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.
A short trip to Hell before we spend the beginning of the book meeting our heroes and seeing how they die.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
MARCUS AND HIS TEAM
Marcus, Lauren & Regan (and Max and Heinrich)
Beginning of the Road, Hell
MARCUS SAT ON AN OBLIGING boulder with his head bowed while his two teammates argued.
“Why are we here instead of in the City?” Regan hissed to Lauren.
Regan was a tall beauty with striking brown eyes. The question was issued at Lauren but meant for Marcus. Miles away, a battle raged in the City. But Marcus insisted that he, Lauren and Regan need not participate. Instead, they waited outside the Pit for news.
Both Lauren and Regan looked exactly as they had when they died. When a person dies and enters Hell, their soul is placed into a copy of their still earth-bound body, right down to the clothes and anything held in their hands. The new body is an idealized version of the original. Regan died in her sleep and was therefore stuck for eternity in a pajama set with PINK written across her butt. Lauren died in a hunting accident, but only the dark green field jacket on earth bore the ugly hole of the charge that entered her heart. Standing in Hell, the copy jacket she wore bore no such hole. Even without it, her outfit betrayed the manner of her death, beginning with said field jacket, including the old worn white and pink trainers and culminating with the shotgun she always held open on the crook of her right arm.
“If we were needed,” Lauren told Regan, “we would be there.”
“But—” Regan protested.
“Quiet.” Marcus ordered. His voice was low and steady. An outsider might have found it nonthreatening. Even though Regan had joined Marcus’ team three months earlier, she knew better. Instead of continuing her dangerous line of questioning, she flopped onto the ground at the edge of the only road in Hell.
“Marcus knows every route into and out of the City — every possible plan of attack and defense.” Lauren leaned her head back against the smooth side of Pit Mountain as she spoke. “If we were needed, we would be there.”
Technically, they were needed. Marcus knew his side would lose the current battle. He wanted to lose. It would tell him more about his enemy than if he won. And he knew far too little of what his enemy was capable of. He had told both women earlier that he needed to run battle plans in his head to predict the outcome. It wasn’t true. Instead, he wanted a few moments to collect his thoughts.
Marcus had died two thousand years earlier and was greeted with an entirely different Hell than the one Lauren and Regan would encounter. The Pit, the entrance for all who are condemned to Hell, was full of tents and fighting. The Gauls controlled half of it, but Marcus’ people, the Romans, believed they could overthrow them thanks to reinforcements of Dead as a result of Rome’s current civil war. Marcus gradually took over the campaign. Over the course of 50 years, he took control of the Pit only to finally exit the place and find the rest of Hell in a similar shit state. The great desert that overwhelms Hell’s landmass was just as filled with tents and conflict over territory. It would take another 150 years for Marcus to assume control of the whole place. In the 1,800 years since, Marcus managed Hell through representatives. The man currently running the City, Julian, was hand-picked by Marcus, as was Otto Mueller, the man who ran the Camp that stood between Pit Mountain and The City. Meanwhile, Marcus spent most of his time in the Pit, recruiting.
There was no running Hell without an army, though in public he never called them that. Instead they were his ‘team,’ a term that bred more camaraderie. For the most part, the team members thought of themselves as free to come and go without permission from Marcus, an illusion he found both amusing and useful. He maintained this illusion in public until his leadership was challenged by some fool member of his team or some newcomer. Then he would rally his team-members like the army they hadn’t realized they were and convince them that the aggressor was an enemy to their peace and order before sending them to sacrifice their eternal lives for his power.
Life on Earth is finite. Afterlife could be infinite but usually was not. The copy bodies The Dead used in Hell were hollow and destructible. Like eggshells, the surface of these bodies could crack when struck or crush if hit hard repeatedly. Once the body was destroyed, the soul left for another destination. Marcus knew, of course, the destination of the bodiless souls because of his two millennia of experience. He couldn’t be bothered to solve this mystery for his newer team members though. After all, there was nothing in it for him.
