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.
There are some things you shouldn't say in front of Marcus if you want your afterlife to continue beyond that moment. Unknowingly, Alex says all of them.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
ALEX’S BIG MEETING
Alex’s Big Meeting
The Pit, Hell
THE PLAN WAS MORE ELABORATE than Alex immediately revealed. He went off to talk to people. Nadia and Marcus remained to talk Sid down some more. Then Alex returned with strangers in tow: two Arabs, one male, the other female. Alex asked them to stay with Sid without asking Sid how he felt about this. Alex then ran off, found more people and brought them back home to dump them there and go search more. Marcus realized Alex intended to talk to everyone at once, expanding the sharing circle to include people Alex obviously wasn’t screening at all. They just had to be willing to follow a stranger to a different part of the Pit.
The two Arabs were related to one another and had stuck together since they’d found each other near the 1 o’clock fire. The woman’s name was Pati and her companion, also her cousin, was Abdul. Pati wore a head to toe black burqa over her tiny frame. Abdul looked shabby in a worn dirty tunic and trousers. Thankfully, their presence distracted Sid from his one-man rescue mission of Allison.
Abdul spoke a little English. He’d died in an explosion of unknown cause, though he suspected it was a terrorist. He’d lost his leg the day the Americans invaded Baghdad and showed off his new one for everyone to admire. He’d fought in the Republican Guard for ten years prior to the war.
Pati explained how she’d died while Sid translated. Six months prior, she’s married a very romantic man after a short courtship. Then he changed. Her assumption after the fact was that their short courtship was a result of her husband’s willingness to fake being normal for a limited amount of time. He was abusive. At this part of the story, Abdul began to look uncomfortable. Nadia urged Sid to ask why. He told Sid it was because he’d been on the other side of Iraq, consumed by his own problems. Now he felt guilty for not knowing what she was experiencing. Sid gave him a solemn nod and told Abdul he understood. Pati interrupted the two-man pity party to explain how she handled the situation. Three days prior to her death, she’d had enough of the beatings and the control. She fought back. First she surprised him by hitting him with a chair. She mimed this because apparently Sid wasn’t translating fast enough. The chair blow knocked him to the ground. She kicked her tiny legs back and forth, explaining how she kicked him while he was down. He fought back, knocking her to the floor with a kick of his own. At this point Sid gave up translating; he said Pati was only offering verbs to match her motions like ‘kick’ and ‘punch.’ Everyone pretty much understood what she meant when she picked up a non-existent object and brought it down hard in the direction of her husband’s head. Marcus loved every minute of it. She looked like a bat, flapping around pretend fighting with someone who wasn’t there.
“She says her husband died that day and she died three days later,” Sid translated.
“She’s awesome,” Marcus couldn’t help saying. “Please tell her she’s awesome.” What would happen if he brought her around to his way of thinking and then sicked her on Virgil. Wonderful things, that’s what.
Among Alex’s random people were Lauren and her potential recruits. She walked over behind Alex, looking the same as the day she died. Clad in a dark green field coat, jeans and a pair of trainers, her whole person implied her death by hunting accident. This week she was telling people she’d died hunting in the outback instead of Northern England. Since she was still in the Pit, Marcus could assume no one had recognized her from the headlines about her boyfriend’s posthumous blame on her of their mutual murder. Behind Lauren were Reggie, a stocky dark-haired man in an orange prison jumpsuit, and Sun, a thin almost to the point of frail looking woman of Asian and Caucasian ancestry.
They introduced themselves to the already assembled, shaking hands with Sid, Nadia and Marcus. Lauren even asked Marcus to repeat his name as though she hadn’t heard it. The six of them sat together as Alex gathered people from the 5 o’clock (South American Continent) area.
“He’s right you know.” Reggie indicated Alex’s direction. “We’ve got to start figuring bits of this out.”
“I don’t disagree, but I wish we could move this along,” Sid responded. “We’ve had a friend—”
“Two friends,” Nadia interrupted.
Sid rolled his eyes. “Two friends wander off. Been a bit worried. Would like to go look for them is all.”
