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by CHRISTOPHER URBAN
Hector moved to New York to become a writer. Then the reason that he moved to New York became to work in publishing. And then that reason quickly became revised to just working with books or around books, until pretty soon it didn’t even much matter — so long as his employment had something to do with books, he would be fine. After a series of failures and disappointments that left him broken in spirit (not to mention cash), he began — almost by accident — what he called a book realignment service company.
This service promised to re-shelve authors’ books at half or more of New York City’s fifty-eight giant chain bookstores. For a modest fee, Hector would smuggle a stack of an author’s books from their normal alphabetized location on the shelf and set them down on top of the display tables near the front or center of the bookstore (or if the book wasn’t carried at the store, Hector would sneak inside copies of the book himself). Afterwards he’d snap a picture of the newly arranged books with his cell phone, email it as an attachment to his clients for the sake of good governance and so they could do with the photo what they may — usually upload it to a blog.
Hector advertised the service anonymously in the classified sections of the more prominent literary publications of the city, like the New York Review, which, according to Hector’s swift market research, had plenty of readers and subscribers who have actually written books themselves — generally (but not always) low-selling books, which was perfect for his purposes. The ad read: Get Your Books Everywhere, Anywhere!
The message was vague enough to generate responses without compromising Hector legally. Also, it had to be vague — those five words alone cost him nearly one hundred dollars! He posted ads on Craigslist, as well as canvassed the bathroom stalls of all the giant bookstore restrooms, though those stickers, he noticed, came down rather fast.
While conducting his work Hector switched e-mail accounts regularly so his identity would not be disclosed. Luckily, he never ran into any of his friends on the job either — all his friends were aspiring young writers like him, and they didn’t step foot within a mile of a chain bookstore. Well, maybe not a mile. That's hard to do in New York.
In what seemed like no time at all Hector had made nearly $5,000. Not bad for a month's work! Not bad at all.
His big break came from an employee of one of the Big Six publishing companies. He had not anticipated success in this area. What, he wondered, did a Big Six person want with him, the common man Hector Farthing? He was shocked when a young woman told him that she was calling from a payphone (mostly because he’d forgotten all about payphones) and said that she would like him to perform the book re-shelving services for her that she had heard so much about, “via word of mouth,’ or so she added. The book in question was one she had personally worked on, and although the book had launched with strong initial sales, currently it was under-selling by a large margin.
And so, the next day, they met in semi-secret underground the metro stop in Astor Place near Union Square. Hector knew that he had a lot to lose with an encounter like this; he could get arrested or fined or face other similarly grave consequences if it was all a set-up. But he also knew that he had just as much to gain, knowing as he did just how valuable and expensive these bookstore displays tables were.
At the metro stop, after some awkward false starts, he finally identified the young editorial assistant who had contacted him. She had a stack of white papers with her, bound together by a green rubber band: a manuscript! The sudden sight of an unpublished manuscript amazed young Hector to no end and he momentarily forgot the whole reason for their meeting. Without saying her name, she quickly shook his outstretched hand and then, with great impatience, she deflected all of Hector’s general inquiries about what it was like to work in publishing these days, and instead began to desperately describe her own predicament, which was that she wished to reach Editor by the end of the year, when she would be turning twenty-eight — an age, she felt, where she "needed to be a real fucking editor!" The young woman agreed to pay Hector $2,000 right then and there to “pimp her book,” the book that she had worked on so painstakingly, a book called Travels in the East: A Concise History of Eastern Meditation and Philosophy. Hector Farthing didn’t give a damn where this money had come from. All he cared about was that it was his now, and he could pay his rent.
The amount was an extraordinary large sum for him. Hector usually charged $120 a day for the book realignment services, plus metro fees (and $20 extra if the book had to change floors in the store.) But he knew, and she knew, and he knew that she knew, that the book, the one she had staked her editorial promotion on, Travels in the East, would have cost its Large Publishing House more than fifteen times the amount she had just paid Hector — even if the kind of publicity Hector was offering was only good for a week or two, or perhaps far less than that (depending on if the booksellers got wise or not), Hector’s offer was still better than nothing.
They said goodbyes and got on different trains going in opposite directions. On his way back to Brooklyn Hector thought about the editorial assistant and couldn't help but notice that she was very attractive, except for that she wore a huge backpack that hung heavily over her shoulders. Shouldn’t she have a tote bag, he wondered? — tote bags were like a rite a passage for editorial assistants it seemed to him. But what did Hector know? Did he work in publishing? No sir!
