Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Seven

I don't want to imply that I was ungrateful for Bentley's vigilant machismo. I was equally grateful to the person who tipped him off. Nef denied it earnestly.

But Bentley was also responsible for visiting a pestilent plague upon dance class. He was guilty of corrupting the moral fiber of my troupe, distracting my students and introducing a reprehensible scandal.

I refer, in a nutshell, to Vito.

When Bentley realized that Nef must have been the murderer's next victim, he followed her home for a diatribe on safety. Her husband, Rex, is a vice-president in an aircraft company, and he took immediate action.

By eleven o'clock the next morning, Nef's bodyguard had arrived.

Rex, rushing off to his office, had no idea what an animal he'd unleashed on his marriage and our troupe. Luckily, I didn't either until classtime, when I met Vito in all his glory.

But I am getting ahead of my story.

The morning after our aborted belly-gram, I woke late, feeling draggy and lazy. I made coffee and propped my head on my hand.

When the phone rang, I groaned.

“Delilah,” Nef said, sounding surprised. "Were you able to sleep? You're braver than I am."

"Well, Nef. How does it feel to be almost a murder victim?"

"I'm still shaking." She paused. "Do you realize? The person who called me was a woman."

She let the silence hang.

I remembered our gruesome little studio conversation after Jez's death: it had seemed a great idea to lure Jez to an abandoned spot and throw her body in the landfill.

"That lot was right next to the river," Nef whispered.

"You don't think--" I remembered Cleo's advice. "You do think it was one of us."

"It was either Dunya," she said, "or Sher. We'd better not be alone with either of them."

"But why would they kill anyone? Even Jezebel?"

"How about jealousy?" she said. "Jezebel was beautiful without even trying. I'm that way, too."

"Oh, brother," I said.

"Some people just can't handle that." Her voice dropped even lower. "There's another motive. Revenge. You remember how Sher's husband died?"

"Well, yes," I said. He had taken pain pills and slipped into a coma. He was a gemologist. Sher had found him lying face-down at his work table, surrounded by jewels. He had been working on a diamond anniversary band. It was the eve of their tenth wedding anniversary.

"She carried on at the funeral about how 'diamonds are forever'," Nef said. "But, Delilah, Larry was seeing another woman. He was seeing Jez! What if Sher blamed Jez for his death? Maybe he killed himself because he felt guilty for cheating, or worse, because he loved Jez and couldn't have her."

"Horrible," I said. My eyelids were drooping. I popped them open and sipped more coffee.

"Why would she come after me, though?" Nef said. "Maybe I know something: something I don't know I know."

"If you don't know what you do know, I know I sure don't know what you know," I said.

"Very funny. Maybe Cleo's the murderer. She says she's in California, but she could have called you from a local pay phone."

"That's ridiculous," I said, before I remembered I was supposed to gossip.

"I dare you to ask where she lived before she moved here," Nef said. "I bet she was in prison, because she won't say a word."

"I know she lived in Kuwait," I said. "Her husband was in construction."

"She's in her fifties," Nef said. "Did they live there all that time?"

"Well, at least Dunya's innocent."

Nef just laughed. In the background, I heard a doorbell. "I have to get that. Dunya's a silly little idiot. She likes older men. I'm surprised you don't know the details."

She rang off, leaving me weary and confused.

Was a maniac really after us? And was the maniac a woman?

I pulled myself together and invited Sher to lunch. We met at the Byblos Deli, on west 13th. Our favorite was the international gyro sandwich, made of lamb and cucumber-flavored yogurt in pita bread.

Sher was wearing something new: a workout outfit in shades of lavender and purple that highlighted her raven hair. This, too, was newly styled.

"You look great," I said. "And I like the cut."

She blushed. "That's just temporary. I'm throwing away my wig. I want to grow the real thing."

This was news. I have to say it: Sher was a dance nerd. Dance nerds have beautiful figures and look polished onstage, but in the studio, they have split ends, no makeup and comfy, torn clothing.

I should talk.

"Shall we order the usual?" I said. "With extra sauce?"

