August 11, 2015

“A Ghost of an Idea” by Beth Roper

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“A Ghost of an Idea” by Beth Roper

Editor’s Note: As Rod Serling, host of “The Twilight Zone,” might have said, “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into…” Beth Roper’s delicious short story of revenge from beyond the grave, “A Ghost of an Idea.”

*     *     *

Gavin Van Dam smiled faintly as he heard her high heels clacking down the entry way and the soft click of the door. His wife Amanda was leaving for her girl’s night out after many kisses and apologies. Van had finally assured her he would perfectly fine left to his own devices, and settled in for an evening with his favorite company – himself.

He wandered over to the liquor cart to refill his Scotch, passing award after award hanging on the wall. He studied them as he swirled the Macallan in his glass: mystery novel of the year, at least three of those; newest rising star; breakthrough author. The various plaques’ smooth chrome plating reflected back an equally smooth face. Only a few glints of gray showed through the polished mahogany of his hair. Enough to make him look distinguished to the most recent crop of fawning teaching assistants at the university where he still taught a class or two. A self-satisfied smile crossed his face as he took a swallow of Scotch. There was a knock on the door and he frowned. He hadn’t been expecting anyone. Briskly crossing the room, he opened the door and found the hallway empty. Van frowned more deeply and muttered, “Damn kids.”

Van took another drink as he turned back and watched her drift in like the fog. She solidified on his balcony with a slight smile, looking like one of the characters in his books. She was framed by the city skyline, lounging against the door to the balcony. Her face was a symphony of angles and planes culminating in cheekbones that could chip ice. Dark hair pooled in shadows around her shoulders and a lock hung Veronica Lake style over one eye completing the 40s vibe. Her red lips held the hint of a smile as she watched him try to work out exactly who she was.

“Contemplating past glories?” she asked.

“You just…just appeared. How did you do that?”

Her eyes danced mischievously. “I have my ways.”

“This is a high security building. You’re not supposed to be in here.” As the words came out of his mouth, Van realized how ridiculous it sounded. If this…this…thing could materialize at will, it wouldn’t care about high security.

“Call a cop,” she said, pulling a cigarette out of a case and lighting it.

“Who are…” the question died in his throat. “Eve?”

She blew the smoke out of her mouth in a lazy curl. “I wondered if you’d remember. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“I…I…”

Eve sashayed passed him, leaving Van in her wake with a chill that hit his very marrow. He shivered as she studied the awards on the wall. “Hmmmm… I remember this one,” she said pointing at one of the shining trophies. “They introduced you as the man who singlehandedly revived the crime novel. And this one,” she flicked her cigarette at a framed magazine article, “said you were the next Raymond Chandler, what with your sharp dialog and all.”

Eve took another drag on her cigarette. “I find that one especially funny since you can’t string four words together without someone holding your hand.”

“What!”

Eve answered his outrage with an elegant shrug. “Just the truth, dear. Wasn’t I always asking you, ‘Who talks like that?’ then rewriting the scene?”

He stepped closer and said with a voice dripping with power he wasn’t sure he had, “You need to get out of here.”

Eve only smiled, but it was menacing enough to send him running for the door. Van turned back, but she was no longer there. He smiled to himself and put the whiskey down. Just a drunken illusion. Ghost weren’t real, Van chided himself as he absently rubbed his chest. All this stress wasn’t good for him. Had he taken his heart pill this morning? Amanda had reminded him, but he had been busy texting his newest conquest and forgot. He stepped into the bathroom to get his the pill bottle.

“Wanting to get rid of me so soon?” Eve’s voice startled him; he jumped and the pills scattered across the tile.

She materialized again, sitting curled like a contented cat in the corner of his leather sofa. Van whirled back to her with a decision.

“You’re just in my head.”

“Am I?” she purred.

“Yes, I’ve drunk too much and I’m imagining things.”

Eve rose to her feet and glided towards him.

“Go away. You’re not real.”

“Let’s just see,” she said with a sultry smile. Without warning, her balled fist plowed into his gut. Van sunk to his knees wheezing for breath as pain exploded through his stomach and into his chest.

“Well…did that feel real?” A sardonic smile played around her lips.

Van absently rubbed his chest where it was still pounding, gaping at her. Eve expelled her breath in an explosive burst. “Sit down and let’s act civilized, shall we?”

Van managed to make it to his feet and stagger over to one of the chairs. “Civilized. You’re the one who hit me,” he pouted.