Marcus’ thoughts the day of the battle were focused on the past, for once. In the last ten years, he had begun to lose pieces of his memory—not his memories of Hell, those were intact. Instead his memories of Earth were slipping away. He could remember being small, sitting on the floor, playing with a toy. His mother towered over him as her maid helped her into the elaborate formal dress of woman in her time and class. Due to his parents’ elevated social status, this was often his only time with his mother: while she dressed in the morning. The image of his mother with the sunlight behind her, looking awesomely tall, was clear. What was not clear were the words being spoken. His Latin was rapidly leaving him, replaced by all the languages he’d learned in Hell. Nouns in particular were disappearing. The little toy was a figurine of a horse. In Latin the word for horse was…equine? Or something like that. He knew he didn’t have it right. Sitting on that boulder in Hell, he tried desperately to remember the names of the garments his mother wore. Those words were spoken in front of him every day for years and now they wouldn’t come no matter how hard he pushed. Roman women wore multiple layers. At least one layer was called a tunica. He only knew that because the word tunic was still used, however rarely. But the middle layer was called something else entirely. As a small boy, this word had significance because it signaled the near end of his mother’s morning ritual. She wore her under layer (tunica) while her maid braided her hair and applied creams to her skin. Once that middle layer went over her head, the last layer was right behind it and then it was time for him to join his teacher for lessons and time for his mother to leave the house. But he couldn’t remember the name of that garment.
Giving up, he pulled up his head and addressed his companions. “You may now ask questions.”
Regan spun around on the ground, but Lauren was quicker, cutting off the brunette’s offensive tongue.
“Worst case scenario?” she asked.
“He unseats Julian,” Marcus admitted. “If Virgil Offgood is smart, he will try to take the center of the City. If his forces are large, as our spies tell us, then he will take two of the three central districts.”
Much to The Newly Dead’s shock upon exiting the Pit, large parts of Hell resembled Earth. The entrance to The Camp was an exact replica of a stone archway at a train depot outside of Auschwitz. The City earned its name because it looked like some divine creator pieced it together from two dozen cities on Earth. The center of the City held the three oldest districts: Rome, Baghdad, and Rajj, all of which still looked exactly as they had when Marcus died.
“And where will that leave us?” Lauren pressed.
“Same place as before,” Marcus groaned. “But our need is even greater.”
They needed people. Marcus always needed new recruits because The Dead were destructible and, even in peacetime, people were often destroyed. Thus he spent almost all his time in the Pit, recruiting. Normally, he loved it: talking to people, reading them, judging if they were worthy of his team. He was good at it. And his choices often lasted him decades. Lauren had died 25 years ago and proved as loyal as Julian had three centuries earlier. Now she was Marcus’ lieutenant, and Julian, the long-standing governor of the City. But lately this work had become frustrating. In the early 2000s, several wars raged on Earth. Wars on Earth were good news for Marcus as they dropped scores of Dead soldiers into his path. But the war must have calmed down later that decade because his last soldier recruit was a man named Max. Marcus found Max in 2007. Then for three years there were no decent options. In December of 2010, Max found Regan. So far, Regan had been a big disappointment.
Lauren nodded solemnly to Marcus’ statement on their need. Regan responded with a frustrated pounding of the ground.
“If we need people so badly, why do we have to choose and be all careful?” Regan spat. “I’m telling you, those men don’t realize their new bodies are different. If I implied I might have sex with them, I could walk a nice big group down the stairs through the Pit and right up the exit stairs in minutes.”
Marcus cut off her speech by raising his hand in the universal ‘stop’ gesture. “If two millennia of experience isn’t good enough evidence for you, then let me offer you this.” Marcus’ voice was only a notch above a whisper, but Regan looked as though he’d screamed at her. “Every person who leaves that Pit that we are uncertain of—that we are not in control of—is one more soldier for our enemy. After the events of today, we should be even more cautious of letting any stragglers out of the Pit.”
