“I think it’s time you told me why exactly you’re doing all this,” Briggs said as he descended the stairs to the mansion’s lower floors. He had flicked on the flashlight he had found in Martin’s backpack as the sun had already set.
“Doing what?” Tim asked with the innocence of a child.
“Helping me. You don’t expect me to believe you’re just that charitable, do you?”
“Are you sure you want me to? If I reveal all now, it will get so boring.”
“I really doubt that.”
“Can we not leave a little mystery?”
“I’ve had enough of mysteries. This is way too much effort just to kill me, so spit it out. What’s in it for you?”
“Have it your way. It is really simple anyway. To free your girl, you need to destroy Eric. He is also what binds me to this house.”
“So, I free her, I free you.”
“I said it was simple.”
“That is what you want? To die, finally?”
“A century of solitude will do that to you. Gives you time to think. To reflect on your choices in life.”
“Does that mean you want to repent?”
“Repent what, exactly?”
At the bottom of the stairs he came into a long stone hallway. He shifted the weight of the woman on his shoulders. He had gone back to the living room to get Rose, after Tim had suggested that he should get her closer to the body of the murderous ghost they were trying to get out of her. Briggs was also glad he had recovered his gun. It was old, but reliable and sturdy. More importantly, it was an heirloom: His grandfather had used in World War II and passed it on to him. He used to be pretty good with it, but since his right arm had been injured, he was lucky to hit one shot out of three. He had been practicing at the range at night, so no one noticed how much he missed. So far, his aim had not improved.
“Not exactly high-tech, even for the mid-sixties, I know,” Tim invaded his mind again as Briggs’ eyes fell on the gas lanterns on the walls. “But it all comes together nicely, does it not?” Several doors lead off the corridor. They were all wrecked. He could make out that there had been letters on each one, telling what was behind them. “Convenient, isn’t it? My father always was very organized. Methodical. So I killed him very methodically, too. Carved precise lines into his body before I cut it to pieces. But you know that already. Second door on the right, the wine cellar.”
Briggs stepped over the remaining chips of wood into the room beyond. The wall to his right was lined with enormous wooden barrels, all of them broken. The wine had soaked into the floor, but even so there was nothing growing there. It was clear that a fight had taken place: the lanterns had been ripped from the walls, chunks of stone had been torn out of the floor, and Briggs could see the sky through a hole in the wall. He spotted the dead girl strapped to a gurney, as well as two bodies at the far end of the room.
“That was your last Victim?” Briggs asked.
“Victim? That is very demeaning, Gregory. They are people, after all.”
“What did you usually do with them?”
“Well, I did not eat them, as you are thinking right now, which I do not care for, by the way. I burned them, naturally, after I was done with them. There is no satisfaction in cutting a corpse, after all.” Only then did Briggs notice the old furnace at the back left. It was so dark, he hadn’t made it out before.
“Only there was no one left to burn you.”
“Alas, no. A big fire might have been quite a spectacle, at least.”
“Burning the bodies now wouldn’t do any good, I guess?”
“No. I have told you what to do.”
“You have. But I still don’t like it. And you haven’t given me any details yet.”
“It’s simple, like all my plans. You hold the knife in front of her. With the blade’s power you will be able to cut into her aura. Disturb it, and you should shake loose her thoughts, releasing them both from the trap. When Eric shows up, you thrust the knife into his head, and it’s over. If anything goes wrong, you still got your gun.”
“Why do I have a feeling this will all go wrong?”
“Because you’re a pessimist. A good thing I am here as well.”
“You’re going to help?”
“How can you even ask that? I’ve helped you much already, have I not?”
“So far you’ve helped only yourself.”
“Still, you do not trust me. It must be in your nature.” Briggs had slowly made his way over to Tim’s and Eric’s remains. “A real shame. I was such a good looking guy,” Tim went on. Enough light came through the hole to make out how they looked. Briggs had never thought much about other men’s looks, but he had to admit, even in death Tim’s face looked like it might have turned quite a few heads. Catching girls could not have been too difficult.
