Safira making friends at the Warren Plaza in Old Town last summer. Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Six

Bentley sulked halfway through lunch.

He could have taken me anywhere in Wichita: to Yia Yia's, near Jezebel's back yard, to eat French bistro pizza, or to the far less classy Cedar Saloon, where the profs and the writers scribbled prose on paper napkins. We could even have picnicked with the geese in Riverside Park. Instead, he chose to drive me to a dank little hangout on South Broadway called Ernie's Place.

South Broadway was Wichita's SoHo, of sorts. Last week, for instance, a drunk ran down a little old lady in a wheelchair, who was also drunk, at 2:00 a.m. in the street in front of a very cheap motel that was just a block south of our dining spot. Ernie's sported a vast glass front, yet inside it was murky as a neglected fish tank. The dirt on the windows was vintage.

The airless little bar was completely dominated by empty beer pitchers on tables and big screen TVs. Bentley ordered a half-pound burger with cheese and bacon. It dripped a beige ichor that could have been either Cover Girl or Thousand Island dressing. He demolished the monster in four bites, then ordered french fries with chili.

Was this my punishment for not explaining the clue?

The clue was this: no experienced dancer would ever perform without a securely-pinned costume. Hanging a beaded belt around the fullness of a woman's hips is like draping a ribbon around a beach ball. Where will it slip? Everywhere.

"I'll give you a major hint," I said, scraping beige gunk off my burger. "This Jezebel is not like the one in the Bible. She did not die with her stage makeup on."

"This isn't a parlor game, Carmen."

"Delilah."

"You're not eating," he said. "What's wrong?"

I wrung the grease from a french fry.

Bentley looked bewildered. "I suppose you're miffed because I didn't tell you about the coroner's report."

"Miffed?"

"And because I suspected you of murder, even though you were the likeliest candidate."

"Mmmm."

"And because I wouldn't let you in on the questioning last night."

"Bingo," I said.

"Don't you see? You were able to comfort everyone and pretend they're all innocent. Now they trust you. They may even let something slip."

"Oh," I said. "But they are all innocent. Definitely. No dancer would murder Jez onstage like that."

"Maybe. Don't take a midnight stroll with any of them." Bentley pulled out a tiny calfskin legal pad and a gold pen, and began to flip pages. The restaurant was dim, but its televisions provided flickering light so he could read. "Cleo's boss says she was at work all afternoon. She chased a truck driver with her fork lift when he wouldn't help unload the trailer. Everyone else was loose on the city. Dunya attended an archaeology class called 'Field Methods in the Sinai Wilderness'. It was taught by a Dr. Cluff, one of Jezebel's colleagues."

Interesting. That class was for pilgrims following in the footsteps of the professor. I remembered Dunya's sudden blush. Did she and Dr. Cluff have a mutual interest, scholarly or otherwise? No. Not a chance.

"But the professor wasn't there to verify it," Bentley said. "He made a graduate student teach the class while he literally ran around town. He's training for a marathon. As for Nef, she plugged her kids into a G-rated movie, then practiced her dancing. All afternoon. She was playing those shrill finger cymbals. The whole neighborhood confirms her story."

"Wow," I said.

"Sher was in the emergency room, as a patient. She'd broken a tube of super glue and fastened jewels to her index finger and her left nostril. Is this normal?"

"She's been working for months on a costume. She was hoping to be done on Saturday night. I'm glad she wasn't. Jez would have ruined it for her this time, too."

"Too?"

"Jez used to steal her choreography and perform it first. I could always tell, and once I confronted Jez about it. She had the brass to tell me Sher gave her the dance."

"Is that a reason for murder?" Bentley said.

"No." I sighed. "Sher's too nice to kill anybody. But I bet she had fantasies about locking Jez into that box and letting her scream."

"Dunya had Jezebel for a class at the university," Bentley said. "She flunked."

"Dunya's pretty goofy," I said. "In fact, she defines the word."

"Not true." Bentley thumbed his little notebook. "Until that class with Jez, she had a perfect 4.0 grade point average. The department gave her a full scholarship. Now she might lose it."

An old man who was wearing a smeared apron but not his false teeth appeared out of the murk and grinned a puckered grin.

“Hey. Hi, Ernie,” Bentley said.