The man who raised an army and challenged Marcus’ leadership on that very day was a former straggler who had made it out of the Pit, Virgil Offgood. When Virgil, a cop from Chicago, died, Marcus spotted him immediately. The uniform he wore made him an instant possible candidate for Marcus’ team. But after a few conversations, Virgil displayed a discomfort with Marcus, which sometimes happens. Marcus abandoned the cop as a possible recruit. Instead, he led several Irish freedom fighters out of the Pit while promising them a fulfilling new existence in Hell. The details of Vigil’s escape were unclear to Marcus. The details also didn’t matter. What mattered was that Virgil got out of the Pit and entered the rest of Hell.
“This does mean,” Marcus continued, “that I will need you to come into the Pit with me.”
He meant Lauren.
“She can’t,” Regan laughed. “She’ll be recognized. Besides, she’s not even from here.”
“No one is from here, you idiot,” Marcus shot back. “We’re all from Earth.”
Regan simultaneously bore resentment, awe and respect for Lauren. The resentment sprung from Lauren’s closeness with Marcus. The respect came from Lauren’s life story, which she shared with newer recruit at the beginning of Regan’s tenure with Marcus. And the awe Regan held for Lauren was shared by many on Marcus’ team. It sprung from the simple fact that when Lauren died, she didn’t go to Hell. Instead, she went to the other place.
No one called the other place Heaven, least of all Lauren. She might not believe in any God or any cosmic power, but she still felt uneasy—even sacrilegious—if she heard some Newly Dead person refer to that place as Heaven. The Dead were separated automatically on death and sent to one of two places: Hell or the Gate. According to Lauren, it was called the Gate because it was meant to be a passage to other places. The Gate was all about choice in death. Hell was all about a few or even just one choice The Dead made while alive. The thing that separated The Dead in Hell from The Dead at the Gate was the one law—the one and only crime whose violation condemned a soul to Hell. Faced with multiple options, Lauren chose to abandon the Gate and enter Hell. She never regretted her choice.
“It’s been 25 years,” Marcus told Lauren. “Surely they’ve forgotten about you by now. You can recruit in Australia and New Zealand. Tell them you died hunting in the Outback.”
Lauren nodded in response.
After her death, Lauren’s boyfriend, Joe, was arrested for the accidental murder of a homeless woman. The police claimed Joe hit the woman with his car and then buried her, thinking she was dead. The autopsy proved the woman died with dirt in her mouth and nostrils. Joe’s only defense was his claim that his now dead girlfriend was the one driving that night and the one who suggested they bury their accident under a few feet of dirt. It didn’t work. Joe went to prison for the remainder of his life, and the story of two idiots in northern England who buried a woman alive made international news.
In the distance, the trio finally heard footsteps. Regan looked up at Lauren, whose trained hearing would tell her how much longer their wait would be.
“Ten minutes, for a normal person,” Lauren answered Regan’s unasked question. Then she smiled to herself. “Five for Max.”
Regan turned her attention back to the road. Their end of Hell was dark. The only light came from source- less fires that dotted the landscape. The Dead’s new eyes saw better in the dark than their earthly counterparts. But that still only gave them a range of 10 feet in front of them.
The approaching footsteps belonged to Max, Marcus’ last decent recruit and new messenger. When Marcus had found Max, the twenty-five year old still wore the desert camouflage common among soldiers dead from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2011, had Max abandoned his camo, as it was easier to run unencumbered.
“Let me tell you something else.” Marcus’ tone finally betrayed the hint of how annoyed he felt. Of course, this meant his comments were aimed at Regan.
“You need to do well this week. If you want to move on—”
“I do,” Regan interrupted. She should not have interrupted. Seeing his face, she turned back to the road, cowering.
“I know you hate the Pit,” Max offered. “But your beauty is supposed to buy me men. Otherwise I don’t know what you are for.”
For any outsider, the scene might look odd. Lauren was closer to 30 than 20 and showed massive deference to Marcus. Regan was statuesque and beautiful, yet she cowered in the face of him. And Marcus looked like a slight, short, teenage boy. He died looking like a general capable of commanding an army. In life he’d been a strapping 6 feet tall. But in death he paid sculptors in the City to remold his shell body into a new size and appearance. He found looking physically nonthreatening was the best way to ingratiate himself to strangers. His life on Earth ended at the age of 43. In death, he found looking like a borderline child helped rally the adults around him to his protection.
