Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Eight

Jezebel's funeral service was at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Hillside Funeral Home.Ahmed had persuaded the police to release her body and had made the arrangements. Since there was no investigation, only Bentley's political skills had kept her this long. The chapel was not as nice as, say, Pharoah's, but as always, Jezebel packed the house.

I stood in the rear like a good detective and scanned the backs of the mourners who jammed the pews and stood in the aisles. Was Jezebel's killer lurking there?

How about Nef, who sat cheek to cheek with Vito, and dripped softly and insincerely into a hankie? How about Nevada Joe, dressed in black and clutching his Bible? His Raphaelite curls were clean, now, and perfectly combed, and the wad was gone from his cheek. He gave me a smoldering, hungry glance that sent a shiver across my skin. Then there was Scheherezade, in a baggy old knit chemise and a brand-new silk scarf, and Dunya, who like me, was peering suspiciously at everyone else. Beside Dunya was Professor Cluff. The pompous old goat looked almost happy. Was he glad Jez was dead?

Bentley sat beside him in a crisply-starched uniform. He wasn't a suspect for murder: only framing and lying and possibly rigging a jury. Neither was Ibrahim and Ayisha, quiet and in black, or Gamal, who squirmed to get a glimpse inside the coffin. Last, there was Ahmed Ali, seated all alone in the empty front row. He was elegantly dressed in a gray linen suit. He hung his head. Tears rolled down his face as he sobbed aloud.

An usher handed me a memorial card. As I glanced down at it, my astonished fingers slipped. My purse whumped to the floor, startling the mourners, but I was reading too intently to clean up the mess.

The card read, "In memoriam to Eugenia Ali."

I gathered up lipsticks and credit cards, and crowded in next to Bentley.

"Will you look at this," I whispered, pointing to the card. "My God, Bentley. She married Ahmed. She actually married him."

"I was going to mention that," Bentley whispered back. "But you preferred to withhold evidence."

"You bum. When did it happen?"

"Thursday. The courthouse. 10:32 a.m."

"But--"

"Just a few hours before she died."

"And you didn't even tell me."

"Sssh. Here goes."

We all should have danced. Jez would have liked that. Instead, the organ played "Amazing Grace." Nevada and Nef both cried.

Nevada patted Nef's hand and ascended to the pulpit. Head bowed, in that drab black suit, he was a portrait of woe. "I loved Jenny," he said sadly. "Yes, folks, she looked like a strutting hussy. But underneath that paint was a sweet little child of God. Why, just the other day she said, 'Nevada, I want to know the Lord Jesus.' And I--"

Suddenly he fell silent, his gaze on the door. He unbuttoned his coat, hitched up his trousers and stuck out his chest even further than his belly. He had changed. Now his shirt gleamed a pure, blinding white. His angelic scowl flashed among us, reflecting the fires of missionary zeal.

An eager-looking young man had slipped in with a camera and a notebook. A reporter?

The microphone was handy. Nevada snatched it up and abandoned the pulpit. With the Bible in one hand, the mic to his lips, he paced back and forth in front of the casket. Electricity crackled and he hadn't yet said a word.

"It's showtime," Bentley whispered.

With that, the walls shook. "Brothers and sisters," the Reverend commanded, "I am here to tell you that the devil is a-wailing and gnashing his teeth because Eugenia Ali died with Jesus!

"When the devil thrust her into that dark and heathen coffin, she didn't give in to his low-down, dirty desires. Oh, no, she prayed to Jesus and the good Lord took her home. She was a sweet little lamb who refused, I say refused, to submit to the seven deadly sins. You know em! Anger. Greed. Sloth. Pride. Gluttony. Jealousy. And lust. That's right, brothers and sisters. Lust.

He paced to the right.

"She gave up orgies in a naked heathen harem."

He paced to the left.

"She gave up that lie called the Theory of Ev-oh-lution. She gave up that naked dancing that makes men wild."

He fixed his gaze solely upon me.

"She gave up sex-u-al intercourse with other women's husbands. Brothers and sisters, that's why she died! She reformed her life and the devil got her."

His voice reached a thunder pitch as he swung the mic in his fist.

"And the devil is you. One of you here today killed that sweet sister of Jesus because," his voice took on a lecherous sneer, "she wouldn't get down on her knees and submit to your lust."

He demonstrated.

Bentley blushed scarlet.

