was a Turkish costume. Actually, there were five. Of course they weren't damaged. The sight made my mouth water. Egyptian costumes are more expensive and heavily beaded. Turkish costumes are sexier and more flattering. These dripped Austrian crystal irridescence in rose and violet and green.

They were uncanny, though. Three looked a great deal like those that Jezebel had destroyed. The other two were identical twins, all uplift and fuschia. Each was worth nearly a thousand dollars.

"Why did she order all these?" Bentley said.

"Guilt." I answered quickly. "She bought these three to replace the ones she ruined."

"I see."

"I know in my heart," I said, placing my hand there, "that these costumes were mine. Jezebel was a, um, lady with a heart of gold."

"Speaking of, guess who showed up at my apartment with flowers and a bottle of whiskey?" Bentley said. "Don't send that man to me. I can't stand him."

"Bentley. You didn't give him my address, did you?"

"I didn't have to. He'll look you up in the phone book."

Oh, no.

"Where did you and Nevada get acquainted?" I asked.

"He wouldn't want me to tell."

"Bentley--"

"Just a minute." Bentley stood before my studio mirrors and primped. Silently, stubbornly, he adjusted his tie and picked invisible lint from his jacket of navy gabardine.

"Bentley," I said, "you're dodging."

But I couldn't get a word out of him. He locked the costumes in his trunk, and drove in silence all the way to the way to the morgue.

Yes, morgues are formica and fluorescent and stark and smelly. Unnerved by all that dead, chilly whiteness, I hugged myself as Bentley unlocked Jezebel's drawer.

"We're going to release her," Bentley said. "I couldn't hold her any longer than this."

"Bleahh," I said as he pulled out her tray.

This time, I made myself take a good look. Poor Jezebel was completely pale. I'd expected her stage makeup to look shocking against her bloodless face. But the eyeshadow that streaked her lids was taupe, and her smeared lipstick and blush were sheer neutral.

"Did the coroner take off her makeup?" I asked.

"He might have," Bentley said. "Now, look. There were no marks of violence. Unless, see these bruises?"

They were above the joint of her right leg.

"Not a clue," I told him. "She got those slamming her hip against the back of some guy's chair at a birthday party."

He looked disappointed. He lifted her limp, heavy head. "Look here, behind her neck. See that long, thin welt?"

"That's not a clue either," I said, peering at the body, but not too close. "That's a wear mark from the strap of a costume bra."

"She wore it that tight?"

"You bet," I answered. "So when you do a backbend, you don't accidentally pop out."

"I see," he said. "The lab said there was a gummy substance on the inside of the bra. Is that a clue?"

I shook my head. "The stuff is called Firm Grip. Golfers spray it on their hands so they can hang onto their clubs."

"But, Delilah." He was shocked enough to use my name. "It's been sprayed on her breasts."

"Sure. We use it for insurance. Spray this stuff on, and,” I raised my eyebrows, “no surprises."

His face was expressionless as the Sphinx. "Can you explain these finger marks on her right wrist?"

That, I couldn't do. Except for those extremely faint marks, and a single, slight bruise across her back, it seemed as if she had simply lain down to sleep. Even her fingernails were unchipped.

"If I was locked in a coffin, even accidentally," said Bentley, "I'd try to claw my way out."

"And she didn't. What does that mean?" I asked.

"I don't know." He locked her away and washed his hands. "I honestly don't know."

I did find a clue when we went through her plastic bag of things. This clue, obvious as it was, went over Bentley's head. But first, my attention was captivated by Jezebel's flashy underwear, and the red costume, or rather, its ruin.

Of the underwear I will say only that it was classic Jezebel: chiffon and purple lace, and not much of that. I was surprised that even she would wear it with a costume. I repeated this comment to Bentley, who looked a bit disappointed.

"Sorry," I said. "Everyone wears neutral beige trunks. In case the skirt goes up."

"Too bad," he said.

But I missed this comment because I had then seen the condition of my costume. I wanted to borrow Cleo's rifle and shoot the coroner. The fool had sliced the expensive beadwork with a knife.

The bra was chopped across the back. The damage was worse on the belt, which had been wantonly severed right below the belly button. As I lifted it from the plastic, a hundred tiny beads dribbled, rubylike, to the floor.

"Look at this," I said in low-voiced fury. "The moron!"

"How was he supposed to know how it worked?" Bentley rolled a few beads between his muscled fingers and thumb. "For all he knew, she was sewed into it. Look. It's fastened with a safety pin. Why don't you use hooks?"

"You have to adjust it too often." I tried to unclench my jaw and my stomach. "Half the time, the hooks wouldn't even fit. Besides, what's one more pin? You're already using half a dozen to pin the skirt to the pantyhose and the pantyhose to the belt and--"

Those pins were not there.

"Elementary, my dear Watson," I cried. "It was cold-blooded murder. Here is the proof."

"Where?" he said, staring dumbfounded at the belt. "What proof?"

"The proof is in the curious incident of the safety pins."

"But there are no safety pins," he said, falling into my trap. "There's just this one."

"That," I said, "is what's curious."



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