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Meet and Greet CW: violence, gore

Veronica Childress almost forgot to look up as she performed. She wished she never had to, but the job was the job and the reading was starting to go strange on her. The bookstore was packed, well, as packed as one of her readings tended to be. She had enough fans for a comfortable living. Her Ivory Stockings novels weren't best sellers, but the people who loved them loved them enough to pay her bills. It was all she could hope for. She was reading from her latest short story collection set in the Stockings universe, but with very little of the intrepid antiques dealer herself. It showed.

She had learned early in her popularity to parse the meaning of different silences at her readings. Some silences were layered underneath the steady tak and buzz of cell phones. Some silences almost squeaked with the ever tightening attention of rapt fans. This one was somewhere in between. No one felt bored. No one felt like they were having a good time. She paused and took an opportunity to look up and make dreaded eye contact with the audience.

They were definitely waiting to hear more, but it was less the grateful drip feeding of caged rats and more the gluttonous hunger of a fuse for the flame. The balding man at the back, a constant presence at her Minneapolis readings, looked like a corpse. Or a zombie. Same too for the librarian in the front who insisted on knitting through her readings. She always bought books, but would never put down the needles and just listen. Veronica sighed and returned to her reading. Ivory Stockings' constant companion and auctioneer, Murielle West, was wandering around a foggy London and avoiding the approaching footsteps of a sinister agent of the Ancients. Stockings was on holiday, as she was in every story in her new collection, and thus couldn't save her friend with her patented mixture of Midwestern grit and Eskrima. Murielle would have to fend for herself.

The audience, it seemed, couldn't care less, though. She knew Holiday Stories was a gamble. Her readers had an all-abiding love for Stockings, but little patience for any of Veronica's "experiments." She dreaded the day she'd have to reveal her big plan: to kill Stockings in her upcoming book.

It was a noble sacrifice, set against the crushing backdrop of an apocalyptic Manhattan, as Stockings held aloft the same sacred stone she'd been chasing pieces of and putting back together for nine novels and two short story collections and shoved it down the throat of the Maw, the inter-dimensional demon who finally showed his face after puppeteering the Ancients for millennia. She'd die in the ensuing explosion, torn apart by energies too great and terrible to be survived. Stockings would be brave. She'd be tough. She'd be smart. And, to Veronica's complete and total bliss, the bitch would be absolutely fucking dead.

Maybe they could sense it? Maybe her audience today could tell, like dogs lying down before a storm, that their favorite character was going to die? Maybe they resented Veronica for it. She could hardly blame them. But it was necessary and they would learn to live with what she gave them.

She continued reading, competently building Murielle's dread as the poor girl ran into an abandoned church to elude her captor, only to find his conspirators already inside. The door clicked locked behind her as she faced a terrible congregation of men.

Veronica paused at a sound. Perhaps she was too immersed in her reading. She tended to do that. She despised eye contact. She hated having to...engage. If she had any other marketable skills besides writing sexy characters into terrible predicaments, she'd pursue them. But she didn't. She could write well, and that brought, regrettably, readers.

Murielle reached into her vintage purse for her gun, an anniversary present from Stockings. She would need to defend herself. She wheeled and faced the men who had moved in front of the door.

In spite of herself, Veronica looked up again. The room had gotten...somewhat smaller. The crowd had gotten...tighter. Their faces were still unreadable. She looked back down at her book and hoped to push through to the end of the story, and thus bring an end to this reading. Minneapolis was not quite as welcoming as she remembered.

A cough pierced the dense, asphyxiating atmosphere of the room. Veronica noticed the balding man, a couple of rows closer to the front. When had he moved? The knitting woman in the front was still knitting. Veronica reached into her bag, tucked safely away in the podium in front of her. She continued reading.

