Delmario’s hand had begun to tremble as he listened. His face looked dead. “God damn you,” he said. “God damn you.”
“Don’t let him get to you, Steve,” E.C. put in. “He’s just making this up to see us squirm. It’s all too absurd for words.”
“But it’s true,” Delmario wailed, looking from E.C. to Bunnish and then, helplessly, at Peter. Behind the thick lenses his eyes seemed wild. “Peter, what he said—all my ideas—he was always ahead of me, he, he, I told you, he—”
“Yes,” Peter said firmly, “and you told Bruce too, when we were talking earlier. Now he’s just using your fears against you.”
Delmario opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“Have another drink,” Bunnish suggested.
Delmario stared at Bunnish as if he were about to leap up and strangle him. Peter tensed himself to intervene. But then, instead, Delmario reached out for a half-empty wine bottle, and filled his glass sloppily.
“This is contemptible, Bruce,” E.C. said.
Bunnish turned to face him. “Delmario’s ruin was easy and dramatic,” he said. “You were more difficult, Stuart. He had nothing to live for but his work, you see, and when I took that away from him, he just collapsed. I only had to anticipate him a half-dozen times before all of his belief in himself was gone, and he did the rest himself. But you, E.G., you had more resources.”
“Go on with the fairy tale, Bunnish,” E.C. said in a put-upon tone.
“Delmario’s ideas had made me rich,” Bunnish said. “I used the money against you. Your fall was less satisfying and less resounding than Delmario’s. He went from the heights to the pits. You were only a moderate success to begin with, and I had to settle for turning you into a moderate failure. But I managed. I pulled strings behind the scenes to lose you a number of large accounts. When you were with Foote, Cone I made sure another agency hired away a copywriter named Allerd, just before he came up with a campaign that would have rebounded to your credit. And remember when you left that position to take a better-paying slot at a brand new agency? Remember how quickly that agency folded, leaving you without an income? That was me. I’ve given your career twenty or thirty little shoves like that. Haven’t you ever wondered at how infallibly wrong most of your professional moves have been, Stuart? At your bad luck?”
“No,” said E.C. “I’m doing well enough, thank you.”
Bunnish smiled. “I played one other little joke on you, too. You can thank me for that case of herpes you picked up last year. The lady who gave it to you was well paid. I had to search for her for a good number of years until I found the right combination—an out-of-work actress who was young and gorgeous and precisely your type, yet sufficiently desperate to do just about anything, and gifted with an incurable venereal disease as well. How did you like her, Stuart? It’s your fault, you know. I just put her in your path, you did the rest yourself. And I thought it was so fitting, after my blind date and all.”
E.C.’s expression did not change. “If you think this is going to break me down or make me believe you, you’re way off base. All this proves is that you’ve had me investigated, and managed to dig up some dirt on my life.”
“Oh,” said Bunnish. “Always so skeptical, Stuart. Scared that if you believe, you’ll wind up looking foolish. Tsk.” He turned toward Peter. “And you, Norten. You. Our fearless leader. You were the most difficult of all.”
Peter met Bunnish’s eyes and said nothing.
“I read your novel, you know,” Bunnish said casually.
“I’ve never published a novel.”
“Oh, but you have! In the original timeline, that is. Quite a success too. The critics loved it, and it even appeared briefly on the bottom of the Times bestseller list.”
Peter was not amused. “This is so obvious and pathetic,” he said.
“It was called Beasts in a Cage, I believe,” Bunnish said.
Peter had been sitting and listening with contempt, humoring a sick, sad man. Now, suddenly, he sat upright as if slapped.
He heard Kathy suck in her breath. “My god,” she said.
E.C. seemed puzzled. “Peter? What is it? You look…”
“No one knows about that book,” Peter said. “How the hell did you find out? My old agent, you must have gotten the title from him. Yes. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“No,” said Bunnish, smiling complacently.
“Peter, what is it?” said E.C. “Why are you so upset?”
Peter looked at him. “My book,” he said. “I… Beasts in a Cage was…”
“There was such a book?”
“Yes,” Peter said. He swallowed nervously, feeling confused and angry. “Yes, there was. I… after college. My first novel.” He gave a nervous laugh. “I thought it would be the first. I had… had a lot of hopes. It was ambitious. A serious book, but I thought it had commercial possibilities as well. The circus. It was about the circus, you know how I was always fascinated by the circus. A metaphor for life, I thought, a kind of life, but very colorful too, and dying, a dying institution. I thought I could write the great circus novel. After college, I travelled with Ringling Brothers’ Blue Show for a year, doing research. I was a butcher, I… that’s what they call the vendors in the stands, you see. A year of research, and I took two years to write the novel. The central character was a boy who worked with the big cats. I finally finished it and sent it off to my agent, and less than three weeks after I’d gotten it into the mail, I, I…”He couldn’t finish.
But E.C. understood. He frowned. “That circus bestseller? What was the title?”
“Blue Show,” Peter said, the words bitter in his mouth. “By Donald Hastings Sullivan, some old hack who’d written fifty gothics and a dozen formula westerns, all under pen names. Such a book, from such a writer. No one could believe it. E.C., I couldn’t believe it. It was my book, under a different title. Oh, it wasn’t word-for-word. Beasts in a Cage was a lot better written. But the story, the background, the incidents, even a few of the character names… it was frightening. My agent never marketed my book. He said it was too much like Blue Show to be publishable, that no one would touch it. And even if I did get it published, he warned me, I would be labelled derivative at best, and a plagiarist at worst. It looked like a ripoff, he said. Three years of my life, and he called it a ripoff. We had words. He fired me, and I couldn’t get another agent to take me on. I never wrote another book. The first one had taken too much out of me.” Peter turned to Bunnish. “I destroyed my manuscript, burned every copy. No one knew, about that book except my agent, me, and Kathy. How did you find out?”
“I told you,” said Bunnish. “I read it.”
“You damned liar!” Peter said. He scooped up a glass in a white rage, and flung it down the table at Bunnish’s smiling face, wanting to obliterate that complacent grin, to see it dissolve into blood and ruin. But Bunnish ducked and the glass shattered against a wall.
“Easy, Peter,” E.C. said. Delmario was blinking in owlish stupidity, lost in an alcoholic haze. Kathy was gripping the edge of the table. Her knuckles had gone white.
“Methinks our captain doth protest too much,” Bunnish said, his dimples showing. “You know I’m telling the truth, Norten. I read your novel. I can recite the whole plot to prove it.” He shrugged. “In fact, I did recite the whole plot. To Donald Hastings Sullivan, who wrote Blue Show while in my employ. I would have done it myself, but I had no aptitude for writing. Sully was glad for the chance. He got a handsome flat fee and we split the royalties, which were considerable.
“You son of a bitch,” Peter said, but he said it without force. He felt his rage ebbing away, leaving behind it only a terrible sickly feeling, the certainty of defeat. He felt cheated and helpless and, all of a sudden, he realized that he believed Bunnish, believed every word of his preposterous story. “It’s true, isn’t it?” he said. “It is really true. You did it to me. You. You stole my words, my dreams, all of it.”
Bunnish said nothing.
“And the rest of it,” Peter said, “the other failures, those were all you too, weren’t they? After Blue Show, when I went into journalism… that big story that evaporated on me, all my sources suddenly denying everything or vanishing, so it looked like I’d made it all up. The assignments that evaporated, all those lawsuits, plagiarism, invasion of privacy, libel, every time I turned around I was being sued. Two years, and they just about ran me out of the profession. But it wasn’t bad luck, was it? It was you. You stole my life.”