He’d always thought it would be a bullet that would send him here. But he’d lived way longer than he’d expected to and it wasn’t a bullet in the end. Just a sudden pain in the chest and that had been it. And now here he was in this strange place standing by a desk piled high with ledger books.
One large one was labelled Killings. And another was labelled Cussing and Whoring. And they were awful big books and they had his name on them. In real big letters. He swallowed hard. Well, he’d always known it would come to this. The priests had forewarned him, all too often.
The man behind the desk sure looked old. As old as Satan. He bit back the smile that threatened to break out. Had to admit that he hadn’t expected Satan to look much like this. Wasn’t he meant to have horns or something? And a tail?
Didn’t look like there was much room for a tail under those long white robes. And he sure hadn’t got any horns. Just a long white beard and even longer white hair. A bit of a slob really. Man needed a haircut. Perhaps he should offer to give him one. Delay the moment when things were going to get real hot.
The man looked at him through narrowed eyes. “I do not need a haircut, thank you.”
Shit. How did the old man know that’s what he’d been thinking? Had he spoken aloud without realising it? Yeah. That must be it. After all, it had been one hell of a day.
The book labelled cussing seemed to swell slightly. And the old man gave a grunt of irritation. “I can see you’re going to be trouble. They did warn me about you.”
Yeah, that figured. No surprises about where he was always headed. Best say something. “It’s awful quiet here. I thought it would be noisier.”
The old buzzard looked at him sharply. “Noisier?”
Johnny shuffled awkwardly. “Well, yeah. Noisier. All those tormented souls and all. Wailing. Gnashing of teeth. That sort of thing.”
“Tormented souls?” The man sounded puzzled. “We haven’t got any of those. They’re somewhere else.”
“Ah. So this is kind of like the waiting room?”
The old boy sighed in irritation. “We prefer to call it the reception room. Or sometimes the justice room.” He looked pointedly at the large books on his table.
Johnny shuffled uncomfortably. But he was damned if he was going quiet. Damned. Quite funny really. Using that word. Here of all places. The cussing book seemed to swell a fraction more. What the hell, he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
“Still figured it would be noisy. You must have got ’em all stashed a long way off. Guess I got a long walk ahead of me. Should have worn my other boots.”
“The only noise round here is from the junior cherubs. Practising on their harps.” The old boy gave a slight shudder. “Dreadful racket.”
“Cherubs? Didn’t expect them here.”
The old man looked at him real stern. “Actually, Mr Lancer, you seem singularly ill prepared for this. As I said, they warned me you’d be trouble.”
“Who warned you?”
“Your family. Particularly your father. Said you were always difficult.”
“Murdoch! Hell, no. He shouldn’t be here. He don’t deserve to be here.”
“You don’t think so?” The old man sounded surprised.
Johnny shuffled his feet, embarrassed. “Well, no. I thought he’d be in the other place.”
The old man gave a sigh. Folded his arms and gave him a long look. “The other place?”
“Well, yeah, Heaven.”
“Do tell me, Mr Lancer, exactly where do you think you are?”
Dios, the man was sure acting dumb. Maybe he was getting forgetful, being so old an’ all. “Hell. That’s where I was always headed.” Johnny nodded towards the books on the table. “And that’s where I’ve ended up.”
The old man sighed again. Somewhere, off behind the big gates, Johnny could hear the faintest sounds of music. And singing. Off key singing. Seemed you even went to hell if you sang badly. So there was some justice after all.
“Hell? Does this look like Hell?”
“Well, I gotta admit, it ain’t quite what I was expecting. Figured there’d be more flames and furnaces. That sort of thing.” Johnny gazed around at his surroundings. There seemed to be a lot of clouds and it was kinda peaceful. Except for that God awful singing.
The books on the table shifted slightly.
“They’re still practising.” The old man said it like it was some kind of explanation. Shit. Could the old fellow read his thoughts? The books moved again.
Johnny stared uneasily at the books. He’d swear that the cussing one had gotten bigger again. He figured maybe it was a good idea to break the silence between the two of them. And the old fellow had a steely sort of look in his eyes. “Practising? Yeah, well, sounds like they need it. Anyway, like I said, I figured it’d be noisier here.”
“Because of the tormented souls?”
