CHAPTER I — BURIED IN THE CAGE GARDEN
ONE | The Water Dog
On orders from her employer, Theresa Leone spent a month breaking, entering, and ransacking the most storied estate on the Scottish coast. In that time, the locals hadn’t spared a care. Theresa sprinkled bribes into any conversation she couldn’t fib through. Hearsay suggested the mansion’s eccentric owners, the Remingtons, were a dead bloodline, or at least timezones and hemispheres away, perhaps drinking life away on a yacht off Ibiza.
Despite her diligence, Theresa’s efforts remained fruitless. The precise object of her desire remained hidden in the mansion’s deep corridors and limitless rooms.
One still morning, when it seemed the sun could not rise above some gray zenith, Theresa was elbow-deep in a space behind a library bookshelf when an animalistic yelp came into earshot. It shot forth again over the crash of the morning surf. Downstairs, Theresa exited onto the rear terrace. She listened.
The air was a stink of ocean life and verdant slime thick on the rocks. Water foamed. Wind tugged hair over her face and against her lips, and she brushed it away.
Her breath halted short when the animal yelped again: a throaty, warm, doggish cry.
Theresa descended ornate terrace steps to the battle-weary stone jetty and sloshed through the ankle deep water. She cringed at the cold and shook off waterlogged slippers, borrowed from the master bedroom.
Before her stretched the North Sea. It abused Scotland’s eastern shore without regard. She stood strong against the undertow as the ocean spooled up a wave. Theresa slid a few steps back on the exposed jetty, hands now fists in her robe's pockets, aware of her bare feet.
Something shrieked into view upon delivery. The ocean splattered its payload of salt fumes and spindly limbs on the stonework. When the waters fled and flowed in hasty retreat, the thing began to breathe. It blubbered and wheezed through clenched teeth and black lips. It sniffed a large, soft nose, some innocent mammalian pimple on a long alligator snout. Greasy hair spilled from its ears and swished over its eyes. It looked up to examine Theresa. Then it pawed forward. Struggling, it dragged its body over chipped seashells, and barnacles, and ropy seaweed, panting for its life. Its upper body resembled a dog scrubbed of fur by disease and fire. Its tailed end was draped in reptilian scales. Webbing snared the space between its toes. The two sides scrambled distinct from one another, only thick ribbons of pink viscera connecting the flailing halves.
Theresa recoiled, mustering only curses and consonants at the wretched sight.
The animal’s mindless end struggled to rejoin the front, snapping off one of its legs in the attempt, with a twisted split of bone and tendon. At last, the two connected, barking in a joyful noise, before slipping back into the surf, gone.
TWO | Daylight Robbery
Theresa examined every beast the sea regurgitated. Only the first she discovered lived—the dog. She wrote it in her notes in bold ink, underlined twice. The other beasts, meanwhile, rotted on the shore, gnarled, likely of the devil’s party because Theresa could not reckon them by God’s design otherwise. She burned every carcass, after taking close examinations. Like an elephant’s strangulating awareness that it must abandon its herd before death, and like the human compulsion to bury the dead six feet under, Theresa incinerated each rotting creature. She would not abide eager diseases to drink the rich salt air.
After six days of Theresa’s ritualistic discovery, examination, and incineration, a group of local gardeners explained that something the size of a rowboat and as burnt as the surface of the moon was stranded among the rocks on the tar-sand beach.
She peeled off all that remained of her petty cash. The gardener with the most courage toward Theresa took the money. Their transaction complete, he left her alone with the beast. Its flesh was already dripping off its bones. The midday air was a mighty accelerant.
Theresa slid a painter’s mask over her face. She gathered herself and approached the beast. She never looked directly toward the carcass. She always kept it in the corner of her eye. It remained simply shapes, never a whole thing. She tossed a flipper aside. She fingered open and re-opened each tiny gill. Ocean puss frothed at its mouth. A wealth of vacancies split aside in what might have been its tail end. Pink insides and huge, strained organs spotted white and black steamed on the sand. The trail from the water was clear: it had dragged its remaining good half from the sea to die on the beach.
Theresa put her freckled face in her hands.
“You are the Cezanne of stink,” she complimented. “What chemistry-set accident made you reek like a rag? Better question: what happy accident took you from the living?”
It was not enough to halt her fanatical examination. Any prior hesitation faded. She forced a smile beneath her mask after a few failed dry swallows. She slipped with the stretching grin around the body, studying each angle, crouching, bending, and standing like grassy glass. Her pen sliced notes and sketches across the page, leaving small inky splatters when she couldn’t slow herself.
