The two men sat in a room of highly
polished oak wood paneling whose floor was covered in lush dark red carpet.
They sat in thickly upholstered chairs covered in dark brown leather which
creaked when they made the slightest move. One man was apprehensive. He did not
know why he was in this room. He constantly fidgeted and looked at his watch as
if he had important business elsewhere. But he couldn’t think of someplace else
he should be at the moment other than this room. The other man was quiet and
appeared to be thinking deeply. Across from their chairs was a polished oak
desk behind which a highly polished woman sat, her golden hair piled high on
her head, her pink polished nails tapping a bored beat on her desk as she
flipped through a beauty magazine in which she could have been a model if she
had so desired such a vocation. She was long and lean and wore a fashionable
red silk dress, black nylons, and black heels. Her finger tapping made the
nervous man more nervous and he fidgeted some more and looked at his watch
again. And occasionally both men stole glances at a polished oak door that was
next to the woman’s desk. It was the only door in the room. Neither man could
remember coming through it.
After ten minutes of this the apprehensive man summoned the nerve to ask the woman a question. “Are we waiting for someone?” he asked in a slightly high pitched nervous tone. He was a large man in an even larger blue double breasted suit with a red tie and a white carnation. His forehead was beaded with perspiration and his thick glasses were slightly fogged. He appeared about forty but his thinning brown hair was already turning the silver of someone who was closer to seventy.
The woman looked up with an impatient stare. “Yes,” she said in a tone that indicated that the man should already know this fact as if it were right in front of his face. The woman hated stupid questions.
The large man turned to the other man. He whispered as low as he could. “Who are we waiting for?”
The second man was tall and trim and he had jet black hair, dark brown eyes, and taut facial features that read about mid to late fifties on the age scale. His black suit was also double breasted and he also wore a red tie, but he didn’t have a carnation. On his white shirt near his throat was a large rip. Blood flowed out and across his chest.
“Don’t you know?” said the tall man in a tone indicating he knew but also that he was surprised that the other man didn’t. Well, the tall man wasn’t exactly sure but at least he thought he knew where he was and who he was waiting for.
But the large man hadn’t heard him and of course did not know his thoughts. He was staring incredulously at the blood on the tall man’s chest.
“Good God!! You’re bleeding!!” he screamed at the tall man. He started sweating profusely and breathing faster. He had to help him, to get him to a doctor. He stood up, ready for action. The tall man just stared at him.
“So are you,” he said in a matter of fact tone, as if it was normal to be bleeding in a nicely decorated room with fine oak panel walls, beautiful carpeting, and a gorgeous woman who was bored. The large man looked bewildered for a moment and then he looked down and could see a small hole in his jacket. He gasped and tore at the buttons of his double breasted jacket and ripped it open. A gash was in the right side of his shirt which was drenched in blood. He stood up and screamed.
The woman looked up from her magazine again and put on her sternest schoolmarm manner, which was difficult for her to do since she was so beautiful. “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior here! Please sit down! And if you would be so kind please try not to bleed on the carpet. The cleaners were just here this morning.”
The large man’s eyes bulged from their sockets, his mouth quivered and saliva drooled from one corner. He looked at the woman and then at the tall man, his mind not believing that they could lack such emotion at a time like this. He had to reach them, somehow.
“But I need a doctor! I’m dying! So are you! We need help!” he yelled at the tall man, hoping an increase in volume would penetrate his seeming lack of feelings for his, their, predicament. But he didn’t even flinch. The tall man still looked lost in thought. The woman turned back to her magazine and look even more bored than before, if that were possible. However, her finger tampering grew louder and faster, indicating her growing impatience with the large man.
He couldn’t believe it. He stood there and stared at them. No one would help him. He had to help himself. He leaped for the door.
The woman was faster and jumper from behind her desk and blocked the doorway with the agility of a large feline. “I told you to sit down and try to be more quiet!” she said to him like a parent scolding a child. “Now look what you’ve done! You’re bleeding on my carpet.” She sighed heavily. “Now I have to call the cleaners again.” She sounded hurt, as if this man’s loss of blood was more of a burden to her than him.
The large man gulped and just stared at her. His mind whirled in confusion, unable to accept anything but one fact. “I’m dying!” he yelled at the woman.
She laughed, cold and harsh, the sound of someone knowing a secret you did not. “You’re not dying,” she said with a smirk. “You’re already dead.” The large man screamed and fainted.
