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Punching

Categories: Case Histories

By Dennis Detwiller, © 2011

The Vega crawls up the drive to the house in the dark, and the driver, Henry Briggs, leans forward over the wheel to consider the house as he cruises past it. He pulls in next to the other cars — a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Rolls — and gets out. In the row of darkened cars his Vega looks out of place. It’s even parked unevenly, while the others are in a perfect row. He tries to make a joke out of this in his mind, but finds with some bitterness that he can’t.

He stops once, on his way from the cars, and finds himself looking on a perfect, seamless, manicured lawn which stretches out into a dark copse of trees. He wishes he didn’t feel impressed, but he does. The house has changed, and in that change has only become better than it was.

Briggs is a big, older man. Someone who once might have been a boxer. His features look like they had been set to drift by one too many hard punches. But the eyes above his ruined nose are small and clever. He’s in a suit, the one he wears to work on Wednesdays, that looks two steps too low for this social strata. He looks as uncomfortable as he is. He straightens his tie and crosses the drive to the house.

It’s a big Newport house. Bleached wood, big windows, dozens of rooms, manicured garden, crushed gravel drive. It is as far from the place that Briggs lives, or exists, as is possible.

It is the end of summer, 1964.

He opens the door to the sound of a hundred voices. The house is full of people, all his age, walking, talking, eating, drinking. A black man sits at a Baby Grand piano playing music twenty years out of date.

A paper banner hangs over the gable windows in the back, covering the edge of the high ceiling. It reads “WELCOME CLASS OF ’44”.

Briggs walks to the bar and orders a double gin and tonic, and the bartender, sensing an out-of-place soul, pours generously. Briggs stands at the bar, over the bar, really, watching the crowd, sipping the drink.

By 1944 it was over. The year 1943 was when his life was ruined, and that thought, he thinks, is just as useless as any other, even though it is true. He drinks the drink.

Briggs has killed many people. He lost count by 1944. By then, when he was in Italy, it was already too late, and he hasn’t really tried to puzzle it out since then. The last killing was two weeks ago. A woman who was twenty-six years old by her passport. He doesn’t feel bad about it.

Something was in her, using her, something from outside. He put a bullet through her face and she launched herself at him, struggling and cackling black laughter while ooze that looked like butter gone over poured out of the hole through her head. She wrestled like she was twice her size. She was so strong Briggs barely had time to pin her arms down with his legs and bludgeon her — it — to death with a heavy bronze lamp.

Then he burned the building to the ground.

Killing wasn’t all that bad when you learned what was really going on. Death was a rule of the world, everyone knew that. It was how systems renewed themselves. It was beautiful, in a way. Killing these other things, though — these other things didn’t die on their own. Something in reality had slipped a spoke and they ran on and on. It was up to the group to punch their ticket. He had done many such things for the group since 1943. Since any semblance of normal life had ended.

No one knew what the things were, really. He had heard some in the group go on and on about Elder Ones and cycles and elliptical orbits of dead stars that ruined the world every 900 million years. He’d seen reports on time gates and ray guns and things that, if they slipped past the net the group had raised, could destabilize the whole world.

Once, he saw something huge and gelatinous and covered in a thousand eyes crawl up from a hand-carved pit in Peru, struggle over the ledge, and consume a tied-up goat with the avidity of a spider feeding on a fly.

That was okay. There were worse things, really.

When he sees Pete Martin, his mind drifts back. He can’t help it. He’s like a goddamn school girl. Martin, his friend. The man he most admired. The guy he had followed around like an idiot.

The man who introduced him to Commander Cook.

Well, indirectly.

Martin looks like what he is. Rich. He drifts through the crowd as if on rollers, a drink filled near to spilling in one large, soft hand. Martin is tall and thin and regal. His face has dark rings under the eyes, but they almost look like makeup. This is a man who would have to puzzle out how, exactly, to use a shovel. To drive a car. To do anything. Things were, are, done for him.

It has always been that way. These were the rules Briggs grew up with. The rich were the rich, the poor were the poor. When a crossover occurred, is was due to luck, skill, or some indefinable quality.

Briggs had all three.

When he was eighteen years old, he had been stupid and naive and young enough to believe that made him special.

After 1941, Harvard was a ghost ship. Classes were shells of what they once had been. Hallways abandoned. Dorms silent. But Briggs was eager. He had worked delivering ice for nine summers to get here. He had cracked the books and had spun up his gift with languages into something valuable. People had noticed.

