Darren was ninety-five percent sure he was dead. No one could ever survive that, he thought, glancing over at the tangled wreckage of his precious Honda Rebel, which lay like a crushed beetle at the bottom of the cliff. The only doubt came from the fact that he appeared to be alive enough to think this.
Strangely, nothing hurt. He wondered if this meant he was paralysed. The thought sent a jolt of panic through him and, with a tremendous effort, he attempted to push himself up into a sitting position. The world shifted. When it stopped spinning, Darren was standing on his own two feet, albeit reeling like a drunk at a champagne party. He looked up at the twenty-foot cliff above him, impressed at his resilience — he must be tougher than he thought. His chest swelled with pride at the realisation that the hours of conditioning his body to be a slab of lean, pale muscle in the boxing ring had paid off. Then he looked down and saw the body lying at his feet.
“Yes, it takes people like that sometimes.” The chirpy, high-pitched voice came from behind his left elbow. Darren turned to see a short, rotund man standing just a few feet behind him. He was holding a clipboard and pen and was dressed in what appeared to be a kid’s Halloween costume. The all-in-one jumpsuit made him look like a ripe tomato. A cape, a skullcap with small black horns and a forked tail which hung to his knees completed the outfit. The man’s pen, Darren noticed, had a trident on the end.
The man spotted him staring and smiled proudly. “It’s a nice touch, don’t you think? I had them specially made, and the blood is top quality! None of that cheap stuff that’s so full of plasma that the writing just runs away.”
Darren wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but right now he had more pressing priorities. “Am I in Hell?” he ventured.
“Not yet,” the small man replied, looking pleased that Darren had asked the question. “But unless you get some medical help in about ten minutes, you probably will be.” He beamed as if this was something to look forward to. “Right now, you’re standing in the middle, so to speak. More dead than alive, but not quite there yet. Which makes it a perfect time to ask you a few questions!”
Darren was wary of anyone asking questions, particularly if they had a clipboard in hand. “Do you want me to sign up for something?” he asked.
The man looked put out. “Oh no, nothing like that. At least, not exactly.” He paused, and a look of consternation crossed his moon-like face. “I am sorry. I should have started by introducing myself.” He cleared his throat in that rather officious way that indicated he didn’t actually have anything in his throat to clear, but he liked the effect. “My name is Herbert and I am a trainee devil (first class) and Head of Public Liaison on the Accommodation Reallocation Plan.”
Darren frowned, trying to get his head around the long words. He was a simple man, content with a life of (mostly) honest labour, his wife and two children and a few pints of lager in the local pub on Fridays.
Herbert chattered on, not appear to notice his confusion. “We’re getting a bit full up down there, so the boss set up a new project to survey potential new arrivals to try and work out which circle they’re likely to end up in, so we can tailor our expansion plans accordingly.” He glanced around conspiratorially and dropped his voice. “Just between you and me, if this goes well, I may be up for the next round of promotion.”
Darren still had absolutely no idea what the small man was going on about. He stared down at his body. A trickle of blood ran down his shaved head and his left leg appeared to be leaking more of the stuff onto the pale sand. He was relieved to see that his vintage black leather jacket seemed to have survived unscathed. It had cost him a packet, that had. He wondered if someone had called an ambulance and if it would get here in time.
“Sorry?” he asked, belatedly realizing that he had been asked a question.
“The first thing to work out is whether you are likely to go to heaven,” Herbert repeated patiently. “Though, there aren’t many who seem to qualify nowadays. Do you believe in God?”
Darren considered the question. If he’d been asked several hours before, his answer would have been a resounding no, but life — and death — suddenly seemed very uncertain.
“Yes?” he queried cautiously.
Herbert brightened. “Oh good! And do you go regularly to church, follow the ten commandments and spread the love of God wherever you go?”
The only time Darren had been in a church was on a school trip twenty-three years ago. He had managed to break into the collection box and snaffled a pocketful of loose change before his teacher had noticed and marched him, jangling, out to the graveyard.
This appeared to be the answer Herbert was expecting. He sighed melodramatically. “Ah well, perhaps it was too much to hope for. In which case, you’ll be probably be sent down to us.” He frowned and sucked the end of his pen. It left a red stain on the corner of his mouth.
