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"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. How 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?"
"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."
"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."
"Didn't bring my tap shoes," I said apologetically. "Wore right through the taps. They're being resoled at a place over on ..."
"Show me," she said with a smile I did not like.
It was my turn to nod. My first problem was that I couldn't find the beat, though I heard Lou hitting it hard. Something is wrong with the spring inside me. By the time I hear the beat, it's long gone. My former wife, Anne, tried to teach me to dance at least once a year and gave up each time in quiet cold disbelief, certain that I wasn't trying hard enough. Even Fred Astaire hadn't been able to get through to me.
I did my best to imagine I was Astaire, put on a happy face, and tried to remember what I had just told Luna. I plunged in. Heel-toe, heel-toe, arms out, happy smile, shuffle and turn. I almost fell on the turn but I converted it to a bow in Luna's general direction. She had just witnessed the march of the wooden klutz.
"I think I got it," she said seriously.
"Fine," I said. "Give it a try."
"Can we restart the music? I am not so good at picking up the beat."
"Lou," I called. "Take it from the top."
Lou stopped, muttered something, and was off to Kalamazoo. Luna started in, taps clicking. She had feet of solid lead and the grace of an armadillo. She was Ruby Keeler coming out of a heavy dose of ether. She tapped, she shuffled, she stopped and looked to me for approval. It was hard to believe that she had actually given dance lessons to sane people, but that's what she had claimed.
"Almost perfect. Only the reverse. Start with the left foot," I said.
She did. Over and over again. Lou switched to "The Mexican Hat Dance." The move in no way altered Luna Martin's style or pace.
I looked on critically, hands behind my back, watching the clock for the hour to end. I gave her a break, let her use the ladies room, the towel, and the pitcher of water.
Lou lifted the top of the piano and grumbled as he searched for the bad note.
"Wire's about to go. No middle C," he grumbled.
"Do without it," I said.
Luna announced that she was, again, "Ready."
Lou closed the top of the piano.
And then, back to the routine.
I'll give her this. She was determined. The hour sulked by to the uneven tapping of dancing feet and the piano magic of Lou Canton, who played loudly and with no enthusiasm "Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone" and "After You've Gone." There was a tense moment when Lou banged into "Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider." Luna stopped in the middle of a shuffle and said, "That is a girl's name."
"Forbes had a friend named Ida?" I asked.
"It is the principle of the thing, Mr. Peters," she said with indignation.
"Lou," I shouted. "You're playing a girl's name."
He stopped and shouted sarcastically, "I'm sorry. I don't know how I could make such a mistake. I'll cut off my fingers."
Don't give the lady any ideas, I thought, and was about to make a suggestion when he roared into "If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight."
"You crazy old nut," Luna shouted.
Lou ignored her.
According to the big Benrus clock on the wall, the hour finally came to an end. I looked at my watch and sighed with disappointment. My watch was the only thing my father left me besides memories and a brother on the Los Angeles Police Department. It ticked away happily, seldom coming within hours of the right time of day. Whenever I tried to reset it, it danced away energetically, like Luna.
"I'm afraid it's time," I said.
I held up my hand for Lou to stop playing. He capped the chorus with a flourish.
"So, I did? ..."
"... fine," I finished.
The moment had come for which I had been paid two hundred dollars up front by Fred Astaire. I followed as Luna's tap heels and toes clicked to the table, her towel, and her waiting water.
"You think Fred will ... you know, like it?" she asked.
"He'll be knocked off his feet," I said.
"Do not overdo it, Peters," she said softly. "I am no dummy."
"Listen," I said, rubbing my hands together. "Mr. Astaire is working night and day on the defense-bond show for this Saturday and then he won't be back from this war-bond tour for at least a month and ..."
"You will work with me. Double the lessons. I will be dancing like Ginger when he gets back," she said.
"Right," I said.
"Wrong," she answered. "I want Fred Astaire. Period."
"Can I go?" Lou shouted across the room.
"Keep your skinny withered ass on that bench," Luna shouted.
"I'll give you a ride in a minute, Lou," I said.
"I can't hang around," he called.
"Are you deaf, you old fart?" Luna said.
"Give me five minutes, Lou," I called out. I took a breath and said to her, "Mr. Astaire won't be able to give you any more lessons. I'm sorry. He's sorry. After the tour, he starts rehearsing for another movie and then he ..."
I didn't like the look on Luna's face.
"He teaches me to dance," she finished. It was not a request, or a question.
