Bunnish laughed. “Your wife is very witty,” he said to Peter. “She’s almost as funny as E.C. was, back in college. You must enjoy being married to her a great deal. I recall how fond you were of E.C.’s little jokes.” He looked at E.C. “Are you still a funny man, Stuart?”
E.C. looked annoyed, “I’m hysterical,” he said, in a flat voice.
“Good,” said Bunnish. He turned to Kathy and said, “I don’t know if Peter has told you all the stories about old E.C, but he really played some amazing pranks.
Hilarious man, that’s our E.C. Stuart. Once, when our class team had won the city championship, he had a girlfriend of his call up Peter and pretend to be an AP reporter. She interviewed him for an hour before he caught on.”
Kathy laughed. “Peter is sometimes a bit slow,” she said.
“Oh, that was nothing. Normally I was the one E.C. liked to play tricks on. I didn’t go out much, you know. Deathly afraid of girls. But E.C. had a hundred girlfriends, all of them gorgeous. One time he took pity on me and offered to fix me up on a blind date. I accepted eagerly, and when the girl arrived on the corner where we were supposed to meet, she was wearing dark glasses and carrying a cane. Tapping. You know.”
Steve Delmario guffawed, tried to stifle his laughter, and nearly choked on his drink. “Sorry,” he wheezed, “sorry.”
Bunnish waved casually. “Oh, go ahead, laugh. It was funny. The girl wasn’t really blind, you know, she was a drama student who was rehearsing a part in a play. But it took me all night to find that out. I was such a fool. And that was only one joke. There were hundreds of others.”
E.C. looked somber. “That was a long time ago. We were kids. It’s all behind us now, Bruce.”
“Bruce?” Bunnish sounded surprised. “Why, Stuart, that’s the first time you’ve ever called me Bruce. You have changed. You were the one who started calling me Brucie. God, how I hated that name! Brucie, Brucie, Brucie, I loathed it. How many times did I ask you to call me Bruce? How many times? Why, I don’t recall. I do recall, though, that after three years you finally came up to me at one meeting and said that you’d thought it over, and now you agreed that I was right, that Brucie was not an appropriate name for a Class A chessplayer, a twenty-year old, an officer in ROTC. Your exact words. I remember the whole speech, E.C. It took me so by surprise that I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘Good, it’s about time!’ And then you grinned, and said that Brucie was out, that you’d never call me Brucie again. From now on, you said, you’d call me Bunny.”
Kathy laughed, and Delmario choked down an explosive outburst, but Peter only felt cold all over. Bunnish’s smile was genial enough, but his tone was pure iced venom as he recounted the incident. E.C. did not look amused either. Peter took a swallow of his beer, casting about for some ploy to get the conversation onto a different track. “Do any of you still play?” he heard himself blurt out.
They all looked at him. Delmario seemed almost befuddled. “Play?” he said. He blinked down at his empty glass.
“Help yourself to a refill,” Bunnish told him. “You know where it is.” He smiled at Peter as Delmario moved off to the bar. “You mean chess, of course.”
“Chess,” Peter said. “You remember chess. Odd little pastime played with black and white pieces and lots of two-faced clocks.” He looked around. “Don’t tell me we’ve all given it up?”
E.C. shrugged. “I’m too busy. I haven’t played a rated game since college.”
Delmario had returned, ice cubes clinking softly in a tumbler full of bourbon. “I played a little after college,” he said, “but not for the last five years.” He sat down heavily, and stared into the cold fireplace. “Those were my bad years. Wife left me, I lost a couple jobs. Bunny here was way ahead of me. Every goddamn idea I came up with, he had a patent on it already. Got so I was useless. That was when I started to drink.” He smiled, and took a sip. “Yeah,” he said. “Just then. And I stopped playing chess. It all comes out, you know, it all comes out over the board. I was losing, losing lots. To all these fish, god, I tell you, I couldn’t take it. Rating went down to Class B.” Delmario took another drink, and looked at Peter. “You need something to play good chess, you know what Im saying? A kind of… hell, I don’t know… a kind of arrogance. Self-confidence. It’s all wrapped up with ego, that kind of stuff, and I didn’t have it any more, whatever it was. I used to have it, but I lost it all. I had bad luck, and I looked around one day and it was gone, and my chess was gone with it. So I quit.” He lifted the tumbler to his lips, hesitated, and drained it all. Then he smiled for them. “Quit,” he repeated. “Gave it up. Chucked it away. Bailed out.” He chuckled, and stood up, and went off to the bar again.