“Err, is there another option?” Darren asked. His knowledge of heaven and hell were pretty vague and gleaned more from the music of Black Sabbath than religious texts, but he was pretty sure that hell was not a fun place to be.
“Well, you could be one of the Uncommitted, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. They always seem pretty miserable and gloomy there. I think they feel as if no one really wants them. They’re always trying to get Charon to paddle them across the river into Limbo.”
Herbert paused and gave Darren a critical look. “Limbo still has a fair bit of capacity. It isn’t filling up as quickly as the inner circles … but I’m not sure if you’d qualify …”
Darren’s brain was still a few steps behind. “Hell is full?”
“Oh no!” The man looked alarmed. “The gates to Hell are never closed, as they say. But it is getting a bit crowded in some sectors. It seems there are many more sinners than saints.”
“And Limbo is in Hell?” Parts of Darren’s brain that had been inactive so for long that they could be considered comatose were slowly whirring into action.
“Yes, it’s the first circle,” the man responded irritably. “Quite popular, and really rather spacious, as most people have done something to justify getting bumped further down into the pit. Very nice place, Limbo. We modelled it on Heaven of course, but with a few modifications. People mostly just have an eternity of boredom. Though we have got quite a few timeshares going on with souls from Heaven who need a break from everlasting goodness.
“Anyway, if you don’t mind, we should probably get on with the survey. It doesn’t look we have much time.” Herbert peered down at the rapidly darkening sand around Darren’s limp form. “Now, please consider each question carefully before you answer, and it would be most helpful if you could tell the truth. Saint Peter can always tell the liars, and it really is most disruptive when people end up in a different place to the spot we have allocated for them.”
“Ok,” Darren mumbled, unable to take his eyes off his body. Surely, some help must be on the way. He knelt and put a hand out to try and stem the flow of blood from his leg. Was it physically possible for a leg to bend at that angle? His hand went straight through the affected limb. He pulled it back and tried again with the same result.
“First question. Did you try and kill yourself or was it just an accident?”
“What?” Darren looked up.
Herbert’s round face beamed back. “Did you commit suicide?”
Darren’s recollection of the minutes immediately preceding the crash were hazy. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure how he had skidded off the road so violently. He’d been driving fast of course, but he always drove fast, and he knew the road like the back of his hand.
“Ok, well that rules out 7b,” Herbert said, scribbling on his clipboard. “Shame really, some people quite like being turned into a tree, particularly if you can avoid the harpies.”
“What’s a harpy?” Darren asked absentmindedly, still trying to work out how his motorbike had ended up flying off the cliff rather than cornering nicely as it had done so many times before.
Herbert didn’t appear to hear him. “Lust is pretty full at the moment. It’s big, but there just seem to be so many adulterers nowadays, and keeping the wind machine going is costing us a fortune. We’re considering getting some wind turbines to help power it, but the trial ones we had couldn’t cope with anything stronger than a stiff breeze and it really needs to be a violent storm to properly torment the souls.” He sighed. “It’s so frustrating when technology can’t keep up with demand.”
There had been a darker patch on the road, Darren remembered. Strange, as it hadn’t rained since last week. His front wheel had skidded when he’d hit it.
“That bastard,” he breathed. “Michael Lee.”
“I’m sorry?” Herbert appeared to realise he had lost his audience.
Darren stood up, scowling. “Michael Lee did this — I’ll bet my life on it.”
“Uh, I hate to say this, but—”
“He poured oil over the road. He knew I’d be heading this way. If I live through this, I’m going to kill the bastard!”
Herbert shifted uneasily as if standing on hot sand. “Don’t be too hasty now, you may want to rethink that. The punishment for murder is a river of boiling blood and fire. you know.”
Darren considered this. “So, if I don’t kill him, he’ll get sent to the river of boiling blood when he dies?”
“Probably,” Herbert replied cheerfully. “Unless he’s done something worse.”
Darren wasn’t really sure what could be worse than murder, but the prospect of his potential killer spending eternity in this form of hell cheered him somewhat.
“So,” said Herbert, glancing down at his plastic wristwatch, “back to question two. Have you ever been unfaithful or overcome with lust?”
