"Excuse me?" The old man looked up expectantly at the tall, lithe and very redheaded woman standing before him.
"I said, 'puppy kicker'." The striking woman wore a fire engine red business suit (it clashed badly with her hair, thought Mr. Snood condescendingly) and held a clipboard in front of her on which her gaze was fixed. She had a pencil tucked behind her left ear and a simple gold chain around her neck.
Mr. Snood sat in a long hallway. The walls were a type of non-descript gray stone one might find in the dungeon of a medieval castle, or the set of a Hollywood representation of same. Along one wall, a row of chairs stretched further than the eye could see. The occasional chair was occupied. Mostly, by people looking extremely bored, as Mr. Snood had been doing until this woman had called him a...
"PUPPY KICKER!" The woman's raised voice proclaimed again, the extra volume causing heads to turn in the distance. Mr. Snood looked about him sheepishly, and thought that the friendly looking old woman sitting several chairs down had snickered.
"Why do you keep saying that," asked Snood nervously. He held his hat in his hands and clutched his hands in his lap. It was a protective gesture, to be sure, and one that this particular type of woman elicited wherever she went.
"You are Ignatius Sneed, are you not? Lately of Chicago?" The woman took the pencil from behind her ear and begin to tap the clipboard, ready to make corrections should her information prove to be false. Her piercing gaze was one that seemed to say, "Are you telling me that I'm wrong? Really? Me?"
"It's Snood," said Snood, tentatively.
"You called me Ignatius Sneed. It's Ignatius Snood. O's, not E's." Snood managed to find a bit of courage toward the end of the sentence. Having been a teacher, and a teacher of English, he now felt himself to be on familiar ground.
The woman didn't blink. She held Mr. Snood's gaze for a moment, then reached into her breast pocket and produced a business card, which she handed to Mr. Snood directly. The card read:
Beatrix de Alighieri
"You're joking," snorted Snood, who stared at the card, then at the woman, then back at the card again.
"I assure you I am not joking, Mr. Snood," Ms. de Alighieri intoned, as if she had been through this exact conversation thousands of times before. "I truly am in HR."
She paused, waiting for the irony to sink in, and then continued.
"So, back to your application."
"Application?" Mr. Snood seemed puzzled, and this time the old woman sitting chairs away distinctly snickered. "Pray tell me, Miss de Alighieri, for what have I applied? To be honest, I'm not even quite sure how I got here, or where here is, exactly." Sheepishly again, Mr. Snood explained. "You see, I'm rather old and I tend to forget things."
This proclamation seemed to delight Ms. de Alighieri to no end. She tossed her head back and laughed loudly. It was a sound not unlike one of Chopin's etudes... played by rock trolls... with rocks. And yet, Mr. Snood was fairly certain that neither Chopin nor rock trolls (had they existed) shot flames ten feet out of their mouths while laughing or, presumably, at any other time.
Mr. Snood began to wonder.
"Right. So, where were we?" Ms. de Alighieri ran the tip of her pencil down the clipboard, occasionally stopping to make a mark or chuckle softly (when she did this, a bit of steam came out of her nose).
"Oh, yes!" She exclaimed. "Puppy kicking. Tsk tsk, Mr. Snee-- er, Snood. Is this really the best you have to offer us?" Mr. Snood looked puzzled, until Ms. de Alighieri again looked him directly in the eye and said, "Please try to remember, Mr. Snood. I haven't got all day." The woman sitting down row found this remark hilarious, and as Mr. Snood drifted into a flashback montage, he was accompanied by the peals of her laughter.
It was the 20's. The 1920's, if Mr. Snood's memories are to be believed. Ignatius Snood was just turning the corner from youth onto adolescence, a dangerously busy one way street. He was not only figuratively on the corner, but literally, with a group of other boys his age, smoking hand rolled cigarettes and talking trash to passers-by.
It was later, the same year possibly, and young Ignatius was at home -- a lovely Victorian home, with a less than lovely Victorian mother. Ignatius wouldn't eat his peas, nor would he play with his sister. He would neither speak well of his brother, or of the new beagle puppy his father had brought home with him after work. His parents hoped that the responsibility of a puppy would turn Ignatius from a spoiled miscreant into the model youth they had always wanted for a son. Seeing the plan fail before their eyes, Ignatius' father sent him to bed without dessert. On his way up the stairs, Ignatius kicked the puppy so that it yelped in fear and pain, before running to hide under the sofa.
