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.
Just when things are going Marcus' way, Alex starts wandering off track.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
THE QUESTIONS ALEX IS NOT ALLOWED TO ASK
Marcus, Sid, Nadia and Alex
The Pit, Hell
MARCUS DID A LITTLE DANCE by himself next to the 12 o’clock stairs. What a day! He already had two recruits out of the Pit; admittedly they were probably out wandering aimlessly, but they were safe. In Hell, lack of people was safer than being around people. Plus their sudden and—from Sid, Nadia and Alex’s perspective—unexplainable absence would be a perfect excuse to lead the others out of the Pit. As soon as he returned and raised the alarm, they could easily move on. All in all, it was an excellent start to this week.
And he had a recruit with a past life in mid-recovery—so much fun. By now Allison would be confronting a lifetime’s worth of memories, but she had her former lover, Christoph, to guide her. He’d positioned them near the 12 o’clock stairs on purpose, knowing she would either flee the overwhelming information or want even more privacy with him. Either way, they would be safely out of the Pit long before the first battle. Once they straightened it all out, which could take as little as a few days or as much as a month, Marcus could approach him with his offer of information in exchange for membership on his team. The information most sought after by former lovers rediscovering one another in new bodies was always the same: sex. For some reason, as soon as they find each other, they always want to get their clothes off and get down to it. Marcus found it very plebeian—very Earth—but it was what they wanted, so why not profit from explaining it.
Sid paced back and forth as Nadia and Alex tried to sooth him. “I’m sure they’re just talking,” Alex offered. Nadia nodded. Marcus approached them, deliberately looking distraught.
“Where are Allison and Christoph?” Nadia asked.
“I can’t find them,” Marcus explained.
Sid spun on his heels. “What?”
“They’re gone.” Marcus shrugged.
“He’s taken her,” Sid announced.
Marcus may have underestimated Sid hostility toward Christoph. It was easy to do because certain social movements eluded Marcus. In his day, a woman Allison’s age was in fact a woman. The last few generations’ definition of childhood including teenagers struck him as odd and impractical. Allison undoubtedly bled each month while alive; she could give birth, and therefore she was a woman.
“Where could they have gone?” Nadia wondered out loud.
“I think I know.” Marcus began his usual speech. “I was looking at those stairs, the 12 o’clock stairs, the ones the Nazi used. I don’t think there’s a platform up there.”
“So what’s up there?” Nadia asked.
Fantastic, the right response from Ms. Patel. “I don’t know. It’s the only place they could have gone.”
“So if we go up those stairs, we find them,” Sid reasoned out.
Perfect, Marcus thought, everyone is keeping to the script. “I didn’t want to go alone. I know I should have.” Marcus looked down, a gesture meant to imply shame. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“You were right to come back for us,” Nadia began. Now she would propose an excursion up the 12 o’clock stairs, ahead of schedule. “We should explore—”
“No,” Alex cut her off. “I don’t want to wander out of this area.”
What the fuck? Alex didn’t go in the direction he should have. “But we need to find them,” Marcus countered, pushing Alex back on course.
“God put us here,” Alex explained resolutely. “I believe he has a plan for us here. I believe there are answers to be found in this place.”
Well, fuck, Marcus thought. This is terrible news. Alex in search of answers in the Pit meant no leaving, no listening to Marcus and no keeping him as a recruit. Marcus still felt Alex had decent taste, was combat ready and could do good work. But if he wasn’t going to be led, he was a problem.
“I know Allison is young,” Alex reasoned. “But she is 17, and there is nothing he can do to her here in these bodies. There was something between them, for her as much as for him—something they need to work out. I am willing to give them the space to do it.”
Sid scrunched up his face and shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
That’s my man, thought Marcus.
“She reached for him first Sid,” Nadia responded, clearly swayed by Alex’s infuriating logic. “This place—looking around, I don’t see a single child—not the bodies on the ground or among all these other Dead people. She’s with us because the universe or the gods or whomever decreed her to be among adults. Maybe it’s best if we respect that.”
Marcus needed them back on course. “Look, I’m a kid right?” He gave them his best wide-eyed expression. “I’m overwhelmed. This place is scary. We can’t just leave her to it.”
“If she wanted help from us,” Alex countered, “she’d have asked for it. Instead, she asked to be alone with him. When she wants our help, we have to trust that she will find us.”
Dammit, dammit, dammit, Marcus thought.
Sid’s expression changed. He was softening. “I can’t leave it.”
“Look, we will give them another hour,” Nadia looked back and forth between Alex and Sid, in full negotiation mode. “Then, if she doesn’t return willingly, we search. Agreed?”
Sid offered a reluctant nod. Alex clapped his hands together, satisfied that they could move on.