The idea for his little company came to him after having worked as a freelance editor to a retired construction company owner who had written a book on automobiles (never referring to them once as cars, not in the book or in speech, always automobiles or autos) and he, this author, wanted the book published immediately. But when the book was rejected by every major agent and publisher they had sent it to, the author began that semi-humiliating journey into the realm of self-publishing.
Distribution for a self-published author is a total nightmare. The new buying culture helps this some, certainly, but for the most part it’s extremely difficult to get your book carried at bookstores, even independent ones, even the independent bookstores you yourself frequent!, or so the wealthy, newly published (with an asterisk, in Hector's mind) author discovered.
"Here," said the author to Hector, handing him a bundle of his books, "just put the fucking things in there. Anywhere!" he had said, referring to inside his Upper East Side neighborhood chain bookstore. Hector hesitated. He wasn't getting paid $16 an hour to do this guy’s dirty work. He didn't say this of course, but Hector’s expression must have given something like it away. The author promptly wrote him a check for $150 and said, "Get it done."
And so it was that Hector found the amount per hour he was willing to do what he would later tell himself was only light dirty work. After all, the worst that could happen was that somebody would try to buy the book and the bookseller would discover the book ISBN was missing from the database and the whole jig would be up. Or, if the giant book company did somehow sell the book, ignoring the number or inventory check, then good for them! They would make one hundred percent profit on the return! But the real reason Hector's former construction company owner-turned-author wanted his book inside the big bookstores so badly was that his childhood friend, Tim Crabtree, had a book in there, a real book, about how to make a lot of money in six weeks. They were competitive like that, said the old author of his childhood friend Tim Crabtree. “You understand?” Hector nodded.
That afternoon, with the books heavy in his JanSport backpack, he held his breath as he walked past the bookstore’s entrance and through the sensor gates, praying that they wouldn't somehow go off, or that the security guard standing there with his arms crossed wouldn’t stop him for some unknown reason. Coming down the escalators into the brightness of the store, everything was so large and open, and he managed to easily enough put three or four of the author's books on top of another stack of books that sat a major display table on the main floor. Exercising the discretion of the spy he was then pretending to be, he took a few pictures of the books with his cell phone, sent them back to the author, and that, as they say, was that.
The next day the author called back and said he had another proposition for him. Crabby wanted his book on the good tables too! If Hector did the same thing for Crabby’s book, the one on how to make a lot of dough in six weeks, then Crabby would pay him $150 dollars for his services as well. His book was already in the store. So all Hector had to do was just shift a few copies over to one of the better display tables. It was so easy! The risk was considerably less, the money just the same.
Within the next few hours the job was done. Hector felt good, partly from looking at the new balance in his bank account and partly from doing something bad and getting away with it. He bought a pair of dark aviator sunglasses from the street vendor to match his current disposition (that of badass) and also because his old pair had just fallen from the V of his t-shirt and into the toilet as he had been whizzing nervously in the bookstore’s surprisingly clean restroom.
It turns out that there are a number of writers willing to give away their books practically for nothing in exchange for having them inside a big bookstore chain; that Hector was placing these authors’ books in prime real estate inside the stores was all the better for them, but he knew, and they knew, that just having the book inside was enough.
The authors, Hector's clients, as he called them now (and not without a touch of pride) were mostly retired or semi-retired longtime wanna-be writers, feeling the weight of more than half a life already lived, or misspent, with an itch to leave behind more than just traces of a mediocre career in whatever profession they previously held. Even these authors seemed to realize that there was no money in books. But as long as they had their book inside the big bookstore and a photograph of it — they were satisfied.
By the end of the week another Big Six person got ahold of him. This time Hector never met the individual, but instead found the stack of books at exactly the spot he was told they would be in (inside a trash can in the northwest corner of McCarren Park). Judging from the location, Hector assumed the editor or publicist or whomever, was a young person like him living in Greenpoint, but he couldn't be sure. Maybe the person just wanted Hector to think that to throw him off the trail. Hector didn’t like digging through anybody’s trash, not even his own, but he did like the sound of a cash register opening, which was the sound he heard over and over in his head: Ka Ching! For inside one of the books was an envelope containing a letter with Pay Pal instructions for how to access an account with a payment of $2,000! Hector took the bag of books — a middlebrow mystery novel — and immediately got to work, hitting fourteen big chain stores the very next morning. He finished his rounds by late afternoon and went to his favorite burrito place in the evening. He ate a big burrito the size of a small baby for dinner, and then he bought another one, throwing half of it away. It was a waste no doubt, but an intentional one, as if the thrown out, half-eaten burrito was material proof of all his hard work paying off.