College, a smart career in "business", the death of his parents. Inherited wealth, a girl named Betsy, no children. Divorce. There wasn't much to the life of Ignatius Snood, hence the brevity of this paragraph.
Mr. Snood never joined any organization, never gave to charity and never really cared much for anything beyond his own nose. It wasn't until he lay dying, following a massive coronary at the age of 93 that he began to question the meaning of his exist... wait.
As he lay dying?
Suddenly, Mr. Snood remembered everything. It was early in the morning, for the sun had just begun to sneak in through his eastern exposure window in the fabulous downtown intensive care unit, where he'd been rushed the night before, complaining of chest pains. Actually, he hadn't so much complained as he had fallen face first into the gazpacho he had been enjoying at dinner. The fact that the servants had contacted 911 was confirmed by a perfunctory check of his jewelry: wedding band (he'd never stopped wearing it. Not due to sentimental emotions where his ex-wife was concerned. It just felt nice.), Gold cross, class ring. All gone. The staff had been thorough, he had to give them that.
And he had died, that very morning. At first, he thought he heard his mother's voice, telling him to come into the light, but then a sound like a small dog yelping had distracted him and he'd found himself...
Ms. de Alighieri smiled deliciously at Mr. Snood. She loved this part, when a new reality finally presented itself to the so recently mortal minds before her.
"But, but... I'm... dead."
"And so very bright, too," Ms. de Alighieri offered helpfully. "We don't often get the combination of complete ruthlessness and genius I see here before me." The old woman, who continued to eavesdrop all through the montage sequence was now rolling on the floor, howling with glee. Literally. It was kind of creepy, actually.
Mr. Snood began adding two's rapidly in his mind. "But, shouldn't there be... That is to say, am I... well, is this Up or Down?" Mr. Snood swallowed expectantly as Ms. de Alighieri surveyed him with an even gaze.
"I'm afraid I don't understand your euphemisms," said Ms. de Alighieri who had now seated herself on the chair next to Mr. Snood. Her smile was sweet and unassuming. Her body posture said: I could shred you with a spork and write my memoirs on your skin. She was a very complex woman.
Mr. Snood continued, now fairly certain he wasn't going to like the answer at all. "Well, is this Heaven or..."
"Or, Mr. Snood." Ms. de Alighieri interrupted. "This is most definitely an 'or' scenario if ever there was one." She was smiling broadly now and leaned closer to the old man, as if to soak up the discomfort and the fear.
"That means that I..." Mr. Snood was obviously having problems finishing his sentences and trailed off again, inanely.
"Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes, my dear little man. You most certainly are." Ms. de Alighieri made some further notations on the as yet unseen paper fastened to her clipboard. "Now, as I was saying, we don't have much use for puppy kickers here in hell." Noting the slightly surprised expression on Snood's face, she continued quickly, not liking to lose momentum once she had the most difficult parts of the screening process behind her.
"I can see by the look on your face that you misunderstand me. It's not that we're not accepting your application, it's that we won't be seeing much of you, you know, up here, with the movers and shakers."
Mr. Snood, if possible in his situation, looked more puzzled that previously. "But certainly, Ms. de Alighieri, I've done nothing to warrant eternal damnation, have I? I've never killed anyone, never hit anyone. What is it that I've done to deserve this?"
Ms. de Alighieri had already put on the best been-there-done-that-talk-to-the-hand expression she could muster. And I'm here to tell you; it was a damned good one, if you'll pardon the usage.
"Mr. Snood. Clearly, you paid no attention in Sunday school. Heaven is a restricted club. We here in Hell have no such squeamishness and are willing to accept all comers. Therefore, our domain is of a somewhat larger nature. It's true that you did nothing in your life meriting a damning judgment. You also did nothing in your life meriting redemption. Fence sitters are our provenance, Mr. Snood. So, we'll work with what we've got. Come with me, please."
