Menkov and Ansonov stood staring at each other. They were standing in a vast hall, which seemed to go on for ever, with archways down the sides, seemingly opening into other halls. Before they could speak, an old man wearing a dinner jacket came up to them.
“Good morning, gentlemen. Welcome to Valhalla. I am your guide this morning, and I shall take you both to your allotted areas. Please follow me. I shall try and explain things - as much as I can - as we walk.”
He set off down the hall, the two Russians following as requested. The first set of side doors they came to were closed, with a heavy wooden beam locked across them. A loud rumbling of voices could be heard from inside.
The guide gestured towards the doors. “You’ll see those doors are closed. Mostly, we keep the chambers open, but in there are the Vikings.” He chuckled. “They think they own the place, and whenever they manage to get out there’s hell to pay. They just set off for what they call ‘a bit of rape and pillage’. It’s hell’s own job getting them back in there, and then there’s the mess to clear up afterwards.” He sighed. “They’re entertaining, but seriously high maintenance.”
They walked on, passing several side rooms. These they could see into, and they were all thronged with people, talking, eating, drinking. The two Russians struggled to take in what was going on. In the end, Ansonov had had enough.
“What is the place? What are you doing with us? Who are you?”
The guide stopped and turned to him. “Normally, I wouldn’t give the explanation until we arrived in your quarters, but I understand you are important men, so let me start now. This is Valhalla. You come here when you are dead.”
Menkov and Ansonov stared at him. “Yes, I’m sorry, but you are. Your aeroplane was blown out of the sky over Ukraine by a half-wit who should never have been allowed within a hundred kilometres of a missile battery. But,” - he pointed at Ansonov - “you politicians persist in giving access to serious weapons to these people, because you think it will suit you. So don’t complain when it backfires. Your eternity will be in the hall with the politicians. Some of them are a bit of a laugh - you never know who will get on with whom, or why. That’s what makes this job so interesting.
“For example, while we’re talking about politicians, who would have thought that Richelieu and Mandela would have become bosom buddies? Laugh a minute, those two. And you know why they’re so matey? All down to rugby. Mandela reckons that if Richelieu hadn’t done his thing with the Huguenots in the seventeenth century, South Africa wouldn’t have won the world cup in 1995 and he wouldn’t have got to wear François Pienaar’s jersey. Well, he may be right; look at the names - they’re not all Dutch.”
His brow darkened. “But they’re not all great guys like those two, in the politicians’ hall. At the other end of the scale are what we called the hundred million gang. That’s Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. Oh, and I think Chavez is trying to muscle his way into their group. You can probably guess what the hundred million refers to - in fact, you may well meet some of them. I’d steer well clear of those boys, if I were you.”
He chuckled again. “Mind you, we had a bit of a laugh a while back. You see, the politicians and the philosophers are in neighbouring halls; well, makes sense, because it’s sometimes difficult to decide and sometimes we have to move someone one way or the other.”
He paused for a moment or two, as if turning something over in his mind. Then he continued.
“I shouldn’t really be telling you this stuff, but it’ll help to cheer you up; it must be difficult, coming to terms with being dead and all that kind of stuff when you first arrive.
“Anyway, we had Marx in with the philosophers. Seemed fair enough, although none of the others would speak to him, except Nietzsche, and that was just an endless slanging match. Well, we don’t care about that. But then Voltaire really started kicking off. Constantly moaning that Marx shouldn’t be with them, was a terrorist not a philosopher and so on and on and on.
"Then he wrote a pamphlet: ‘I despise what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. EXCEPT MARX!’ Well, that set everybody off; the noise! The screaming and shouting - frankly, anybody tells you philosophers are quiet, thoughtful people - just see them when they get riled. That brought the row right into the authorities’ view, so we had to do something about it. The bosses decided the best thing would be to move Marx in with the politicians, since that’s really where the effects of his work show up. So now he runs around after the hundred million gang shouting ‘It wasn’t meant to be like that!’ They just slap him around a bit and say, ‘Idiot. How else did you think it would turn out?’
“Course, we had to have a quid pro quo to keep the numbers right, so we moved Edmund Burke out of politicians and into philosophers. That one’s worked out quite well; he and Voltaire get on like a house on fire.”
He started walking again. “Let’s move on.” He pointed down the hall. “That’s politicians, there. That’s where I’m going to leave Mr Ansonov, and take Mr Menkov on to economists, bankers and traders. Bit of a mixed bag in there, but we’ll get to that. Of course, for the first eon, you have to stay in your hall. After that, pretty much Liberty House - you can move around pretty freely.”
“First eon?”said Ansonov. “That sounds a long time. What does it mean?”
“Well, you’ve got to get used to different perspective on time up here. We tried to make you lot understand via Isaac Watts.” The two Russians looked blank. “English hymn composer - he did ‘A thousand ages in Thy sight, are like an evening gone’. You don’t know it? Well, we were sending you a signal with that one, but I don’t think any of you really understood what we were talking about. Frankly, though, you just have to get used to the idea that time here is very different. Once you get into it, though, you’ll be OK. “
He stopped at the doors to the politicians’ hall.
“Well, this is it for you, Mr Ansonov.” He looked thoughtfully at the latter. “Normally, I’d give a hint about whom you might find sympathetic, but I’m not sure with you. You kind of fit in between some of the others. I suppose you could look for Napoleon - he also liked a state where he was in complete control, without being like the hundred million gang. Mind you, he’s obviously still smarting a bit about Russia, so he may be a tad stand-offish. Maybe some of those south Americans? Pinochet, Peron and so on?” He dropped his voice. “To be honest, I sometimes struggle to tell them apart. Anyway, off you go, into the hall; I’m sure you’ll make some friends soon. Mr Menkov will be coming with me to find his niche.” And he turned on his heel and left Ansonov standing at the doorway. The last Menkov saw was the former President hesitatingly walking in to the busy hall.
On they went, the guide silent now as they passed a series of halls. Eventually, he stopped. On the door post to this hall was tacked a handwritten sign: “CASINO”. The guide pointed to it.
“I see the traders have been at it again. They keep on putting that sign up, to annoy the bankers. Bankers say it’s demeaning, and keep taking it down again.” He shook his head. “I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of mixing bankers, traders and economists. It all gets a bit confusing, and the other two persist in looking down on the traders. Traders just look bored and ask, who makes all the money? I’ll come in with you, help you to meet your lot. Follow me.”
The first person Menkov saw was dressed in a smart suit, with a strong moustache. He was standing alone, with a supercilious look on his face.
“Keynes,” said the guide, “always on his own. Too grand to speak to anyone else.” He nodded beyond Keynes. “Look at those two. Inevitable they’d get together, although I doubt they agree on too much: JP Morgan and Montagu Norman.”
Then he excitedly pointed. Two figures were sitting close to one another, holding a seemingly whispered conversation. “Jesse Livermore and Joe Kennedy - I bet you could get some tips on rigging markets if you were a fly on the wall there.”
The guide shook his head, an admiring smile on his face. “It’s always fun to come to traders; always something going on.” He pointed, and Menkov heard a rising clamour from a group huddling around something he couldn’t quite see. Yells and cheers were coming from the group.
“Ah, now we’re getting nearer your lot. Those are the Phibro boys, plus a few from Marc Rich who want to stay with their old mates.” From the middle of the huddle came a jubilant whoop. “Ha, that’ll be Ron Adams and Manfred Koppelmann shooting craps. Goes on all day.” Then he pointed over to the right. “Here we are. These are the lot you need to be with. Come on, follow me; we’ll soon get you established.”
Read Chapter Three tomorrow!