“It wasn’t. It was too easy! I had to get a few guys in between, just to change things up a bit.” Briggs looked over the corpses in front of him. Just like all the other bodies he had seen in the mansion, these had not decomposed at all. He knew that such an effect could be achieved with cold, but he doubted it was icy enough down here. When he shone the flashlight over the bodies, a gleam from Tim’s neck caught his attention. There was a silver cross and chain.
“What’s that? Are you religious after all?” Briggs asked, pointing at the necklace.
“What on earth are you talking…” then he noticed it, too, it seemed. “Oh, good god, I almost forgot about that. Yes, you are going to need that.”
“And you’re only telling me this now?”
“I forgot.” The urge to choke his new friend overcame Briggs, until he reminded himself that he could not do that. He swallowed his anger and took the necklace from the lifeless body, careful not to rip the chain.
“So. How does this help me?”
“It is a shield. Eric’s powers are beyond anything you can handle. With or without a gun you would be no match for him. With the necklace he cannot use them against you.”
“So he can’t lift me into the air and rip me apart with his mind?”
“Precisely. I haven’t experienced it myself, though I have done it to others. I do not believe it is pleasant.”
No. I don’t suppose so. Briggs put the chain around his neck and under his shirt, the metal feeling cold on his chest. He also pulled the knife out of the dead Eric’s neck.
“Well, stop wasting time. Soon there will not be much of your girl left to save.”
Breathing deeply to slow his racing heart, he knelt down on top of Rose, taking the knife in both hands. He began to sweat as he slowly moved the blade down toward her chest, expecting to feel some resistance any second. As he edged closer he got more and more nervous. Nothing’s happening. Why is nothing happening? A mere inch from slashing her blouse, he stopped. As he tried to pull the knife away again, he found he couldn’t. Something was pushing in the other direction. Someone was pushing in the other direction.
“Tim? What the hell are you doing?” Briggs asked, his body shaking with exertion.
“Oh Gregory, I cannot believe you actually bought that aura bullshit. I did not believe myself when I said that. Even if something like that existed, you could not cut it with a knife. It’s only good for one thing: cutting flesh.” He noticed his arms were moving down again, slowly. He was losing this tug of war with a dead man. I never should have trusted that lunatic!
“A little too late for that. Now, be a good boy and just let go.”
“Never, you son ─ of a ─ bitch!” Briggs pressed out through clenched teeth. His muscles started to burn, but the knife was still moving toward Rose. He put all his strength in resisting. It did no good. He was forced to watch the tip of the blade draw blood and begin to vanish into her chest cavity. It hasn’t reached the heart yet, if I can only stand up… His legs would not move.
“It is pointless to resist, Gregory. You must realize the best way to end this is to kill her. You have no idea how powerful Eric is. You wouldn’t stand a chance. Oh, and that necklace won’t help. Not you at least. It’s just so I could take control of you.”
As the knife edged down, Rose suddenly woke up. Breathing raggedly, her eyes widened in shock and she instinctively reached for the handle. Briggs was stunned as the blade seemed to stop, finally, then moved outward again.
“What? How is that possible? Die, you bitch! Die, and take that monster with you to Hell!”
As the knife slid out of the wound, Rose groaned in pain. To Briggs’ surprise, only very little blood flowed out, way too little for such a deep cut. Before he could ponder the reasons, he felt an iron hand grip his throat. It lifted him off his feet and he stared into the scarred visage of the monster that had once been Eric Burton. He felt panic rising inside of him as he saw up close the jagged pieces of flesh hanging off what remained of his throat. As his instinct to fight came alive, Briggs noticed that he had neither the knife nor the gun in his hand. A sickening gurgle escaped the creature’s open gorge as it suddenly threw him against a wall. He hit the rock hard and could only barely avoid dislocating his shoulder.
“Great! Now we have to work together!”
“I’m supposed to trust you after what you just pulled?”
“Oh, get over it.”
Briggs saw Eric move and point his misshapen arms in his direction. Was he trying to use his powers on him? Was the necklace working after all?
“The necklace doesn’t do jack shit, I’m protecting you!” Briggs saw the monster now moving toward him, choosing a more close quarters option, it seemed. He could see Rose propping herself up, looking good for a woman that had just been stabbed. “Catch!” she yelled and suddenly his gun flew toward him. He managed to grab it, although it slammed hard into his palm. His breath and heart went rapidly in unison, but not out of control. He was reaching his combat high. Perfect. “Bullets cannot kill him, but they can slow him down,” Tim advised.
