THREE | The Remington Mansion
Each step was an intrusion. Desperation put a corkscrew to Niall’s brain. Walking, he kept opening his mouth to speak, then not. He kept testing different smiles to catch Theresa’s attention. He had settled into a resting state at his age. He moved like a young man faking maturity—chin up, nods to confirm understanding, bit of a smile for confidence. His suit jacket and pants were too big, frayed and ripped up its right side. A patient expression roosted on his face, noticing the approaching wood and saying nothing. He nearly lost a shoe in the eroded shoreline path. His pant-cuffs were stained black up to his shins. The bend in the bay seemed only a persuasive nudge from tumbling into the sea.
The path sent them through the indomitable heath and thorny Scottish gorse into the trees. Deeper, where the wood grew thicker, a fountain welcomed them to the hidden humanity. The fountain could fit in at a city park with its size. Leaves choked its basin. The fat angel atop its center spout was missing half its face, shorn off in some mediocre vandalism.
Past the fountain, Niall and Theresa came to the mansion’s front door. He was glad he had not attempted to drive his BMW. Not to mention the loamy road, the mansion’s welcome-way that might have once greeted automobiles—or perhaps even carriages—was snarled with vines.
Seaspray’s salty grip and green algae attacked the mansion’s every available surface. More decapitated cherubs and iron barred windows made the building a self-devouring mausoleum.
Realizing Niall had stopped, Theresa turned. Her tan face mismatched the surrounding Scottish fog. The self-rolled cigarette in her mouth had become a smoldering filter struggling for oxygen.
Niall asked, “How can you bring yourself—?”
Theresa dragged what little remained, the roach between thumb and finger.
“Picked it up when I was fifteen and trying to talk to college boys. And I like the flavor.” She flicked the stub away, amused. The smoke hardly smelt of tobacco. “And I like littering.”
She burst through the doors. The mansion’s black and white marble tile greeted them. Metal bolts and broken glass crunched beneath their strides. Twin staircases rose to a second floor. The ceiling reached further still. Between the staircases was a gold-framed portrait of a noble-looking man and his dog. The dog was dressed in an impenetrable curtain of hair.
It was almost identical to the portrait the gardeners had carried off. While the man was different—younger, while coated in more modern attire—the dog could not possibly be any other.
Each room they squeaked through on wet shoes was decorated in furniture hidden beneath white sheets. Laptops, dirty dishes, and stacks of mail lay atop the sheets where they weren’t already spilling to the floor. Each bookcase was half-dismantled, contents rummaged and hastily jammed into place
“Fairfax is raiding Remington for the copyright to The Scarlet Tenant,” Theresa said. “The legal team is doing their part back in London while I’m up here.”
“So Fairfax sent you here to, what, steal the copyright?”
“How’s that legal?”
“Hah! C’mon, Uncle Niall. This isn’t my first go-round. The mansion’s been abandoned for a generation. I persuaded Fairfax of how much a lost literature classic like The Scarlet Tenant would be worth if they could distribute it digitally. Publishing is hardly more than an intellectual property business these days. That book you want to publish? Content, yeah? The most valuable content captures a mindshare. A strong mindshare can be sold on calendars, board games, card games, video games, an HBO series, coffee mugs, beer steins, and any other revenue stream you see while jaunting through the planet’s remaining Barnes & Noble shops. The Scarlet Tenant’s packed with sex, monsters, opulence, travel, forbidden love, and—best of all—cachet.”
“Sounds like HBO would love that,” Niall said.
“Sounds like a bidding war with Amazon for the production rights.”
They ventured deeper into the mansion through canyoning corridors and slithering halls with sloped ceilings forcing an occasional crouch.
“The Scarlet Tenant’s never seen the light of modern day. D’you understand? It’s an unknown peak—never summited. That’s a curious state of existence in the digital age where everything’s a Google search away. The thing’s got built-in virality! Mythology! And mystery! All valuable commodities these days. Imagine for a moment: why was The Scarlet Tenant written at all? Why would the Remingtons protect a fiction novel so closely for almost two centuries? That’s why I convinced Fairfax to send me here.”
“To retrieve the story?”
“To retrieve the manuscript. I’m a content curator, Niall. I take worthless things, and I add them to a shared content ecosystem where they can be worth something.”
Her words were just syllables scattered in Niall’s face. He rewound to the one he understood. “You’re here for the manuscript, then? Huh. And, ah, that beast on the beach was—?”
Theresa came to an apprehensive halt at the entryway to a towering foyer. The room was humid. The air smelled swampy.
“There is so much life here,” Theresa whispered.
Before them was a spire dense with wiring like an old telephone tower wrapped in black and brass ivy. A live current hummed somewhere nearby. The sight attracted Theresa’s eye upward to a cage the size of a small apartment hanging three stories above them. Guide cables suspended the cage, connected at each corner of the foyer. Theresa put out her hand to catch a smattering of dirt in her palm.