With that, Ms. Alighieri rose from her chair and began walking smartly down the hall, her blood red pumps clicking on the tile floor. The clipboard was stowed under her right arm and the pencil had been returned to its place behind her left ear. Clearly, Mr. Snood was expected to follow. Much to his surprise, he found he was already rising to do so.
Mr. Snood rushed to catch up with Ms. de Alighieri, and then pondered what this meant for him. Dead at 93, he had had his share of aches and pains, broken ribs from sneezing, broken ankles from getting out of bed. The idea of walking down a hallway, even a hallway in hell, was such a remarkable thing that Mr. Snood found he no longer minded the implications of a new home high in sulfur content.
And to be rushing, what a joy!
Ms. de Alighieri had stopped and was turned so that her right profile faced Mr. Snood, who approached happily. As he studied her features, he noticed that she watched something with amusement, more than just waiting for him to catch up. Mr. Snood came to her side and looked in the direction she was looking.
They stood in front of a side hall of sorts. The hall was short, done in the same drab gray stone as the main hall. The other end was clearly visible, beyond which was a large open space. The center of this space was occupied by what looked to be a wrestling ring.
In the ring, two women dressed in full-length gowns battled furiously, while a large crowd cheering them on. Cries of "Emily!" and "Go, Jane!" could be heard from the unseen masses.
"Go and make yourself the happiest of women. I'll show you sensibility, she beast!" screamed one woman as she grabbed a handful of hair and attempted to pull her opponent off balance.
"Wuther this, you moor harpy," yelled the other as she jammed her fist into the solar plexus of the hair puller.
Bonnets and lace were everywhere. It was not a pretty sight.
Ms. de Alighieri beamed and a tear slid down her face. "I thought this one up myself," she said proudly. "I do love the writers' wing."
Just then, a man stumbled toward them, apparently having entered the main hall from another side passage further down. He looked disheveled and forlorn. Not surprising, thought Snood, given the location.
"Beatrix? Is that you?" The man squinted at Ms. de Alighieri and made his way toward her, swaying dangerously. He smelled of Chianti and despair. Ms. de Alighieri chuckled and hurried Mr. Snood around the drunk poet, snickering to herself and muttering words like "divine light" and "guidance" almost under her breath. Ms. de Alighieri was in her element and her element was definitely fire.
"This way, Mr. Snood. We're just about there. That's right. Just one more turn and... here we are."
The pair stood in front of an extremely non-descript bank of elevators. Ms. de Alighieri looked at her clipboard, then at the numbers above the entrance to each car, and walked quickly down the row, looking up every once in a while.
"Ah, yes. Here we are, Mr. Snood. Car number 1,357. Going down." Ms. de Alighieri smirked meaningfully. small wisps of smoke wafted from her ears and a flick of flame was visible behind her poisonous green eyes.
The gray, matte metallic doors parted, revealing a dusty rose interior. As Mr. Snood entered the elevator, the pleasant humming of fluorescent lighting welcomed him. This wouldn't be so bad, he imagined. The doors slid shut with a comforting whoosh -- much higher tech than they looked -- and Ms. de Alighieri disappeared behind them. K-Mart elevators with a Star Trek sound. Not bad at all.
There were no buttons inside the car, nor were there any indicator lights. The car simply descended. Mr. Snood wondered how far it had to go and what awaited him at the bottom.
"Bottom?" A high-pitched voice demanded from one of the back corners. Funny, Mr. Snood hadn't noticed anyone else on the elevator. He turned to look for the source of the voice, somewhat startled. There stood the old woman who had sat several chairs away during his initial interview with Ms. de Alighieri in the hallway above.
The woman smiled sweetly at Mr. Snood. "This is it, darling. Welcome to eternity."
"An elevator ride? This is the worst they could do?" Mr. Snood almost laughed, then thought the better of it when the smile on his companion's face broadened and she began to... change.
The woman began to shrink, except for her right foot, which grew slightly larger and seemed to be covered by a steel-toed workboot. Simultaneously, her ears lengthened and her bag-woman-esque clothing began to turn to a mottled brown, black and cream combination that looked like... fur.
The puppy continued to smile at Mr. Snood, who began to understand his predicament at last.
Just then, The Girl From Ipanema began to play overhead... forever.