Briggs took aim. He fired at the creature’s left leg. It took a whole magazine, but he managed to make him tumble backward. “Not bad my friend, not bad at all.” He reloaded quickly, and emptied his third and then his last magazine at the left leg. The monster fell to the floor, flailing and screaming. “Stab him, now!” Rose yelled as she flung the knife at him. He grabbed the blade out of the air and charged at the creature. He held the weapon in both hands and went in for the killing blow; a sudden punch hit him in the stomach and flung him to the side; the knife landed next to him. He had broken a fundamental rule of battle: never underestimate your enemy.
“Don’t let him jerk you around like that!” Tim complained. Eric was stumbling to his feet, but, apparently, still couldn’t use his powers. “No, but I can’t keep this up forever!” Shut up. He picked the knife up again and let his instincts take over; he delivered several cuts to the monster’s feet; dodged another punch as it turned around, ignoring the gashes in its flesh; he lunged at the thing, ducking his brutal slashes, hacking away at it in return. He managed to get behind his opponent and slam his blade into its neck. He swung himself in front of it, grabbed the knife from its hands and was about to deliver the finishing blow when the monster stirred again, grabbing Briggs by the throat. He felt the iron fist clenching down on his air pipe; felt the monster’s intent to crush him for good. With his last strength he got the knife up and sliced deep into the freak’s arm, almost severing it entirely. Something that resembled a cry of pain escaped the monster’s throat and it flung him away once more. He came to a rolling stop a few feet away, every part of his body aching. The creature was grasping the injured arm, only to let out another scream and come at him again.
He tightened his right hand around…nothing. Where’s the knife? “Over there! Damn it, I’ll get it!” That was Tim. No! Briggs was lifted off his feet as he saw the monster raise its good arm. “Fuck!” Tim cursed as an invisible hand hovered them closer to Eric until he stared into the creature’s face again. Briggs heard another sickening gurgle and felt his limbs being crushed by invisible walls. “Shit! I can’t do anything! He’s got me too!” he heard Tim, sounding truly frightened. The stranglehold tightened, when suddenly he felt something sliding into his palm. “Wait for my go.” Now it was Rose’s voice inside his head. He could barely hold the handle.
The world blackened in front of his eyes as he swore he could feel Tim suffering as he was. “Now!” The tension on his body was gone. Briggs thrust the knife into the monster’s skull. “Burn him!” “No!” He tackled the creature and pushed it toward the furnace. He brought to bear what strength he had left to push the thing that had once been Eric into the flames. Suddenly he was blasted by a searing heat and threw himself to the floor.
When he dared to look up, the room was cold and quiet again. Rose! The thought shot through his mind like a bullet; he turned around to see her lying on the floor; motionless. “Rose!” he said it out loud this time, rushing over to her. He picked her up in his arms. Just as he feared she was gone, he felt her pulse and breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly, she opened her eyes. “Well, flower boy? How’d we do?”
“So this is your final decision?” The Captain asked.
“Yes. I’m quitting the force.” Briggs’ badge was already on the table.
“Would you mind giving me an explanation? You’ve only just made detective. And solved your first case.”
“Closed, but not solved. I cannot say for sure what happened to Martin Holt.”
“If your report is accurate, you can be sure he’s dead. You would be surprised how many people don’t make it back from the wild. Even nowadays these mountains are dangerous. Still. Must have been a horrible way to go.”
“I’d rather not think about it.”
“Of Course. I imagine you have seen enough bloodshed to last a lifetime.”
“Quite so, sir.”
“Alright. It’s a shame to lose you, but I can tell when a man’s mind is set.” Indeed it was. “Best of Luck to you, Briggs.”
“Thank you, sir.” He got up and walked to the door.
“One more thing.” The Captain went up to him, holding out his hand. Briggs shook it, unsure what to say. “You would have made one hell of a detective.”
“I’ll need to be one to do what I plan to.”
