The Panel

Professor Albert danced in front of the table like he was the emcee at a circus.

“Hello, hello, hello! Welcome to the First Annual Western Maryland Literary Festival’s publishing panel! Today we have Rowe Sween, of the aptly named Sween Press, publisher and arts advocate from down in DC –”

Several people in the audience coughed. I narrowed my eyes.

“Jack Davies, author of three award-nominated collections of haiku and cancer survivor – “

I coughed. Davies narrowed his eyes.

“Veronica Foor, author of the popular children’s fantasy series, Harmony Rose.”

Davies coughed. Veronica smiled brightly.

“And Patricia P.T. Anderson, author of Through the Desert, The Bonsai Thief, and Fire and Ice and Sand, winner of the Louisa T. Caldecott-Smyth award for short fiction, Western Maryland region!”

The audience erupted in applause. I signaled to Travis, sitting in the front row, to bring me a vodka tonic. He cocked his head, then shrugged, pointing at his ears.

“This is a Q&A panel,” Albert continued, “And I know you all have plenty of questions. I’ll be moderating. My TA, the lovely Rihanna over there, has a microphone. Just stand up when called on and wait for her to come by before asking your question.”

I leaned close to my microphone, set up on a little tripod in front of me, and said in a gravelly voice, “And she certainly is lovely, Professor Albert.”

This was met by a stunned silence, stretching for about ten seconds until someone in the back shouted, “Way to go, pedo-bear!”

I narrowed my eyes.

“Um…” Albert turned and gave me a hard look, then spun back to the audience, “Let’s go ahead and get started!”

Hands shot up. Albert pointed at a young lady in the front, who dutifully stood and waited at attention for Rihanna.

“This question is for Ms. Foor. Your fantasy worlds are so rich and vibrant. What is it that inspires you?”

The usual questions. What do you use to write with? Paper or computer? What influences your writing? What’s your favorite goddamned color?

The authors sharing my panel were all self-published in one way or another. Davies the Haikuing Fool was a Kindle wunderkind, spamming the social network with his books at $3 each. Earlier, in the green room, he said that he’d earned $400,000 so far. Net. After taxes. He also said he spends 12 hours a day working away at his extensive Facebook friends list, twitter, and his blog.

Fantasy Foor started her own publishing company, though the only books she publishes are her own. Once the first wave of fantasy-themed questions wore off, she had plenty to say about “Facebooking the World” as well, though she didn’t talk about anything besides the weather and the mountains in the green room, and kept pouring her wine into my glass, which I appreciated.

Patricia P.T. Whatever-the-fuck was the star of the show. Everyone wanted a piece of the action there. What are her influences? Both in the green room and in answer to questions, she said that she “communes with the hills and valleys of Western Maryland.” The hills “speak to her,” she says, and “tell her what to write.”
I thumbed through her latest book, emblazoned with the gold star announcing her regional prize, and it made me wonder if a Kristallnacht-style book burning was such a bad idea after all. Sure, it got a lot of bad press in the 30’s, but maybe they were on to something.
After 15 grueling minutes, and a few lazy questions thrown my way by idiots, a girl stood up, pushed her way past the people in her row, and marched down the aisle. She was a stunning vision — hair dyed metallic red, clothes that made her look like some sort of reject hipster from the early 90’s, pale skin, and very large, very green eyes. Eyes that were fixed on me. As she blazed forward, I started to prepare myself to run, but she stopped abruptly at the first row and waited for Rihanna to rush over.

“Mr. Sween,” the girl said.

A few heartbeats passed before I leaned down to my mic, “Yes…?”

“A question.”

Another silence, into which I said, “I gathered.”

She smiled. She had sharp canines. I shivered. Travis was watching her warily and reaching slowly into his backpack. I briefly wondered if he was carrying a gun.

“Shit, girl,” I said, “Ask your question.”

“When are we going to see some of your work?” Her eyes glittered.

“My work’s not fit for a dog. That’s why I’m a publisher.” I glanced at my peers, “Of other people’s books, I mean.”

“Then what’s the next big thing from Sween Press?” she asked.

“When I know, I’ll, uh, Facebook the world and commune with the mountains.” I grinned, but no one else seemed amused.

“What draws you to certain books?”

“Money. Sex.” I was trying to shut her up now. Albert was doing a poor job at moderating… But there was something about this girl. Something that was holding several folks transfixed. She rolled up her sleeves. From 15 feet away, I could see clearly that her arms were covered in tiny cuts and burns. She thrust her chin out, looked at me down her nose.

