"Now that's what I call 'extra crispy,'" I said to Murray as we stood over the smouldering mass of chrome, steel, vinyl, and rubber that had been the Murraymobile. But his sense of humor had deserted him again. He saw no bright side to the total destruction of his sole means of transportation, knowing full well that his minimalist approach to insurance coverage meant that there would undoubtedly be no provision made for exploding buckets of chicken, spicy or otherwise. He mourned the cremation of that jalopy as he would have mourned the passing of an old friend, more even. "I loved my Vega," he said solemnly.
"There are plenty of old Vegas around New Orleans still, even today. I'm sure you can find another one just like it," I said without conviction. "In time, you'll learn to love it just as much as you did this one."
"No," he said, in a voice one might use for recitations of Kahlil Gibran, "there'll never be another Murraymobile."
He was right, too. There had been something special about that car. "Listen, Murray, I know how you're feeling, so, if you want to just skip the guest party at the studio tonight, that's fine with me."
"Skip the guest party?"
"Well, after what you've just been through, your recent loss and all, I thought you might want to be alone."
"For Pete's sake, Huey, it was just a car! And Brandi and Tiffani are counting on us to bring in guests. We can't disappoint them."
"You're forgetting one thing, Murray. We haven't got any guests. And you've already asked everybody you know and everybody you've run into in the last two days."
"Don't worry, I'll think of something. We can't let those girls down."
"And then there's the free lesson, of course."
I was beginning to wonder if Murray's brain had been deranged slightly by the blast at the apartment complex -- slightly more deranged, I should say. It had been quite a powerful explosion, concealed in the bottom of that bucket beneath a half dozen pieces of chicken and attached to a timing device set to go off ten minutes after we left Chicken Central. Had we driven directly back to our apartments uptown -- a twenty minute trip -- we would surely have been blown to bits. It was Murray's unceasing determination to make a love connection with Brandi and Tiffani that had saved our lives. Of course, it was that same unceasing determination that had gotten us into this mess in the first place. Fortunately, we weren't "out" long, and came to to find ourselves, if not the Murraymobile, in one piece -- a few lacerations, a contusion or two, cuts and bruises, that's all. The Vega, on the other hand, or what was left of it, was engulfed in flames, and pretty much consumed itself in the short time it took the fire department to arrive on the scene.
Brandi and Tiffani, it turned out, had not been home. In fact, they had been at the studio all day, as had Gaylord and Dewitt, and that was where we found them when we arrived, cab-borne, for the last of our three introductory lessons late that afternoon. Murray and I had stopped again at our respective domiciles in the interests of hygiene, and to annoint ourselves with antiseptics. Another couple of days like this one and we would have to pay a visit to the K&B Drugstore to replenish our stockpiles of Bactine. The studio staff seemed genuinely concerned for our safety -- after all, there had been three attempts on our lives in as many days -- but they reacted the same way to the hypochondriacs among their clientele, of whom there were many, so it was hard to judge their sincerity.
Dewitt had spent most of the afternoon watching and rewatching the copy of Dot's rehearsal tape that I had left behind at the studio. He'd become obsessed with it, it seems, and continued unceasingly to express his incredulity at Dot's faulty performance. He had just finished watching it for the 27th time -- with Willie, who had shown up shortly before us, looking on over his shoulder -- when Murray and I walked up behind.
"8:53," I blurted as I stared at the frozen image of Dot's inert body. Dewitt and Willie turned and stared blankly at me. "8:53, it's right there," I said, pointing to the tiny numbers superimposed upon the bottom right corner of the picture. "It's been there all the time, and we never noticed it. 8:53 is the exact time of Dot's death."
"8:53!" said Murray. "That's when Willie said he arrived. It was eight-fifty-something, wasn't it, Willie? Remember, you knew the exact time because you'd just changed the battery in your watch."
"Well, I think it was 8:53,'' Willie stammered. "I'm pretty sure that's about when I pulled up. Of course, I listened to the end of my new Zig Ziglar cassette tape before I got out of the car, but that couldn't have taken too long. Then I put the cassette back in the cartridge, and put the cartridge back in the cassette case, and hid the case under the passenger seat. I always do that. You don't want to tempt people, you know -- especially when you're parking on the street like that. Then I went in. -- Wait, I did pick up all the trash in the car -- the wrappers, receipts, all that junk. There's a litter can on the sidewalk right in front of the studio, so I picked up real quick and dropped everything in the can on the way in. Oh, and you know what? I stopped for a second to try to find some loose change to put in the parking meter. I didn't have any in my pocket, but I was sure I had some in the glove compartment. Never did find it, though. And then I remembered it was Saturday, anyway, so I didn't need to feed the meter --"
"Forget it, Willie," I said. "Nobody suspects you of the murder. The point is, if you got here at 8:53, the murder must have occurred just as you were arriving. -- Dewitt!"