When he came to his senses the large man found that he was back in his chair and the woman was seated back behind the desk. The tall man was still deep in thought and the large one now took out his handkerchief and began sobbing into it. He whimpered like a little boy who tried to control his sobs but just quite couldn’t so they came out in uneven gasps. He looked up from his crying at the oak door. It was still closed. The woman looked at him reproachfully, as if to say a man shouldn’t cry, even at the news of his own death. He cast his eyes down again but this time he controlled his desire to cry. He was dreadfully ashamed by his actions. He wiped his eyes, put away his handkerchief, and turned to the other man.
“You seem to be taking this quite well,” he said in a stony voice, a dazed look on his pudgy face.
“Yes,” said the tall man. “I seem to have grasped our circumstances rather faster than you.”
“Now just a minute,” the large man retorted in a rising tone, feeling a sense of indignation. “I do not see the necessity of criticism at a time like this. I do not understand all of this but I am of a mind to find out and may in fact need your aid. Yes, together we can discover our situation. Two are better than one at a problem, I always say, and you seem to be a man of intellect and proper breeding. Perhaps we can work together. Yes?” He sounded like a child trying to make best friends with a stranger on the first day of school.
“That’s not what you said at the meeting or in your column,” replied the tall man.
The large man glared at him, examining the tall man’s face for the first time, looking with care and inquisitiveness. Then his eyes widened, as if suddenly a veil had been pulled from his face and he could see clearly for the first time since arriving in this room. He let out a gasp and the woman chuckled.
“You!!! What are you doing here?” the large man demanded of the tall one. “You and me together! It’s impossible, just impossible!”
The tall man glanced at the woman who was glaring at the large man again. The large man caught her look also and put on a weak grin. “Sorry,” he said in a low voice. Then he turned his attention back to the other man. “But how? How did we get here together at the same time? Me and Jonathan Hendricks going to heaven at the same time. My worst nightmare come true!!” he cried in anguish.
“We were shot together at the same time by the same man,” Hendricks replied. “Don’t you remember? By the way, what makes you think this is heaven?”
“Don’t be silly. Of course this is heaven,” the large man answered in an off-handed manner. “But what do you mean, shot together at the same time by the same man? What happened, Hendricks?” he asked, his voice with a touch of panic in it.
Hendricks was about to answer when a buzzing sound came from the woman’s desk. The two men watched as she opened a drawer and picked up a red colored cell phone and flipped it open.
“Yes?” she answered. “Okay. I’ll send them in right away…no, not too many…a bit of hysteria and some blood on the carpet again…yes…okay.”
The woman closed the phone and put it away. She stood, straightened her dress, and walked to the door. She smiled at them politely and opened the door. “Gentlemen, you are expected inside.”
They entered the room behind the door and the woman closed the door gently behind them. The first thing they both noticed about this new room was that the door they had come through was the only visible door. They also noticed that the blood flowing from their wounds ceased to flow as if this room willed it to be so. The room was decorated exactly as the waiting room, with a desk, and oak paneling on the walls and red carpet on the floor. But instead of a woman behind the desk there was a man dressed in a silvery blue suit with a white shirt and a necktie the same color as his suit. He seemed to be in his late thirties, had close cropped blond hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a face of angles and planes, with no signs of puffiness from alcohol or age. It was a handsome face but it seemed to radiant coldness, an aloof arrogance, as it examined the two men. Both the large man and Hendricks had difficulty meeting the blond man’s eyes, both for different reasons. The blond man nodded to the two chairs in front of his desk and Hendricks and the large man sat down.
“Welcome,” said the blond man, in a cold and toneless voice, sounding as if it came from far away. Both men in front of him nodded in reply but said nothing, fear gripping both of them, fear of the known and the unknown.
“I assume you know where you are and why you are here but to avoid any misunderstandings at the beginning let me ask you,” said the blond man. “First, Mr. Hendricks. Where do you think you are?”
Hendricks forced himself to look directly at the blond man’s eyes. It took an effort, the eyes being so piercing and cold, almost lifeless. He struggled to find his voice to say the one word he had to say, to make this place final and complete in his mind. And then he realized that all his life had been leading to this point and Hendricks had never run away from anything in his life, had always met a challenge straight on and thus had been able to become one of the most successful coal mine operators in the entire country, ruthlessly destroying the competition, treating his workers like slaves, ignoring his family for his work, forgetting everything he had once loved for his mines, his only love now. Yes, this was the only place I truly deserve to go, he thought. He looked straight at the blond man now, no longer afraid of those eyes, his own dark brown eyes confident and strong.
