|Chapter3-Coup||Chapter4- To the Tunnels|
The devil focused on the girl he had flattened. Young, pretty. The name on his uniform which had been a fuzzy string of characters that looked vaguely like in might spell Kryzinski or something along that line, subtly reformed itself to say O'Brien. He reached down to help the girl. When his voice spoke, there was a slight Irish lilt. The devil can be charming. Does that surprise you?
"My deepest apologies Milady. I hope that you are unharmed."
"I think I'll live." In a tone that implied that survival was certain but that some amount of resentment might remain.
"Indeed. May you live and prosper. Where would you be off too in such a hurry?
"I'm bound to get my records straightened out sir." She eyed his uniform, "I don't suppose that you can help me? ... without manhandling me of course." Her eyes flicked toward the retreating black clad form.
"My dear, under the proper circumstances, I should be delighted to manhandle you. But I don't think these are them. What is the problem with your records? In what way are they unstraight?"
"Apparently, they make no sense." She handed her transit pack to Satan who skimmed it once quickly. Then again, more slowly. And finally, line by line.
He then turned his eyes to Liz and scanned her, more or less line by line. "I assume that you were in no way involved in blowing up the USS Maine in Habana Harbor in 1898?" Liz shook her head. "You were not shooting from the Grassy Knoll in 1963?" Again she shook her head. "You did not betray Jeanne d'Arc to the Burgundians?". Liz shook her head yet again.
"You're right that they make no sense. I'm not too comfortable with this. It's wrong and not in a way that seems right. Still, though, it's not like the damn computers don't make preposterous mistakes some days. What's your plan?
"Well, my ... adviser ... suggested that I take this to the transit station and get them to issue me new papers.
"Your ... adviser ... would be the one who has been plying you with Chablis?
"Rose. But yeah, that'd be him.
"OK then. I think this might be somehow related to a bit of a problem I'm having myself. How about I go with you? At least as far as the bottom of the steps. Maybe further if things fall that way? If anyone asks, I'm your lawyer." His uniform became an expensive Italian suit. His toolkit turned into an attache case.
"Do I need a lawyer?"
"It's the 21st Century. Everyone needs a lawyer.
So, Liz and the devil set out for the Pearly Gates -- not holding hands -- while the devil regaled Liz with tales of an imaginary kingdom where the truly talented and able did whatever they damn well pleased thus earning the eternal thanks of the masses of pitiful common folk whose pathetic leaky boats were lifted by the ever rising tide of innovation and prosperity.
Eventually Liz and Satan reached and passed through the reception hall and trekked down the staircase to the passenger unloading area at the end. A steady stream of angelic vehicles deposited mostly decidedly unwell looking passengers then cruised away. The devil attempted to flag one of the vehicles down. Then another. Then a third. The flesh around his collar started to turn red. The fourth had an "Out of Service" sign. The fifth pointedly ignored him. As the sixth started to accelerate past, the devil stepped forward and with suddenly enormously long arms, reached into the vehicle and grasped the driver by his lapels. The struggling angel was hauled nose to nose with Satan. "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste ... hope you guess my name. Well, do you, punk?"
"Yeeessss" sputtered the angel.
"OK, then, you understand that technically you work for me although I usually prefer my own staff. In this circumstance, I find it necessary to work through you. We need a ride to the transit station. Then I need for you to get lost for a minimum of three hours and seventeen minutes. After that, you can report this incident to your superiors.
"Here, let me put that in writing." The devil snatched a somewhat singed looking flap of parchment out of the air, and handed it -- still smoking -- to the angel. The angel glanced at it, stuffed it into his pocket and walked to his vehicle. He opened the rear door and indicated in a satisfactorily smarmy manner that the devil and his charge should avail themselves of the back seat.
Liz climbed in and turned to her fellow passenger. "You're not a lawyer, are you?"
"Of course I'm a lawyer. I've passed the bar in a number of jurisdictions. Of course, I've also been disbarred in most of them, but I think I'm currently licensed in Idaho, Manitoba, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Texas.
"But you're not primarily a lawyer, are you?
"No, not exactly. Lately, I've been more of a business executive. But it appears that there has been a corporate raid. I guess I may be unemployed, but I reckon I can deal with that. One way or another.
Liz pressed on. "But you aren't really primarily a business executive are you?"
"Well, no, not exactly. But they wanted me to act like one. I read Peters and Deming and all that and we had focus groups, and we did ISO 2000 and did all the right stuff. Frankly, it was a pain in the rear. Throwing anyone who crosses me into a fiery pit is easier, more satisfying, and works better if you ask me. Anyway, I thought I was doing a pretty good job. Apparently not. ...They gave me a bunch of stock options. I wonder what'll happen if I try to exercise them.