So maybe the man’s memory wasn’t that bad. “Yeah. And the wailing. Well, I guess we might as well get this over with.” Johnny looked pointedly at the pile of books. Shit. Had he really killed enough people to fill that book? No wonder he was headed for Hell. But why was Murdoch here? That really wasn’t fair. The man didn’t deserve it. Wasn’t his fault that things had turned out the way they had.
“You seem somewhat preoccupied?” The old man’s voice was actually quite gentle.
“Well, yeah, I am.” Johnny glared at him. “Just ain’t right that Murdoch should be here. He don’t deserve it. He was a good man.”
“He’d hoped to be here to meet you, but he’s resting a bruised foot.”
“A bruised foot?”
The old man looked at him, like he was irritated again. He sure seemed to get awful irritated. “Well, yes. He has very big feet.” He paused to allow Johnny to nod in agreement. “And unfortunately, he fell over the cherubs, well, he said he fell, I suspect it wasn’t an accident.” The old man paused meaningfully as the singers hit a particularly bad note. He adjusted his robes. “Anyway, he sent one of them off the edge of the cloud and hurtling towards the other place. Gabriel was very annoyed. He had to fly extremely fast to rescue the cherub and Gabriel really is getting too old for that sort of thing now.”
“Gabriel?” Who the hell was Gabriel. Didn’t know anyone called that.
“Archangel Gabriel. You must have heard of him? Surely those priests drummed something into your head? Something useful?”
Johnny shook his head in confusion. What the hell was an angel doing in Hell? Specially a famous one. Even he’d heard of Gabriel.
“Mr Lancer, you seem to be labouring under a misapprehension. Why are you so convinced that this is Hell?”
“Well, it’s what I deserve. Where I was always headed. The things I’ve done...” Maybe this was part of God’s plan. Give people a little hope before sending them into the depths of Hell.
The old man opened one of the books. Shit. The one marked Killings. He looked at Johnny thoughtfully. “I must say, you do seem to have been awfully busy in that department. Hm. Very busy indeed.” He moved across and opened the Cussing and Whoring book. “And you’ve certainly been busy in this department too. I see there is also an unpaid invoice here. Tut tut. So we can add debts to your other transgressions.”
“An unpaid invoice?” What the hell were transgressions anyway?
The old boy took out a pair of rimless spectacles and proceeded to peer in a short sighted fashion at the faded invoice. “Yes, indeed. Payable to a Miss Bougie – it appears to be an account for an inexcusable amount of cussing.”
Johnny shuffled his feet again. “Oh, yeah, I forgot that. But it ain’t as bad as the killings.” He wasn’t sure why he said that. Just seemed to make things worse. He should have let the old fellow concentrate on the unpaid invoice.
The man sighed. “I suppose we’d better take a look at the other book.”
Shit. The other book? What else had he done wrong? He watched as the old man leaned down and picked up a slimmer book marked Good Deeds. A real slim book. No surprises there. He was just bad. Like everyone had always told him. No redemption for Johnny Madrid.
The old man seemed to be reading the book carefully. Quite why it should take so long, God only knew.
“Well, Mr Lancer, that all seems to be in order. I think now I may officially welcome you to Heaven.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I think you made a mistake. This ain’t where I was headed.”
“I do not make mistakes, Mr Lancer. I can assure you that this is where you’re headed.” The old man was sounding irritated again.
“But them books... I mean, all those big books of things I done... They’re all bad. So I reckon I ain’t headed here.”
The man gave a real exaggerated kind of sigh. Reached down under the table and pulled out a set of weighing scales. They were marked ‘Scales of Justice.’ He glared at Johnny. “I really should have expected this from you. They all said you were trouble.”
“You said that already. And anyway, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
The old man put the two massive great books on one side of the scales which promptly sank in a most disturbing fashion under the weight.
“See.” Johnny’s voice was barely audible. Hopefully the old man was deaf.
“I am not deaf.”
The man then picked up the much smaller book and placed it on the other plate of the scales which promptly sank even further than the other side had. In fact, it sank so quickly that the Killing’s and the Cussing’s books shot off into the air and spiralled downwards out of sight.
“No mistake.” The old fellow sounded very smug. “As I said, I don’t make mistakes. It is exactly as I thought, you are indeed in the right place. So, welcome to heaven.”
Johnny peered over the side of the table but the sins had disappeared. Oddly the other book suddenly looked a lot thicker. He could only think of one thing to say. “Holy Shit!”