"A gem of a book that just keeps getting more brilliant page after page."—Michael Stackpole, New York Times bestselling author
Attorney Rep Pennyworth faces the client from hell. Charlotte Buchanan, author of a mystery of no particular merit, contends her 1997 novel is the basis for a 1999 film, and she wants to sue. Rep would blow her off, but Charlotte's the daughter of the CEO of Tavistock, Ltd., the firm's major corporate client. Rep digs in, aided by his literature-addicted wife Melissa, and files suit. By return mail comes a death threat, a grisly (and gristly) version of "Hold Your Tongue."
The film's director, Hollywood legend Aaron Eastman, and Rep talk and, bit by bit, the outline of a bizarre scheme to destroy his credibility—and that of his films—emerges. Hoosiers Rep and Melissa aren't prepared for the larger licenses granted to political powerhouses, but they're quick on the uptake and soon armed....
About the Author
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By Michael Bowen
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2001 Michael Bowen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the twentieth day of June in the thirty-first year of his life, Rep Pennyworth thought for a fleeting instant that he saw his mother walking up Commerce Street in downtown Indianapolis. This had happened previously, but not for several years and never before on a day when he'd done something illegal, unethical, and dumb.
To be fair, he couldn't remember anything he'd ever done before that was all three. So technically, you couldn't rule out coincidence.
The rare intrusions of unpleasantness into Rep's well-ordered adult life tended to involve his partners. This one was no exception. It had begun eight days earlier, around the polished teak desk of Chip Arundel and before the hooded gray eyes of Steve Finneman. Arundel was introducing Rep to a client named Charlotte Buchanan.
When Arundel described his legal specialty, which was often, he said he was "in M and A," articulating the initials as if he'd just gargled with testosterone. After saying this to Buchanan, Arundel had told her that Rep was "one of the firm's top intellectual property lawyers," the way you might introduce a Miss America hopeful as one of the prettiest girls in Wichita. Rep wondered wistfully whether his niche would sound more impressive if it were identified with initials. "I'm in IP?" Maybe not, Rep thought.
"Ms. Buchanan is here because she wrote a book," Finneman rumbled at that point to Rep.
The prudent response to an obvious lie by your firm's senior partner is a polite smile, and Rep produced one. Writing a book wouldn't have gotten John Updike or Saul Bellow into Arundel's office, unless they were undertaking a merger or acquisition along the way. Ms. Buchanan was there, as Rep knew before he laid eyes on her, because her father was the chief executive officer of Tavistock, Ltd., an Indiana company that was often in a merging or acquiring mood.
"I'm afraid I don't know the book," Rep said. "What's the title?"
"And Done to Others' Harm," Buchanan said, handing him a slim, hardbound volume with a muddy brown dust jacket. "It's a mystery/romance. And here's In Contemplation of Death, the movie that ripped it off."
Rep's belly dropped as he accepted the videocassette. His fond hope that Arundel and Finneman had summoned him here for some kind of harmless busywork, like marking up a form contract from a vanity publisher, evaporated. The Problem was apparently plagiarism.
"Saint Philomena Press," Rep commented placidly as he checked the copyright page. "Excellent house. First-rate reputation." He had always been intrigued at the notion of naming a publishing company after the fourth-century martyr who'd become the patron saint of dentists because her heroic faith had survived the brutal extraction of all her teeth by Diocletian's torturers.
"You know mysteries?" Buchanan asked.
"Not terribly well. But my wife, Melissa, reads about a mystery a week and shares her views very freely. She completing her Ph.D. at Reed College, where she works in the library and teaches a mini-term course in creative writing every year."
"I know, I've thought of taking it. Maybe she's one of the one thousand eight hundred thirteen people who read And Done to Others' Harm."
Rep refrained from chuckling at this comment, whose risibility he correctly surmised to be unintended. He instead gave alert and ostentatious attention to Buchanan, waiting for her to continue.
