|She looked good sitting there with her legs crossed, the one that had the little anklet on it hiking the hem of her dress halfway up her thigh. It was a good looking thigh; She didn’t limp so I assumed the other one was a match.|
By William E. Wallace
She walked into my office and took a seat on the sofa against the far wall, not the chair at the left-hand corner of my desk where my clients usually sit. She didn’t stop to shake hands or look at the framed certificate from the California Department of Consumer Affairs hanging over my desk that identified me as Phil Taggert, a state-licensed investigator.
She just plunked herself down like she owned the place. Judging from the Tiffany’s hardware glittering at her wrists, fingers and around her throat, maybe she was there to make me an offer on it.
Connie had buzzed me from the outer office a minute earlier to tell me I had an unscheduled visitor named Sylvia Brantley. My desk calendar said I was clear until the horses made their four o'clock run at Golden Gate Fields so I told Connie to send her in.
I was glad that I had.
She was a tall, curvy redhead, and she looked like she might have had a little work done around her eyes. Probably just enough to buy her cosmetic surgeon a swimming pool or enroll his kid in premed at Stanford. Even if he was a straight D student.
She looked good sitting there with her legs crossed, the one that had the little anklet on it hiking the hem of her dress halfway up her thigh. It was a good looking thigh; She didn’t limp so I assumed the other one was a match.
If she preferred the sofa to the interview chair, it was okay with me. Hell, if she asked me, I'd put the damned thing on my back and carry it back to her place for her. Maybe she would let me sit on it with her.
I sat back and crossed my own legs, just so hers wouldn’t feel lonely.
"What can I do for you . . . is it Miss or Missus Brantley?"
“Missus,” she said, off-handedly, lighting a cigarette she took out of a little silver case and giving me the smile of a born flirt. "Unless you want me to litter your floor with my ashes, Mr. Taggert, you can get me something to put them in."
Swallowing my disappointment at her marital status, I took the amber cut-glass motel ashtray from the top drawer of my desk, put it in front of her and sat back down.
"Now," I said, grinning to show I was a good sport who didn’t mind being ordered around by a married woman who made my heart beat dangerously fast. "Can I do something for you in more of a professional capacity?"
She smiled. "I’m here on behalf of my husband, Elmer. He’s a novelist and screenwriter, Mr. Taggert. He claims another man is stealing his ideas."
The name Elmer Brantley clicked in my brain, alongside the image of a fellow I had seen on a TV talk show late one night with long hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a mustache. He was one of those fiction machines, a specialist in horror stories who cranked out six novels a year, most of which got made into popcorn movies and TV mini-series.
His yarns tended to turn on dripping fangs, gloomy cellars with damp walls and creeps that popped out of hidden passages at unexpected moments. Not really my taste, to be honest. His stuff might not have had much literary merit, but it generated cash like a New Jersey boiler room selling Hawaii time-shares in the dead of winter.
“Who does he think is doing it?” I asked.
“Another writer named Lance Jackson,” she replied. “Elmer met him at a conference in New York a little more than a year ago. Jackson is a tyro and most of what he has written so far has been little more than Fanfic.”
“Fanfic?” I let my tone underscore the question. I had no idea what the word meant.
“Fan Fiction,” she explained. “Readers write stuff inspired by TV shows they like, carrying the story line in a different direction, or exploring some aspect of the characters or plot in greater detail. Lance had been doing stories based on a zombie series that Elmer scripted for some cable network a couple of years ago. Most Fanfic writers do it for fun, but some have hopes of getting their stuff published.”
“Do they ever succeed?”
She gave me a smile that showed little amusement. “Rarely. Most of these people can barely string a noun and a predicate together to form a coherent sentence.”
It occurred to me she had a lot of attitude about the quality of other people’s writing for someone married to a millionaire who made his living selling books by the pound.
“Some of them put their stuff out on the Internet,” she said. “Others actually grind out little pulp magazines full of their stories. A lot of what they do is dreadful, although the ideas they have are sometimes interesting. Jackson is one of them. Most of what he’s written appears on his own website. At least it did until about four months ago.”
She spread her hands, clearly not sure how to describe it.
“He started appearing in some of the unpaid eMagazines, building a reputation,” she said. “Almost overnight, he had developed a style. His characters were fully developed. The action flowed. The dialog sounded natural, believable.”
