The Word Thief by ACF Wilson

Flash Fiction

The noise of an incoming email. 9.10 am. Woke him with a start but a moment later this didn’t bother him.

He was alone anyway so not as if his laptop disturbed anyone.

Early morning Kettering. Last night had been late night Dunstable. He knew how to live.

 Reads the email. Re-reads it.. And again for good measure. 

Oh my god. My fucking god.

Someone wants to publish him. He’s been accepted!! They want a meet. Publish the book he’s sent their way. “Running Away”.

“They” being an independent publishing house based in Cardiff. He might Skype them. That way he won’t have to schlepp down there. Nonetheless he checked out the trains. Looked at Air B ‘n’ B”s.

Imagined conversations. Across a train aisle,  a pretty thing, she’s curious.

” Yes I’m heading to Cardiff to meet my publisher. What genre? I call it intelligent crime fiction”

The B&B people impressed.

” You must send us a copy when it’s out. Signed of course. Never had an author stay

here before”

An author. He was going to be an author. John Sharples, author.

He’d worked bloody hard for this moment.

He shuffles down to his local cafe for a celebratory fry up. Thinks of trying the humble brag out on the Chinese lady that ran the place. Communication between them had been limited to him ordering his food and saying “please ” and “thank you” so maybe not.

As he waited for his food he logged on to Terry’s account. Nothing new there. The same drafts.  Some punchy short stories, he hoped Terry would have some success placing those. Up until now Terry remained resolutely unpublished. Well not quite.

His foods arrived and for the millionth time he reads Terry’s main entry.  John liked it.

Infact he liked it so much he’d stolen it. Not quite word for word. Names altered in places. Shifted locations. Different title obviously, that’d be just plain stupid. It was too good to be ignored and it was just sat there on Terry’s page.

 On his free- for- anyone -to -look -at -page. John can’t recall how he came across it. Some Twitter link maybe, but he’s glad he did. Poor, dumb Terry. Unpublished Terry. Well not anymore. Not in theory. 

At first he’d had the usual rejection emails.

Chided Terry for his slapdash prose when they arrived. Come on Tel buck your ideas up!

Egg yolk on his mustard/rust sweater. He’ll get away with that. But will he get away with larceny.? Seems to be going okay so far.

He Skypes someone in Cardiff that evening.

Not Welsh which slightly irked him though he couldn’t explain why.

He  had ideas for the cover. They politely rebuffed him. Hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped but they were still keen. Looking at publication early Spring. Paperback and ebook. He heads to Facebook straight off.

How to pitch it? Enigmatic? Teasy? Celebratory and Gloating? He aims somewhere in the middle. A couple of likes.

Malcolm the sarcastic sod from Accounts at work suggesting he might quit his job now. Barry chiming in saying he might as well because he did sod all when he was there.

Nice Janice suggested he might be the new JK Rowling. Wanted a signed copy. He could do that. Might invite her to the launch party , he was sure there’d be one. Where though? Not Wales, no point in that.

His mind lost in dreams of launch parties then. Jazz in the background, discreet.

Actually he’d seen something once where this string quartet played in the corner. Classy! They’re all there of course in his mind. All the doubters and the sneerers. Grudgingly accepting that he’d done something worth their investment of time.

 Green tinges around several. His ex wife looks genuinely pleased. Dont think about a reconciliation Angie love, that ship has sailed. There’s someone there from Channel Four or is it BBC 4? Netflix is where it’s at these days he believes.

He can see  De Niro having a cameo. He’s begging for a five minute slot the producer says. Not quite the same cache’ since he’d done the Warburton bread adverts but still..What’s that? Oh yes, I’ve finished. Just the actually quite rude cafe owner taking his plate away. He heads home. Saturday.

A few more comments on the Facebook page. Idiot Malcolm asking if it’s a ‘ Mills & Boon’? Clown! He notices that Malcolms comment has more “likes” than his actual post. He makes a note of who’s liked this asinine comment and  mentally strikes them off the Launch Party list.

No response from ‘ Valley Books” about his launch party ideas. Probably running it by the board . Seeing how much spare cash they had. Next ten minutes he spends  trying to get a decent selfie.

 Trimmed his nose hair after noticing that with the sun streaming in the window. Fuck it, I’ll run with my picture off Facebook and Twitter.  That picture also the source of much hilarity from Malcolm.

Must find a way to fictionalise his work colleague., ha! That’d show him. Ending up the butt of his jokes in a best seller. Seeing the  books at the airport when he jetted off on his stupid weekend city breaks. Unfair really, he thought back to the number of” likes” he’d lavished on his arty snaps of cathedrals and bar counters, his nice wife staring enigmatically at the locals going about their business.