We sat at a round table by the window. Our yogurt dripped in creamy white puddles as I told her about the warehouse adventure.

"So," I said. "Do you think one of us tried to lure Nef out there?"

"To find the woman with the motive," she smiled, "look in the mirror."

"You mean ME?"

"Everyone knows that artists are all insecure. You killed Jez because her belly-gram business was eating into yours. While you were at it, you tried to knock off Nef. She's beautiful and she sure can dance. Pass the fries. I'm not in any danger."

I laughed, then took her to task for her low self-esteem. "How are you holding up?" I added. "You were pretty upset Saturday night."

"I was shocked. Her eyes looked like Larry's did when, well, you know. Questioning. As if there was something he'd wanted to tell me before it was too late."

"Why didn't he write a note?"

"They usually do," she said bitterly. She stared at her gyro, her eyes far away. Then, suddenly, she laid it aside.

"Delilah," she said, "I told everyone how much he loved me. But it wasn't true, and I killed him."

I fumbled all the french fries.

"I killed him," she repeated, helping me pick them up from the floor, "because I drove him to it."

"Oh, pooh."

"No, really I did. I went to his little basement workshop the night he died and saw him making that ring. I told him I knew he loved someone else. He swore it wasn't true, but I had always thought-- Well, never mind."

Why not tell me, I thought. It's all over town.

"I slammed out of the house and just drove around." She began to cry, her mascara running. "And when I got home, he was dead."

I started to sniffle, too. We shared tissues.

"We're going to add some Sevillanas to our repertory," I said, wiping my eyes. "It's a Spanish folk dance, and we can use it at the Mexican festivals. I want you to look over a videotape and put something together as soon as you can. We're going to perform it together onstage." Geez, what was I saying?

"You think we'll still have a group?" she said. "Now everyone will be looking at everyone else, wondering who the murderer is."

"Who do you think?" I asked.

She traced patterns in her yogurt. "I'd look for a link between Nef and Jez. They must have made the same enemy somewhere along the way."

Now, that was a thought.

"What's going on with Dunya?" I said.

"Nothing." Sher took a bite of yogurt-soaked lamb. "She's just like you, Delilah: off in a world of her own."

"Is she in any trouble?"

Sher just shook her head. "Gossip, gossip. I had enough of that when Larry died."

Naturally I was on fire to interrogate Dunya. I combed the university campus, from the dorms to the graduate student offices in attics and under stairs. I couldn't find her. The search was bittersweet. I walked among angular beds of irises and spirea, missing the dank smells of dirt in the archaeology lab, the fine dust and mildew in the library archives, the chemicals in the darkroom.

At last, I forced myself to open the glass doors of McKinley Hall and step into the cool tile stillness where I'd once belonged. I clicked down the hallways in old jeans and character shoes, anonymous and rather sad. I made a point to see no one I knew. It wasn't hard. Most of my friends had long since graduated.

The archeology lab was still there, a sane and peaceful place where puzzle pieces fit together. As an undergrad, I'd paid the rent by assembling potsherds. It lacked the excitement of the stage, but it was comforting to repair the breakage of the past.

Dr. Cluff, thank goodness, was out, but I stumbled across his research in the student bookstore. There was a thin, intriguing volume copyrighted the year before, with a lurid red cover. Its title was Prophet Among the Ghawazee. This was quite scandalous, at least to researchers who knew that Mohammed, the Prophet, was the father of Islam, and that the Ghawazee were a tribe of painted ladies. I doubted whether a layman would be thrilled.

Lying on the floor near the shelves was a stack of sedate brown volumes titled, Memories of Mohammed: Folk Histories of the Sayyid. The sayyid were the descendants of the Prophet. These books were so new that a purchase order lay crumpled beside them on the floor. I could still smell the ink on their pages.

I bought both volumes. At the checkout counter, I entertained myself with an academic fantasy. I'd meet Dr. Cluff backstage in Vegas. I'd have star booking in a packed house. He'd be carrying roses. As he handed me the bouquet, I'd gaze into his yearning, deeply respectful eyes, and say, "I've kept up with your career, Professor." He would reply, "Carmen, you're the only one who could ever do so."

