"Benny Rich is Dead," written in 1972 and rewritten in 1985, is posted for entertainment purposes only and may not be crossposted to any other datafile base, conference, news group, email list, or website without written permission of the author.
Copyright © 1997 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
Benny Rich is Dead
by J. Neil Schulman
It was the explosion --there was no question about that. Benny Rich couldn't be sure, though: nothing seemed to make sense anymore.
The last thing he thought he recalled was wiring an incendiary device to that very foolish union leader's Lincoln Continental when--
But was that real?
Benny now found himself in a lounge--a very comfortable lounge. It reminded him of Gino Vanilla's office, the same essence--the same unrestrained luxury reserved for those who had neither the reason nor desire to stint.
But even this, was this real?
His current situation presented him with a paradox. He was smart enough to realize that if the explosion had gone off prematurely, then either he would have been in the ICU of some hospital, or he would be ...
He wasn't complaining, though. Not by any means. Benny was comfortable. Satisfied. No real needs or desires. And well fed. There was a buffet table in the lounge--salad bar, hot and cold smorgasbord, fruit and dessert bar--the works. He had made good use of it--and why not? It had all his favorites on it: crab salad, Nova Scotia lox, thick-sliced roast beef, lasagna, Kiwis, even Indian Pudding. Christ, who made Indian Pudding anymore? Benny hadn't had any since a Howard Johnson's in New England back in the sixties. It was almost as if the entire feast had been prepared to his taste, for him alone.
He was, of course, mildly curious about where he was. The lounge was completely cut off--No Exit, as that Sartre play was called. Even the lounge's furnishings looked as if they'd been moulded by some crazed existentialist who should have been locked up in the design section of the Museum of Modern Art.
Suddenly, Benny heard something. He wheeled around: the opposite wall was shimmering strangely, pulsating in an almost pornographic manner. Then it just melted away ... and the most exquisitely beautiful woman Benny Rich had ever seen walked in.
Her hair was long, but Benny couldn't say what color it was--it didn't stay the same color long enough for him to tell. Everything about her was the same way: Ideal, but hard to pin down. That was why it took Benny several seconds to realize that she was both topless and bottomless--stark naked.
And it came to Benny for the first time that he was naked, top and bottom, too.
"May I have your number, please?" the woman asked.
"My ... number?" Benny asked, still visually preoccupied.
"Yes," she said. "Your number. It really doesn't matter which number you give. This is only a formality. Any number will do. Your Social Insurance number--pardon me, that's Canadian. Your Social Security number, then. Or your telephone number. Your Blue Cross number--"
"Oh!" Benny said, relieved. "This is a hospital?"
"Of course not," she went on. "I was just giving you an example. I could just as easily take your military serial number, your driver's license number, your automatic teller card code number--it doesn't matter. As I said, this is only a formality."
Benny thought for a few moments, then smiled as if he was putting one over on her. "Seventeen," he said.
"What number is that?" she asked. "My lucky number. I won twenty-five gees in Atlantic City with that number."
"Thank you, sir, that will be fine," the woman said pleasantly. "Won't you please come this way?"
She started toward the gap in the wall. Benny didn't move. She stopped and looked at him questioningly.
"Where am I? And where are you taking me?"
"Where you are, I'm afraid that's rather a matter of opinion, at this point," she said. "It could, of course, be one place or the other. As to where I'm taking you, I should think that's obvious. I'm taking you to the Court."
"What sort of court has people walkin' around stark naked?" Benny asked her.
"God's court," she answered. "We are all Naked before the Lord."
"Jesus Christ," Benny said. "I've been kidnapped by some religious cult."
"You were hardly kidnapped," the woman told Benny. "Perhaps it hasn't come to you yet, but you're dead. This is where all people come when they're dead."
"I considered that possibility already," Benny said. "I don't buy it."
"I've seen people dead. Helped some of them along, too. And believe me, when I get through with them, not one of them looks as good as you."
"Oh, what a sweet thing to say! But I'm not dead. I've never been alive in the sense you're talking about. I'm an angel."
"Amen to that, Angel," Benny said.
"As for you, you have been separated from your mortal remains. What is left of you is spirit--and unlike your material body, spirit is not subject to thermodynamic destruction."
"Okay," Benny said. "Suppose I buy it for the moment. That I'm dead. I go to Heaven or Hell, right?"
"That is correct."
"I never figured I had a real chance at Heaven."
"You're not fit to judge that," Angel said. "You might be wrong. But go on."
