by X. Libris

CHAPTER 1: A Secret at Francisco's

Santino Francisco unlocked the great double doors of Francisco's Bookstore and reached behind the front counter to switch on the lights, just as his mother had done every day that he could remember. Despite the call of the priesthood, his tour as a B-1 bomber pilot and his gifts as a pancreatic surgeon, Sandy felt he had come home to this place -- to these books -- to wage the last, best fight.

He walked past the magnificent maple shelves that had once displayed some of the greatest writers of his time. Here was Philip Wrath's novel of socio-comic misogyny, "Mutilating Margaret." How fondly Sandy recalled protofeminist scholar Dr. Nancy Fallop and her deliberate misspellings in the academic but inflammatory "Figurative or Cliteral." Still in print after all these years was the great Yoga Contrabanda's herbal memoir, "Stimulambula," with only three intelligible pages.

Each morning, Sandy ran his hand lovingly over the varnished exterior of these shelves - to check for dust, he would tell visitors - never admitting how deeply he felt about the old place. With its 50th anniversary only a week away, the store had become such a mainstay in the Bay Area town of Posterior that nobody could imagine life without it. Little did they know, Sandy thought bitterly, what his long-time bookkeeper, Rosa Santa, had been struggling to keep secret for months now - that the store was close to bankruptcy.

On the way to the back office, Sandy picked up a book that had fallen off the New Releases table and wiped it off with his sleeve. Naturally it would be YOU that got knocked to the floor, he said silently to the picture of Justin Thyme, the long-neglected Southern poet and short-story writer who had built a cult following among serious readers and booksellers. Turning the book over, he gazed with awe again at the title, "Ureter Sleeping," the author's long-awaited first novel.

It was true, Sandy conceded - maybe only a few people had been anxiously awaiting Thyme's expected masterpiece for a full decade, but at least at Francisco's, they weren't going to be disappointed. It didn't matter that Thyme's upcoming appearance would not bring as many customers into the store as, say, a visit by the more popular Parma Marmalade, whose latest mystery, "16,342 And Counting" (the first book was "One and Counting") had again captured a huge and devoted audience.

But Thyme - well, Thyme was for the ages ("not to mention parsley and sage," the author himself allegedly liked to joke, though no one had ever heard him say it). So what if he's been a hermit for 10 years? Sandy thought. The fact that his publisher was sending him to the Bay Area was akin to James Joyce visiting Shakespeare & Company, or Allen Ginsberg at City Lights.

Still, Sandy replaced the book with a lurch of despair. Unknown to Rosa, he had ordered a whopping 200 copies instead of his usually over-optimistic 60. This meant he had topped out his credit for the last time with Verschleppen, the German conglomerate that had just gobbled up Thyme's publisher.

And it meant that the chain store across Posterior's town square, You've Got Piles! with its stacks and stacks of Parma Marmalade books everywhere, had won.

Chapter 2: Subterfuge at You've Got Piles!

PRIM REAPER PEEKED past the window display of Our Clerks' Proud Favorites in the hope of catching a glimpse of Sandy Francisco. From her post as store manager at the huge chain bookstore, You've Got Piles! with its stacks and stacks of books everywhere, Prim had seen the lights of Francisco's Bookstore blink on at 10 a.m. . But she had turned away to answer some fool question from a customer just at the moment Sandy walked by the windows toward his office in the back.

Rats. It wasn't that Prim was, well, stalking him or anything; it was just that keeping an eye on the competition, especially one so hung out to dry as poor Sandy, was considered - well, not her job but a good idea. After all, once Francisco's, a much-loved independent bookstore in the Bay Area town of Posterior, Calif., was gone, You've Got Piles! Store #442 would enter a profit mode. And too, Prim admitted to a certain personal interest in the fact that Sandy sure looked - well, needful.

A movement at Francisco's made Prim pretend to rearrange the display of Our Clerks' Proud Favorites in the window, and for a moment, she actually looked at the books. Heavens, what was the New York office sending #442 these days? "The Big Book of Retaining Walls." "Dogs Who Bark Too Much." "Lips of Steel" for collagen-dependent women.

It was hard to believe publishers had budgets for books like these that allowed them to buy into a program like Our Clerks' Proud Favorites at You' ve Got Piles! Thank heaven nobody in the store read them, she thought, or we d never "recommend" them.

Prim allowed herself this small bit of irreverence and wondered again how much money New York made from store-placement programs. The independents had actually sued to get the same programs into their own stores, but of course the money somebody like Sandy could make from one window was negligible compared to the money You've Got Piles! made from 500 windows.