Eve acknowledged that fact with another shrug as she sat opposite him on the couch. For a long moment he appraised her through pain-fogged eyes. Legs that ended somewhere in the rafters, rack that wouldn’t quit and topped by the face of an angel. Now he was remembering her. Maybe this wasn’t all bad. She was pissed off now, but he’d twisted her around his finger once. He could do it again.

“Eve March. It’s been a long time since you were my assistant.”

“Haven’t been that for at least five years now.” Her tone was mild, but she was watching warily out of those narrowed hazel eyes.

“You look good,” he rasped. “Did you always look this good?”

“Yes.”

He tried the smile that sent the co-eds doing back flips into his bed. “How could I not have noticed?”

“Oh God, you’re trying to charm me again.” Eve snorted a laugh at his wounded expression. “I look the same as I ever did. When you were sure I thought you were a genius, I was exciting as a block of wood. Now that I’m no longer your sycophant, I’m irresistible.”

“I don’t have sycophants. Admirers…”

“Please. You surround yourself with people who have their heads so far up your ass, I’m surprised they don’t talk for you. And you love it.”

Eve began to pace around the room. She stopped and studied a framed print of Amanda. “I’m sure Mandy still thinks you’re the second coming. Is that why she hasn’t put your shit on the front lawn? I would if my husband were sleeping with everyone behind my back.”

Van opened his mouth to deny it, but stopped. Eve knew too much for him to continue the farce. As his assistant, she had seen the parade of TAs, students and interns that had passed in and out his bed with Amanda none the wiser.

She turned back to him from the picture. “I don’t get you. Your life is perfect, and on one hand you’re lying, cheating and stealing to keep it and on the other you’re actively trying to screw it up.”

Van absently rubbed his chest where his heart was still pounding madly. Alarms were going off in his head, but vanity kept him firmly seated. Whoever or whatever this was, real or just his imagination, he was not about to let it get the last word. “I hope you dropped in from God knows where for something other than this because I have a lot of work to do. Deadlines…you know.” He gave her a sickly smile. Eve had harbored dreams of publishing a novel, but it had never panned out. He could twist knives as easily as she.

“You took something from me,” she said. The quiet force of her voice set off another wave of pain in his chest. Eve’s eyes bore into his. “You took my work, Van. You took it all.”

“I never…” he sputtered.

“Save the outrage,” she barked, cutting off his tirade. “We both know the two main characters of your series were created by me. I also provided more than half the plots of The Gilded Gun and The Gun Also Rises. You took them under the guise of mentoring me, and you ripped them off line for line.”

Van’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. The novels were his. True, he had Eve, as his assistant, help him gather his thoughts, work on plot outlines, character sketches, but… The realization stopped him cold.

“Those were the stupidest titles ever created, by the way,” she offered.

Van’s ragged breathing was the only sound as he took all this in. Could this be? He had to salvage the situation somehow. If it came out that he plagiarized his career was over, not to mention lawsuits for copyright infringement, fraud…. There had to be some way to undo this damage…some way to do damage control.

“I think that may have been the worst part. Watching you take my characters and have them do stupid things, things that were never in their personalities and having no way to stop it. Then having to listen to all your sycophants talk about how great a writer you were,” Eve continued, seemingly unaware of his inner turmoil.

“They were my characters,” Van insisted.

She shot him a look that should have frozen his blood. “Bullshit. I came to you with the idea of Keith and Cara in 1999. You loved it so much you and I developed The Gilded Gun around them. I’ve got e-mails to prove it.”

Van’s heart hammered in his chest and sent more waves of pain spiraling up and down his left arm and into his back. Somehow he made his voice calm. “If I really did rip you off, why didn’t you get a lawyer? Make your case and get your revenge.”

A smile as jagged as broken glass crossed Eve’s face. “That’s the beauty of the legal system. It’s not who thought of the idea first, it’s who gets it down on paper first. You hold the copyright on that fact alone.” Her hands clinched into fists and the smile turned in to a snarl. “You hold the copyright on my creations. My best work. Ideas that were a part of me. Ideas I can never call mine. Can you even fathom that?” She looked at his blank face, and turned abruptly away. “I should have hit you harder,” she muttered.

Relief flooded through Van’s system. “Now Eve, you know our conversations were completely unrelated. The Keith and Cara in the books are totally different characters.”

