In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
HEINRICH NEEDED TIME ALONE. Alex’s Tribe was welcoming enough, but there were so many of them. Right now they ran drills, preparing to enter the Pit with him at the onset of the next cycle and gather bodies. Or at least Nadia wanted to run drills. Everyone else considered the preparation to be an excuse to run several minor foot races. There was much giggling and yelling about how this person cheated and that person pushed me and then rough housing. It was all very noisy. And it was all more than Heinrich could take for days on end. Luckily, when he slipped off, he heard Sid stop Nadia from following him. The slender, goofy, half-Arab might look at him askance once in a while, but at least Sid understood Heinrich’s response to being overwhelmed. Nadia faced feeling overwhelmed head on, talking it like a foe, charging at the problem. Sid suffered in the face of being overwhelmed and always wanted a substance to dull the feeling. Heinrich faced being overwhelmed by not facing it at all; instead he withdrew. Thus, Sid and Heinrich’s responses were closer to one another than they would ever be to Nadia’s.
The crevice in the Pit Mountain was still waiting for him as the noisy tribe would be when he was ready. It was there that he heard the man and woman approach. The voices floated from the curve of the Mountain, so distant that at first he thought they might be in his head. He concentrated for some time, and the voices drew closer. They were walking in his direction. Heinrich held his rifle closer. What to do here? He could summon Sid and Nadia or perhaps just Sid if he wanted a more measured solution. He could deal with these two on his own, but how? He couldn’t fight; he’d promised Deborah. And he wasn’t certain how his new friends would feel if they found him standing over the shards of two random people. That promise to Deborah had also stopped his hand when Alex’s Tribe approached him. Plus their noises included more sighs and groans. They’d been hurt at the time and sounded like it. Even though he hadn’t predicted the substantial size of them, he didn’t think they would hurt him. This couple was near enough for Heinrich to pick out a few words. He heard ‘stunde,’ ‘helfen’ and ‘entschuldigung.’ All three words were German as far as Heinrich knew. They meant ‘class,’ ‘help’ and sorry.
Heinrich stood up, now in an utter panic. Whoever was coming was German. Had Otto sent guards from the Camp to attack him or the tribe? It would be smart to send attackers to approach him in the opposite direction since he’d destroyed everyone who approached him via the worn path. Or had Marcus sent people? The tribe talked about members being picked off between the Pit and the Waterfall. They suspected, and Heinrich agreed, that this was mostly the work of Marcus and his people. Marcus wanted to control what was going on with them from the beginning, but they didn’t know why. Heinrich wasn’t certain of today’s reason, but he informed them that Marcus attempted recruiting him in the Pit on the day he died.
Then the woman, who actually sounded quite young, yelled something: “Ich liebe dich.”
Again, it was in German. This time it meant ‘I love you.’ She then repeated the phrase five times. “Ich liebe dich, Ich liebe dich, Ich liebe dich, Ich liebe dich, Ich liebe dich, Ich liebe dich”
Heinrich wanted to vomit. Whoever was coming was not dangerous. Instead they already seemed powerfully annoying.
The couple drew close enough for Heinrich to hear the man offer a deep throated and lustier ‘I love you’ back. Heinrich mimed hitting himself in the head with his rifle and then went to go alert Nadia and Sid.
“Lovers are coming?” Sid repeated. “I don’t understand.”
Heinrich had tried to explain, in broken English, what he heard. It was Nadia who caught on the fastest. “We only know one other person in Hell who speaks German, Sid. And who did he take off with?”
With that Sid was off, running from the fireside area, like a shot.
Sid’s body collided with Allison’s so fast, she never saw him coming. Engrossed in what Heinrich found annoying and what she and Christoph found entirely natural, she was caught off guard. In a second, Sid had her off the ground and had spun her once in the air.
Once he put her down, he grasped her shoulders and gave her a very paternal stare down. “Don’t you ever do that again. I’m very happy to see you, but please don’t ever run off like that again.”
In the meantime, Christoph and Nadia shook hands. “Have you been in the desert this whole time?” she asked the German history professor.
“Entirely. But we had reconnecting to do so it was nice to be alone,” he responded.
“We figured out so much,” Allison exclaimed to Sid. “We were married. I died. I speak German because I was Austrian. And our parents were in Dachau which is all messed up and….” She trailed off as she noticed the strong response to the proper noun, Dachau. “What? What’s wrong?”