He didn’t look the sort that could translate Bing Crosby into Greek, but he was. His father had it, he had it. He could hear something once and repeat it perfectly. His dad called it the magic ear. But Briggs had something more than that catgut salesman ever had—he had a hunger for something more than a two-room walkup in Mercator. He was more than a man who smiled and looked down when someone yelled at him over a ten cent shortage. He was a person.

He wanted to be important.

The boxing helped. The college needed boxers. Or at least they had in September 1941, the year he started in Linguistics. He never even laced up, not once, for the school; there was no one to box. Didn’t matter. He didn’t like fighting, he was just good at it, and only then because of his size and reach. There was no real skill he could discern in beating another man senseless.

The school was abandoned. The war had siphoned nearly everyone away. Those who remained were scrawny, sickly, or had something obviously wrong with their anatomy.

Briggs and Martin stood out. Briggs, of course, was in his prime. Huge and imposing and dangerous-looking. Martin looked normal for Harvard. Young and rich and content, with a Cheshire smile on his face all the time like he was in on the big secret.

No one had called Briggs up. There was no letter, no draft notice, and he would be damned if he would volunteer after what he did to get here. If they came for him, that was one thing. If not, he’d get his damn degree. He could give a fuck about the war. He had his own war.

It had been that way since he returned to class from the 1941 Christmas break. The break was dire. Cousins and uncles and friends and others talking about joining up. About reporting in. About turning up for the Navy, because that was the safest, or the Army, because it would all be over before it even started, or the Army Air Corps because, hell, then you got to fly. Even then, before Guadalcanal, no one wanted to join the Marines.

Briggs had nodded and smiled and excused himself, and when the time came he slunk back to Harvard and kept to his books and kept his head down and tried not to talk to anyone outside the rarified life of languages. He half expected a letter any day, a plain letter typed by some fat woman in an office in Washington, calling him to line up and be shot.

It never came. Instead, one day he looked up in Hieratic and Pre-Hieratic and saw Martin sitting there in a row of empty seats, watching him. Peter Martin. Smiling.

Martin was part of the club. If you had to ask which club, you would never know. The two struck up an unlikely friendship over the fall of 1942, back before Briggs knew what Martin was really thinking. Briggs, for his part, didn’t care.

He simply wanted in the club, so of course he never spoke about it. The club made men. It manufactured leaders, presidents, generals. It created greatness from nothing and flung it out into the world.

“You can’t understand what it’s like in Newport,” Martin would say over deviled eggs and drinks at the Box, and Briggs knew he was right and hated that feeling. He couldn’t know what it was like to be secure in his own skin, to be waited on, to feel the pull of others as they desperately tried to get your attention.

Briggs believed Martin saw him as a project, as a possible future member of the club, which, like the university, had emptied. It still held its rites, but with only a fraction of the membership. No one had been punched — given entry to the club — since the war started. There were rumblings that this famine of membership would not last.

Briggs made Martin his project. The lonely rich kid would become his friend. And in time, it happened. For reasons which would become clear later.

“You’re right, I can’t understand it. So show me,” Briggs said. That summer, Martin did.

Peter’s father was Edgar Martin, an ex-Navy man who had inherited something terribly important, although no indication of it could be detected in their house on Nantucket.

The old man looked like someone had smashed his head down between his shoulder blades with a shovel at some distant point in the past. When he turned to face someone, his whole body swiveled at the waist. His eyes were large and liquid behind thick glasses held with solder in a gaudy gold-wired frame. It was his only real point of extravagance, besides his family.

Even in the summer of 1942 on the island, Mr. Martin wore the outfit of a wealthy bookkeeper, with a full wool waistcoat and all. He had warmed to Henry Briggs after bombarding him with a bevy of questions which seemed designed to embarrass or   confuse him. They had done neither. Briggs had answered honestly while Peter looked on with amusement, perched on the edge of an ancient, weather-wrecked wood chair in chinos and sandals.

The test, whatever it was, had been passed. Edgar Martin now called him Henry, and was candid with him in a way he never seemed to be with his own son. Briggs was certain he was getting somewhere.

Still, he had no idea where.

The summer dragged on and as the world burned, Henry read, slept, ate and slowly changed color, plotting to find his place in a future where people would look to him and not away.

The night in August when he ran into Edgar Martin in the rambling house was the first indication that he should have been paying more attention.

“You seem like a good boy, Henry, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” Edgar said, holding a glass of milk beaded with moisture, looking out a window on a black beach.

“Sir?” Henry said, pulling the robe tighter.

“Martin hasn’t tried — hasn’t done anything strange? That you would think strange?”

