A golden spark skipped across the stage, but Haley never glanced at it, owned as she was by the music. Her muscled body certainly never skipped a beat; soon she had forgotten the errant bead, concentrating on the count as her hip dropped: 1, 2, 3, 4… Now for the tricky part…she flipped the veil in front of her body, executing two perfect barrel turns.
Somebody whistled from the darkness, and she sent a smile of thanks in that direction: Yeah, I’mall that. How clever of you to notice.
Perhaps she should have ignored him, but she had no time to think about that. The tempo would change—Now. Haley dropped the veil behind her, her torso undulating forward in a move called the Camel. Those who see the Camel think it is quite impossible for a human being to move that way; it is in fact one of the easier moves, if one practices.
Flashbulbs popped from the darkness; the music slowed, and she posed with one hand gracefully reaching to the audience: I’m all done; clap or the belly dancer will cry. She smiled at the irony of the applause; after the show she would put on her street clothes and walk past these same people; none of them would recognize little Haley Benton as the great Halima. And that was just fine with her.
Haley/Halima didn’t have actual fans, she thought as she exited the stage. She was just one of a local dance troupe. Some were college students like herself; others were nurses, teachers, or housewives. The old theater donated one weekend a year for the show, since all proceeds went to the ASPCA. Speaking of which… she asked the question softly, now that the music had started again. “Is Fluffy ready to dance?”
Akira’s lip curled in disgust. “How should I know? I just hope it hasn’t escaped again.”
“I put a brick on his lid,” Haley protested in a whisper. “Anyway, Fluffy’s kind of cute.” She gathered her skirt above her knees as she prepared to climb the stairs.
“I can’t stand even looking at the basket. He’s gotten so big he barely fits in it anymore.” Akira shuddered. “You keep that lid on til you’re all the way on stage, you hear me?”
“Sheesh. Don’t hurt the poor guy's feelings. He’s sensitive.”
“I don't spin with Fluffy.” Haley grinned. “When he upchucked on Sherrie I took the hint.”
“He’s getting too big. One of these days he’s gonna flip out and bite somebody.”
Haley stuck out her tongue at her. “Go hide in the dressing room. There’s air conditioning.”
In the ready room across the stage, the teacher Lorelei stared unseeingly at the program, more from habit than need. The comedy number came next, but she barely noticed the rolls of toilet paper disappearing into the dressing rooms. She set down the program, biting her lip. “I don’t like this. I wished I could have told her.”
“Lori, just concentrate on the show. You couldn’t get hold of her and you didn’t want her to panic.” Police sergeant Vic Chalmers wore street clothes, but his eyes gave him away. "Don't worry about this stuff. This is what we do."
“It happened at the last minute. Again. If it had been the same dancer I swear I'd have cancelled," she continued, as if she hadn't heard him. "I didn’t know what to do. She loves to dance.” This was wrong, Lori thought.
Chalmers waved his hand in front of her face. “Lori? Lori? Hey." She finally stopped and focused on him, his graying hair, the crinkles around his grave blue eyes. Vic had run security one other time two years ago when this had happened. The show had come off perfectly, and nobody had ever realized the police had been involved.
He patted her hand. "We’re covered, okay? I’m watching the back stage and the parking lot. We’ve got a couple guys in the auditorium just like before: anytime somebody moves I get a call. So far the only men who’ve left have gone to the men’s room. You’ve got enough to do. Let us watch for the nut-job.” He pulled his hand back, examined it in distaste. "Bunch of glitter-bugs."
Officer Alan Garrett was only human. He kept one eye on the audience, one on the stage. Eight women danced with swords balanced on their heads; one of the swords started to sway dangerously. The dancer kept a smile plastered to her face, but the fear showed through: Oh, please, please, don’t fall off…
The music finally faded; the girl with the funky sword posed triumphantly with the sword motionless at last on her head. They exited, making way for the fattest ancient Egyptians Lorelei could round up, wrapped in toilet paper and boogying along to the old Bangles hit, Walk Like an Egyptian.
