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.
See this is what happens when someone starts a war in Hell, Marcus has to consider battle when looking at every potential recruit.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
Allison, Sid, Nadia, Marcus, Christoph & Alex
The Pit, Hell
VIRGIL OFFGOOD HAS AN ARMY. Sometimes it was all Marcus could think about. There hasn’t been anyone with a full-on army in Hell in over 2 centuries. Most of the fighting, outside the Pit, was between groups of no more than 50. People challenged Marcus on a small scale, like trying to take over one part of the City, planning to grow their forces after winning a few skirmishes. How did Virgil raise an army? From the intelligence Marcus’ spies’ gathered, Virgil told people he had the light on his side. Virgil implied, but never said, that he was virtuous. But when it was time to describe Marcus, apparently he’d used the word evil. Good and evil didn’t exist in Marcus’ mind. They applied to an afterlife these new generations dreamed up but did not find upon death. Why they didn’t abandon it when reality proved they were wrong, Marcus didn’t know. They seemed to be unnecessarily, inexplicably attached to these twin ideas. But when someone like Virgil showed up, spouting this good and evil nonsense it was always trouble.
Marcus convinced his potential recruits to move bodies around. This helped put them in the right frame of mind, the one constructed and controlled by him. The bodies were cordwood. No, worse than cordwood, because cordwood would burn. As they threw each body into a ‘respectful pile’ (Nadia’s words), Marcus talked/listened to each of them in turn. Alex already showed himself to be a decent candidate, though he might still prove to be the kind of problem child so many of the followers of the cross turned out to be. Nadia, having thrown things at Heinrich, was high on Marcus’ list. He volunteered to move bodies with her first.
Turns out she was a barrister specializing in juvenile criminal law. Normally Marcus got a different reaction from parents, teachers and other child care workers because of his face. Looking like a young (and short) man helped Marcus infiltrate groups because he was perceived as nonthreatening. It worked on Nadia; she offered up her relationship to teenagers (and an accidental life philosophy) with little provocation.
“Most of the teenagers I meet have already seen more than any adult should’ve,” she explained. “That’s part of why they are at my door, so to speak. The number that walk in from hurting a school friend in a bad fight with the bruises from the fight and old bruises from…” she sighed, “…who knows what, is staggering. And what do I do with them? Any adult I meet who looks like that, I assume they’ve been through Hell. Any child I meet looking like that I assume the same and treat them like a person. In the beginning I did it because I didn’t know how to talk to a child, and I still don’t. Put a five year old in front of me and I’ve no idea what to say. ‘How was maths?’ ‘Do you have a favorite toy?’ They don’t have the brain power to hold a conversation, so what’s the point? But a fifteen year old who’s just begun to understand life and death because he’s accidentally killed a school friend; that is surprisingly easy to relate to. Every adult I know has a handful of terrible stories; some people it’s what they open with when you ask them about themselves. In one of my public speaking classes at university, we had to do a five minute speech about ourselves. Everyone got up and mentioned something terrible. One girl had witnessed a murder. Another was in recovery from drug and drink. Everyone has something. So when that kid walks into my office with a dead friend, all I think is, ‘Welcome to adulthood, I’m sorry it has to be so harsh but apparently it does.’ And we get on from there.”
Nadia could be an excellent recruit. She was clever, which is more useful than smart, practical and clearly comfortable with violent people, of which Hell had many. Being clever also made her a problem. In the two millennium of recruiting, Marcus tried many times to just be honest with people from the moment they died. Every one of these attempts failed. He manipulated for practical reasons and felt no remorse for it. He knew the stage when the truth could be revealed, and it wasn’t in the Pit. The difference between smart and clever was speed. Smart people could understand a thing without heavy explanation. Clever people could understand something quickly without explanation. Someone like Nadia could easily see his lies as lies before he could use them to move her out of the Pit. He had a full two days of dancing with her to come. He needed to find a way to get her out of the Pit without telling her why.
In order to choose a workable plan, he needed to know how many he would lead out with (possibly) Alex and (more likely) Nadia. As Nadia continued her musings on the state of criminal law in Britain, Marcus nodded, offering “uh-huh”s in the right moments while actually listening to Sid and Alex behind him.