It was Nadia who planned out the introduction of Heinrich to Allison and Christoph. Their two friends and former group members needed to learn all that she and Sid had learned since they separated. But having missed out on Marcus’ duplicity, they weren’t open up to the idea of Heinrich as human. Allison and Christoph might as well still be on their respective platforms, prepared to throw cell phones at him. Further exacerbating matters was the newly revealed fact that Christoph’s father and Allison’s mother in her previous life had both been survivors of the camp where Heinrich worked. Obviously at some point, Heinrich probably tortured, starved or beat their loved ones personally. Plus there were all the times he sent someone to beat his father and her mother. Therefore, Nadia reasoned that they needed a quiet conversation, with the majority of the tribe elsewhere and Sid and Nadia hovering for mutual support.
Nadia chose the boulder-strewn area beyond the fireside, as it was the least popular and the easiest to shoo others away from. Plus it allowed Heinrich to remain in his safe place: the crevice. Sitting there, hugging his rifle like a teddy bear, he watched the lovers sit across from him. The woman, actually a girl, made no attempt to hide her disgust. The man held his face in a mask on non-reaction. It was as if the short bearded man didn’t want to show his truth to a lesser creature. Sid and Nadia took respective seats beside Allison and Christoph in what Sid would dub their ‘reunion sharing circle.’
“This is our new friend Heinrich,” Nadia began. “He’s been very helpful to us. He let us know that the water heals, and we learned more about why we are here. But I will get to that in a moment. First, I want to talk about Marcus.”
Allison and Christoph broke the glare they’d focused on Heinrich since sitting down to gape at Nadia.
“The teenage boy who was with us in the Pit?” Christoph asked.
“He’s not a teenager,” Sid explained. “I’ve been wondering something for a while. Allison, when you, Alex and Marcus were on the platform, who arrived first?”
“Marcus was there when I dropped. He was alone,” she offered.
“We know he didn’t—” Nadia whispered to Sid.
“They’ll need evidence of their own,” Sid pointed out to Nadia. “You haven’t found that odd? After we watched a steady stream of people descend into the Pit, did you look back at him being alone on the platform as odd?”
“No,” Allison answered. “And I still don’t. It was just a slow hour or something.”
“No, that’s not why,” Nadia responded. “It was because Marcus was there purposefully. He uses the Pit to find people he wants to work with. We are still figuring out the details, but he admitted to a few things. Firstly, he claims to be Roman, and centuries old. Next, he admitted to us that he placed the two of you at the base of the exit stairs on purpose. He knew Allison was recovering memories of a past life and wanted the two of you to explore that outside of the Pit. Later, he led Sid and I out of the Pit, leaving everyone else to be destroyed as the place become violent. He wanted to recruit us for his work. He’s yet to explain what his work is or why we were chosen. He showed a complete lack of concern for anyone else—that disturbed me. The last thing is very hard for me to prove and to explain.”
“Alex was destroyed,” Sid interjected. “Marcus led him and Nadia over to a violent fire and Alex got caught in the conflict.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by destroyed,” Allison responded.
“These bodies can be broken into small enough pieces. Once the body is broken up enough, the soul seems to leave,” Nadia explained.
“And goes where?” Christoph asked.
For no reason the lovers understood, both Nadia and Heinrich looked at Heinrich.
“I am not knowing this for—” Heinrich began.
“This is silly,” Christoph interrupted. Then he added in German. “We speak the same language. Explain it to me and I will translate for them.”
Heinrich nodded and began again in German. “There are dozens of rumors as to what happens when our shell bodies are destroyed. The most common one is the most obvious: the soul stops existing. Some say these souls go to a new darker Hell. Some say there is a well where all these discarded souls are kept. In this case, a literal physical place with millions of souls crammed into it. There are elaborate theories on what happens if that well ever fills. Another rumor claims that there is a secret way to pull these souls from the well or the darker Hell. There is a really common rumor that Marcus knows how to do this and that he won’t tell anyone, not even his most trusted advisors. Another rumor asserts that the destroyed reappear at the end of the road. And there are witnesses, I’m told, who claim to have seen random naked people entering the City from the wrong direction, meaning from downriver instead of upriver, which is the direction of the Pit. The downriver visitors were described as nude. A variation on that rumor claims that people don’t reappear at the end of the road but at random locations on the road. And again there are witnesses. But these people sound especially crazy because we’ve all seen someone destroyed, right?
Sid and Nadia affirmed, post translation, that they had.
“Their clothes are always left behind. The witnesses claimed to have seen clothed individuals along the road who looked confused, even shocked. The nude people entering the City from downriver make sense. But then I’ve never actually seen any of this.”