"Well anyway," Benny said, "I always figured Hell as the more interesting place of the two. Livelier. A place with gusto. All the best people."
"Hardly," Angel said. "Hell contains all the inhuman tortures you humans have devised for yourselves. Heaven, on the other hand, is Life, Creativity, Rhapsody--"
"You can skip the sales pitch," Benny said. "You want to sell me on Heaven, just tell me one thing."
"Up in Heaven," Benny asked, "do people do it?"
Angel looked puzzled. "Do it?"
"I have to spell it out?"
"Are you referring to copulation?" "Right the first time, Angel."
"Of course not," she said. "In Heaven, there's no need to procreate--anyone there can create new Life at will. Besides, nothing in Heaven is as unpleasant as copulation."
Benny gave a short laugh. "Just like I figured."
"What is 'like you figured'?"
"That Heaven is filled with a bunch of prudes," Benny said. "But Angel, don't knock sex till you tried it. Sex is the best thing on Earth."
"I have no doubt of it," Angel said. "It's only that everything in Heaven is even better than sex."
"Bring on Heaven, Bay-bee!" Benny said.
"Then won't you come this way?" she said. "We'll find out if you'll get the chance to be brought on."
Benny still didn't move.
"What is it now?" she asked, her infinite patience thinning out an order of infinity.
"I don't go nowhere without clothes. Pants, at least."
"Why do all the American men want pants?" she asked. "The Frenchmen never do. Do all you Americans have inferiority feelings about the size of your genitalia?"
"Look, Lady, I don't like to have my gun out unless I'm gonna shoot. You wanna try out my equipment--"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake!" she said.
Benny didn't see her do anything, but instantly he was clothed in a outfit fashionable for the time he died.
"Now would you come with me, would you please?"
Benny nodded and followed her through long, winding corridors until they came to a garden--of course! Benny thought--with a patio in the middle of it. There was a bench where three bearded Judges were seated. A court clerk sat at a small table directly in front of them.
Like Angel, they were also all topless and bottomless. Which didn't expose anything vital, since unlike Angel they were bottomless in that they just weren't there below the waist.
Angel directed Benny to the defense table, announced, "Number Seventeen, Benny Rich," then disappeared.
The Judge in the middle spoke to Benny first. "How do you wish to be addressed, Number Seventeen?"
"Well, Your Honor--"
"No need to be that formal," the middle Judge said. "I'm Nigel. The other two judges are Herbert and Leonard. You were about to say?"
"Well, Nigel, my mother named me Benjamin, which my father didn't say nothin' about since he didn't hang around long enough to see me born. Most everybody calls me Benny the Finger, because of my line of work. I'm a soldier for the New York Families--an enforcer."
"Very well, Benny," said Nigel. "Did the bailiff tell you why you're here?"
"Just the basics. The Final Judgment, Heaven, Hell, et cetera," Benny said. "Angel was in a big hurry."
"Always trying to be everywhere at once, eh? All Angels are that way, comes from associating with-- But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"I guess not."
"Very well. This is the One Hundred Percent Official Court of God's Final Judgment, and you are about to be judged. Would you like a drink?"
"A drink? In court? You bet your--"
"Couldn't, don't have one," Nigel said quickly.
A Chivas and soda popped into Benny's right hand. He took a tentative sip, not sure of its materiality, then immediately followed with a very long drink. "Thanks, Old Boy," Benny said. "Just the way I like it."
"Of course it is, Benny," Nigel said. "We've just watched a transcript of your entire life. We know everything about you."
"Then how come you had to ask me what I like to be called?"
"Good point," Nigel said. He turned to his Clerk. "Ralph, make a note for me to stop asking defendants what they like to be called. It makes me look ignorant."
The clerk nodded.
"Well, Benny," Nigel continued, "I'd like to thank you for living a very interesting life."
Benny looked surprised. "Couldn't you get in trouble, you know, Upstairs? For saying stuff like that?"
"Please don't misunderstand, Benny. I didn't say it was a particularly good life. I just said interesting. You don't know how much that means around here."
"I'll say," said the second judge, Herbert.
"Century after century," Nigel went on, "of looking at entire lives--entire lives. You can't imagine how dull that can be--and often disgusting, too. We three won the right to hear your case in the Judge's lottery--there was quite a waiting list. You're very hot property around here."