“What could happen to them here?” Sun shrugged. “We’re already dead. And some of us are better off.” Reggie laughed. “It’s just, he and I were both institutionalized. I was in the looney bin and he was in prison. We’re better off here. I feel a whole world better now. My mind is clearest it’s ever been.” She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning back in a posture that belonged on a beach rather than Hell.
“I had a broken leg.” Reggie pulled up his right pant leg to show them the cast. “It’s fine since there’s no bone, but I don’t know how I’m gonna get the cast off.”
Nadia laughed. “This is what I keep saying. I think our friends are having a moment to themselves. Better leave them to it.” She gave Sid a gentle push as she said it. He didn’t seem amused. Nadia looked at Lauren with her head tilted, examining her.
“He’s a bit of a Jesus freak, do you think?” Lauren indicated Alex’s direction. Good girl, Marcus thought, distract Nadia as soon as she gets too focused on your face.
“He talks of good and evil,” Marcus offered.
“I don’t believe in good and evil,” Sid responded.
“Nor do I,” Nadia added.
“Why?” Sun asked.
“They’re just labels, aren’t they? They’re used to dismiss people—avoid understanding them,” Nadia explained.
Sun smiled at her. “I absolutely agree.”
Once again, Nadia looked at Lauren too long. When Lauren’s expression changed to obvious discomfort, Nadia looked down and noticed something. “My, those are odd trainers.” She pointed to Lauren’s shoes. “I haven’t seen that style in years.”
Lauren wore white and pink LA Gear tennis shoes. “They are…um…” Lauren struggled, “…old. My mum’s.”
Marcus gave her one faint whispered word, “blood,” too low for the others to hear.
“I didn’t want to get blood on anything new; you can never get it out.” Thanks to Marcus, Lauren’s story came out smoother as it went along. “I found this old pair of my mum’s in the attic.”
“You should’ve sold them as a collector’s item on ebay,” Sid advised.
Everyone smiled at this. Lauren shrugged, feeling no need to further detail the lie and covering that she didn’t know what ebay was.
“Everyone, I’m so glad you’ve all joined us,” Alex announced. They all turned to see Alex standing over the assembled circle of seated Dead.
Marcus looked around to see who else had arrived in the ultra-expanded sharing circle. Almost laughing, he noticed Alex found Max and Regan, plus the potential recruits they’d picked out.
“I want us to try to understand why we are here,” Alex began.
If Marcus could’ve been honest, he’d have groaned at this statement. The Pit would erupt in violence soon. There was very little time to sit in circles and discuss why they were there.
Alex explained again about observations when the pilot and co-pilot of his helicopter’s souls went up. Most of the assembled Dead reacted with shock. They may have wondered why they didn’t meet anyone they knew who’d died before them but they hadn’t made the further intuitive leap that this was because they’d been separated deliberately.
“We are here for a reason. God has a plan for us,” Alex enthused.
Marcus spotted Regan rolling her eyes. She was supposed to be a missionary who died in Brazil. She needed to look a little more open to the God crap.
“If we are honest about our lives, about our sins, then I think we may be able to understand why we were separated from the rest of humanity. Perhaps we can even still earn redemption.”
Alex had said the magic word. Not ‘thank you for being here’ or even ‘honest about our lives’ but the one trigger word Marcus always looked for: redemption. He was about to lead The Dead down Redemption Road, which led to Flogging One’s Self Junction before embarking on a one way trip to Virgil’s army. These suckers could spend decades—Marcus had seen it—chasing the dream so many in Hell wasted their existence on.
In order to open everyone else up, Alex led by example, telling them the story of his life. He was a Mormon, as were his parents. When he was 19, his father died, and Alex experienced a crisis of faith. He started drinking.
At this point, Sid let out an incredulous, “Ha.”
