“It’s an archaic form.”
I hadn’t been paying attention, it’s true.
“The fee tail. As I was saying, it’s an archaic form. Goes back to the Middle Ages, perhaps even further back than that. But for some reason, they kept it.”
He creaked in the leather chair, the sound of well-oiled metal hinges and leather. He was one of those cosmopolitan hatchet men who made you think he either knew a great deal about a great many subjects or else had managed to hide the fact of his general ignorance with a specific line of specialization that managed to defy all inter-meddlers. A line of books against the wall for show in the digital age, uniform and perfect, a row of little soldiers, ten little Indians, Black’s Law Dictionary, a diploma from Harvard, a morning star with dull metal spikes.
The Middle Ages, I thought.
“It’s like something out of a Jane Austen novel,” he said.
“But with an imperfect narrator.” I felt like giving him some shit back. I’d been to a good school too.
“But the law has to reach conclusions,” he said, his eyebrows coming together like a couple of mating slugs. “Endless interpretation cannot forestall the transfer of property duly vested. And you are the last living descendant of the original grantor.”
I shrugged. A country estate somewhere, I kept thinking. Someone had left me something else. I wasn’t sure why they’d called me down to the office. Usually they just handled things for me. Occasionally I had to sign for things.
“How are you doing, Louis?” he asked me suddenly, as if we were close.
He had worked for my mother before she died, back when she was writing books. Children’s books published by a vanity press, but she thought it was her calling.
“Lucas tells me you’ve had some trouble.”
They occasionally kept an eye on me, indirectly for the most part, since my mother died. But this was something else.
“Oh nothing really. Someone fell off the roof, and someone thought he’d come to visit me, but I’d never met the man in my life. Honestly. The police wanted to ask me some questions. Lucas was kind enough to handle it for me.”
She’d been a confirmed Marxist, my mother, and went to her grave an equally confirmed atheist. Lucky for me the church of Marx did not demand offerings, any more than the church of atheism. Eighty or so million dollars worth of the stock market by the time mother gave up the ghost. All I needed was a crown, but those things were never done these days. Like tipping the doorman. It was gauche.
“Definitely keep us in the loop.”
Naturally this asshole did estate planning too. I wanted to change the subject.
“So what’s the story then, about this vestigial tail?”
“That’s the fee tail,” he said. “An estate in land meant to convey the inheritance to those direct descendants…of the body. A reversion remains in the original grantor, such that the estate must pass within a direct line of family descendants, else it reverts to the last descendant of the original grantor. An archaic form, as I said. Abolished everywhere, mostly, except for Massachusetts, I think. Rhode Island. And Maine of course.”
“Maine?” I asked, half-serious, but his face remained impassive. He didn’t get the joke. Evidently he considered Maine a real place in which one might choose to spend one’s time. I’d never been to Maine. Had never even considered going to Maine.
“The land passes only to the heirs of the body,” he continued, “Until such time at which those heirs may no longer be found, and at that point to the nearest living relative of the original grantor, no matter how far removed.”
“How kind of those heirs, dying off like that.”
He smiled, and for the first time, I saw him as a person, capable of evil, and not just a servant, a thing, to do my bidding. I pictured him as a knight on horseback, swinging that decorative morning star hanging on the wall behind him, splashing blood all over his pretty gray suit.
“You should be grateful,” he said, as he pulled out a sheaf of papers and placed them on the desk in front of me. “About only having to sign paper. In the Middle Ages, they would perform a ritual, to pass property from one lord to another. It involved the passing of a symbolic object from the plot of ground to be conveyed, a piece of the earth, or a clump of dirt and twigs, and occasionally they would find the youngest boy in the village still capable of remembering and beat him bloody...”
His voice took on a certain tone as he said the words, and he let them hang in the air such that I found myself imagining him as a regular visitor at the snuff factory uptown, where they made those movies my associate would occasionally pick up for my amusement. Suddenly I thought perhaps I could have drinks with this old man. He likely had a few war stories, a few bloody secrets of his own buried in the basement.
I smiled back at him ferociously.
“Well, why would they do that? Beat him bloody?”
He bent in close and whispered into my ear, such that for a moment I almost thought he was going to kiss me.
“Why, in order to ensure that the ritual would be remembered, of course. In case there was any confusion at a later date, as to the true ownership of the estate.”