"I wouldn't kid you. It's people like you that make this job tolerable. The rest--unbelievably boring. When I was a Novice around the trial of Judas--an acquittal, by the way; turns out he was acting under Jesus' orders--I used to dream of getting interesting cases like yours. Why, do you realize how many 'kills' you've made?"
"Uh-uh," Benny said.
"Seventeen," Nigel said.
"My lucky number, no kidding?"
"I already said, I wouldn't. And each of your kills was a masterpiece of plotting! Le Carre or Ludlum could have taken lessons from you. I haven't had so much fun since the last War."
"Vietnam?" Benny asked.
"No there were survivors to that one," Nigel said. "World War Four."
"Ahh," Benny said.
"You've given us such a good time, I'm tempted to acquit you on a plea of Poetic Justice, but I'm afraid the Supreme Court would just overrule me."
"I'm afraid so. Unless you can provide an adequate moral justification for your 'hits,' I'm afraid you'll find yourself in a whole new underworld."
"Well," Benny said. "Like I said, I was a soldier. Took orders, did my job. Never killed anyone I wasn't ordered to, or who wasn't trying to kill me."
"One of your seventeen hits was a ten-year-old boy," Nigel said.
"Never knew about that," Benny said. "Sometimes I wasn't given more than an address and a time."
"Now that you know, are you sorry about it?"
"Not necessarily," Benny said. "Known plenty of kids who'd pull a trigger as easy as me."
"I think you're missing the point," Nigel said. "You spent your life murdering people. How would you have felt if someone had killed you?"
"Wouldn't have minded much," Benny said. "You go sooner or later, anyway--obviously, since I'm here."
"A Golden Rule Defense," said the third judge, Leonard. "A honest declaration that he didn't treat others any differently than he would have wanted them to treat him."
"I call for a vote," Herbert said.
"Acquittal," said Nigel.
"Acquittal," said Leonard.
"Conviction," said Herbert.
"Why, Herbert?" Nigel asked.
"Golden Rule Defense doesn't overrule the Commandment not to commit murder."
"What's going on?" Benny asked.
"A split decision," Nigel said.
"What does that mean?"
"You have a choice," Nigel explained. "You can accept an arbitrated judgment for Purgatory--a limited time in Hell after which you go to Heaven--or you can appeal to God. He might allow you into Heaven, but you also risk being sent to Hell permanently. I'd advise taking Purgatory. God is merciful, but he is also just. Turning down an offer to work off your karma might not please him."
"How long would I have to do?" Benny asked.
"One average lifetime for each of your seventeen kills," Nigel said. "Let's say, twelve hundred years."
"What? Some of the guys I wasted had one foot in the grave already!"
"So? Maybe they would have redeemed a life of sinning in their last days, maybe not. We have to assume they would, and give them a new chance from scratch--reincarnation. Who's supposed to pay for that? God gives you a free life. Don't expect a free lunch as well."
"Yeah? How does sending me to Hell 'pay' for it? God get his jollies by watching people getting tortured?"
Nigel shook his head. "In thermodynamic terms, Hell is a negative entropy bubble where your spiritual energy can be tapped. Your energy is used to power the new lives of your former victims. Balance is restored. If you're unrepentant, there's no point letting you out--you'll only start destroying, or robbing, the energy of others. But if you can be trusted enough to be let out after a time, then after you've paid for your crimes, you're free to experience the joys of Heaven."
"Where does the torture come in?"
"Merely a way to keep you at maximum energy production. Of course, if you'd prefer a slower rate of energy restitution--say, three production lifetimes for you to one consumption lifetime for each victim--we can cut down on the torture aspect considerably."
Benny thought about it. "Nah. Let's get this over with."
"You choose Purgatory?" Nigel said.
"Seems like you got the only game in town," Benny said, "and the house doesn't seem to be grabbing too bad a percentage. You got a deal."
"So ordered," Nigel said.
Suddenly, Benny was thrust into blazing heat, being instantly surrounded by a deafening wall of sound. He felt himself pressed against the clammy bodies of thousands of other damned souls, his face pressed into someone's upraised arm pit. The pungent reek of sweat filled the sickening atmosphere. The roar was pierced by various ungodly whines and shrieks. He was thrust from side to side, lurched forward and back. Benny tried looking around, but there were so many people pressed against him that he couldn't see anything beyond.
Then, suddenly, he realized where he was. It was all too familiar. And he wondered whether he could bear twelve centuries of one of what Angel had called "the inhuman tortures you humans have devised for yourselves."
Twelve centuries on the Lexington Avenue Subway was hell, all right. Benny Rich just groaned.