“Hell,” he answered in a clear, strong voice.
“Wrong,” said the blond man. “So sorry but you fail to win our all expenses paid trip to heaven, complete with your angel wings, lute, and flowing white robe. And don’t forget the Cloud Nine Lounge, where every night your favorite dead musicians are playing. For eternity.” His voice had a slight edge of sarcasm but it was the only emotion he portrayed.
Hendricks closed his eyes and leaned back, a sigh of air escaping his lips. So if this wasn’t hell then it had to be…but what did he mean, a trip to heaven, is he joki…no, this man doesn’t joke very often, I think.
The large man had almost burst with joy when he found out Hendricks was wrong. He was almost sure that Hendricks was right and he had nearly wet his pants thinking that they had indeed gone to hell. But it wasn’t hell, so it had to be…But then why was Hendricks here? Surely that ruthless son of a bitch deserved to go to hell if any man did, the large man thought, and if any man deserved to go to heaven it was me. But we are here together, so…
“And you Mr. WeBunk, where do you think you are?” asked the blond man, staring intently at Ralph WeBunk, his blue eyes penetrating the sweat smeared glasses to find the piggish eyes in their folds of flesh.
Ralph WeBunk was very large and sweated a lot but now calm seemed to come over him, his breathing retuned to normal, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his silk handkerchief. He didn’t answer the blond man but removed his glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief with slow deliberation, each move exact and precise, drawing the hands of the clock forward so that each second he stalled was one more second for him and one less for his opponent. Ralph had made his living as a debater, a lobbyist, and as a writer of a weekly column concerning social issues. He took up lost causes as if they were gems to be coveted, savoring each as his own, drawing on his skills to bring luster to dullness, to bring victory from defeat.
His main targets had been industrialists and big business, defending the common man against the greed of capitalism. His last client had been the workers of Hendricks coal mine, lobbying for better working conditions and stricter safety regulations from the government.
Now he remembered!! He and Hendricks had decided to meet Hendricks’ workers at a supper banquet, expenses paid by Hendricks, of course, to hear their arguments. At the beginning they had stood on a stage near a speaker’s podium, about to shake hands, to show their willingness to work together, even though they detested each other, when suddenly a young man a table up front leaped to his feet and in an uncontrollable rage fired a pistol wildly at the speaker’s podium. He was yelling incoherent things, and his bullets found their mark, killing both WeBunk and Hendricks.
As Ralph remembered these events, he smiled and put his glasses back on. He had been murdered. He always thought all murder victims went to only one place.
“This is heaven, or at least on the way to heaven. Where else could it be?” he asked with calm indifference, as if any fool knew they were going to heaven.
“Wrong,” said the blond man. “You also fail to win our all expenses paid trip.”
Ralph WeBunk and Jonathan Hendricks looked at each other. The color drained from WeBunk’s face. His eyes darted about in confusion, the look of a man so sure of himself who suddenly has the ground swept out from under him. He started breathing faster and began to sweat profusely. Hendricks turned away from him in disgust, his mind racing through the possibilities, searching his religious schooling, what little he could remember. The blond man smiled at their confusion. He sat very still, never moving, just watching.
WeBunk finally found the courage to speak. “Well, if we are not in heaven and we’re not in hell, then where in the hell are we?” The blond man and Hendricks both gave a small chuckle at WeBunk’s use of the word ‘hell’ in his question. WeBunk gave a small ‘oh’ and chuckled himself. The atmosphere seemed to be getting friendly but the blond man ended that quickly.
“You are here at my request,” the blond man told them in his cold impersonal voice. “Both of you are special cases that need further review before you go on. Periodically I sense some confusion with my brothers and step in to help them settle matters. There are some contradictions in you two that need to be clarified.”
Both men sitting across the desk from the blond man looked confused. Hendricks ventured a question. “Your brothers?”
The blond man smiled for the first time. He had a brilliant set of white teeth, perfectly formed, making his handsome face almost beautiful. But there was no warmth in his smile. Indeed, it seemed to be nothing but frost on his frozen face. “You know my brothers,” he began. “All people who believe as you do know who my brothers are. Very few know me.”
“Who are you?” asked Hendricks. WeBunk turned to him and had a fearful look on his face, as if Hendricks had committed some fatal error, that to ask questions in this place would ensure their eternal damnation. WeBunk’s eyes bulged. “Jonathan…” he said weakly but then his head fell to his chest and for once in his life Ralph WeBunk was at a loss for words.
