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 is a Nazi running around in Hell (because of course there is). Find out how he earned the death he half asked for.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
Heinrich von Helldorf
Dachau, Germany, Earth
April 29, 1945
IN THE CAMP’S COMMUNICATION room, Heinrich slammed the phone down. The orders from the SS brass were to surrender? The guard manning the phone board, an exhausted looking 50 year old from Bavaria, didn’t ask what the news from Berlin was for once.
These days all the news from Berlin was bad.
Things were falling apart. First two of the three ovens broke. Heinrich called Berlin repeatedly trying to get them to send the part he needed in order to fix them but to no avail. They didn’t have it but they would get it. Then they didn’t have it but they didn’t know when they would get it. Then they didn’t have it, stop calling. He explained each time about the massive backlog of corpses now littering the camp. They didn’t care. After that debacle, the people in power started to shift. At first this process was slow; then in the last three months it became absurdly quick. As the head of the guards at the Dachau Concentration Camp, Heinrich only answered to two men, the commandant and the co-commandant. Usually, Heinrich had the same bosses for at least a year or more. But in the spring of 1945, they went through four commandants and six co-commandants. The most recent set had only just arrived the day before. People started to disappear. When Heinrich called his former boss, Dachau’s longest-serving commandant, there was no answer. No one Heinrich contacted could offer any information on the man. And every attempt to press for answers was met with insults, stony silence or a dial tone. Then there was the news that the Allied troops had entered Germany. They were headed for Dachau and his orders were to surrender.
Heinrich had few friends left in the SS and none in the National Socialist Party. They found him belligerent, disrespectful and (the one they only mentioned behind his back) common. The SS was supposed to be Germany’s elite. Heinrich didn’t attend school after the age of 13. He didn’t go to university or learn about Wagner or belong with the elite. A friend, Otto Mueller, convinced the SS to take him back when they needed people. When they worked together, Heinrich did well and moved forward. Once his friend eclipsed him, Heinrich faltered.
“Call Otto,” Heinrich told the old guard. Otto Mueller considered Heinrich his mentor. In fact, most of the camp commandants, according to Otto, owed Heinrich a great debt. All guards in the camp system came to Dachau to be trained by Heinrich because he was the best at what he did: crowd control, prisoner suppression and resource management. Heinrich’s first protégé was the younger but more influential Otto. Done with training, Otto moved on to Auschwitz, where he rose from the equivalent of Heinrich’s position to the camp commandant. Last year, the SS brass moved him out of Poland back to Berlin to run the Gestapo. If Heinrich really wanted to know what was going on in Berlin, he needed to reach Otto.
While he waited, Heinrich felt his stomach lurch. In anyone else this might be disgust for the situation, but for Heinrich, disgust was now background noise. It might have been the dozen cigarettes he’d smoked since dawn. But it was probably the three beers he’d had for breakfast. Normally, his wife made his breakfast and didn’t like smoking in the house, but she too understood that the end was near and had left a week earlier with the baby.
The guard handed him the receiver. “Herr Mueller is not in,” Otto’s secretary explained.
“Where is he?” Heinrich demanded.
“I cannot say,” she answered calmly.
“He’s gone?” Heinrich demanded.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to, I know.” With that, Heinrich slammed the phone down. Otto was gone, running away like all the other assholes in power.
Heinrich exited the guard’s shack with an old worn rifle in his right hand. The very idea that after all they’d been through, after all they’d seen, that they would simply let the enemy through the front gate without opposition offended his guards. Heinrich had no justification to offer, and he wasn’t prone to making any up. Germany was losing the war, and Dachau was merely another ceded territory.
Heinrich lit a cigarette as he walked past block 26. Inside, the priests were doing their rosaries: “Hail Mary, full of grace…” but their voices fell away as they heard his footsteps. Heinrich gave the wall a quick pound as he passed. They’d been told repeatedly to give up their silly chanting. Heinrich couldn’t believe he had to reinforce that lesson even on a day of great personal loss.
