Ernie paced outside the convention center, nervously checking the time on his smart phone. There were still two hours until the doors would open. He pictured the Bookapalooza workers setting up tables, unpacking books, and dispensing bottles of water. The authors he imagined sipping cappuccino in some hidden lounge while they complimented each other on their latest successes. That was where he belonged, not out here on the street.
The straps from his backpack dug into his shoulders, but the pain was satisfying. Weighing down his bag were ten copies of his latest self-published novel, Genius Ignored, the one he hoped would be his break-through book. Semi-autobiographical, its 947 pages told the tale of a gifted writer doomed to collect nothing but rejection slips, despite the brilliance of his prose. The story ended tragically. Flattened by a bus on his way home from work, the protagonist never gets to see the acceptance letter waiting in his mailbox. Just thinking of it made Ernie tear up.
To avoid a similar fate, Ernie planned to slip behind a vacant signing table at publishing’s biggest bash, Bookapalooza, and spread his creation in front of him. Ten industry insiders would read his work and be overcome with emotion. They would pass the book on, talk it up at the office, mention it on their websites. Word would spread. Those who couldn’t get hold of a copy would ask for it at bookstores. His phone would chirp with offers. For once, he would reject the publishers–all except one. Feigning reluctance, he would sign a contract with a major company–for this one book. When Genius Ignored shot to the top of the best sellers lists, he wanted to have his options open.
Ernie stopped pacing. He was the only person waiting for admittance. If he hurried, he could do a recon of the building and get back before anyone else showed up. Adjusting his backpack, he trudged off.
It wasn’t until he had walked two sides of the block-long building that Ernie spotted a sort of VIP parking garage. Limos and taxis cruised inside and dropped their passengers at a bank of elevators that Ernie was sure would deliver them to the convention floor. He moved to the other side of the street so he could observe without being conspicuous. After a few minutes, he used the crosswalk, and ambled toward the VIP entrance.
When a limousine arrived, the guard left his post to summon an elevator. The driver jumped out and circled the vehicle to open the door for his passenger. By the time he returned, Ernie had duck-walked the length of the limo, and concealed himself behind a parked Mercedes. He pulled the fake Bookapalooza badge he had made, bearing his name and the name of his invented publisher, Breakout Books, from a jacket pocket and draped it around his neck. If anyone scanned the barcode, he would be caught. But, the badge looked authentic.
Ernie waited until several people were standing in front of the elevators. Then, as a ping announced the arrival of a car, he stepped out and boarded with the group. Wedged in the middle of the pack, he kept his eyes straight ahead. When the doors opened, Ernie strode confidently toward the exhibits.
The convention floor was every bit as busy as he had imagined. No one had the time or the interest to question his presence. He passed hundreds of booths, each bearing the name of a particular publisher. Ignoring free copies of books that wouldn’t be in the stores for months was torture. But he reminded himself to act like a jaded author, not an acquisitive fan.
At the end of an aisle, he saw the sign he was looking for–a black arrow underneath the word AUTOGRAPHING. He stopped in front of a large bulletin board and pretended to study the signing schedule, while he scoped out the area. Dozens of tables were backed by a curtained wall. Each had a cordoned lane leading to it, so potential autograph seekers would be forced to approach in single file. A second lane led back to the beginning, preventing people from cutting into adjacent lines.
Two guards walked the perimeter, and Ernie knew they would confront him if he approached the tables. He supposed that the authorized authors (that phrase made him chuckle) would enter from the rear, behind the curtains. While he was trying to figure out how he could find their entrance, the guards struck up a conversation with each other. To his delight, they turned their backs to consider something out of his line of sight.
Ernie chose a lane whose table was laden with stacks of books, indicating the workmen were done setting up. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled as quickly as he could, dreading discovery. Reaching the table, he lifted its cloth and crept underneath.
When his breathing slowed, Ernie took in his surroundings. From this angle, Bookpalooza didn’t look so glamorous. The undersides of the tables and chairs were worn from use, their metal legs showing flecks of rust. He removed his backpack, careful not to make noise, and slumped against it. There was nothing to do now but wait.
Ernie was imagining he was a guest on the Tonight Show, explaining his writing process to Jay Leno, when a corner of the tablecloth lifted. He braced himself, expecting to be dragged into the open by one of the guards. Instead, a reed-thin man crawled underneath, curled into a fetal position, and lay trembling.
Heart racing, Ernie wondered what to do. Should he try to creep away without being noticed? Did the man need medical assistance? He couldn’t read the stranger’s badge in the dim light, but the red border told him he was a fellow author. That decided it. He couldn’t desert a colleague.
Ernie cleared his throat and whispered, “Are you all right?”
The stranger reacted as if he had been jabbed with a cattle prod. His head shot up, striking the underside of the table with an alarmingly loud thunk. Ernie crawled toward him, signaling for quiet. The injured man rubbed his head with one hand while he bit the fingers of the other to ease the pain.
When Ernie reached his side, both men hissed, “What are you doing here?”
Ernie revealed his plan in hushed whispers.
“You mean you want to sign books?” the other asked.
“Great chance to meet your readers, or, in my case, acquire some,” Ernie said. “I haven’t hit it big, yet.
“Pray that you never do,” sighed the trembler, removing his hand from his skull to reveal an egg shaped lump. He stuck out the liberated hand. “I’m Roland Roberts, author of Werepires, the monstrosity littering this table.”
Ernie was so shocked, he took a moment to offer his own hand. “The trade magazines say that’s going to be the biggest book of the fall season. Aren’t you excited?”
Roland looked miserable. “I enjoyed writing it, developing the plot, polishing my prose…”
Those were on Ernie’s list of things he hated. Writing was drudgery that he put up with to earn recognition. How many hours had he sat by himself, staring at the computer screen, his head devoid of ideas? Only when he pictured himself done with a book, and out signing copies, did his spirits lift.
Roland went on. “When I saw that mountain of books, and imagined the gawking people, my anxiety got the best of me. I crumpled to the floor and hid under here.”
Ernie‘s temper flared. “Do you know how many writers would sell their soul to be you? I’m trying to get a measly 10 copies of my novel into the hands of people who might like it, and I’ll probably end up being thrown out or worse.”
Roland smiled for the first time. He removed his ID badge. Holding it on the palm of his left hand, he snaked his right hand over Ernie‘s head.
“What are you doing?” Ernie said as loudly as he dared. “No one will believe I’m you.”
“Did you recognize me?” Roland asked.
“Werepires has had all kinds of hype, but my picture hasn’t been posted anywhere. I don’t want people to know what I look like.”
“I haven’t even read your book,” Ernie argued. “What do I say about it?”
“The publicist will speak for you. You’ll be too busy signing.”
Ernie felt a surge of excitement. He slid his backpack to Roland, filling him in on the plot of Genius Ignored as he did. “You won’t have a publicist, and you’ll be lucky if anyone stops to talk,” he warned.
Roland clapped Ernie on the shoulder. “Sounds like a perfect day.” He strapped on the backpack and scurried off on his hands and knees.