by X. Libris

Chapter 13: New Leaks at

Jesse Zebra could not believe it. In his entire warehouse of two-dozen titles (not to mention the 3,232,593,082 titles in the "cyberinventory" he kidded people actually existed), not a single copy of the new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Ureter Sleeping" by Justin Thyme, could be found.

This was not the way he wanted things to operate at, where books were supposed to be "bursting at the seams." Since he pretended he had "all the books in the frigging universe," and everyone KNEW he was pretending, a certain belief factor was built in: If you couldn't get the book you wanted at, it really wasn't worth reading.

Jesse looked out the window from of his remote Yukon office to see if any ducks might still be flying south. Too cold, he knew, too late. They've all gone, gone to warmer climes, gone the way of -- but this line of thinking would only lead to depression and low NASDAQ ratings, he knew.

The stock market had made Jesse a billionaire through insane superstitions that had transformed the Internet into a kind of I Ching for the '90s. Because of that, Jesse knew the financial community could be tilted off its axis - or ACSES, ha ha - as much by his own mood swings as by actual facts from the so-called "real" world.

Better to deal with the task at hand. He was, after all, "King of the Stripers," as Bidness Monthly called him in its recent cover story, though he, Jeff the Zebra Man, was not an empire builder or a powermongerer like those idiots he had left back on Wall Street. No, he was just a man, a seeker of destiny, a -

"Okay, Brother Stripester, the search is ON," interrupted his chief operations manager, that hipper-than-hip college drop-out, Yancy "Yahoo" Flochart. "If that damn Thyme book is anywhere on the Web, we'll find it."

"What's the strategy?" asked Jesse.

"Well, so far we've sent out the ducats and the cookies and the poppers and the noogies. We're using Octopus and Tenterhooks and Sludgeworks and Pinto Bean - "

"That's going a bit far," frowned Jesse.

"Okay, well, I could combine Garbanzo with stackers and whappers, then. Maybe throw in some ferties, no problem."

Jesse sighed. Ferties, for god's sake - did the younger generation have no respect at all? "Look, I don't want word to get out that we have no stock, so cut back on the dippers. Now what about land-based? The book has got to be somewhere, even in a 'real' bookstore, if they still exist."

"Right, we did check," said Yancy. "It looks like the only bookseller who bought the Thyme book in any quantity is Francisco's in Posterior, California. Sandy Francisco ordered 200 for an author appearance, which was huge for him especially since his credit has almost been cut off, but word is the publisher mis-shipped him 2000."

"No kidding," replied Jesse. "I'm surprised they even HAD 2000 - "

"Well, you remember Thyme's publisher, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins got bought right in the middle of publication by Verschleppen. Right away the Germans switched warehouses from New York to Bismarck, North Dakota, for some reason. So you expect some glitches along the way."

Ah, publishing, thought Jesse, not only the proverbial crap shoot when it came to bestselling books but a train wreck of misjudgments, a sewer of guesses, a volcano of accidents, a compost hea - .

"Hey, boss, remember: This ain't the ducks," said Yahoo gravely.

"Oh, I'm always missing the ducks," said Jesse sadly. He looked out the window again. How long ago it seemed! Four, even six whole months had passed since he had first been struck by the Internet's growth rate of 623,452 percent every hour. Why, a smart person with the right product could make a bundle exploiting the web's ability to connect anybody with anything, he had thought. His heart had raced as he thought of all those couch potatoes so addicted to TV who were now turning "interactive" on the Web, which meant they were reading and writing again! And so were their kids!

Even way back then, Jesse Zebra remembered, he had "striped" them all, as one cyberzine would say later. He had envisioned a new kind of Internet bookstore in which customers could "browse," but not really: All they would read was text supplied by other people. They could get ALL books on discount, but not really - inflated postage and handling would push the price right back up!