You assume that children of the rich will be good looking—that those favored by fortune will be favored also by nature, and if they aren't fortune will help nature along. Charlotte Buchanan belied this assumption. In her mid- to late twenties, she was neither homely nor fat, but she was big. Five-eight, anyway, with broad shoulders and not much in the way of taper below them. Her expensively coiffed, fine-spun hair and her lustrous, pearl gray jacket and skirt outfit seemed to emphasize bulk instead of suggesting elegance. Her face might have been pretty, but it seemed set in a permanently sour expression combining cynical resignation with self-pity.
"Others' Harm was published in nineteen ninety-seven," Buchanan said. "In Contemplation of Death was released in early ninety-nine."
"Who was your agent?" Rep asked.
"Julia Deltrediche, New York."
Rep had pulled a Mont Blanc from his upper right-hand vest pocket and was now industriously scribbling notes on a legal pad.
"Did she shop it to any paperback houses?"
"She claimed she did, but said there wasn't any interest because the hardcover sales were so low."
"Did she send it to any studios or film agents?"
"She told me she had a subcontractor named Bernie Mixler pushing it hard on the coast," Buchanan said. "Not hard enough, apparently."
"None, except the Press in Valley Grove, where Tavistock has a chemical plant. Not even P-W or Kirkus. That's how much effort Saint Philomena put into it."
"That does seem pretty toothless," Rep said without thinking. He noted with anxious relief that neither Buchanan nor Arundel seemed to have caught his allusion. "National distribution?"
"Yes. Bookstores from coast to coast returned copies."
Rep made a brisk, final notation on his pad and paused, leaning back in the mate's chair where Arundel had parked him. Arundel drummed the eraser-end of a pencil on the Moroccan leather frame of his desk blotter. Finneman kept a look of placid expectation on his weathered, age-mottled face. Rep gathered that he still had the floor.
"There are two issues right up top," he said in standard-issue deskside manner.
"Access and similarity, I know," Buchanan said impatiently. "We have to show that Point West Productions had access to my story, and that the movie is similar enough to the book to create a legitimate inference of direct borrowing."
She pulled a sheaf of photocopied pages from the thin attaché case balanced on her knees and flourished them briefly. Rep saw with dismay that they looked like caselaw headnotes from the West Digest. This meant that Buchanan had already consulted another lawyer who didn't like her case, which was an unpleasant thought; or that she was the type of client who did amateur legal research herself, which was a thought too horrible to contemplate.
"Right," Rep continued gamely. "Publication and general distribution probably give us a leg up on access, at least if the movie followed a normal development and production schedule. So let's talk about similarity."
Buchanan foraged once more in the attaché case, emerging this time with a black vinyl three-ring binder. Plastic-tabbed dividers studded the open side. Flicking the binder open to the third or fourth section, she tendered it to Rep, who laid it on the corner of Arundel's desk and with seeping despair began to read:
Similarities and Identicalities Between And Done to Others' Harm and In Contemplation of Death
Others' Harm Death
The climactic confrontation The climatic confrontation between the protagonist and the takes place on the top floor of an villain takes place on the upper office building, at night. floor of a large country house, at night.
A suspect is identified by DNA A suspect is identified by DNA analysis of ejaculate on a woman's analysis of ejaculate on a woman's slip. pantyhose.
A key clue is the misspelling of A key clue is the misspelling of "you're" as "your" in a ransom "you're" as "your" in a threatening note. letter.
The protagonist graduated from a The protagonist graduated from Seven Sisters school with a Ph.D. an Ivy League school with a in philology. Ph.D. in semiotics.
The protagonist smokes The protagonist smokes cigarettes—an unusual cigarettes—ditto. habit among contemporary women under 30 with advanced degrees.
The plot revolves around threatened The plot revolves around threatened exposure of fraud in a exposure of fraud in a government-subsidized research government-sponsored research program at a university on the program at a California foundation. West Coast.
