Starlight
by Sandra Seamans


"Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured or far away."
-- from "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau

.....The footwear passing my street level window usually consists of work boots, sneakers, or black rubber shit-kickers. Which might explain why the men's size ten patent leathers pacing back and forth caught my eye that morning. They were an odd pair of shoes for a farm town like Carson. Their owner must have finally made up his mind, because the shoes walked off and I went back to tapping computers keys, putting the finishing touches on a background check for one of my clients.

.....Muffled voices in the outer office interrupted me. A courtesy tap on the door, and my secretary breezed into the office. Peggy's definitely not the paperback version of a PI's secretary, four children having erased any trace of her once voluptuous body. She's a seventy year old grandma looking for any excuse to postpone holding down a rocking chair at the nursing home. She's also my Godmother, so she works cheap.

....."There's a Mr. Hugo Durant to see you. He says he doesn't have an appointment."

.....I lifted my eyebrows. Peggy shrugged. Most of our clients drop by on the spur of the moment, not really wanting to be here, but unable to let go of their niggling doubts. They want to hire me to prove their suspicions wrong. They rarely are.

.....Hugo Durant was decked out in top hat and tails, an outfit more suitable to a forties musical than downtown Carson, but it certainly explained the elegant shoes. He swept his hat off and made a deep bow. "How do you do, Miss Banks. As your secretary undoubtedly informed you, my name is Hugo Durant and I'm in desperate need of your services."

.....He was a dandy, I'll give him that. I was also beginning to wonder if this was the sheriff's idea of a joke. He had a habit of sending his "weirdoes" to my office. "Why don't you have a seat, Mr. Durant, and tell me your problem. If I can help, we'll settle on the terms of my employment."

....."That sounds fair," said Mr. Durant. "My dancing partner, Miss Cinnamon Spice, has gone missing. I hesitate to say this about my son, but I think he may be involved, possibly to the point of committing murder."

....."Have you talked to Sheriff Murdock about Miss...er..Spice? Excuse me, but is Cinnamon Spice her real name? It could be a problem tracking her down if it's a stage name of some sort."

....."Of course it's her real name. And yes, I have spoken to Sheriff Collins." He paused, shook his head as if to clear his thoughts, then continued. "Anyway, he informed me that there was nothing his office could do since I wasn't family. It's really quite frustrating when you're the odd man out."

....."I can understand your frustration, but what makes you think something's happened to her? Maybe she's just gone off to visit a friend?"

....."She wouldn't. Not today. The competition is tonight and we'd scheduled a practice session this morning. No. She would go out of town. Not today. And she definitely wouldn't leave without telling me."

.....Mr. Durant seemed a trifle agitated, but I decided to press on. "Competition?"

....."The ballroom dancing competition at The Starlight Inn tonight. Miss Spice and I are the top contenders. We fully expect to take first place. Five thousand dollars would go a long way toward starting a new life."

..... "A new life?"

..... "I'm going to ask Miss Spice to marry me. Tonight. After the competition."

..... "Does your son know about your plans?"

..... "Of course not! It's our secret."

..... "Well, maybe he's found out and thinks you're making a fool of yourself. Maybe he's thinking Miss Spice is looking to dance through your bank account."

..... "That must be it. He's kidnapped her so we can't be married. Foolish boy. Once he gets to know her, he'll fall in love with her. Just like I have. She has a special way about her, just a sliver of her smile can make a man crumble, forget everything. He'll understand. Someday."

..... "Uh-huh. Do you have a picture of the delectable Miss Spice?"

..... Mr. Durant pulled out his wallet and handed me a battered photograph. His lady friend was doing a Betty Grable pose, and she had the better gams. The old girl had been a real looker in her day, a real hotsy-totsy, if the photo were any indication.

..... "I'm assuming this is an older picture of her?"

..... "Oh yes, but she hasn't lost any of that sparkle and those legs, well, they can still drive a man wild."

..... "I can believe that. Do you have any idea where your son might have taken her if he's the one responsible for her disappearance?"

..... "Hugo Junior owns an apartment building over on Harrison Street. He might have taken her there. He could have murdered her, and who would know? Dear God, how could he do something like that?"

..... "Calm down, Mr. Durant. We don't know that he's done anything yet. Tell you what, you give me a hundred-dollar retainer and I'll do some checking around, see what I can find out for you."

..... Mr. Durant sagged in his chair, his face a puzzle board of emotions. Pulling himself together, he handed me five twenties. "Please find her, Miss Banks. I don't know how to live without her."