At first the audience stared in surprise, then they started laughing, and finally shrieking; one kid ended up with soda coming out of his nose. Alan bit back a smile at the antics of the “mummies,” forced himself to focus on the audience. He hadn’t come to enjoy the show.
This afternoon some nut had left flowers and a message at the theater for Halima: 2NIT U R 4 ME. Lori Menders called the police.
The flowers looked like they’d come off the roadside somewhere, which meant they couldn’t be traced to a florist. No fingerprints on the printed note. Somebody knew what they were doing, and Alan didn’t like that one bit. He didn’t like Vic’s plan, either, but he kept that to himself. After all, it had worked before. Ninety percent of the time the perp didn't even show. And for the other ten percent--well, that's what cops are for.
It was too late to cancel anyway; Lorelei hadn’t even been able to get hold of her star dancer. So Vic said, let the show go on, let Halima dance. And let the perp come out from under his rock, if he so desired. Garrett, Chalmers, and Peterson would be waiting for him.
A man stood, headed for the back of the auditorium. Alan broke off his thoughts, made a mental note of his leaving. It generally took about five minutes to get to the men’s room and back. Any longer, and he would ask Monty Peterson to take a look.
Monty stood in the lobby like the bouncer he'd been before he joined the force. The roars of laughter from the auditorium made him wish he could take a peek. Well, the studio taped the performance.
Everybody looked forward to the snake dance, starring Halima and her faithful assistant Fluffy. Backstage, people debated what Fluffy thought. Some girls swore Fluffy slinked in time with the music. Others said Halima followed along with a Burmese python doing its python thing, pretending it was her idea. The reptile liked curling around Halima because she was nice and warm and didn’t make any sudden moves.
The audience didn't seem to have an opinion. Raqs al-Falufi had become a classic studio number, and when Halima came out with her basket, everybody knew what was inside. Yet as she lifted the lid and hoisted out the snake, a hush always fell upon the auditorium. She undulated back and forth as the coils wrapped around her.
Alan watched, hypnotized. Did this girl even have bones? She seemed to be part snake herself. The heavy dark tube now moved slowly across her body, dancing to its own strange music. He blinked, shook his head. He had to pay attention.
The man was still missing. Constipation? How could anybody skip out on Raqs al-Falufi? He called Monty. “Check the men’s room, will you?”
Monty rolled his eyes as he pushed the door open. Another trip to the men’s room, just to make sure somebody was in a stall.
The stall doors swung open easily, one after the other. “Al, are you sure somebody got up?”
“We got a problem.” Monty looked up at the windows, opened to let in the fresh air. A thin enough guy could get through. “I’m going to tell Vic to check outside. I think somebody’s gone out the window.”
The wailing music faded to silence, and Halima posed with her hand up high above her head, Fluffy dreamily wrapped around it. Lori watched her slink off with the snake while a stage hand went to fetch the basket. Vic had disappeared, to check the parking lot again, he had said. She wondered. He’d gotten a phone call just before he’d skipped out the door.
The other dancers fell back from Haley as if she carried a scaly plague. Gently unwrapping the snake from her arm, she wrapped the rest of him around her middle. "He's getting too heavy for this," she panted.
"Why can't you dance with a goldfish?" Akira asked sadly.
"Oh, what would be the point of that?" Haley climbed the stairs.
In the upper dressing room, Haley gently peeled off the snake and loaded him back into his aquarium. Then she rubbed sanitizer over her skin. Nothing personal, but she didn’t want salmonella. While the alcohol dried, she dug around for her next costume.
The lights up here didn’t work. Neither did the air. An electric lantern moderated the gloom, but the air stayed foul and stifling. All this room had going for it was the huge clothes rack; the girls only came up here to change, then fled downstairs to do their make-up.
She felt strange, like somebody was watching. Instinctively she looked at the window, but no sinister shape loomed outside. Trying to shake off the feeling, she struggled free of the sweaty nylon costume, pulling on a tight floor-length dress over her head.