At Hendricks’ question the blond man looked startled for a second, as if no one had ever asked him his name before. He recovered quickly and stared at Hendricks. “I have no name, if that’s what you mean. But this place does. I know you profess to be an atheist, Mr. Hendricks, but surely your childhood lessons come to mind.”
Hendricks thought for a second and then he remembered old Mrs. Matheson in the wooden church hall and all the little children who wanted to do nothing more than go outside and play and be free but who had to sit in the cold hall and listen to the dreary old woman drone on about the glories of Catholicism for two hours every Sunday afternoon after church services were over. Hendricks remembered being afraid of heaven and hell, but there was one place that chilled all of the children’s bones, a place you went if you died without baptism or if you were born out of wedlock or for many other reasons. A place of nothing. A place of blackness.
“Purgatory,” he said in a bare whisper. The blond man nodded and Ralph WeBunk let out a fearful wail that rebounded around the small room. The door suddenly opened and the beautiful blond woman looked in. She looked with raised eyebrows at the blond man and he gave her a look of assurance that everything was all right. She closed the door once more.
“Now let me explain a little more,” started the blond man but then Hendricks interrupted him.
“Why do you explain anything? If you have the power why don’t you just do with us as you wish? Are we to stay here or go up or down?”
At Hendricks’ side WeBunk was crying again, his whole belief n himself shattered to pieces as he listened. Now he looked at Hendricks with a glare. “You fool!! Don’t you know anything? Atheists…you known nothing!! We are here to be judged!! This man has the power to decide our fate! Oh, God!!”
“He cannot help you here,” said the blond man and WeBunk began to sob again. The blond man turned to Hendricks. “You see, you two have led lives of contradictions, doing things you didn’t believe in, claiming to be things you are not. Usually my brothers decided these cases based on their knowledge of your true beliefs but this situation offered an opportunity for an examination of two people who are totally opposed to each other and yet have both been killed at the same time by the same man. I intend to find out why. And then you will move on.”
“You’re playing a game,” Hendricks said in a voice with a slight edge of anger to it. “You’re conducting an experiment, playing with our lives…our afterlives, to be more accurate. Don’t you know why we have been killed? Does your power have limits?”
“Of course I know why,” the blond man retorted swiftly. “While you were waiting in the outer room the man who killed you was in here. You see, your bodyguards were just a little better shot than the gunman, Mr. Hendricks. He died instantly. You two, however, took a little bit longer to expire, bleeding to death before help could arrive. So the gunman got here first.”
WeBunk looked up and in a hoarse whisper asked, “Who was he? Our killer?”
The blond man smiled and shook his head. “That is not of importance at the moment.” His tone of voice was that of a parent speaking to a stupid child.
WeBunk leaped to his feet, a flash of courage flooding his large frame, born of a sudden rage against the blond man. “What gives you the right to judge us?” he yelled, his face turning red with rage.
“You do,” said the blond man in his cold voice, with a slight note of triumph and a hint of satisfaction in his eyes. WeBunk looked at him in confusion and then just collapsed in his chair, letting out a big sigh. Hendricks also looked confused. He did not understand the answer, and gave a puzzled looked to the blond man.
“This is my favorite part,” the blind man began. “I get to enjoy so little, but I always enjoy this.” He had a slight smile on his face. “You see, I do not exist, except in your minds. You are my creators. You and the tens of millions of others who hold the same beliefs. Heaven, hell, and purgatory, me and my brothers, are all creations of the human mind. Your belief in us gives us our power. If nobody believes, then we do not exist. At least in your minds.”
WeBunk found his voice again. “But what about the people who have different religions, who believe in different ideas and deities? What happens to them after they die?”
The blond man shrugged. “No idea. They don’t concern me. They go wherever their belief systems send them.”
“But do you and these other deities fight for their souls? Do you argue over ideas and beliefs?” asked WeBunk.
The blond man actually chuckled. “Of course not. They do not exist. I don’t believe in them.”
WeBunk looked startled, while Hendricks was confused again, his mind trying to piece together everything, as if this was a problem at his mines that could be solved with logical reasoning and intelligence.
“So,” he said to the blond man. “If you do not believe in them, they do not exist?”
The blond man nodded.
“And if we do not believe in you, you do not exist?”
Again the blond man nodded.
“Then why am I here,” Hendricks asked. “I don’t believe in you.”