"The Lord knows who you are. You imp of Satan, the God of Vengeance is gonna send your little forked tail back to Hell."

Eyeballs were wide across the entire chapel as the Reverend slammed his Bible shut.

Then the lightning was gone. The air inside that chapel became the still, sweet blueness that chased the prairie storms.

"The whole city's gonna miss that gal," Nevada concluded in a soft little purr. "She was gonna be a star on television, doing the Lord's work every night at 9 p.m. on Channel 5. But now," his voice broke, "she's a star in heaven, appearing nightly with Jesus Christ. Amen."

He walked back to his pew slump-shouldered, wiping the tears from his eyes.

The effect wasn't ruined until later, in the parking lot, when I heard him grumble to the reporter, "Glad you're here, son, but where the hell is Channel 5? I'm gonna give them a piece of my mind." Then he saw me and flashed that dazzling smile.

I was thoroughly irritated with him, especially when he pointed me out to the reporter, who rushed to my side.

Looking up breathlessly from his notebook, that cleanshaven young thing ran all his words together. "Are you Delilah the Damned? How does it feel to have one of your dancers brutally murdered in the middle of your show?"

"That's Delilah the Temptress," I corrected. "See that tall, blond stud in the police uniform? Talk to him. He knows whodunnit."

Bentley exercised his diplomatic skills. "The police department does not believe there was foul play," he said, quite truthfully, "and we do not appreciate Mr. Nevada's attempt to turn a tragedy into a television commercial."

That might have squelched it if the reporter hadn't hung around to hear the donnybrook that followed.

Still sniffling from the last echoes of "The Old Rugged Cross," everyone produced tissues and hugged one another. Then they converged on Ahmed like sharks in a tank.

"You think you'll get her money," Nef snapped.

"But Nefertiri, I don't need money. My father owns five oil wells."

Sher and Dunya and I looked at each other.

"So that's the hold you had on her," Nevada said. "You seduced that poor little gal with the lures of the demon Mammon."

Ahmed, understandably, looked bewildered.

Sher crossed her arms and studied him. "Maybe you killed her," she said, "because she wouldn't stop dancing. As a Moslem, doesn't that bring shame on your family?"

"No. I loved her," Ahmed said. "She had no money--"

"Hah!" said Nef.

"--so I gave her a dowry necklace of gold coins." He smiled complacently. "It was very large."

I looked at Bentley, who shrugged and spread his hands.

Sher pointed a finger at the Arab. "Did you tell her you had a wife in Egypt?"

"He's a bigamist?" The reporter blurted this out.

Ahmed ignored him. "Of course Jezebel knew about Fatima. We were planning to live together with her."

"You Godless heathen." Nevada began a sermon on the evils of Islam, while Ahmed's gravelly voice expounded on the hypocrisy of TV evangelism.

They turned to each other and shouted, "You wanted to take advantage of her innocence."

"Innocence?" Nef stared them both down. "How do you think an assistant professor could afford a Mercedes and a condo in Tallgrass?"

"I wouldn't put anything past her," Dunya added. "She even said she was collecting folk tales about the Prophet."

Bentley lifted an eyebrow. "So?"

"That's a lie," Dunya said, clenching her fists. "Where did she get them? It's been years since she's been to the Middle East. Turning tricks is bad enough, but academic harlotry is just unforgivable."

"But it's over now, my dear." Professor Cluff patted her shoulder. He had been standing, entertained but dignified, on the sidelines in a brown tailored suit. Now his thin face was respectful as he turned to Bentley. "Officer," he said, "when will it become possible to release her research papers?"

I gasped. This was even more astonishing than Ahmed's bigamistic elopement. I had never heard Professor Cluff lower himself to ask a simple question. He was the one. He murdered her. It would have been simple. He met her backstage at Pharoah's Club, and with the strength of a long-distance runner, thrust her into the box. He'd smooth back that silver hair, adjust the pencils in his pocket and leave by the back exit.

Why? Maybe she'd dared to edit one of his scholarly papers.

I woke from my daydream to Sher's calm voice. "Of course you're the killer, Ahmed. Who else could it be?"

"Delilah. She has the temperament for it," Ahmed answered. "She already has loose morals."

I realized everyone was staring at me.

"You are the one," Ahmed said, pointing his finger. "You were crazy with jealousy."

"You mean about you and Jez?" I said. "Are you kidding?"