The Ancients were closing in around Murielle. She had fired rounds into the approaching crowd, but there were more of them. They seemed to move as one, a teeming organism with as many limbs as members. Veronica remembered in the writing how they had reminded her of the innumerable and trite usernames of the Reddit thread devoted to her books. Every time Murielle felled one with her trusty, gifted Derringer, Veronica imagined one of her so-called "fans" deleting their proposed-and-endlessly-upvoted rewrites of one of her books. "Stockings should've left for New Orleans with Carlyle at the end of Book 4! It would've been the perfect setting for the Equinox Conundrum instead of Ohio! They were also just soooooo good together!" "This fanfiction actually covers that! It's almost better than the real thing!" "Oh cool!" All of it made Veronica sick. She wanted so badly to blast away their proposed ownership of her work the way Murielle emptied her little pistol into her attackers. The look of stunned shock on each Ancient's face a perfect mirror to her fantasies.

She looked up. The room was deathly quiet. And the balding man was almost within arm's reach. What was he doing?

She wrapped her hidden hand around her can of pepper spray. It would be too perfect, for some crazed fan to take her out before she actually got the satisfaction of watching the boards explode with anger at Stocking's death. Of course there would be fans who'd understand, but a growing majority of her readers seemed unhappy with any of her choices. A shadowy enclave of them seemed obsessed with rewriting her stories, with changing her timelines. They became like some sort of cult.

Murielle was in their grasp now. They had her arms and legs bound and were bringing her forward to the church's dusty altar. Even in her revenge fantasies, Veronica was not naive enough to just let the good guys win. It would need to be a struggle. It would need to be bloody. Murielle was chewing at her ropes, pulling fraying tatters away, her teeth clacking like marbles on a kitchen floor. Fuck, Veronica said, marveling at what she could accomplish when she wasn't burdened by an ever-sprouting octopus of timelines and continuities and expectations. Murielle could only scream as the Ancients opened one of their hideous ochre portals to the realm of Maw. A giant, curious finger spilled out into the empty church and towards her.

The balding man coughed again. Veronica looked up. The man was walking up to her. The owner of the bookstore was screaming. The entire room was tense as a muscle as he reached into his coat.

Veronica unlocked and brandished her pepper spray, unloading the orange gel into the man's eyes. He buckled and screamed as he fell to the floor. Veronica smirked, triumphant for a moment before the knitting needle lodged in her shoulder. The librarian screamed in her face as Veronica fell to the ground beside the balding man. Her mind scrambled with pain, Veronica could only make out a few words here and there as the woman drove her second needle into her left eye. It wasn't deep, but the red flash was enough to let Veronica know that she'd never use the eye again. In a white hot rage, the author kicked out from under the woman, snatched her hardcover collection off the podium and crashed it against the woman's head.

The librarian was unconscious by the third blow, and the police had arrived by the sixteenth. Her face was a collage of purple and red and wound as they pulled Veronica away from her. The balding man was on his feet again, wiping his eyes. When he got to the back of the ambulance, Veronica bristled. He produced a badge, indicating he was part of a private security outfit.

"Your...your agent," he said, coughing harder. "I tried to warn you."

Veronica scoffed. "You coughed. I'm not psychic."

The man shrugged, obviously embarrassed. He looked like he was expecting an apology. Veronica would not give it to him.

"That woman...she moderates one of the message boar-" he started to explain before Veronica held up a hand.

"That's all right. I'd rather not know," she said.

The balding man cocked his head, confused. "You're sure?"

Veronica nodded. "There will be others I'm sure. She won't be the last one on the internet to hate me."

The balding man laughed. "She didn't hate you. She was obsessed with you. She was obsessed with your character. Her apartment was practically a shrine to Ivory Stockings. She...loved her. When she saw the leaked plot synopsis of Book Ten, she..."

Veronica cut him off again. "I told you. It's fine. Her and everyone else."

The balding man rolled his eyes. "Not everyone," he said. When Veronica blinked, he smiled. "I can't fucking stand your books. My wife loves them but...I can't stand them."

Veronica laughed. As the paramedics loaded her into the ambulance she pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed her agent. She demanded, as a thank you, that the man's wife receive the complete Ivory Stockings collection. In addition, if she wanted, Veronica could come by for dinner and talk shop for as long as they liked. She could even tell her secrets about the upcoming book. That would show the prick.

She put the phone down and smiled to herself at her petty little revenge.

After all, anything for her fans.

Credits:

Created with an image by memyselfaneye - "books book store library"