by X. Libris

Chapter 15: Hostages or Customers? It's Hard to Tell at You've Got Piles

Prim Reaper could barely suppress her impatience as she surveyed the three (decidedly uncowering) people before her at the end of the onramp just inside an otherwise empty airplane.

Really, she thought: Here I ran thundering down this ramp and leapt breathlessly onto the plane, which should have scared them right there. Then I hauled out this loaded and I must say impressive handgun to scare them all to death.

And how did they react? Did they put their hands up and beg for mercy? Oh, no. Without a second's hesitation the three of them demanded in unison, "How'd you get that gun past airport security?"

Had the occasion been different, she might have considered writing this up in her "Tatooing the Masses" marketing report for the home office of the chain bookstore where she worked. As manager of the Posterior, California branch of You've Got Piles!, Prim was keenly sensitive to the effects of the "broadcast tatoo" model so far explored by that upstart book supplier on the Internet,

Here was a company that spent millions of dollars tatooing the brains of American book consumers with its ghastly "exploding bladder o' books" image when in fact its warehouse had maybe two dozen books and its "webhouse" of 3 million didn't exist. Then, too, despite its huge deficits ("just a billion away from the black," its self-satisfied founder liked to chortle), American investors kept shoveling money at the rising stock of as though (and they were right about this) there were no tomorrow.

That was tatooing for you: Needle 'em enough with the neural net! Ink up instantiation! Stimulate recursion through chromosomal triggering and voila, you've tatooed your market! People "wore" their tattoos with such pride that whenever the thought of a book occurred, they had to buy from or go to the bathroom instead.

And here in this deserted airplane, the same phenomenom was taking place, Prim knew. Thanks to airline "instantation circuitry" tatooing, everybody who stepped into an airport stopped worrying about the danger of flying and switched to the danger of hijacking instead. Even now, these three people, whom she could plug through their gullets with no more than a squeeze of the trigger, wanted to know how she got the gun past airport security.

"I'm surprised you didn't know this, Hoary" - she inclined her head toward Horatio Toast, the publishing sales representative who stood there glumly with a huge bouquet of flowers in his hands - "but there's a new book that tells you how to bypass security systems, especially at airports."

"A new book?" asked Horatio, again diverted from the danger at hand (after all, books were his life, as he liked to say - at least whatever life he had left).

"Yes. We featured it during Violence Week at You've Got Piles!, didn't you see it? It's called "The Sterner Diaries" by Bob Molotov, and it was a big hit. It's got chapters like "When to Take a Fatwa Seriously" and "Changing Your License Plate Before You Bomb," stuff like that.

"I can't believe this," said Goldie Markson, author escort extraordinaire. "You devoted a whole week to books on violence?"

"Absolutely," Prim said primly. "Americans just can't get enough of violence, surely you know that. We had this great front window display of titles from Wrongful Death Press -- "

"Oh, I remember that one," said the flight attendant who had found herself a bystander in the unfolding drama. "You had that suicide fanatic, Dr. Jack Killagain, appear with one of his patients as a window display. There was a huge crowd, so I didn't see - "

"Well, it was quite a promotion for Violence Week," Prim announced. "Every day, Dr. Jack offed one of his 'clients' at lunch hour and then read from his concluding chapter, 'The Plastic Bag As a Last Resort.' It was very moving, and the book sold at quite a good clip."

"I can't believe we're standing here talking like this," said Horatio. "Where is Justin Thyme? He was supposed to be on this very flight and he's just won a Pulitzer Prize and I've got these flowers for him and - "

"Hoary, I think Justin's been kidnapped!" said Goldie. "Some guy apparently drugged him and strapped him into a wheelchair and - "

"What? He was what?" sputtered Horatio. "You mean somebody's waiting in a van outside or something?"

"Frankly, it didn't look like a professional thing," said the flight attendant. "This elderly man at the back of the plane kept watching Mr. Thyme during the flight and leaped up to say he would 'take over' when Mr. Thyme had one of his, ah, episodes."

"Episodes?" said Horatio, Prim and Goldie together.

"I guess you could call it a drunken fit, but as we approached San Francisco, he seemed a bit catatonic, actually. Anyway, this man got Mr. Thyme in a blanket and somehow subdued, and that was it. He grabbed a wheelchair we had waiting for somebody else and took off."

"Well, why are we standing here?" Prim said. "Come on! He can't get far in a stolen wheelchair," and the three who had come to meet Justin Thyme turned and raced up the ramp.

"Tell me, Prim," Goldie said as they ran side by side, "how DID you get the gun past security?"

"Well, I wouldn't say except the book is so detailed. Here: take a look."

