On any other Saturday, even if he was advertising a big sale, Larry expected no more than thirty shoppers to wander the aisles of his Super-Bargain department store. But today wasn’t an ordinary day; today was practically a holiday. The entire town and then some crowded into every available inch of his store.
Larry was enjoying the result of a months-long campaign to get his store on the book-signing tour of his favorite author. Although he’d received no response to his first few letters (sent to the author, the author’s manager and the publisher), he’d persisted. After sending a few rounds of requests, he’d eventually received a response, politely declining. He wasn’t too surprised; his store was in Podunk, Texas. Undeterred, he’d responded back with an open invitation, “Come when you can.”
Then, incredibly, a late cancellation by a larger bookstore in a neighboring town resulted in a query from the author’s manager, “Will the 19th of May work for you?” They’d confirmed the details through a series of phone calls and he’d scrambled to ensure that news of the event spread by all available means to all parts of the region.
As he glanced around, he recognized most of the folks from town, but suspected many of those crowding his store had driven a fair distance for this opportunity. By Larry’s estimate, almost 400 people were here, though Podunk boasted a population of less than 300.
Larry made a circuit of the store, nudging his way through the patrons, finally stepping into the space he’d ribboned off for the podium and table, now stacked with the author’s latest hardcover. Everything was in place there but the author himself. He checked his watch for the fortieth time, reassuring himself just as his phone chirped. At last, the message he’d anticipated, “Author’s here. Will be there directly.” Sent from his assistance, Bill, who’d been waiting at the rear door.
Larry positioned himself behind the podium, flipping the switch on the rented microphone and wincing at the amplified squeal. Everyone turned, their expectation clear and their disappointment just as transparent when they saw it was only him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today. I am pleased to introduce our honored guest….” as he turned, searching for the author, the room suddenly went dark. Although there was some light in the front of the store, filtering in through the windows, the rear of the store was cast deep in shadows.
“If everyone would please stay calm,” he said. His thin voice was lost in the jumble of questions, and the request unnecessary; no one was alarmed by the power outage, though each seemed compelled to speculate and comment.
Larry barely heard the chirp of his phone. “I got it. Breaker.” Again from his assistant. Indeed, before he could re-pocket his phone, the lights came back on and the amplifier pierced the room with another brief squeal. Larry took advantage of the silence that followed.
“It was a thrown breaker. Everything’s fine.” He smiled in an effort to reassure everyone, including the author, who watched through the employee-only door off to his right. “As I was saying – ”
But he was interrupted again, this time from the loud and unmistakable sound of the store’s security system engaging. He heard the whirring and clanking that accompanied the gates closing across the front of the store. It was a few seconds before his patrons realized.
“What’s going on?” “Larry, what gives?” “Is this some kind of stunt?”
From his place at the podium, Larry could see the author, who was peering around the door to determine the source of the commotion. Without a word of explanation, perhaps because he had none, Larry crossed over to the door. He slipped through, hoping no one noticed his exit, quickly closing the door behind him.
“What’s going on?” the author asked, echoing the crowd.
“There seems to be a glitch with the security system. Where’s Bill?”
“Your assistant? He went that way,” the author said, pointing to the office door.
Larry found Bill at work, hunched over the computer. Sensing Larry behind him, he said, “Damned computer. When it rebooted after the power outage the clock got reset and the system thinks it’s midnight. I should have this straight in just a second or two, no worries.”
Larry tried to sound as confident when he conveyed this information to the author, and again to the crowd. “What say we proceed with our guest’s presentation and book-signing?”
But his suggestion was ignored, as everyone seemed more concerned with the gate blocking their exit.
“No one wants to leave, but since they can’t leave, that’s all they can think about,” the author said. “I’ll have to work this into my next novel. Fascinating.”
Before Larry could respond, the security system beeped, and the mechanism that controlled the gates whirred and clanked, pulling back the metal barrier. With a collective sigh, the crowd turned their attention back to the podium in the rear of the store. First one, and soon everyone, clapped in recognition of the author, who opened with a joking reference to his almost-captive audience.
In December, Larry received an advance copy of the author’s newest book, with a personal note and a promise to return for another book-signing. Larry flipped to a dog-eared page about halfway in and found the scene; it had, in fact, been a story waiting to be told.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kat challenged me with “What happens when a computer malfunctions and traps about 400 people in a small department store?” and I challenged Bewildered Bug with “When she awoke, a crumpled, stained Mickey Mouse hat was her only clue to what might have happened the night before. “