She stepped back. She moved in close. Theresa’s sand-colored eyes were big and inviting, but they strained to see. She encircled the beast again with the learned calm of a horse swimming.
Kneeling again, her woolen overcoat denied the ocean waves that crept up, the water leaving no mark. She hand-made her clothes herself—a container, to keep she and the world apart. Along with big eyes, Theresa’s face was fine featured, as welcoming as springtime, staged like an unprofessional theater by a frontier of wild hair, a gift from her Indian mother.
Her phone buzzed with a notification. She silenced it with a quiet art.
Nearby on a sandy slope, her uncle Niall stirred in sleep, passed out at the sea monster’s sight and the stench. He coughed away grit from his mouth’s corners.
Waking, he pawed at the grit coating his ruined suit jacket. The right side of the garment was frayed and shredded. He grinned at himself through the wrinkles of middle age. Light was bells on his eyeballs. Nausea and alcohol pinned him to the earth, demanding explanation as he began a humored search for logic. All the while, his gaze enraptured by this hulking animal, breached in death across black sand.
It wasn’t a whale or a shark. It had too many fingers. The fingers had knuckles. Where there weren’t arms, there were flippers. While its bulk was solid ocean blubber, its extra humanoid limbs were all at once both child-like and over-long. Niall bent his head to one side to get a look at its face from one angle. He drew closer to Theresa’s side and examined it there. He held his sides while his stomach turned over.
His eyes gained and lost focus. Niall shook with a chill. A gas pocket popped from the animal. A weird mist rose from its midsection. Niall held his breath hard at the sight. The flash-vaporized heat seeped into the microcuts between his skin cells.
Niall turned too quickly to catch sight of a sudden noise. His inner ear sloshed and he groaned. He was still drunk. Out of the fog, his eyes landed on an approaching rectangle. It was a portrait painting in a grand, gold frame, carried by two men wearing gardening gloves.
The portrait was a gaunt English nobleman in a red hunting coat stood astride a skeletal horse draped in overgrown skin. Beside the man sat a dog at full attention. What hair remained on the dog was matted, swinging over one eye like a deliberate comb-over.
Theresa carried on with her noisy search through the animal’s folds.
“Roughly the sort of mania I’ve come to expect,” Theresa said in a quiet voice. “But not what I’m looking for.”
“S’not what you’re looking for?” Niall stammered as the men nodded at him, carrying the painting up the shore past the shore’s unnavigable sands toward waiting headlights. “Theresa, what’ve they got there?”
“Oh! They’re robbing the place,” Theresa explained. She snapped blue rubber gloves off her fingers one by one. Her bruise-blue nail polish had begun to chip. “Nearly finished, seems. You gonna make your bed?”
Niall rolled from his indent in the sand. Job done, Theresa sighed, hands on her hips, legs criss-crossed in a dancer’s stance, still examining the animal in the gathering fog. She shook a cigarette loose from its package and lit it with a match that she struck on her thumb.
“You ever heard of The Scarlet Tenant, Uncle Niall?”
“No. Wait—have I?”
“No. Hah, no. Flippin’ of course you haven’t.” She creased his jacket’s lapels back into place while continuing to smoke. “Wake up. You’ve slept enough. Gotcher favorite, here.” She jabbed a beer can into his chest. “I think you oughta get that in you. Hair of the dog that bit’cha. For balance, yeah? Letting the gardeners rob the place only buys me silence from townies that don’t trust brown girls. But silence is different from time and protection. I’m worried I’m running low on both.”
Niall obeyed his niece’s recommendation after a moment to think blank thoughts. He inched closer to the sea monster, beer can pressed to his chest. He had less color in his face than the animal. He struggled to open the beer can but then drank it down with learned talent through pink lips.
“Bite me,” he said to the can after his drink. “Urgh, God, I still go in for a pint of the local bitter! Theresa, get to explaining—what the devil is this thing? A mutation? Thing’s almost as pale as me during wintertime. I haven’t ever known the bay to be polluted. We must be one hundred kilometers north of any major shipping port.”
“I’ve formulated a few ideas. I’ve seen this sort of sinister before.” She tapped her toe against the child-like arm lunging out of the beast’s neck in some failed extrusion. “Like a mix of memory and imagination. In a bad dream.” Niall shuddered his head and squinted his eyes in disbelief. Theresa went on. “The Scarlet Tenant, Niall. It’s a historical fiction written in 1831 by Arthur Remington, the first of his name. If that particular name disturbs your calm, it’s because that’s his family’s house.”
She pointed to a building just visible through the trees a short distance up the beach. She passed a book from her coat’s breast pocket and flopped it into Niall’s lap.
