Authors: Jonathan Gould
Seattle WA 2015
Copyright 2015 Jonathan Gould
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Cover Design by Greg Simanson
Edited by Bethany Root
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to similarly named places or to persons living or deceased is unintentional.
Print ISBN 978-1-62015-712-1
EPUB ISBN 978-1-62015-734-3
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015903243
To Graham, John, Terry, Eric, Terry, and Michael – for shifting the goalposts
SHOULD EVER HAVE
the bad sense to die, don’t do it after a heavy night of drinking. That bright light is a killer.
I was floating. At least that’s what my senses were telling me. Mind you, I could barely trust my senses at the best of times. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Then I opened them again, just a little. Still floating. So much for my senses.
I urgently needed to get a better view of my surroundings. I lifted my arm and took my hat off, aiming to use it to shield my eyes from the light. Unfortunately, that was the exact moment I remembered that my arm had just acquired several bullet wounds. I howled in pain and dropped the hat, which drifted off in front of me, quickly disappearing into the light.
Any attempts at tracking the progress of my hat were thwarted by searing daggers piercing my face, forcing me to slam my eyes shut. At this stage in my life, or lack thereof, floating blindly became my occupation of choice. I couldn’t look directly into that blazing glare ahead. I could barely move any part of my bullet-riddled body. All I could do was float like a helpless, curled up, trodden-on bug, onwards towards the light.
I tried to look on the bright side. At least things couldn’t get any worse. What did I have to lose by dying? In the great balance sheet of life, all my numbers had been marked with red ink. The only thing I had ever added up to was a great big minus. No, this wasn’t so bad at all. Good riddance to you, life. Good riddance to you, dirty, stinking world.
At that moment, my eyes flickered open again, just for a second, and I happened to glimpse what it was that I was floating above.
It was blackness. Total, utter blackness.
I should have been used to blackness. In my life just passed, I had spent my time getting well acquainted with it. The blackness of dark houses or dead-end alleys at midnight I knew well enough. But this was a blackness beyond any I could ever have imagined—a blackness that had never seen even a trace of light. I sh
uddered to think what might be found in the depths of that dark abyss. I also shuddered to think that, given my fine performance in the theatre of life, there was a pretty good chance I was soon going to be right in the middle of it.
That’s when I realised I was wrong. Things could get a whole lot worse.
I cursed myself for taking that last job. What was I thinking? Everyone I knew had warned me against it. Detective Clyde Harris, my only friend amongst the city’s fine police force, had told me it was tantamount to suicide. My accountant, Charlie Singbuck, had suggested that bankruptcy was a preferable option. Even my cat had stood by the front door, snarling and hissing as if to say,
you go through that door, you’re not coming back
But what choice did I have? I hadn’t had any work for months, and the impact this was making on my modest savings was starting to show. My landlord had already politely indicated that if I didn’t supply some rent by next Thursday, he would show me just how quickly the contents of an apartment could be moved onto the street. And my staple diet of stale bread and raw potatoes was starting to wear thin. As much as that phone call from the Girl Scouts had given me the screaming heebie-jeebies, I’d known there was no option but to take a deep breath, fortify myself with a good shot of alcohol, and head out into the night.
Did somebody mention alcohol?
My truest friend. My constant companion as I had waited in the dark for the deal to go down. Surely it wouldn’t abandon me in my hour of need.
With my good arm, I groped in my pocket and pulled out my trusty hip flask. I opened it and held it to my lips, waiting to feel that soothing heat at the back of my throat. Nothing. Not a drop. My flask was as empty as a gambler’s wallet after the last race has run.
I made another mental note that if I should ever die again, I would make sure I had a full hip flask. Then I hurled the now useless flask away. With barely opened eyes, I was just able to see it follow my hat into the light. But this time, I was surprised to hear a yell of pain from the other side.
By now, the light was almost upon me. I willed myself not to move any further. The prospect of what I might face on the other side was more than my death-addled mind could contend with. But with no way to resist, I could do nothing to halt my progress into the light. As it enveloped me in its gleaming fire, I felt my whole body burning. The light bored into my head, scorching every synapse in my brain. I knew I couldn’t take much more of this. I was glowing like a white hot poker. At any moment, my eyes would pop out and my head would explode.