It had been a hot day towards the end of the first proper week of summer. The kind of day that made everyone parade around in the minimal possible amount of clothing, just in case This Was It. A very British trait. Everywhere Darren looked, all he saw were girls in tight tops and skirts that rode practically up to their knicker line when they bent over. It was almost too much for a grown man to bear, particularly when, by the last count, it had been six weeks, two days and about 4 hours since he’d had any.
He’d gone out to buy ice cream to feed Melissa’s sudden craving for Ben and Jerry’s, leaving her fanning herself on the sofa. Bloody baby was going to be a right porker based on the trajectory of her “cravings” over the last eight and a half months. He had just reached into the freezer cabinet for the last tub of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough when he heard an exclamation of disappointment from over his shoulder. Turning, he’d looked into the face of an angel. In Darren’s head, angels were busty peroxide-blondes, petite enough to gaze up at him through thick, well-mascaraed eyelashes (wings optional). By this definition, Chantelle was indeed an angel, though she only brought out the wings for hen dos and Halloween parties.
Naturally, he had offered to share the ice cream and, well, one thing led to another. But god, it had been good. When he’d finally traipsed home, he found Melissa, red-faced and snoring, oblivious to the fact it had taken him five hours to find a tub of ice cream.
Chantelle had been about the only thing that kept him sane through the subsequent six months until she’d found someone else. But still, he thought, that wasn’t really being unfaithful surely. He would never have actually left Melissa — he loved her. But perhaps, he had been a bit of a shit to her. Darren made a mental note to buy his wife another of those expensive handbags she liked if he got home.
“That would be a yes then.” Herbert scribbled something on his clipboard. “Next up is Gluttony. Bit of a miserable one this, though strangely you Brits don’t seem to mind the cold, unending rain so much. The Aussies hate it.”
Darren most definitely did not like rain. He longed for the day he could top up his perma-tan on the beaches of Biarritz rather than the sunbeds of Eastbourne. He had no idea what gluttony was, but he didn’t want to go there.
“No,” he said decisively. “No Gluttony.”
“Really? Well ok then, if you say so.” Herbert put a neat cross in the third tickbox on his survey sheet. “Greed next. Are you a hoarder or a spender? Give to charity?”
“Err, I gave the homeless man by the station a couple of quid the other week,” Darren ventured.
“That’ll do nicely. Okay, you’re out of the jousting match. Next up, anger.”
“Wait!” Darren felt very much like he needed to start taking control of this conversation. Right now. He drew himself up to his full five feet eight inches and scowled down at the rotund man who seemed unperturbed by his threatening stance. “You listen here. Stop asking all these bloody questions! Call me an ambulance or at least help keep me alive until someone else does.”
Herbert tutted slightly, causing Darren to clench his fists in an attempt to prevent himself punching the man’s round head right off his round body.
“I’m afraid I can’t help with that. We’re not allowed to influence the real world. It’s against The Rules.” Herbert pronounced these words with reverential pride.
“Rules are there to be broken,” Darren growled. He could feel the rage building in him, his muscles and veins straining to contain it.
Herbert glanced up in surprise and took a step back. “My, you are most definitely an angry one. I’ve never seen that shade of red before.” He smiled. “Most definitely a candidate for the Fifth Circle I’d say, and you’re in luck — we’re just about to create an extension to the River Styx, so you’ll be able to pick your spot! Of course, it’s more a swamp than a river really, but if you like mud baths, it may just be the place for you. Lots of brawling too — the rugby boys tend to get on well there. Do you play rugby?”
Darren had not gone to the type of school where pupils played rugby and having got bored with the non-contact rules in football, he had turned to boxing as his sport of choice. Formally and, well, informally. “No,” he replied shortly.
“Ah well never mind.” Herbert drew the outline of a large tick and began to colour it in.
A siren sounded in the distance. Herbert looked past Darren down the beach. “Hmmm, it seems you may be in luck. They’ll have to be pretty quick though. I reckon you’ve only got a pint of blood left to lose before it’s too late.”
Darren turned and looked back down the stony beach. A group of figures were walking towards them. The sun glinted off the fluorescent stripes on their heavy coats and they carried a stiff board between them. They were still a very long way away. He looked down at his body. Was it his imagination or had his chest stopped moving?