The question fell on the ground and silence followed it.

“No,” Briggs finally replied, though he had no idea what they were talking about.

“Good. Good. I think you might be a good influence on him. Try and keep him out of trouble.”

Briggs went back upstairs and didn’t think about that conversation again until after it all fell apart.

Someone is talking about LBJ again, and Briggs looks up from his third glass to find Martin staring at him, just as they had met, eye-to-eye, for the first time in 1941. Briggs widens his smirk into a smile, one that feels completely fake, and waves. Martin excuses himself from the beautiful woman who is speaking at him and walks over.

“Henry! How the heck are you, man?” Martin says, smiling, hand extended.

Briggs stands from the stool, wipes his right hand on his trousers, grab what seems to be a handkerchief from his jacket with his other hand and turns. He shakes hands with Martin and glances around the room. No one sees the .38.

The first bullet catches Martin in the cheek, leaving a pock-mark the size of a cigarette burn, and the smile — that contented smile — hardens into a thin-lipped grimace as the powder-flash burns his face. Something red, wet and gelatinous launches itself from the back of Martin’s head, landing on the ground like a dishful of water flung out the back door.

Martin falls forward, collapsing in a heap like a marionette with its strings clipped, folding in an unnatural position. Briggs empties the gun into Martin’s slumped body, four more rounds at close range in his neck and back.

Martin bounces on the ground with each hit, convulsing. Then he slowly slides to the right and rolls over, covered in black and red viscera and blood. His blue eyes are tinged with yellow. Peter Martin, whatever was Peter Martin, is gone.

When Briggs looks up, his ears ringing, the room is empty, like a magic trick. He sits back down and sips ice water.

In 1943, Briggs felt he was close. They had skirted the basics of the club; how one was punched, how one might be admitted. Martin talked about it now, though never by name. He talked and talked about how Henry might fit in, how others like him had gained membership before. He told stories of where they ended up, the glorious achievements of those who were punched.

Henry was so excited, he didn’t even pull away when Martin kissed him, suddenly, for the first time in the darkened hallway at Widener Library.

From there things moved fast.

Henry Briggs hadn’t been certain of the limits of what he might do to escape his old life. The spring and summer of 1943 proved that if there were any limits, sleeping with Peter Martin was not one of them. He never considered whether or not it was something he really wanted. At the time, it just seemed to happen.

It failed as you might imagine, suddenly. At the end the affair tumbled in slow motion, like a car wreck played back at 1/8 speed. Bodies, glass and metal tumbling, some crushed, some thrown free.

When Henry staggered to his feet again, he had been dismissed from Harvard. Peter disappeared into the monied escapes his family had prepared for him. Henry’s hopes for school, for the group, vanished like a fog. He was left a survivor the wreck of his life, wandering.

It was three months later, and he was hauling ice again, when Edgar Martin’s car pulled up. When the door opened for Briggs, he got in without a word being exchanged.

“My son is ill,” Edgar said. “We have known this for a long time.”

Henry said nothing.

“I would appreciate if nothing was said of this. And you, Henry, I have kept my eye out for you, too.”

Henry looked up.

“There is a man who has been watching you, a man who has interest in the languages you know. A man I once worked with. A man from the government.” Edgar considered the buildings as they rolled past. “Would you like to meet him?”

Henry said nothing.

They kept driving.

Commander Cook sat in the darkened library of an old house, waiting outside town with a fat folder full of horrors to snap Henry out of his life forever.

And now he is here, in 1964, being shouted at through a bullhorn by police.

Henry Briggs snaps the revolver open, dumps the shells, and reloads with blunt fingers. One round, two rounds, three rounds, four. He has no idea what might happen when he closes the cylinder. But it strikes him now, the humor of it.

The cylinder clicks shut. He brings the gun up.

He pictures the bullet entering his head and failing at its purpose. He thinks of going on with life unharmed, unnatural, as if nothing had happened. He thinks of his smile widening and the horrors within him let loose on the world. The woman. The darkness at the edges of science. The blackness in him which people like Peter brought out, mocked, made happen. The feelings in him which were not right. The work he had wrought because of them.

He pictures an end, and finds comfort there.

Everyone, everywhere dies. If you’re good and real, and not a thing from outside the world, you eventually end. That finality makes Henry Briggs feel somber and happy and warm. It is the feeling he has been seeking his entire life. The feeling of certainty.

The revolver tastes like smoke, and then like nothing at all.

By Dennis Detwiller, © 2011

Shane Ivey runs Arc Dream Publishing and is the lead editor of the newest Delta Green projects.