“I play,” Bunnish said forcefully. “I’m a Master now.”
Delmario stopped in midstride, and fixed Bunnish with such a look of total loathing that it could have killed. Peter saw that Steve’s hand was shaking.
“I’m very happy for you, Bruce,” E.C. Stuart said. “Please do enjoy your Mastership, and your money, and Bunnishland.” He stood and straightened his vest, frowning. “Meanwhile, I’m going to be going.”
”Going?” said Bunnish.” Really, E.C., so soon? Must you?”
“Bunnish,” E.C. said, “you can spend the next four days playing your little ego games with Steve and Peter, if you like, but I’m afraid I am not amused. You always were a pimple-brain, and I have better things to do with my life than to sit here and watch you squeeze out ten-year-old pus. Am I making myself clear?”
“Oh, perfectly,” Bunnish said.
“Good,” said E.C. He looked at the others. “Kathy, it was nice meeting you. I’m sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances. Peter, Steve, if either of you comes to New York in the near future, I hope you’ll look me up. I’m in the book.
“E.C, don’t you…”Peter began, but he knew it was useless. Even in the old days, E.C. Stuart was headstrong. You could never talk him into or out of anything.
“Goodbye,” he said, interrupting Peter. He went briskly to the elevator, and they watched the wood-panelled doors close on him.
“He’ll be back,” Bunnish said after the elevator had gone.
“I don’t think so,” Peter replied.
Bunnish got up, smiling broadly. Deep dimples appeared in his large, round cheeks. “Oh, but he will, Norten. You see, it’s my turn to play the little jokes now, and E.C. will soon find that out.”
“What?” Delmario said.
“Don’t you fret about it, you’ll understand soon enough,” Bunnish said. “Meanwhile, please do excuse me. I have to see about dinner. You all must be ravenous. I’m making dinner myself, you know. I sent my servants away, so we could have a nice private reunion.” He looked at his watch, a heavy gold Swiss. “Let’s all meet in the dining room in, say, an hour. Everything should be ready by then. We can talk some more. About life. About chess.” He smiled, and left.
Kathy was smiling too. “Well,” she said to Peter after Bunnish had left the room, “this is all vastly more entertaining than I would have imagined. I feel as if I just walked into a Harold Pinter play.”
“Who’s that?” Delmario asked, resuming his seat.
Peter ignored him. “I don’t like any of this,” he said. “What the hell did Bunnish mean about playing a joke on us?”
He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. While Kathy went to fix herself another martini, they heard the elevator again, and turned expectantly toward the doors. E.C. stepped out frowning. “Where is he?” he said in a hard voice.
“He went to cook dinner,” Peter said. “What is it? He said something about a joke…”
“Those garage doors won’t open,” E.C. said. “I can’t get my car out. There’s no place to go without it. We must be fifty miles from the nearest civilization.”
“I’ll go down and ram out with my VW,” Delmario said helpfully. “Like in the movies.”
“Don’t be absurd,” E.C. said. “That door is stainless steel. There’s no way you’re going to batter it down.” He scowled and brushed back one end of his mustache. “Battering down Brucie, however, is a much more viable proposition. Where the hell is the kitchen?”
Peter sighed. “I wouldn’t if I were you, E.C.,” he said. “From the way he’s been acting, he’d just love a chance to clap you in jail. If you touch him, it’s assault, you know that.”