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But That Was My Idea!

Alice looked around the room nervously, wondering again why she had decided to attend the writer’s conference. None of her friends was coming; she didn’t know a soul here. Across the room she saw a familiar face. Yes, that woman had been in a seminar she’d taken and the woman was beckoning to her. Alice waved and moved toward her, then stopped abruptly as the woman hugged a man who approached from another direction. Alice looked around, hoping no one had noticed her false move.


“I hate when that happens.” A handsome blonde man was standing next to her. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waved at people who look familiar and then they greet someone else. I’m Val, by the way and you’re. . .” He leaned toward Alice and read her name tag. “And you’re Alice. Hi there, Alice. So who else do you not know here?”


Alice laughed. “Just about everyone. I took a class with that woman and maybe with that guy over there.” She pointed to a heavy-set man in a plaid shirt. “But maybe not. How about you?”


“Well, I know you.” Val glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes until the welcoming address. C’mon, I’ll buy you a free cup of coffee.”


Now that they were sitting at a table in the corner, facing the half empty room, Alice wasn’t sure what to say. Be sure to network whenever you can, the conference brochure had suggested. You’ll meet people here who can help you succeed!


“What do you write?” they both asked at the same time. Val nodded and Alice said, “Mostly short stories, fictionalized portraits of people I’ve met or people I want to meet. And you?”


“I’m working on a novel.”


Someone snickered and they turned to see a tall, thin man with the worst haircut Alice had ever seen. He looks like a meth head, she thought, and instantly reproved herself. Don’t judge. He might be a brilliant writer or an important agent or—


“Still working on the novel, Val?” the stranger asked. “What’s it been—six, seven years? Has your hero finally grown a pair and left his wife?”


“He’s waiting for you to show him how, Justin. This is Alice. Who’s that waving at you?”


“She’s waving at me,” said Alice. “That’s Callie. We took a couple of classes together and really liked each other’s work.”


“And another admiration society is formed.” Alice wished Val would tell Justin to leave. She didn’t have the nerve to. But Callie approached and greeted Justin by name.


“And you are?” Was Justin sneering? It was hard to tell.


“Callie Waters. I heard you speak in Albany a few years ago.”


“Another admirer?” Val asked.


Alice gathered her handbag and large tote bag and stood up. “I’m ready to learn. Anyone else joining me?”


“Catch you later.”


“See you at lunch.”


“I’ll grab us a table.”


Alice smiled and walked to the auditorium. Had she made friends? Contacts? Or just a group of random people? Half an hour ago she had only known Callie, though Val and Callie had met Justin before.


Callie caught up with Alice between sessions and pulled her into an empty room. “Well, that was strange,” Callie said.


“Aren’t conferences always a little strange?”


“Yes, but not like what happened before. See, I heard Justin speak in Albany.”


“So you said.”


“Well, he spoke about plagiarism and how he thinks conferences and workshops and writing programs—even MFA programs—just encourage people to steal each other’s ideas.”


“Oh.” Alice twisted her mouth to one side. “But is that really plagiarism? Or just bad manners? Aren’t there only seven basic plots?”


“Or six or twenty or thirty-six. But that’s not the point. You see, Justin gave some specific examples of stories that had been borrowed or lifted or stolen from seminars and conferences.”


“Did he name anyone who stole the ideas?”


“No, but after his talk some editors started looking closely at his work.”


“And decided he had lifted the ideas?”


“You’re quick, Alice.”


“I’ve never heard any of this.”


“Oh, it was hushed up.”


“Why?”


“Because no one could be sure who lifted whose ideas. So Justin keeps getting published. His agent considers him a genius. At least that’s what Justin says. But a few magazines won’t use his work anymore.”


“If he has an agent and keeps getting published, why does he bother coming to conferences?”


Callie laughed. “You can never have too many contacts. Besides, he’s leading a workshop tomorrow. Or he might want to find whoever lifted his ideas and clear his name.”


