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.

Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s NORA INU/STRAY DOG

I bumped today’s scheduled movie review when I realized that this past Saturday was the anniversary of Toshiro Mifune’s birth, and I could instead talk about Nora Inu (released in the US as Stray Dog).

First, let’s all remember the hotness that was Toshiro Mifune:

If you were expecting to see him in film-faux samurai garb, sorry to disappoint you. Mifune appeared in nearly 170 films as an actor, including 16 of Kurosawa’s, and most of them weren’t period pieces. He was an extremely versatile, expressive, and talented actor, with a wide range — which included dark, murky, detective film noir like Stray Dog.

Mifune originally worked as a photographer; he grew up in his father’s camera shop, and when he was drafted during WWII, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Afterward, he got a job as an assistant cameraman for Toho Productions (home to Godzilla, and hundreds of other movies). It was there that he was “discovered” as an actor, first for his looks, and then for his ability to throw himself into a role, drawing on his wartime experiences, and general disregard for propriety during a performance.

He wasn’t afraid to be everything he possibly could, as an actor. You can see that onscreen, and Stray Dog is no exception.

Kurosawa saw Mifune during a screen test and immediately hired him. Mifune’s first role was in Snow Trail (1947), the story of three bank robbers who hide out on a snowy mountain lodge with an unsuspecting family; though Senkichi Taniguchi directed it, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay. The next year Mifune starred in the Kurosawa-directed Drunken Angel, and in 1949, they did Stray Dog together.

The short, spoiler-free description of the film is this: A rookie detective loses his gun, which is later used in a crime. To recover it, he teams up with a veteran detective on the verge of retirement. They traverse the darkest parts of Tokyo looking for it.

(If you’re thinking Kurosawa’s plot was “borrowed” repeatedly by Western filmmakers over the last 68 years, you’d be right.)

The longer description is this: Kurosawa used Stray Dog, Mifune, and another of his favorite performers — Takashi Shimura — to act out the complexities of the father/son dynamic within a noir story, just as he did with Drunken AngelRashomon, and Seven Samurai.

Here, Mifune is “Detective Murakami”, the son saved by his wise old mentor, “Detective Sato”, played by Shimura, while “Yusa Shinjuro” (the bad guy in the film, played by Isao Kimura) shows the negative alternative of how Murakami could’ve ended up.

After a long, hot, day, Murakami loses his gun to a pickpocket, which sets off a string of crimes he feels responsible for. His supervisor, seeing his determination to retrieve the gun, puts him together with Detective Sato in hopes that the older man can cool Murakami’s obsession. Sato has children of his own, and slides easily into the role of Murakami’s surrogate parent.

During the film, these characters talk about Yusa, whose first name literally means “second son,” as if the young criminal were a wild animal, a “stray dog” in danger of becoming a “mad dog”. Murakami, too, is in danger of this, having come from the same background as their criminal; both men even had their backpacks stolen when returning from the war.

In the end, Yusa, feeling trapped because the police are closing in, shoots Sato with Murakami’s gun, making the younger detective responsible for wounding his own surrogate father. His quest for redemption leads him to a muddy struggle with Yusa, where Murakami is wounded himself, but does not submit until the criminal is cuffed. In the end, he’s left to wonder how close he got to darkness, and if he’ll ever recover.

In addition to exploring the father/son relationship on a personal level, it also works its way through the traditional (at the time) Japanese “father as imperial authority” dynamic, altered forever by so many anchorless young men coming back from the war, who struggled to regain their place in society. It shows us parts of Tokyo society that weren’t often seen in films from before WWII, too: actors and criminals, broken households, and the often-degrading ways women survived alone in a hard world.

Plus, the cinematography is technical perfection. Look at these stills!

Stray Dog is heartbreaking and violent, frenzied and gorgeous, visceral and thoughtful, all at once. Just like real life.

I have the Criterion Collection version and recommend that.

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)