"How can you deny it?" Ahmed's voice rose to a shriek. "Murderer. She died in your house. If we were in my country, I would execute you personally. Officer Bentley has promised to bind your wrists and drag you to prison."

I glanced at Bentley, who lowered one eyelid in a wink.

I said, "But, Ahmed--"

"I'm glad I'm going home. There, we have justice." Ahmed turned to Bentley. "Well? When are you going to arrest her?"

"The first moment I get any evidence," Bentley said.

"Evidence? You are all blind." Ahmed turned on his heel and walked away. He fired a parting shot at me over his shoulder. "You can escape the law, but you can't escape me. Murderer!"

I was shaking, although I hid it with a smile. Mercifully, my car agreed to start. I went home, leaving Dunya, Nevada and Nef shouting at each other while the reporter frantically took notes.

Once I was back in my studio, I began to feel better. I worked on some choreography. Then I peered into the fridge, hoping something delicious would magically appear. Those two little tubs of yogurt still sat in the back, looking orphaned. Why had I ever bought them? And hadn't I bought three?

I heated pastitsio, a kind of Greek goulash, and carried it into the sewing room. Something slipped and slid beneath my feet. A jewel, probably. Oh, well.

I reached for the phone and dialed. I heard an answering machine kick in, just as I'd expected.

"Bentley," I said to the machine, "thanks for offering to deliver me to the firing squad. By the way, Ahmed is the murderer. It was their honeymoon, right?" I tried to inject lechery into my voice. "They were doing it in the mummy case, with Jez in costume. At a certain moment, she exclaimed, 'Jehoshaphat!' Not knowing the word's double meaning, Ahmed thought she was calling for you-know-who. He slammed the lid on her and left her to die."

I hung up, my grin fading.

Resolutely and without thinking first, I dialed a different number.

I felt a cold thrill when I heard that deep voice.

"Well, darlin', what's on your mind? Let's confess to one another, as the Good Book says."

"Nevada Joe," I said, "if I confessed murder to you, you'd type it up for a Channel 5 press release. I bet you're taping this conversation."

Ironically, a beep sounded over the phone line.

"Damn thing won't shut off." There was another beep, a few clicks. Then his voice began to purr. "I'll confess something to you, darlin'. The Lord sent a message about you."

"Now, wait a minute."

"The Lord appeared to me and said, 'Joe, that little gal likes prime rib, cooked medium rare, and French cake made with marzipan and Grand Marnier. You'll be a fool and a sinner if you don't take her out for some.'"

"You're joking," I said. "You're actually capable of making a joke."

"I may be a God-fearing man," he said, "but I ain't a dull one. I'll take you to the Dead Cow Inn: best prime rib in the state. How about tomorrow night?"

"You're asking me out because you think I did it."

He chuckled. "Because them legs of yours are half a mile long."

"Really?" I am ashamed to say I was indeed tempted by prime rib and crude flattery and torte Grand Marnier.

"I'll meet you there," I said. "Not that I don't trust you."

"Hell, I knew you didn't trust me when you gave me Bentley's address. But darlin', I wouldn't have Bentley in my house either. To put it plainly, he's been on the other side of the law."

"He has?" I said. "What did he do?"

"Ask him."

"No, I want to ask you," I said. "About Bentley, and about Jezebel, too."

"Turn me inside out," he answered. "You're gonna love what you find."

That was exactly what I feared.

As I hung up the phone, I heard my students parking their cars behind the house. I slipped again and looked down. What lay beneath my feet wasn't a flat sequin or even a large round bead. It was a bullet casing.

It was tarnished, slightly slick to the touch. "My God," I said.

Had someone else been killed in my house?

I picked up my little derringer and began the search: in closets, under desks. I had steeled myself to climb the stairs when I heard the doorbell ring.

"Geez, Delilah." Dunya stood, frozen, in the doorway, her hand on the knob. "Are you going to shoot us?"

"Delilah, never point with a gun," Sher added.

I put it away.

They came in, laughing and chattering, as if Jez had never lain in that coffin, as if Nef hadn't been decoyed to a murder, as if they themselves were perfectly safe.

Behind them I saw the silky gleam of freshly-splintered wood. A bullet hole had been gouged in the newly-painted frame of my front door.

I imagined that hole in my unprotected chest.

I put on a giant smile. "It's only five weeks to the Renaissance Festival and we're still not ready. All right, ladies, let's dance."



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