Officer Brandon Morales remembers the last smile he ever saw. It was the smile of the serial killer who shot him at point blank range. When Brand awakens, it's into a much darker world than the one he left.
Purgatory. The inmates call it “Hell City.” The demons who populate this nightmare simply know it as the first stage of the Gauntlet, God's own testing ground for the immortal soul. It's a grinder; a massive pit that chews up the worst criminals society has to offer. Souls go in, and they rarely come out.
Traffic violations and little white lies aren't enough to condemn a soul to this level of purgatory. Only a cardinal sin can seal that fate. Hell City is like a maximum security penitentiary, if the warden left the cells unlocked and waved the guards goodbye. The inmates roam freely, many delighting in the carnage, finding satisfaction in an infinite number of victims.
Brand doesn't want to admit that he might have earned his place here. It all seems like a cruel joke to him. The courts acquitted him of his crimes. They deemed it self-defense. He never told anyone what had truly happened that one night, when he gunned down two robbers in cold blood. Even he had started to believe his innocence.
He has only one chance to make up for what he did. If he can survive the Gauntlet, he can earn a second chance at life. If he fails at any point, flames will engulf him and drag him straight to Hell.
Trying to make sense of it all, Brand stumbles across two women with sordid pasts: Samantha Reiss, a tough-as-nails bank robber who died from lethal injection, and Jane Calrin, a teenage girl who ate a bullet after committing an unthinkable crime of passion. Despite what they had done, Brand can't help but see the good hiding within them. They seem worthy of forgiveness, and worthy of redemption.
However, when a horde of inmates descend upon their doorstep, Brand, Sam and Jane are forced out of their meager hiding place and into the untamed depths of the afterlife. With their souls hanging in the balance, and eternal damnation never more than one wrong turn away, these three strangers will need to put their trust in one another in order to stay one step ahead of the flames of Hell.
The Gauntlet trials are not for the faint of heart. Purgatory creates another challenge whenever the current one is overcome. The city park, Eden, becomes anything but a paradise, and is prowled by unseen, whispering threats that can tear a man to pieces. The underground sanctuary, the Grotto, becomes home to burrowing monsters and unimaginable behemoths.
All is not lost, though. There might just be a guardian angel lurking somewhere within purgatory. And if Brand can find him, he and his new friends would gain an ally that could turn the tide in their favor.
But when enemies pose as trusted friends, when lost loves crumble the will to continue, and when hidden desires threaten to tear allegiances apart, it will take more than faith and determination to pass God's final test.
It will take a miracle.
Michael Matula is a novelist from Chicago, IL, and a current member of the Chicago Writers Association and the SCBWI. He once dreamed of being a comic book artist, sketching pictures and caption bubbles in class when he really should have been studying. Unable to draw fast enough to keep up with all the ideas and storylines he came up with, he wrote out a side story for one of his characters. He ended up falling in love with writing and never really looked back. His first book, Try Not to Burn, was released in September 2012 by Post Mortem Press. He’s currently working on the sequel, and a sample of one of his novels is now ranked in the top ten on Authonomy.com.