I had to laugh. But I drove home thinking of the future Delilah had tossed aside.

I barely returned in time for class. Sher had already parked in a wide spot in the alley behind my house. So had Dunya. Nef pulled in last.

Beside her was Mr. Vicente Vitanzo II. In mirrored shades and a bomber jacket, he climbed out of Nef's minivan as if descending from a Cobra helicopter.

"Look at Godzilla," Dunya whispered. Her mouth hung open.

Sher said only, "I think they're going to split."

His jeans were tight as spandex, thin and white with age. He covered some of the spectacle, at least, with that tattered leather jacket. It bulged strangely under the left armpit. He had the audacity to wear an oriental black belt over those jeans.

His hair was combed straight back into a swaggering, dark wave. This highlighted a chin as deeply notched as the Grand Canyon.

"He must be from L.A.," Dunya gasped.

"Mars," suggested Sher.

Nef clutched his arm as she floated up the back steps.

I knew that before the evening was over, I'd want to hit Vito with the broom. I knew it when he refused to shake my hand, when he insisted on following Nef to the bathroom while she traded jeans for tights, when he dumped videotapes off a chair and placed it right in the middle of my studio floor.

We tried to dance. Vito sat among us, a pylon with biceps, a boulder too heavy to move. Nef rubbed our noses in it.

"It's terribly inconvenient, isn't it?" she stage whispered. "But, Delilah, someone threatened my life." She looked fatuously at Vito, who spit a splintered, slimy toothpick onto my studio carpet.

I picked it up and handed it to him.

"He was a Green Beret," Nef added.

"I don't care if he was Alexander the Great," I said. "Get him off to the side."

"Vito," she cooed, "could you move a teensy little bit?"

"No," Vito replied.

I lost my temper.

"Out." I pointed toward the sewing room. "Go somewhere and get out of the way."

Those mirrored shades reflected nothing.

"Vito," I said, "are you in there?"

"Oh, Delilah, leave him alone," Nef said. "Think of how awful it would be if I died. I have four little boys, you know."

I should have taken the broom to Nef. Unfortunately, I took it to Vito instead.

I was able to swing the broom at him only once. One large hand, like a vise, grabbed the weapon near its bristles and held it firm.

He refused to let go. Scars and veins writhed on his arm as I wrenched and yanked. Finally, there was a crackling, splintering sound and the broom handle was mine. Vito retained the bristles. Blood welled up from his huge, stringy ham of a hand.

"You've hurt him," Nef cried.

He lifted that hand. I caught him by the wrist before he gave it a good canine shake.

"Don't you dare," I said. "You'll get blood on my carpets."

Those mirrored eyes didn't reply.

"Sher," I said, "go get a dishpan so he has somewhere to bleed."

"Why don't I just bind it up?" she asked.

To my astonishment, Vito spread his fingers politely over the dishpan while she anointed the jagged tear in his palm. He objected only once, when he discovered her gauze impeded the speed of his trigger finger. She rewrapped the bandage.

He rewarded her by scooting his chair a full two feet toward the back of the room.

Relieved, I looked at my watch. "Now where were we? Five, six, seven, eight...."

No one danced.

"Delilah, you're so cold. I can't believe you don't care about my safety." Nef's chin wobbled. "He's just trying to protect me."

"You hired him to save you from us?" Dunya said. "Which one of us is going to kill you?"

Nef screwed up her face and began to cry.

"I'm not going to dance with her if she thinks I'm a murderer," Dunya said.

"I will," Sher said. "We have to stick together, even if some of us are bitches."

I sighed. "Class is over. Let's go home and cool off."

Nef left first, clinging to Vito's broad arm. He stopped; she slithered around to his other side. She'd been holding his gun arm, I suppose.

"Disgusting," Dunya said, wrinkling her little nose. "The way she's hanging on him, I bet she'll slink him right into bed."

"Know who she reminds me of?" Sher said. "Jezebel."

"And you know what happened to Jezebel," Dunya added.

I shivered.

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