The complete story is now located on this post.
THE CASE OF THE DANCING STUD
A Shackelford Withersbottom ILHC mystery
Part I: A Strange Visitor
It had been almost three weeks, and Shackelford hadn’t had a case. It always put me in great pains to see him this way, for ever since he had broken his cocaine addiction, he had resorted to another hideous compulsive behavior and spent his idle hours watching daytime television.
He was on the couch, smoking his forth pipe of the day, watching a Nazi homosexual Priest throw a chair at the mother of his love child when suddenly the door bell rang, followed by the familiar sound of Mrs. Harrington answering the door.
A few moments later, there was the sound of footsteps on the stairs, a striking sound of clutter going down the stairs, and then again the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Finally, a knock at the door.
“A Mrs. Gilkenson, Sir. I’m sorry, but she insists on being seen.”
“Please, show the dancer in!” Shackelford’s voice, and a flourish of a hand, came from behind the couch.
“You know this Ms. Gilkenson?” I asked, as a young woman of pleasant complection and radiant eyes entered the room.
“I do not.” Said Shackelford, turning off the television and walking over the couch.
“Then how do you know she is a dancer?” I asked.
“Simple deduction, my friend.” He said, then turned to the woman. “Ms. Gilkenson, I presume. Forgive me, allow me to explain to my dear friend here how I know you are a dancer.”
“How did you know I was a dancer?” she said.
“I did not hear a car or carriage proceed her entrance, so I can only assume she used the subway or walked. If you are going to see a detective, one imagines it is more likely than not an urgent matter. We can single out her walking out of exercise. It all points towards a low-paying profession. But the muffled bits of her accent I could make out through the floor when she introduced herself to Mrs. Harrington lead me to believe she is well-educated—I deduce she would have chosen a low-paying profession. A lilt in her voice, a spirit in her inflection made me think of the arts. But I must confess, it was the way she walked up the stairs that was the dead giveaway.”
“But I fell down the stairs,” she said, a goofy look on her face.
“Yes,” a wry smile came across Shakleford’s face. “But you did so with a strong rhythm and downward pulse. You also did so without hurting yourself, leading me to believe you have done it often. An acrobatic dancer. Not proof, but an educated guess, perhaps?””
“I’m a swing dancer!” she said. “And I can see I’ve come to the right place.”
Once again, Shakleford had proven his powers of deduction. I don’t know why I asked, really. You’d have thought I would have learned after doing so a hundred times.
“A case. Yes. Give me the details.”
“But you must know first I can’t pay anything–”
“Please, please, madam. Have you ever watched Springer so much you’ve seen the reruns?”
“Then you must understand my need for work. Please, tell me the facts.”
“Well, I am an organizer for the International Lindy Hop Championships. And I also happen to have a few dancers that lives in my house in Baltimore. One of them is Chester Franklin. He and his partner have been practicing like dogs on some new material. They are almost a shoe-in for the 2010 champions. But he’s suddenly come up missing!”
“Missing?” I said.
“And we are almost certain he was kidnapped! And the championships are only a few weeks away!”
“Please, please, have a seat and try to remain calm.” Shakelford said. “What leads you to believe he has been kidnapped?”
“Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of dancers staying at my house. One of them is George Smith, Chester’s best friend. They’ve been training together. He was found unconscious at the scene with a terrible bruise on his head. I personally think a dancer named Travis Roper has something to do with it. He’s someone I had never met before, from Southern California. He came to stay a week ago and left the day after the incident, and we haven’t seen him since. We think it has something to do with Chester’s new aerial.”
“A new aerial?”
“The Widowmaker. I haven’t seen it, but apparently it’s going to steal the show. They keep going through helmets and knee pads.”
“A missing dancer, a gaggle of suspects, and a crime scene. It sounds like a case to me.” Shackelford said. “Wilfred, pack your bags. We’re going to America.”
Part II: The Scene of the Crime
When we walked into the Baltimore row house, Shackleford wasted no time in inspecting the premises. The house was from 1910, and was decorated with a mixture of strange antique oddities, including a old French Burlesque chandelier and a fully outfitted bronze diving suit. I could tell Shackleford was in heaven. On a table was a fruit bowl that looked slightly strange to me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why until Shackelford pointed out that it only had single pieces of fruit in it–there was no two of anything. As we walked up the stairs, we passed a gray cat that suddenly stood up and began rubbing our legs, and finally began using our calves as a scratching post. Shackelford yelped, and I did soon after when the cat did the same to me.
