For some six thousand years and counting, the Old Serpent had been plotting his revenge, prodding and testing for any chink into which to pry a curly horn or forked tail. Yet heaven’s defensive perimeter proved to be impregnable--until recently, that is. But Bill Gates, after a long and lucrative career, and despite the best in life-extension technology, had lately suffered a change of address from his waterfront estate to a little patch of Tophet.
Actually, his new address was, for a time, a matter of no small disputation. He was originally assigned to the eighth circle of pimps and seducers owing to his patronage of assorted homosexual causes. But after vigorous plea-bargaining between the High Council of Pandemonium and his old legal team--which naturally enough shared the very same Zip Code--he was able to cop a plea for lodgings in the fourth circle of hell, in the company of the merely avaricious, in exchange for a new software program.
The new program was designed to infect heaven’s mainframe with a virus which would erase the names in the book of life and inscribe the names of the damned in their place.
However, heaven’s firewall was so effective that the actual extent of the damage was both quite circumscribed and short-lived. Why, I’ve even been told by one anonymous, but high-placed source, that this was a celestial sting-operation: the hellish host were allowed to hack into a low-security system in order to smoke out the core insurgents and keep infernal unrest at acceptable levels of mayhem and madness--lest Gehenna go to hell in a hand-basket.
And, indeed, shortly after this fiendishly clever exercise in ID theft was caught and prosecuted, Mr. Gates was promptly transferred from the fourth circle to a lower rung of the eighth circle, among the common thieves, well below the pimps and seducers.
One temporary consequence of the sting operation is that a few smalltimers like Tony Romano did enjoy a brief layover in Abraham’s bosom--if "enjoy" is quite the right word--before their final destination. Last thing Tony remembers was being turned into a human fountain after he got caught using marked cards in a friendly little game of five card stud. Next thing he knows, he finds himself queued up in the customs line of Zion International Airport.
"Anything to declare?" said a beefy looking cherub in a blue uniform. Too flustered by it all to answer, Tony stood there, slack-jawed. The cherub motioned Tony to go through a portal--setting off a metal detector.
"All firearms must be checked at the front desk," the cherub said rather brusquely, pointing to a sign over his head. Fishing a forty-five out of his sock, Tony meekly handed over the weapon.
"Pistols in the blue bin, Uzis in the black bin!" the cherub snapped. After disposing of his weapon, Tony waited for further instructions.
"Okay, time to strip," said the cherub, matter-of-factly.
"Strip?" said Tony. "You mean, strip search--right here in front of God and everybody? I got rights, ya know!" he snarled in his shrill Chicago accent.
The cherub starred at him uncomprehendingly, then shoved a frilly white robe in his face. "Changing rooms are over there. Oh, and don’t forget your sandals!"
As Tony exited the airport, he was greeted by Michael and Gabriel. "Mr. Romano," said Michael, extending his hand. "Welcome to the New Jerusalem."
Nervously shaking his hand, Tony said, "How come you know my name? Are you with the FBI or something?"
"I’m not quite sure what you have in mind," said Gabriel. "We’re members of the orientation committee. Every newcomer is assigned a tour guide for the first few days to get his bearings. Heaven is a big place, you know!"
Tony responded with a tight smile. Not for a moment was he taken in by their holier-than-thou airs. Hey, he wasn’t some babe in the woods. He’d been around the block a few times. Heaven was just another scam. Their unctuous demeanor was only a pious front. Every angel had an angle, and the trick was for him to keep up appearances while getting them to drop the pose.
"So, Mr. Romano," said Gabriel, "what’s the first thing you’d like to see?"
"Wasn’t there something about gold-paved streets and pearl-studded gates?" Tony asked. "Or was that just a fairy tale?"
"Not at all," said Michael. "Let’s take you to the main entrance."
Michael emitted a whistle in acuti, and a taxi immediately pulled up to the curb. "To the pearly gates," said Gabriel.
The taxi dropped them off at the curb of New Eden Municipal Park. Birds were singing. Lions and lambs were playfully chasing one another. The river flowed with milk and honey. The trees were abud with golden apples and gemstones.
"Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say?" said Gabriel.
"I guess so," said Tony. "But just think what a developer could do with a lot like this? You could put the condos over here, a shopping center with a Wall-Mart and MacDonalds over there."
They continued their stroll through the park until they reached the main gate, encrusted with pearls. Tony was temporarily bedazzled, but then said, "Where are the cops and the security cameras?"
His question drew blank stare. "What do you mean," Michael asked?
"How do you keep folks from stealing the goodies?"
"This is heaven, remember?" said Gabriel, shaking his dreadlocks.
"Oh, yeah, how could I ever forget," said Tony.
"Tony, how’d you like to attend a concern tonight?" Gabriel asked.
"I guess so," said Tony. "Who’s on the bill?"
"Vivaldi has written a brand-new Gloria for the occasion. I’m doing the trumpet accompaniment," said Gabriel. "And Uriel will play a Handel harp concerto. Ever since Handel got his sight back he’s been composing at a furious pace. Mendelssohn is working overtime just to keep apace!"
"And Raphael even commissioned Bach to compose a solo cantata for the occasion," Michael said. "If you think Joan Sutherland has a swell high C, just wait till you hear Raphael’s C above high C!"
Tony stumbled out of the concerned hall, bleary-eyed and blinking in the bright light. "I thought you said this was an evening concert?" Tony exclaimed.
"Oh, in heaven, night-time words are just a figure of speech," Michael explained.
"Your attention seemed to drift a bit half-way through the harp concerto," said Gabriel.
"It’s not the kind of music I’m used to," Tony said. "Hey there, Mickey. Does Peggy Lee ever sing here?"