“We’ll skip through a few of these questions, as we’re short on time. I think we can rule out Heresy, which is good, as the potters are barely keeping up with demand for the flaming tombs. Violence we’ll come back to, as it’s usually linked to anger — it really depends if you prefer a river of boiling blood or a muddy swamp. Now, Fraud, this is where it gets complicated.” Herbert paused expectantly.
Darren wasn’t listening. He was staring at the figures. The wailing of the siren stopped and, looking up at the cliff above him, he saw the pale face of a young policeman peering down at them.
Herbert waved a pudgy hand in front of his face. “Hello! Anyone at home? Come on, we only have a few minutes left.” He made an exasperated noise. “Any fraud, stealing, providing evil advice, bearing false testimony or anything of that kind?”
“Yeah,” Darren answered without taking his eyes off the green-uniformed paramedics. They looked out of breath as they made their way along the beach, sliding on the slippery pebbles.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Herbert sounded deflated. “I did so hope you would be an anger man.”
While most of Darren’s brain was split between willing the paramedics to move faster and willing his body to stay alive until they go there, a smaller part in what might be termed “the back office” was busily running through his life to date, assessing anything that might be deemed a sin.
Darren had had what the authorities called a “troubled upbringing”. Not that his early life had really been that terrible; his father had left when he was eight, which was a good thing as it meant no more beatings. He still had a couple of thin, pale lines on his back from the sharp bit of his belt. But Darren had always been more interested in the School of Life, rather than the bricks and mortar school he was supposed to be attending. Which meant he ended up with other people who were advocates of the School of Life, or more precisely, the School of Living-Well-with-Little-Work.
Technically it was theft, he supposed, but Darren saw it as more like redistribution of wealth. There were a lot of very rich people up on the Heights, who in most cases had at least one more television than was really necessary. In fact, he was probably doing them a favour. Television was supposed to be very bad for your eyes. And their television turned into money to feed Darren and his family. It was practically charity.
Darren was not a greedy man. He spent what he earned (through legal and less-legal means) on day-to-day necessities, the odd family holiday and a few luxury items, mainly presents for Melissa and the kids. Although he had a bit put aside for the future, he could never have been accused of being a hoarder. And he always gave a bit to those disaster appeals that always came on TV after the latest earthquake or typhoon had hit a country he’d never heard of a long way away. It made him feel better to be able to contribute.
He had only been caught once. A year after their second son, Bernie, had been born. But he’d managed to talk his way out of it — had suggested that Dylan had been the one who’d brought him along and left him waiting in the car — and the judge had taken pity on the young father, giving him a community service order rather than a jail term. Dylan hadn’t really minded anyway; he had some mates on the inside to catch up with and the food was better in prison than what his missus could cook.
“Hmmm, so theft and false testimony. That’s a choice between the snake pit and the devil’s boils — that’s a bit like a more extreme version of chicken pox.” Herbert looked slightly sad. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the swamp of Styx? We’ve imported some real Scottish midges this year.”
Darren had never been to Scotland (in fact, he’d never been further north than Birmingham) so the prospect of added midges did not fill him with the terror that others may have felt.
He shrugged. “I think I’d rather go to Limbo if that’s an option.”
“Afraid not, you’re way too much of a sinner for that!” Herbert said cheerfully. “Now just one final question, then I’ll be on my wa—”
“Is there any way to reverse sins?” The brain cells beavering away in the back office of Darren’s mind cheered. Finally, they had got through.
Herbert seemed taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“So, I’ve done some bad stuff.” Darren wasn’t quite sure where this was going — half of his brain seemed frantically to be trying to catch up with the other half — but he decided to let his mouth do the talking. “I mean not really bad stuff. I’ve never killed anyone.” He paused for a fraction of a second. “I think. Anyway, what if I live a really good life, be nice to people, help the poor, that kind of thing. Will that cancel out the bad stuff?”
There was another pause while both trainee devil and shade considered this.
“I don’t know,” said Herbert finally. “If you die now, you’re definitely going to Hell, no question about it. But if you live, well, perhaps Saint Peter may look kindly on you.” He shrugged. “Either way, I think you’re about to find out in just a few minutes.”