“Yes, you do,” the blond man replied. “You claim to be an atheist, yet your mind cannot let go of childhood memories of Sunday school, nor tales of heaven and hell and purgatory. You may claim to be an atheist but you want to believe in something. That is one of your contradictions Mr. Hendricks. You profess to believe in the power of the dollar, the power of money, the religion of capitalism. You say that man is put n Earth for only one reason, to be the best that he can be, to strive higher and higher and that the making of money is one of the greatest of all virtues. And yet you feel so guilty about this belief, as if something in your mind is telling you it is wrong, it is not right to make money at the expense of others.”
Hendricks listened and when the blond man was done he did not deny it. It was all true, more true than any other words he had heard in a long time. Guilt. He was guilty of making money. He was guilty of destroying competitors, of treating his workers like dirt, of abandoning his family, all to make money. He had lost the capacity for human compassion in his desire to be the best he could be. He was guilty. He should go to hell.
“Yes, you are right,” Hendricks finally said. “I said I believed I was in hell. I should go there.”
The blond man said nothing, while WeBunk looked at Hendricks in amazement. “You? You believe in God and Satan? But you’re an atheist! Maybe you should go to hell if you do not believe in God.” He stopped, as if confused by his own words. “Do you believe in God and heaven?”
“Yes,” said Hendricks weakly, as if ashamed of his own desires, the desire all these years to embrace an idea, an idea that was good, that didn’t bring guilt and shame.
“Why have you always claimed to be an atheist?” asked WeBunk.
“Because a man who believed in God could never have been as ruthless as I was,” Hendricks answered. “I didn’t want to live the contradiction of claiming to be God’s servant while destroying other men’s lives. Men who competed against me to be sure, but…but…” He was about to continue but then something happened to Jonathan Hendricks, and suddenly a clear vision filled his mind, as if a curtain had dropped and the stage floodlights lay bare the truth. “But…but I was living a contradiction anyway. I said I didn’t believe in God but I did. I said I loved money but felt guilty for making it. Why?” The question was not directed at either of the other two men, but as if he was asking himself, and still not sure of the answer, Hendricks said nothing more.
WeBunk was smiling broadly, happy to see the great industrialist brought to his knees, confessing his bewilderment at the life he had led.
The blond man answered Hendricks question after a moment of silence. “You believed because you were taught that from the day you were born. You were raised in a Catholic family, went to church and Sunday school every week, celebrated Christmas and Easter, took communion and said confession, and did everything you were supposed to do if you wanted to go to heaven. But something turned you away from this path when you started in the world of business. Your mind couldn’t accept other men controlling your life, telling you what you had to do and when you had to do it. You abandoned your fate in its practical form but your mind could not abandon the ideas. You retained the deepest beliefs of your religion, especially the concept of guilt. But Mr. Hendricks, have you ever questioned these beliefs, have you ever thought why they were created in the first place?”
Hendricks thought for a long time, his mind churning through all the possibilities but it always came back to one answer. “Power,” he finally said, and the blond man nodded.
WeBunk jumped to his feet again. “You should go to hell, Jonathan Hendricks!! You claim the church is just out for power but you don’t realize the comfort it gives people, the joy it gives, the suffering it alleviates, the human compassion it expresses. Not just the Catholic Church but all fates, all religions. You are an atheist! You have no warmth in your soul. You only believe in money!!
“The Catholic Church is one of the richest organizations in the world,” replied Hendricks in a quiet voice.
WeBunk snorted. “Of course it is! They need money to help the poor, the destitute, those who are in need, those who cannot help themselves. I have done the same! I have always helped those in need. Look at all the people I helped fight the government and men like you. Poor, down trodden individuals who never had a chance in life, could never rise because of men like you. People need a church to comfort them, and, yes, to make them feel guilty about money, because money only leads to selfishness and corruption and is a destroyer of men’s souls.
Then suddenly WeBunk stopped speaking, as if realizing that something he had said was not quite right. Seeing his mistake he continued. “Yes the churches of the world have money and power, but the people need them, they need to have something, someone to believe in.” He said the last part with a note of triumph, as if no one could dispute such a moral stand.
Hendricks’ eyes were wide open now and his mind was alive. His only thought was of evil, the evil that came from men like Ralph WeBunk and others like him, men who preyed on the misfortune of others, who claimed to be doing them a service while they lined their pockets with gold. He was sure WeBunk was paid handsomely for his services. But he was never sure what exactly WeBunk did for a living.
“Why can’t they believe in themselves?” Hendricks asked. “Believe in their own ability, their own power of intelligence and wisdom? Why does humanity need others to tell them what to do and when to do it? Why am I cast out as a greedy industrialist and the church and men like you reap fortunes from those who cannot help themselves?”
