Free Fiction: “A Different League” (flash, noir)

Originally posted August 2013, at Akashic Books. Guidelines required a 750-word limit and a distinctly recognizable setting. Felicia’s isn’t downtown anymore, but everywhere else still exists, and looks a lot like this, under a certain light…

A Different League
by Carrie Cuinn
Downtown, Ithaca, NY

Two a.m. at The State Diner came with a refill on my half-drunk coffee and an impatient smile on the lips of the waitress who’d been hovering nearby. My appointment was late, but my wallet was empty, so I couldn’t afford to leave. A week of poor sleep, too much caffeine, and more than one drive-thru meal meant my stomach was churning like the Buttermilk Falls after a storm, but I glanced over the menu anyway.

“Turkey club, side of fries,” I said. She smiled for real this time, her eyes sparkling. If my taste ran to tired bottle-blondes with swollen feet, I might have chatted her up, but just then the bar crowd stumbled in. Carefully-trimmed beards, pastel plaids, and skinny jeans . . . hipsters from Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, drunk on Black Cherry Old Fashioneds and Fig Manhattans, the upscale cocktail-revival staples.

A petite beauty in a yellow dress disentangled herself from the pack. Naomi Le’s three-inch heels clicked against the tile floor until she paused at my booth, looked back over one shoulder, and quickly sat down. I wanted to tell her she was late, that she was a liar, but too much truth at once and she’d bolt. She had that look about her, as if she was only half-girl sitting on a black bench seat. Her sparrow half was already fluttering away.

“Are you hungry?” I asked instead.

“No,” she replied. “I couldn’t get away sooner. Derek got an internship in DC, and we were celebrating.” She tucked a strand of night-black hair behind one ear, revealing a diamond bigger than a pea.

“That’s a nice dress,” I said. “Vintage?”

She smiled, now on familiar ground. “It’s from Petrune, on the Commons. Have you been?”

“Sure, loads of times,” I lied. The waitress sidled up and set my order in front of me. I waved her away with, “We’re sharing, thanks.” She sighed, but left us alone.

I couldn’t afford to dress out of Petrune’s closet. $250 for a new jacket constructed in a vintage style made the shop popular; only a certain kind of rich could drop that amount of cash on a casual wardrobe. Cornell University had plenty of those, playing out college party fantasies on their absentee father’s dime, and I was just another day-player in Naomi’s life. But I was going to get paid before my scene ended.

I took a bite of my sandwich, enjoying the crispy bacon and the crunch of cool lettuce, before I said, “You were right. Your fiancé is having an affair.”

She gasped, her brown eyes going wide. It was almost believable.

“Are you sure?”

I pulled an envelope, fat with glossy photos, out of my pocket. “I tailed Derek for a week. During the day it was business as usual: classes on the Hill, studying at Olin. But Tuesday night he had a visit from a woman with red hair. She didn’t leave until after midnight.” I pulled one photo from the bunch and slid it across the Formica table. “Do you know her?”

She shook her head. “Was . . . was that the only time?”

“No. There was an overnight stay at The Statler Hotel, too.” I concentrated on my fries while she studied the woman in the photo.

“Do you have any that show her face?”

“Sorry. They were discreet. I only got what I did because I’m very good at my job.”

That line usually does the trick. She handed over a platinum card with a little nod. I scanned the numbers with my bank’s app, and authorized the payment. “I’ll email you a receipt,” I said as I handed the card back. She stuffed it and the photos into her pocketbook and stood up to go.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, staying seated.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Our families are old friends. Our fathers golf together. I can’t just leave.”

“Of course. Good luck.”

She strolled back to her friends and nestled under Derek’s arm as if she’d never left. I pulled up an image on my phone, one I hadn’t had printed out: Naomi Le in a red wig, checking into The Statler with her fiancé.

They weren’t the first couple to play bad boyfriend/naughty mistress, though not many could afford a private eye to heighten the drama. But what did I care? Mr. Le’s allowance would be paying my rent this month, and tonight I didn’t have to stiff the waitress on the tip.

And that ain’t nothing.

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