 And all he got back from Malcolm was the Sarc.  The Cutting Sarc.  Had he just invented that? Or read it somewhere? Difficult to remember.  He made a note of it anyway. Would use it possibly.  Maybe check it’s provenance, maybe not.

Logged on Twitter.” Delighted to announce the imminent publication of ” Running Scared” by @ValleyBooks55. I’m over the moon Barry.”

Deleted that. Went again minus the over the moon bit. A few likes. That woman he’d met once at the gig in town. God she was online clingy. Still comes with the territory he supposed. Better get used to being pestered

Months passed. Spring arrived. He’d been working on a couple of things but they remained unfinished, abandoned.  No rush with those anyway, not while he had the book coming out. He thought everyone in his loose circle of friends knew about it by now.

He’d drip fed snippets onto his social media, ValleyBooks not too hot on the promotion front he’d noticed.

  His launch next week. A Wednesday.  They’d promised to have the books with him by Monday at the latest, a box of fifty. It was up on their website. “Exciting new novel.., we are delighted,… gritty noir noise that’s the hottest thing in town”.. He read and re-read the blurb till he knew it by heart. He wasn’t keen on the cover or his photograph.

 Both these things he would change when the call came from Faber or someone else. Valley hadn’t been keen on the launch idea, said it wasn’t really their bag and with the launch being over here and them being in Wales they doubted someone would be able to make it across.

So he’d booked the upstairs of the Queens, the nearest decent pub to him. Despite their jibes he’d invited most of the work crowd. Nothing worse than an empty room.

He had a pocket full of Sharpies and a head full of dreams. He hopes  that beauty with the red hair and glasses from  Waterstones will put in an appearance. He’d been in there asking could they put a poster up advertising the night.

“Sign the book? Of course. I do hope you enjoy it. A drink afterwards? Well i do have some scribbling to do but why not? That’d be lovely. One never knows when the muse might strike yes.”

 The box arrived by courier. That great new book smell x 50. Still not keen on that cover. There’s his name though. John Sharples.

 He puts a picture onto Twitter. Box of books on his kitchen table. Moves the dirty tea cups and plates out of the way.

Launch day. Nerves.He hasn’t checked his emails or Facebook at all today. The wi-fi was on the blink at work. He’d changed in the toilets for the launch. Best jacket. No tie.

Yo La Tengo pin badge. Oh yes, I have it, still hip.

No one there yet  of course. 6.30, starts at 7.00.

Malcom and Barry drinking heavily next door hoping that there was going to be a reading.

” He can’t pronounce his r’s” they guffawed.

Checks his phone. Facebook friend request. I don’t know any Terence Laidlaw. Private message from same. Oh my God.! Shit! Rumbled.

Terry Laidlow of Gateshead. Most surprised to see his own work bastardised and stolen. Says as much. He weakly replies saying that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about.

 This remains unread for now. Malcolm and Barry here now. ” Spoilt for choice where to sit aren’t we?” sniggers Malc.

“Pay bar mate?” asks Barry ” thought these fancy book people might have stumped up for a few free drinks “. Fancy book people pronounced in a ‘Deliverance ‘style drawl.

He doesn’t answer them. Too busy looking at his emails. One from T.Laidlaw. Quite threatening in his tone. Thank god Gateshead was almost in Scotland.

 He could smooth all this over after the launch. Assure Terry that yes they did possess  similar writing styles, indeed the plot and characterisation had  several similarities but he was mistaken. Wish him luck and move on.

A few more arrivals, two people he didn’t recognise, lurking  by the table where he’s stacked the books. He’s across there introducing himself. Big readers, like to support local writers etc. They buy a copy. Just one between them despite his clumsy pitch. Signs it with a flourish. “All the Best Bill and Margaret, hope you like it., John.” Looked over to see if Malcolm and Barry had seen the transaction, if they had they showed no signs of having done so.

Next email is from ValleyBooks.

” Please call us as soon as possible. This is a matter of extreme urgency “.

He decides to do just that, steps out onto the landing .. As he does this there are a few more arrivals.

 Oh yes the Waterstones girl is here, with a friend. Nice Janice too also with a friend. He connects with Mark at Valley.  Into the Valley. He’s not happy. He’s pissed as the kids might say. He’s had correspondence from a Mr Laidlaw. Strong accusations of plagiarism, theft. Mark says that having read Terry’s original piece he has to agree. John has no answer to any of this. Mute on the landing.