“Or maybe he’s just toughing it out. Going about his business so no one will figure out that he’s the plagiarist.”


“Could be. We may never know.”


“Or we may figure out the real story. Oops, we’re late for the session. See you at lunch.”


The four of then sat at a corner table during lunch. Although the room was crowded, no one joined then.


Alice wondered if people were intimidated by Justin or wanted to avoid him. If he was lifting other writers’ ideas, should she keep quiet about her work? She and Callie sometimes met for coffee and shared what they were working on. If anyone here asked, she would just give vague answers about her latest idea. So far, though, most of the writers she’d met seemed more interested in talking about themselves than listening to others. Thank goodness for Callie!


Justin and Val began sparring again, each claiming he was this far from finishing a novel.


“What’s your new one about?” Val asked Justin.


“You’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll even autograph a copy when you buy the book. But there’s no way I discuss anything unpublished in public anymore.”


“Why not?” Alice knew the answer but was curious to hear what Justin would say.


He turned to her and gave a dramatic sigh. “You don’t have to act so naïve. I’m sure your pal Callie has already told you.”


For the first time in years Alice felt herself blushing.


“But if you must know,” Justin went on, “I stopped trusting in this so-called free exchange of ideas years ago. Too many of my ideas have been lifted by others.”


“Do you know who did it?”


“I know the pseudonyms of the authors who had the stories published. Or maybe it’s just one person who uses several pennames. I haven’t yet found out who did it. But when I do—”


“You’ll beat them into a pulp novel, right?” said Val.


“Oh, I’ll do worse than that. I’ll make sure they never get published again.”


Alice jerked her head up. “How do you know anyone would believe you?”


“Because I’ll have solid proof by then. I have some hints and I’ll spend tonight going through all the documents.” Justin raised his voice. “I’m actually very close to figuring out who’s been stealing my work.”


The room had gotten quiet and it seemed as if everyone turned to look at them. Val fidgeted in his chair. Callie twirled a lock of her dark hair. Alice looked down at her plate. Justin kept talking.


“Someone is going to be very sorry by tomorrow.”


All at once it seemed that everyone in the room had somewhere else to go. They pushed back chairs, grabbed their belongings, stood and left quickly. The four in the corner looked at each other.


“Well,” Callie said, “I don’t want to be late for the next session.” She left before anyone could join her.


Val and Alice walked out together. “Do you think he’ll make a dramatic announcement tomorrow?” she asked.


Val shrugged. “Maybe. Or he could be bluffing. For all I know, he’s the one who steals ideas. I wonder what he’ll say in his talk tomorrow. It’s scheduled first thing in the morning.”


Alice nodded. She wondered, too. It could be an exciting, memorable session.


But when she arrived the next day, she saw people milling about, walking in and out of the large room. What was happening? Shouldn’t everyone be looking for a seat? As she was trying to decide what to do, Val came up and grabbed her arm.


“Have you heard?”


“What?”


“Justin’s dead.”


“How can that be? He looked healthy enough yesterday.”


“Apparently he was fatally allergic to shrimp. He must have eaten some yesterday.”


“Why would he do that?”


“He probably didn’t know he had eaten shrimp or didn’t know he was allergic.”


The conference ended abruptly; the organizers promised refunds for the missing sessions. Alice said goodbye to Callie and Val, promising to meet soon for coffee. She was glad the conference ended early. It didn’t seem right to stay after Justin’s death.


On the train home, Alice tried to picture what they’d eaten yesterday. The group had passed around various dishes from the buffet. No one had asked what ingredients were in any particular dish. Then she remembered there had been some tiny shrimp mixed into a salad. And she had offered the salad to Justin. Had she caused Justin’s death?


When she got home she remembered that Callie had urged her to pass the salad to Justin. BIO Susan Phillips, a Boston area writer and photographer, has had work published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed in over twenty magazines, including Poetica, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination and the anthology All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on a historical novel.

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