“It’s Max,” a deep voice called out of the darkness. This method of introduction kept the messenger from meeting a defensive posture from his own teammates.
The messenger finally revealed himself to be taller than Marcus, with the heavy brow and large nose of his Greek ancestry. As always, he was nude because he ran faster without his clothes. Since the shell bodies don’t have genitals, many Dead embrace all or partial nudity as a lifestyle. Therefore Lauren and Marcus displayed no reaction to Max’s ample bare skin. Regan was too new and at eye level with Max’s smooth crotch. She twisted away from him, pulling a face.
“They took Rajj, Baghdad, and Rome,” Max announced.
“And Julian?” Marcus asked.
Max’s expression implied he didn’t want to reveal the next fact. “They destroyed him.”
“What the fuck?!” Lauren shouted. “I thought Offgood was one of Deborah Molinsky’s people? She never destroys us.”
Virgil escaped the Pit, Marcus knew not how. The next time they ran across each other was in the City. At that time, 1985 to be exact, Virgil looked lost, literally. With no clear threats to his leadership at that time, Marcus let the man be. After all, if he was lost, if he needed help, he would eventually reach out to someone on Marcus’ team and be pulled into the fold. Instead, Offgood disappeared. A year later, Marcus’ spies reported seeing him with Deborah Molinsky by The Camp.
Molinsky was an especially hard problem to solve. She had died in Auschwitz in 1944 and went to the Gate. Sometime later, Marcus wasn’t sure of the date, she came down to explore Hell. She found The Camp, with its strong resemblance to the one where she had died, and could not let it be. The place was even staffed by men in SS uniforms, as the camps on Earth had been.
Instead of doing what Marcus would have deemed normal and slaughtering her enemies, she went all weird and started talking to them—and talking—and talking. It took a decade before Marcus realized she was trying to change minds, not break bodies. And it was working. She never lifted a finger in anger or performed a single act of violence, but suddenly Otto Mueller, The Camp’s commandant, had trouble keeping his guards in line. Still, she never gathered an army. She had supporters: a small group that did exactly as she did and talked to the guards through the fence. At one time, Virgil Offgood was a member of her group.
“He raised an army,” Marcus explained over his shoulder as he approached Max. “Virgil’s broken from Deborah’s teachings. She never would’ve done that.” Deborah’s actions were predictable for Marcus. Virgil’s on the other hand….
“Do you have something for me?” Marcus whispered to Max.
Marcus instructed Max to bring him a piece of any high ranking team member the enemy destroyed, though Max was not told why.
“Virgil destroyed Julian himself. He stood over the shards with a baseball bat. None of us could get near him,” Max whispered back. “It’s like he knew you wanted a piece of Julian.”
This was the first real news of the day, the sort of news worth losing a battle for. The destroyed could be resurrected, but Marcus guarded that knowledge obsessively. He hadn’t even told Lauren the mechanics, but he needed a piece of the destroyed to begin the process. If Virgil knew that, then the resurrection of destroyed team-members would be difficult. If Virgil actually understood how to bring The Dead back, his army would be harder to defeat.
“There’s more,” Max offered. “He’s been telling his people that you are…” Max dragged the end of the sentence, reluctant to reveal the word.
Marcus shook his head and gave the man a gentle prompt. “Just tell me.”
“He’s calling you evil,” Max admitted.
Marcus expected that. Lauren had not. “That fucking cunt,” Lauren began.
“Well, there goes half of hell,” Marcus exclaimed, accidentally cutting her off.
“Wait, why?” Regan asked, still looking up at him from the ground.
“Evil is an accusation I can never disprove. It undermines my humanity.” It was the first patient explanation Regan received from Marcus that day. “Usually if someone raises an army, I defeat them and then offer their soldiers a choice: join our team, be a part of the running of Hell, or you are a burden and we will destroy you.”
“So we could get all these people back?” Regan concluded. “When we defeat them?”
“No. Once they are convinced that I am evil, they can’t ever be unconvinced of that.”
“Good and evil don’t really exist,” Lauren groaned. “At least not in the afterlife.”