The cage was packed tight with soil. Deep roots entwined with the bars.
Theresa addressed Niall.
“The Scarlet Tenant’s gotta be a bit of a warning, yeah? If Fairfax takes it, modifies it, re-publishes it, markets it, fictionalizes it, the warning is spent. That thing on the beach—there’re more of them. In the book and in the bay. What are they? How long’ve they been there?”
“But they’re dying.” Niall indicated toward the elevator door, assuming this was what they had come to discover.
Theresa did not move. “Correct. So what’s killing them?” At last, she slid open the elevator door at the spire’s foundation and entered. She faced Niall and he followed. “I’ll never give the manuscript to Fairfax, once I find it. This could be one of the last great mysteries of my generation.”
A short eternity of seconds passed. Niall’s made an agreeable sound.
“Well. On we climb, then.”
She and Niall huddled into the elevator cage. Theresa operated the handle and the coffin-like box rose. The machine stank with foul grease. The elevator ascended, churning and crunching.
Niall inhaled, choosing words. “How did you come across my manuscript? That I wrote? From when I was young—?”
“I’ve read everything you’ve ever written,” Theresa said. “I devoured it, just like anything else. It’s just how I was taught as a girl by Professor Cornwallis. The more obscure the knowledge, the more unique the experience, the more value one’s time spent on this planet becomes.”
“I suppose it is.” Niall licked his lips and said, “Did you enjoy my writing? From back then?”
“Made me curious,” Theresa answered. She was startled for a second, recognizing how near his face was to her. “Curious—how real was it? Was it all truth? Was it honest?”
“How do you mean?”
She touched her fingers to her chest, eyes dimming for the first time.
“I’spose I mean, as you wrote it? Was it full of things you truly felt and a motivation from in here—y’know, down in your heart—that forced you to shout onto the page? Did it have to be said?”
“Well, It was ages ago. But I believe so.”
“Will you tell me more about it?”
Niall tilted his head, watching the soil-filled cage draw nearer at an agonizing rate. He kept his back straight.
“Actually, I imagined—”
“It’s about a woman,” Theresa interrupted. Niall halted, unable to form a full response. “It’s about a man ending a relationship with a woman.”
He answered in one word. “Technically.”
The human silence that surrounded them was a shell of discomfort. It took Niall’s aging, rasping breathing to saw through it, like the teeth of a bread knife doing work. Partway through clearing his throat, he met eyes with Theresa. His exposed, nervy word floated in the little space between them.
“Technically,” he said again.
“Hey, that’s perfectly alright,” Theresa said in reclamation. “It’s a fine thing to write about. Men—people have been writing about that since Chaucer. Since Shakespeare. Since Byron.”
“Theresa, I’d happily explain to you why this woman, and this breakup—however long ago—were important enough for me to write it down.”
“Yes,” Theresa answered. “Then, yes, it must be a fine thing to write about.”
“A fine thing to write about.”
Niall put his tongue to drying lips again. The elevator stopped. They had arrived at the cage.
FOUR | The Cage Garden
“Actually, it’s a solarium,” Theresa explained to him over her shoulder. “You gave me the idea, reading that passage in The Scarlet Tenant. I was too afraid to come up to this mad-looking thing alone. There’s no recall button on the elevator. You could become trapped up here if it malfunctioned.”
They walked on soft, forgiving grass.
Above was a quilt of glass, attracting every trace of sunlight Scotland could afford. The unchecked vegetation was lush. The air felt thick with pollen, shrinking the world. Contours in the soil made small rises and valleys. Water ran somewhere nearby. Theresa motioned Niall to a stone path. Taking full steps, the cage garden’s suspended sensation was unmistakable, as if they were on a ship at sea.
She glanced here and there at the splits in the pathway, revealing the cage was much larger than it seemed from the ground floor. They crossed a tiny stone bridge, discovering the stream. Theresa eyed a gutter system for collecting rainwater that fed the plant life.
Parting drooped branches covering a twined wicker archway, Theresa smiled at her discovery. In a small plot before them were two headstones. While waist-high, they were tilted somewhat askew in the grass. Theresa eyed one. She scraped at the dirt before the stone on the right.
Arthur Remington III
He loved life the most.
The lettering appeared amateurish. It seemed carved and chiseled with a knife not up to the task.
Theresa dug at the soil with her hands. It came away in chunks like wet clay. Niall raised his voice to protest. Then he obliged. Their productivity was rapid, only occasionally interrupted when the swinging sensation became too much to bear, and Niall had to step away to breathe and mutter to himself.
“Go easier,” he requested. She didn’t slow.
Before long, Theresa’s nails scraped at wood. The topsoil layer was brown and loamy, almost like the beach sand. She mucked away the thick black dirt surrounding the casket, a much more difficult excavation.
Removing her overcoat and setting her hair behind her head with a precise swish of her fingers and quick pins, Theresa hopped down into the hole, straddling Arthur Remington III’s final resting place.
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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