He stood on the landing of the fire escape, watched her moving in the dim light. The police didn’t worry him;after all, nobody would think to look up. Since the fire escape ladder stayed far above the ground, why would they? He had brought a rope and a rappelling hook; they hadn’t.
Once she had turned towards him, but he had drawn away from the window, and she apparently saw nothing, for she kept moving, unhurried and comfortable. The door did not open from the outside, but he knew she would open it herself.
Haley slid metal gauntlets onto each hand: five (fake) golden rings, one for each finger. A chain from each led to a plate on the back of her hand. They didn’t match, but they shimmered from the stage. Her make-up waited downstairs. She didn’t need to bother opening the door, did she?
Every year Lorelei ordered that no one was to open the fire door. It kept the air conditioner from working, she said, but nobody believed that fairy tale. The truth was that Lori had visions of homicidal maniacs. But the landing stood fifteen feet above street level, safe from prowlers; to moderate the reeking air, each girl opened the door for a few seconds before she left, as a courtesy to the others. Haley checked her dim reflection in the mirror, straightened out the hairpiece on her head. The old costume lay crumpled on the floor. She picked it up, gave it a sniff. Horrible. Nobody would notice if she didn’t come downstairs immediately. She could hang the costume outside for a few minutes, even sit and relax. She unlocked the metal door.
Was that thunder she heard? The weather report had threatened rain tonight.
No point hanging the costume out in the rain. Haley hung it up on the rack. She went back to the door. She could at least get a breath of fresh air.
She opened the door, breathing deeply. It should be quite a storm. She could feel the heavy air, smell the rain.
Something closed on her wrist; she tried to pull her hand away, but the grip held firm. Then she saw the shadow. A man stood on the fire escape landing. A man? Impossible. How could he even get up here?
He started pulling her. She jerked back. She tried to scream, but it came out as a sad little yelp.
He stepped toward her, and his other hand clamped over her mouth. “You shouldn’t scream.” He sounded calm. Way too calm. He started pulling her again over the threshold.
Without thinking, she bit down where the flesh of his palm folded over his finger. He let out a cry of pain, releasing her briefly. She didn’t wait for him to grab her again; she sent her fist into his face with all the force she could muster. She felt surprised and oddly pleased to see the figure stagger backwards. She slammed the door and shoved the bolt home, panting.
Cops. She needed to tell somebody to call the cops. Haley pulled the stairwell door open.
A man stood there also.
She jumped back, ready to punch again, but this man pulled out a badge. “Police, ma’am,” he explained apologetically. “Are you all right?”
She nodded, pointed behind her to the door. “Somebody’s out there,” she said in the strongest voice she could muster. She shrank away from him as he pulled out a gun and a flashlight. “Get out of here,” he said softly. Haley didn’t wait to be told twice. She scuttled away and started moving down the stairs.
“Hey, Haley,” a voice called. Akira stood silhouetted in the stage lights, peering up at her. “You okay? You’re on next.”
“No, she isn’t,” called the cop from the far side of the dressing room. “They’ll have to dance without her.” He came back toward the stairs. “He’s gone.”
“The whole routine’s gonna be messed up,” hissed Akira. "You have to get out there."
Haley shook her head as she looked up at him. “No, I gotta go now.”
Lorelei stood on the stage, cracking jokes and glancing sideways in her direction. Haley gave her the thumbs up. Ready, she mouthed.
Alan whispered, “Haley! Get back here! He could be in the audience.” But he finished the sentence to empty space. Haley had already sailed out to meet the other dancers.
He brought the phone up to his ear. “Doesn’t anybody…” he muttered. Then Monty’s voice came on. “I found your guy.”
Alan’s shoulders sagged with relief. He tore down the stairs and out the back door.
He reached the side of the theater to find a man shoved against the brick wall, his hands in the air, with Monty grimly staring him down. Rain started pattering on the sidewalk, but Alan ignored it. "This is a mistake," the guy whimpered. "I don't know what this is about, but please, just let me go back inside. My wife..."