He went back home to the apartment he shared with two roommates. Feeling more assertive than he had in forever, he prepared to send out his latest short story to eight-to-twelve highly respected and obscure literary magazines. All SASEs would eventually come back saying the same thank you cookie-cutter message, along with words like pass, decline, and unfortunately. But he was still so busy with his book business that he threw them in the trashcan with half the touch of sadness that he was used to during this painstaking process.
During the next week, while surreptitiously placing a few How To Be a Psychic books on prime display (the book was written by an unpublished writer Hector had done transcription work for the summer before), he found something on one table near the back completely out of place, more out of place than even Hector's own little psychic book, which he had just then finished stacking.
For one thing, the table was stocked of all soft-cover books, not hardcover, and this out-of-place book, which Hector held up now to examine, was hardback! The book's cheap binding and thin paper and horrible font screamed self-publishing to Hector. Not to mention its title, The 39 Steps: How To Build the Perfect Home Staircase. The question immediately arose: who the hell was building their own home staircases with so many steps? Curious, he leafed through the book and, of course, as expected, nowhere in the pages were instructions given for such a lengthy staircase. This brief distraction made it take longer than it should have for Hector to realize the chilling thought that next came to him.
Hector flipped through all the 39 Steps books at the table with haste, turning them upside down and on their sides, shaking them, looking for clues. Just then a very bored bookseller walked passed and asked if he could help Hector and Hector said that he could not help him, and the bookseller, seemingly pleased at this, went away with his head bowed down, tapping away on his iPhone.
After picking up the last of the staircase books, Hector suddenly watched in dismay as something fell from its pages. A piece of paper floated like a feather down onto the dark brown-carpeted floor. It was a white and orange colored business card. It said: Random Penguin. Sure enough, as Hector quickly read the bottom of the card, hands trembling with anxiety, his worst fears were confirmed. The services Random Penguin promised was just what Hector’s business promised, though it had the extra pizzazz of a catchier company name and slogan: Your Book Deserves a Better Chance! He slipped the card in his back pocket and headed for the exit, not bothering to re-stack the stupid staircase book or his psychic book, not even the copies of Freedom he had knocked down from a towering display on his way out with his backpack — a book he generally admired.
Things got worse. He made more rounds that week and, again, he found more books way out of place on the tables and stands and shelves — very much like the ones he was placing on the tables himself. Twice he thought the tall man standing in the back of the Fifth Avenue store was moving the books around, but every time Hector went to investigate the tables where the tall man had just poked about all seemed normal.
The tall man, when Hector would look back over at him, just stood with a blank expression on his face, arms akimbo. Was he watching me? Hector thought with worry, when suddenly he saw something else: another man who looked exactly like the tall man pass briskly by one of the back tables, plopped a short stack of business books down on top of other books that had nothing to do with business at all and continued on his way through the store! Hector looked back over at the original tall man, but he was gone.
When Hector turned back to the table, he saw that the tall man’s lookalike was nowhere to be found either. He scanned the store and saw both the tall men riding down the escalator towards the exit. Before Hector could start down the stairs they were already out of the store. Not the slightest trace of the men remained by the time he was outside, but that didn’t stop him from following every above-average tall person dressed in black that he saw on the street for the next half hour or so, and he only stopped this nonsense behavior once the last tall man he had tailed turned out to be not a man but an extremely tall woman.
Random Penguin, Hector concluded after today’s events, was more than one person. It had to be. For all he knew it could be a corporation of tall men who all looked alike! The amount of books Hector found "re-shelved" that week doubled the total books he had moved in a month, easy.
These guys were good, professionals, he thought, and suddenly, his shouted: “Damn you, Random Penguin!” to no one in particular as he walked down his empty block back to his Brooklyn apartment in a state of great agitation.
The very next day Hector saw what he took to be another member of Random Penguin. A woman with dark circles under her eyes carried a large red bag full of books. He waited to confront the woman once she was outside, thinking that she may likely accuse him of the same thing (or worse), and he didn’t want her to make a big show of things in front of everyone. And so he waited. But this turned out to be a mistake. For once she left, he retraced her path out the store’s automatic revolving doors, but by the time he was outside the woman with the big red purse and dark circles under her eyes sped fast away in a little car.
“A driver!” was all Hector could think about, enviously. They had a getaway driver! It was too much. Hector, having no other choice, stood and watched in awe of Random Penguin’s wherewithal, as the woman sped away in a black Mini Cooper. He scolded himself for being so stupid, for putting all those ads in the classified sections, for stickering the entire city, for not being more patient. Oh, it was too much!