“You’ll have to forgive the cat,” Ms. Gilkenson said, kicking it. “She always does this to people she meets. She means well, she was just raised on the streets of Baltimore before I took her in, and lives life by prison rules. She’ll get over it after a day or two.”
“Madam, no apology needed.” Shackleford said. “Please, show me this Chester Franklin’s room, if you will.”
The room, which stood on the third floor, was very little more than a bed, a computer, and a dresser that looked like it had exploded with clothes. There was a great space of floor in the middle, covered in worn marks.
“Hmmm” Shackelford said, looking at the scuffed floor. “Recently scratched. And these patterns, they’re very strange.”
“Oh, that? That’s nothing.” Ms. Gilkenson said. “His dance shoes are from a swing dance manufacturer and have hard leather heels, as most of us dancers know, because we get kicked with them. But they’re great for dancing–it’s his new top secret Aerial, the Widowmaker. I think it involves a heel slide.”
“An aerial with a heel slide?” Shackleford said, his eyes penetrating into a distant, specific point of mental focus. “Interesting.”
“And it makes sense that there’s so many marks. He’s been practicing a lot recently.”
“And what, pray tell, constitutes a lot?”
“Sometimes six or seven hours a day. All he did for the last few weeks was either practice or sleep.”
“Yes, very interesting.” Shackelford said, though I couldn’t have told you why it was so interesting. He then spent several minutes looking around the floor and inspecting the marks.
Next, Ms. Gilkenson showed us the room where Chester’s great friend and coach, George Smith lay in a bed, unconscious.
“Dr. Wilfred, if you will please.” Shackleford flourished his hand at me to inspect the invalid.
“Shackleford, it’s definitely a concussion brought about by a blow to the head.” I said. “He should be awake in a few days, but until then, I’m afraid he won’t be able to tell us much.”
“My good lady, the facts of how he came to be this way, if you will.”
“Well, about a month ago, George came to stay in the house and help Chester prepare for the International Lindy Hop Championships. He would have competed himself, mind you, but he had injured his heel a few months ago and so dedicated himself to helping Chester prepare his new aerial. A week ago, I got an email from a Southern California dancer named Travis Roper who wanted to stay the night while he was passing through town. We dancers tend to have an open-door policy, and I told him he could sleep on the couch. He was rather strange–he wore a hat, a strange beard, and a neckerchief scarf, like a Frenchman in old movies. The next morning, I came upstairs to find Chester gone, and George lying next to his bed, unconscious and with a bleeding forehead. But in his hand, he was holding this!”
Miss Gilkenson held out a French-style neckerchief. “It was Travis Roper’s scarf. When I looked for Travis, I couldn’t find him, he had disappeared as well. And now the strange part–when I asked around about him, no one had ever heard of him! It’s as if Travis Roper didn’t even exist.”
“And so, madam, you saw the evidence before you, and feared that a disguised rival had come into your house and tried to kidnap Chester–but perhaps he was caught in the act by Chester’s coach and good friend. This kidnapper thus hit him on the head and continued to make off with Chester.”
“Those are my fears exactly!”
“Who would have thought Lindy Hop could be so competitive.” He mused.
“It’s only a few apples who spoil the barrel,” Ms. Gilkenson remarked.
“Of course you are right.” Shackleford said, patting her hand. “Fear not, Ms. Gilkenson. Though you have used admirable deduction, your fears may yet be unfounded. This case reeks of some greater mystery. Now then, who is the lady staying on the second floor?”
“That’s Cora Glass, Chester’s partner.”
“I shall want a word with her.”
Ms. Glass was sitting on her bed, Indian style, working on a laptop computer device when we entered. I noticed her room was orderly and clean.
“A few quick questions,” Shackelford said, after introductions were made.
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the kidnappinng,” she said, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. A glance from Shackleford told me he had noticed it, too. “Besides, I’m rather busy at the moment.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure, my good lady.” He said, sitting onto the bed and folding into Indian style himself, and bringing all of his fingers together in the strange prayer-like way he often does when pensive. “But I won’t take more than a moment of your time. I more so wanted to ask you about working with your dance partner, Chester.”
A look came on her face that I can only describe as water, at that moment right before it is about to boil, when the surface grows in turbulance.
“He’s not my dance partner anymore, and I for one, am glad of it.”
“Why?” Shackelford asked.
