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.

Novel-In-Progress Update:11,333 words

I don’t have as many words on the novel as I was hoping by now; it’s been 3 weeks that I’ve been writing seriously on it, and my goal is 5000 words a week. At this point, I’ve got 18 weeks of writing to go to hit my estimated goal of 100,000 words, which is only an guess until I get closer. I’ll accept anything over 90k, really. That’s not the limit for where it will end up after editing, but I’m hoping to write enough in the first draft that I can cut whatever I need to. (I’ve always been a “write too much, cut down to make better” type of writer, and I’m a little nervous I’ll end up with a novella instead of a novel if I’m not careful.)

The lower word count doesn’t represent the amount of time I’ve spent over the last three weeks, though. The first 5,000 words were down in the first week, but I quickly realized there was more to the story than I’d imagined. Much of my time was spent expanding the outline, and researching, once I figured out the story wanted a different ending, and a couple of extra plot points. That’s not a surprise. This novel is like an origami animal: I can see (in my head) the shape of it, what it is, but I have to unfold it to see all the nooks and crannies.

I know the characters get from A to B to C, and that they change along the way, but I write organically, the way that makes the most sense to me. If I set my story in a real place, and I send a character out in one direction, what will they actually run into? If a kid who’s never been outside has to sleep in a forest, how will they react to rain? Or bugs? Or a sprained ankle? Writing those things out requires knowing the answers.

My research this week has included:

I’m building a Pinterest page for my novel, if you’re interested. This week’s image is the reference I’m using for one of my main characters, Zora:

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Isn’t she lovely? She’s not the MC, but she’s one of the two most important other people in the book (and let me just say right now that I’m not going to allow any editor/publisher to “whiten her up”). She was a minor character when I start drafting the novel, but by really thinking about her motivations and how she’d react to the situation I put her in, I realized I was putting her into a certain trope that a flesh-and-blood woman with the personality I gave her wouldn’t fall into. I like her more, as a person, now.

Stay tuned for more updates!