"Why, it's almost all plastic," Goldie said, handing the gun to Horatio, who, horrified, tried to hide it in his pocket and examine it at the same time.

"I can break it down into parts in 50 seconds," Prim said proudly. "A cosmetics bag and office-supply valise come with it, you see. The parts look as innocuous as lipstick tubes, breath spray, brush handles, nail clippers, staplers, rulers, that sort of thing. The larger pieces are put together from clips on my handbag. The revolver part is made to look like a modern-age birth control dispenser. It's really neat."

"But what about the bullets?" began Horatio. "Don't they have to be met - "

"Rubber," said Goldie. "Don't they look like big erasers? They'll stop people in their tracks, no question."

"Well, that's humane of you, Prim, I must say," said Horatio admiringly.

"Of course two bullets are lethal."

Just then, as they flew past the glass doors outside the Arrivals entrance, a wheelchair disappeared into the back end of a hired ambulance. "Hey!" Horatio yelled as he hightailed toward the driver, who was just pulling away. The elderly man, busy talking to the paramedic in the back, didn't notice the ambulance slowing down.

Goldie flagged a cab as Horatio ran ahead, shouting to the driver: "We're family and we're going to follow you! You're going to Posterior with Dad, right?"

"Right," said the driver. "Some bookstore called Francisco's. You know the address by any chance?"

Chapter 16: REMAINDERS OF THE DAY: Showdown at Francisco's

Sandy Francisco could not believe his eyes. Standing in the Receiving Department (better known as The Supply Closet in the Back of the Store), he surveyed the deluge of brown cartons stacked up on every counter, bookshelf and piece of floor space from here to the front of Francisco's, the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Posterior, California.

All of the boxes had been stamped - rather severely, he thought - with the name of the German publisher VERSCHLEPPEN and the title of the books inside, URETER SLEEPING.

This long-awaited first novel by the brilliant Southern writer, Justin Thyme, had been ordered in an unprecedented quantity (200 copies) in preparation for the author's upcoming appearance - "extremely rare and hugely anticipated," Sandy had written in the store's insider newsletter, "Backing into Posterior."

Given Thyme's small cult following and Francisco's rocky credit rating, Sandy should have ordered about 60, but he hadn't been able to help himself: Thyme, he believed, was America's next William Falklands, the great Southern writer of the 1930s who had traveled even farther South to his ancestral island home. There he had established the Self-Reflective School of Writerly Fiction with his first novel, "As I Lay Typing."

Sandy's parents, who had founded Francisco's about the same time, joined a handful of other independent booksellers and encouraged Falklands to follow his unorthodox but (they felt) visionary bent. This he did, writing the first literary diet book of the century, "The Poundcake and the Fury," a flop then but a classic today.

Now that Justin Thyme had only hours ago won the Pulitzer Prize for "Ureter Sleeping," Sandy felt the thrill of his parents' legacy passed down to him: In all his years as a B-1 bomber pilot, Jesuit priest and pancreatic surgeon, Sandy believed the launching of a gifted artist like Justin Thyme was going to be the most meaningful event of his life.

And yet the store was sinking under the deluge of all these boxes from Verschleppen. "What happened?" he said to his wife, receiving clerk, events co-ordinator, co-op administrator, returns director, children's book buyer and outreach liaison, Victoria Vallejo, whose head was just visible above the piled-up cartons stacked all around her.

"Well, at first I thought Verschleppen made a mistake and sent you 2000 instead of 200," she said, opening case after case without making a dent in the mountains of boxes all around. "But then they just kept coming and coming. What we've got here is way more than 2000 . . . "

"What about Stingy Pie?" Sandy asked. For several decades now, Singer P. "Stingy Pie" Brown had been the cheerfully embattled Customer Service representative for Thyme's publisher, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins. Now that the Patriarch firm had been acquired by Verschleppen, Stingy Pie - so named for his strict rules on returns (though inside he was sweet as pie, they all knew) - was the only person who could straighten out this mess.

"I don't know," said Vicky. "Stingy sounded funny. Patriarch's backlist was just folded into the Verschleppen warehouse, you know, so Stingy says mistakes are going to happen with the new books, and we just have to accept it."

"Accept it?" Sandy asked. "Of course we accept it. Now we need help FIXING it. Stingy knows that, for heaven's sake - usually we have the opposite problem."

He remembered the time the great mountain-climbing author, Garcia Gabriel Vasquez Luis Cisneros Castillo Hijuelos Alvarez Fuentes Paz was scheduled to make his first appearance at Francisco's to sign copies of the much-anticipated trekking novel, "One Hundred Years of Altitude," but there were no books in the store.