"I'd recognize your name wouldn't I?
"Maybe. I have a lot of names. You've probably heard a few of them. How does 'Legion' sound? Actually, I think not. It's sort of pompous. Huge columns, thunderbolts, Charlton Heston sort of thing. How about Beels?
'Yeah, but the familiar form -- Beels. After all, we may end up friends.
"Is being friends with you safe?
"It's more not being friends with me that is not safe. Ask Job's relatives. But that's not really an answer. The answer is that I am who I am and you are who you are. I don't try to change who you are -- ever. I don't want to. In general, I can't. And in any case, it's not permitted and, like all civilized people, I generally obey rules unless there is a reason not to. I'm just an amplifier and enabler. Your soul is as safe with me as it is without me. No safer. But not less safe.
The devil turned to seat back in front of him and slid open a door that certainly wasn't visible -- at least to your author -- previously. It covered a surprisingly large minibar. The devil extracted two wine glasses and a bottle. "More Chablis m'dear?" He asked.
Liz thought it over. She was cruising around the afterlife in a weird vehicle driven by an apparently homosexual angel and accompanied by an entity who might well be the devil himself. Moreover, her passport apparently was not valid. And the figurative embassy wasn't returning her calls and e-mails. What the hell (perhaps not the optimum metaphor given the context). She decided that given the day she'd had another drink wouldn't do any harm and might help. "Rose, if you don't mind."
"Certainly" He poured Liz a glass of red fluid and himself -- from the same bottle -- a glass of white. He offered his glass as a toast. "To a happier and less screwed up tomorrow"
"I can certainly drink to that" said Liz. And she did.
They traveled in silence for a few minutes lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Liz spoke. "Look, if really you are who you appear to be, what are you doing wandering in the anterooms to heaven dressed in disguises?"
The devil was silent for a moment -- organizing his thoughts. "It's kind of complicated. First of all, you've never really been told how the afterlife works except whatever you got from your mentor ... besides rose ... and I don't have information on exactly what he told you. At least not easily and immediately. And you need to know some context to understand the situation.
"Let me give you a short briefing.
"You and I have free will. That's a building block of the universe. Nonetheless, you need a place to park that free will. That's your body. The body exists while you are alive and something much like your body exists here in the afterlife. It's a bit optimized. Any pieces that came off during your demise are reattached. If you wish, you can fix any problems like zits, or missing teeth or an allergy to cucumbers. But you can't easily make yourself Marilyn Monroe -- not that you'd want to if you had any sense.
Your body and soul have to live somewhere in the afterlife and there are lots of choices. In fact, just about anyplace coherently imaginable on Earth by any human ever is available. There's Heaven and Hell and Valhalla, and Mt Olympus, and the Happy Hunting Ground. It's worse than that because there are actually a whole lot of each of them. At least one for every true believer. But it's complicated. It's sort of like quantum physics. If you believe in a Mount Olympus ruled by a two meter tall Zeus, you can go there. But part of you is in a Mount Olympus ruled by a shorter Zeus. And part of you is in one ruled by a taller one. And a smaller part is in one ruled by Hera who has Zeus locked up in the dungeon.
It's really not that different from Earth where everyone sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.
God is sort of a Chief Executive Officer for the afterlife. He has some influence on Earth as well, although less than most people imagine. And he can't interfere with free will although he can certainly enact penalties for making poor decisions. ... or good ones for that matter -- something that happens entirely too often if you ask me. ... Which no one will.
"I am -- or maybe was -- sort of the CEO of a wholly owned subsidiary. Not only does God not tell me what to do -- I have free will and wouldn't obey anyway because part of my charter is to be difficult. God isn't allowed to command me or my company ... normally. We -- God and I -- do work together on administrative issues. Or at least we used to. Now that the subject comes up, it occurs to me that we really haven't talked to each other for centuries. No need. Things have been running pretty smoothly from our point of view. But maybe I'll give him a call after things settle out. Have a few beers. Tell a few war stories ...
"My problems are basically office politics. Maybe a bit rough edged. But office politics nonetheless. Some people don't give up seeking power and prestige quickly or willingly even though power and prestige don't really get you anything in the afterlife besides grief. I reckon I can handle the problems. And if I can't, it really doesn't matter much.
"Yours seem to be something different. I'm not sure what. Let me ask you, was there anything unusual about your mortal existence?