..... "I'll do my best. Why don't you go on home and get some rest. With a little luck, you'll both be dancing your hearts out at the Starlight tonight."

..... "Thank you, Miss Banks, you've taken a great weight off my mind," he said as I escorted him to the outer door.

..... Peggy's crochet hook was busy turning yarn into a purple dragon for her grandson. "Paying customer, dear?" she asked as the door closed behind Mr. Durant.

..... "Only a hundred though," I said, fanning the twenties. "I felt kind of sorry for him, so I gave him the senior citizens discount. Peggy, how old do you figure Mr. Durant is?"

..... "I'm guessing he's a pretty spry seventy-five. Why?"

..... "His story sounded pretty off, like he's mixing the past and the present. He thinks Collins is still the sheriff. Have you ever heard of The Starlight Ballroom?"

..... "Now there's a tango step back in time," said Peggy with a smile. "Harold and I had our wedding reception there forty-five years ago this coming October. Beautiful place. They used to have ballroom dancing there every Saturday night."

..... "Where's it located? I don't remember anyone ever talking about the place."

..... "Well, Goodness, why would they? The old Starlight burned down over twenty years ago."

..... "Sounds like Miss Spice isn't the only thing gone missing. Could you give the sheriff a call and tell him I'm coming by? Ask him if he'd be kind enough to dig up any records he has on Hugo Durant, Junior and Senior, and a Miss Cinnamon Spice."

..... "Cinnamon Spice? You're joking, right?"

..... "I wish I were. Tell Sheriff Murdock I'll stop by in a couple of hours. I need to swing by the courthouse first, see what I can dig up in the public records."

..... "Stop at the Donut Emporium before the sheriff's station. Murdock won't say a word until you sweeten him up. And don't go spoiling your appetite, I've got a Crock Pot full of stew simmering for supper tonight."

..... "Right." I blew Peggy a Carol Burnett smooch and headed out the door. "And don't you go playing matchmaker and invite some nice young man for supper. I'm on the shady side of forty, any chance for a husband and kids has passed me by."

..... "You're wrong, Racine. You're never too old to fall in love," said Peggy with a wink. "Or at least think about having sex with a nice old man."

..... Two hours of thumbing through the courthouse records netted me a current address for Junior, who didn't own the building, like Papa thought, but lived there as the building manager. A check through the marriage licenses gave up the fact that he'd been married for the past twenty years to a woman named Candice Spencer.

* * * * *

..... Frank Murdock ran a one-man show, mostly because that was all the county could afford. He kept a pair of retired buddies as on-call deputies to take up the slack when he needed to hit the river for a day of fishing. He even paid me ten bucks an hour when he needed a body to direct traffic. What the hell? Money was money, and it kept me on his good side.

..... The smell of fresh coffee hit me full in the face when I pushed through the door of the Sheriff's office. I set the box of donuts on Frank's desk and poured myself a cup of coffee. He was licking jelly off his pudgy fingers as I sat in the chair facing him.

..... "Nobody makes donuts like the Emporium," he said, spewing pieces of donut and powered sugar down the front of his uniform. "I checked out those names Peggy gave me. What the hell kind of mess have you landed yourself into?"

..... "None that I know of. Why?"

..... "Well, that Cinnamon Spice broad was arrested for soliciting back in '83. She was barely legal, working as a pole dancer down at The Gentleman's Club. She skipped town before the hearing, leaving us holding a bench warrant on her for failure to appear."

..... "A stripper? Well, that explains the name. You don't happen to have her legal name in that file do you?"

..... "Sheriff Collins never booked the girls with their real names. Hell, back then, The Gentleman's Club was the only place the girls could find work that would pay their way off the farm and maybe into college."

..... "What do you have on the son and the old man?"

..... "Now that's where it gets real interesting. In 1988 the old man took exception to his son getting married. He started raising objections at the ceremony, screaming the bride wasn't who she claimed to be. The bride punched him right in the breadbasket, knocked the wind right out of him so he couldn't talk until the minister finished the ceremony. He pressed charges and she spent the first night of her honeymoon in a jail cell. Junior went on an all day toot, popped a shot at his old man, then snoozed the night away in an adjoining cell. Helluva way to spend your honeymoon."

..... "Did the old man tell the sheriff who he thought the girl was?"

..... "No, he clammed up after the boy tried to shoot him, then dropped the charges against both of them. Word around town? He ain't spoke to either one since. Leastways, not until six months ago when Hugo Sr.'s wife passed away. I heard they called a truce at the funeral."

