Published: Mar 6, 2020 8:30:00 AM


FIVE | Held Close

It took some effort for Theresa to brush away the roots hugging the casket.

Operating on instinct, Niall kept his head swiveling on his neck, as though houskeeping, or police, or ghosts might come around a corner and inquire with harsh language.

A wooden crunch brought him back. Theresa wrenched open the lid. Inside was Arthur Remington’s decayed body, stiff as a movie prop. Numb or drunk, Niall found himself getting in for a closer look.

“This here,” Theresa said, inches from the corpse and not missing a beat. She indicated toward the medallion around the corpse’s neck. “Peruvian. Gold. This is Arthur Remington III, for sure.”

She passed the medallion to Niall. The body’s arms were folded around a flat, square chest. Theresa tugged the chest from Arthur. She grunted from the weight, again, passing it to Niall. She re-examined the body.

Arthur’s jaw was cocked to one side. His skin had dried into a sugary film. There was little stench. Curious, Theresa patted at the body’s fine clothes, a strange kimono-looking garment dressed with British military patches. She ripped at the chest to reveal that underneath, he had been bound with bandages and re-dressed in clothes.

Theresa took a knife from her boot.

“Have we time for this?” Niall asked.

Theresa ignored him, trimming gently at the bandages wrapping the body. The threads were taut, splitting away. Then they all burst. Theresa had to leap out of the hole, wet organs and fluid of all colors spilling forth, along with a rotten, woody stench.

“He was mummified!” Niall said in excited awe.

Theresa pointed with the knife. 

“Standard Incan tradition. Christ, it smells like a—like liquor and feet—”

“I hadn’t any idea the Remington family was so odd. I understood they were simply a family of philanthropists.”

“They were nepotistic, inbred, and completely mental,” Theresa said. “Global travelers. War profiteers. Walking petri dishes from all the unsavory slingin’ they did around the world. Just made things worse. And the Remington women were eager conquerors, too, nursing a lust for anything with a pulse. I try to maintain sex-positivity, but these women made Katherine the Great look like a bus full of nuns, by comparison.” She waved for Niall’s help. “Maybe I’m a bad feminist? Hand me the chest.”

Theresa cracked the chest Arthur had clutched for almost one hundred years. Inside were yellowed pages, preserved, emblazoned with the title: The Scarlet Tenant.

She checked the language against the hard-bound copy from her coat. It was identical. Niall rested nearby after slamming the casket lid shut to save them from the smell. Theresa studied the manuscript, refusing to move, commenting from time to time.

“There are notes in the margins,” she said. “Edits in different colored inks. Pointing to an appendix.” The inks were different weight and handwriting. The author used black ink. An editor had written in blue. Stuffed into an envelope between the novel’s final page and an appendix of details, Theresa found their correspondence.

“Well?” Niall asked.

Theresa studied the words. 

“Appears Arthur Remington, the first, hated his family,” she summarized. “He hated his cousins. He hated his uncles and aunts. He hated his parents and grandparents.” She held her breath, reading fast. “This was his revenge. His held-close confession. Every secret the family ever kept, every affair, every dirty profit they ever turned. Even the beasts they brought back from South America.”

“They brought them here?” Niall said, adding, “Beasts? Plural?”

“The family killed Arthur to protect the secrets,” Theresa read further. “The first thousand copies had already been released when they intervened. It’s true: the Remington Publishing House was founded to keep any further editions from being created. And they submitted it under fiction.”


SIX | Freefall

Niall requested a glance at the manuscript. Theresa was lost in thought. He leafed through the brittle pages. His fingers curled, clenching the document, tearing and snapping the pages, until creases became cracks.

He thrust the manuscript in the chest. He locked the lid and stuffed it under his arm, dashing back the way they came. He made it all the way through the rickety garden cage to the elevator before Theresa called after him. He threw the lever to operate the machine. It lowered much faster than it had climbed.

Partway down, he caught a look at Theresa’s face pressed against the glass between the cage’s bars. She slammed her fist on the glass, cracking it. There was no mechanism to recall the elevator.

At the ground floor, Niall hurried toward the first door he spied. A crash pulled his eyes upward. Theresa had thrown a stone through the glass. She wedged between the bars. 

“What’re you doing, Niall?” she yelled down to him. “That’s proof! We’re in danger here.”

“No, no. This doesn’t prove anything, Sweetie!” Niall hollered back, brandishing the chest. “It could still all be made up. And you’re just going to sell it back to your bosses at Fairfax and make your money.”

“Niall, look around you? Do I look like I do this for the money?! I just defiled a corpse. That’s not good finances—Niall, Niall—!” He was already gone. Theresa struggled between the bars, knocking away glass where she could, crying out when it cut at her skin. At last, she was through. She squeaked at the bad idea, but had already jumped. Her body wrapped around the pillar the cage garden was lashed to.

It was nearly freefall. She hugged as tight as she could, blabbing about friction all the way down, praying to physics. She hit the floor. Air belted from her in hoarse gasps. No major injuries, aside from her cuts and raw skin. Not waiting, she sprinted the way she thought Niall might have gone.