Liz thought. "No, I don't think so. Unusual in what way?"
"I don't know. Divine revelations? Cripples threw down their crutches when you touched them? You led armies of sinners against corrupt politicians? You had long conversations with wildlife? Any man who pursued you was stuck by lightning when he attempted to sully you? Stuff like that."
"Well, one of my boyfriends got an STD from my roommate. But I hardly think that was my fault. And we had a parrot that could swear fluently in five or six languages when I was a kid, but it wasn't much of a conversationalist. I don't think that's really what you had in mind. So, no. But I can swear fluently in five or six languages."
"As can I. As can any man ... Right then. You're presumably not a new prophet or some sort of ancient goddess returned to spread mischief or anything like that. I don't have my records handy. Have we had any prior dealings? Contracts signed in blood, repulsive ceremonies on moonless nights, that sort of stuff?
"Well there probably were some high school pep rallies on moonless nights, and I went to a Britney Spears concert once -- can't remember if there was a moon. But basically, no. Do you really sign contracts with people?
"Oh sure. Not legally enforceable. And I invariably own their soul by the time they get around to negotiation anyway. But they expect it, so the contract thing is really the fastest and easiest way to move things along. They don't read them by the way. I sometimes slip in really bizarre clauses like 10,000 years of being yelled at non-stop on a home shopping channel. But they sign them anyway.
"Back to you. Other than being drop dead gorgeous, brainy, witty, and charming you don't seem to be anything all that out of the ordinary. Maybe it's who you are descended from. Lineal descendant of King David? Seventh daughter of a seventh daughter?
"Nothing like that. Just an ordinary mongrel American.
"Father a Freemason?"
"Naw. Collected birdhouses. Spent a lot of time fishing. Drank beer with his buddies on Thursday nights.
"Just an ordinary housewife and mother
"My brother used to be a white slaver, but he's switched to gun-running and contract killing.
Liz giggled. "No. I don't have a brother. My sisters -- both of them -- are pretty conventional. Except for that thing with the neighborhood cats and the pots of poison ivy.
The devil, having a clear premonition about where following up on that unlikely information was likely to lead decided to drop the theme right then and there. "Not who you are descended from then. Doesn't leave a lot. We seem to have a pretty much normal individual -- that'd be you -- singled out for special treatment ... why?"
"I ... I don't know."
"Of course not. And it was a rhetorical question anyway. More wine?" Liz put her hand over the top of her glass. It was beginning to occur to her that more alcohol wasn't such a swift idea.
At that point, the vehicle lurched violently, and a "Fasten Seat Belts" sign accompanied by a graphic of a large bear firmly grasping an human clearly intended to be a passenger. The intent was probably a panda hugging its cub. Unfortunately the bear's expression was ambiguous -- perhaps more like a grizzly with a toothache than a panda. It came off as devious, and perhaps ... hungry ... maybe even anticipatory. There was a loud thunk and the vehicle lurched even further. Liz searched surreptitiously, then openly, for a seat belt. There was none.
The devil said, "Nothing to worry about. A little routine turbulence. Caused by pollutants in the Holy Water fueling this crate. The lab rats are trying to figure out which pollutant, but they've found so many ..."
The vehicle lurched twice more and slewed right violently accompanied by the unmistakable sound of rending metal . The driver rose from his seat and dove out the door yelling "Every man for himself." The vehicle listed to the left and stopped.
"Routine turbulence?" asked Liz sweetly.
"All Souls Shoals more likely. Bunch of rocks between the transit station and the afterlife. They've been arguing about removing them for millenia, but there used to be a breeding population of Chartreuse Spotted Slutcuddlers here, so the environmentalists won't let us dynamite the rocks."
"Slutcuddlers. They are flying mollusks about eight inches long with big teeth. About sixty of them. No one has seen a Slutcuddler since the fall of the Roman Empire -- which is OK with most people. They are really ugly. And they bite. But they are still on the endangered species list.
"So, what do we do now?"
"Well, we could either wait for rescue or take the tunnels back to reception."
"Tunnels to reception?"
"Yeah, built by condom smugglers. Back in the old days, the Catholic Church used to be the law around here. But there is a large population in the afterlife that considers laws to be a challenge rather than a directive"
"How long will we have to wait for rescue?"
"Depends. The driver has wings. He will fly back to the transit station. If he thinks to tell anyone that he wrecked this thing and where, someone will come by to pick us up in two or three days. Trouble is that these driving angels aren't picked for their brains and he may not remember that he had a vehicle or passengers or how many or where they are. If he doesn't, they will come up short a shuttle when they do the audit at the end of the decade and this is one of the places they will check for it. Maybe 5-6 years.