The old man placed a giant brownie before Bentley. It swam in chocolate in a deep white crock. Bentley frowned down at it.

"What's wrong?" I said, s the man walked away.

"He shorted me on the chocolate. I don't think Dunya killed Jezebel over a simple grade. It took malice to leave Jez in that box until she passed out, and something worse than malice to keep her quiet while she choked and smothered."

"The one who had malice," I said, "was Jez herself. I shudder every time I think of that creepy condo of hers."

"Did she steal anything from Nef?" Bentley said. "Maybe a costume?"

"Probably," I said. "Jez stole from everyone. I don't think Nef hated her more than everyone else did."

Bentley shot me a sly glance. "While I'm on shift tonight, I'm going to drop in on Ahmed. He reported her missing Thursday night."

He was hiding something again, which reminded me. "Bentley," I said, "what did you learn from those publicity photos?"

He looked innocently up from his chocolate.

"I'm referring to the negatives you swiped from my house," I said.

"Oh, those? Nothing. Here. Maybe you'll see something I don't."

He pulled an envelope from his jacket and slid into the booth beside me. I had a hard time seeing anything past the bulk of his arm and shoulder.

"You don't take steroids, do you?" I said.

"Why, thanks." He handed me the photos.

I saw only dancers in their best costumes, in full stage makeup and wigs.

"Who's that?" Bentley said, pointing.

"That's Dunya," I said.

"But she's wearing Sher's hair."

"True."

"And your costume."

"Look at their faces, Bentley," I said.

"I always do." He seemed hurt. "You're through, now? Give me those photos. No, let go. You can't have them. I don't want someone breaking in on you again."

He won. His fingers were stronger than mine.

He tucked them victoriously into their envelope. "I'm still suspicious of Cleo. Maybe she's a closet isolationist. People don't load up on heavy artillery, then disappear by accident."

"She didn't disappear," I said. "Her daughter got sick in California. She hopped a plane so she could rush to the emergency room."

He struck his forehead. "How silly of me. She was boarding a commercial flight. That's why she picked up the AK-47 and the ammo." He turned a page on his legal pad. "Got her phone number?"

I smiled. "I'll trade it for the photos."

The affair was eventually settled to my satisfaction. Bentley and I argued our way to my bank, where I rented a safety deposit box. Bentley installed the photos there and gave me both its keys. He, of course, retained the negatives, which he'd secreted somewhere at police headquarters. In return I handed him a scrap of paper containing a phone number. We shook hands as bank personnel watched, amused.

The only small flaw (and this didn't bother Bentley) was that I had left Cleo's California number on my notepad at home. I'd have to tell him, I reflected, before he suffered a stroke.

By this time, Bentley had gone a good forty-five minutes without a meal. He was hungry, so we pulled off the highway to find a Dairy Queen. Yes, we ate ice cream and chicken sandwiches in his spotless car, carefully. I rolled down the window and aimed for a passing garbage can. Bentley parked in a shopping mall parking lot to dispose of his wrappers. He kept only his Coke.

When we were a block from my house, he struck. "I've been as honest with you as I know how to be," he said.

That was probably true.

"I've told you everything. Now tell me the secret of the safety pins."

"Why should I?" I said. "You just want to finger a suspect so you can get promoted."

I have never actually seen a man spit a mouthful of soft drink. Well, I didn't now. But he coughed a long time.

"What makes you say such a thing?" he said finally. "No, I know. Nevada Joe. Of course you trust him. He's putting the moves on you. All I'm doing is saving your life."

"Baloney," I began. "You're arrogant and stubborn and you don't trust me at all."

"Withholding evidence, Carmen, is a serious crime."

It was a nice little argument. I enjoyed it until I realized it would end with my apology. Bentley was consummate. He beat me on all points and even made me forget his intriguing relationship with Nevada.

He drove off before I realized this. I'd kept the secret of the safety pins, but that wasn't much consolation. I stomped into the house and fumed awhile, then gunned my car all the way to the Dillons Super Store. After I had put my groceries in the fridge, I discovered three cartons of coffee-flavored yogurt and a great hunk of gorgonzola cheese. Why did I buy such terrible food? I stuffed it to the back to mold.