"'Fraid not," I said with a sigh. "Mr. Astaire gave you two lessons on Mr. Forbes's solicitation. During those lessons, you declared ... let's say you indicated an attraction to Mr. Astaire."
"He is funny-looking," she said, her brown eyes unblinking. "But there is something sexy about him, you know?"
"Not really," I said. "No more lessons, Miss Martin. Mr. Astaire is happily married, has three children ..."
"Two," she corrected, "one is adopted or something."
"Three," I insisted. "You need a teacher far more advanced than I am. I'm sure Mr. Astaire will be glad to find you a first-rate teacher who he will personally pay for, but ..."
"No buts," she said, handing me the towel. "Here. You are sweating."
I was. I wiped my face. The towel smelled of Luna Martin. I felt just a little dizzy.
"I'm afraid I've been given the go-ahead by Mr. Astaire to tell Mr. Forbes about your attempted seduction of Mr. Astaire unless you agree to taking lessons from someone else."
She laughed. "Arthur will never believe you, or Astaire. I will call him a liar. Arthur will be very hurt. He will assume, with a little help from me, that Fred Astaire did not want to associate with me because of Arthur's reputation. Not only will Arthur be hurt, he will certainly be very angry."
She was almost in my face now.
"You want me to come back, you get a piano tuner in here," said Lou. "I can try to fix it myself, but ..."
"Something wrong here?" a man's voice came from the general direction of the ballroom door.
"No, honey," Luna said, her face tauntingly close to mine, her lips within touching distance. "I was just considering giving Mr. Peters a thank-you kiss for a wonderful lesson."
"I don't think ..." Arthur Forbes began.
Luna gave me a peck on the mouth, crinkled her nose fetchingly, and whispered, "Arthur gets very jealous."
She backed away and I faced the advancing Arthur. He was not big, about my height, five-ten or so and about twenty pounds heavier. Maybe two hundred or a little less. He was wearing a gray suit that looked new, and a shirt and tie that were definitely silk. His hair was brushed back, a little gray, a little long. I knew he was over sixty, but I wasn't sure how far over. There was nothing that hit you about his face except his eyes. They were big. They were blue. And they fixed on me with suspicion.
Behind him in the ballroom doorway stood a mass of a man, an Indian, in a perfectly pressed blue suit and tie. His thick hair was white, in contrast with his dark skin. He looked familiar, but I didn't have time to think about it.
"I'm gonna make this quick," Forbes said with a smile I didn't care for.
He held out his right hand. I shook it.
"My name is Forbes, Arthur. I'm a businessman."
Lou, ambling toward our happy trio and now within earshot, let out a laugh.
Forbes lost his smile and turned his eyes on the old man.
"Peters, Toby. I'm a dancer."
"You don't look like any dancer I've ever seen," said Forbes, turning his attention back to me.
"And you look like a businessman?" Lou said, joining our group.
"Go over in the corner for a few minutes, Grandpa," Forbes said, putting his right hand on Lou's shoulder. "The dancer here and me have something private to talk about."
"The old guy is senile or something," Luna said in what may have been real exasperation.
I looked at Luna. She had changed shoes and packed her things in a big red leather bag she had slung over her shoulder. She was resting her well-shaped behind against the table and clearly enjoying the scene.
"I've got a better idea, Mr. Fingers," said Lou. "Tell the human door over there to move out of the way so I can get to the bathroom."
"You should talk less, old man," Forbes said evenly.
"I should move my bowels more," said Lou. "I'm an old man, Mr. Fingers. I was married with two kids when Teddy Roosevelt got elected. I've played for and with the best for kings, movie stars, and, back in Detroit in '29 and '30, for gangsters ..."
"I said you talk too much, piano man."
Lou shrugged and said, "You can't threaten me. I'm too old to care. But you're right. I talk too much. Someone fixing that piano and a few successful minutes in the bathroom can greatly improve my disposition."
Forbes was defeated. He snorted quietly and raised his left hand. The mountain in the doorway moved and Lou shuffled toward the John.
"What was just going on?" Forbes said.
"A dance lesson. Miss Martin is a very promising student."
Forbes looked at me with contempt.
"I've danced with her," he whispered. "Don't lie to me. I've got a built-in lie detector, a short attention span, and Kudlap over there, who has no sense of humor."
"Kudlap Singh?" I asked. "The Beast of Bombay?"
Excerpted from Dancing in the Dark by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1996 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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Posted January 30, 2009
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