“Why does Marcus have advisers?” Allison asked first in English, then in German, effectively admitting that only Heinrich might be able to answer the question.
“I’m told he runs Hell. There are at least three occupied areas in Hell,” Heinrich began in German with Christoph translating at a steady pace. “The first is the Pit, which you’ve seen. Marcus recruits from there. That’s where most people enter. Then there is the Camp. I’ve been there. From the front it looks like a combination of Auschwitz, which I visited, and Dachau, where I worked. It is run by a man name Otto Mueller.”
“Otto Mueller’s in Hell? When did he die?” Christoph interrupted.
“Just before I did: April 1945.”
Christoph looked disappointed. Allison laughed. “What?” Sid demanded.
“Nothing, just years of research leading me to the wrong conclusion,” Christoph groaned. Then to Heinrich he prompted, “Go on.”
“The Camp is definitely under Marcus’ control. That’s what he wanted with me when I met him, just after I died. He was recruiting Nazis for the Camp. Otto was a friend of mine; he introduced us. When I didn’t go with him, he sent men to destroy me. After the Camp is the City. I’ve never been there. A friend of mine is there trying to fight back against Marcus’ control.”
“You are certain,” Allison asked in German, “that you met Marcus in 1945?”
“He looked different,” Heinrich acquiesced. “But the next time I ran into him, he looked like a teenager, like what Sid and Nadia described, and he referred to that first meeting. I’m certain it was the same person.”
“How can he change his appearance?” Sid asked.
“There are people in the City who do it,” Heinrich answered in German. “Sculptors. It involves caving the face in completely and shaping it as water restores the skin.”
“You are a fountain of information we have underutilized, my friend,” Sid told Heinrich.
“He changed his face,” Christoph reasoned out loud. “Why?”
“It helps him ingratiate himself to others,” Sid offered. “He appears non-threatening.”
“Can we return to the thing where Alex was destroyed?” Allison asked the group at large. “Why is that Marcus’ fault? Did he destroy him?”
“He led us into a fight,” Nadia sighed.
“And he, then, started the fight?” Allison prompted.
“Actually, I didn’t see the beginning of the fight,” Nadia admitted.
“How can you know this is Marcus’ fault?” Allison demanded.
Nadia’s tone finally crossed the line between the calm presentation of evidence and defensive. “I believe he orchestrated that situation. He knows Hell, and he knew that area was dangerous. It was his idea to take Alex there. I was an afterthought. He intended to take Alex there and get rid of him.”
“He rarely destroys people himself,” Heinrich added in German. “This is what it means to work for him. He has people all over Hell destroying people for him, running errands for him, imprisoning people for him. He doesn’t need to lay a hand on anyone.”
“Well this is really convenient,” Allison pronounced. “We have the two of you and your bad feeling. And we have him,” she indicated Heinrich, “and his word.”
Christoph gave his love a ‘good girl’ smirk, which Allison received like a prize.
“I believe Heinrich is telling the truth,” Sid stated simply.
“As do I,” Nadia agreed.
“You don’t understand who you are dealing with,” Christoph seethed. Then in German, he told the silent Nazi, “I know who you are.”
Heinrich looked him in the eye but said nothing. After all, he knew what he’d done. Christoph couldn’t throw anything at him but the truth.
“This man is a murderer,” Christoph explained in English. “He told you he worked at Dachau. The only Heinrich of that rank at Dachau was Heinrich von Helldorf. Did he tell you he was lauded, prized and loved in the SS for what he taught those guards? Not just at Dachau. He trained most of the guards in the camp system. They took his organization—his efficiency—and used it at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka. There’s even a potentially apocryphal story that he taught Otto Mueller himself how to keep the Jews calm before shoving them into the gas chambers. He may have carried out assassinations for the SS because several of his guards were shot and no one knows why. Even the Nazis considered him belligerent and a problem. If he weren’t so efficient, he’d have been shot years before the war ended. This is one of the workhorses of the Holocaust. How can you take anything he says on faith alone?”
“We don’t take it on faith alone….” Sid, always ready to argue with Christoph, began.
Heinrich held up his hand, asking Sid to stop and let him speak. “Three guards were shot for three different reasons. The first sodomized a male prisoner. The second tried to break into the women’s barracks for, I am certain, nefarious purposes. The third asked me to shoot him.”
“Why on earth would anyone do that?” Christoph retorted.
“That’s his business, not yours,” Heinrich responded. Then he switched to English, “I tell them what I do. They know I am monster. They know I am killer.”
“We are killers too,” Nadia offered, mostly to Heinrich.
