While the Chief questioned Murray and me, the other witnesses milled around in the foyer and on the dance floor -- like actors at an audition, or dancers at a dance competition, for that matter -- awaiting the outcome of their performances. Gaylord had by then decided to postpone the Showcase, but most of the students had already arrived for their last-minute lessons, unaware that one of the stars of the show had signed an irrevocable contract for lessons at that great ballroom dance studio in the sky. Major Bummer, the Browns, and the other students we had met at last night's practice party had come strolling in expecting to put the finishing touches on their routines for the evening, only to find themselves confronted by cops and scheduled for questioning.
By the time the Chief had finished with Murray and me and returned with his troops to police headquarters, the jittery jitterbuggers had prevailed upon Gaylord to open the bar, and the store-brand inebriants had begun to flow freely. Murray and I volunteered to man the dispensary, knowing that from that vantage point we would be well-positioned to facilitate the loosening of lips and overhear juicy tidbits of incriminating conversation -- not to mention imbibe freely ourselves. Dewitt and Tiffani sat on stools opposite the bar, Gaylord and Brandi hovering over them. Willie, Bummer, and the Browns leaned in close behind.
"I just can't believe that silly policeman thinks one of us killed Dot," Dewitt declaimed. He fished a maraschino cherry out of his Manhattan, licked a varnishy droplet off the bottom of it, and popped it into his mouth.
"One of us must have," Gaylord said archly.
Dewitt lolled back his head and smiled smugly at him. "No kidding, Sherlock," he said. "But which one?"
"If you had been with her like you were supposed to be, she wouldn't have been killed," Gaylord responded. "Or would she?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You were supposed to meet her at eight o'clock, dearheart --"
"I told you what happened, Gaylord."
"What happened?" asked Murray, recklessly jeopardizing the effective invisibility we had acquired as bartenders. Dewitt and Gaylord eyed him suspiciously. "Sorry," said Murray. "I didn't mean to pry."
"Oh, that's okay," said Dewitt. "I've already told that Captain Loomis."
"Lewis," Murray corrected, wincing at the pain that shot through his foot at my sudden stomping. "He's chief of police."
"Are you a friend of his?" asked Gaylord.
Seeing that I was prepared to pour a half bottle of simple syrup down the back of his pants, Murray weighed his answer carefully. "I'm a citizen," he said at last. "I read the papers."
"Well, anyway," Dewitt continued, "like I told the Chief, I left for the studio at about 7:45, and on the way I decided to stop at the Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee, figuring it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes that early in the morning. But a tour bus pulled up just as I was going in, and the next thing I knew the place was overflowing with truckloads of tacky Tammys from Tulsa. By the time I got out of there it was almost nine, so I went back to the apartment to pick up Gaylord, like I'd promised to do after the lesson."
"Back to the apartment?" asked Murray. "You'd been at Gaylord's apartment earlier?"
"We live together, Silly," said Dewitt.
"You mean, you're --"
"Roommates," interjected Gaylord, mindful that the women students, particularly the older ones, like to fantasize that the male instructors at the studio pose at least a latent threat to their chastity (however relieved they might be to know, subconsciously, that they don't).
"Yeah, roommates," Dewitt giggled. "Like Brandi and Tiffani."
Murray didn't care much for that comparison. It put a crimp in his dream life, not to mention mine. Murray's no homophobe, but he hadn't liked Dewitt or Gaylord from the beginning. Something about that mincing manner of theirs rubbed him the wrong way. And the suggestion that his new flame was anything but a normal, red-blooded American nymphomaniac galled him no end.
So much for circumspection. Murray went on the attack, and no amount of stomping or dousing could have stopped him. He pointed out to Dewitt that his alibi was hopelessly lame and would be virtually impossible to corroborate, even if he had been slurping up cafe au lait and inhaling powdered donuts at the coffee stand opposite Jackson Square, which Murray himself found just a trifle hard to believe. In any case, anonymity was guaranteed in a forum that was almost always packed, with a staff of Vietnamese waiters and waitresses whose English vocabularies consisted solely of the names of the beverages and confections available at their place of employment. The odds were slim, moreover, that in a neighborhood overrun with precious pansies one more of the darlings would have made any impression on anyone, even in an empty eatery. Murray, to his credit, kept this last observation to himself.
In his eagerness to defend the honor of his loved one by chastising Dewitt, however, Murray unwittingly touched off a sort of alibi rally, with all on hand vying to present the most solid explanation of their whereabouts at the time of the murder and striving to shoot holes in everyone else's. Much to Gaylord's consternation, his own alibi -- that he had been waiting patiently at their apartment for Dewitt's return -- provoked a round of guffaws. "How could I go anywhere when Dewitt had the Monte Carlo?" he whined, and we burst into laughter again.
"Was anyone there with you?" Brandi asked with a good-natured snicker.
"Did anyone see you?" someone called out from the back of the crowd.
"Of course not," Gaylord shouted over the deafening laughter. "I was alone!"
"I saw him," Dewitt volunteered.
"That's right! Dewitt saw me when he got back," Gaylord exclaimed.
"Actually, it was some time after I got back, Gaylord. When I got back, you weren't there, remember?"
Gaylord was beside himself. "I went out to get a paper, Dewitt. I told you that."
"And came back without one?"
"The box was empty. -- This is ridiculous! Why would I want to kill Dot anyway? She was our best student." There was something in that. The consensus of the murmuring was that, yes, murdering Dot would have been like killing the goose that laid the golden egg, or some other proverbially nonsensical thing. And so, for the moment, Gaylord was off the hook.