“What…” she said slowly “Keeps you alive? What keeps you here?”

“Money. Sex.” I repeated lamely.

“You can’t be honest in front of a crowd, can you?” she winked at one of my peers, then turned on a heel and left the hall.

Afterwards, Travis caught up with me in the hallway outside the green room.

“Another ex?”

I shook my head. “Never saw her before.”

“I got the impression she knew you.”

“I got the impression she was a psychopath.” I grabbed his arm and started to pull him down the hall, “Let’s go find a bar and then get back to the fucking city. Are you up for driving?”

“Oh, sure. We had the hotel tonight, though…”

“This little podunk town is giving me the hinks, Travis.”

“We can’t cancel the rooms because you got them on that stupid site of yours. Two rooms. That’s $180 plus taxes. Plus, you don’t want to get drunk with me sitting around sober, do you?”

I stopped, thinking. Travis had a hopeful look on his face. When next I’m in a position to hire an assistant, I promised myself to hire one who likes to drive. “Fine.” I hissed.

“Yoo-hoo!” a girl shouted from the green room. I turned and saw Veronica Foor stalking towards me, her fantasy dress swirling, her fantasy hair flying. She came to a stop abruptly in front of me. “Hitting the bar?”

“My reputation will be ruined if I’m seen with a YA fantasy author,” I said.

She punched my arm, grinning, “You’re a tough guy, eh? I bet you watch Smokey and the Bandit every weekend.”

“Maybe if I was 12.”

She put her hands together, fingers pointing forward, then slowly pulled them apart. Travis and I looked at each other, then down at my hand on his bicep, and then I let go and we stepped apart. Foor slid in between us, turned, linked one of her arms into each of ours, and started forward, dragging us along. “I’m done for the night boys. I’m going to get plowed and I’m gonna do it loud!”

“Are we still talking about drinking?” I asked.

“Yes!” she hissed sharply. “Moron.”

The three of us ended up at the Union Jack. I was mildly pleased to see a faux-British bar as opposed to a faux-Irish bar but, once inside, there was no real difference. Travis and I went the beer route, seeking shelter with Flying Dog. Foor dived in headfirst and ordered a pitcher of “Limey Shakes,” the bartender’s specialty. A “British-themed” drink that was so artificially green you could read by it.

“Found this place last night,” Foor said, drinking from the pitcher after impatiently tapping the table and looking for our slow waiter, who was fetching glasses. She snarled at him with a green-foam mustache when he returned. He shied away.

I leaned away from her, brandishing my beer. “We’re not helping you with that shit. All 90 pounds of you will have to drink it alone.”

“I’m up to 100 pounds with the wooden leg,” she said, pouring three glasses despite my refusal and Travis’ obvious terror.

After a silent champion drinking event, she ordered a second pitcher and turned her squinty, weird, fantasy writer eyes on me. She was wearing a pair of Ben Franklin glasses that made her look about 20 years older, but she was strangely alluring when she whipped them off and dropped them into her fire engine red purse.

“So,” she said, “Rowe Sween.”

“So,” I replied, “Veronica Foor.”

Mi Gringo.” She nodded, pouring from the pitcher into her glass.

“The most important book nobody’s read.” I replied.

“How many sales so far?”

“300. In six years.”

“That’s criminal. We’re living on the wrong planet.”

“Well…country, maybe…”

She cleared her throat, composed herself, then grinned wickedly. “In a City Paper interview two years ago you joked about the low sales. You said every fan so far was a woman, and said you planned to sleep with each one of them in gratitude.”

I looked at her sideways, “Did I say that?”

“God, yes.” Travis muttered.

“I’m a fan. And I own two copies. In fact, I send out copies as gifts sometimes.”

“Ah…” I looked at Travis, who looked at the ceiling.

Then she barked out a huge, braying laugh, chugged her drink, and said, “Whew! It’s getting late!” She tossed a fifty on the table, excused herself, and slid back from the table. She was gone before I was able to look up from the fifty.

I looked at Travis. “Am I supposed to…follow?”

“I’m really not sure what’s happened over the last 45 minutes. Except that her blood alcohol must be around 39.7 percent.”

“I’m choosing not to follow.” I said.

Travis nodded sagely. “I say we get a case of MGD and head back to the hotel and HBO.”

“Safe. Smart.” We stood. The fifty more than covered our bill, so we just left it.

As we walked outside, I asked, “Travis, is there a gun in your backpack?”

“Don’t ask.”

“Never ask questions. Safe. Smart.”

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