I called Bentley's answering machine and left the right number. After all, I wasn't a low-down belly-crawler. Then I tried to call Cleo, but again, I got Colonel John.

"Cleo?" he shouted. "She's in the bathroom, dammit. Crazy old woman's dyeing her hair red. There's dye everywhere. Place looks like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hell, no, she can't come to the phone. It's white, dammit, white." Was he referring to Cleo's gray? "Let's keep it that way."

Luckily, Nef called to cheer me up.

"If you're free tonight, I have a belly-gram," she said. "This is a guy I, uh, my husband knows from work."

I'd long suspected that Nef did belly-grams for Jez. This confirmed it. Still, the belly-gram sounded good: on a loading dock in a semi-vacant industrial district along the Arkansas River. The time: 11 p.m., at the end of second shift. It was for a guy named Charlie, age 58.

Well, okay. This wasn't good. In fact, it was terrible.

"I'm really glad you can do it," Nef said, "because this guy has cancer and it might be his last birthday."

Talk about guilt.

"It's safe, Delilah. Charlie's wife called this in. She and their three daughters are going to meet you there. They'll be carrying a video camera, some balloons and a birthday cake. Here, let me give you her phone number."

I knuckled under. After all, I was afraid of strictly two things: murder and rape. Charlie and his buddies weren't going to kill me, and I wasn't going to suffer the fate worse than death while his daughters stood by with his birthday cake.

"Thanks," Nef gushed. "We have tickets to the dinner theatre tonight. The play's a murder mystery, and it's going to be a real puzzle."

I hung up, feeling used. I was also scared. This was a common sensation. Bentley would have had a fit if he knew how many cowboy bars, private homes and Shriners' conventions I was invited to attend. Nine-tenths of the time, everything was absolutely, perfectly safe.

Still, I screamed, full-throated, when the phone rang. After that, I could barely whisper, "hello."

"Lordy. You sound like you're living with ghosts." The low, hoarse voice was Cleo's.

"Are you here?" I said. "Can you come over?"

"I'm still in California. Stacey-Jo's doing fine. Durned girl, if it ain't her gall bladder, it's her kidneys. But tell me what I'm missing."

I swung my feet onto my desk and told her the facts as they appeared at the moment: "Nef's been doing belly-grams for Jez behind my back and Bentley's ready to carry me off to jail. Dunya creeps through the studio, whispering that Jack the Ripper is going to bloat us full of poison. The only person who likes me is the Reverend Joe Nevada, and all he needs is fifteen minutes."

"Oh, come on, girl," she said. "It can't be that bad."

"No one will tell me anything." I groped for a tissue. "I can't question my own dancers. And when I question other people, they either lie, change the subject, or make a pass at me."

"Don't question anyone. Just be yourself," Cleo said. "Flirt. Sympathize. Gossip. Let young David do the dirty work. He'll spend all day finding out where the Reverend washes his shirts while you find out who committed the murder."

That sounded good.

Cleo's voice became crisp. "Don't trust any of them. Don't travel with anyone, anywhere. When you go on a belly-gram, you take that gun and go alone."

"Alone?"

"Goodness, honey, you don't know who the murderer is. He may be a maniac, or your best friend, or a dancer in a pretty costume. Maybe he doesn't want to kill you, but then again, maybe you'll make a mistake and set him off."

I shuddered. "I have a belly-gram tonight. Nef gave it to me. I want her to come along." I filled Cleo in on the details.

"You stay inside your car till those four women show up," she ordered. "If they aren't there, you drive on, even if there's someone standing right in front of you."

"You mean, hit him?" I said.

"I do."

"Happy birthday, Charlie," I said, thinking about it. "Wham! Hey, Cleo, did I tell you I almost shot Bentley?"

"With my pistol?" she chuckled. "He's a good boy. He can't help his home life."

I leaned forward into the phone. "Home life? What do you mean? How do you know?"

"I listen to gossip, too. It usually pays off. Oh, the doctor wants to talk to me. I'll call you back."

I sat there with the phone buzzing in my hand.

That night, it took fifteen minutes to get dressed for my belly-gram and forty-five to decide where to put the gun. I couldn't holster it in my bosom or my hip belt. They would both vigorously shake. In the best tradition of the Old West, I finally duct taped its holster to my thigh. The contraption felt like a tourniquet.

