Stuart M. Kaminsky

Dancing in the Dark

Chapter One: Black Bottom

“First you put your two knees close up tight,” I said, my hands behind my back, nodding in approval as she followed my instructions.

“Now,” I went on, “you swing them to the left, then you swing them to the right.”

She started the first swing left, stopped, and eyed me skeptically.

We were in the middle of the dance floor of the Monticello Hotel on Sunset which, until a few years ago, had been the St. Lawrence Hotel. All the chairs had been pushed back to give us room and the word had gone out to the staff that Miss Luna Martin and I were to be left alone, except for the ancient piano player who sat at his instrument on a slightly raised bandstand, waiting for me to give him orders.

“You sure this is the tango?” she said, her hands on her hips.

Luna Martin had short, very blond and curly hair, a pale round face, and large, very red lips. She had a few extra pounds in her hips but she looked good in her white silk blouse and tan slacks. And she was ready to learn the tango. From me.

I was pushing fifty, had the battered face of a washed-up middleweight, and didn’t know a tango from a funeral march. But if I didn’t convince the lady I could teach her to dance, my client was on the verge of having his nimble feet dipped in concrete, after his toenails were trimmed down to the knuckles.

“Well,” Luna said, tapping her foot, “I am waiting.”

Luna, I had noticed, used no contractions. She also used no control over her patience. She didn’t have to. She was the girlfriend of Arthur Forbes, formerly known as Fingers Intaglia for having indelicately removed the fingers of people who annoyed him or his pals in the Purple Gang. Arthur Forbes was well-known in Los Angeles in 1943. He owned four downtown office buildings, a contracting company, a chain of hardware stores, and the hotel in whose ballroom I now stood, not knowing what the hell I was doing.

My name is Toby Peters. I’m a private investigator. Investigator sounds better than detective. Detective sounds like comic strips and radio shows, Dick Tracy and Sam Spade and Johnny Dollar. Investigator isn’t quite class, but it doesn’t send you into the game with a handicap. I sell my battered face and a reputation for dogged determination, loyalty to clients, and knowing how to keep my mouth shut. I could not live by my dance skills, though there now seemed to be the possibility that I might die by my ignorance of the tango.

“It’s the Gazpacho Tango. The latest thing from Argentina. I think the problem is we need music. Take a short break and I’ll tell Lou what to play.”

Luna Martin did not look convinced. She had reason to not look convinced.

“Two minutes,” she said, pointing a long and threatening red fingernail in my direction.

“Two minutes,” I agreed with my most winning smile, which, I have been told, makes me look like a constipated water buffalo.

She moved to a nearby table where she had piled everything you need for a dance lesson-a pitcher of ice water with two glasses, a Monticello Hotel towel neatly folded, a pair of glistening black tap shoes, and a sweater.

I moved to the bandstand and took the three steps up to Lou Canton who sat at the piano bench, a copy of the March Woman’s Day propped above the keys where sheet music was supposed to sit.

“She wants to tango,” I whispered.

“So,” he said with a shrug, “I play a tango. But you ask me, send her to Arthur Murray’s. They’ve got a dollar-fifty-a-week special offer going.”

Lou was eighty years old, the regular piano player at the Mozambique Lounge in Glendale. I’d met him a couple of weeks earlier on a case. Lou was a stringy guy with a bad dye job on his hair and mustache. He looked a little like Clifton Webb probably would in thirty years. Lou’s philosophy was simple: Make a buck if you can and say whatever you feel like saying because when you’re eighty what’re they going to do to you? I could tell Lou what Fingers Intaglia was capable of doing.

“Astaire taught me the fox-trot and the waltz,” I said, ignoring Lou’s advice. “She doesn’t want to fox-trot. She doesn’t want to waltz. She wants to tango. Now do you tango?”

Lou looked up at me and shrugged his bony shoulders. His red suspenders tightened and so did his lips. I looked across the room at Luna, who put down her glass of water and looked at her gaudy gold wristwatch.

“I don’t know from tango. Fake it,” Lou said.

“Fake it? You played with Isham Jones, Paul Whiteman, Claude Thornhill, and you don’t know how to tango?”

“I know how to play tangos,” he said. “Who looks close at the feet?”

“Any suggestions?”

“Tap,” he said. “Easier to fake. I play something bouncy and you fake it. Like Cagney. I played a couple of times for Cagney. He made it up as he went along. Lots of confidence. A good smile and moving all over the place.”

“That’s it?”

“All I can give you,” he said. “That and a two-cent Woman’s Day that was sitting here.”

He handed me the magazine. I folded it and stuck it in my back pocket. Luna was back in the middle of the dance floor. My two minutes were up.

“Play fast and loud,” I whispered, patting the piano and heading back to my student. “Put on the tap shoes,” I said brightly.

“I want the tango,” she said. “Arthur wants me to learn the tango. None of us wants to disappoint Arthur. Not you. Not me. Not ever.”

“Mr. Astaire specifically said that before he gives you the next lesson, I should teach you a short tap routine he showed me,” I improvised. “He wants to dance it with you.”

“Really?” she said, showing impossibly perfect white teeth.

“Would I lie to a friend of Mr. Forbes?”

“It would be unwise,” she said and headed for her tap shoes. I turned to Lou for long-distance suggestions. He had none, but his fingers began to hit the keys. He played “Nola” as loud as the Steinway would let him. It didn’t sound bad except for a single clinker of a piano key.

Luna got her tap shoes on and came clicking back to me.

“I’m not enamored of that song,” she said. “Arthur once had a friend named Lola.”

“The song is ‘Nola,’ ” I said.

“That’s close enough,” she said.

“Gotcha,” I said and turned to shout, “Lou, how about a different song?”

“One that’s not named for a girl,” Luna said.

“One that’s not named for a girl,” I shouted to Lou.

Lou stopped playing for a second, shook his head, and clearly said, “Meshuganah.

He launched into “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” which I thought was pushing things a little, but Luna nodded her approval. Lou hit the bad note again and rushed on past it.

“Okay,” I said over the music. “You pick up the beat and do a left-foot double heel and toe followed by a right-foot heel and toe and then a shuffle and a turn. Got that?”

I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but Luna nodded with a slightly puzzled look on her determined, pretty face and said, “I think so. Show me.”

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