"Because I must tell you, most of our franchise candidates are more fiscally stable."
"Mr. Bundt, you don't have to worry. I've been approved for four small business loans and I have a--a nest egg--earmarked for the down payment. I'm stable. I'm fiscal."
"Yes, well. Don't count your nest egg before you're hatched. You have two more inspections prior to Decision Day." He nodded toward the wall calendar, where the Monday after Easter was highlighted. "These next inspections, however, will be conducted by plainclothespeople."
"Plain, uh, clothes people?"
"To observe the shop in action," he said, "through the eyes of 'a customer.' Should you achieve Willkommen! status, supervision will cease, so we must determine now your level of fitness." Mr. Bundt leaned in, smelling of breath mints. "No more morbid family phone calls, Wollie. You will not wish to remind anyone of the error made with your predecessor."
My predecessor, Aldwyn Allen, two weeks after Aldwyn's Welcome! Greetings had been upgraded to Aldwyn's Willkommen! Greetings, had hanged himself. In the shop. Nobody knew why, nor had I been able to find out exactly where it had happened. I liked to think it was the utility closet, the only piece of the premises I had no emotional attachment to.
I walked Mr. Bundt out to his Lincoln Continental, chatting to divert his attention from his surroundings. The shop was on Sunset Boulevard, east of Highland, smack in the middle of a small strip mall comprised of a twenty-one-hour locksmith, a mini-market called Bodega Bob, Loo Fong's Chinese Fast Food, Neat Nails Plus, and a Colonel Sanders knockoff, Plucky Chicken. The good thing about the location was, there were no other greeting card shops for 2.7 miles. The bad news was, this little piece of Hollywood was not optimum in terms of sales.
"Seedy," an old boyfriend once called it. Fredreeq put it another way: "It's like your shop was headed for the suburbs and got off at the wrong bus stop."
It wasn't the prettiest corner of the world, but I couldn't afford the franchise if it were. And my philosophy was, hookers need greeting cards too.
There were no hookers this morning, just a man sleeping in a wrecked red Fiero in front of Loo Fong's, whom Mr. Bundt, by the grace of God, seemed not to notice. Corporate policy stated my jurisdiction included the shop and all public areas connected to it, but you can't really dust and vacuum people.
Back inside moments later, I hugged Fredreeq, dodging her earrings and absorbing her Shalimar.
She patted my back. "Yeah, I know, I'm a saint. Saint Bullshit. What was I gonna do, watch you tell him whose List that really is, Miss Compulsive Honesty? Okay, I'm gonna go put myself back together." She pulled her panty hose out of her pocket and headed toward the back room, then stopped with her hand on the doorknob. It was my pièce de résistance, that doorknob, a ceramic lemon attached to a door that was painted as a tree, set in a wall-length mural of a lemon grove. "Wollie, is P.B. all right?"
"Yes. I mean-" With a sense of unease, I picked up the phone and pressed redial. "He's been off his ziprasidone because of his foot thing, which is why he's talking murder. He's delusional again." The hospital's after-hours recording greeted me once more. I hung up and looked at my watch. "Still too early. The thing is, I don't want to leave a bunch of messages. Once he's back on his meds, these episodes just embarrass him."
"Well, you're the boss, Wollie." Fredreeq disappeared into the back room, her voice trailing off as she said, "But to quote somebody famous, just 'cause your brother is paranoid, doesn't mean that somebody isn't dead."
Despite repeated attempts, by early evening I still hadn't talked to my brother. The psych tech on P.B.'s ward told me he seemed fine, but refused to take incoming calls.
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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