I drove all the way to the industrial park with my windows up and my radio on high. The latter was to boost my courage. The former was useless. My decrepit Taurus had its muffler tied with string and its rear windows taped shut.

The streets became barer as I neared the industrial park. At night this area was a concrete fairyland: great moonlit sheds with dark, sealed cargo doors, street lights glowing quietly on the river.

At 10:50, I pulled into a vast, empty parking lot. Corrugated metal warehouses dotted the empty space. Across the street, the black river gleamed. There were no signs of life: not one car, not even a stray cat.

With my foot on the brake, I hiked up my skirt. I discovered I had taped the holster on too tight. When my knee was bent, I couldn't draw the gun.

In the silence, I heard the sound of an approaching car.

It was a trap! I burned rubber.

The car passed me on the right, its driver staring wide-eyed. It was Nef in a minivan, an elaborate scarf peeking from an apricot leather jacket.

I hit the brakes and waved.

She stopped more gracefully and ran to my window. "Oh, Delilah," she said. "I felt guilty, asking you to come here all alone. I told Rex to take me home." She looked left and right, then began to tremble. "I thought I heard something. But no one's here, except us."

"I hope," I whispered.

I imagined murderers creeping from the shadows between the warehouses. By the look on Nef's face, I knew she was thinking the same thing.

"Geez, Delilah, you look really pale. You aren't going to pass out, are you?" She was drinking from a big styrofoam cup of convenience store sludge. She held it out to me.

I sipped. The liquid was hot and thick. It tasted like coffee grounds and bug spray, but it made me feel better.

Nef nibbled a shiny fingernail. "This isn't a belly-gram. It's a trap. I bet the murderer phoned it in. She wanted to kill me, and now she has us both. Let's get out of here."

"Deal," I said. "I'll follow you."

Then in the background I heard the sound of another car. This one was fishtailing on the road, kicking the gravel and sand that lined the shoulders. It was a quarter-mile away and coming fast.

"Run," I shouted, tearing at the tape on my leg. "Hurry!"

Nef froze in place.

The car raced toward us, a gray shape without headlights.

I ripped the gun free with a sensation like hot wax. But I couldn't fire it. Nef was in the way.

I shoved her shoulders. She wouldn't budge. "Nef," I shouted, "run for it. Let me shoot."

She simply screamed.

I heard the slam of a car door, then quick, measured footsteps like the stomp of a man's heavy boots.

To my intense relief, Nef burst into tears. "It's my fault," she blubbered. "I'm so sorry."

Actually, no one could cry as well as Nef. Her nose didn't turn red and her eyes never swelled. She would have melted anyone's heart.

Evidently Bentley didn't have a heart. He stood there in uniform, gripping a shotgun and looking absolutely furious.

"Stand there and don't move," he told Nef. "And Carmen, if you drive off, I'll shoot to kill."

He searched behind the warehouses while we waited, whispering, in the glare of Nef's headlights. When Bentley returned, Nef shrewdly became incoherent.

With exquisite politeness, Bentley said, "Nef, can you drive?"

She nodded wetly.

"You're safe now. Go home."

As she drove off, he turned to me. "All right, Carmen. What in the hell were you trying to prove?"

I took refuge behind my coffee. In a small voice, I said, "Delilah."

He snatched the coffee away from me. "Do you want to die?"

"Of course not."

"Then GO HOME."

I winced. "How did you know?"

"Didn't I order you not to do exactly what you just did?"

"Yes," I answered. "But you're not my boss. Give me back my coffee."

"The next time," he said, hoarding it, "I may not be around to save your life."

"But the belly-gram came to Nef. And you were afraid for me." I sighed. "Oh, Bentley, I didn't know how much you cared."

As I inched the car past him, I heard something grind. It could have been either boots against gravel or teeth grating on teeth. I did see him take a sip of that awful coffee, then dump it, disgusted, on the ground. His angry blue eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.

I blew a kiss at his reflection. As he lunged for me, I sped away.



Thanks for reading! You can also click on the FB link on our home page or the articles page. "Like" us on FB, and stay connected. Or see us dance by clicking on the YouTube link. And of course -- you too can be a belly dancer. :) Come join us for lessons! --Safira

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