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.
Our heroes arrive in a Hell matching none of the descriptions on earth.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
BOMBS AND BODIES AND NAZIS, OH MY
7 o’clock Platform (Europe), Hell
“I THINK I DESERVE TO DIE.” Jeff’s words to Nadia were the first thing she thought of as she hit the ground with an audible thud. It felt like she’d fallen through a hole in her living room floor. But then she didn’t remember collapsing onto the carpet. The sensation of being trapped in her own body had overwhelmed the feeling of her arm hitting the coarse green cords. Now she found herself on a hard stone floor. For a wild moment, she thought she’d literally fallen through the living room floor into her basement. But then her basement had a distinct musty odor and this place was, she sniffed, odorless. “I think I deserve to die.” Jeff’s words rang more clearly than the operator who’d spoken her salutation while Nadia was in too much distress to hear. She thought she still needed to call for help. The police in London were painfully slow responding to suicides, but the dispatcher might be able to call a parent or a relative within his house. She moaned, “I need to call 999.”
She sat up. Before her were two unhappy men seated against the curved wall of a cave. The fellow on the left was tall and brown skinned with touches of grey hair at his temples. He looked as though he’d been crying. The expression on his face read, ‘Please tell me you know what’s going on.’ The gentlemen on the right looked more angry than sad. He was short with a brown grey beard. She guessed he was in his mid-fifties. His sweater-vest/slacks ensemble made two words pop in Nadia’s thoughts: professor and continent. The latter meant she suspected he was from mainland Europe. The former was just a good guess.
“I called 999,” the dark-skinned man retorted. “I still ended up here.”
Nadia began with the obvious. “Where are we?”
“As if I know,” bearded slacks man answered indignantly. The accent was German.
The other man crossed his arms over his stomach and began rocking back and forth.
“Don’t start that again,” the German spat at his distraught companion.
“What’s it to you if he’s sad?” Nadia stood up to look around.
The cave was littered with debris. Nearest to Nadia were dozens of I.V. tubes. A gun lay near the German. Nadia squinted to look at it clearer in the dim light. The German followed her gaze.
“I’m not touching that thing.” He introduced himself as Christoph Schmidt. “This man,” he indicated their companion, “is called Sid.”
As he was introduced, Sid buried his face in his hands. “He’s very worried about his daughter. Not that he can help her from death,” Christoph explained.
“We’re dead?” Nadia asked. Both men looked up at her with wide eyes.
“You didn’t realize?” Christoph asked. “Yes I’m certain we are dead.”
“He committed suicide. That’s why he’s so convinced.” Sid spoke with a baritone English accent.
A tsunami of guilt crashed down on Nadia.
“You had a heart attack,” Christoph argued. “What else happens next?”
“I don’t know.” Sid stood with his arms still wrapped around him. “A drug induced hallucination?”
“My wife and my other dead loved ones would be here if it were,” Christoph explained with absolute certainty.
“If I’m dead then I failed,” Nadia said to herself. “No one is going to help him.” Collapsing onto the ground, Nadia buried her head in her hands.
“No, not another one,” groaned Christoph. Crossing the cave in several small strides, Christoph picked her up. “My, you are light.”
“No.” She didn’t need to be picked up. Twisting out of his grip, she stepped back, shaking off the guilt. “I’m good.” Surely, she just needed a minute. It occurred to her that Christoph had just done something she would have if the roles were reversed. “Thank you though.” Christoph gave her a curt small nod and resumed his spot along the wall.
“Does it make me a terrible person if I’m not really sorry my father wasn’t here to greet me?” Nadia joked.
“A bit, but I’m right there with you,” Sid laughed.
“And you?” He looked at Christoph.
Christoph grimaced. “Perhaps he’s not my first choice. No judgment, I promise.”
There was an odd feeling of relief in their shared paternal discomfort.
“The afterlife is a cave?” Nadia shook her head. “And why is it just the three of us?” Both men looked at her like she’d said something worrisome. “What?”
“Go that way.” Sid pointed in the only direction she hadn’t looked so far. Nadia searched both their faces for answers but found nothing.
Turns out their cave had a massive open side. In the center of the opening, stairs led to an unknown destination below. Nadia turned, looking shocked at her companions.
Christoph waved toward the edge of the cave. “You have to go to the edge if you want to hear them.”
Nadia didn’t ask what he meant. She approached the edge of the cave, leaning forward. In the darkness down below, she could see patches of golden light and the heads of dozens of people. She moved closer until the tip of her toe touched the edge of the cave. As soon as it did, she heard the roar of a massive crowd. Leaning again she could see them struggling against each other. They were screaming, grunting and crying for help. She could see a dark-haired head being yanked down by pale hands.