"I told you I didn't do it!" Dewitt fairly shrieked. "You know where I was at the time of the murder. Besides, if I had done it, would I have put the gun in Zula's car, knowing it had been there all night?"
"Maybe you weren't trying to frame Zula, but just looking for a quick place to stash the gun," I suggested, deriving great satisfaction from the look of terror on Dewitt's face. "Calm down, Dewitt. You're right: I do know where you were when Dot was killed. I just wanted to ask you if there's some other way out of the studio besides the front door, a fire exit or something."
"No, there isn't any other exit, but you didn't have to scare me like that, you big brute."
"That means the murderer was trapped inside when Willie arrived. He had to be! Or she! Murray and I pulled up just as Willie was coming out, so the murderer couldn't have gotten away. Willie waited outside while Murray and I went in to telephone the police -- and when we came back out Brandi and Tiffani were just arriving, and then Gaylord and Dewitt showed up. That means none of them could have committed the murder. The murderer must have remained hidden in the studio somewhere until the place filled up and he was able to slip out unnoticed."
"Do you think Bummer killed her?" asked Willie. "I know he wanted that property of hers. And what about that exploding bucket of chicken? That has his fingerprints all over it, doesn't it?"
"Well, if it wasn't Bummer," I said, "it was someone who wanted us to think it was Bummer -- the same person who wanted us to think it was Zula and Gaylord."
Willie pleaded with us to spend some time with him after our lessons "discussing the case." The poor soul desperately wanted to play detective. We'd put him off half a dozen times already, and we had a couple of hours to spare before the guest party, so how could we turn him down? 0f course, we did have to scrounge up some guests at some point, but Murray was convinced that that would not take long. All we had to do, he insisted, was buzz by the Ozanam Inn on skid row and collar a couple of the winos loitering outside. Play up the free-liquor angle, then put some shoes on them. Simple. So, there was absolutely no reason why we couldn't humor Willie by spending an hour or so playing Columbo with him -- unless, of course, Brandi happened to be free for those same two hours, in which case Murray's fevered brain would kick into overdrive and there'd be no telling what schedule changes were in store for us.
Our lessons went well, as always. Murray was extremely agitated, however, when we met again afterwards to compare notes -- so agitated that his record of the hour with Brandi was completely devoid of scatological value. It seems that Gaylord had burst in upon their lesson in a rage and threatened to fire the object of Murray's devotion. They had been reviewing the basic steps that Murray had learned, and he had performed them so masterfully, so he said, that Brandi had been compelled to remark how there was this one really nifty advanced step that she wished she could show him. Not surprisingly, Murray had inquired why she couldn't. And Brandi had explained that it was against studio rules to teach the more advanced steps to beginning students. Well, who was going to know, right? It was his last lesson, after all. And, if she thought Murray was ready for it, what harm was there? That was the gist of Murray's argument. Brandi assured Murray that she wanted nothing more than to show him that step -- a step that had been made for Murray, a step that had his name on it -- but, gosh darn, she could be fired for doing such a thing.
You'd have to know Murray, I guess. Up until this point, he hadn't given a damn about learning dance steps. Taking lessons had just been part of an elaborate pretense prerequisite to creating friction between his torso and Brandi's -- without being slapped in the face, as he would have been for attempting the same stunt on a crowded public bus. The scowls and the tongue-lashings didn't faze him (he could always act as though they were directed at someone else, the way he did when suspected of passing gas), but the slaps in the face were kind of embarrassing. They left a mark and all. If you did the same rude things while dancing, however, your partner was obligated by some arcane code of etiquette to feign obliviousness. But Murray's interest had been piqued, his vanity aroused. There was no way in the world that Brandi was going to leave that room without first showing Murray the interdicted dance step. The minute she did, Gaylord burst into the room, catching them in flagrante delicto, and proceeded to read Brandi her Carmen Miranda rights.
You can imagine how Murray felt. It was his fault that Brandi was in the soup. She'd told him she wasn't supposed to show him that step. She'd warned him that it might cost her her job. But had he listened? No. All he'd cared about was adding one more silly step to his repertoire. He'd jeopardized the career of a woman whose whole life was dancing just to satisfy his insatiable ego. Oh, Murray, how could you? he asked himself. But there had to be something he could do to make amends. There had to be some way he could bail Brandi out. He'd pleaded with Gaylord to ignore the infraction, insisting that he'd made Brandi show him the step against her will. The situationally ethical deviant had responded to the effect that rules are rules. Murray had started to protest, and then he'd had a brainstorm. Had he been an advanced student, would there have been anything wrong with Brandi showing him that step? he'd asked, and Gaylord had shaken his head no.
