Jezebel Died Dancing - Chapter Nine

Why didn't I mention the bullet to Dunya or Sher or even Nef? Was I afraid of frightening them?

No. I was afraid one of them fired that shot.

I smiled at them now, coaxing them to extend and plie and isolate those hip movements. "Ladies, we've got it," I bubbled. "Now let's refine that port de bras, or as they say in Egypt, do our arm work."

I waved everyone a cheery goodbye. As their cars drove off, I grabbed Cleo's little pistol with tense fingers and searched the upstairs. I found no bodies, neither living nor dead.

Still, I shivered myself to sleep. No one murdered me in my bed. Perhaps that was because I slept under it, like a scared three-year-old, with that little pistol clutched in my fist.

All night, I dreamed restlessly of Vito. He kept breaking into the house while I was gone. Each time he'd sweep my floor, collecting drifts of large bullets until the broom broke in his hands.

The next morning, I put all my sewing projects away. I was lucky to be alive. I had to extend that luck by catching the criminal. I would start by interviewing the neighbors.

I began three doors down, with a back-to-the-earth couple who cultivated backyard marijuana between rows of corn. I'd never had time to talk to them much, so I hoped they'd forgive me and share a good clue.

I found them in the garden, wearing faded bell bottoms, hoeing their spring crop. I told them about Jezebel.

"Not really," said the woman. She brushed back long, graying blond hair. "Really? She was murdered in your living room? Terrible karma."

“Frankly,” I said, “I'm scared for my life. Someone could walk in and just shoot me.”

"Wouldn't hurt to meditate," said the man. His hair was long and blond, too, except on top, where there wasn't any. He wore what remained in a ponytail.

“Meditate!”

He smiled. “I'm not smoking dope. Maharishi says that when you meditate, it lowers the crime rate."

“How many meditators does it take to stop a guy from shooting you?”

He patted my shoulder. “You definitely need to chill.” He bent down past the corn and snipped off a spiny-leafed bouquet.

"Um, thanks," I said. "Peace." I left without even learning their names.

I had worse luck with the members of Stonehenge, the neighborhood rock band. I was met at the rusty screen door by a bearded man in undershorts.

“Oh,” I said. “Um.”

As he glared at me, I gazed back, awed. Was that nose hair or a mustache? And were those pale, lumpy folds an undershirt or his skin? The beard was so long, I wasn't sure.

"I live two doors down and a woman was murdered in my--"

He snorted and slammed the door in my face.

I had slightly better luck with Mrs. Quint, the elderly lady who lived right across the street.

Mrs. Quint was our Neighborhood Watch captain. She never stepped outside her white clapboard bungalow and she never opened the windows, but one blind was always raised four inches. The reflection of a spyglass glinted from that crack.

I knocked and waited. Locks clicked in her door. I heard the rattle of chains and burglar bars. Finally the door opened two inches. Her suspicious, wrinkled face peered out the narrow crack.

I went straight to the point.

“Well,” she said. “So now you come over.”

"They don't have a clue who killed her," I said. "But they think she died Thursday afternoon. Do you remember who was there?"

"Oh, honey," she said, "I can't keep track of the people who go in and out of your house."

"You must have seen someone. How about the man who kicked in my door?"

She brightened. "That nice young man?"

"Um, yes," I said.

"So clean-cut," she said. "But you shouldn't shack up with him. Why should he buy the cow if he gets all that free milk?"

"Cow?" I said. "Shack up?" I addressed the worst insult first. "I would never live with that arrogant man."

"Don't lie to me," she snapped. "I've got eyes."

The door snicked firmly shut as I shouted protests.

I marched home, frustrated. The whole way, her spyglass was focused, glinting, on my back. I squared my shoulders and slammed into my studio. So she thought Bentley and I were living together because he'd kicked down the door? It was the epitome of nerve.

My answering machine was blinking. I pushed 'play'.

"Logistically, it's not possible," the message said. "The mummy case is certainly deep enough, but there's no, er, knee room. They'd have to get into position, then have friends lower them down in some kind of sling. Too kinky even for Jezebel. But I do have authentic news you might want to hear." There was a few seconds' silence. "Try on top of the case." I heard the click as Bentley hung up the phone.

I called him back.

"I've learned quite a bit," he said. "That is, if we're sharing clues again."

"Oh, yes. Tell me," I said.

"So what was the secret of the safety pins?"

"You first."

"I wasn't able to reach Cleo in California. Her brother said she spent a day in Mexico and came home with a bottle of Patrón and Montezuma's revenge. She's supposed to call me back once her medicine takes effect."

"What did you think of Brother John?"

"Pretty eccentric for a man of fifty," Bentley said.

"Fifty?" I said. "He has to be eighty, at least."

"Not true. I looked into his background. He was an overseas sales rep for a Washington-based import business."

"And?"

"That's all I could learn before the personnel manager realized I wasn't officially on the case. I'll have to work through the Washington police now. But I tracked Brother John to California. He retired early. He owns a little computer consulting business."

"Well, if he's into computers," I said, "it accounts for the weirdness."

"Hey. I like computers."

"That proves my point."

"Speaking of weird," Bentley said, "I interviewed your neighbors. They say your house is like Grand Central Station."

He'd been successful when I'd failed?

"Who did you talk to?"

I heard paper rustle. "First, a couple named Sunset and Windsong."

"The marijuana growers?"

"Thanks," he said.

Oh-oh. With my foot, I nudged their drying bouquet from my desk into the trash.

"And then Leopard and Punk and Big Mama."

"The rock band? You got those people to talk?"

"Sure. You just have to speak their language," he said.

"Don't patronize me," I answered. "Leopard has more hair in his nose than you have on your whole body."