The Scarlet Tenant.
“Hello, old chap,” Niall said, taking another sip of his beer.
The book’s hard cover was bound with heavy red thread. It was tactile and its weight was good, just the right size in Niall’s freckling hand.
Its binding split and cracked when he opened it to a random page and read aloud,
“...the tan-skinned Roma, Mr. Lint, in defiance of her Uncle Alistair’s wishes, had made good on his promise, and built Katherine a beautiful, glass solarium, exactly as beautiful as she had imagined when the Gypsy had described the wildlife of Cusco…”
After a moment to listen closely, Theresa became alert again, exclaiming in hushed glee, “It’s semi-autobiographical! See, it’s the one and only reason Remington Publishing House was created—to protect that copyright. It’s never been reproduced digitally, but every so often, a copy turns up where you’d least expect it.” She touched the book. “I found that in the safe in the mansion’s master bedroom. It’s the only copy I’ve ever had the opportunity to read. There might be fewer than two thousand printings in the world. Nearly nicked a copy in Tokyo once when I was only twenty.” She paused. “Hoo! That was last year? No, two years ago.”
“This isn’t what you’re looking for though?”
“No. Copies are a touch expensive, but not unattainable. Sometimes collectors are willing to part with them if they really need money. They rarely are—‘willing,’ I mean. The Scarlet Tenant has a way of getting a hold on people who read it. The book’s very—sticky.”
Niall ran his hands over the book cover, finding some purchase in the cover’s gritty threadwork. His attention moved in a rhythm between The Scarlet Tenant and the animal carcass.
“It’s a precious thing,” he said. “Forget helping me with my own book deal for a moment, Theresa. Instead, help me understand—y-you don’t want this Scarlet Tenant. You have some interest in our leggy friend over there on the sand, but that’s not what you’re after, either. Hmm?”
Theresa put a look on him. The two of them built towers of thoughts without giving away the story.
Niall’s niece had achieved great success in what a hurried LinkedIn search told him was ‘Publishing and Intellectual Property Curation’ at Fairfax Publishing. The first bit in the job description was more familiar than the second. Publishing was still mysterious. Niall hadn’t put pen to paper since he was at university in 1969 when he generated a mediocre manuscript. Then he came up short in his lunge for retirement and he started work on a self-help book based on his career. His children turned out to be a tremendous financial drain.
He hoped ‘Intellectual Property Curation’ might align with nepotism.
“Right-o,” Theresa said in modified tone. “Right you are, Uncle Niall. This beastie’s not the real story. Because it’s a work of fiction. It’s the world’s most sincere nightmare, and d’you know why? This nightmare creature was dreamed by a character in this book.” She patted her palm against The Scarlet Tenant’s cover. “This book. But this book’s fiction, yeah? And yet my eyes tell me it’s realer than it ought to be. So why d’you suppose Remington Publishing hid real monsters in a novel more than one hundred years ago?”
“Sweetie. I thought you were going to help me get my book produced with your mates at Fairfax Publishing,” Niall said. He tilted his head back. He drained the beer down his throat and tossed the empty can beside the stranded carcass. “I hadn’t a clue we’d come across this lot when I came to find you this morning.”
“That’s what happens when you show up pissed and uninvited straight from the gutter outside the only pub in town, innit? What do you need my help for, anyway? You’re a great big writer. I read your piece from when you were at uni.”
Niall’s look followed her but betrayed nothing. He set his jaw. Regaining his footing in the sand, he stepped alongside her.
“Theresa?” he asked, softer. Drawing no response, he went on. “Do you see those headlights up the hill, Theresa? Niermereich’s town center is only a short walk beyond that, through the wood. In the town center is the police station. If you do not help me get my book published, I will walk directly to that police station and tell them you and these men are robbing the Remington mansion. What was it you said about the boys distrusting brown girls? They’ll trust a local like me before an interloper like yourself.”
Theresa held still, then said, “Huh. In life, you gotta learn to squeak before you can skwak. You really need that book of yours published.”
“Aye. I would like it very much, yes.”
“Good. I need help digging up the manuscript for The Scarlet Tenant before the rozzers get wise.” She slapped him on the chest with a smile and pointed at the mansion peeking through the trees. “You ever interloped into the Remington mansion before?”
“Really? Not once? Not even when you’re running around on a bender?”
“I take to more remarkable interests when I drink than wandering some abandoned corridors.”
Theresa nodded. “Wanna know what I’m really after? It’s somewhere in that building. And I figure you just gave me a clue where to look. Help me, and I’ll help you—well, I’ll help you make up for four decades of remarkable interests. I’ll help you get your book published.”
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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