“I agree,” Marcus added. “But after this skirmish is over, we will have to destroy all of Virgil’s forces. They are zealots now. And they are useless to us. Which means we will be hurting even worse for people.”
“I would like to join you in the Pit,” Max intervened. “We lost everyone I trained with when you first recruited me. And most of them were uniforms.”
Marcus often used the blanket term ‘uniforms’ to describe his recruits who had been military or police back on Earth.
Marcus placed his hand on Max’s shoulders, “Thank you. Now, for fuck’s sake, find some clothes. No one dies in Iraq in the nude.”
Then he turned to Regan. “As for you, if you want to move on, you must be productive. Get me the men you’ve promised me all along and I will let you move on to work in The City.”
Regan was full of promises that she would be successful this week.
The four of them began preparations without realizing the significance of the day. The battle they’d missed was the first in a war that would transform the afterlife as they knew it. It was the war that would finally topple Marcus’ 2,000 year reign over Hell.
Heinrich von Helldorf arrived at the Pit as eager as the German school boy he’d been before the First World War. Last week was exceptional: no Marcus in the Pit, no Marcus to fear or run from, no Marcus to whisper to The Newly Dead about Heinrich. Thanks to the Roman’s absence, Heinrich entered and reentered the Pit three times, collecting as many bodies. Normally, he could only enter the Pit once before The Newly Dead or Marcus would react. Only one body a week meant slow work. But last week, Heinrich completed nearly a month’s work in one day.
On Heinrich’s walk to the Pit, he tried to talk himself down. Obviously, Marcus was off dealing with something last week. Since the German didn’t involve himself in the politics of Hell, he didn’t know what it was, or care. But if Marcus was still distracted—Heinrich whistled and swung his coat in the air—then Heinrich could take those last three bodies out of the Pit. If Marcus was still gone, Heinrich could be done with the Pit by tomorrow. No, he reminded himself, don’t expect that. This cautionary voice sounded like Deborah. Take what is before you. Her voice intoned. Let that be enough. The advice was sound, but Heinrich couldn’t embrace it like he should. He had such hope.
Arriving at the Pit, Heinrich decided he needed to know one way or the other what kind of week it would be. First he reminded himself to be patient. Then he slipped into the narrow passageway that led into the Pit.
Below him in the Pit were 7,000 screaming, fighting, tortured, Newly Dead people. The Pit was at full capacity, and the purge would go off at any moment. Heinrich searched the area above their heads for specific signs of Marcus’ presence. A man in desert camouflage fell from the 9 o’clock platform. Heinrich could not see the platform itself, only the flailing man who was clearly pushed off it. Then a dark-haired woman fell, screaming, from the 6 o’clock area, Marcus’ favorite platform. Another man, this one dark skinned, fell from 5 o’clock. Finally, an armless man fell from 4 o’clock. After a beat, his arms were tossed off the platform behind him.
Heinrich exited the passageway, sinking to his knees, placing his face into his hands. He should have listened to Deborah’s voice. He had hoped too much and now he faced bitter disappointment. Marcus was in the Pit, and he’d brought three of his team with him. Heinrich wouldn’t finish his bodies in the Pit tomorrow.
There is next week, then, Deborah’s voice pushed. Next week is good.
Not good enough. Heinrich hadn’t seen Deborah in over a year—or Virgil. He’d been alone and growing increasingly lonely. The more time alone he had, the more he agonized over his life—the more he hated himself. And when he didn’t hate himself, The Newly Dead in the Pit reminded him he should. Or maybe Marcus convinced them he was evil. It didn’t matter.
Heinrich heard the purge erupt behind him. Like the good officer he was, he responded to his weekly signal. He put on the last piece of his uniform: his coat. The gold eagle pin on the collar needed straightening. The name patch read, ‘Untersturmführer Heinrich von Helldorf,’ as it had since 1939 when he was promoted to that rank. The black fabric was dusty and needed a quick brushing. But the red armband with the garish black swastika needed no cleaning. For some reason, that thing was always bright, beautiful and impossible to ignore. With his SS uniform in place, Heinrich von Helldorf re-entered the narrow passage, ready for the malice that always came his way.