 Mark says they’re pulling the plug on the book Hopes he hasn’t sold any. He neglects to mention Bill and Margaret.  Puts the phone down.  About twenty people in the room. All here for him, his book. Still his book, he can ride this out.

The barmaid catches his eye.  ” I’ve taken the money for eight copies, there was a bit of a queue developing. You’re doing very well, I’ll take one from you before you sell them all.  Can I get you a drink ? You look a bit nervous, I suppose it must be a bit daunting. All these people here to see you, quite flattering.”

Corner of his eye he can see Zara the redheaded book girl, who seems to have been cornered by Malc. She’s got a  copy of his book and he’s pointing  at it animatedly, trying to get a laugh out of the author photo.

 Bordering on harassment he thought and was still thinking of what he’d write as a dedication to her. My favourite bookshop girl? Way too creepy.  What was he some sort of stalker? Just settle for her name, make out he didn’t already know it and hadn’t soft stalked her on Facebook for months. She wrote herself, was a member of a Creative Writing Group nearby. Women only.

He understood the exclusivity, no sexist dinosaur he, maybe they could collaborate on something, a short story perhaps.., hang on, there’s.a tap on his shoulder.  Turns. Knows instantly who it is.  Terry. Formidable presence it’s fair to say. His novelists eye for detail not deserted him yet.

Man mountain. Unpublished Terry at the book launch. Ice in his eyes as he picks a book off the table.

” Running Away” he shouts out loud, silencing the room. Bloody hell he’s hired an actor to read out extracts was most people’s first thought. Bit bloody fierce and angry looking though. Big boomy voice. Brings to mind Brian Blessed. He’s reading from the back of the book, pacing like a madman.

” Steve Sayer is running, infact he’s never stopped. Running from the law, from his job, from his ex-wife but most of all he’s running from himself….HA! “

Opens the page at random, laughs again.

” Sayer found himself in Paris after dark. All cities look the same at night he thought. French danger much the same as English he reckoned. Around each corner lurked possible trouble. Trouble en danger”

 Flings the book down, certainly got everyone’s attention.

” This is my book. This guy’s just changed the names and locations about. I set mine in Berlin not Paris.. The rest of it’s the same though eh? I think I should tell you people that this book has been stolen from me. By him!”. A dramatic finger pointing moment. The room turns as one towards John. Floundering John.

 Terry’s over at him now, jabbing his finger, angry. John praying for someone to intervene. Anyone? Here comes the smirking Malcolm, quite handy on the quiet,martial arts twice a week. He’s trying to steer Terry away.

 A ” Come on mate, calm down” and they end up grappling, crashing  onto the book table which collapses under their collective weight, the stack of novels scatter across the floor, glasses and bottles smashing.

 People in the room start to head for the door, most giving him an odd look or two. Malcolm seemed to be enjoying himself now as they slid and smashed into the bar area. More damage, more noise. A screaming barmaid, a landlord at the door ringing the police. All the while as well as fighting Malcolm, Terry kept up a vicious monologue aimed John’s way. By the time the police arrived he was still ranting.

Once the weary officers had got to the bottom of the story they were all three released. Malcolm and Terry would receive small fines and  ordered to pay costs for the damage caused. John offered to pay their fines , both took him up on that.

 Valleybooks were in contact too, they wanted the cost of the book production reimbursing. Not cheap. Well into his overdraft. And some. Apparently they were re-launching it in the Autumn under it’s correct title ” Undercover in the Night”.

A short story collection in the pipeline too, John had done Terry a bit of a favour really.

It was tough at work those first few weeks but he rode it out. No bloody choice he needed the money. Malcolm smirking , he realised Malcom would be forever smirking.  He deleted the Writers Page on his Facebook and even came off the site for a while altogether although he was back on it again now. Barry had stopped posting a different classic each day, tagging John in.

” This one of yours Johnny Boy?” underneath ‘ Oliver Twist’, ‘ Brighton Rock,’ ‘King Lear’ etc.

Terry’s blog account now dormant, he’s wise to the idea of locked accounts anyway,legitimate publication day imminent.

Final straw came when he enrolled in a ‘Creative Writing’ class held in the backroom of a pub. Only eight people in the group but one of them was Zara from the launch. Six months previous this would’ve delighted him. Not so much now. Of course she remembered him.

A reception best described as frosty to begin with only heightened by the time he got up to nervously read an extract from his work in progress. It went down well he thought until Zara pointedly asked ” Yes John it’s very good but did you write it yourself?!”. A few sniggers, his sorry tale had obviously been retold.

He left  the room  there and then, didn’t look back.  Went home and read a book instead.

“Undercover in the Night, a new author, not bad he thought. Shows promise.