"And the tunnels?'
"Ten, twelve minutes to the main reception hall."
"That can't be right. It took us that long to walk down all those damn steps. And we were flying for what -- 20 minutes? We have to be more than a 10 minute walk from where we started."
"You're right. As the quasi-deity flies, it's a fair trip. But not everything around here makes sense. Topologically, the trip through the tunnels goes under all the same points as the trip through the air, but the points are closer together somehow. What they teach us in third grade is 'underground is always quicker'. They're usually right.
"So, it's the tunnels then."
"Yeah, probably. There are a few drawbacks. The tunnels go everywhere so there are a lot of them. And they all look alike. And there aren't that many traffic signs. And the tunnel gnomes sometimes get drunk and change the signs around. You ever try to find your way around Boston? Same thing, but without the insane drivers."
"Is there another alternative?"
"Well, I can grow wings, and I expect that you can also. But it takes a while to grow them -- weeks. And you'd have to learn to use them. We'd be living on raw fish while we waited. And it's a really tiring way to travel -- worse than airlines even, although there's less risk of losing your baggage. And growing wings makes you stupid -- witness the clown who put us on these rocks. As it happens, I can't afford to be more stupid than usual at the moment. I think we ought to try the tunnels."
"Do we need a flashlight or lantern or something?"
"Not really. The tunnel walls glow a bit -- fungus, radioactivity, something like that. And in any case. I have a magic wand." The devil fumbled in his brief case and extracted a magnificent wand made of ivory, polished wood, gold and silver.
"It's genuine Harry Potter, Mark III gold Seal Brougham"
"You mean there is a real Harry Potter?"
"There is of course, but he doesn't do much magic nowadays. He's an accountant in Nottinghamshire. Coaches a little league Quidditch team. He's active in the Free the Dementor's movement. Doesn't make wands. We license the name from Rowling's publishers"
"You make wands and pay royalties?"
"We make wands and promise to pay royalties. I can pretty much guarantee you that the publishers will never see a farthing in actual royalty payments. And if they do, the money will vanish, or turn red hot and burn their hands, or get them arrested for counterfeiting when they try to spend it. I don't worry too much about the details. I have people to handle that.
"You'd think that literate, college educated people, would know better than to set up business arrangements with dark powers. But they don't."
"Probably be a good idea to get you a light source just in case we get separated." Satan peered into the depths of his brief case. "I don't suppose you know how to use a magic wand? Maybe the Girl Scouts, or an after school class? I have a really pretty decent Honda wand here. Pretty basic and has a couple of hundred thousand spells on it. But very reliable."
"Honda makes wands?"
"Honda makes everything"
"Well, anyway, in the part of the universe that I come from, no one has magic wands. I wouldn't have a clue how to use it."
"Yeah, you're probably right. Take too long to train you to use it. Assuming that you can use it. And if you can, I'd just as soon somebody else baby sat you through the 'Hey everyone, watch this!' phase.
He fumbled some more and came up with a flashlight. "Here, take this. Some salesman left it in the office when he departed -- rather abruptly and screaming loudly as I recall. I'd be careful with it. It probably has a bunch of clever functions that could hurt you or somebody else. This new tech stuff is scary sometimes."
"So," said Liz, "Where are these tunnels?"
"Pretty much wherever we want them to be as long as there is an entrance within about 200 meters. Let's poke out heads out and see if we can put one where we need it. Hold on a second." Satan reached into the minibar and extracted four beers, a couple of plastic food containers, and two glasses. He dropped them into his brief case explaining "Emergency Rations", then unbelted his seatbelt (How come he got one and I didn't? Liz wondered) and pushed his door open.
Outside, the wind was howling. Rain drops flew. Low clouds scuttled across the sky. The landscape such as it was consisted of slippery looking gray rocks, and pools full of unattractive green algae. No birds, animals or terrestrial vegetation was visible. Not too far away surf roared and huge clouds of spray periodically climbed into the sky to be torn apart by the gale. It was cold. Not, Liz thought a likely spot for time-shares, although she supposed it was only a matter of time before someone turned it into a golf course with condos along the odd-numbered fairways.
The wind slammed the devil's door as soon as he was clear of the vehicle. He staggered around to the lee side and opened Liz's door. "How about we put a tunnel right there?" He said pointing to a spot about two meters from the door.
"Sure, why not?" said Liz. "And who are they?" She asked pointing at three figures huddled next to a huge pot in the lee of a large flat rock.