“It’s possible I couldn’t have kept up with Sid on my worst day and his best. But for me it was a lot of drinking. I got into fights with strangers. Eventually I got into a fight with my older brother. He’d come to take me out of the bar and back home for my mother’s birthday dinner. Instead of leaving with him, I broke his jaw…” Alex was overcome for a moment. “…and um…his arm, and he needed 14 stitches. That was hugely shameful to me. It’s something my father would never have done. And I ran from it. After the fight, they took my brother away in the ambulance and I didn’t go with him. I didn’t go to the hospital to see him. I didn’t go to my mother to apologize or face what I’d done. I joined the navy.
“Boot camp sobered me up—channeled me back toward a discipline that I hadn’t had since I’d left the church. When I finally came home a year later, I found they’d discussed a defellowship in my case. In our church, this is as close to being kicked out as it gets. I don’t know anyone who’d been defellowshipped. But because I hurt my brother and then showed no remorse, they considered it. My mom talked them out of it.” Alex took a moment to shake off his own story.
“This is why I think I’m here. I apologized to my brother for what I did years ago, but I must not have made up for it enough. It’s the only thing I can think of.”
How annoying. There was always the possibility that Alex would bring up the quest for redemption and then actually discover the one law. Yet it rarely happened. Apparently Alex would not be one of the rare cases. He was way off on why they were all there. And he was leading this hopeful, deeply misguided group in the wrong direction.
“Now I would like anyone who is willing to stand up and share with us why you think you are here,” Alex announced.
A young black man in desert camouflage stood up. Where Alex had a cross next to his name patch, this man had a large animal Marcus didn’t recognize. “What is on his?” Marcus whispered to Sid while pointing at his chest.
“I think that’s a buffalo.” Sid sounded skeptical. “Does he ride them or wrangle them for the army?”
On Sid’s other side, Lauren suppressed a giggle.
The young man in question introduced himself as Lt. Avery Fox. Then he faltered, clearly uncertain as to how to start.
“How did you die?” Alex prompted. That was the usual opening question in Hell.
“Rocket. I was a gunner. We knew they had fancy new rocket launchers from the intel,” Fox explained.
Alex broke in to explain the layout of this kind of operation. Fox and two other grunts manned large guns that returned fire to any enemy combatants in the area. They were needed because the enemy tended to use the surrounding hillside as cover for the launch of explosive rockets. They would hear them coming in; Alex described this as a whizzing noise. At that point orders dictated that everyone dive for cover. But the best time for a gunner to see an enemy combatant was when said person launched their rockets. While everyone else ran, Avery and his two companions manned their guns.
“And there were a shit ton of them, like 12,” Fox began.
“Wow,” Alex responded.
“Yeah,” Fox directed to the circle at large. “They don’t usually travel in groups that big. But we heard the first rocket and everyone beat it out there. And Marr and Willis and I—I don’t know what to say. We did our jobs.” Fox’s expression faded as he spoke, from formal to worn. “Alex talked about why we’re here. I was still learning. I failed a lot. I keep thinking maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe our people died because of my….” He looked at Alex. “I don’t think I can….”
“Have you seen Marr or Willis since you’ve been here?” Alex interrupted.
Fox shook his head. “That rocket was on top of me. They might have made it,” Fox answered.
While Alex talked to the group about how brave Lt. Fox’s death was, Marcus grew concerned. Fox’s story was better than Alex’s; it drew anyone paying close enough attention to why they were all there, though Fox himself was still wrong about what had condemned him to Hell.
With Fox done, Max volunteered to go next. Max had never been in the Pit recruiting. His skill set was still unknown to Marcus.
Max introduced himself. He claimed to have died from an IED in Afghanistan. With Max’s first open lie, Marcus watched the faces of all the dark green and camo-clad soldiers on the opposite side of the circle. There was no hint in any of their expressions that they knew he’d just lied to the group.
“I don’t understand why I’m here. Perhaps that’s not real helpful.” Max twisted his hands to look confused.
“Were you in combat?” Alex asked.
Crap, Marcus thought. That’s a direction I don’t want Alex wandering in. But Max handled it perfectly; he told the truth.
“No, I just got there.” Max threw up his hands as if he couldn’t possibly win.
“What is your worst sin?” Alex asked.
“I smoked pot in high school.” Max shrugged this off, like that couldn’t possibly be it. Several people laughed.