“The reason I’m so damn busy is because I have to organize everything! Flights, classes, contests, promoters! I’m so tired of his daydreaming–it’s cute and likeable at first, but try having him as a business partner.”
“But surely he has been working very hard on this upcoming contest?” I said.
“Oh, yes, he’ll work on something for hours and hours, all right. Luckily for me, it’s been dance recently. One time last year he started juggling and we didn’t practice dance for two months. And all because I happened to buy three oranges at the grocery store. I didn’t make that mistake again.”
Shackelford looked at me and raised an eyebrow, as if to say that finally the case of the single fruit was nicely resolved.
“But when he’s done with a practice, he just orders some pizza and falls asleep. I then have to go answer business emails and schedule privates with students. And the problem is, everyone KNOWS I’m the dependable one, so they all come to me with questions for him. I even got a damn call from his doctors office, reminding me of his upcoming appointment.”
“So, you called it off?” Shackelford said.
“Not the doctor’s appointment.”
“I mean the partnership.”
“Well, no, not yet. It’s not as easy as that. We currently depend on each other for our living, after all, and it’s not so easy for a follower to get work by herself. But I’m already doing all the business by myself, so it’s not like it will be any more work. Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sure I don’t sound sympathetic at all about him.”
“No, no, you are obviously in distress.” Shackelford said. “So, if I may ask, do you think Chester was kidnapped?”
“It sounds like something he would do, he has a very impulsive nature.” She then began to tear up and soon was hiding her face and sobbing. Shackelford laid a cold hand on her shoulder and said “there, there” mechanically. As brilliant a man as he was, he was not useful in all situations. I moved him away and gave the poor girl a fatherly shoulder to cry on, and then ordered her some Thai food and watched a few episodes of the Muppet Show with her until she felt better. It always cheers me, up, at least.
We left the house as evening approached. In the cab to our hotel, I mentioned that it seemed there wasn’t a lot of solid facts for Shackleford to make deductions based on.
“It is not all deductions, Wilfred. Often times my work is founded on instincts and guess work, and it is only then that deductions can flower. For instance, I guessed that, in many ways, no one knows someone better than their dance partner. Having guessed this and interviewed the girl, I now see strange possibilities unfolding. Come, Wilfred, we have work to do. For tonight is the weekly dance at the Jump Mansion, and we must go, ready to dance.”
Part III: The Investigation Takes an Odd Turn
That night we arrived at the Jump Mansion, and Shackelford promptly disappeared, he said to go to the restroom, though he was gone so long I decided to make my way upstairs to where the dancing was. Though it was a little hot, the room was packed with Lindy Hoppers turning and kicking. I found myself a seat in the corner, enjoying myself immensely and wandering if they’d get around to playing a waltz.
After a couple songs, a group of followers entered who were obviously advanced, and a tall one in particular soon started to catch my eye. She didn’t do much, but seemed, over the course of the evening, to warm-up and began dancing with a lot of attitude and power. Even when she looked strange in her angles or choice of moves, it didn’t seem to matter, because her confidence and happiness in dancing made it all okay.
Soon Ms. Gilkenson and Ms. Glass arrived at the dance, and were kind enough to show me a few basic moves I could inflict on the innocent. After about thirty minutes, it was time for a Jack and Jill contest, and everyone cleared the floor for the tap-out contest. After an exciting five minutes, the finalist were paired down to two couples, one of which included the taller lady I have mentioned earlier.
Taking turns in a jam, each couple went out and really gave it everything they got. At the end, Ms Gilkenson and Ms Glass awarded the trophy to the couple with the tall woman, who said her name was Willa-Mae Jewel. After the contest the music began again, and imagine my surprise when I say the taller woman came over to ask me to dance.
She had a great time, obviously, though for me it was horrid. I didn’t know what I was doing, and she didn’t seem to be helping me like, I know realized, all the other followers had been doing. So, mot of the dance was her standing there, swiveling, and me looking confused. However, when we were done with the dance, she said “Meet me downstairs in thirty minutes. I’ll show you some steps.”
She then disappeared into the crowd of much more advanced leads than I. About thirty minutes later, I went downstairs to the practice room next to the Jump Mansion entrance. She was there, sitting on a couch.
“Please close the door, to keep the air conditioning in.” I turned to do so, and when I turned back around, there was no one in the room but my dear friend and detective, the great Shackelford Withersbottom, in a dress.
He laughed a devious laugh and clapped his hands together sharply. “Dr. Wilfred, if you would please,” he said, motioning to the zipper at the back of the dress.