"Then make me an advanced student!" Murray concluded with a flourish, repeating his triumphant declaration to me.
'You didn't do what I think you did, did you?" I asked Murray, with a sick feeling in my stomach.
"I had to, Huey. What else could I do?"
"How much is it going to cost?"
"What do you mean, How much is it going to cost? How can you put a price on two people's lives? Dancing means everything to Brandi, and Brandi means everything to me."
"How much, Murray?"
"A thousand dollars."
"A thousand dollars! You've never had that much money in your life."
"You don't have to pay it all at once, Huey."
"I don't have to pay it at all."
"I need to talk to you about that --"
I didn't like the sound of that last comment and was just about to say so when Willie threw his two cents in. "So, Brandi got you with the old 'advanced step' routine, did she?" Standing there like a frieze, he'd overheard our entire conversation. "She pulled that one on me when I first started. And I fell for it too, I thought for sure Gaylord was going to fire her if I didn't do something drastic. What a joke. -- So, are you ready to hit the road? I figured we'd pick up something to eat and head over to my place. It's quieter there and we'll be able to concentrate while trying to solve this case. We can take my car. I guess we'll have to, right? How about burgers from Bud's Broiler? I'm assuming, of course, that you aren't going to want fried chicken. I know you guys were planning to have some today, but under the circumstances -- I mean, fried chicken would be fine with me, but then I wasn't nearly blown up by a bucket of the stuff just a couple of hours ago. If I had been nearly blown up by a bucket of chicken, I'm not sure I'd want to --"
"Burgers will be fine, Willie," I interjected. As we headed for the door, we passed Dewitt, still glued to the tube, playing and replaying Dot's last rehearsal like it was a choice bit from a porno flick. "Why don't you guys go on ahead," I encouraged Murray and Willie. "I want to take one more look at this tape. Just order me a No. 4, the one with chili and cheese, and I'll meet you at Willie's."
I sat down beside Dewitt and watched as he ran the tape again. "You're really obsessed with those little mistakes, aren't you?" I prodded.
"They're not just 'little mistakes,'" Dewitt responded. "Everything's fine until right at the end. Then the timing's all off, and she starts doing crazy things with her head, nodding and shaking it --"
"Maybe she was just nervous," I suggested, "and maybe the murderer was asking her questions."
"Maybe. But it's almost like she was trying to tell us something, like she all of a sudden remembered that the tape was on, and she wanted to leave us a message without letting the murderer know what she was doing. If you'd known Dot, you'd know what a perfectionist she was. Once she'd memorized a routine, she never messed up, no matter how crocked she got. This was the most important routine she'd ever rehearsed. It was for her gold-level dancing certificate. And we'd spent so much time on this one -- especially the end, the part that's all wrong. We wanted to give Dot some dash! It was going to be her big finish --"
I had drifted off as Dewitt droned on, but something he'd said had brought me back. It rang a bell somewhere. "What did you say?" I interrupted.
"Just now. Just now. What did you say?"
"About her big finish?"
"No, before that. What you wanted to give Dot --"
"That's it! That's it! Play the tape again."
I never would have believed that the miserable year I'd spent in the Boy Scouts as a child would ever have come in handy. I'd hated the prissy little scarves with the slide clasps, I'd hated the sanctimonious little oaths, and I'd hated like hell having to master all those mind-bending little knots. I mean, what were the chances that I'd ever be stranded in Bolivia and have to build a rope bridge to make my way back to civilization? And why had the maps we'd learned to read always been of open fields or forests, instead of something useful like an interstate system? When would I ever be called upon to send an important message via the venetian blinds in an office tower, instead of the fax machine? I had asked myself questions like that the whole time I was attempting to master those surreal life-saving skills, and now, to my amazement, one of them was actually going to prove useful.
I pulled a little spiral-top notebook out of my pocket and jotted down the timing of Dot's last steps: slow, quick, slow, slow, slow, slow, quick, slow, slow, quick, quick, quick, quick. "Dot's husband was a cryptographer," I explained to Dewitt. "If I'm not mistaken, Dot may have danced her last steps on earth in Morse Code. Give me a second to figure this out." I tried one combination, then another and another, before tossing the tablet down in disgust. "Boy, I really thought we had something, but this doesn't make any sense. She seems to be giving the Morse Code for yes and no --"
"She was shaking her head yes and no, too," Dewitt added.
"What the hell can it mean? Yes and no? It's craziness."
"Yes and no," Dewitt repeated. "Yes no, yes no, yes no. No yes, no yes --"
"Noyes!" I shouted, jumping up and heading for the door. "Dewitt, call Chief Lewis and tell him to get over to Willie Noyes' office right away. Murray's in danger --"