He pulled back, turned and walked over to the bar in front of the window, and poured himself a glass of bourbon, without offering me any.
Out on the street, I held the sheaf of signed papers in my hand, the letterhead of that major New York firm across the top, and stared at the address of my new estate, near some little town I had never heard of, close to the coast up near Canada. The midtown Manhattan traffic scrolled past in Technicolor, SUVs, sedans and gas-electric hybrids, a river of molded plastic and metal. I figured what did I have to lose? My spot on the upper west side was a wash, what with all those cops poking around. Of course they had nothing to connect that little incident to me. I’d tossed the burner, and that little shit was pancaked thirty-four stories on the street below, his Doc Martens full of bone fragments and blood.
Of course I had the house out in Malibu, and the other one in Connecticut. But I was renting both of them out at the moment.
On the way to Williamsburg, I used my other phone and called that low grade agent, the hungry one who was friends with that semi-famous DJ who was past his prime. I figured I had nowhere else to go at the moment. We’d throw a party, and thoroughly trash the place, and when it was all over, I’d pay some real estate slob to get rid of it. Or burn it to the ground.
We took the jet. I had Brandi arrange for a limousine at our destination, a private airport. She also brought the cocaine and the H, as I told her my connection was temporarily offline. The DJ had the turntables and the sound system in two crates. Anyone with any sense at all could smell blood in the water. This was going to be a party to end all.
The airport looked like the fifties, with one of those big old fashioned hangers, with the letters falling off the side, and a couple of single engine planes rusting inside.
The old man at the desk was a strange fish. I mean he had a bit of a fishy smell to him, and his eyes were set too far apart, like some inbred redneck from down South, or some mountain hills-have-eyes kind of creep. But he forked over the keys to the limo, and didn’t bat an eyelash when I had my driver sign all the paperwork. The limo itself was a bit musty, but we’d have to make do.
We drove down back roads underneath a gray sky for about an hour before we became hopelessly lost. Something was interfering with the GPS. The phones as well appeared to be out of the service area, which seemed strange to me, even for such a backwater shit-hole as this. There was of course that half-pint sized town within easy driving distance, and the airport, though rustic, had appeared to have working toilets at least. Still, no service, no service. I thought about calling someone to complain. After the party of course. But would I even keep this house? I’d decide when the weekend was over, assuming we ever found the goddamn place, and assuming it was still standing by the end of our little festival.
We came around a bend and could see some lot under construction. The workmen were putting up one of those great slabs of a granite chimney on the side. I had the driver pull over, thinking one of these rubes might know the house.
I had a crumpled picture in my hand and the googlemaps directions in the other as I approached someone who appeared to be in charge. He wasn’t doing anything at least. Just standing off to one side with some kind of sledgehammer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His face was like a maze of cross country terrain. I walked right up to him, but he seemed not to notice me, so I tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned slightly to look at me, and I saw he had those inbred eyes just like the guy at the airport. I thought to myself at that point that I would probably not be keeping the house, if this was a representative sample of my future neighbors. His eyes were just too wide apart in the face, and they made him look like a goddamn backwards mutant, a step down on the evolutionary ladder, semi-human.
“I’m looking for the old Sackett place,” I said, trying to keep a straight face.
I held out the crumpled piece of paper with the cropped photoshop, and watched his odd fish eyes shift to look at it. Behind him, I could see several of the workers scrambling over towards us. Then the old geezer spoke.
“You young man,” he said, in that peculiar accent, that I couldn’t quite place, but then I’d never been to Maine before. He looked back up at me with those creepy eyes. “You talk to me again, I gone ta hit you with this hammer.”
He held up the tool, and I could see that it was a hammer, but heavier and thicker than any I had ever seen before. I started to open my mouth again, when the hands of the workmen pulled me away.
They explained in hushed tones that the foreman never talked to anyone, and that he’d sent someone to the emergency room last year for just this sort of thing.
I showed them the picture of the old house, and the address. When I explained to them that I was the new owner, they laughed, like this was some kind of joke. Oh they assured me that they had heard of the place. No one had been in the house for years apparently, which I thought at the time explained their laughter. They pointed over the hill, and muttered a few directions, which I relayed to my driver, and we were finally on our way.