“I have learned a great deal tonight,” he said, throwing on his vest and trousers. “Especially after the contest, the leads who had been hesitant to meet new people suddenly wanted to dance with me.”
“But, Shackelford, I don’t understand! How did you succeed in being such a good follow? You’ve never danced a step in your life.”
“T’was simple, Wilfred….I relied on the hope that a good leader would make me do what was needed. By not having any training…”
“You didn’t have any bad habits.” I concluded, in awe.
“Precisely, Wilfred. Besides, I have the rhythm of a 1930s black woman in my heart,” he said, straightening his argyle bow tie.
Of course, it was pointless to tell him that anyone else attempting what he had done would have resulted in humiliating failure and even more discrimination towards transgenders. And it was just a worthless to point out that great dance followers spend years and years in training; it wasn’t near as simple as Shackelford expected. But, he was a different man than we.
“Well, what did you learn?”
“Many things. First, did you know the reason Chester’s friend and coach George was out of commission for contest this year?”
“Yes, something about his heel.”
“Not just something, Wilfred. Something perhaps very important to the case–he was apparently kicked by a hard, heavy, leather-healed shoes. While dancing. An aimless accident.”
“Really? But how does that figure into the case?”
“It was his dear friend and our dancing stud, Chester, that did it.”
My mind boggled. “Well, though that gives him a motive, I don’t see how he could be the villain He’s unconscious, after all, and we still have the missing Southern California dancer.”
“You’re quite right, Dr. Wilfred. The case grows more interesting with every new clue. I think, however, I am beginning to put it all together. Especially, the curious case of the cat in the nightime.”
“Ms. Gilkenson’s cat, the night of the kidnapping? But the cat didn’t do anything that night.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Exactly. Dr. Wilfred, I’m afraid I must disappear myself for a few days.”
“It is unavoidable.”
“But the contest is this weekend–we have to finish solving the case!”
“That is precisely what I intend to do.” He said, and we let the Jump Mansion doors shut behind us.
Part IV: The Big Competition
I was standing on the sidelines at the International Lindy Hop Championships, with only twenty minutes left until the big event. And Shackelford was nowhere to be found.
“I know it’s not your fault, Dr. Wilfred, but I can’t help feeling disappointed in Shackelford Withersbottom,” Ms. Gilkenson said. “We had all our hopes on him finding Chester.”
“There, There,” I said, patting her hand. “I’m sure he has a plan.” Though to be honest, reader, it was hard to believe myself. It seemed we had run out of time. Meanwhile, a large man had moved directly in front of me, and I couldn’t see the contest floor. I tapped him on the shoulder to ask him to move, and the man giggled, throwing off a fake mustache and overabundant coat jacket to reveal my thin friend.
“My Dear Dr. Wilfred!” he replied.
“Detective, please tell me you found him!” Ms. Gilkenson said.
“Kind woman, please do not excite yourself,” he said. “He is here, putting on his number, I believe.” He pointed to a rather scruffy man with a beret and an old moth-eaten suit I could smell from where I stood.
“Next to the homeless guy? Wait, what? That can’t be Chester.” Ms. Gilkenson said.
“Dear lady, trust me. If you were to shave and bath him you would find he is none other than one Chester Franklin, ready to do right by his partner Cora Glass, if she will still have him.”
“Go get Cora immediately!” Ms. Gilkenson said to a nearby event volunteer. “But Mr. Withersbottom, who kidnapped him?”
“As I suspected, no one!”
“No one! Then it was all a bizarre accident?”
“I didn’t say someone didn’t try to do him harm, Ms. Gilkenson. Thankfully for us, however, the criminal was not able to.”
She fell back onto a seat, trying to catch her breath. “Tell me all, Detective Withersbottom.”
“Where to begin? My suspicions were first aroused when I could find no trace of footprints left behind by the disappeared Southern California Dancer–the kidnap suspect. This wasn’t a large deal in itself, as many dancers wear the same shoes. But, when you said the words ‘It was as if the Southern California dancer didn’t even exist’, it all started to come together, slowly. You see, madam, he doesn’t exist.”
“But he stayed in my house! We all saw him.”
“And did he not have the same height, body, and facial profile, perhaps, as Chester’s best friend, George Smith?”
A shock of horror slowly came over her face.
“Yes, George Smith disguised himself as a Southern California dancer. He added a fake beard, a neckerchief, and a hat.”