Germany had lost the First World War, but Heinrich lost more. Before the war, his family was intact. After, not so much. All three of his brothers and his father were lost to disease and battle. Then it was just Heinrich and his mother. Mama was too old to marry again. She had no active profession because a woman of class simply didn’t need one. They had lost the family home. They were destitute.
Heinrich stood on one side of the fence, looking out for the approaching army. Letting out a drag of his cigarette, he accidentally breathed in. The place smelled like piss and shit. It always did because that’s what happens when you throw thousands of bodies together in a series of dirty small buildings; they piss and shit all over each other. As a rule, Heinrich didn’t breathe in through his nose. It was a lesson he learned all those years doing odd jobs on farms: don’t breathe in when you shovel pig shit or human shit. Back then it was all about getting food for himself and his mother for the day. On the day Dachau would be invaded, he had no reason to be there except that he had nowhere else to go.
Heinrich was working for the Gestapo in Berlin when his mother had a stroke. After the initial diagnosis, she failed to improve. Her face drooped severely on the left. She needed help to walk, eat, and use the toilet. In his mind, he’d taken care of his mother since he was 12. In reality, this was far more involved than he could handle. She needed daily care, but he couldn’t tell a soul. He knew all too well how the government handled invalids.
At that time, all Germans, party members especially, were encouraged by the Fuehrer to go out and make more little Germans within the bonds of matrimony. Heinrich resisted the extra pressure from the SS to marry up to that point, believing a wife would just be someone else who he needed to look after. After two weeks of managing the Gestapo under his command all day and caring for his mother alone all night, Heinrich hit a weird breaking point. On his way to visit Otto, he noticed a secretary he’d met several times. She was nice looking but a bit old and unfriendly. Unfriendly was something the men around him considered unfeminine—distasteful. Heinrich didn’t care if women were unfriendly; he was too self-involved to need as much ass-kissing as his cohorts. That day he stumbled on the exact person he would need to survive the next six years.
Gerta was the only unmarried daughter in a family of three. Her father had died a week earlier in a ‘hunting accident’ along with a young, male friend. This left his wife and oldest daughter in a precarious position. Her two sisters were already married to officers in the SS and the Luftwaffe, both stationed outside of Germany. Her mother attached herself quickly to a senior member of the party as his mistress. Gerta was left alone, in Berlin, vulnerable. Heinrich asked her to lunch with very little preamble. She agreed that day and again every day that week. They discussed nothing romantic or even personal; instead, they took the temperature of one another. On Friday, she suggested they marry. He agreed, so long as they found a way out of Berlin. Gerta acquiesced and became Gerta von Helldorf by sundown that day. On the long walk back to the boarding house to pick up her things, they offered each other a little too late disclosure. She wasn’t a virgin. Heinrich didn’t care. He had an invalid mother who needed to live with them. She didn’t mind.
At first Dachau was a source of immense pride for Heinrich. It brought him recognition within the SS. Himmler himself came and commended Heinrich’s work with the guards, telling him that Dachau would be the model for the whole camp system. The work itself was disgusting and degrading, but after the farms, Heinrich could handle it. At home, things with Gerta grew warmer. She didn’t mind caring for his mother and was relieved to have left behind all the pressure that came with their former lives. Having sex began as obligatorily but grew intimate due to Heinrich’s support, rare in his generation, of the elusive female orgasm. After a year, his superiors offered him a promotion. Heinrich turned it down, wanting to keep his mother hidden. They offered instead to send him their rising star for training, Heinrich’s old friend, Otto.
Heinrich’s mother died soon after Otto moved on to Auschwitz. From the age of twelve to the age of 36, Heinrich’s day was bookended with thoughts of himself and his mother. Did they have food for the day? Admittedly it had not been a great concern for the last 14 years, but it was still his first thought. Did she sleep? Where would they get food today? Where would they sleep tonight? Their house near the camp had seen her last days. Continuing to live there only prolonged his grief. His once strategic marriage had turned to love while his mother lived. After that, it turned obsessive. Heinrich’s obsession with his mother transferred to Gerta. Gerta had little else to occupy her thoughts other than Heinrich. A terrible cycle of fighting and sex and threats and more fighting began. Over the next few years, their relationship transformed into something intense and terrifying for them both. Something needed to change, but how?