"Oh, now you want to go back inside," said Monty. "What are you doing out here to begin with?"
He held up a pack of cigarettes. “I’ve tried the gum, I’ve tried the patch. She thinks I quit, but I just can’t do it, man.”
Garrett looked down at the fresh cigarette butt. “You sneaked a smoke.”
The man nodded pitifully.
“Get outta here,” said Monty in disgust. The man stood up, away from the wall, and went through the men's room window again. "Pathetic," Monty muttered to himself.
"And a security risk," added Garrett, stepping under the shelter of the ledge. "Wide open windows are the last thing we need." The rain started to come down harder.
Chalmers came up, panting, from the direction of the parking lot. “He got away from me. We need back-up.”
“You saw him?” Garrett asked.
“And tangled with him. Big guy, about six-four. We got into it, and he knocked me down before I could Tase him. Lit out in a two-door hatchback.”
Alan said, “Somebody should go tell the lady in charge…”
“No time,” snapped Chalmers. “Tell her later, after we’ve bagged him.”
Three dancers with golden gauntlets now stood with their backs to each other. Haley put everything out of her mind, focusing on the music. Deep back bend, hands flutter gracefully above, everybody show off the pretty gauntlets…
She froze when she saw her hands under the stage lights. Bright gobbets of red lay smeared across four finger rings of her right hand.
The others had come out of their back bends, into the next formation. She forced herself to move again, trying to catch up with the other two.
Two cruisers kept looking for the hatchback, and Vic Chalmers had just fitted a bandage over the side of his face where it had grazed the pavement. Garrett knocked at the backstage door.
Lori opened it. "Well?"
"He tried. And failed. We've got people after him right now."
Lori bit her lip. "I knew I should have cancelled this show."
Alan tried not to look at Chalmers. "I'm inclined to agree, but I didn't make the call. Well, Haley's seems all right."
“Not really. She seemed to blank out, and then she just kind of shuffled along. At least that tune's over. She's not going back to her side of the stage. Oh, boy, here she comes."
As she passed the safety of the backstage curtain, Haley's shoulders slumped. “Catch him?”
Alan shook his head.
“I’m sitting out the finale,” Haley told Lori .
Lori nodded, and Haley said to Alan, “I don’t know if you can use this.” She showed him the gauntlet. “I didn’t see it until I was out on the stage.”
Alan stared at it.
Haley turned to Lori. “Did you know there was some freak out there?”
“I did and I didn’t. Somebody sent a message to you right before the performance. I tried to call you, but…”
Garrett spoke. “It doesn’t matter,” he said slowly. He turned to open the door for Monty, who wiped the mud from his boots. Vic followed, shaking water from his hands. "It's pouring out there, in case you didn't know," Vic said cheerfully.
Alan did not smile. “Take that bandage off.”
“What?” Vic looked confused. “Hey, don’t mess with…Ow! Garrett!” Alan had torn off the bandage.
"Garrett, what are you doing?" asked Monty.
“Take a look, Monty. Vic, you got scratch marks on your cheek, a bunch of little ones. And then you got four really big ones.” He took Haley’s hand. “Make me a fist.” He placed her hand up to Vic’s face. “You did those little ones yourself while you were alone out there in the parking lot, trying to hide the real damage. Then you came back and told us you got roughed up trying to stop the bad guy. You said he was a big ugly of six-four, but angle of that strike came from below, because the one who really did it was just a little thing of, oh, let’s say five-two. But she packs quite a wallop, doesn’t she?”
The dancers on stage took their final bows, but the four people beside the stage lights barely noticed the curtain closing.
Monty bent forward for a better look as Garrett repeated, “Well, sir, how about it?”
Vic stood motionless, his face turning red, then gray. Then, without a word, he exploded into action, sending an elbow into Monty's gut.
Garrett yanked out his Taser, but Vic had already drawn his, sending 50,000 volts into the other officer that crumpled him to the floor.