I guessed at the rest. “And this style he had developed, it was your husband’s?”
She smiled again, even more coldly than the first time. “Precisely,” she said. “Anybody could see it. A couple of the ePubs even mentioned that his stuff was very much in ‘the Elmer Brantley vein.’ Of course, what they didn’t mention was that the stories were also derivative of my husband’s earlier stuff, and that the characters were clearly based on his, even though their names were different and the situations they appeared in had been somewhat altered.”
“So what, exactly, do you expect me to do for your husband?” I asked.
“Your advertisement in the phone book says you can recover stolen property."
"Sometimes, provided it hasn't been fenced already."
"Well, I want you to recover the property Jackson’s stolen from Elmer.”
I leaned back in my desk chair until the springs creaked. “I’m not sure how much help a private detective can offer in a plagiarism case,” I said. “Wouldn’t your husband be better off talking to a lawyer who specializes in copyright infringement and intellectual property issues?”
“He has. He consulted with his own attorney, Frederick Kastner. Kastner was too polite to say it in so many words, but he essentially let my husband know that he thought he was crazy.”
I shrugged. “Get another opinion, then.”
She sighed. “Kastner is an old acquaintance, Mr. Taggert. He has been Elmer’s legal adviser since he sold his first book, twenty-three years ago. Elmer trusts him implicitly and wouldn’t think of dealing with anybody else.”
“I don’t understand, then,” I said. “If your husband’s own lawyer is satisfied that legal steps are useless and he won’t check with another lawyer, why are you here talking to me?”
“I’m hoping that a trained investigator can figure out how Jackson is doing it. If Elmer can show Jackson is stealing his stuff, maybe Kastner will reconsider.”
I thought about it. “I’ll need to talk to your husband,” I said. “And I will need to see examples of the stuff he thinks this Jackson guy stole. Do you know why Kastner blew your husband off in the first place?”
“I haven’t spoken with Fred, but from what Elmer tells me, he just didn’t believe it was possible for Jackson to do what Elmer thinks he has.”
“That’s too vague for me to go on,” I said. “I’ll need to see Kastner myself, find out why he wouldn’t do anything, and then at least I will have an idea how to proceed. Sooner or later I will have to talk to Jackson; if I can find proof he’s cribbing material from your husband, I may be able to persuade him to stop doing it just by confronting him.”
I switched over to the business side of the discussion.
“My rates are $60 an hour plus expenses but I try to keep those to a minimum. I account in writing for every hour I spend on a case. I’ll let you know before I expense anything out of the ordinary, okay?”
“I’ll need a week’s salary plus $1,000 against expenses in advance,” I continued. “That comes to $3,400. I’ll have my assistant, Connie, prepare a standard employment agreement before you go. You can write a check for the advance then. When can I begin?”
“As quickly as possible,” she said, looking at her Blackberry. “Why don’t you come up to our place north of Harbor City day after tomorrow?”
She stood up and got ready to leave. “You can talk to Elmer in the morning and I will have time by then to arrange for you to meet Fred Kastner in the afternoon,” she said. This time, she extended her hand. It felt warm and soft in mine. I had to remind myself to let go.
“That sounds fine,” I said. “I’ll hold onto the check until then and have Connie deposit it the morning I drive up. One thing you can tell me right now, though, if you don’t mind?”
“If your husband knew that Lance Jackson was copying his style four months ago, why did you wait until now to pursue it?”
She hesitated before replying. “At first, Elmer was flattered,” she said. “Lance wasn’t profiting from his copy-cat work, so Elmer didn’t feel threatened by it. Then Lance managed to get a story published in a well-known science fiction magazine last month and Elmer saw a copy of it in bookstore he frequents. It was a word-for-word copy of a piece Elmer had been working on for several months. That meant Lance had started actually being paid for the stuff he was copying. At that point, it was largely a business decision -- to try and stop him before he profited further from Elmer’s work.”
“That’s it?” I asked, sensing there was more than she had told me.
She bit her lower lip. “Well, there is one other thing,” she said haltingly, as if she were embarrassed to go into it.
“The story in the magazine was completely done,” she said. “Elmer’s was only half written. Lance didn’t just copy the story; he finished it, too.”
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