This is the first Chapter of Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, available from Indigo Sea Press. Click here buy from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Madame-ZeeZees-Nightmare-Pat-Bertram/dp/1630664707/
I didn’t want to kill Grace—it was her idea. I’ve literarily massacred hundreds of thousands of people, so it shouldn’t have been difficult to do away with one petite older woman, but the truth is I couldn’t think of a single reason why I—or anyone—would want Grace Worthington dead. Though most of us humans frown on murder, we do grudgingly admit some folks are so villainous they need to be eliminated, but no one would consider Grace a villain. She is charming, kind, with a smile for everyone, and the ghost of her youthful beauty is still apparent on her lovely face.
Besides, killing a friend is a good way to lose that friend, and dance class would not be the same without Grace.
I was still trying to make up my mind about killing Grace when several of us dancing classmates met for lunch. After nibbling on salads and sandwiches, we rose and gathered our belongings. I’d hung my dance bag on the back of my chair, and I yanked the bag with more force than I intended. The bag swung out and narrowly missed hitting Buffy Cooper, a tanned, elegant blonde a couple of years older and a couple of inches shorter than me.
Buffy deadpanned, “I’m not the one who volunteered to be the murder victim.”
That cracked me up, and right then I decided I had to follow through with the project. I mean, really—how could I not use such a perfect line?
I turned to Grace. “How do you want me to do the deed?” Since she’d initiated this lethal game, I thought it only right that she got to choose the means of her demise. So much fairer than the way life works, wouldn’t you say? I mean, few among us get to choose our own end. Life, the greatest murderer of all time, chooses how we expire, whether we will it or not.
Grace laughed at my question and said she didn’t care how she died.
But I cared.
Death is often messy—and smelly—with blood and body wastes polluting the scene, and I did not feel like dealing with such realities, especially not at Madame ZeeZee’s Dance Academy.
I’d never taken dance classes when I was young, never had any interest in dancing. After my husband died, however, I had to do something to reconnect to the world, so I ventured into the dance studio, hesitantly enrolled in a jazz class, and fell in love with dancing. By the third month of my initial enrollment, I’d signed up for as many classes as I could, sampling not only jazz but also tap, Hawaiian, ballet, Arabic, Tahitian, Italian. Now, almost two years later, dancing has become a pilgrimage—a soul quest—and I didn’t want this sacred place to be haunted forever after by the scent of a gruesome end for Grace. It would put a damper on the pure joy of dancing, and I couldn’t allow that to happen.
“No blood, body wastes, smells, or any other unpleasantness,” I said. “This needs to be a nice gentle murder befitting our nice, gentle victim.”
“What about poison?” Buffy asked.
“Blunt force trauma.” Sixty-eight-year-old Lena Thomas danced around like a prizefighter, giving a one-two blow to an imaginary opponent. Lena sometimes sported black spiky hair, sometimes blond Shirley Temple curls. Her personalities changed with hair color, raucous when black, babyish when blonde. Her changes seemed less of an affectation and more of an illness since each of her personas didn’t always remember what the other had done. Today, her hair looked unfathomably black.
“Insulin overdose!” Buffy gave a nervous laugh as if embarrassed by the way the words had burst out of her mouth.
Lena shook her head in time to her continued punches. “Grace isn’t diabetic.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Buffy’s quiet words seemed even quieter coming after Lena’s strident tone. “She can still die if she gets more insulin than her body can handle, and almost all of us have access to insulin. Most of us are either diabetic or are married to a diabetic.”
I nodded slowly. Poison, a blow to the head, or insulin would all work for my scenario. None of those means of murder would be particularly gentle on Grace, of course, but then, it’s not her sensibilities I’m worried about. She’d be dead and beyond such matters.
“How would I give her the insulin?” I asked Buffy. “It would have to be an injection because the pills aren’t strong enough. But she’d know if someone in class injected her.”
“What about putting the insulin in an EpiPen?” Buffy said. “The next time she had to use the pen, she’d give herself the insulin. But that would only work if you didn’t care when or if she died.”
“I’m not allergic to anything.” Grace shivered as if suddenly spooked by our talk.
“It doesn’t matter,” I assured her. “My pen is mightier than the EpiPen. It only takes a couple of words to give you allergies.”
Lena punched the air one last time, then let her arms drop to her side. “I’m allergic. I almost died of anaphylactic shock once.”
“Me, too,” sixty-nine-year-old Deb Gillespie said. “Several times. The last time I died the doctors didn’t think I’d make it back. Now I carry an EpiPen. I have to use it a couple of times a year or that’s the end of me. Maybe I should be the victim.” She laughed, but I didn’t see the joke.
The truth is, I would love to kill off Deb, not just because she annoyed the hell out of me, but because I could think of a dozen reasons to kill her. No matter what successes anyone celebrated, no matter what traumas anyone suffered, Deb had been there, at least in her own mind. She’d survived thyroid cancer. She’d died of a heart attack and come back from the dead. She suffered from neuralgia, arthritis, and extremely low blood sugar. She’d been a professional dancer, an award-winning swimmer, a photographer, a makeup artist.