When we arrived, looking at the place, I couldn’t help but be reminded of all those horror movies you watch when you’re a teenager, with a desperate desire to destroy the world your parents helped make, or perhaps to destroy your parents even. The old house literally leaned over the edge of a cliff, a great white wooden whale of a place straight out of the nineteenth century, with thick wooden storm shutters and warped glass windows, overlooking the pounding surf on the rocks below.
“Ace of spades,” said DJ has-been, looking at the new digs.
I watched as a couple flunkies unloaded his gear.
That Steely Dan song floated through my head, the one about the showbiz kids. They’re outrageous. Naturally, my limo was full of booze. We carried it up the wooden steps. I opened up one of the boxes and passed around a bottle of good tequila, and we drank it on the front porch, staring out across the wire metal barrier strung along the edge overlooking the wine dark Atlantic.
There was my friend from school, who’d just got married, but for some reason his wife had decided not to come. Then some rich redneck whose family owned a string of car dealerships, and who had a taste for speedballs. His girlfriend, who was an intellectual of some sort or other and absolutely hated me. A couple more art star hangers on attached to the DJ. Two ladies identified by their gigantic fake tits as strippers, originally from Dallas, but they’d gotten stranded in New York for one reason or another. And then of course, a handful of people I didn’t know, who’d somehow managed to worm their way onto the guest list.
It took an hour or so to set everything up. The power was totally inadequate, but they’d brought a generator which they set up in the courtyard out back, towards the ocean, next to the dry little fountain sculpture of the creepy looking kids, surrounded by all those dead rose bushes.
I had my driver head back into town for pizza, at that little independent place I’d noticed on the way through. They made their own sauce it said on the marque over the parking lot.
The beat started up, and I did a few lines. Things were getting off to a good start. Someone had brought some ecstasy. I really couldn’t complain about shit. The place was remarkably well kept. The furnishings were mostly some antique tables and chairs, covered in white sheets, and there was one of those old grandfather clocks in the living room, with a big window looking out across the sea.
I can clearly remember that old clock chiming seven times, just as one of the strippers from Dallas found the door leading to the stairwell down into the basement. They were joking about it, of course. Spooky. Oooooh. Etc.
Some asshole, a friend of a friend, called me over to inspect my domain. It was musty down there. The smell of salt. The steps were wooden, and they creaked underneath our feet as we fumbled down them. Someone had a flashlight on their keychain, at least until we found the light, near the little landing at the bottom.
I flipped the switch, and could see the small chamber was walled off with brick, but the floor was dirt, and there was a hole in the center, with curious dark stains around the edge, like blood. It must be blood, I thought at the time. I had the asshole with the flashlight on his keychain shine it down into the hole. There were metal rungs in the sides, going down at least as far as that little flashlight would shine.
Someone of course had brought one of those bottles of tequila. It was passed around a few times, with the steady thump thump of the DJ upstairs like a metronome hanging over our heads. People started to talk shit. A few theories were batted around. People asked who owned the place before me. Of course I had no idea. And then of course, someone suggested we go down there, and a few of us said we’d do it.
It was a stupid idea. Anyone could have seen that. But put a few lines of high grade cocaine into anyone and they will start doing stupid things.
My friend from school went first, the one who had just gotten married. Then one of the strippers. I was next down. I looked up and could see legs and ass over my head, writhing through a tight leather skirt. The other stripper was following me down.
We stepped off the ladder sunk in the wall and stepped into some kind of carved rock chamber. It looked like it probably had been there long before the old house above us. Being underground like that it should have been dark, and I remember thinking it was another thing off about the place. Something along the walls was glowing slightly, casting a soft phosphorescence about the room.
We should have gotten out of there just then, but in retrospect I wasn’t thinking clearly.
My friend with the freshly minted wedding ring around his finger was paying no mind, and making out with the stripper who’d gone down the ladder first. The two of them were leaning against the rock wall, pulling at each other in the dim light. I noticed some strange carvings next to his head. Then the other stripper, the one wearing the leather miniskirt, grabbed me by the belt and pulled my tongue into her mouth.
I was easing her shirt over the top of her head when I saw the thing coming out of the arch behind us. It looked like something out of a cheap horror movie. And I remember looking around in both directions, looking for the hidden cameras, thinking it was all a joke, some reality TV thing, just some guy in a suit, a fish suit, wet and smelly, with big black eyes that seemed to reflect no light.