“But how come we didn’t recognize him?”
“George is a dancer and has great control over his body–he changed his walk, his posture, his gait–everything. I have since discovered he also had much theater experience in college, which would have allowed him to change his voice, act differently, and use spirit gum deftly.”
“But what happened the night Chester disappeared? Who gave George a concussion?”
“Why, madam, Chester did.”
Yet another wave of shock came over the poor girl.
“Do not worry; he did not do it on purpose. It was all a grand–but devilishly ironic–coincidence. You do recall, Ms Gilkenson, that Chester had been known to practice for hours and then fall onto his bed, clothes, shoes and all, and eventually fall asleep that way? And do you also recall, how he had practiced his new aerial so much he could do it in his sleep?”
“Picture the scene I put before you, then–George enters Chester’s room late at night, to do some dark bidding. Perhaps he was going to kidnap Chester, as you say, or perhaps something worse–perhaps he was going to do something to Chester. To his heel, his shoes, or something to sabotage the next practice, and put Chester out of the race for ILHC champion, blaming it all on his Southern California alter ego.”
“But why, why would George do something like that? George is Chester’s best friend!”
“You see, far from being Chester’s friend, George was his greatest enemy, ever since Chester accidentally kicked him in the heel while dancing a few months ago. As you know, the injury ruined George’s chances at the ILHC championship this year. George wanted things to be equal. He came into George’s room that night to tamper in some way with Chester’s foot or shoe, when suddenly, Chester does something in his sleep–the new aerial, or a dance step of some sort, perhaps–and kicks George square in the forehead.”
“Yes, yes, it could have easily been a shoe heel that caused George’s concussion!” I said.
Ms. Gilkenson looked agog. “Well, that answers what happened to George and the mysterious Southern California dancer, but what happened to Chester?”
“Well, that turned out to be the easiest part of the case to solve. Tell me, Ms. Gilkenson, I’m a lover of jazz music who needs to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the modern world and am no stranger to opiates. Where should I go?”
“New Orleans.” She answered, and, having heard her answer, suddenly brought her hand to her mouth. “Oh, no!”
A somber Shackelford Withersbottom responded. “When I found him, he had been playing guitar for seven days straight. But to him, it seemed only five or six hours. I explained he was about to lose his partner because of his absent mindedness, and he rushed back to get here in time for the competition. You see, the night he disappeared, he had received a phone call in the middle of the night to come to New Orleans immediately in order to relax before the big weekend. In the darkness, Chester left and didn’t even notice George, lying there on the floor.”
“And I bet I know who made that call,” Ms. Gilkenson said, and turned towards the storm clouds gathering outside the near window, a tear falling down her cheek. “Damn you, Andy Reid.”
“Do not hold a grudge against him, Ms. Gilkenson, he only meant to help.”
“Well, I guess that’s about everything. How can I ever repay you, detective?”
At this moment, the volunteer sent to fetch Cora returned, out of breath and hysterical. “Ms. Gilkenson, Ms. Gilkenson, it’s Cora! Someone kicked her–her heel–she can’t dance on it! She can’t compete!”
“Someone has injured Cora’s heel?” Ms. Gilkenson said. “What are the odds!?”
Shackelford tapped his cane on the floor anxiously. “Ms. Gilkenson, you haven’t, by any chance, seen if our friend George has awakened from his coma recently, have you?”
“No, I’ve been too busy working here at the event! Is it possible!?!”
“I’m afraid so.”
“If Cora’s hurt than who’s Chester going to dance with?” Ms. Gilkenson was out of her chair, grabbing the volunteer by the lapels. “They just have to! They’re too inspirational! They have to be seen! They’re the spirit of Lindy Hop!”
“Don’t worry for one instance, Ms. Gilkenson,” Shackelford said. “I’ll get my skirt.”
Why is this comical work of swing dance fiction deemed an ILHC mystery? Because the story was written with the goal of bringing notice, both literally and…well, literally, to the tone and overall spirit of the International Lindy Hop Championships competition weekend. Hopefully the story was a fun and entertaining frolic complete with sincere appreciation for the complexities of Lindy Hop and the swing dance community–all things ILHC strives for.
The Case of the Dancing Stud was loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes short story “Silver Blaze” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Specifically, the character of Shackelford Withersbottom was based on the actor Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada television series, whose embodiment of the role is incredible. Like, Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski incredible. Thanks to Aba Browning for introducing me to the series.
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