"Wollie," his disembodied voice said, "is this Frank Sinatra?"
For a minute I thought he meant in the drawer. Then I realized he meant on the stereo.
"Yes," I said. " 'That's Life.' The song, as well as the album."
Mr. Bundt rose, his skull appearing slowly from behind the card rack. "Wouldn't we be safer with easy listening? Here in Los Angeles, KXEZ." Mr. Bundt was based in Cincinnati, yet knew every major easy listening station in his territory, North America. It was a gift.
"Frank Sinatra isn't--safe?" I asked.
"No one is safe, Miss Shelley." His sudden use of my surname chilled me. "No album, no CD. Not for a manager who seeks to change her shop from a Welcome! to a Willkommen!"
Willkommen! The word acted upon me like a bell to Pavlov's dog. I stared at him, poised to respond appropriately.
"KXEZ radio can be trusted," he explained. "They have done their market research. Even their advertisements provide reassurance. Favorite albums, on the other hand, are expressions of personal taste that run the risk of--"
"Mr. Bundt, blame me," Fredreeq called out. "I keep changing the music on her. Easy listening is very difficult for my people."
Mr. Bundt pretended to just now notice Fredreeq. She'd moved behind the counter, where, from the waist up, she looked almost normal. "Yes, well," he said. "The music is not for you, Ms. Munson, but for the customer. Let's remember that key phrase in our company's Promise to the Public: 'We are here to soothe, not to offend.' "
"Is headquarters aware that there are people offended by banality?" Fredreeq asked.
He did not respond. I thought maybe he wasn't sure what "banality" meant but didn't want to ask. I was a little fuzzy on it myself. I gestured to Fredreeq, who hit the stop button on the music system, cutting off Frank mid-note. For a moment there was silence, except for the sound of a distant car alarm on Sunset Boulevard.
And so we were all able to hear, very clearly, when the phone machine clicked on--the ringer having been turned off--and a voice choked out the words, "Wollie? It's me. Murder, Wollie. Murder. Cold blood. He's talking, he doesn't know I'm here, I'm going to have to--no. No. NO--"
Within seconds I was across the selling floor, reaching over the counter for the phone that Fredreeq was handing me as though we'd choreographed it.
"Hello?" I said. "P.B.?"
My brother hung up.
I hung up too and clung to the counter for a second, telling myself everything was fine, we'd been through this dozens of times, P.B. and I, whatever it was, and it would turn out okay. Then I turned and smiled at Mr. Bundt. "Heh," I said. It was the best I could come up with.
Mr. Bundt stared at me, his eyebrows so high it looked as if he'd had a face-lift in the last half minute. "Murder?" he said. "Murder?"
"Nothing to worry about," I said. "Family . . . thing."
"Whatever--that was referring to. You know. Just--family stuff."
Mr. Bundt looked doubtful. "That was a relative on the phone?"
"Shouldn't you . . . deal with it?"
"Oh, no," I said. "He'll call back."
"Hadn't you better call him?"
"No, he's--difficult to reach." Could I explain that this was because my brother was in the state mental hospital? No.
Mr. Bundt's eyebrows finally lowered. "I suggest you take care of this now, Miss Shelley, because we don't want this person calling back during the hours of operation and startling the customers the way he just startled us."
"Yes, of course." I picked up the phone and dialed the number from memory, long-distance, the 805 area code. "This hardly ever happens."
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