Sid’s Arabic father and English mother had raised him in London. Two years ago, a near fatal heartache sent him into rehab for cocaine and alcohol. “I did not find religion in rehab.” For some reason, Sid felt the need to press this point. “It was my therapist’s idea. I had to replace the community of drug-addict, workaholic fuck-ups I’d surrounded myself with when I was using with something. Nothing else worked. It was literally the last thing I tried because my father only took me to mosque to be around other Arabs; he wasn’t religious. He taught me to speak Arabic, and I still can, but he never read me the Quran. My mother made him pork sausage every morning, and he ate every piece for nearly thirty years. He didn’t care about that stuff. At mosque, my only friends are…er…Peter who met his wife while working with the Peace Corps in Sudan, and Jack, who was meant to be converting his wife when she converted him during a missionary trip in Qatar.” Alex started laughing. “So, the only people who would talk to me were the reverts and the Imam. But it was a good thing. They wanted me to be around their kids so they could see they weren’t the only half-Arabic people with English accents.” He shrugged. “It was something I didn’t have growing up, so I think it was worth it for that.”
Multilingual recruits, those who speak multiple languages, were often useful. If Sid spoke Arabic, then Marcus needed him. There was no making it through the City without someone on his side who was fluent in a few dialects. Lately, several of his Arabic speakers defected from his team to Virgil’s. Plus, he’d already shown a decent sense of humor. In Marcus’ opinion, those sensitive souls with all the jokes didn’t last long, but they were worth having around until they fell apart. So Sid was worth keeping. What about Alex?
It turned out Alex spoke Arabic as well—and Farsi. He spent time on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf only to return from there and die in San Diego Bay. “I feel like I left so much behind—like I stepped sideways and now the world is going on and I’m on this weird vacation or something. Like at any moment I’ll hop on a flight and go back there. Luke, Mark and Jonah will be fighting over who gets to play X-Box because we only bought two controllers, and my wife will be on her cell phone in the kitchen talking to her sister in Salt Lake and it’s all there, my whole life, and how can it be going on without me?” He paused for a minute and looked over at the 6 o’clock stairs. For some reason he’d looked up several times when people entered the Pit from that direction. He must not have seen what he wanted because his expression turned dark. Finally, he shook his head as if he were trying to shake something negative out of his mind via his ears. “Give me another body to move, I can’t do this, I can’t stand around thinking about this; it’s a bad road.”
This was something Marcus sought out whenever available. Letting go of their lives on Earth was key for The Newly Dead. It took time, in some cases decades. Lauren still blinked even though she’d been dead 25 years. Even though they no longer had lungs, the Pit was filled with Dead whose chests were rising and falling. One of the reasons Max ran so fast was because he abandoned that instinct. The Dead, unconsciously, wasted effort and time on these things and dealing with their new existence in Hell, inevitably, meant letting go of Earth. If Alex already thought that, he was a good candidate indeed.
Since he already had to remove a group of three from the Pit, he might as well consider Allison and Christoph. “Yeah, man. I loved French. Spanish didn’t work for me though,” she explained to Christoph.
Dammit, where were these people in the last year? Marcus thought.
“How many languages do you speak?” Allison asked Christoph.
“Nine,” Christoph answered.
Nine languages! Marcus thought to himself. He speaks nine fucking languages?
Allison and Christoph lifted up the body of a screaming old women, finding another concentration camp body underneath. “Hey look,” Allison called out to the others. The four adults came to stand over the body of a gaunt man in the blue on blue striped uniform. Marcus felt a surge of disappointment. They did not need to be staring at an individual body. He really needed them to forget about the bodies. That’s what the whole body moving exercise was about.
“I wonder what he does with them?” Allison asked the group at large.
“The Nazi?” Christoph clarified. “He did horrific things to these people in life.”
“And now he gets to do whatever he wants to them in Hell,” Sid offered in a bitter tone.
“That’s not fair,” Allison interjected. “Wait, I have an idea.” Allison perked up, all excited and ready to share. “In the words of Dr. Seuss, I’ve ‘got an idea! An awful idea! The Grinch got a wonderful, awful, supremely shitty idea.’”
“Please don’t misquote Dr. Seuss,” Sid mocked. “Really Allison, some things are sacred.”
Marcus couldn’t help but laugh. Who comes up with shitty plans their first day in Hell? Nobody but these weirdos.
She pointed to the concentration camp body. “In case the Nazi comes back, I say we hide that body. If it’s what he wants then that’s what I want to take away from him.”
So yeah, he would definitely need Allison and her shitty ideas and Christoph, the uber multilingual, bringing his total up to five.
Which plan is best for leading people up the 12 o’clock stairs with Nadia being one of them? he thought. Once out of the Pit, the real work of keeping them away from Virgil’s people would begin. Because nothing would lead them away like hearing Marcus described as evil.