"Oh christ," muttered Satan. "Why us?"
"Those are the three witches, a plot device that Will Shakespeare inadvertently loosed on the world about four centuries ago. If you ignore them, maybe they will leave us alone"
"Are they dangerous?"
"No, not dangerous. Unless you happen to be MacBeth and even then the problem isn't them, it's you. What they are is tedious. Damn, they've seen us"
The three --- and their pot -- slowly rose into the air in a cloud of mist and slowly progressed across the dismal plain. The figures resolved themselves into three distinct and quite different figures. The first was whippet thin wearing a black cocktail dress clearly designed for someone about 40 years her junior. Her hair was peroxide blond falling in flowing waves. It was unclear what protected it from the pummeling rain, but protected it surely was. She was wearing makeup that appeared to have been applied with a spatula and lipstick of an indescribable crimson. The second clearly would weigh in around 170 kilograms and was wearing a faded mumu. Her hair was stringy and gray. She wore neither makeup nor lipstick. The third wore a business suit, short but tidy black hair, and probably costly makeup applied with obvious care. The professional appearance however was largely negated by the tattoo of a striking cobra on her neck and cheek, large skull and crossbone earrings, teeth filed to points, and what appeared to be a full sized and quite possibly functional hand grenade dangling from a chain around her neck.
As they approached, Satan Smiled and waved. "Fran, Flossie, Fountaine. How good to see you. Girls, this is Liz." Liz and the .... 'girls' mumbled social niceties toward each other.
"What brings the charming triplet out to All Saints?"
"Our despicable, lowlife, bottom-feeding, scumbag agent booked us out here." Said the blond. "For two goddamn weeks" added the brunette. "He'll wish he hadn't." muttered the porker. "We're doing a spell. Say, you wouldn't happen to have any eye of newt? Ours seems to have gone bad. I don't want to use eye of frog in this spell. I REALLY want this one to work."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that I have some primo Hungarian newt eye in my kit here." Satan dug around in his attache case an produced a small zip-loc bag containing three or four disgusting looking spheroids. He handed it to the heavy witch."
"Hey look, thanks. Said the witch. We owe you. By the way, what brings you out to this garden spot?"
"Bad navigation" Explained Satan. "You know how Guardian Angels are when they lose focus."
"All too well" sighed the witch. "Anything we can do to help?"
"Naw, we're going to take to the tunnels."
"Alright then, if you'll excuse us we need to get back to this spell. Damn agent's gonna wish he'd never been hatched. And remember, if you need anything, give a holler. We're eternally grateful for your help." The pot and the three shades quickly retreated toward its original rock.
"That wasn't so bad" Said Liz
"You don't know how lucky we are to have caught that trio when they actually had something to do. There's really nothing wrong with them, but if they are at loose ends, they will talk your ear off and then start on the other ear. Whine? You've never heard whining until you've heard them rev up. Now let's get out of here before the Ghost of Christmas Past or Poe's miserable Raven shows up and implants the word 'Nevermore' on our souls"
"OK" said Liz.
Satan waved his wand and muttered "Sesame openus". Slowly, reluctantly, a crevice opened in the rock. Lights flickered on. Rock ledges appeared leading down into the hole and slowly morphed into carpeted steps. A canopy appeared, and a red carpet unrolled up to the side of the vehicle. A string quartet was playing Respighi.
Liz stepped down onto the rocks? "Did you just cast a spell?" She asked.
"Not really. I was just amusing myself. I'm not a magician although I do have some control over some some aspects of what appears to be reality. A real magician could create a tunnel here if nothing went wrong. All I can do is persuade a nearby tunnel that it wants to be here instead of where it is. And the rest of the stuff is just an illusion. You can see through it and look at reality if you choose. But the illusion is harmless and a good deal prettier. Most people choose not to. That's what Capitalism and Buddhism are all about ... I think"
"You don't understand Buddhism?"
"Well, I've had a bit of experience with people who claim to be Buddhists, but really, I'm pretty sure that real Buddhists who die either are reincarnated or achieve Nirvana and check out permanently. So I think the purported Buddhists I encounter don't really have it together. Same with just about any religion. I don't think I ever get to meet the really serious practitioners. It's not like they have any need or reason to look me up."
"So, no I don't think I understand Buddhism."
"If you want to discuss religion, why don't we get back under cover, crack these brews" He hefted his briefcase. "Put a couple of logs on the fire. Maybe nibble some cheese? It's cold out here, and sooner or later, this tunnel is going to get bored and wander off to someplace else."
|Chapter1-Coup||Chapter3- To the Tunnels|