"Last, we've got Buddy Burnett," said Mr. Hastings, sighing heavily.
The slide clicked onto the screen, and Buddy felt himself sinking into his padded seat. He was glad they kept the conference room lights dim for these sales meetings so that no one could see his cheeks flush or his hands leave wet, smudgy marks on the table's surface.
So he didn't have to see the pity in the others' eyes. It always came from people who liked Buddy, people who meant well. But it made him feel hollow inside.
Hastings hurriedly clicked the slide from the screen, but not before the descending red lines burned into the retinas of the entire sales staff.
As the lights came on, everyone's eyes avoided Buddy.
"Buddy, could you stay a moment?" said Hastings as everyone rose to leave.
Hastings closed the door and motioned him back to a seat.
"We have a problem, you and I," said Hastings. "For the last five quarters now, you haven't met goal. In fact, your sales have declined."
"I know it's been off, sir, but I think...."
"Buddy, maybe it's time you stepped down, took some of the pressure off yourself."
"Let me have just two more weeks. If I can't turn it around, then I'll ... I'll quit. But give me this one chance," Buddy said in a rush.
Hastings frowned. "What can you expect to accomplish in two weeks?"
"I don't know. But what have you got to lose?"
Hastings pondered this for a moment, then smiled. "If you can sell me that easy, it's a wonder you haven't met your goal."
"Yes, sir. Thanks," said Buddy, grabbing Hastings' limp hand in his own and pumping it.
"I may have a prospect for you," Hastings said, reaching into his black suit and pulling out a pink telephone message slip. I hope I'm doing the right thing by passing this to you, Buddy."
"You are, sir," Buddy said, looking gratefully up at the old man. "Well, have casket, will travel."
The mortuary loomed in the twilight; an imposingly white structure perched high on the river bluffs in Alton. Buddy pulled the car onto the gravel road that wound its way to the front of the old mansion.
A mortuary this size had to represent a substantial contract.
As he approached, though, his initial euphoria turned to a swirling, sour feeling in his gut.
The place was falling apart. Ramshackle would have been too kind a word.
The six stately Corinthian columns that held the second and third floors separate from the first were peeling and cracked, iron rods showing through like sinew. Shutters, rotted and splintered, hung desultorily from their hinges, stirred feebly in the evening breeze.
Grabbing his briefcase, Buddy climbed the rickety, warped steps, avoiding beer cans, boards with nails in them and the occasional dead bird.
The front door appeared to be the only solid, serviceable thing about the house. Buddy rapped lightly on it, echoes thumping hollowly within the huge house.
Several minutes passed before footsteps reverberated across the dark entry hall.
Buddy straightened his tie, ran a hand through his thinning hair, a finger across the front of his teeth.
The door moved slowly, anciently on its hinges.
It was dimly lit inside, but it illuminated a face that was unexpectedly young and handsome.
"You must be Mr. Burnett. Come in, please," said the man, extending a hand. "I'm Carsten Moors."
Buddy enfolded the hand in his own, and was surprised by its lack of warmth. It was a big hand, with just a hint of calluses; a farmer's hand with a strong grip and prominent veins.
Moors was about six feet tall and solidly built, dressed simply in a pair of pressed khakis, a plain white shirt open at the collar and a navy blazer. A crop of sun-blonde hair fell boyishly uncombed across his forehead.
"Nice to meet you, sir," said Buddy, stepping inside a house that had, like its outside, seen better days.