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Death in Advertising
A Tobi Tobias Mystery
By Laura Bradford
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Laura Bradford
All rights reserved.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
A cliché? Perhaps. But a cliché, after all, is a truism. Which, in layman's terms, means whoever coined the desperate measures thing knew what they were talking about.
Frankly, if you ask me, I think the girl (or guy, in the interest of being politically correct) was a genius. How else could you define someone who'd so accurately described my state of mind without ever having met me? I mean, my life was the epitome of desperate times, my recent behavior the poster child for desperate measures.
I'd tried it all:
Nail biting, check.
Increased chocolate consumption, check.
Hiding from the mailman, check.
A lit match, check.
But none of it had worked.
Wait. Let me rephrase a moment. Technically, the lit match worked (along with the smoke detector and ceiling sprinklers) but we won't go there. Besides, it was a temporary fix.
Which brings me to today's final act of desperation. Granted, it hadn't worked when I was five and trying to clean my room, but with age comes wisdom (or stupidity, as my grandfather was fond of saying).
I yanked open the top drawer of my desk and pulled out a white paper napkin left over from yesterday's brown-bag lunch. Laying it carefully atop the mountainous stack of singed envelopes, I squeezed my eyes shut and willed myself to become one with the Amazing Mumford.
"A la peanut butter sandwiches ..."
I opened my eyes slowly and looked at my paper-strewn desk, everything exactly where it had been when I dove off the deep end into insanity (with not so much as a poof of smoke for my efforts). "Damn."
Maybe a top hat would help. Or a moustache ...
"You okay, Tobi?"
I'd been so intent on running through my mental list of magic paraphernalia that I hadn't noticed JoAnna standing in the doorway. But there she was, a strange look plastered on her softly wrinkled face. I knew that look. I'd seen it a lot lately. Mostly in the mirror.
"Oh. Hey. I, um, can expl —"
JoAnna held up her hand, a knowing smile creeping across her face. "No need. I know exactly what you were doing." She strode across the room and stopped in front of my desk, her eyes soaking up the source of my shenanigans in one quick sweep. "Unfortunately, a magic spell isn't going to pay these, sweetie."
I leaned back in my chair and nibbled the inside of my cheek. She had a point. Or —
"Do you happen to have a cape I could borrow?"
She raised an eyebrow at me.
She shook her head.
"Maybe my cadence was just off."
Judging by her eye roll, I'd say cadence wasn't the issue either.
"Do you have a better suggestion?" I finally asked.
JoAnna folded her arms and lifted her chin. "As a matter of fact, I do."
It was nice to feel the twinge of hope surge through my body at those words. Maybe I hadn't resigned myself to true Eeyore status yet. "Okay, lay it on me."
"Land a campaign."
My left nostril flared, my mouth fell open. It wasn't one of my best looks, but it was all I had at the moment. I mean, land a campaign? What did she think I'd been trying to do the past six months (beyond becoming proficient at finding the minus key on my calculator)?
"Good Lord, Tobi, you can't go in with that face."
I dropped my head into my hands and searched my memory bank for different magic words that would make everything vanish. Including me.
"Okay. I give up. What are you talking about?" I knew my words were muffled, but I just didn't have the energy to pick up my head.
"Ever heard of Zander Closet Company?"
I blew a piece of hair off my forehead in a half-hearted attempt to at least appear as if I were making eye contact. "Zander who?"
"See. They need you as much as you need them."
I tried to stifle the groan before it left my lips, but I wasn't entirely successful. "You lost me, JoAnna. Any chance you could try English this time?"
"Fine. Two very attractive men from Zander Closet Company are sitting in the conference room waiting for you. They're kind of hoping you can turn their company around."
That did it. My head snapped upward and that nostril/mouth thing happened again. Only this time my eyebrow was in on the action.
"Here. Now. Waiting. For you."
"They just showed up. Said they needed to see the head of Tobias Ad Agency. And, sweetie, that's you."
I pushed back my chair and stood, my legs feeling a bit like Jell-O when you first pull it from the fridge.
"Do my eyes look okay? My hair?"
"Yes. Your eyes are beautiful. Your hair looks sensational. But —" JoAnna met me as I came from behind the desk, her hand brushing against my wrist as she plucked a piece of tricolored hair off my sleeve. "There. Now you look perfect. Not a piece of cat fur anywhere."
"Maybe they're animal lovers, and they'll hire me out of a sense of loyalty." At this point I'd take any pity job I could get, just so long as it came with a paycheck.
"Have faith, Tobi. They're going to love you."
I felt a familiar catch in my throat as I looked at JoAnna. I'd been blessed a hundred times over since she'd walked through my door six months ago. She'd come in looking for a secretarial job and quickly became a loyal friend. Her knowledge at getting a business off the ground had allowed me to focus my attention on marketing the agency in the hopes of landing a few big campaigns. She'd done a great job with her tasks. But I'd failed to accomplish mine. Big time.