..... "Any reason to think they might've reopened hostilities?"

..... "Ain't had any complaints from either side," said Frank.

..... "Did anyone fingerprint the bride by any chance?" I was one leap away from proving Junior's bride, Candice, was the old man's dream girl.

..... "Nah, it was strictly a domestic thing. They all made nice and the sheriff let them go the next morning after everyone was calmed down. You gotta know you're just chasing after that old man's ghosts here, Racine. Nothing more. He's probably just suffering a bad case of confusion. He is walking on the senile side of life."

..... "That may be, but I think I'll take a ride over to the son's and see if he can shed any light on Mr. Durant's story."

..... "Good luck with that. And hey, thanks for the donuts. You know you're welcome to stop by anytime you're packing a fresh box."

* * * * *

..... Junior's apartment house had seen better days. I was guessing from the amount of trash stacked up outside the building that he wasn't much of a manager. I pushed through the front entry of the rambling wreck and knocked on the manager's door.

..... A woman in her forties opened the door. She hadn't aged much better than the building, but whatever else time had done to her body, she still had the legs.

..... She nearly spat in my face. "We ain't buying."

..... "That's good, 'cause I ain't selling, but it sure is a pleasure to see that you aren't dead."

..... "Why the hell--?"

..... "Used to go by Miss Cinnamon Spice, didn't you? Hugo Sr. hired me to find you. He seems to think that you've gone missing or been murdered, since you didn't show up for dance practice this morning. Mr. Durant believes the two of you are a shoo-in to win the five thousand dollar prize tonight."

..... I didn't think she had it in her, but she blushed. "You shouldn't go believing everything that old man says. Junior!" she screamed into the room behind her. "You'd better go check on your old man, he's gone off his rocker again."

..... I could hear thumping and swearing coming from the apartment behind her. Junior was shorter and rounder version of his old man. He shoved past his wife, knocking her against the door jamb, the smell of beer and three day old body odor lingering in the air as he walked down the hallway. His callous, "Stupid cunts." rifting through our conversation.

..... "You said the old man was off his rocker?"

..... "That old fart's goin' senile with that old timer's disease everyone's flappin' about. Been worse since his wife died. He keeps drifting back to the past. Confusing things." A look of pain crossed her face, but she brushed it away.

..... "Did he ask you to marry him? Back when you were Cinnamon Spice."

..... "He's really howling at the moon, if he said that. I'm married to his son. Have been, going on twenty years. I never even met that old coot before our wedding day. Then he raises such a ruckus at the ceremony that me and Junior had to spend our wedding night in jail. Hell, we've been tossing around the idea of heading to the jail tonight. It's our anniversary."

..... Which could explain why Mr. Durant was so desperate to find "his" Cinnamon Spice. He was trying to get back to the time before she married his son.

..... "Did you know he still carries your picture in his wallet?"

..... "It's not me."

..... "I believe it is. I think Hugo and you planned to get married. Then he got cold feet and refused to leave his wife and son. After your arrest for solicitation, you blackmailed him into paying the bail money so you could leave town before your hearing."

..... "That old fool's lost his memory, right along with his mind."

..... "I think you wanted to punish him, so you married his son. That's why he tried so hard to stop the wedding, why Junior tried to kill his father. That must have been a real treat for you, telling your husband that you'd had an affair with his father. You must have been laughing your ass off in that jail cell. You sure as hell rubbed his nose in it, didn't you?"

..... I must have struck a nerve, because she finally snapped. She took a step into the hall, her fist doubled up, shoving me against the wall. I considered shoving back, but I wanted the truth more than fistfight.

..... "So what if I did?" she said, jabbing her finger into my chest, changing her story once again. "I was eighteen, he filled my head with promises, then told me he couldn't leave his wife. I fixed him all right. But the best part? He's still in love with me."

..... She backed into her apartment, and slammed the door in my face.

..... I considered going back to the Sheriff's office and telling Frank the whole ugly story, let him serve his old bench warrant, but I couldn't. Candice Spencer had punished herself far beyond what the justice system could have leveled against her. Years ago she had her own romantic vision of Hugo Sr., and when he didn't live up to it, she got even by trapping Hugo Jr. in a loveless marriage. But she was trapped, too. At least Hugo Sr. could forget all that happened between them.

..... I told Mr. Durant that I couldn't find Cinnamon Spice. Somewhere, in the haze of his mind, he knew the truth, but unlike my other clients he'll just drift back to his fairytale version of events. The man wanted to keep dancing, and I wouldn't be the one to stop the music.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra Seamans.

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