Suddenly, the light was gone. Not only that, but I felt ground beneath my feet. Not particularly solid ground, but ground all the same. I used my good arm to steady myself and then slowly opened my eyes.
I was standing on what I could only describe as . . . cloudy fuzz? For a moment, I was terrified I would sink right through, but it seemed to be holding my weight. It was surprisingly supportive fuzz, so cloudy and white that I felt like I was perched on top of a giant wedding cake. The sky above was pale blue, feathering my cheek with a gentle chill. I might have flunked most of my Sunday school classes, but I instantly knew what this place must be. I had arrived at the Pearly Gates.
Well, to be honest, I hadn’t quite arrived at the Pearly Gates. If I strained my eyes I could just make them out, a hazy glimmer far off in the distance. What I had actually arrived at was the end of the queue that led to the Pearly Gates. It stretched out in front of me, full of people of every description. Men and women. Tall people and short people. Fat people and skinny people. Black people and white people, and people of just about every colour in between. All waiting patiently in the long line that snaked across the cloudy fuzz to those faraway Gates.
I scanned the scene, considering my options. I’d never been the type to wait in line. My style had been more about barging through to the front of the queue. Sure, I usually ended up being denied entry, but at least that way I didn’t have to stand around for hours before being disappointed.
This time, though, the stakes were so much higher. Being denied entry here meant more than just being left to hang around outside. There was another place they were going to send me. A place I didn’t want to consider. I might not have known much about this after-death caper, but I knew I wasn’t in any hurry to get to those Gates.
I looked at the queue again. In the short time since I had arrived, it didn’t seem to have moved. At this rate, it would probably take several days to reach the Gates. Maybe just enough time to figure out a way to bluff myself through.
I took a couple of steps towards the last member of the queue, a scruffily-dressed gentleman with ragged grey hair, a large moustache, and a hat that looked vaguely familiar. Before I could get there, a figure blocked my path.
It was a young male figure, with a pinched-up face like a rodent, but not the cute kind you find running inside wheels. He was wearing a bright red uniform with navy blue trimmings, and in one hand he carried a cap with the words
written on it. The reason he held the cap in his hand, as well as the pained expression on his face and the bright red mark on his forehead, could probably all be explained by the object he held in his other hand—my trusty hip flask.
“This wouldn’t happen to be yours?” he asked. There was a distinct lack of heavenly peace and harmony in his tone.
“Let me have a look.” I took the flask and studied it carefully. Then I offered it back. “This couldn’t be mine. It’s empty.”
He took the flask without a smile. “Do you know who I am?”
“Judging by the uniform, I figure you must have been the bellhop at the hotel St Peter.”
It seemed that humour was in short supply outside the Gates of Heaven. He didn’t laugh at all. Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Listen to me,” he hissed. “All I’m doing is trying to get my job done, when suddenly I’m struck on the head by this little drink bottle. Maybe you see something funny in this, because I don’t.” Up close, his green eyes flashed angrily, and his rancid breath nearly overwhelmed me. It seemed that mouthwash was also in short supply up here.
I pushed him off my shoulder and threw him to the ground.
“No, you listen to me,” I said. “All my life, I’ve had punks like you telling me what to do. Now that I’m dead, I’m damned if I’m going to put up with it any longer. So you decide. Are you going to leave me to my business, or are you going to let my fists have a bit of fun?” Having stated my terms, I took back the flask, returned it to my pocket, and placed myself at the end of the queue.
The young man didn’t take too long to consider the offer. “We’ll see what Peter has to say about this,” he muttered through tight lips. Then he stood up and began walking purposefully back towards the Gates.
“Go and tell your boss I don’t deal with flunkies,” I called after him. This was true. The people I dealt with were usually three levels below the flunkies—not that he needed to know that. I bowed in response to the bewildered looks from the other people in the queue, removed the hat from the head of the scruffily-dressed gentleman, and placed it on my own. By a remarkable coincidence, it was a perfect fit.