Nadia took a step back and began to shake. Christoph walked up next to her. She looked at him and asked the only question that came to mind. “Where are we?”
6 o’clock Platform (North America), Hell
“Father Michaels lied to me,” Allison explained as she looked down into the mass of murderous strangers in the Pit. “He told me if I was good I would go to heaven.” She turned to face her companion. The boy was her age and, she assumed, had died just before she did. The only thing he’d said to her so far was his name. “But now I’m here.” He didn’t respond. He was curled into a ball, crying.
Maybe he had the right idea, though she doubted he was having deliberate ideas in his current mental state. Maybe it was best to just hide in the corner and cry for the moment. She joined him along the back wall. Like him, she hugged her knees. It was comforting—not useful, but comforting.
Then there was a loud crack that made Allison jump. She looked up at the sky—nothing. The deep blue sky above them held no stars and no moon. It was just empty. As she peered up, another loud crack announced a rip in the sky. A man fell, flailing, through the rip. Beyond him, Allison could see water and the sun. That was Earth. For a moment she wanted to cry. It was worse to see it from here, from all this darkness. Only the man landing, flat on his back a few feet away, could tear her eyes from the rip as it closed.
“What’s happening?” the man demanded as he jumped up. He was fortyish, in a military green jumpsuit with a single zipper running up the center.
Allison jumped up in response. Maybe he could help. Or tell her what to do. Or convince the kid with her to stop crying.
“We’re dead sir,” she responded.
Alex Powell smiled ruefully at her readiness to answer him. “You’re a little young to be dead.”
“Aren’t you?” she shrugged. He groaned. “Where are we?”
She directed him to the edge of the platform and waited dutifully while he looked at what lay below them in the Pit.
Alex came back to her, looking around. “There’s no other way out.”
Allison already thought of that. The walls of the platform were slick and vertical. There was no way to climb them. Plus, the top was open to the sky so there was nowhere to go even if they could.
Inside the platform, they couldn’t hear the crowd, but they could hear the blast. More importantly they could feel it as the invisible force struck the center of the Pit and then moved out, destroying everything in its path. The platform shook from the impact, knocking Alex and Allison down.
Allison started to cry. “What, what, what?” She looked up to see a column of smoke rise over the Pit and curl in on itself just above eye level.
As the mushroom cloud dissipated, Allison regained her feet first and headed for the edge of the Pit. “They’re gone,” she said. “Whatever it was, it destroyed them all.” For a moment she just stared down.
The place below her looked like a silo carved on the inside of a mountain. Slick, curved walls like those backing the platform ran all the way around. She could see stairs leading into the Pit from other platforms, though she couldn’t see the platforms themselves. All was illuminated by 11 sourceless fires resting at the base of 11 out of the 12 stairs.
She turned to face Alex, who stood beside her, examining the scene in the Pit.
“We can go down there now,” he announced.
“Why would we?” Allison asked.
“We have nowhere else to go,” he stated simply. He looked sad about it.
“Ok, help me get him up.” She nudged their companion. “Come on, stop crying, you need to meet our new friend. This is…” She looked at the man for his name.
“This is Alex. Come on, come say hello, Marcus.”
Nadia, Sid and Christoph
7 o’clock Platform (Europe), Hell
“We should go down there,” Christoph thought out loud.
“Is this it? Really?” Sid demanded, looking around.
“Why would it be?” Christoph responded. “You were born in a hospital. That wasn’t it. There was a whole world beyond that to explore. It was just the beginning.”
As he spoke, something whooshed past them, falling from nowhere to the Pit floor. Peering down, the trio saw the body of a middle-aged woman with frizzy hair and a pronounced nose. She was nude. The fire illuminated her face, revealing an expression of pain and fear.
“What happened to her?” Nadia wondered out loud. “Why isn’t she moving?” Christoph asked. Another body fell farther from them. And another. Then they came in a rush, too many at one moment to count. They all did as the first, falling straight to the Pit floor then lying motionless. There were piles of them, looking like a coroner’s backlog.
Nadia suppressed a shudder. “How many of them are naked?”
“I can’t count. I don’t want to look at them it seems….” Christoph tapered off.
Sid finished Christoph’s response for him: “violating.”
The sound of thunderous footsteps interrupted him. The noise came from the stairs nearly opposite theirs. It was unclear what made the sound because the top half of those stairs was in darkness. Finally, a man’s large feet were visible and then his legs. He took the stairs two steps at a time, and his black clad body turned. As his torso came into view, it was obvious he wore a black military-style uniform with a red armband. The armband bore a black swastika.