The protagonist develops a romantic The protagonist develops a romantic relationship with one of relationship with one of the suspects. the suspects.
Rep stifled a sigh as he finished scanning the first page. Whoever wrote The Thomas Crown Affair had a better claim against Buchanan so far than Buchanan did against the producer of In Contemplation of Death. He turned the page and began running down parallel columns of what Buchanan took to be similar dialogue, mostly from the "if you know what's good for you you'll listen to reason" school of action-adventure writing.
Halfway down this second page, his pulse quickened. His heart began to race. He kept his face carefully frozen, but felt fire on the backs of his ears. He read:
Page 118: "Percy came out of Minute 53: Harry tumbles out the bathroom, still sodden and of bed and his hand lands on holding a wicked-looking quirt. something under the headboard. 'Honestly, Luv,' he said incredulously, He comes up holding a riding 'a riding crop?' crop. Harry: "The English vice?" 'Why not?' Ariane said languidly Glencora: "Well that'd figure, as she reached for the Silk Cut wouldn't it, luv?" pack on the bedside table. 'All my vices are English.'"
"Well," Rep managed, almost stammering, "this is quite helpful, but it's going to take some detailed study. Can you leave these materials with me?"
"That's why I brought them," Buchanan snapped. "I have to go to Tavistock's Fond du Lac, Wisconsin facility for the rest of this week, but I'll stop by Monday for an interim report. Happy hunting and take no prisoners."
"We never do," Finneman assured her complacently. "The best defense is a good offense."
The line was lame and shopworn, but it was better than anything Rep could've come up with just then.
Chapter Two"Identifying a perp from DNA in a semen stain on a woman's clothes," Melissa Seton Pennyworth murmured dubiously at seven-thirty that evening as she studied Buchanan's comparison columns. "Now where could anyone making a movie in the late nineties possibly have gotten that idea except by reading Charlotte Buchanan's story?"
"Even if they hadn't seen Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute," Rep sighed, "which came out before Ms. Buchanan was born and used the same basic gimmick long before anyone heard of Bill Clinton's concupiscence or Monica Lewinski's blue dress. When did you start saying things like 'perp,' by the way?"
"It's a word you're required to use when you talk about mysteries even though you'd never use it in real life," Melissa said. "Like 'sleuth.'"
"Scratch the DNA point," Rep concluded, returning to their main topic. "Do you think maybe she's onto something with cigarettes? In Contemplation of Death isn't a noir film from the forties, after all, and smoking is a lot rarer than it used to be."
"Rarer in the real world, yes," Melissa agreed. "But in the surreal universe of mystery fiction it's almost a cliché for lazy writers because having someone smoke is an easy characterization shortcut. I tell my students to come up with some other self-destructive behavior for their existentially reckless characters, like driving without a seatbelt or drinking whole milk."
"How about 'your' and 'you're'?"
"Afraid not," Melissa said. "Lawrence Sanders used the same clue as a throwaway in one of his McNally stories, and some writer I can't remember used it even before that in a mystery called Fielder's Choice or something."
"In other words, Ms. Buchanan is dangerously close to having nothing but plot similarity to rely on," Rep said. "And if I remember your lecture notes correctly there are only seven basic mystery plots anyway."
"Right," Melissa said. "Pride, Anger, Avarice, Lust, Envy, Sloth, and Gluttony. Every mystery plot is a variation on one of the deadly sins."
"Well, six of them, maybe. I mean, gluttony?"
"Don't forget Silence of the Lambs."
"So with a lot more than seven mysteries being published every year," Rep said, "a certain amount of plot overlap is mathematically inevitable."
"It looks like Charlotte Buchanan doesn't have much of a case," Melissa said.
"Thank God," Rep said fervently. Loosening his white-polka-dots-on-green bow tie, he shivered with relief. "Snappy little nine-page memo and I'm out of this thing. What a nightmare this could have been."
"Wait a minute," Melissa said. "Don't you want your client to have a case?"
"Good heavens no. If she had a case I might have to pursue it."