I’d never been able to sort out the truth from her exaggerations, so I didn’t bother to try anymore. I found it easier simply to assume everything out of her mouth a lie.
Should I forget Grace and murder Deb instead? But Grace might feel slighted since the project had been her idea. Besides, Grace as a victim would be a much more challenging than Deb. It’s hard to kill someone you like and keep their friendship at the same time. Maybe if I went easy on Grace, it would be okay. And anyway, we really weren’t that close.
On Tuesdays, ballet comes first, then Arabic. We’d just finished practicing our final combination of ballet steps—glissade, arabesque, pas de bourrrée, assemblé—when Grace arrived, already dressed in her green and beige silk belly dance skirt.
I waved at the older woman. “I brought my camera. I need a photo of your corpse. Will you play dead for me?”
Grace laughed. “Sure. Where do you want me? Over there by the barre?”
I glanced at the corner of the studio she indicated, and shrugged. “Sure. Anywhere is fine.”
I’d expected to have to take several shots to get the pose I wanted, but Grace sank to the wooden floor as gracefully as she did everything else, and lay in the ideal pose.
Right then I knew I could kill Grace. She was just too damn perfect.
Kim Saunderling, a lithe woman of unknown years (unknown to me, that is) with wonderfully flawless dark skin, entered the dance studio. She was the type of woman who could randomly pull two or three unmatched items out of her closet and look as if she’d spent hours dressing herself for a Vogue photo shoot. This seemed especially remarkable to me because she was legally blind. That day she wore her purple practice skirt, which wrapped twice around her hips (mine barely wrapped once, if you must know), a maroon scarf tied into a turban-like affair, and a bluish-purple long-sleeved shirt with the tails tied at her waist. It wasn’t only her age Kim was reticent about, but her earlier years, too. Perhaps she had been a model at one time. Or maybe she had reason to be secretive—a woman with a sordid past.
Kim stood by while I took another photo of Grace in her death pose below the barre. “How are you going to get Grace into that exact position when she’s killed?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted.
“Maybe she was trying to reach the barre so she could die dancing,” Buffy said.
Grace gave a little laugh. “That’s too true to be funny.” Then, more seriously, she added, “Dying while dancing is how I’d like to go out. I just wouldn’t want to die on stage with all those people watching like a friend of mine did.”
“Dying to Dance would be a good name for the book,” I said. “Or maybe Sashaying with Death. Or Death en Croix.”
“Why does it have to be death?” Madame ZeeZee said with a moue of distaste. Though Madame ZeeZee is seventy-nine years old, she has the body of a woman half her age and the legs of a teenager. When she dances, you can almost see the years melt away, and she is young again.
“We could call it Madame ZeeZee’s something,” I said.
“Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare.” Madame ZeeZee giggled, sounding about seventeen. “Maybe you don’t really kill Grace. Maybe I wake up and find that I dreamt the whole thing.”
“Great name,” I said, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice I didn’t comment on her idea about Grace’s death being a dream. It’s a time honored ending, of course, but I thought if I were going to go through the trouble of killing Grace, it should be for real. I did like the title, though—we were a dance teacher’s nightmare. Many of us were out of shape and overweight, some of us had no sense of rhythm, and all of us were many decades past any hope of a dancing career.
Glee lit Madame ZeeZee’s beautiful dark eyes. “I could be the murderess. I have experience.”
I felt my jaw drop. Madame ZeeZee had experience with murder? It seemed impossible that anyone who danced with such expressive moves—moves that spoke of life—could have a history of violence.
“It was a murder weekend,” Madame ZeeZee said. “I was the murderess, a princess from a foreign country. I even wore a tiara.”
I blew out a breath of relief, glad I didn’t have to alter my impression of the dance teacher, at least not yet. “But why would you want to murder Grace?”
Madame ZeeZee exchanged glances with Grace, who had risen fluidly and was smoothing her skirt. “Maybe she stole my choreography.”
I understood the need to protect one’s artistic work any way one could, yet in truth, Madame ZeeZee routinely gave us her choreography. Every step she taught gifted us with her work.
Still, such an irrational theft, as minor as it might seem to the danceless, could be a killing offense, especially if Grace were to give Madame ZeeZee’s work to a rival instructor. (I’ve lost track of how many dance classes Grace took. Three or four from Madame ZeeZee, and at least a couple more from other teachers. Now that I think about it, in the dance world, such promiscuity could be motive enough for wanting someone dead.)
“Do you know how long it will be before the cops get here?” I asked Grace, thinking how disappointed I would feel if class had to be cancelled.
“A long time. Maybe a couple of hours.”
That seemed excessive to me, but I figured Grace should know since her husband is a retired criminalist.
I looked around the dance studio. The place wasn’t large, perhaps fifteen feet wide by sixty feet long. Mirrors lined one long wall and a barre stretched across the opposite wall. A nook at the back of the studio next to the small restroom had been furnished as a miniscule waiting room, and a corner had been cordoned off with a counter and cabinet for an office. Pictures from Madame ZeeZee’s past and inspirational posters hung on the walls, but other than that, the studio was empty.