It took about an hour for the bellhop to return. He strode across the clouds, dragging behind him an old man wearing a long white cloak tied around the midriff by a black sash. This man was tall, with long, lanky legs that his cloak consistently failed to keep covered. He had a flowing white beard and a face that was distinguished in a well-lined kind of way, and his eyes had a thoughtful, slightly pained look that spoke of a devotion to duty that went way beyond the call.
The younger man pointed at me. It didn’t look as if his mood had improved.
“This is the one, Peter,” he said. “First he threw a metal flask at me as he came into the light. Then, when I tried to talk to him, he attacked me.”
Peter listened carefully to the bellhop’s version of events. Then he turned to me.
“Is this true?” he asked. His voice was gentle, but I detected a tougher edge lurking not far beneath.
“Listen, Peter,” I said. “This is really not what I expected. I’ve just died a fairly violent and unpleasant death, and I was hoping for a little compassion. Instead, what do I find? Some puffed up little jackass who thinks that because he’s got a pretty uniform he can harass anyone passing through. Well today he took on the wrong guy.”
The bellhop clenched his fists. “You really want to take me on?” he snarled, trying to force his way past Peter.
Peter brushed the bellhop aside as one might wave away an irritating fly.
“Please tell me your name,” he said, “and spare me the shenanigans. I’m a very busy man and I’ve got a massive number of people to process, so if you could just play straight with me for a couple of minutes, I’m sure it will help both of us.”
As I looked into Peter’s eyes, I felt chastened. Here was a pair of eyes that had seen it all. For generation after generation, those eyes had watched the multitudes trooping through the Gates, relieved at last of age and suffering. If any man ever deserved a straight response, this was the one.
“My name is Jimmy Clarenden,” I said. “I’m sorry I hit your man with my flask. I can assure you it wasn’t intentional.”
Peter’s eyebrows raised themselves. His eyes bulged.
“Jimmy Clarenden, the private investigator?” he gasped.
“So some people have been known to refer to me,” I said, feeling somewhat bemused. It seemed my complete lack of fame had preceded me.
“You must come with me immediately.” Peter grabbed my arm and set off towards the Gates. I almost clean lost my balance, so forcefully was he tugging me.
As we passed the bellhop, I gave him a little smile. “Thanks for delivering my message.”
The bellhop didn’t reply, but over my shoulder, I could feel his glowering scowl as I was towed away.
The further we got from the end of the queue, the more I felt my brief show of bravado fading. Those Gates were approaching far too quickly. For an old fellow, this Peter could really move.
“Can you slow down?” I croaked. “I’m not exactly in any condition for a hundred-metre dash, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Peter glanced across at me. “My goodness, what happened to you?”
“I’ve been shot, multiple times. Right now, I feel like a slice of Swiss cheese at a hole punch convention.”
Peter paused for a moment, unable to tear his gaze from my bloodstained wreck of a body. Then the urgency returned to his eyes and he started up again, though at a slightly more relaxed pace.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Priority instructions. You must be brought through the Gates as quickly as possible.”
The insistence in Peter’s voice worried me. “I don’t understand,” I said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with what I said to the bellhop? I was only having a lend of him.”
“All I know is the instructions came right from the top,” replied Peter. “As soon as Jimmy Clarenden arrives, he is to be brought through the Gates as quickly as possible. Nothing more than that. No explanation. I tried to pass it on to all my assistants, but apparently some of them prefer to do the job their own way. You know how hard it is to find good help these days.”
“Sure,” I lied. The idea of me being in a position to employ some help was pretty funny. If my sides weren’t already split, I might have even laughed.
We continued walking beside the seemingly endless queue. Many of the people in the line shot glances towards us as we hurried past, their eyes revealing surprise, curiosity, and, most often, unabashed jealousy. As for myself, I was definitely feeling this personalised escort was not such a wonderful thing. Someone inside those Gates really wanted to see me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why.
“So how many slugs did you take?” said Peter suddenly. Beyond the urgency, there was a strange note of excitement in his voice.
I didn’t answer right away, partly because I wasn’t sure about the answer beyond ‘a lot,’ but mostly because of the tone of Peter’s voice. This wasn’t the sort of question I’d expected from this outwardly solemn old man.