A woman in a plaid skirt and matching shoes, shadowed by a stranger, New York City, 1946.
A woman in a plaid skirt and matching shoes, shadowed by a stranger, New York City, 1946.Nina Leen—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A woman in a plaid skirt and matching shoes, shadowed by a stranger, New York City, 1946.
A woman in a plaid skirt and matching shoes, shadowed by a stranger, New York City, 1946.
Nina Leen—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The Woman in Plaid: Photo-Inspired, Pseudo-Noir Flash Fiction

Aug 24, 2014

This first installment in a new series of poems, short (often very short) stories and other creative writings inspired by LIFE photographs is based on a 1946 Nina Leen picture. Originally shot for a fashion article on "novel shoes which match other parts of an outfit"—houndstooth, plaid, etc.—the photograph never ran in LIFE magazine. But its use of shadow and light, its hint of menace and its air of mystery inevitably sparked thoughts of private eyes, femmes fatales, sordid trysts—and led to this brief, admittedly tongue-in-cheek tribute to Chandler, Cain, Hammett and other noir and hardboiled greats.

She made her way downtown, her quick, nervous footsteps muffled by her plaid booties. Tailing her was like tailing a ghost. It was eerie. She didn't make a sound.

But no ghost ever filled out a skirt like that.

Her husband hired me that morning. Standing in front of my desk, he looked like a marionette held up by ragged strings. Like he might collapse at any second.

"I need you to follow my wife," he said, before I could even offer him a seat. Dust motes, stirred from sleep when he opened the frosted-glass door of my office, swirled in a sunbeam streaming through the room's one, long, south-facing window. "She's in trouble. I don't know what sort of trouble. She won't tell me. But if she sees me following her, I'll never find out what's wrong. She . . . ."

I held up my hand. His mouth snapped shut, like a nutcracker on an especially tough filbert.

I'm a private eye. I don't say no to many jobs—even jobs as tricksy as this one was shaping up to be.

"I get four hundred bucks a day," I told him, my hand still raised. "Plus expenses. Where's your wife now?"

"The Monkey Bar, on 54th," he said.

"Alone?"

"Yeah."

"You want me to find out where she goes?"

"Yeah."

"Who she sees?"

He swallowed. His eyes were tragic.

"Yeah."

"Got a picture of her?"

"Yeah."

Boy, did he ever.

Forty-five minutes later, I was in her slipstream as she headed south on Madison. The plaid she wore seemed to signal something, a message winking in the sun. A beacon. A warning.

I ignored the message, whatever it was, and kept right on walking.

Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

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