Before Lori could scream, Chalmers grabbed Haley and fled across the now darkened stage. Monty got out his cell phone, calling for backup.
Alan slowly struggled to his feet, breathing hard. “Ugh.” He pulled his gun. “I hope I don’t need to remind everybody that our guy is armed? Lori, do me a huge favor and get on the mike. Clear the theater, now.”
The dancers on the other side of the stage had already scattered out the back door at the sight of the man coming towards them. He dragged Haley, kicking, back up the stairs. “We’re going out the fire escape after all,” he said cheerfully as he pulled her into the dressing room. He shut the heavy door and went to unbolt the fire escape.
She raised an eyebrow. “You can. I’m not,” she told him. But he only laughed at her.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” said Haley. She no longer felt fear, only growing anger.
He could see her fury, but he didn’t seem to care. “Sure you are. I’m taking you to Canada.”
“No, you’re not.”
He suddenly had her up against the wall. “You’re coming with me,” he told her calmly. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to me. You might even learn to like me. You might as well.”
“I don’t think I could.”
“Tough.” His cell phone kept ringing.
She decided to keep Vic talking. “You do know you’re old enough to be my father, right?”
Chalmers let go of her, to slide a box against the door. “Yes. Get over it.”
“Would you answer the phone, already?” She eyed the aquarium. Fluffy, that escape artist, had managed to nudge the lid loose. She looked back at Chalmers, suddenly wondering. He had finally pulled out his shrieking cell phone.
Most people scream and jump around when they see a snake. That scares the snake. And when snakes get frightened…
He said into the phone, “Get me a car, fully gassed and ready to go, with five hundred dollars cash in the glove box. Clear that alley. Do it in ten minutes, you hear me?” He had turned slightly away from her. Haley inched toward the aquarium. Gently she tipped the lid back further, then dropped her hand as he glanced in her direction.
He moved closer, the blood on the side of his face still glistening. Her fist instinctively closed. This time, she would punch harder. Could she overpower him? She would have to…
He pulled out the Taser again and aimed it at her. “This has recharged. Take off those metal things on your hands.”
She stood silently.
“Take off those things,” he repeated. “Or I’ll take them off for you.”
“And this will change my opinion of you?” she asked, stalling for time.
He said nothing. But something buzzed loudly in her head, and she found herself lying on the floor. But she could not move, could not even feel the floor. She could only watch numbly as he unfastened the clips that held the gauntlets, sliding them off her hands. Okay, fine, Haley thought. Just as soon as I can get up off this floor, you are going down. I am not going to Canada tonight...She suddenly thought of the Black Knight in The Search for the Holy Grail, after both his arms and legs got cut off--"All right, we'll call it a draw." She wanted to laugh hysterically, but she gritted her teeth and fought it down. She focused her eyes on Chalmers feet, suddenly hating him.
The phone twittered again, and she heard him drop the gauntlets on the table. Her fingers twitched; now she began to feel the floor pressed against her, warm and sticky. Pins and needles seemed to cover her body. Slowly she sat up, trying to make sense of the talk that seemed only babble at first. Then she struggled to her feet as he yelled into the phone. “No, this door is not going to open until I’m ready to open it.” He turned back to her. “You hold still!”
“As you command,” she said sarcastically.
“Watch your mouth.”
She bit back her answer. His Taser was useless, but he had a gun. Her mind seemed to be moving faster than it ever had; thinking about the people downstairs, Chalmers’ gun, and most importantly the content of Chalmers' brain.
He wanted the money. He wanted the car. Beyond that, his mind was focused on escape and nothing else.
Well, so was Fluffy’s. And a six foot Burmese python was more than a match for a six foot human.
She let herself lean heavily on the table, as if still recovering from the shock of the Tazer. The snout of the python had already come through the gap. His tongue flicked out, curiously tasting the air. She gently reached out a hand to him. Can you feel the vibes, Fluff? Oh, yes, I know you can. Come on, good boy…
Vic shoved the box away from the door. “Fine. But have one of the dancers bring it up. Don’t let me see you, Garrett.”