“If we have to stay here for a couple of hours waiting for the cops, we might as well have a class,” I said. “The floor will be mostly bare since Grace’s body won’t take up much room, we’d be dressed for the occasion, and our minds would not yet have processed the truth. I like the idea of a group of aging women dancing in the face of death.”
By this time, the rest of the class had arrived. Everyone stared at me with various shades of disbelief, but I shrugged off their attitude. This was my story, my murder, and I could choreograph it any way I wished.
Grace shook her head with mock sadness. “I am truly hurt that no one will mourn me.”
“Of course we’ll mourn you,” I told her. “But it will have to wait until after class.”
Grace smiled, but I don’t think she found my comment amusing.
I stowed my camera in my dance bag, unwrapped my ballet skirt from around my waist, and donned my orange and turquoise Arabic practice skirt. I moved to the barre and waited for class to begin. Kim found a place at the barre next to me.
“When did all this happen?” she asked.
I turned to face her. “When did what happen?”
“I don’t know how it all started with Grace. Was it your idea?”
Buffy had been silent during the picture taking and the between-class bustle, but now she spoke, sounding surprised at Kim’s question. “It started a couple of weeks ago when we all went to see the Trocks.” By “Trocks” she meant Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a glorious and gloriously funny all male ballet troupe. “At lunch before the show, someone mentioned that Pat was a writer. Grace suggested Pat write a book about us and even volunteered to be the victim.”
“Oh.” Kim slid one slender leg behind her in a deep lunge and stretched her body forward. “I sat at the other end of the table that day, so I didn’t know.”
“I’m a writer,” Deb announced.
My fingers curled into fists, and I could feel my jaw tightening. Cripes, the woman really did annoy me. Just once, it would be nice if she didn’t butt in.
I loosened my jaw enough to put a pleasant expression on my face, reminding myself that anyone with such an overpowering desire to trump everyone else had plenty of problems already and didn’t need attitude from me.
“You wrote a book,” I said as noncommittally as I could.
Deb gave a single emphatic nod of her head. “Yes. A bestselling novel about a woman figure skater who teams up with a hockey player and wins the Olympics.”
I had no idea what to say. Part of me felt envious she’d achieved such a status while I still struggled in the ranks of the unknown, but mostly I had a hard time envisioning her actually accomplishing such a monumental task. She seemed too full of herself and her own importance to surrender to the power of words.
Buffy frowned. “Wait a minute. That sounds like an old movie I saw recently.”
“I read a lot of bestsellers,” Nancy said. “But I don’t remember your name, Deb. Do you write under a pseudonym?” Nancy Pahrump was in her seventies, and although she looked a lot younger, she had problems indicative of her age, such as extra weight and a bum knee that sometimes kept her out of class.
“I’m not strictly published yet.” Deb tapped the side of her head. “It’s all in here. I just have to get it down on paper.”
My fists unclenched and my jaw relaxed into a smile. I might have to dance with Deb, but at least I didn’t have to share my meager literary fame with her.
“Pat’s a real writer,” Nancy said. Her greenish eyes twinkled with pixyish delight. “Maybe we should all tell Pat a secret that will come out during the story.”
Kim continued to stretch, and Lena drew tendus on the floor with a pointed toe. Their so obvious lack of response to Nancy’s suggestion made me wonder what secrets they were hiding. Was it my obligation as a writer to pry out those secrets, or did my obligation as a friend demand that I leave them alone?
“I don’t have any secrets,” Buffy said. “I’m the most boring person in the world. No crimes. No affairs. No problems with my parents growing up. No calling in sick at work when I wasn’t. The worst thing I ever did in my whole life was copy a quilt I saw once.”
“I don’t have any secrets, either,” Rhett said. Rhett Norris is our lady in red. It’s not that she always wears the color—in fact, Deb wears red and other bright colors more often than Rhett—but Rhett is as zestful and vibrant as the color itself. But now, beneath her relentless optimism, I sensed a strain, as if she did indeed have a secret she was keeping even from herself. Or perhaps the strain came from continued dealings with an ex-husband who had divorced her after forty-two years of connubial unbliss. He’d hidden their assets and moved to the Philippines. She ended up with only her social security and small pension, and he’d tried to take those from her, too. Rhett seems radiantly happy now that she’s remarried, and yet there is that telltale strain.
The exotic notes and strong percussion of Arabic music sounded in the studio. Madame ZeeZee stretched with us at the barre, moved to the center of the floor and led us in a series of steps—figure eights with our hips, common motion, hip lifts, ronde de jambs. After we warmed up, she watched us practice the dances we’d already learned.
As we danced, I thought how much I would miss Grace when she was gone, then I paused midstep. What the hell was wrong with me? I wasn’t going to kill Grace for real. It was a story, a game.
Madame ZeeZee stopped the music. “You’re not together. When you dance in a group, Pat, the group has to act like one person. Let’s start again.”