WeBunk was livid now, his profession being attacked by this greedy son of a bitch. “You dare attack my morality, my ethics, you who destroys men of lesser ability, who pays slave wages to those hard working men who made your fortune with their back breaking labor, who cast out his own family for the profits of greedy capitalism. You make me sick!”
The old guilt was starting to well up in Hendricks again. It was all true, all of it, except…
WeBunk sat down again, with a smug look on his face, eying the blond man out of the corner of his eye, checking his reactions, seeing if he was gaining points. He just had to go to heaven. He’d sweat to death in hell, he thought with amusement. The blond man was indeed watching them carefully, now seemingly waiting for a reaction from Hendricks.
“Why should I feel guilty?” Hendricks suddenly said and before WeBunk could counter him he continued. “I proved I am a better man than my competitors. I never used dishonest methods. I beat them in fair and open competition, all except American Coal and Gas, which is still my biggest rival, even though coal is only a small portion of their business these days. And my workers are paid better than most others and have better safety standards than the other mines. Why should I feel guilty about making money from their work? They wouldn’t have a job except for my ability to find and extract coal from the earth. And my family? Why, they treated me like dirt, always expecting everything and never saying thank you or showing any gratitude, a spoiled bunch of teenaged brats and a flirtatious wife. They say I ignore them and I do because I can’t stand them. Whoever said a man had to stand abuse and endure pain from people he loved because they thought his love was an obligation not a choice? I bet right now they are crying their tears for the public and in private they are just itching to get to the reading of my will. I never cast them out or abandoned them. They never gave me a reason to continue my love. They abandoned me.” This last was said in a sad, quiet voice.
WeBunk endured this speech in silence, but when Hendricks finished he couldn’t sit still any longer. “You believe what you just said! You want me to believe it! And him!” WeBunk said pointing to the blond man. “Are you rethinking your beliefs Jonathan, trying to fool this good man into letting you go. You’re dead, you idiot! Where do you think you’ll go if you convince him you don’t believe in guilt, if you really are an atheist, if you really do believe in the power of money and in the power of the individual? You’ll stay right here!! In purgatory! Forever!”
“I don’t believe in purgatory,” said Hendricks in a calm, rational voice, a voice of a man who finally found his place in life and death. The blond man looked at him for a long time, his stare cutting into Hendricks’ soul, examining his new found convictions. Hendricks stared back, his eyes never wavering, his mind clear as a bell ringing on a frosty winter morning, his soul convinced that he held no guilt for his life and that the individual is the most important thing in the world, with no feeling of selfishness or sin.
The blond man turned away first, and then opened the top drawer on his desk and picked up a red cell phone. “Yes…We’re ready for him, send him in.”
WeBunk’s mind was whirling, not understanding what was happening, feeling left out of some secret between Hendricks and the blond man, feeling like a little boy who was not chosen for the baseball game. His sweat came out in rivulets that stained his shirt and jacket and made it uncomfortable to sit still. His glasses fogged again and so he took them off and gave them a quick wipe. While he did this a person came into the room and thus WeBunk did not see who it was at first.
The door had opened and the woman had led a young man into the room. He was in his mid-twenties perhaps, medium height with brown sandy hair and green eyes. His face was clean shaven and was common, unremarkable, and he did not display any emotions whatsoever. He was wearing blue jeans, black running shoes, a white shirt, and a brown leather jacket. There were two holes in the jacket and shirt over the man’s heart. The shirt was drenched in blood.
WeBunk adjusted his glasses, looked up, and growled in anger. He knew the young man. It was his killer. The young man stared at WeBunk and WeBunk leaped to his feet, trying to grab the young man’s throat. But Hendricks was faster and stronger and grabbed WeBunk by the arms and pushed him back into his chair.
“That is quite enough,” said the blond man in a chilling voice. WeBunk cowered in his chair, afraid to displease this man who could decide his fate in an instant.
“Hello, Pete,” Hendricks said to the young man.
“Hello, sir,” Pete replied. “I’m sorry you are here also. I didn’t mean to shoot you. But when your bodyguard’s first bullet hit me my aim was destroyed and I pulled the trigger again without meaning to. Well, at least I got that bastard.” He pointed to WeBunk with this last word.