Darren was suddenly aware of a strange tugging sensation in his stomach. It felt as if his belly button was one half of a magnet that was being inextricably drawn to its mate. The pull was coming from his body lying on the floor.
“What’s happening to me?”
Herbert smiled cheerfully. “You’re about to die. Or live. Either way, you’re balanced on the fine line between the two, so your body wants you back.”
Darren looked around. The paramedics were now only twenty metres away. He hoped they were in time, but the signs weren’t promising.
“What’s the final question?” he asked, curiosity for a moment overcoming the dread seeping through his ghostly veins.
Herbert looked puzzled. “Question?”
“You said there was one final question,” Darren said impatiently.
The puzzled look cleared, like a cloud revealing the moon. “Oh yes! Well, it was to determine if you deserved a place in the inner circle. You know, right up close to him. Only those who commit the worst of all sins end up in the frozen lake, and we do still have some capacity there, particularly at the lower levels.”
“What?” was all Darren could manage. The force pulling him forward was now almost unbearable.
“Treachery,” Herbert replied. “Have you ever been traitorous? To your kin, your country or — worst of all — to guests?”
Darren couldn’t speak. The breath was being drawn out of him. He didn’t know the “him” Herbert was referring to. Did he mean the Devil? Did the Devil truly exist? If he had had tears in his ghostly body to shed, they would have been coursing down his cheeks. Mutely, he shook his head.
Herbert looked sad. “Well, I think it’s time for you to go, one way or another,” he said solemnly. “But thank you for taking the time to participate in our Accommodation Survey, and we hope to welcome you to Hell in the not too distant future.”
“But what about me?” Darren gasped, trying to resist the force pulling him back into his body. “Am I going to live or die? I don’t want to go to Hell!”
“That’s not for me to decide. It’s Saint Peter you need to convince.” Herbert reached out and patted his arm. “But really, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. There’s nothing you can do. What will be will be.”
Darren’s legs had disappeared. Or, more accurately, they had merged back into his body. He couldn’t feel them anymore. All sensation below his waist had gone. He reached out a hand imploringly towards the little man who now stood over him, a strange expression on his face.
“Goodbye, Darren,” Herbert said softly. “Or should I say, au revoir.”
Gazing up, Darren felt his ghostly body merge with his earthly body. For the first time in his thirty-eight years, he prayed.
* * *
“He’s looking pretty bad.”
The paramedic knelt down beside the pale, prone body on the ground and started checking for vitals. His colleagues placed the stretcher on the ground and dug in their backpacks for an oxygen mask, syringes and bags of fluid.
“Will he make it?” a pretty brunette asked, retrieving a neck brace from the stretcher.
“Pulse is present but very faint,” her colleague replied. “He’s lost a lot of blood though.” He glanced up at the cliff. “If he does survive, he’ll be one hell of a lucky guy.”
An older man, still puffing from the exertion of the walk over the beach, placed a mask over Darren’s nose and mouth. “What did the copper say?”
“He reckons the guy was speeding. There was some oil still on the road from that tanker leak this morning.”
The paramedic nodded sagely. It had been a long shift.
They worked quickly, stabilizing broken bones and pumping blood and fluids back into the pale, corpse-like body. None of them noticed the small, rotund man standing by, observing the scene with an air of calm indifference. That was because, to them, he was not there.
The clack-clack of a helicopter approaching broke the silence. It hovered overhead, its downdraft sending plastic bags and crumpled metal bouncing across the beach. By the time the helicopter crewman had been lowered on the winch, the man’s body was strapped to the stretcher. The crewman nodded to the paramedics, clipped the stretcher to the winch and himself to the stretcher, and made a wheeling motion with his arm to the pilot. Slowly Darren ascended into the sky.
As the helicopter moved away, the paramedics started picking up the bits of detritus that had been scattered by the wind. The old man remained standing, following the helicopter with his gaze as it grew smaller and smaller.
“Well, we’ve done our bit,” he mused quietly. “Now he’s in God’s hands.”
I hope you enjoyed this short story inspired by Dante’s Inferno. For more free short stories, keep an eye out for my Readers’ Club emails, as I only make them available for a limited time!