It was a cigarette burn.
I could scarcely have been more shocked if I'd discovered it on my own flesh, appearing out of nowhere, like stigmata. But it wasn't on me. It was on my grass green carpet, Aisle 3, Condolences/Get Well Soon, where I knelt, rooted in horror.
"Dear God," I said. "Dear God. Dear God."
"Girl, get a grip," Fredreeq called out, barging through the front door of my shop, Wollie's Welcome! Greetings. "I can hear those 'Dear Gods' all the way out to the parking lot. Did someone die? Is it Mr. Bundt? Please tell me Mr. Bundt died and I can take the day off and go to the beach."
"He's not dead. He's due here any minute. I was doing the final Dustbusting, and look, look--" I waved at the carpet. "At the last inspection, Mr. Bundt questioned the decor. I told him it was French Provincial. I can't pass this off as French Provincial."
"No." Fredreeq loomed over me. "Cigarette burns are strictly Trailer Park. White Trash, no offense." She leaned down, sending a wave of Shalimar my way. "That's one hell of a burn. That is the mother of all cigarette burns. That's a cigar burn."
I looked up at my friend and employee, took in her attire, and said it again. "Dear God."
Earrings the size of teacups dangled from delicate earlobes. Zebra- print stockings stretched from the hem of a very short, very tight skirt to a pair of velvet stiletto heels.
"Yeah, I know, I'm pushing the envelope here." Fredreeq straightened up and moved to the cash register counter. "Is it the stockings? You think bare legs are better?"
It was a tough call. I wasn't wearing panty hose myself, but I had on a long calico skirt and socks and red high-tops. Also a red sweater with a dalmatian applique. It had seemed like a good outfit an hour earlier, but now I wasn't so sure. I'm over five foot eleven. Next to Fredreeq, I could look like a piece of playground equipment.
"Maybe," I said, and turned to scratch at the cigarette burn with my fingernail. "You're black, which I always think makes the high heels-no stockings look--"
"No," I said, "just more--"
At that moment, Mr. Bundt walked through the door of Wollie's Welcome! Greetings, setting the Welcome! greeting bell to ringing. I jumped to my feet, planting a red high-top right on the cigarette burn. "Good morning, Mr. Bundt," I said. "Welcome."
A pink carnation graced the lapel of his beige Big and Tall suit. There was something incandescent about Mr. Bundt, his skull as shiny as his wing tips, the few strands of hair combed neatly, slightly damply over the top of his head, like one long eyebrow. He saw me and smiled, and for a minute I thought it was going to be all right, but then he saw Fredreeq. Well, he could hardly miss her. She was sitting on the counter, a bunched-up chunk of stocking hanging from one foot as she struggled to get a stiletto heel off the other.
Mr. Bundt stared for a moment and then--and here's what I admired about him--he turned and began inspecting the Welcome! Greetings racks, beginning with Birthdays, Juvenile. If there was a Welcome! way to handle every situation in life, this man, either from instinct or training, knew exactly what it was. Mr. Bundt was the field representative for the Welcome! Greetings Corporation, devoting his life to inspecting all Welcome! shops seeking an upgrade to Willkommen! status. Willkommen! status allowed Welcome! shop managers to buy their shops. This was what I longed for. This was the stuff my dreams were made of. This man held a piece of my life in his hands.
Mr. Bundt dropped out of sight behind the Condolences/Get Well Soon rack, checking stock in the bottom drawer. I motioned to Fredreeq to hurry up with her changing routine.
Excerpted from Dating Dead Men by Harley Jane Kozak Copyright© 2004 by Harley Jane Kozak. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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