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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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,"
"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
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
Was that thunder she heard? The weather report had threatened
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,
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
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
Lorelei stood on the stage, cracking jokes and glancing
sideways in her direction. Haley gave her the thumbs up. Ready,
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,
Garrett looked down at the fresh cigarette butt. "You sneaked a
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
Alan said, "Somebody should go tell the lady in charge…"
"No time," snapped Chalmers. "Tell her later, after we've
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
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
"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
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
"And this will change my opinion of you?" she asked, stalling
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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