Other alibis were strikingly similar. Brandi and Tiffani had left their apartment simultaneously and cycled side-by-side all the way to the studio. The Browns were, well, married and -- as much as it pained them to do so -- could vouch for each other. Major Bummer, as was his wont, had stopped by "Chicken Central" on his way to the studio, just to make sure that no one was walking off with giblets in the wee hours of the weekend. Murray and I, of course, were above suspicion. Nevertheless, had anyone asked, we could have accounted for our whereabouts at the time of the murder. We had been detained uptown long enough to provide an alibi for Zula, who, we felt sure, would be happy to reciprocate. Not that either one of us would have had any reason to kill Dot, though Murray, if he had done the dirty deed, could surely have claimed self-defense.
But Dot was dead and somebody had killed her, and there had to be a way to find out who it was. Start from the beginning, a patronizing little voice inside my head said to me. Start with Willie. He discovered the body. If anybody saw something, he did. "Willie!" I cried out. "Where's Willie?" Slowly a blur in the background came into focus. "Willie, what time did you get to the studio?" I asked the sharpening image. "What time, exactly?"
"8:53," Willie responded precisely, as I had expected he would. "I know because I just put a new battery in my watch, and I've been checking it regularly to make sure it's keeping accurate time. It starts to run a little slow when the battery runs down, but sometimes, when you put the new battery in, it runs a little fast at first. It was working perfectly this time, though, because I checked it against my clock radio before I left the house, and I checked it against the clock in my car on the way to the studio. Then I checked it against the clock in the foyer when I came in, and it was the exact same time -- 8:53. Of course, all three clocks could have been running a little slow, or a little fast for that matter, in which case --"
"Thanks, Willie. Now, you didn't see anyone else in the studio, and Murray and I arrived just as you were coming out. So, that means the murder had to have taken place some time before 8:53. We know Zula couldn't have done it --"
"But her car was here when I got here," Willie protested. "I saw it."
"It was there all night," Dewitt explained. "She locked her keys in it with the motor running again."
"Huey and I gave her a ride home," Murray added. "And we would have given her a ride back this morning, but she was nowhere near ready, so we gave up on her."
"Then Zula couldn't possibly be the murderer," said Willie, disappointedly, it seemed.
"Bingo!" I said. "But somebody sure tried to make it look that way, by planting the murder weapon in the glove compartment of her car. -- Dewitt?"
"It wasn't me! I knew she'd left the car overnight. And I knew you knew too!"
"Don't have a conniption, Dewitt. I just wanted to know what Dot was doing when she was murdered.''
"How would I know? I told you I wasn't here."
"I understand that, Dewitt. But you did have an eight-o'clock appointment with Dot, and she did show up for it, even if you didn't. What I want to know is, What would she have been doing while she was waiting for you to arrive? How long would she have waited before leaving? She wouldn't have waited forever, would she?"
"She would have practiced, Silly."
"Of course. She knew all the steps in the routine we were going to do. She practiced them by herself all the time."
"But what's the point of practicing when there's no one there to critique what you're doing?"
"She used the video camera. That way she could tape what she was doing and play it back to see if she was getting the steps right."
"All the studios do videotaping now," Gaylord interjected. "It's the 1990s, for goodness sake."
"So, if she had to wait, she probably would have started practicing by herself, and if she practiced by herself she probably would have used the video camera --"
"Of course," said Dewitt.
"Has anyone checked the tape player this morning?"
Ching! Little lights flashed on simultaneously in the dim noggins assembled before me. If Dot had been videotaping her practice when she was killed, the murderer might have been captured on the tape! Very good, Class! En masse, we rushed to the tape player to test the theory. "The camera's on!" Dewitt exclaimed. "And there's a tape in the machine! Do you want me to rewind it?"
Silly question. Of course I did. The suspense was killing me. But Willie was right. "That's evidence," he protested. "We should turn it over to Chief Lewis right away. I don't know him personally, but I doubt that he would appreciate any of us tampering with evidence. I know I wouldn't if I were chief of police. I'm not, of course, but if I were --"
"You're right, Willie. Murray and I will take it to the Chief right away."
The others protested loudly, but our duty was clear. We didn't want to accidentally damage the tape, or run the risk of smoking out the killer then and there. Willie volunteered to deliver the tape, noting that he had to drive right by police headquarters to get to his own office, the Noyes Marble and Granite Works, at the end of Canal Boulevard across from the Greenwood Cemetery. "It's no trouble," he said, in ten times as many words.
"That's okay, Willie. Thanks, anyway," I said, though I soon had reason to wish I had entrusted the tape to that inconspicuous gnome. You'd have thought we'd just told an auditorium full of Guns and Roses fans that old Axl wasn't going to make it that night. It was a near riot. Those placid devotees of dance knew that that videotape contained a violent real-life murder and they wanted to see it, without delay. It was only by tucking the tape into my pants and shoving Murray before me that I was able to escape that frustrated mob. Our progress was slowed considerably by Murray's desperate effort to arrange an evening rendezvous with the girls over the din of the crowd. But Dot's death had affected them deeply, and they demurred. They had been quite fond of the woman, it seems.
It took us fifteen minutes to reach the safety of my car. We would have made better time taking the expressway to police headquarters on Broad Street, and you can get on it right near Lee Circle, but, for some reason, I went down St. Charles and cut over on Poydras instead. It's a good thing too, because just as I made the turn on to Broad by the overpass I hit a pothole, my right front wheel went flying off, and my Bug flipped over three times before coming to rest, upright, on the sidewalk in front of a bailbondsman's office.