Read The Manor Online

Authors: Scott Nicholson

Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror

The Manor (2 page)

BOOK: The Manor
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"I believe it. Makes me spin just thinking about it."

"You bugged by heights?"

"Where I come from, the highest building is two stories, if you don't count silos. I can handle stairs okay, but I'm not much good on a ladder. Looking down three hundred feet—"

"Drop-off like that one on every side," Roth said, taking another drink, relishing Mason's face going pale. "Korban liked his isolation. Wanted his place to be like one of those European castles." Roth lifted a toast toward Korban's portrait. "Here's to you, old sod." Mason's satchel was geting heavy. He was anxious to get settled in, finish planning the pieces he wanted to work on. And Roth's accent was annoying.

A pretty woman in black came down the stairs, her dress just short of authentic Goth, a lace shawl over her thin shoulders. She appeared to be a receptionist of some kind. She led a couple away from Miss Mamie's group. The man was in his fifties, double-chinned, wearing a scowl, the woman blue-eyed with a clear complexion who could have walked off the cover of
Seventeen.
They went up the stairs together, the man clearing his throat, his enormous jowls quivering.

"Might get him later," Roth said. "Maybe at a roll-top desk with a quill pen in his hand. I'm not keen on personality work, but I could get a tidy bundle for that."

"Who?"

Roth smiled as if Mason had just falen off a turnip wagon. "Jefferson Spence."

"You mean
the
Jefferson Spence? The novelist?"

"The one and only. The last great southern writer. Faulkner and O'Connor and Wolfe all rolled into one, if you believe the jacket copy."

Mason watched the writer labor up the stairs. "What's
he
need with an artists' colony?"

"Fodder. You don't know much about him, do you?"

"Never read him. I'm more into Erskine Caldwell."

"One critic called Spence's style 'stream-of-pompousness.'"

Mason laughed. "Well, it was nice of him to bring along his daughter." Roth shook his head. "I suppose you don't read the tabloids, either. That's not his daughter. That would be his latest, I presume."

Miss Mamie's voice rose, her laughter filing the foyer. To her right stood a small, dark-haired woman, about Mason's age. Mason stared at her two seconds longer than what could pass for polite interest because her cyan eyes were startling. She met his gaze, gave him a half smile, then turned her attention back to Miss Mamie. Roth had noticed her, too. His eyes were as bright as a wolf's. "Cute bird." Mason pretended not to hear. "Excuse me. I've got to stretch my legs a little." Roth gave a faux gentleman's salute and went to re-fil his drink. Mason adjusted the satchel strap across his shoulder and went toward the open door. The wagon was gone, the squiggles of its tracks leading toward one of the barns, dark heaps of horse manure dotting the sandy road. The Korban Manor brochure had delighted in the fact that no motor vehicles would be around to "disturb creative impulses." Likewise, no distractions such as television, telephone, or electricity existed at the estate. A regular Giligan's Island, Mason thought, only without the canned laughter and unexpected plot twists.

Mason overheard one of the group say, "Let me tel you about this lovely idea I had for a novel. It's about this writer who—"

Mason gave a last look back at Korban's face, then entered the autumn sunshine. The fields were golden green sheets stretched to the surrounding forest. Great ridges of earth rose along the horizon, carved and chipped and smoothed by that master sculptor, Time. Mason now knew why these mountains were caled the Blue Ridge, though the changing leaves splashed such an array of colors that he almost wished he'd stuck with painting.

Pumpkin orange, summer squash yellow, cornsilk gold, beet purple. Van Gogh would have given his other ear
to paint this place.

Except such a thought smacked of that dreaded ideal of artistic sacrifice. He wondered if the esteemed historical roster of insane artists had not been schizo-phrenic or poisoned by the lead in their paint, but had instead been driven mad by the whispering of demand-ing Muses. Mason drove the thought from his head be-cause it seemed like an option only a nut would consider. And he'd given up painting not because of a lack of desire or talent, but because of its visual nature. His mother could feel the sculpture with her fingers, but a painting was nothing to her but an endless piece of darkness.

A few horses and cows grazed in the meadow that sloped away from the front of the house. The open land must have been about twenty acres, cleared of boulders and carefully tended. Mason found it hard to believe that these soft grounds gave way to steep granite cliffs on all sides. Not even a jet trail marked the blue autumn sky, as if the manor were remote from modern civilization not only in distance but in time as well. Majestic hard-woods spread their limbs at carefully spaced intervals along a carriage trail that wound toward the west. An apple orchard covered a rise beside the pasture, the trees dotted with pink and golden fruit. Lush grass swayed softly in a hayfield beyond, ending at the edge of a dense forest.

A soft voice interrupted his reverie: "Now you know why artists trip over their egos to get up here. Especially in the fall."

It was the dark-haired woman with the cyan eyes. She crossed the porch and leaned over the railing, then closed her eyes and inhaled through her nose with an exaggerated flourish. "Ah. Fresh air. A nice change from the stench of pretension inside."

"You a painter?" Mason asked, still looking across the fields, irritated by her jab at artists.

"No."

"Me either."

"What are you, then?"

"Does everybody have to
be
something?"

The woman tilted her head back toward the house. "If you listen to them, you'd think so."