Alan Garrett was downstairs. Knowing that cheered her a little But Chalmers had a gun and a hostage.
And Haley Benton had a python with sharp teeth and some serious muscle. Fluffy began to climb on her hand. Then he ducked back nervously.
Haley realized he had sensed vibrations on the stairs. Somebody was coming. She reached under his chin and gently tickled. Reassured, the snake continued along up her wrist, her arm. She adjusted her weight as he moved onto her shoulder.
Vic pulled his gun, opened the door. Akira stood there, terrified, mutely holding a thick envelope.
At that moment, Haley flung the python at Chalmers.
The snake hissed with terror, and Chalmers turned to see Fluffy, mouth open and teeth glistening, flying through the air straight at him.
Before Chalmers could raise his gun, the snake had wrapped itself around his shoulders. "Eeyagh! Get it off me!" he screamed. But the snake, fearful of falling, only clung to him harder, exactly as Haley had hoped. It lifted its head up until Chalmers and Fluffy stared at each other eye to eye. Those strange eyes, shining with alien thought, seemed to consider him.
Then it sank its teeth into his chin. Chalmers screamed as the razor teeth sank into the bone of his jaw.
Akira, gaping at the snake now inches from her face, dropped the money and dived down the stairwell head-first. Chalmers’ gun clattered uselessly to the floor as the snake wrapped its thick coils tightly around him.
Fluffy bit Chalmers again, on the chin, on the nose, on his injured cheek, on his ear. As Chalmers struggled, heart pounding, the snake instinctively contracted its muscles ever tighter. It wrapped around his neck to get a better grip, clamped down on the racing pulse of this strange enemy. Chalmers tugged uselessly at the thick coils, falling forward against the banister, his face turning redder, gasping for air.
Garrett stood underneath, gun aimed. But Chalmers had already fallen to his knees, then to the floor. As he lost consciousness, his body went limp.
No longer sensing panic beneath its body, the snake relaxed its grip.
“Haley!” Garrett yelled, “Talk to me!” He heard the rustling of her costume as he came up the narrow steps.
She called, “I'm all right. Is Fluffy okay?”
He reached the landing, gun trained on Chalmers. "You mean the snake? He looks okay to me. Uh." He thought for a second. " Subject incapacitated," he called behind him. "Very, very incapacitated. We need EMT's up here." He looked at Haley. “Can you get him? I could try, but I don’t know how he’d react.”
“Oh, Fluffy’s actually pretty friendly to humans.” Haley finally came through the door, stopping abruptly at the sight of the gun.
Garrett raised an eyebrow. “Haley, I'll make you a deal. You get the snake. I’ll watch the bad guy.”
Since the dressing room had just become a crime scene, Haley had to carry out the snake on her shoulders, leaving the aquarium where it was. She signed her statement in the theater office, while Fluffy coiled up in the corner.
"Is he planning to pounce on somebody?" Garrett asked uneasily.
"No. He coils up like that when he's tired. Right now he just wants to be left alone. I think he's asleep." They sat in silence for awhile. She finally said, “I’m sorry about your boss.”
“I’m sorry he’s a nut,” snapped Garrett. “I’m just glad nobody got seriously hurt."
She remembered the blood on the shining gauntlets.Getting dragged across the darkened stage. She shuddered.
Alan said, “I hope you don’t quit dancing because of this.”
She looked at the ceiling. “I don’t want to quit. But I don’t want to tangle with somebody like that again.”
He smiled. “Aw, come on. What would the world be like without Raqs al-Falufi?" He paused. “What does Raqs al-Falufi mean anyway?”
“The Dance of Fluffy.”
He laughed. “Really?”
She nodded. “Sounds cooler in Arabic.”
He looked over at the sleeping snake. “Haley, with that kind of stage security, you're the one nobody will want to tangle with.”