All the mansion’s doors were open, exactly as she had left them during her stay there. Any that were closed meant Niall had gone that way. Her head slammed hard into the last one: the kitchen. Locked tight.

“Niall! You stinking drunk!” she barked. “Worked up an appetite, have you?”

Niall scrambled around the kitchen. The ancient porcelain sink basins mismatched the stainless steel refrigerator, kettle, and blender.

“I have somewhat, if I’m being honest,” Niall answered.

“Eat. Do it. You’ll feel better,” Theresa encouraged. “Gotta get something in your stomach or your nerves will chew you from the inside.”

“Hah!” He bleated with singular laughter. “How do you mean?”

“Niall, you’re desperate, tired, and likely not thinking straight,” she said. “Our deal’s still good. I’ll help you get your book published. How’s that sound? I can’t help you like this though.”

His voice was muffled through the door. 

“Everybody has secrets. Everybody gets famous off secrets—hidden, kept, or otherwise. Everybody gets famous except me.”

“What? That doesn’t make sense. C’mon, talk to me. Niall, we got what we need. This place isn’t safe, there are sea monsters out there!”

He looked over the chest. Calm as a cardinal in church, he said, “Sea monsters aren’t real.”

“You saw a sea monster ninety minutes ago!”

“Sea monsters are not fucking real!” He shrieked.

Theresa shook her head. Teeth clenched, she forced the words. “Niall. I swear, if you don’t open this door, I will take a copy of your manuscript from college. I will send a copy to your wife, one to your boss, and one to the parents of the girl you killed.” Theresa stayed still, listening for his response. “The story was semi-autobiographical, yeah? ’Cept for one thing: she didn’t break up with you in reality, like she did in the story. She died. It was a thin, obvious metaphor, Uncle Niall. The girl died and you killed her. Your cowardly confessional note via college paper didn’t get noticed because it was 1969, and nobody gave a lick to believe a man like you.” She exhaled hard. “But you’d better fucking believe the twenty-first century will notice. If you don’t give me back that manuscript, I will fucking take what’s left of your living life.”

Glass crashed. Niall had jumped out the window.


SEVEN | Confession

Waves licked here and there against the mansion’s walls. The green-stained stone jetty crept out into the ocean like a signpost, leading Niall’s eyes out to sea where the fog was settling.

The bay was slumbering glass.

“Hello?” he said into his iPhone, tasting tinfoil and cold wind. “Yes, I need to report a robbery. The Remington mansion.”


EIGHT | The Manuscript

“I was right, wasn’t I?” Theresa asked, discovering him on the rear terrace. It was an easy trip through an open window to find him there. “I was so right.”

Niall was partway up the jetty. He made a slow pivot. He still clutched the chest against himself.

“I can’t remember what exactly killed the girl,” he said. “I wrote it all down. I meant to make sense of it. What it felt like. I can’t rightly recall anymore.”

“You fictionalized. Made it so she only broke up with you,” Theresa said.

“Nobody even suspected me a little,” he said, a step toward his niece. “So she was just—gone. Vanished. Through everything, she had g-gone from m-my life. And I was so—ruined. It was one rotten night. So sad.”

“Oh, cheers to you, you goddamn jackbag,” Theresa said through her teeth. “You don’t get to be sad. You don’t get to award yourself pity. Or vindication. Not from this. You motherfucker.”

“I had to speak the secret, somehow,” Niall said, crying openly through a giddy smile, swallowing air and nodding. “But, speaking honestly, it was best it be buried.”

“Buried? Niall, c’mon,” Theresa said, showing him the mansion with her arms open. “Consider our current context—here and globally. Don’t you for a moment fathom—?”

Claws clacked on stone. Theresa shrieked a warning. The crocodile jaws around Niall’s ankles. He slammed to the rocky jetty. The manuscript chest fell. Theresa brandished her knife at the strange beast. It released Niall to hiss and howl at her. Its scaly, reptile back end shuffled side to side, eager, while what remained of its fur bristled. Its lips curled back to show pink teeth and black gums.

Theresa slashed at the air, commanding Niall to stay down, her uncle shouting in pain at the sight of his gnawed ankle.

The watery dog tensed. It made its decision. It snapped forward at Theresa. She bucked back, swiping in defense, but the dog went for the manuscript chest. Its weird mouth scooped the treasure up and it sprinted back down the jetty. It leaped in an arc, streaming back to the water, and vanished.

Theresa hooked Niall by his armpits to drag him back up onto the terrace. He kept pointing at the water, struggling for words, only capable of delirious, wheezing laughter. Theresa pulled him all the way back into the sitting room where they collapsed.

The pair groaned in shock.

Theresa left Niall sprawled on the rug. She sloshed through the mansion, past the dismantled rooms, over the piles of books she’d spilled, through the foyer with the elevator and the caged solarium, back to the entry hall, before arriving at last at the front door. She took one look at the painting of the English gentleman, his horse, and his monstrous, undying dog.

She exited the mansion. She sat on the step with a cigarette she lit with a match on her thumb, watching the flashlights approach from out of the woods, and listening to the shouts as the policemen drew near.

Continued in Part 4 . . .

-- Aleksander Ruegg
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