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To the industry, watching the Obits scroll by is "trolling." Different-sized vessels troll for different catches: the small firms troll for individual clients, those recently deceased for whom the mauve icon in the encoded rainbow of the color bar across the top of the screen indicates a still-open service contract. On our level--GD Inc. has six hundred franchised Homes nationwide and operations in Canada, Mexico, and Korea--we're more interested in demographic shifts, tracking market share, the kinds of data indicated by the shape of the color bar itself, its waves and fluctuations.
We started doing business even before "Elliott Anderson's Obituary Channel" was first bounced down from a satellite. Our genesis lay in the demise of the 20th Century "baby boomer" generation: as that population died off early in this century, the demand for funerals increased so rapidly the deathcare industry grew like breadrising under the action of yeast. We were the first chain to go interstate, the first to use CDC statistics to locate new Homes, the first with group plans (beginning with our benchmark contract with AARP). We shaped the franchise system of funeral homes you see today. So when Max minded the boardroom wallscreen, he eyed it with a proprietary air, like an institutional investor watching the big board dance before his or her eyes.
I confess I wasn't paying attention. I was staring past the wallscreen through our eightieth floor window at the mustard-colored atmosphere of downtown L.A., wondering whether or not I was going to be able to sight Object 21/3847--a new comet, just named Virgilius Maro--as it finally hove into earth's sight next week. My hobby is imaging astronomical objects with VHD clarifying video. I was concluding that the only way I was going to be able to see V. Maro for the full fourteen seconds it would take for me to properly capture its image was by leasing space on Mauna Kea. This gave new meaning to the phrase "visible to the naked eye."
"Pass the fucking embalming fluid," Max growled. "They're killin' us."
He pointed at a new symbol, an ideograph, showing up in the color bar of the Obit Channel screen. "Like who's this new outfit, Ancestors?"
"Asian specialists. In from Beijing," I said, stretching, sitting up. At least I'd been keeping up with Post Mortem, our trade magazine. "They started out as All Friends Mortuary Society. Special noodle feature on all banquet menus, monk's food, saffron theme. Niche market. Specials include ancestors appear in holocube...."
"They're not the only ones."
"Com'on, Max. We're still doing close to three billion a year."
Max took a deep breath, rubbed his eyes, and spoke softly. "Not anymore. Two-eight is what we billed last year. This year we thought two-six. Now look at the way the market's turned on us. We'll be lucky to hurdle one-five."
"Your head's been in the clouds, Coop. Ever since Harriet took off last year."
"I am reading the trades." I could feel myself blush. My divorce aside, the truth is, the business end of things had never seized me the way it had Max--a business which, I recalled with a pang of guilt, had treated me very well (ask Harriet, whose settlement included a condo complex in Cabo). Lately I had been acting like the numbers had little to do with me.
"We were the first with drive-through viewing," Max said, "the first with unit pricing, the first with mobile embalming centers...."
My implanted pager hummed against my heart. I used the excuse to ease myself out of my chair. "Cheer up," I said without conviction. "We'll think of something."
"Well, you're the artist, Coop," Max said with a crooked grin. "Right?"