Paul Fowler hunkered down over his coffee at the kitchen table. Darlene had left the news running in the other room, but he did his best to tune it out. His new book had been out a week. So had Vincent McCarthy’s — the only man around who could give him a challenge for the bestseller slot. Oh, sure, there were the historic top sellers, the Clancys, the Kings, the Christies. Those would always sell. There were also the writers in other towns, other states, even other countries, but he wasn’t worried about those brackets yet. Right now, all he cared about was what was selling locally, here in Reno, Nevada.
He’d worked hard to put a lot of local color into his latest book, Silver Dollars and Change, all about werewolves being driven out of modern-day Virginia City. It had everything — a nearby setting, mockery of the tourists who came to Nevada so full of themselves, plus the magic and supernatural elements that had been selling well for decades. This book was his ticket to beating McCarthy once and for all. What did McCarthy have to offer, after all, but another trite plot about gangsters and casinos, the ’50s heyday of Vegas?
Paul was sure to win this time.
The waiting was killing him, though. He took another sip of his coffee, breathing deep, hoping the scent of hazelnut would soothe his jangling nerves. From the other room, he heard the chords of music that signaled a commercial break, almost masking the teaser for the upcoming story, “Tell-all interview with an author’s wife on why his competition is better than him!” Filthy vultures. He hoped the author had already filed for divorce.
He glanced at his laptop, open to the rankings. The only changes in the past three minutes were East Coast cities. Sherri Fugard, a member of his writer’s group, had beaten Dubowski for the Eastern Pennsylvania region — first taking her local zone of the Lehigh Valley, then beating out Philadelphia, Poconos, Berks County, and other eastern locations. Good for her. Not so good for Dubowski, but he’d had a good ride on top.
Challengers weren’t faring as well in places like Virginia, Georgia, and Florida. The readers there knew what they liked and weren’t about to change. Pretty soon, these states would follow the Carolinas into the Writer’s Monopoly Guild. Sweet for the one who came out on top — and less painful for the would-be writers out there. Paul thought maybe there should be a second tier bracket in those states, a way for new voices to be heard without head-to-head competition against the established heavies. However, that would require the agreement of the bestsellers, and they didn’t have a stake in changing the system.
Colors on the map changed as stats updated, and names filled in on brackets. Sherri had lost to Grey, the heavy-hitter from Virginia, for the Mid-Atlantic bracket, but her name had been noted. She’d probably pick up some readers from outside her state now — even a few nationally, as people tried to spot the new up-and-comers. Sherri was doing all right for herself. Maybe in a couple of years, when they both had more books under their belts and had earned national reputations, they’d even wind up in a head-to-head.
First, though, he needed to beat McCarthy. Updates had made it all the way across the Mountain Time Zone. Nevada was up next.
Words from the TV caught his attention — “And now, our guest, Darlene Fowler” — and Paul twisted around in his polished wooden chair as if he could see the screen from where he sat. That was definitely her voice. He rose to go see and almost missed the flicker of color from the corner of his eye.
Nevada flared green on the map; one of the writers had taken top honors by a margin of at least twice as many books sold. His eyes flicked to the bracket: McCarthy.
This couldn’t be happening. Paul had known the risks, of course, knew that one of them would pull ahead eventually, but he’d been certain that this book was his breakthrough. Numb, he walked into the living room to stare at his wife’s image. She had known this was coming, had to have to be on TV the same day the rankings came out.
“It was an easy matter to switch the names of his files,” Darlene was saying. “He didn’t submit the book he thought he did.”
“You made him turn in the wrong book?” The interviewer didn’t look shocked at this news, but rather eager for the sordid details.
Darlene laughed. “Something he wrote during high school. His new book — well, it will find an audience eventually.”
“Why?” Paul’s broken voice overlapped with the interviewer’s asking the same question.
“Why?” Darlene cocked her head to one side, her perfectly coiffed golden hair tilting to expose her swanlike neck. “Because with Paul, I would always be just his wife. With Vincent, I’ll be just as notorious as he is.”
He reached forward and turned the TV off. His books would sell better now. His name had been in the news — would be again, before nightfall. However, he would never write another word.
The knock on the door didn’t surprise him. The squad had probably been watching the interview, too. Nothing beat gossip about would-be bestsellers except past bestsellers. When you fell, you fell hard — and the wider the margins, the worse the penalty.
The knock came again.
“Come in,” Paul said, looking around.
The squad leader held up the warrant. “Paul Fowler, your competitor outsold you by an order of five.”
Paul couldn’t catch his breath. He’d expected to have his computer confiscated, even been ready to face the compulsory retraining. Five times, though?
“May Webster have mercy on you,” the squad leader said as he raised his gun. His squad followed suit.
Paul heard the shots, and that was all.
– THE END –
My blog is participating in the Forward Motion Flash Friday Blog Group, a weekly flash fiction exercise. Check out the other participating blogs for more flash.