But then he had never imagined competitors. How could he have had that kind of foresight, excited as he was by all the money he was making? He was like Starbucks when they opened up too many Starbuckses and had to close some down. Didn't that happen? That was Starbucks, wasn’t it? He was about to google it, but the analogy soon no longer made sense to him. Also, he had a better idea more worthy of his time.
He e-mailed the Random Penguin address that was listed on the back of the business card. He used one of his own many gmail accounts to protect himself. Dear Random Penguin, began Hector, feeling a tad embarrassed as he proceeded to make up a fake book, asking for the company’s realignment fees. Hector left the apartment to get a coffee and by the time he came back he found he had one unread message in his inbox. “Wow,” he thought, seeing the delivery time of the e-mail. The response had arrived almost instantaneously. In fact, it was an auto-message. “How come I didn’t think of that?” thought Hector. “Anyone can do that!
His disappointment only grew after reading the generic e-mail. He learned that Random Penguin's prices were much better than his. The service, as laid out in the e-mail, appeared faster and more efficient than his own, from what he could tell. Random Penguin even quoted sales of authors’ books before and after realignment, something Hector had never done. All Hector did, in fact, was just get the goddamn things inside, he just capitalized on the vanity of his clients or, in the case of the editors or publicist, their career fears. Maybe he could join forces? Why not? He could be like the Executive Consultant, he thought with hope, even if he wasn’t sure what the title meant exactly.
He wrote back, stating who he was this time, nevertheless keeping his real name, Hector Farthing, far away from the email. He told them rather arrogantly that it would be best for the company to think of him as the “original Random Penguin” and, after he pressed Send, he waited anxiously to see what they would have to say about that, or at least he was prepared to wait anxiously, for, again, Random Penguin wrote back immediately!
The contents of the e-mail brightened Hector’s low spirits, fallen to low levels ever since he saw those two tall men in the store threatening his employment. Yes, said the writer of the e-mail, they had been expecting him. He, meaning Hector, the e-mail continued, had been watched very closely these past few weeks.
Due to his great excitement Hector failed to detect the not-so underlying sinister aspects of the rest of the response. He was to meet Random Penguin in person tomorrow night at the company's warehouse. The last request in the e-mail was for him to come alone and unarmed. But Hector’s only thought at this was: "These guys have a warehouse!" The exaggerated picture in his mind of the warehouse was something like the Strand bookstore, since the Strand had always seemed to him more of a warehouse than a bookstore anyway. His second thought, reading that line over again about the alone and unarmed bit was that they had a sense of humor too.
But they didn't have a sense of humor. When he arrived at his destination later the next evening, at the so-called “warehouse” — which was just an abandoned apartment above a noodle shop in Chinatown — Hector found himself surrounded by four (or maybe it was five or six? It was too dark to tell) shadowed figures of seemingly great muscular build, for the wide and elongated shadows stretched all the way to the ceiling. When they stepped into the light that flooded in from window facing the street, it was like they’d all just come from the gym. The men were dressed in mesh shorts and sleeveless tops.
"Um, Random Penguin?” Hector said, his voice cracking adolescently at that last word.
Just enough streetlight had allowed for Hector to see the baseball bats these guys were carrying, too. Hector made out a vacuum cleaner in the corner of the room to his right, the only object in the abandoned room it seemed, and raced over to it as if his life depended on it.
"Where’s Random Penguin? Let me speak to him now. Or her," said Hector, after he received no response.
"He lives in India!” suddenly shouted one of the men, and they all laughed.
Hector tried to pick up the vacuum cleaner like it was a weapon. He’d never lifted a vacuum cleaner this heavy before. This one seemed heavier than all the other vacuum cleaners he had ever operated, which was probably only two, but still. Someone grabbed his arms, pulled them tightly behind his back and held him like that while the other men crowded around. One man spun his bat around his hands and arms, tossing it up in the air in perfect spinning motion with great skill, like a dancer’s baton.
"I've been outsourced," was the last thought to enter Hector’s mind, thinking of Random Penguin in India. One of the men took Hector’s right hand in his own hands, kneaded it for a bit, almost like a massage, or as if he was about to make a little pizza of his hand. Then the man broke Hector’s pinky finger.
When he moved to New York all he wanted to know was the feeling of being published. Now he was learning what it felt like to have a broken rib cage and a punctured lung and two broken fingers and a bloody nose, possibly also broken. He'd had bloody noses before, of course, but those had always arrived innocently, with no serious pain. The bloody nose he had now had come from something cracked inside there, and when the blood touched his tongue that night it tasted like chocolate.
Christopher Urban is a writer living in Brooklyn. His fiction is forthcoming in Pear Noir! and J Journal: New Writing on Justice.