Screenscam: A Rep & Melissa Pennyworth Mystery #1

Screenscam: A Rep & Melissa Pennyworth Mystery #1

Rep Pennyworth faces the client from hell: Charlotte Buchanan contends her 1997 novel is the basis for the 1999 film, Contemplation of Death. She wants to sue. Rep digs in, ...

About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen, a trial lawyer practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the author of numerous mysteries and non-fiction works. He graduated ...

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Chapter 1

On 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.”

“Reviews?”

“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

The climactic confrontation between the protagonist and the villain takes place on the upper floor of a large country house, at night.

A suspect is identified by DNA analysis of ejaculate on a woman’s slip.

A key clue is the misspelling of “you’re” as “your” in a ransom note.

The protagonist graduated from a Seven Sisters school with a Ph.D. in philology.

The protagonist smokes cigarettes—an unusual habit among contemporary women under 30 with advanced degrees.

The plot revolves around threatened exposure of fraud in a government-subsidized research program at a university on the West Coast.

The protagonist develops a romantic relationship with one of the suspects.

Death

The climactic confrontation takes place on the top floor of an office building, at night.

A suspect is identified by DNA analysis of ejaculate on a woman’s pantyhose.

A key clue is the misspelling of “you’re” as “your” in a threatening letter.

The protagonist graduated from an Ivy League school with a Ph.D. in semiotics.

The protagonist smokes cigarettes—ditto.

The plot revolves around threatened exposure of fraud in a government-sponsored research program at a California foundation.

The protagonist develops a romantic relationship with one of 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 the bathroom, still sodden and holding a wicked-looking quirt. ‘Honestly, Luv,’ he said incredulously, ‘a riding crop?’

‘Why not?’ Ariane said languidly as she reached for the Silk Cut pack on the bedside table. ‘All my vices are English.’”

Minute 53: Harry tumbles out of bed and his hand lands on some- thing under the headboard. He comes up holding a riding crop. Harry: “The English vice?”

Glencora: “Well that’d figure, wouldn’t it, luv?”

“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.

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