Normally he would have asked to transfer to Berlin, but Gerta was unable to have a child. Going to Berlin would force her to deal with the judgment and scorn from the other officers’ wives, who’d all given birth with ease. Heinrich hated the social pressure they’d been under before they married. They might fight loud enough for the neighbors to complain. She might threaten him with every knife in the house once every few months. And he might shake her till she vomited about as often. But they were united in one thing; they weren’t going back to Berlin.
Heinrich waved at the guard in the tower to open the gate and let him out. While everyone else made plans to surrender, Heinrich made his own plans. He wanted to die on his feet as he imagined his father and brothers had. But defying orders in front of his men could cause them to do something equally stupid. For the sake of their safety, he intended to leave the camp and face the approaching army on his own.
After repeated requests for a transfer to anywhere but Berlin were all denied, Heinrich began to lose hope. Finally, he offered to work with Otto at Auschwitz: a clear demotion. He was denied. Meanwhile, Otto received nothing but praise for using what Heinrich taught him. Heinrich’s superiors in the SS said he was needed at Dachau. They said they needed him to stay. They said they needed him to train hundreds of guards and hold the vile prisoners back. But these were new superiors; everyone who’d commended his work in the beginning had moved up over the years and was now beyond his reach. Those left behind wanted to dump him at Dachau.
The reasons for Heinrich’s unpopularity within the SS were unclear to him. When Otto accepted a promotion, which would require him to return to Berlin, he offered to look into it. Heinrich’s absence meant his superiors did not see his hard work day in and day out. They only had memories of him and the occasional phone call to reference when thinking about him. All they seemed to remember was that he was abrupt to the point of rudeness, his bitterness and his lack of education especially obvious in every letter he’d written from Dachau in the last several years. The SS now presented itself as the elite force within Germany—or at least that was the propaganda about the SS. In the beginning, those men were not available and the SS took who they could find, including Heinrich. It didn’t help that while everyone else was using marriage to ally themselves with one another, Heinrich had married a party member with few allies and no influential family within the party. Plus there were all those rumors about him possibly having sex with his own mother—rumors Heinrich, to his detriment, had always ignored and Otto, to his credit, suspected concealed something. The something turned out to be the sexual relationship Heinrich had engaged in with several of his superiors’ wives. In fact, Heinrich had a relationship with his mother that, when taken out of context, was inappropriate. Within context it wasn’t appropriate either, but there was no convincing him of that. As a result, Heinrich developed a taste for older women. Older women were often married. Heinrich didn’t care. In the end, even Otto distanced himself publicly from Heinrich. He shouldn’t have. The one thing necessary to survive in Hell was the one thing Heinrich had in abundance and could have taught Otto: endurance.
As Heinrich walked through the gate, he could see the enemy in the distance. The question was, how far away should he walk? He wanted to be clear of the camp, meaning out of the guards sight, before provoking his enemy. But there they were, on top of the hill that overlooked Dachau, clearly looking down at him. Glancing up at the guards in the tower, he saw they were talking to one another, disinterested in him. Might as well get this over with. Heinrich held his weapon to his face and fired, knowing he wouldn’t hit anything. On their perch atop the hill, the enemy soldiers just looked at him. Because of the distance and the fact that the light was behind them, they looked like silhouettes without faces. One of them was tilting his head to the side in an attitude Heinrich read as, What the hell is this idiot doing? Heinrich waved to the guard in the tower to close the gate. He would need to get closer to provoke a response. Then Heinrich heard the most annoying noise possible: footsteps running. Turning, he saw some dumb prisoner with the double triangle identifying him as a Jew on his lapel, running toward the closing gate. It was the worst time to try to escape on multiple levels. Naturally, Heinrich did what he always did: he shot the bastard, ending David Molinsky’s earthly existence. In turn, the enemy looking down on him from the hill finally felt the need to respond. They sent a single shot into the back of his head.