“You’re up,” Sid exclaimed to Christoph. The German history professor knelt at the edge of the platform, squinting at the figure and wishing he had died with his glasses on. The Nazi, as he would be called by most of The Newly Dead, hopped among the bodies skillfully. “He’s done this before,” Nadia observed.
The Nazi passed nearer to one of the fires, examining bodies on the ground. As he moved, the firelight reflected off a gold pin on his collar.
“He’s SS,” Christoph explained. “See that pin? It has an eagle on it. The black uniform, the eagle pin on the collar, that’s an SS officer.”
“Do you recognize him?” Sid asked.
The Nazi bent down to pick a body off the ground. Christoph saw his face earlier in the firelight. “No. I’d only recognize the top ones from their pictures. He’s odd. He’s an Untersturmführer, which is just barely an officer. And he’s too old for that, at least 40, maybe 50.”
“So not in charge of…wait what is he doing?” Sid asked.
The Nazi picked up a body, slung it over his shoulder and headed for the same stairs he’d used to enter. The body he’d chosen wore a distinct blue on blue striped uniform. “Even I recognize that uniform,” Nadia observed. “That’s what the concentration camp prisoners were forced to wear.”
“The SS ran the camps,” Christoph observed as he stared at the Nazi’s exiting back.
Christoph thought for a moment. If he could get closer to that body, he could tell them more. And he did want to know more. But he also wanted to throw up at the prospect of getting nearer the dead bodies. He leaned over the edge of the platform. Scanning the Pit floor, he saw what he wanted, a body clad in a concentration camp uniform.
“Look there,” Christoph pointed. “There’s another one. If we go down there before he…”
It was already too late. Christoph was interrupted by thunderous footsteps. The Nazi was back and headed straight for the body Christoph still pointed at.
“Fucking wanker,” Nadia mumbled as she searched the debris on the platform. “Ah here!” She returned to the edge, and with deft aim, threw a discarded cell phone at the Nazi. “Oy, fucker! Leave it!’ she screamed.
“So, classy” Sid teased.
“Class is pointless when dealing with a monster.” Nadia shrugged.
“Five Euros says he picks up that cell phone and doesn’t know what it is,” Christoph laughed.
“No bet,” Sid yelled back as he bounced around the platform searching for another projectile. As he hurled another cell phone at their foe, the Nazi offered them a coarse gesture from continental Europe, his right fist thrust into the crook of his arm and as his left arm raised straight up. In response Nadia put her thumb backward in her mouth, an Indian gesture that means approximately the same thing as the Nazi’s double armed one. Sid thrust two fingers in the air with his palm facing him, a common UK gesture that does not mean peace despite the two fingers used. And Christoph, the world traveler that he was, offered a gesture that began in the United States but (thanks to American film and television) spread all over the globe, his middle finger, solo, in the air.
“Come up here and say to my face!” Nadia yelled.
Sid and Christoph took issue with this invitation. “Don’t say that,” Sid exclaimed.
“He’s huge. What you are thinking?” Christoph moaned. More objects began raining down on the Nazi from other platforms.
Nadia laughed. “Doesn’t matter, we’ve got friends in all these caves.”
The Nazi seemed to take the rain of objects as his cue to leave. He exited into shadow.
“Bombs and bodies and Nazis. Oh my.” Sid sighed.
Heinrich von Helldorf
Beginning of the Road, Hell
Heinrich von Helldorf exited the Pit, angry and tired. His 325th body sat up against a boulder where he’d placed it moments earlier. That second trip into the Pit was a bad idea, but he was so close; the temptation to push his luck was too great. A third trip never would have worked. The Newly Dead always had other plans.
Heinrich bent down to look at the body’s face. This man was blond with grey eyes and thin curved lips. He could be German but that didn’t narrow it down enough as there were thousands of Germans incarcerated in Dachau during Heinrich’s tenure there. Heinrich tried using force of will to remember. There was no shock on the face or fear, just sadness. This could mean he died of illness Heinrich encouraged and failed to treat rather than by a direct act on Heinrich’s part. Thousands of prisoners died this way, it was still not a narrow enough field. Perhaps something on the uniform would help. On the lapel, Heinrich touched the torn corner of a green triangle. That triangle was used for criminals. And the fabric was faded in a way that implied a two-triangle patch had formed a rudimentary Star of David on this uniform at one time. A Jewish prisoner wore this uniform before he did. When that man died, the uniform was reused. Still not narrow enough. He could be any one of hundreds. Once the familiar tug of shame yanked Heinrich, he looked away from the body’s face. It didn’t matter if he recognized the man now. He would find out who it was soon enough.