Only when Stingy Pie air-freighted the books direct from the bindery, and Sandy's dad raced down to the airport in the middle of the night to pick them up, was Garcia Gabriel Vasquez Luis Cisneros Castillo Hijuelos Alvarez Fuentes Paz's appearance a success.

"Stingy says according to the new Verschleppen policy, there's not much he can do," said Vicky. "We can return the unsold books, of course, but we have to pay the freight."

"What?" exclaimed Sandy. "It's THEIR mistake and we have to pay the postage? That's ridiculous. How many extra boxes do you think we have?"

"Well, Stingy thinks somebody sneezed into her cellular phone just when the 'Schlep Satellite flew by, sending the facsimile neural bonafides into the laser-fork techno-tubular peptides and wham, we got the WHOLE printing - something like 8,000 copies instead of 200."

"What? Eight thousand? We can't sell 8000 books! We can't sell 800 books! I don't even know if we can sell 80 books! We've got to get them out of here! Nobody can fit in the store! What about Justin Thyme? Is he on his way?"

"I guess so. Rosa answered the phone when the author escort called who met his plane - you know, Goldie? She apparently was a bit hysterical for some reason. She told Rosa, and here, I wrote it down: 'We took Prim's gun away, and Justin should be conscious when the ambulance arrives.' " Prim Reaper was the manager of the You've Got Piles! chain store that had located in Posterior just a block from Francisco's, nearly putting Sandy's store out of business.

"Gun? Ambulance? My god!" Sandy said. "What is that awful Prim Reaper doing at the airport with a gun! She should be filling up the window of You've Got Piles! with Thyme's book pretty soo . . . " he stared at Vicky as the thought dribbled out.

"Yes, she should, shouldn't she?" Vicky said with a broad smile. "But how can she if WE have all the books? Take a look at their window," she added, gesturing at the You've Got Piles! store across the square. "The best they can do is display those awful Classed-Up Classics the chain thinks are so spiffy."

"Oh, my god, those idiots," Sandy murmured, peering past his own window's display of Justin Thyme's books to read the titles in Prim's front window. "Look at that - they're trying to 'update' Porcina Hamingway with - what is it called? - good heavens, 'For Whom the Microwave Tolls.' Now that is just insulting."

"No more than turning Hamingway's best novel into a travel book," said Vicky. "I can't believe anybody's going to fall for 'The Sun Also Rises (Except in Certain Parts of Norway),' though who knows what customers want in the books they read these days?"

"It's not what they want that counts," Sandy said vehemently. "It's what we can recommend that they will love. It's what will raise the whole field of American letters by another notch. It's what Justin Thyme has brought to to the literary table. It's what I feel we owe posterity. It's what - "

"I know, Honey," Vicky said with affection. No one other than Cody Kepler, book review editor of the San Francisco Monochrome, had sustained such idealism in the face of corporate cynicism. It was always beautiful to hear, she supposed, but it didn't pay any bills. "Listen, Sandy, guess who else is on the way to the store?" she said.

"Hundreds of customers, I hope. But you mean somebody else we know from the industry? Who?" asked Sandy.

"Why, just Prim's top boss, the head of You've Got Piles!, because not a single one of his chain stores has a copy of Justin Thyme's book, and we have ALL of them. And the head of, because even his massive online operation hasn't got any Justin Thyme books, and we have ALL of them. AND those two stuffy guys who head Verschleppen U.S. because - well, I'm not sure why. I do know the three top executives at Patriarch are on the same plane from New York, though, so something big is brewing."

"Really? I'm astonished. How do you know?"

"Stingy Pie. Verschleppen may be forcing him to favor the chains, but he's on the independents' side. He said he heard that Patrick Patriarch III is bringing his marketing director, Maggie Editoria, and Thyme's editor, Perk Maxwell, out here to convince Thyme to bolt with them because they're planning to leave Verschleppen to set up a new publishing house."

"Holy cow!" exclaimed Sandy. "That's a great idea, but Verschleppen will never let that happen! They have too much power! Especially in this case, when I - I . . . " he looked around the store to see everyone on the staff had slipped into the Receiving Department - as much as the mops, books, returns and mountains of boxes would allow, of course, and was smiling broadly at him, each person's hands resting lovingly on the many cartons of "Ureter Sleeping."

"Why, goodness, it seems WE'VE got the power this time, don't we?" Sandy asked rhetorically. His staff nodded happily. "We've got the power since we've got the books." He threw in a little rhythm at the last few words.

"We've got the power 'cause we've got the books," Rosa chimed in, the others joining her. "We've got the power 'cause we've got the books! We've got the power" - Sandy shouted above the chanting, " CAUSE WE'RE INDEPENDENT! AND FRIENDS, DO WE HAVE THE BOOKS!"

Next: Confrontation on the Plane