“Use your head,” his boss advised as he sat back down behind his desk. “You two can make it out of anything as long as you do.” He was stunned, looking back into the captain’s steely eyes. “Oh, don’t look so surprised. My daughter hasn’t been able to fool me since I asked her who had ripped the heads off of all her dolls.” You really couldn’t slip anything past a Schultz it seemed. “I’m trusting you with her life, Briggs. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t.” He was sure of that. He left the office and walked past all the desks, the eyes of his former colleagues following him until he was down the stairs. He’d gotten himself and Rose out of the house quickly after they had burned the abomination that had once been a man. While Rose rested he had put the other bodies into the furnace as well. Although everything had seemed normal again, he hadn’t liked sticking around. But he couldn’t have risked leaving any of the Spencers just lying around. Finally, he’d carried Rose to the car, with what strength he didn’t know himself. By some miracle they’d made it back to town. He got them both into the hospital, where Rose recovered faster than Briggs did, even though her injuries were much more severe. This ‘gift’, as Tim had called it, was truly remarkable.
He made his way into the basement and from there into the precinct’s garage. He rubbed his right arm. It felt fine now. It did not hurt at all. He didn’t think the doctors at Westlake Hospital were so much better than the Marines’. He had really noticed it when he had managed to button his shirt without a hassle. He could have sworn that the motor skills in his right hand had been ruined. He had not told anyone about that, much less the Captain.
He hadn’t left the side of Rose’s bed until she woke up. Even so he had been surprisingly calm, considering he had seen his daughter in such a state. He had to have known she was tough enough to make it. While they were there, Briggs had told the Captain a story about wild bears killing Holt. “There wasn’t enough of him left to bring back”, Briggs had said. He used the same animals to explain their wounds. The captain had questioned none of it. Had even written it into the official report himself.
In the Garage, Briggs walked up to the black Sedan parked in spot 34. He sat down behind the wheel, closed the door, and let out a long sigh.
“Are you gonna do this a lot? It’s getting annoying,” Rose said from the passenger seat.
“I’m afraid so. You want me to leave, lady?”
“No way! I’m never gonna find another one as bat-shit crazy as you.”
“Crazy, yes. I guess I am.”
“You guess? Following a woman who rants about visions into an abandoned house? Talking to invisible people? Risking your live to save someone who almost got you killed? Now that’s insane!” She had her father’s steely eyes. They were warmer, though. And he couldn’t see any of the craziness she talked about in them. “Lucky for you, I like crazy,” she added.
“Where to first, lady?”
“My grandmother always mentioned she was from Denver. It’s the only place I can think of to start. Only problem is, we’ll have to speak to my mother.”
“I believe we’ve faced worse by now.”
“Don’t you think the hard part’s over, flower boy. The worst is yet to come.”
“I can’t wait.”
He started the car and drove it out onto the road. Gregory Briggs had believed his entire life that everything in this world could be rationally explained. In a way he had been right. If you considered a world where the dead talked to you, nightmares haunted you in the light of day, and people could move objects with their minds rational. Mostly though, he had never felt he’d had a purpose. He had done what his grandfather asked because he had loved him. He had joined the Military because he thought it had been expected of him. He was kicked out because an injury left him unfit for duty. He realized that he had been following orders all his life.
“How’s the wound?” Briggs asked as he turned onto the highway.
“Scar itches. Anything that fucker did can be undone. What about you? How’s the arm?”
“Fine now,” he said, moving his elbow and spreading his fingers. “Thanks to you, lady.”
“I had nothing to do with it. It was only in your mind.”
“Apparently, that’s where all the power lies.”
“You’re learning. That’s good.”
“I’d like to learn more.”
“All in good time, Greg.”
He wouldn’t follow anyone’s orders but his own from now on. He wouldn’t let any injury stand in his way. Never again would he be a slave to another’s mind. And then there was Rose. Whatever she hoped to accomplish, Briggs would help her, no matter what. No one had told him to do so. It was his decision.
It was downright paradox that he felt so confident, when there were more questions in his future than ever before: What exactly was ‘the gift’? What was the extent of what people could do with it? Where did it come from? How many such people were out there? How many abused their abilities? How many used them for good, if any? Most importantly: What was his true purpose, his true destiny? Was he going to find out?