And now I was faced with the very real possibility that I would have to let JoAnna go. Sure, it would be heartbreaking. But allowing her to stay on without a paycheck was worse.
I grabbed her hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "Cross your fingers, okay?"
"I'll give you my toes too."
I looked up at the ceiling and took a long, slow breath, waiting for a moment to see if Scotty would, you know, beam me up to wherever he takes you. I counted to thirty in my head, just in case he was busy, but nothing happened. Not a big surprise when you considered Scotty's gender. After all, if I've learned anything from my broken engagement to Nick Harmon, it's that you can't count on a man.
Shaking off all sudden yet undeniable thoughts of revenge and torture, I forced myself to focus on the occupants of the room at the end of the hall.
I can do this. I know I can ...
"Here I go."
"I'll hold your calls."
Oh how I wish I could keep from snorting when I laugh. It's one of those less than stellar habits I can't seem to shake. A vice I didn't even know I had until I started moonlighting at the To Know Them Is To Love Them pet shop and Rudder Malone started mimicking the sound from atop his little metal perch.
I looked back at JoAnna. "Ah, that's right. I forgot. The president of Anheuser Busch was supposed to call today, wasn't he? Something about that million-dollar campaign he handed me on a silver platter last week ..."
"It could happen someday." JoAnna waggled her fingers at me. "But it won't if you don't get in there, talk to those men, land their campaign, and keep this place open."
"Is that all I have to do? Seriously? Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Again, with the eye roll. The woman had them down to an art form. "To-bi! Now go!"
When JoAnna syllabized my name like that, it meant she was losing patience. And when she lost that, there was hell to pay. Trust me.
"Okay, okay. I'm going."
I headed toward the conference room at the end of the hallway, but stopped just outside the bathroom door. I'd strategically placed the mirror where it could be used for a quick grooming prior to all client meetings. It wasn't used very often.
I flicked on the light and stared at myself for a moment. My blond hair shimmered in the overhead light and my Carolina Herrera outfit from the resale shop looked surprisingly new. All was good there. But my face was a different story. There wasn't much a brush and well-honed bargain radar could do for the tiny spray of freckles that danced across my cheeks. My parents always said it gave me a sweet look. Which, translated, meant I looked like a kid. And how many business executives wanted to put their company's livelihood in the hands of someone who could pass for a cheerleader minus the pompoms?
I stuck my tongue out at my reflection and then laughed. Sinking ship or not, I was still Tobi Tobias.
Was I still broke? Yes.
Was I still teetering on the edge of homelessness? Yes.
Would I be defeated? No.
At least not yet, anyway ...
I flicked off the switch and looked at the closed door that separated me from the chance to turn things around. For JoAnna. And for me.
"It's now or never."
I turned the handle, plastered a smile on my face, and pulled the door open. The rush of hushed voices inside the room grew silent as both representatives of Zander Closet Company rose to their feet.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen, I'm Tobi Tobias."
It wasn't hard to miss the look of surprise on the face of the taller, better-looking man. It was the same look I'd seen all my life.
The second man had a slightly different expression, but not one I wasn't familiar with. His had nothing to do with the masculine moniker my parents had saddled me with at birth. It did, however, have everything to do with his species' tried-and-true MO — the part that makes them scope women regardless of age or availability (hers or theirs).
Bitter? Moi? Not a chance.
Well ... maybe. Just a little.
But even if I was projecting, I was fairly certain my read on Mr. Roving Eyes wasn't too far off the mark.
While my buddy puffed out his chest to the point of near-button-poppage, the better-looking one grasped my outstretched hand.
"Ms. Tobias, thank you for seeing us without an appointment. I'm Andrew Zander and this is my brother, Gary."
Andrew Zander was a handsome man. He was a good six inches taller than me, so I figured him to be about six feet. His hair was the color of sunlit sand, his eyes an emerald green. The faint lines around his eyes deepened as he smiled, and I suddenly had that Jell-O feeling in my legs again.
"Tobi Tobias, huh?" Gary stole my hand from his brother and held it tightly. "I knew a Kitty Kitrina once."
Reluctantly, I pulled my gaze off Andrew to acknowledge his brother. It wasn't a surprise that Mr. Roving Eyes — I mean, Gary — would know a Kitty Kitrina. In fact, I was pretty sure he knew a lot of women with cutesy little names like that. They were probably all employed just over the Mississippi River in what's known in male circles throughout St. Louis as "The East Side." But it wasn't his boyishly tousled brown hair, thick gold chain, or overly charming eye contact that tipped me off. It was simply the result of a newly tuned radar — a radar that had been draped in naïveté until the day my heart was broken.
But I didn't have to give the guy my heart, just a pitch that would knock his socks off.