What a concept, thought Jesse! Millions of books and not one available to pick up and handle! The only question was, were Americans so entranced by the Web that they'd give up the fun of shopping at neighborhood bookstores to stay at home like a bunch of shut-ins? Early research revealed a resounding YES from a willingly shut-in America. But Jesse knew he should research the matter further.

"I don't blame you," said his old friend Yahoo. "Ducks might have made it. After all they were on the Web first, so to speak."

It had been the toughest decision of his life, Jesse remembered. He had been 12 a the time, suffused with a passion to change the world, and he meant really change it: Not only stop war and poverty and clean up dirty movies, but confront the real mistakes that nature had made. Take ducks, for example: Why did ducks have to fly thousands of miles every winter, their little tummies empty the whole way, just to get a safe meal?

The question had come to him as he was sitting in a duck blind with his manager from the Wall Street brokerage house of Salmonella Brothers, the "hot as a virus" firm in those days. The two men were supposed to be hunting, but even then, Jesse could no more kill an animal than he could let a human firm live. His specialty at the time was targeting vulnerable startups in the free-float puddle of liquid ratios that only he realized were faltering against the prime rib of standing-roast acquisitions.

But here in the duck blind, as Jesse looked up at the graceful V of ducks flying overhead, a wave of sadness overcame him. What kind of man could let innocent, hungry ducks fly thousands of miles without lifting a finger to help.

He was not a wealthy man, Jesse thought, but he was a caring man - nature’s friend, he liked to think, a member of the Gruyere Club all his life. Turning to his laptop in the duck blind that day to annihilate General Shmagic or VisiClack or something, it hit him: What the world needed was Quacken, A computer-programmed Kibble for Ducks.

What a breakthrough for the truly webbed among us, thought Jesse! He raced from the manager's duck blind to create the first demografeather focus groups in test duck blinds all over America. When the results came in, the numbers looked good: Quacken would make and distribute Basic Kibble, Duck Kibble Minis, Senior Duck Kibble, Tubby Duck Delite, Quacken Oats and Aller-Quacken (for ducks with allergies).

Yahoo had test-marketed other cyberproducts, of course - hotels, airplane hangars, ice rinks, Stealth bombers - but none had approached the potential of books and duck feed. Jesse knew he'd be a pioneer in either field, but which way to go? It wasn't until he realized the key to Internet success - interactive customers - that he sensed ducks wouldn't - or couldn't - email their preferences. "Ah well, f- it," he said to Yahoo. "Let's go with books."

So was born. The company had experienced more than its share of problems, of course. Hiring mid-executives away from Crawlmart, the "city-in-a-department-store" so loaded with items that customers had to crawl to the happy-happy welcomer, had resulted in a nasty lawsuit. Watching stock value rise by six million percent had been stress-producing. Now word was leaking out of that despite its "exploding bladder o' books" image, not a single copy of Justin Thyme's novel could be found.

The embarrassment was too much for The Striperman. "Make a reservation on the next plane to Posterior," he told Yahoo. "Let's go to Francisco's and get those books ourselves."

Chapter 14: Justine Thyme Arrives in Posterior - Or Does He?

Goldie Markson waited at the airline arrival lounge until the last passenger straggled off the flight originating in Sewee, Alabama. She tried to counteract a terrible sinking feeling by imagining what she would say to the dreaded author, Justin Thyme, if he ever appeared.

"Congratulations, Mr. Thyme," she would march right up to him and say. "Your book just won the Pulitzer Prize, you pig."

Would he remember Goldie after 22 years - two whole decades after The Episode, as she had come to think of it?

Not if he hadn't made the flight, she thought. Not if he's missing entirely. Holding one of the few available copies of Thyme's novel, "Ureter Sleeping," which she had brought along so he would recognize her as his escort, she peered desperately down the empty connecting tube toward the plane. No movement.

In all her years as a book publicist, Goldie had never missed connections as thoroughly or frustratingly as she had with Thyme.