Eve whirled on him like an avenging angel. “Totally different. Then how come they had the same back-story, the same motivations, and the same personalities, even the same names. You couldn’t even come up with different names?” She poked her finger at him with each word, making his chest throb in anguish with every stab. He backpedaled away from her fury, and she let her arm drop in resignation. “It was my best work and I had to declare it dead. I mourned those characters like family. You stole a piece of me and don’t even have the grace to admit it.”

“I didn’t steal anything. You’re overwrought. I understand you must be jealous, but this is no way to act.”

“Jealous? Of your great talent?” The laugh that slipped out of her mouth was so brittle it shattered on impact. “You’re so good that the only characters people liked were the ones you stole from me? You’re so talented that you can’t finish a plot without me closing holes you could drive a truck through? The only thing you have a talent for is lying and shameless self-promotion.”

He winced from her sarcasm. “I know we didn’t part on the best of terms…” he trailed off as her blazing eyes stole his voice.

“You mean when you fired me for daring to ask to be acknowledged? If you had just said thank you, anything…it didn’t have to be money…just credit,” her voice broke.

“Well, even if some of the ideas were yours, you should be grateful I used them,” he wheezed. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. “Now the world can see them in print instead of them being stuck on your hard drive. You would have never gotten published. I did, and now everyone can enjoy them.”

Eve goggled at him then began laughing. “You are really serious.” She shook her head. “The fatal flaw of narcissism, your ego is so big that you think people enjoy being used by you. We all must martyr ourselves to give your greatness to the world. I wonder if your kids feel that way.”

“Leave my kids out of this!”

She pressed her advantage. “You said I’d never get published. True enough because I refused to make the sacrifices you did. How many birthdays, Christmases, school plays and baseball games did you spend schmoozing with B-list celebrities and fame whores to try and sell just one more copy?”

“That’s enough,” he screamed, beating his fist against the arm of the chair. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a parent.”

“You don’t know anything about me. You said I should get my revenge? I am.” She was silent for a moment, and then asked sweetly. “Does your chest hurt?”

Van gaped at her like a fish on dry land. The pain was crushing him. “It’s nothing. I forgot my pill this morning,” he lied.

Eve’s eyes glittered. “Are you sure?” She moved her hand towards him again and the pain rose like a symphony of agony in Van’s chest. He grabbed the arms of the chair so hard his fingers ripped through the fabric. He tried to get up, to banish her from his head, but sank to the floor. Van’s head hit the Oriental carpet with a muffled thud. He felt as if he had been slammed into a two-dimensional world and his lungs could no longer expand to breathe. Each second sent another spiral of agony through his chest and down his arms. Heart attack. She was making him have a heart attack. “It hurts,” he moaned.

Eve knelt next to him and looked at him with ironic sympathy. “I know. It hurts. Tell me all about it.”

“What do I do?” he begged. Somehow she was his guide even though he could never understand why.

“The ancient Egyptians said only souls whose hearts were lighter than the feather of Maat, their embodiment of truth, could pass into the next life.” Eve held his eyes. “Is your heart light?”

Van closed his eyes.

*     *     *

Dr. Jaqueline Bellamy, the medical examiner, was finishing up in the apartment when Detectives Johnson and Reynolds arrived. Johnson let out a low whistle as he appraised the apartment.

“Swanky place. This guy must have been some big shot.”

“Now he’s a dead big shot,” Reynolds said. “What’re we looking at?” he asked the ME.

“Can’t say without an autopsy, but it looks like straight-up cardiac arrest. The wife came home about 12:30 AM and found him on the floor.” She glanced at the body and shook her head. “Guess I’ll never know if Keith and Cara end up together.”

“What?”

“This is Gavin Van Dam.” Dr. Bellamy looked between their blank faces. “He wrote “‘The Gilded Gun’ series.”

“Never heard of him,” Johnson said with a shrug.

“Who reads when there’s TV to watch,” Reynolds asked.

“Cretins,” she said with a sigh, then turned to supervise the body being loaded onto a gurney. A cloud of stale cigarette smoke hung over the apartment like fog and drifted out the door.

*     *     *

Elizabeth A. Roper is a computer geek by day and storyteller by night.  The stories range from fantasy tales set in the mythical island of Barinth, to the Vaults of Edinburgh, to bedtime stories for her two boys.

Beth lives in Missouri with her husband Pat and sons Duncan and Connor.  She has written numerous short stories, two of which are featured in Sojourn Volumes One and Two.  These are both currently available for purchase.

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