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.
UNDER VIRGIL’S TUTELAGE, Heinrich entered the Pit to retrieve his first body. After the initial description of what needed to be done, Virgil offered a few theories on body placement.
“As best I can tell, my body was in the City for some great cosmic reason. Somehow it relates to my crime, though I haven’t worked all that out yet. But people with loads of bodies, like yourself and Misha, should have bodies scattered in each of the occupied areas,” Virgil explained.
“I have bodies in the Camp?” Heinrich asked as they walked toward the Pit.
“Definitely. And I don’t know how we will get to them. That place is locked down, tight. You may want to skip the Camp bodies and move on to the City when you are done here.”
Heinrich believed he had hundreds of bodies in Hell because tens of thousands died while he worked at Dachau. It was hard to build a concrete estimate because the time period was so long and the level of responsibility was hard to gauge. Obviously he was responsible for the people he’d personally killed, the guard he’d shot for sodomizing a prisoner being an excellent example. But he’d refused care for ill prisoners, poorly fed them, beat them and left them to be discovered dead the next day and ordered others to do all of the above. Where did his responsibility end? For his own new sense of morality, courtesy of Deborah, he felt responsible for deaths that took place at Auschwitz while Otto was commandant because Otto had been his protégé. All the Jews led into the gas chamber with time-saving, crowd controlling lies like, ‘You will have a shower and then we will eat cake and drink tea,’ might be his as well. He’d offered Otto that line over the phone when the younger man called him for advice. So he might have some Auschwitz bodies to take to the river as well. But then Otto died and fell into the Pit, so clearly Heinrich’s mentee had bodies of his own.
Entering the Pit again filled Heinrich with dread. He’d forgotten the nature of the place. When he last saw it, the center was taken over by a massive pile of bodies, many nude. Now he understood those to be victims of the Nazi-run holocaust. Then he was surrounded by the same war he’d escaped on Earth. Now the world experienced multiple small conflicts between nations but nothing like the scale he’d fallen into in 1945. Back then, the place filled rapidly, and that had not changed though the new reason was overpopulation, not war.
Halfway down the stairs, Heinrich registered two things. First, the big body pile was gone from the center of the Pit. In fact, and much to his panic, there were no bodies laid out. Was Virgil wrong about the bodies’ purpose? Or was the initial drop of a body, when that person entered the Pit, the only chance he or she had to find it? The second thing Heinrich registered as he entered the Pit was the presence of a familiar face. True, that face had changed slightly in that he was no longer bearded. The clothes were a larger transformation, from an SS uniform that outranked Heinrich to a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. And somehow he’d grown younger, now looking like a teenager. But the look of recognition on the other man’s face told Heinrich who he was looking at.
“That is Rolf,” Heinrich whispered to Virgil. “The man who recruits Nazis for the Camp.”
Virgil found the face without a prompt from his companion. “He gave me a different name: Marcus.” Then Virgil did something that made Heinrich want to turn and run back up the 12 o’clock stairs. He waved the person in question over.
Marcus approached them with an amused smirk on his expensive face. “Heinrich von Helldorf, what brings you back into the Pit?” On the surface was an ordinary greeting, below that a sneer.
“I come to find my bodies,” Heinrich announced.
Groaning, Marcus rolled his eyes. “This nonsense again.”
“I’ve been to the Gate,” Virgil informed his adversary. “Why did they tell me no one had made it up there in decades?”
This question was met with a shrug. “How would I know?” was Marcus’ only answer.
“You sent men to hurt me,” Heinrich began.
“I sent men to talk to you,” Marcus lied smoothly. “No matter what you’ve told…what was your name, Virgin?”
“Virgil,” both Heinrich and Virgil answered simultaneously.
“Oh right, like the poet. Listen, Virgil, you might want to reconsider spending time with this loser for two reasons. One, he’s taken up with a cult that springs up every century or so in Hell: the body-dragging weirdoes who wrote all over the boulders outside the exit. They are dangerous. It’s not surprising, after all, Heinrich has a history of taking up with insane causes that require everything from their followers and have no regard for what it does to others. What I’m saying is,” he looked at Virgil while gesturing to Heinrich, “he has a tendency to choose the wrong side of things. I’ve heard he’s been following a Jewish cunt around Hell for a while now. She’s very into disrupting my work, trying to steal my men for…I don’t know what nasty carnal tricks she’d like to play out with them.”
“Careful,” Virgil intoned with one hand on Heinrich’s arm, stopping the Nazi from immediate attack, “you’ve disrespected a dear friend of ours.”
Marcus laughed. “Oh, you are making terrible friends, aren’t you? Do you have to take turns in the fire with her? Does Heinrich spend all his time rubbing his face all over her nether regions as he did for his mommy?”
Virgil took the final insult as ridiculous; Heinrich wondered where he got that information. Then he realized the only option was Otto.
“What was the second reason, you lying, two-faced little faggot?” Virgil asked.
With another laugh, Marcus gestured to the rest of the Pit while backing up. “I’m going to let everyone else show that one to you.”
As soon as he said it, Heinrich saw the problem.
All around the Pit, The Newly Dead were staring at the man in the SS uniform and the huge black man in full Chicago PD regalia. It occurred to him for the first time in a while what he looked like to others. He looked angry. He looked as though he were threatening a slight younger man. And he did all this while wearing one of the most offensive symbols in history.
Off to his and Virgil’s right, a woman had been arguing with a Chinese guard near the 11 o’clock fire. The Chinese were already in their tight pre-battle formation. The guard was meant to keep people out while planning was in motion. But she too was Chinese, a wealthy woman from Hong Kong who demanded to be granted access to the Chinese fire. In the midst of their argument, she stopped to stare at the two-part abomination that had just entered the Pit. The guard’s reaction mostly involved summoning a higher-ranking officer to see what had just happened.
Near the 7 o’clock area, a group of seven World Cup fans from Belgium, Britain, France and Russia were arguing the use of the offside rule in the coming games. Despite their being born in different countries, they had a similar look about them. Each was thick of neck, arm and thigh. Five of this seven bore visible tattoos. And all seven felt the need to express their lack of faith in World Cup referees by offering increasingly violent consequences if said referees didn’t get their calls right for once. They too had been put off their conversation by the small argument near the 12 o’clock stairs.
Finally, a group of Americans who’d been speaking to Marcus moments earlier watched as he retreated back to them. To them the conversation looked like an attack upon their friend by a man wearing a uniform from the most evil organization the world had ever known.
Virgil, being a sensible man who could tell when he was outnumbered, turned away from the multiple groups of would-be attackers. “I think we should go,” He whispered.
Before Heinrich could agree, the World Cup fans let out a yell and ran toward them.
Virgil was already on the stairs with Heinrich right behind him. The men followed, yelling insults and swear words the whole way up. Outside the narrow passageway, Virgil and Heinrich headed back toward the waterfall. Their would-be attackers followed for a few feet and then stopped, distracted by the exit from the Pit, as so many often are.