"Oh, really? I have a lot of hair on my body," he said. "Let's see. Mrs. Quint was very helpful. We talked a great deal about you and about Elvis."

I was speechless.

"You've seen her shrine, of course," he added.

"Her shrine? You mean to Elvis?" I was diverted for only a moment. "That crazy woman let you into her house?"

"We had tea and Old Granddad," he said. "I had a hard time getting out of there. She gave me the best list of names."

I swore.

"For shame, D.T." I heard the paper rattle again. "She had to go to the doctor at three-thirty, but she knows everything that happened before three o'clock. She said that first, that red-haired hussy arrived with a round-bellied man. Dark hair, brown skin."

"Ahmed and Jez?" I said. "Together? In my house?"

"No. He dropped her off."

Strange.

"Ahmed and I will have another chat," Bentley added.

"You'd better catch him before he shoots me and leaves the country," I said.

"Already have," he said. "I've persuaded him to stay here and work within the system."

"How on earth did you do that?" I asked.

"As I said, you have to speak a person's language."

"Arabic?"

"Not at all. Justice."

"You mean you both want to bind me and drag me off to be publicly executed. Bentley, how could you?"

"Calm down, D.T. If I ever succeed in putting the cuffs on you, I won't squander you on the firing squad."

"How will you squander me, you animal?"

"You sound pretty cheerful," he said. "See? Now I'm speaking your language. In a moment, you'll tell me the secret of the safety pins."

I pondered hanging up on him.

"As I was saying," Bentley said, "Mrs. Quint saw a dancer in purple."

"Oh, my God," I said. "Who?"

"Couldn't tell. She was veiled."

"Veiled?" I said.

"Mrs. Quint also saw the Reverend Joe Nevada."

"Now that's not true," I said. "Not in my house." I'd never locked the doors. Dancers came and went, borrowing costumes, rehearsing, changing before belly-grams. But it wasn't open to total strangers. "I bet she couldn't recognize him that far away."

"Nevada's conspicuous. He works at it. Besides, I carried his photo," Bentley said.

"Ah! So you suspected him."

"No, I didn't." He sounded almost grieved. "I had that photo by accident."

"By accident?"

"Why didn't you tell me the two of you had a relationship?" he added.

"Because we don't," I said.

"D.T., don't insult my intelligence. You're exactly the kind of woman he would like."

This time, I did hang up.

He dialed back immediately. After a dozen rings, I lifted the receiver.

"Trying to change the subject?" he said.

"No, expressing my indignation."

"About what? You're creative, you have a kind of sensual eccentricity and you constantly run around half-dressed. Nevada likes that kind of thing."

I pondered this strange apology. "Okay, you're off the hook."

"So why did you lie to me?" he said.

"I didn't." I was ready to hang up again, this time for good. "I met him for the first time the other day. I can't imagine why he was here unless--"

"Unless what?"

"Bentley, I found a bullet in my sewing room. Well, a bullet casing. And a bullet hole by the front door."

"Jesus Christ," he said. Then his voice went grim. "You didn't call me."

"You keep secrets, too," I said. "You act like we're a team, but I never forget that I'm a murder suspect and you're a cop who wants a promotion."

"Promotion?” He didn't shout but his voice was hard. “I'll be lucky if I keep my job. I'm going to come over. Now. And you're not going to play any games." With that, he banged down the phone.

I waited, feeling guilty.

In twenty minutes, the doorbell jangled. He stood on my porch, radiating angry waves of ice.

"Bentley," I said, swallowing, "I'll tell you everything I know, which isn't much. The safety pins--"

"Show me the bullet hole." He dug with a pocket knife until he extracted something. "Hmm. It was a hmm, fired from hmm, where did you find the casing? Yes, I was right." He examined the porch, then came in, stuffing an object into his pants pocket. "Are you still packing that derringer or have you traded it for a .45?"

"I just have the little pistol," I said.

He dropped down in my office chair, rocking it backwards. I heard the groan of metal as it bent under his weight. When the chair bounced upright again, we were nearly eye to furious eye.

"Carmen," he growled, "bring me the new pistol."

Whenever he said 'Carmen,' it meant trouble.

"I don't have a .45."

Bentley reached into his pocket. He displayed two items in the palm of his hand: a too-large gleaming bullet and a wavy, flat, broken little piece of metal.

"He was picking the lock," Bentley said. "You waited for him right here in this chair. When the door opened, you tried to blast the man to kingdom come. You're lucky you aren't up for murder."

"I didn't shoot anybody. I didn't even lock the door." I was almost ready to cry.

"I don't like liars." He shoved the chair backwards and strode toward the studio. “I'm going to find out where you bought the gun."

"I don't like liars, either," I said. "I'm going to find out how you know Nevada Joe."

He looked at me over his shoulder, his hand on the doorknob. "We went to school together," he said. "In New York. After two years, we both left."

"What happened?"

"Nevada was recruited by Harvard Law School."

"Good God," I said.

Bentley yanked the door open. "He won his scholarship trying to persuade the faculty not to expel me."

"Bentley," I said, restored, "what did you do?"

But he left, slamming the door so hard the mirrors shivered.

He had actually lost his temper.

For the life of me, I couldn't imagine a single sin that Bentley would lower himself to commit. The man made an English butler look like a free spirit.

Then it all hit me. I collapsed in my half-broken chair. Someone had sat here in my sewing room, in this very spot, and had taken aim at my own front door.

The intruder was all too real. He had almost killed a second victim in my house. And yet that victim had not come forward.

Evidently two people were stalking me.

Two people wanted me dead, and Bentley had literally walked out on me.

But he had been so angry he forgot to take Cleo's little gun away. My hands shook as I loaded it.



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