It grabbed the girl, and pulled her off of me. She screamed for just a moment, but no one upstairs would have heard anything over the sound of the DJ. Then those thick webbed hands were over her mouth, dragging her back. I saw my friend go down, with some kind of barbed spear through him, and a fountain of blood pouring out of his chest like a cartoon, and this shocked look on his face like he couldn’t believe it.
For some reason that I didn’t understand until much later, they didn’t kill me. They just dragged the three of us, me and the two strippers, back through old rock walls, covered in those creepy hieroglyphs. They dragged me across some thin causeway, and threw me onto a sandy floor, in the center of an island, with some kind of monolith. I just lay there, listening to the sounds of my own ragged breathing, and the screams from those girls.
I tried not to think about what they were doing to them. I only looked once, and saw that jagged erect protuberance from between scales, down there, before I couldn’t look anymore. I listened to them screaming for what seemed like hours.
Then things went silent, except for the dull thud from the sound system upstairs. I could hear what sounded like water dripping. Occasionally one of the girls would moan, on the beach over there, the other side of the chamber, across the black water. I looked over, and could see the two of them lying naked, hardly moving. In the dim white light from the glowing walls I could see their bodies were smeared with some kind of thick paste.
I remember looking up at the monolith. It looked like it was covered with rust. I reached over, and the rust came away when my fingertips made contact. The thing was some kind of thick glass underneath. I could see something inside, some kind of liquid with little bubbles floating inside it, and warm to the touch.
I stood up slowly, glancing about to confirm that I was alone, except for the two girls, still lying over on the other side of the water. I turned to look back at the monolith. I touched it again, and confirmed that it was covered in some kind of thick dust, perhaps untouched for eons. I wiped away a large swathe with my hand, and I could see now that there was something inside, some dark shape.
I wiped away at the outer layer of grime, until I could see it more clearly, floating in the liquid inside that glass monolith. It was some kind of half-man, half-ape thing. Covered in thick hair, but with definite human-like features about the face.
The missing link, I remember thinking. And then all I could think about was how long the body must’ve been in there, how many thousands of years, and then it opened its eyes, and looked straight at me, reaching out with a short hairy arm as if asking for my help.
I could hardly remember anything after that. Just fragments in my mind, like a series of flash photographs. I remember seeing the two girls on the underground beach over there as I stumbled past. I remember thinking to myself that they were beyond saving. One of them looked at me and I could see it in her eyes that she was gone. Her mind that is, was far away from that room, somewhere else entirely. Her body was covered in that sticky slime, and something was moving in her belly.
When I got upstairs, the DJ record was skipping against the end of the groove, leaving a deathly loud heartbeat scratching in the night. There were a few bodies around the room, scattered in various stages of undress I thought at first, and then realized it was more adequately described as disembowelment. I thought at first it was those fish men from downstairs who had done this, but looking about the room, I could see knives and cleavers from the kitchen clutched in dead hands. It was clear that some madness had overtaken my guests, and walking further into the living room, I saw the cause.
Through the open window, a prime view of the water, and I could see that some vast sunken city had risen from the depths. In the light of a gibbous moon, I could make out strange curves and twists of half-glowing stone, and I could hear it calling out to me in my mind, even before I felt those sounds through my entire body, the low hollow call of those vibrations from that deep city, risen again.
I walked out through the screen porch, and my mind seemed to explode against it, pink cheese through the grater, past the dusty bracken along the rocks leading to the edge of the cliff. I could see a small metal fence, choked with weeds.
And then the ship came down from the sky, down from the stars above. It appeared wider than the moon, and constructed from a series of interlocking stone rings, caught in some kind of geometric glow, like a crystal hanging in the air over the sunken city, now floating upon roiling water, alive with tentacled shapes.
The things that came out to discuss the deal were much beyond what I could imagine, and even now, I have trouble remembering exactly any physical form, and when dwelling upon those shapes for any length of time, I am thankful for that imperfect memory. I understood, listening to those vast and deep voices, that I was hearing them with my mind, my body, my soul even, if such exists.
I find myself praying now that it does not.
The hands of that thing, if you could call them hands, easily pulled apart the hillside, and removed the old glass jar, with my distant relative floating undead within. Even as I felt myself being lowered into the gentle warm liquid, and the soft light as the container was sealed, I found it difficult to believe that I was the object passed in remembrance, so that future generations would know when the transaction had been completed, and would know by the terror in my mind the identity of those true owners of this planet, the heirs of the body.