WeBunk blinked a few times, rapidly, and then glared at Hendricks. “You know our assassin? I should say my assassin, as it seems your death was just an accident. If I wasn’t dead I think would enjoy this a great deal. In trying to kill me your hired gun killed you as well. Oh, how deliciously ironic!”
“I didn’t tell him to kill you,” Hendricks retorted. “He did it on his own. Pete’s one of the engineers that works, sorry, worked, for me. I do not know his motives for killing you.”
“Liar!!” yelled WeBunk.
“It’s true,” Pete told WeBunk. “Mr. Hendricks has no idea I was going to kill you. I decided to do that myself. After I discovered what you were up to.”
Hendricks looked at WeBunk who had suddenly lost his glare of self-righteousness and now seemed like a man caught in the midst of a criminal act. “I have no idea what you are referring to,” WeBunk said, his voice quavering a bit.
“What was he up to?” Hendricks asked Pete.
“After the meeting was called to discuss problems at our mine, I talked to the men to find out what problems they had,” Pete began. “They had no problems, just as I thought. They were happy, they loved working for you. Then I talked to the union leaders and it seems we had hundreds of problems. There was a contradiction here. On the night before the meeting one of the union men got drunk and started talking. It seems Mr. WeBunk here had paid him a lot of money to file grievances against you and the mine with the government and he paid all the union leaders to file false charges against you concerning safety standards. The government inspectors who came to the mine were all paid off also.”
WeBunk screamed at Pete. “You punk! You could have been rich also! You didn’t have to kill me!” He stopped, suddenly realizing what he had said and remembering where he was. He quickly glanced at the blond man. The blond man smiled. WeBunk then remembered. Pete had been in here before them. The blond man knew everything. WeBunk buried his head in his hands and started to cry again.
“Who gave you the money, Ralph?” Hendricks asked, positive WeBunk hadn’t paid out of his own pocket.
“American Coal and Gas,” WeBunk replied in a meek voice.
Hendricks just nodded and turned to Pete. “Why did you kill him? Why didn’t you tell me or the police everything. We could have sent him to jail for a long time.”
Pete sighed heavily. “I thought of that. The whole night I lay awake, trying to decide what to do. I finally concluded that if they really wanted to destroy you, and if they could pay off government officials, then they could probably pay policemen, and judges, and juries as well. I saw Ralph WeBunk for what he was, a parasite to society, the worst kind of man in the world, a man who uses the suffering of others to justify his existence. And when he could find no suffering in your mines he created lies to bury you and destroy you. I could think of only one way to stop him. I hoped to have a trial where I could explain to the world my beliefs and convictions. But in my haste I forgot about your bodyguards, Mr. Hendricks.”
“I only hired those men because I feared my men who turned ugly at the meeting,” Hendricks told Pete. “I guess I lost touch with what was happening at my mines. I feared my men when I should have loved them. I imagine most of them were as surprised at the meeting being called as I was.” There was a hint of sadness in his voice.
WeBunk had sat, taking all this in, listening to these people trying to convince the blond man that he was no good, that he didn’t deserve to go to heaven, that he was a liar and a parasite and the worst kind of person, a person who uses the cover of doing good deeds to perpetuate evil. A man like that should go to…NO!!
Ralph screamed an animal snarl of rage and leaped from his seat and threw himself at Hendricks, his weight knocking over the chair, both men falling to the floor, Hendricks on the bottom, WeBunk on top. WeBunk grabbed Hendricks by the throat and squeezed. His arms were flabby but they possessed strength. Nobody moved to stop him, not even Hendricks. Soon Hendricks was dead. Again.
WeBunk stood up, drenched in sweat, shaking all over. He was like a little child shivering in a blizzard. He looked at his hands and there was blood on them from Hendricks’ throat wound. He looked at Pete and Pete just turned his head away in disgust. The blond man was like an iceberg, a chill radiating from his cold features.
“But…But…how?” WeBunk asked in a stuttering voice. “Hendricks was already dead. How can he be dead again?”
The blond man smiled and it was a smile without any warmth reaching the eyes. He stared at WeBunk for a long, terrifying moment “You fool,” he finally spoke. “Hendricks isn’t dead gain. He’s alive again.”
Pete laughed. WeBunk fainted. Again.
The screams were subsiding. People now just stood in horror, looking at the lifeless body of Pete as he laid spread eagle on the polished wooden floor of the meeting hall, blood still pulsing from two bullet wounds in his chest, his pistol a few feet away from his right hand. Nobody moved to help him as he was obviously dead. On the speaker’s stage there was pandemonium as a circle of people gathered around the bodies of Hendricks and WeBunk. People shoved and pushed and tried to make space so the wounded men could get air and help. Someone was shouting for a doctor, for an ambulance, for someone to help the wounded men.