Well, that wasn't true. She remembered waiting endlessly for Dr. Ricardo Medulla, the Hollywood neurologist who had written a medical memoir, "LIGHTS! CAMERA! ASPIRIN: Mapping the Stars' Migraines."

The book wasn't well received at first ("too brainy," wrote a wiseacre critic), but it shot to the top of bestseller lists when the Sensational Enquirer excerpted the middle chapter, "Celebrity Lobes and Where They Hurt Most." Suddenly Dr. Medulla was in demand.

Not that anyone knew it. Despite his claims that tule fog had stranded him in L.A., and despite assurances from his partner, Dr. Consuela Oblongata (who, patients said, had written half the book), Ricardo never got out of the Burbank Airport. Goldie met every flight from L.A. that day, finally getting on a plane to Burbank herself, where she found Medulla sitting stiffly in a departure lounge, and hauled him onto the first plane back to San Francisco.

"What is the matter with you?" she asked during takeoff. "I have a headache," said Medulla. "Don't tell Oblongata."

Episodes like that came to define the kind of professional Goldie was now known to be - somebody who inspired even the most truculent authors (or the most alcoholic authors or the most kleptomaniac authors or the most publicity-shy authors) out of their doldrums and on to their interviews and signings with a minimum of fuss and bother. She kept them laughing and made sure they were fed. She took them to secret nightclubs and to especially her beloved gyms, where they could play a little basketball (no bowling) all night long.

And they, in turn, learned to love Goldie. She remembered that fitness guru who taught homemakers how to be physically fit and make money at the same time. His book, "PUMPING TUPPERWARE," would have died if she hadn't shown him how to help TV interviewers with the tricky material in Chapter 3, Snapping on the Air-Tight Lids.

Of course that gynecologist who insisted women's menstrual discomfort was all in their head nearly got killed when he tried to promote his book, "HAPPY CRAMPS," to women's bookstores. Thank heaven he listened to Goldie to "leave this one to the chains - they'll take anything."

Oh, how could she have missed that damnable Justin Thyme! He had to be on that plane, Goldie thought furiously as she ducked under the dividing belt and marched down the exit ramp to see for herself. A flight attendant in the plane's littered kitchen looked up as Goldie peered in. "Aha. I bet you're looking for our favorite passenger," she said, gesturing to Thyme's picture on the back of "Ureter Sleeping." When Goldie nodded, the woman patted her sympathetically on the shoulder.

"Well. He drank too much, cursed too much, made a pass at everything that moved and got sick all over two of his seatmates. Other than that, he had an uneventful flight. If it hadn't been for his friend, we might have had a passenger riot on our hands."

"His friend?" asked Goldie. Nobody at Thyme's publisher, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins, had told her about a friend.

"Yes, this man just just saved the day - wrapped Mr. Thyme in a blanket and calmed him right down. An older man, very gruff, but efficient. He even arranged for a wheelchair in advance and strapped Mr. Thyme into it before anybody else deplaned. You know, I've been a fan of Justin Thyme for years, but along with every passenger on this plane, I never want to see or think about that horrible man again."

The wheelchair! thought Goldie. Of course! She had seen it trundling off first and pushed a bit maniacally, now that she thought about it by the skinny, scowling, wizened man behind it. No wonder she hadn't taken notice of the drooling, snoring figure lurching around inside the restraints. With his thinning hair and jowly cheeks, he seemed - well, too middle-aged for the tall, vigorous, literary presence that had been the Justin Thyme she knew 22 years ago.

The noise of thundering shoes compelled Goldie and the flight attendant to turn toward the door in unison. Standing there, breathing hard like racing horses, were Horatio Toast, the sales representative of Patrich Patriarch Sons, carrying a giant wreath of flowers; and Prim Reaper, manager of the You've Got Piles! superstore in Posterior, California. Rather than bring flowers for the new Pulitzer Prize-winner, Prim waved a very lethal-looking gun at the three wide-eyed, frozen-in-place people in front of her.