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.
ANOTHER DECADE WENT BY for Heinrich and Deborah. He never went to the Camp again, though she still visited. Gradually she built a group that accompanied her. David and Misha were founding members, along with several more of their siblings and a rotation of Holocaust victims from the Gate. After a few years, Deborah started bringing strangers to meet Heinrich before taking them on to the Camp. They were all determined to help talk to the Camp guards. Some had connections to the Holocaust, many on the opposite side, like Heinrich. Heinrich found he was comfortable with his new role, the shining example of Deborah’s work. He could be an example simply by being himself, the Nazi Deborah reformed. That was enough, which was good since, as far as he could tell, it was all he had to give.
Meanwhile, David took over part of Heinrich’s education. From David, Heinrich learned some Hebrew, Jewish prayers, and more of the Talmud than he’d ever imagined himself reading on earth. It deepened his connection with Deborah to share her religion, even if he disagreed with some of the dogma. This new enterprise took enormous amounts of both their time. But David wasn’t the social creature Deborah was. Time alone with Heinrich, discussing what it meant to him to be a Jew, was more pleasurable than being with the increasingly large group of mostly strangers camped out with Deborah near the Camp. And Heinrich appreciated having someone as well. Ultimately it created a respect between them that no short interaction could have produced.
In 1985, when Heinrich heard the double splash, he assumed it was once again Deborah and a new potential group member. He was half right. As always, Heinrich greeted her at the edge of the pool. She practically leapt out on springs, wet and hopping with excitement.
“I’ve brought someone…oh, Heinrich…I think I’ve found what we’re looking for,” she declared. Her voice was breathless, a very human tick she’d given up years earlier.
Heinrich leaned over the pool to see who was floating at the bottom. The person was all dark. His black uniform was a few shades darker than his skin. His hair appeared coarse and cut close to his head. And he looked huge.
“You brought an African!” Heinrich exclaimed, alarmed.
“He’s American,” Deborah corrected.
The man’s double-sized, dark-skinned hand planted itself on the edge of the pool as his head emerged from the water. Grey coarse hairs ran along his ear, announcing his middle age.
“Heinrich von Helldorf,” Deborah began, “I would like you to meet my new friend, Virgil Offgood.”
Virgil pulled himself out of the pool to greet a stunned, retreating Heinrich. In his full Chicago PD regalia, Virgil was taller than and nearly as intimidating as Heinrich. But intimidation was the not the focus of that day.
“I’ve heard so much about you.” Virgil offered Heinrich his hand to shake.
For a beat, Heinrich froze, and then he thought the better of himself, taking the offered hand. Virgil clasped Heinrich’s forearm with his free hand. “It’s good to meet you, my boy.”
In spite of himself, Heinrich smiled.
Virgil did not head straight for the Camp; it would appear he had business with Heinrich. Instead, he sat by the fire and told Heinrich a few things about his life and afterlife.
Virgil had died in a shootout a year earlier. An assailant had attempted to rob a liquor store on the south side. When two off duty officers entered the store on their way home, all Hell (as they like to say on Earth) broke loose. The assailant took the store’s owner hostage, creating a standoff. After hours of negotiating, the assailant shot the store’s owner and tried to flee out the back. Virgil was in charge of the cops guarding the back door. When the assailant exited, he raised his weapon toward Virgil. Naturally Virgil fired into his chest. The assailant’s gun went off at the same time, killing Virgil. “As best I can tell,” Virgil summed up, “in grand universal terms, he and I are responsible for each other’s deaths.”
Heinrich had nodded along through the English-only story.
“I discharged my weapon maybe ten times over the course of twenty years. Of those, I hit eight; all of them survived. So you can imagine my surprise when I died and dropped into the Pit—and with the man who shot me lying right next to me. He ran as soon as he saw me. I never found out what happened to him.”
Virgil let out a heavy sigh.
“Then this weird little man kept trying to be my friend—said he wanted me to work with him. I didn’t get all that. There was something about him I didn’t like, so I slipped out when he wasn’t looking—ended up in the City because the Camp looked like no place I would ever want to be.”
Heinrich interrupted, asking Deborah to please translate this speech into German. Because, “I think it sound important and I want to understand.” Deborah agreed.
“Anyway,” Virgil began again, “if I was surprised to find myself in Hell, I was shocked to walk into the City and find the man who shot me, as a body, just lying on the ground, looking up at me as if I were going to do something with him.”
Virgil threw up his hands to show how bizarre he’d found the discovery at the time.
“I’d come across this writing on the boulders outside the Pit. It said something about taking your body to the river. Well, I knew I shot him. There was no doubt in my mind. So in some cosmic sense, I am responsible for him. Maybe not in a moral sense—maybe not in any good or evil sense as I know those words. But on some level to do with this place, his body is here because I shot him. Maybe.”
Heinrich had no response. There were bodies everywhere. He hadn’t seen them in the Camp but Misha claimed they were there. Misha saw huge piles while walking the long way around the Camp. Heinrich assumed, for no reason he could explain, that there were bodies in the rest of Hell too. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that there were no bodies along the road or in the desert.
“So I did what the writing on the rocks told me to do. And felt like a dumbass doing it. Here I am dragging this body around, with everyone in the City looking at me like I’m a freak, and off I go to the river.”
For no reason, Virgil stopped his story and shrugged. Checking the faces of his small audience, he affirmed that he had them in rapt attention and pressed on. “Do you want to know what happened then?” Virgil asked.
“Yes, please,” Heinrich answered in English.
“I drag him into the river and I felt something. Something powerful came over me. Now, I followed protocol and the tenants of my faith in shooting this man. He endangered me. He was a murderer. He endangered others immediately. I’m not sorry I shot him when he was shooting at me. But I am sorry he’s dead. I shoot to kill, but that doesn’t mean I like it. It doesn’t mean I feel anyone deserves to die. Twenty years on the force and I don’t know; I’m just not that guy. I never developed the blood lust. So when I’ve got him in the river, I said to him, even though he couldn’t say anything back, I said, ‘I am sorry you are dead because of me.’ And I put him in the water because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Somewhere between the back door of the liquor store and the river, Heinrich had inched to the edge of the stone he was sitting on.
“What happens to the man?” he demanded like a boy begging his father for the final chapter of the fairy tale.
“I can’t describe it to you. Everything changed. The water around him lit up. And suddenly I wasn’t in Hell anymore. I was with him as a baby. And then as a kid. And then as a teenager. I lived his whole life and even his death, looking through his eyes at me as I shot him. I even dropped into the Pit as him, saw myself, felt panicked and ran. And then I was back.
“The body floated away surrounded by light and disappeared. But I was back in Hell for the moment.”
“But you come from…” Heinrich pointed to the top of the waterfall.
“Yes, I came here today from the Gate,” Virgil explained. “That’s what happened to me after the body disappeared. The water sucked me in, and I rode upriver and then up the waterfall and up to the Gate. When I arrived, everyone was shocked. No one has come up from Hell in decades.”