“I never did drugs,” Alex observed. “But you’ve drank, right?”
Max nodded. But Lt. Fox was shaking his head. “I’ve never touched the stuff,” he declared to Alex.
“Well, that eliminates alcohol at least. Thank you Max, you can be seated.” Alex gestured for someone from the next section to stand. Much to Marcus’ surprise and Lauren’s obvious dismay, Regan stood up to speak.
“I’ve been a missionary in Brazil for a while now.” This was the lie she used to excuse her presence on the 5 o’clock (South American continent) platform. Her real reason for being there was her Spanish language skills and her ability to attract male attention. At the onset of her first week recruiting in the Pit, she convinced a group of South Americans to carry her down from the platform. “I don’t know what I could’ve done.” She laughed; from her it came out as a snorting disrespectful sound. “It’s not like I killed anyone.” Marcus could have destroyed her on the spot. Instead, he offered her a rare honest reaction, a reproachful glare. Glancing over and seeing his face, she became nervous. “I’m sorry, that was wrong to say when you three were so honest. I’m just not sure. But I’m worried about something else. Can we please talk about the big mushroom cloud from the first day? It’s all I can think about.”
Impressive. Regan was attempting to force a more realistic timetable on the group. First Regan described the blast for anyone who wasn’t dead at the time. “And I think it came because this hole was so full.” She made eye contact, with fearful eyes, to all the men in the circle. “What if this place fills up again? It might come back.”
“That’s a good point,” Alex conceded. “I hadn’t thought of that. We don’t have eternity to figure this out.” He looked more driven than ever as he switched topics. “We need to get down to this.” Turning to Regan, he asked, “How did you die?”
Flush with success, she became chatty. “I think I took too many pills, by accident. It’s my doctor’s fault really. He didn’t warn me what would happen if I took a little extra.” Though no one in Hell could know this, her doctor had warned about the dangers of abusing her meds. Fox gave her an especially critical look. “Well, I mean, he also should’ve known I’d need a little more.” She folded her arms across her chest and rolled her eyes. “I mean, Christmas is a stressful time, so the dose should’ve been lower because I was going to need to sleep and I would need more so he just should’ve—”
“Wait,” Fox interrupted. “Why are you still stressed out about Christmas?” Everyone in that circle, except Marcus and his people, died in early March. Regan had died three months previously in December of 2010—a fact she was ordered to cover up.
Beside Sid, Lauren let out a derisive snort and shook her head. Regan screwed up; she’d better be able to cover her ass.
“I must have been in a coma or something,” Regan lied, not too smoothly. “It did feel like I fell asleep for a long time.”
Clearly, Fox didn’t believe her. Max made no effort to hide his annoyance. Since Regan was the sort of person who would turn them all in if caught, her gaffe risked him, Marcus and Lauren as well. It was harder to read Alex; maybe he believed her, maybe he didn’t. Either way, he asked her to sit down.
Sid offered to go next. He started to explain about drugs and drinking again when Marcus decided to intervene.
“I know we all did stupid things drunk and high,” Marcus began. “But that can’t be it. There would be more people here if that were the case.”
And the debate was off. Sid and Nadia, much to Marcus’ dismay, were heavily involved. From his side of the circle, Marcus could only think about one thing. Max seemed tight with his companions in military gear. Regan, despite the gaff, chatted happily with three Brazilian men near her and sat rather snug next to a round, dark-skinned woman in a blue nun’s habit. And Lauren had found Reggie and Sun. This could be a huge week for Marcus’ team.
But first they would have to deal with Alex. At best, Alex would waste all their time running around the Pit searching for answers only to be destroyed by one of the battles or the blast. At worst he would lead them out of the Pit into the waiting arms of Virgil Offgood. Alex looked more and more like Virgil’s kind of man. And Max’s recruits were all military, negating Alex’s only positive feature. If Marcus let Alex continue on the path he’d chosen, Marcus would lose the best group of recruits he’d had in years. So there was no question. Alex could not be allowed to continue. Alex needed to be destroyed—and soon.