Allison laughed. “So dramatic! You’re a killer Nadia?”
“We all are. That’s why we are here,” she explained.
“No, it’s not,” Allison scoffed.
“It is, Allison,” Nadia went on. “We are all here because we ended the life of another person. I’m responsible for the suicide of a friend.”
“I killed a friend by accident,” Sid added. “We need to figure out what you did. Then we can help you find your body or bodies and you can take them to the river.”
“What river?” Christoph asked, overlapping with Allison’s more vicious comment:
“Wow Nadia, I didn’t know you could bitch someone to death. It is fitting that if it could be done it would be you who did it.”
Sid gave Nadia the smallest of head shakes, discouraging her from taking the bait.
“We need to figure out what happened,” Nadia continued. “If nothing stands out immediately, we may have to go over the events of your life with a fine-toothed comb looking for it.”
“You died in a collision, right?” Sid began. “What happened?”
“Some bitch cut me off in traffic,” Allison sneered.
“Were you texting?” asked the only father of a teenage girl present.
“No,” Allison answered through a tense jaw at Sid.
“Were you talking on the phone?” Sid continued.
“I’m not a cliché.”
“Were you speeding?” Sid demanded.
“You know what? This is bullshit.” Allison rose on the spot. “I don’t have to listen to this.”
“If you won’t talk, then we’ll go over Christoph’s crimes with him—” Nadia began.
Allison cut her off verbally and physically, stepping in between Nadia and her lover. “No, don’t do this to him. Don’t talk to him. You don’t know what he’s been through,” she screamed.
“Allison,” Nadia rose to face her adversary, “we’re all in the same Hell. We can discuss this without judgment.”
“Nothing about you says non-judgmental,” Allison answered back. “And so help me God, if you ask him another question, I will figure out how to destroy that body.”
Sid reached for Allison’s arm, only to be rebuffed. “Don’t touch me.” Behind her, Christoph stood and hugged her back. He whispered something in her ear in German, calming her.
“We need a minute,” he told the others in English.
With that they left.
“What makes her protect him like that?” Sid wondered aloud to Nadia and Heinrich after Allison and Christoph stormed off.
“She doesn’t want us talking about who he killed,” Nadia observed. “That specifically set her off.”
“She is not…” Heinrich searched for the word. “It is not time for her now.”
“She’s not ready,” Sid offered.
“Yes, ready,” Heinrich continued. “We can take her to Deborah or Virgil. They talk to her. Help her as they help me.”
“How hard did you resist your crimes?” Sid asked.
Heinrich shrugged. “I know what I do. I don’t know is wrong. They talk for a month—”
“A month?” Sid interrupted.
“Much time, yes. But Hitler tell many lies.”
“You needed to understand that your whole country was corrupt,” Nadia added. “That must take longer.”
“She just needs to understand her own actions,” Nadia concluded.
“What did Christoph do?” Sid asked, almost to himself. “It had to have taken place during her previous life. Who did he kill?”
“Who did any of us kill?” Nadia responded.
“Our wives,” both Heinrich and Sid answered simultaneously.
Nadia shrugged their mutual answer off. “She wouldn’t protect him for that.”
Once they were calm, Allison and Christoph still refused to discuss their crimes any further. They did, however, agree to join the group. The lovers weren’t prepared for what the absent Alex, Sid and Nadia built during their absence. The size of the group now relaxing by the fire and playing around the pool stunned them.
“Are they all murderers?” Allison whispered to Christoph sarcastically as she leaned against a boulder, waiting to soak her feet in the pool.
In response, Christoph snorted a laugh. “Professor!” a voice called out from the water.
The crowd parted and Christoph saw a familiar, albeit older, face.
“Yi Soo Kim,” he announced as he helped her from the water. “Well, I haven’t seen you since….” He faltered, knowing all too well the circumstances in which she left NYU. “At any rate, you look well.”
“It is so good to see you.” Yi Soo’s hand lingered in his a little too long for Allison’s comfort.
Allison looped her arm through her mate’s and asked to be introduced.
“Of course, Yi Soo, this is my wife, Allison,” Christoph explained while pulling himself away from the lingering former pupil and toward his tense spouse.
Yi Soo’s eyes went wide and then her brow furrowed. “Your wife? I thought you were a widower? That’s what your TA told me.”
“I died and was reborn; it’s a long story.” Allison, who avoided romantic entanglements in high school, also missed out on the female competition for men that she was now in the middle of. “But we’re reunited and it’s wonderful.”
With the smallest expression of annoyance, Yi Soo congratulated them. “How nice for you.”