“Do you have a plan?” Nadia asked Alex.
He won’t have a plan I’m willing to let play out, Marcus thought.
“I want to talk to people—compare notes,” Alex enthused. He drew the three of them closer to him. “Listen, when I died, I saw the pilot and co-pilot of the helicopter die first. They were in the front; the nose went into the water first. I saw their souls leave their bodies and then go up.” He offered the last word with great impact. “They haven’t come here. They should’ve been on the platform before me but they weren’t. I thought maybe they’d come later.” Alex had been watching the 6 o’clock stairs, expecting no one knew what. “Where do you think they went?”
Sid and Nadia, now thoroughly distracted from the Allison/Christoph problem, both shrugged.
Alex leaned in and whispered, to Marcus’ utter disgust, “I think we’ve been separated, chosen from among The Dead.”
“No one would’ve chosen me mate,” Sid answered.
“Actually, I don’t think it was a good kind of choose,” Alex sighed.
“Oh, you think this is the bad place, like Hell?” Nadia asked. “And the pilot and co-pilot both went up to…” she searched for the word, “heaven?”
Alex nodded. “I think we are here for something we did.”
Marcus should’ve eliminated Alex as soon as he saw that stupid cross on his stupid patch. These cross people were always trouble. Next he would bring up evil, if Marcus let him.
Getting excited to the point of shaking, Alex offered this revelation. “I think I’ve uncovered a piece of this mystery already. It’s wonderful; it’s like seeing a piece of scripture left behind by the almighty himself, and now I can help others with it.”
This would be about good or evil; Marcus could feel it coming.
In a groan, Nadia asked, “What is this revelation?”
“The pilot was gay.” Alex whispered the last word.
Marcus suppressed a snort. So Alex was not merely wandering off the dangerous ‘why are we here’ tangent, he was looking at all the wrong things. “So scripture must have been…” Alex gulped, forcing himself to finish. “…wrong. Maybe the gays are somehow God’s chosen people.” Sid laughed. “No, no, it’s a clue; we have to recognize that.”
“Alex,” Nadia interrupted. “I’m gay.”
This deflated Alex immediately. “So…what? Gay is just… nothing?”
“No more so than nationality or race,” Nadia surmised.
“Well,” Alex digressed, rallying. “Then it must be something we’ve done. We are in Hell for an action. Perhaps an evil action.”
And there it was: the E word. A little late, but Alex had still pulled it out.
“Don’t you think this place is a little mild for Hell?” Marcus asked. “Shouldn’t there be demons or more fire or something?”
Alex faltered. Marcus gave himself an internal cheer. “Well, this is just the beginning,” Alex answered back.
Motherfucker, thought Marcus.
“So we haven’t seen all its horrors,” Alex concluded.
Marcus wanted to explain that Alex was a horror, but instead he tried, “I haven’t done anything that would mean I deserve Hell.”
“That’s why we need to talk to other people…” Alex went on with the details of the whole talking to strangers plan. Sid and Nadia’s faces betrayed how much they wanted to believe him.
Alex was leading them in the wrong direction. This left Marcus with two options. The first option involved focusing Marcus’ time and energy into redirecting Alex. If Alex was a recruit worth saving, this was the way to go. The second option was to focus time and energy on keeping Alex from influencing the two remaining recruits, Sid and Nadia, lest he corrupt them. The question at hand was, ‘Is Alex worth the work it would take to redirect him? Even if doing so might cause him the loss of Sid and Nadia?’ This was a moment his recruiters often asked him about, but he really couldn’t teach them how to deal with it. He needed to make a judgment call on who was worth more to him. Who would be more useful in the long run? It was impossible to be certain either way as it involved the future performance of a person not yet a member of his team. He just had to guess based on what he knew so far.
What he knew was that Alex had military experience—a highly positive feature. His least positive feature was the stupid cross sitting next to his name on the patch over where his heart had been. And he’d mentioned God, plus the E word. Worse, he’d mentioned ‘God’s Plan’ for them. Somehow these people always decided that ‘God’s Plan’ was incompatible with Marcus’ plan. Meanwhile, Sid and Nadia hadn’t mentioned any deities at all. Sid admitted to being a Muslim but was obviously a member of his mosque for mostly cultural reasons. He was presumably a numbers person, having worked in banking. But there was no evidence he’d ever fought or even thrown a punch. Nadia had dealt with violent people. She was practical, smart and ready to throw things at Heinrich. A year earlier, Marcus would have happily taken Sid and Nadia over Alex. But Virgil had an army. Marcus needed military strategists on the ground so he didn’t have to do everything himself. So Marcus needed Alex more, even if he liked him less than Sid and Nadia. Despite huge reservations on Alex’s affection for the cross religion, Marcus would have to fight to keep him.