"Isn't that what you do?"
"Not if I can help it. Pursuing a claim involves consorting with litigators—who have a nasty habit of blaming the intellectual property lawyer involved whenever they lose a copyright case. Plus there's at least a fifty-fifty chance we'll draw a judge who'll make some kind of Joan Collins-type crack in one of his opinions."
"Ouch," Melissa said, wincing. "What was the gist of the ruling? Pay the lady, Random House, you knew she couldn't write when you signed the contract. Nasty. But maybe you'll just settle for lots of money."
"Most non-corporate plaintiffs have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a sensible settlement, and two weeks after they cash the check they start telling everyone they got shafted because their lawyer was a spineless crook who couldn't negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag. And winning wouldn't be much better, even if the judge behaves himself."
"I don't understand," Melissa said, as puzzlement replaced the mischievous glint that ordinarily brightened her green-flecked brown eyes.
"If we win," Rep said, "which we won't, but for the sake of argument let's pretend. Start over. If we win, Charlotte Buchanan will take the lawyers out to dinner and be very happy for about three days. Then she'll notice that after you take off the legal fees and court costs and expert witness fees, she doesn't really have all that much money to show for everything she's been through. And she'll realize that now she's burned her bridges, and no producer or publisher in the country is ever going to look at a manuscript with her name on it again, because she's officially bad news and they don't want to be sued for plagiarism. All of which isn't the worst part. The worst part is that, somewhere in her fevered imagination, it's all going to somehow be my fault."
"So are you just going to blow her claim off without analyzing it in detail?"
"Of course not," Rep said. "That would be unprofessional. I'm going to analyze her claim in excruciating and expensive detail. Or, rather, we are. Then I'm going to blow it off."
"Got it," Melissa said. "Okay, you start with the book. I'll start with the movie."
* * *
Even as he settled into the leather chair in the den and dutifully opened And Done to Others' Harm, Rep's right hand twitched toward his computer. The mere prospect sent a little electric thrill running through him. Boot up, then a couple of mouse clicks and few keystrokes and he'd be immersed once again in a breath-catching, pulse-quickening fantasy that Charlotte Buchanan's prose had no chance of matching.
More than fantasy, really. Communion with a numberless throng of fellow spirits sharing in the anonymous vastness of cyberspace Rep's rich sexual interest in grown men being spanked by women. (He always called it an "interest" when he thought about it, not "fetish" or "kink" or "specialty." "Interest" was a neutral, non-judgmental term that you could use just as well if the subject were, say, bass fishing or rugby.) It wasn't the sexual excitement per se so much as the knowledge that he wasn't alone; that all these others shared his perverse taste and thrilled to its exploration, just as he did; that he wasn't a freak.
Tonight, though, after enjoying a few delicious seconds of tantalizing temptation, Rep sternly willed the twitches to stop. He left the computer off. He turned his undivided attention to the book.
If Arundel, say, had known about Rep's exotic taste, he would have considered it about the only facet of Rep's personality that was remotely interesting. In one sense, he would have been right.
Rep had figured out sometime in third or fourth grade that he was never going to be tall or athletic. He'd topped out at five-seven. The only high school letter he'd earned still nestled in its clear plastic wrapper somewhere in his aunt's basement because it was in chess and the real jocks at Chesterton Public High School would have beaten him silly if he'd been insane enough to wear it. He had defaulted into the life of the mind, aiming for college as an irksome pit-stop on the way to law school.
The most useful course he'd taken in law school, by far, had been Antitrust. Not because he would ever practice in the area, but because he found his personal philosophy crystallized by a single casual comment from the professor who taught it. Monopolists didn't bother to maximize profits the way economists said they should, the tweedy gentleman had explained, because stratospheric earnings weren't what they really wanted: "The real reward of monopoly power isn't excess profits but a quiet life."
Excerpted from Screenscam by Michael Bowen Copyright © 2001 by Michael Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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