"I think she’s in the ‘other’ place," said Michael, looking down.
"Too bad!" Tony exclaimed. "I don’t suppose you ever heard her sing, ‘I got it bad, and that ain’t good?’?"
"Can’t say I have," Michael said.
"Me neither!" said Gabriel.
"Well, you gotta admit she had a great pair a-knockers and gams," said Tony, jabbing Gabriel in the ribs and winking at Michael.
"The angels exchanged quizzical stares," so Tony kept on winking and making hourglass gestures with his hands.
"Mr. Romano," Michael said. "Your eye is twitching. Do you have a speck in your eye, or is that just a natural tick?
"Are you angels always so serious?" Tony asked, in a tone of exasperation.
"To the contrary," said Gabriel, "we have a highly developed sense of humor. You just need to get to know us a little better. Why, only last week, Tobit told a hilarious joke about Calabi-Yau space!"
"If you don’t mind," said Tony, "I’d like to be alone for a while."
Tony found his way back to the garden. When no one was looking, he began to pry pearls free from the gate with a box-cutter he smuggled out of the airport. He was so immersed in his work that he didn’t hear Gabriel glide up from behind and tap him on the shoulder.
He spun around, pearls flying every which way.
"Holy smokes!" he exclaimed. "You near ‘bout scared me to death, sneaking up like that!"
"Pardon me for asking," said Michael," but why are you chipping away at the pearls?"
"Well, it’s like...uh...like them pearls were a little...a little smudgy--yes, smudgy, that’s what they were! And so I was just trying to polish 'em up a bit before gluing 'em back, you see!" said Tony.
"That’s very considerate of you," said Michael, "but there’s really no need. We have cleaning crews to dust and polish."
"You mean," said Tony, you have to go work even after you get to heaven?"
"Naturally!" Michael exclaimed. "Of course, union rules exempt the cherubim and seraphim from the more menial tasks, but the heavenly host keeps everything spick-and-span on a rotational basis: Thrones on Mondays, Dominations on Tuesdays, Virtues on Wednesdays, Powers on Thursdays, Principalities on Fridays, as well as angels and archangels on Saturdays."
"Sounds undemocratic to me!" Tony exclaimed.
"Didn’t you ever read Dionysius? I guess the public school system must be even worse than it’s rumored to be! Why, the division of labor is all laid out in his book on the Celestial Hierarchy. He may be off on a detail or two, but for an earthling, he did a bang-up job."
"And it works in reverse too, you know," said Gabriel. "In that 'other' place there's a sort of upside down meritocracy--the badder the better!"
"What do you do on Sunday?" Tony asked
"Sunday is appointed for public and private worship, precinding all worldly employments and recreations, save for works of mercy and necessity" Gabriel solemnly intoned.
"Hey, Gabe! All you angels look alike," said Tony. " Don’t you have any girly-girl angels?
"No, angels are sexless, said Gabriel.
"Does that mean you don’t have...well, uh....you can’t, you know, do it?"
"Do it?" Gabriel asked.
"Don’t you dudes know plain English?" Tony said, turning testy.
"We’re doing the best we can," said Gabriel. "I’m afraid the universal translator is off-line at the moment."
"How do you communicate when you’re sent on a mission down under?" Tony asked.
"We have a heavenly Berlitz school to bone up on conversational English, Coptic, Sumerian, Sanskrit, Akkadian, Hebrew, Linear B, Church Latin, French, Hindi, Mandarin, and so on. But a crash-course doesn’t cover all the choice colloquialisms."
"Oh, I think I know what he’s getting at," said Michael, blushing slightly. "It’s a question of protocol. There was an old case involving the sons of God taking the daughters of men to wife, but those were fallen angels, you understand!"
"I’m getting a little thirsty," Tony said. "Maybe you guys could fetch me a drink from the river"
Having given his angelic escort the slip, Tony made a b-line for Mainstreet. When Michael and Gabriel caught up with him, he had set up a concession stand where he was hawking gold bricks.
Gabriel took one look at the sign--brick sale: buy one, get one free--and asked, "Buy one with what? No one has money in heaven!"
"Now you put your finger on the problem!" Tony exclaimed. "Everybody here is broke, plain broke. The management keeps all of you dumb schmucks in the poor-house!"
"I’m afraid you’re rather missing the main point," said Michael. "We don’t have money because we don’t need money. Everything here is simply priceless!"
"That don’t make no sense!" Tony growled. "If it’s free it’s worthless! What do you take me for? Some sort a chump? I’m nobody’s fool! You can’t dupe me with your pie-in-the-sky platitudes. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every man has his price!"
"What we take you for is very much the question of the hour," said Gabriel. "I understand that new arrivals are often a bit befuddled by the razzle-dazzle novelty of it all, but if I didn’t know better I’d almost suspect that you didn’t belong here at all! At the very least we may need to schedule you for some nouthetic counseling!"
"Michael, any word yet from the higher ups?" Gabriel then asked.
"The com-system is still down," Michael answered.
Just then Abdiel descended from on high, with a pair of seraphic bar-bouncers at his side.
"You're quite correct, brother Gabriel," Abdiel said. "He doesn’t belong here."
"Well, that explains a lot," Michael said, "but why were we not informed?"
"Information was made available on a need-to-know basis," Abdiel. "Entrapment only works if affected parties are kept in the dark. We’ll be holding a press conference shortly."
Then Abdiel gestured to the seraphim, who seized Tony, arm-in-arm, hauled him over to the ledge of the New Jerusalem, and threw him over the side. Tony let out a great wailing cry as he sank like a rock.
This happened many years ago, or so I’m told, but since the bottomless pit is--well--bottomless, I reckon that Tony is still falling to this day.