Hendricks lay on the stage, his eyes glassy, blood staining his shirt and the stage from his wound. He appeared to have died and people started to cry. Suddenly his eyes were alive and searching. A man at his side started to wrap a towel around his neck to help staunch the flow of blood.
“Help me…help me sit up,” Hendricks gasped. The man shook his head no, trying to get Hendricks to lie still, but Hendricks reached up and grabbed the man’s arm and started to pull himself from the floor. People moved back, astonished, thinking Hendricks dead just moments ago. Hendricks held the towel to his neck and soon the blood flow stopped. He pulled the towel down and dropped it to the floor. He looked down at WeBunk and then stared out at Pete’s lifeless body. He just shook his head. Then his two bodyguards crowded around him and tried to lead him from the stage.
“NO!” he said to them in a strong voice and suddenly all was quiet, people staring at him in amazement. Hendricks looked down at WeBunk again. A medic was there now, a man who worked for the mines, who worked for Hendricks, who had been a medic in the army before retiring. He was examining WeBunk’s wound and then he looked up at Hendricks and shook his head.
“Got him in the liver,” the medic said. “Won’t last long. There’s nothing anyone can do.” He stood up to examine Hendricks’ wound but Hendricks just pushed his hands away and knelt beside WeBunk.
WeBunk was conscious but his eyes were glassy and blinking rapidly. He didn’t have long. Hendricks leaned in close and whispered in his ear.
“Thank you for killing me.”
WeBunk stared at him, not understanding the words. “Go to hell,” he managed to gasp and then he died.
Hendricks stared at the lifeless body of WeBunk. “There is no hell, Ralph. Too bad you believe in it. “And then he let the medic and the bodyguards finally take him outside to a waiting ambulance.
BACK IN PURGATORY
WeBunk had recovered from his faint in time to see Pete being led away from the room by the blond woman. Pete was smiling. WeBunk looked at the blond man, who was staring at WeBunk once more.
“Why is Pete so happy? Is he going to heaven?” he asked with sarcasm in his voice, as if it was impossible for a murderer to go to heaven.
“Yes,” said the blond man.
“What?” WeBunk almost screamed. “That’s impossible. The man is a murderer! He killed me and Hendricks here…” He looked at the floor. Hendricks’ body was gone.
“Where is he? Heaven also, I suppose,” WeBunk said with more sarcasm.
“In a manner of speaking yes,” replied the blond man. “You see for Hendricks there is no greater heaven than Earth itself. He believes in the here and now, not the afterlife. He has always believed it. He just needed some help to remember. When he was a boy he could think of nothing but play and having fun and he hated his church and religion. He had forgotten that. I think all children do. When they become so convinced that they need religion to save their souls, they pass on this belief to their own children, giving them no choice in the matter. And then the children pass it on, and so on, forever.”
“How can you say such things?” WeBunk asked in a weary tone, tired of all this. “I thought our belief in you kept you in existence. I thought you needed us. And yet you talk about religion as if it were some idle curiosity that can be abandoned at a whim. I thought you believed in religion.”
“I don’t believe in religion,” the blond man answered. “And I don’t need you to believe either. But as long as you believe in a higher being other than man himself then I will exist and will continue to exist. As long as you preach that mankind should help those in need, that the poor and destitute need aid while the rich are greedy and corrupt, then I will exist. I will exist until the last man, woman, and child who believes in me abandons that believe and believes in him or herself.”
“That will never happen!” Ralph WeBunk said with conviction.
“I know,” said the blond man in his eerily icy voice.
WeBunk looked at him and at last understood. This man was just like him, just like all the others like him on Earth. He coveted power and needed other people to give him that power. He needed the weaknesses of mankind to ensure his existence and people like Ralph guaranteed those weaknesses, these evils, these sins, so that men needed to believe in a higher being because life on Earth was so terrible and a burden. Unless you enjoy life. Like Jonathan Hendricks discovered.
“What happens to Hendricks when he finally dies?” asked WeBunk.
The blond man shrugged. “I don’t know. He doesn’t believe in me and my brothers. He is out of our power.” He smiled and this time his smiled was malevolent. WeBunk shuddered. “Ralph, do you believe in me?”
“NO!!” screamed WeBunk.
“Liar,” said the blond man. “Go to hell.”
Ralph WeBunk disappeared.