"Mr. Zander," I replied as I disengaged my hand.
"You can call me Gary."
I'd only been in the room a grand total of about two minutes, but I could already sense that the Zander brothers were about as opposite as they come. And, if I believed in gambling, I might just be willing to bet the farm on the guess that their relationship with each other was strained. Then again, if I'd had a farm, it would've been repossessed by now.
I motioned to the chairs and invited the men to sit. The dirty look Andrew shot Gary was quick but not missed by me. It was obvious that Andrew was the professional, and Gary the whatever.
"What can I do for you this afternoon?" I sat in a chair across from the two men and employed a trick I'd learned from my days at Beckler and Stanley Ad Agency: I leaned forward, my attention squarely on the prospective client.
"We've got a radio spot coming up on Tuesday, and we are without a slogan thanks to that idiot, John Beckler."
I felt my mouth start to gape at the mention of my former boss but managed to recover before anyone was the wiser.
Andrew cleared his throat and waved his right hand in the air in an obvious attempt to gain control of the conversation from his brother. "I'm sorry, Ms. Tobias, let me give you some quick background."
"Tobi, please. And, yes, background is good."
"We own Zander Closet Company. We specialize in closet organization systems. We opened about six months ago and business has been really slow. I couldn't figure it out for the longest time. I mean, we do just as good a job as these other companies and we're using better materials. Yet no one is calling." I couldn't help but notice the way his emerald-green eyes darkened as he spoke. Mood eyes. Like mine. I tried to focus on his words as he continued. "I was at my wits' end one day and so I did a search on closet companies in and around St. Louis. I figured I'd call some of our competitors and see what kind of deals they were offering. When I flipped to the section for closet companies, I got a glimpse at one of our problems."
Ah, yes, the joys of alphabetical order. A true business killer if there was one.
"It takes a while to weed through the companies who vie for the first spot, doesn't it?" I commented.
Andrew's face brightened. "Exactly. I mean, how many A's can you really put in front of a name?"
"So we need to make you stand out. Make people remember Zander Closet Company." I reached for the pad of paper I kept on the table and pulled a pen from the holder. "Now, what's this about a radio spot and John Beckler?"
"We've got what could be our first real break coming up. You've heard about next week's Home Showcase out in Chesterfield, right?"
Yeah, I'd heard about it. I'd been staring at the ads for weeks, drooling over all the business I didn't have. To Andrew, I said, "Are you one of the businesses being featured?"
"We are. It was a huge coup, but we got in. We're supposed to install one of our premier organization systems into a home owned by Preston and Mitzi Hohlbrook."
This time I was a bit slower when it came to recovering my slackened jaw. "Preston Hohlbrook? As in the Car King himself?"
"The one and the same," Gary interrupted. He drummed his hands on the table and shifted in his seat. "You ever seen those commercials he does sitting on top of the camel? Wearing a crown on his head? Comes across as this hip guy? Well, it's a farce. He's as boring as they come."
It's a good thing Andrew muttered something to his brother at this point because they were too preoccupied to hear me snort. Gary Zander really was a piece of work.
"Yes, Tobi, Preston Hohlbrook from Hohlbrook Motors," Andrew said, shooting daggers in his brother's direction.
"That's great visibility for you."
"It certainly could be. But we've got to get Zander Closet Company in people's heads before the Showcase. Otherwise they won't be looking for our work. And that's why we're here."
I nodded, my thoughts still on the name Gary had uttered earlier. As much as I wanted — no, needed — this job, I had to know if John was involved.
"You mentioned John Beckler before. Is he working on part of your campaign?"
"That lazy sack of —"
"Gary, enough," his brother said.
But for once, I wanted Mr. Roving Eyes to continue. Slimeball or not, Gary Zander obviously had a handle on the personality of my former boss. So good, in fact, that I had to wonder if I'd been a bit rash in my estimation of Andrew's brother.
"Hell, Andrew, he's that and more. We've got 'til Monday afternoon to come up with a slogan that's gonna make us stand out. That's three days. He dragged us around by the ear only to come up with zip."
Sounded like the John Beckler I knew, all right. Sit back, do nothing (or do something incredibly stupid), and then leave the task of damage control to his business partner.
"So you were working with John, but you're not now?" I could feel my cheeks pushing upward, the adrenaline coursing through my body. This was sounding a lot like a chance to show John who was best once and for all.
"We fired him," Andrew said before his brother could speak again. "We should have known better when we met with him and he kept talking about all his other clients instead of focusing on us. And the partner? Mike Stanley? He basically sat there the whole time and didn't say a word. Just kept chewing tobacco through the whole meeting —"
The first few notes of the theme from Jaws interrupted the conversation. I wasn't surprised to see it was Gary's phone. How fitting. Women beware.
Excerpted from Death in Advertising by Laura Bradford. Copyright © 2017 Laura Bradford. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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