And of course, Sandy was too snooty to ever use the program, anyway - he wanted to choose his own window display, he told a reporter once, and look at what he's done, Prim thought as she saw the new Francisco's window display. My god, he's loaded the window with that awful "Ureter Sleeping" by Justin Thyme!

This was not only one of the dumbest, dullest books on the planet, Prim thought, but apparently, once you deciphered the references, absolutely pornographic. Why, she wouldn't have a copy of the thing in her store! Not that New York would allow it anyway.

Besides, Thyme's new publisher, the German conglomerate Verschleppen, which had just bought Thyme's old house, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews & Male Cousins, would probably dump the old goat before the season was out.

Ah, there, she thought, finding Sandy in her sights again He's moving toward that ridiculous attempt at a café of his. Time to get the gun.

Chapter 3: Facedown at Verschleppen

As soon as Maggie (Marguerita) Editoria stepped into the plush office of the men her colleagues irreverently called The Two Stuffies (perhaps because both were notorious stuffed shirts, or because after too many expense-account dinners, they looked like matching stuffed tomatoes), she knew she was in trouble. Sitting at their massive partners' desks, the president and vice-president of the German conglomerate, Verschleppen US, glowered with spreadsheet disdain.

"Sit down, Maggie," said Simon Harper, not unkindly. She found her way to the white leather couch a football field away from the partners desks. "What can we offer you? Coffee, tea?" "Nothing, thank you," she answered loudly toward the distant figures, smiling without, she hoped, seeming to ingratiate. "A soda," ventured Warner Villard, turning the question into a statement while looking down at his papers. Warner was one of those highly placed executives who never looked you in the eye. He was masterful at watching mannerisms and expressions while you talked, but as soon as you turned to look at him, wham! Off those eyeballs would go a'bounding around the room as if to seek a better place to land than you.

Wagers had been made that Villard was either too shy or two powerful to make eye contact. But at Maggie's publishing company, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews & Male Cousins, which had just been acquired by Verschleppen, all anyone really knew was that you crossed The Two Stuffies at your peril.

Anyway, Maggie knew the drill. The more she was pressed with offers of refreshment, the greater her duty to refuse. Allowing a full glass or cup to be placed before her meant that she might take up more of their time pouring the liquids down her gullet than concluding the business they had summoned her here to discuss. "No," she said to the offer of soda, "but thank you anyway." Thank you for the attempt to intimidate.

Simon actually, loudly harrumphed to get himself started. God, these guys were stuffy. "Two things, Maggie The $1.2 million budget for Parma Marmalade has been given an upgrade because of the bump-up of another 100,000 copies in the new American Frontload program of the You've Got Piles! bookstore chain. We pay $100,000 for the window display, so essentially these books are on consignment. It means you get about $25,000 more for Parma's tour."

Such gobbledygook, she thought. We go into debt on this title to get a week in the Piles! windows when it's just - well, window dressing. Parma's readers would find her if we buried the book under the Hudson River.

Besides, this move, she knew, was just to let TheTwo Stuffies stick it to other heads of houses who may be walking by Piles' flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Unlike other foreign publishers whose American executives seemed to read and like books, these two stood out; they were competitive about everything. It was important to them that when other publishers looked in the Piles! window, they would know Verschleppen had a biggie. It was another consequence of the merger, she thought Another pissing contest that got in the way of publishing books -- something Patrick Patriarch III, grandson of the founder, would never have allowed.

"That sounds workable," said Maggie, thinking Parma will eat it all up in bon-bons anyway. All authors were divas to Maggie, except one. "I'm curious, though Why do they call it 'American Frontload' - some kind of patriotic bid?"

"Well, Piles! just opened 16 new superstores in Belgium, Luxemborg and New Armenia - I mean, 16 stores in EACH country, isn't that something? - so they want to do some Differentiate Branding. And yes, I guess you'd call Frontload a patriotic program at home - part of the proceeds go to their in-store literacy programs, after all."

"Oh, yes," said Maggie, her dread fulfilled. "That's where the functionally illiterate get to buy encyclopedias at the special 'I Can't Read!' discount."

"Right. The idea is to take the stigma out of illiteracy and let the natural fluctuations of the marketplace - "

" - make the poor poorer," said Maggie before she could stop herself. A billowing silence pressurized the room as the two men turned pouty. "Hey, Maggie," said Warner flatly. "We are taking considerable time and resources to support the internal campaign at Piles! When they want to launch a good cause like 'Making a Profit Off the Nonreader,' the least you could do is get on the bandwagon."

"Oh, I'm on it," she said with conviction. "It's the kind of program that's making Verschleppen what it is today." Thank god libraries were still open, she thought, though just barely.

NEXT: Maggie Pulls a Fast One