"Well, this is a retreat, after all. Back up and go, 'Whoa,' I reckon." He didn't want her to know he felt out of his element. He already missed Sawyer Creek's dirty little streets with their utility poles and peeling billboards. Back home, he'd be heating up the teakettle and tuning the radio to Mama's favorite conservative talk show right about now.

"What's in the bag?"

"This satchel? Nothing. Just some tools."

"I thought you were one of the staff," she said. "Too bad. Because I despise artists. I think they're full of themselves. Nothing personal."

Mason tried not to look at her too closely, though that was all he wanted to do. She was pretty, sure, but there was also the sense that she wouldn't let him hide behind his dumb bumpkin act, the one he'd used to bluff his way through art college. Those cyan eyes pierced too deeply, saw beyond the slick face of first impressions. He came up with a snappy comeback a couple of seconds too late. "Then why are you making it personal?"

"Because you're probably worse than the rest. You're so attached to what's inside your satchel you wouldn't trust it with the rest of the luggage."

He wished he could tel her. The tools were not al that expensive, but they had come at great cost. He thought of Mama alone at their cramped apartment in Sawyer Creek, siting in her worn recliner, a cat in her lap. Eyes never blinking. This woman he'd only just met was too damned in-sightful and saw his self-doubt with uncanny clarity. He
was
worse than the rest, even while pretending he was apart from other artists, not buying into their wank-ish and vain prattle. He wasn't sure whether his work revealed anything about the world, but he was deter-mined to shove it in the world's face and make it notice anyway.

Mason adjusted the satchel on his shoulder, feeling the woman's eyes on him. "Sculpting tools," he said.

"A hammer, hatchet, chisels, fluters, gougers, some blades."

"You do wood?"

"I've done a little of everything." He finally looked her full in the face, forcing himself not to blink against her gaze. "Except here I'll be doing wood."

She nodded as if she'd already forgotten him. "Six weeks is not very long. It would be hard to tackle something stone in that time."

Her accent was almost rural, as if she'd tried to be country but somebody had sent her off to college to have it squeezed out of her. One of the horses, a big roan, galloped across the pasture. She smiled as she watched it.

"Some place, huh?" Mason said.

"I've seen pictures, but they certainly don't do it jus-tice." Again she sounded distracted, as if Mason were as boring as Miss Mamie's well-heeled gang in the foyer.

Mason stepped between the shrubs and fingered the mortised joints of the railing. Grooved columns held up the portico, the paint thick and scaly where the lay-ers had built up over the decades. The stone foundation of the manor wore a fur coat of green moss. A sudden juvenile urge to impress the woman came over him. "Colonial revivalist architecture," he said. "This Korban guy must have had the bucks."

"Do you know anything about him?"

"Only what I read in the brochure. Industrialist, made a fortune after the Spanish-American war, bought out this mountain, and built the manor as a summer home. Two thousand acres of land connected to civilization by nothing except that wooden bridge."

He hated himself for blathering. He hadn't come to Korban Manor to mess around. He needed to get serious about his work, not spar with someone who seemed about as interested in him as if he were a piece of lint. Besides, artists were supposed to be aloof.

"So you only have the sanitized biography," she said. "I did a litle research on him myself. That's my line."

"You're a writer?"

"Something like that."

"Figured. They're more stuck-up and screwed-up than artists, if you ask me."

"Nobody did. As I was about to say, Korban set down in his wil that the place be kept as a period piece from the end of the nineteenth century. He stipulated that Korban Manor become an artists' retreat. While he was alive, he encouraged the servants to fil the house with handmade mountain crafts and folk art. Maybe he liked the idea of his house being filed with creative en-ergy. Sort of a way to keep himself alive."

"That portrait of him is a bit much, though," Mason said. "He must have had a hel of an ego."

"He probably was an artist, then." She looked tired and gave him a dismissive and maddening half smile. "Excuse me, I have to go to my room."

Mason fumed inside. Stupid self-obsessed girl, dis-tracted and abrupt, as snotty as any of those Yankees chatering in the foyer. He should have faked it a litle better, acted like a heartbreaker. Maybe he'd start wear-ing a beret, appear sophisticated, grow one of those wimpy little Pierre mustaches. That would get a laugh out of the boys back at Rayford Hosiery.

"See you later," he said, trying hard not to sound op-timistic. Then, without knowing where the words came from, he added, "I hope you find what you came here for."

She turned, met his eyes, serious again. "I'm look-ing for myself. Tell me if you see her." Then she was gone, swallowed by the big white house that bore Korban's name.

CHAPTER 2

Anna Galoway puled back the lace curtains of the bedroom window. A bit of dust rose from the window-pane at the stir of air. Sunlight spiled on her shoulders, the October glow warming the floor beneath her feet. The mountain air was chilier than she was used to, and even the roaring fire didn't quel her shivers. A painting of Ephram Korban hung over the room's fireplace, smaler than the one downstairs but just as brooding. The sculptor with the kicked-puppy aura was right about one thing: Korban had been thoroughly in love with himself.

She looked out over the meadows. Here she was, at long last. The place she was supposed to be, for whatever reason. This was the end of the world, the logical place for endings. She drove the fatalism from her mind and in-stead watched the roan and chestnut galoping across the pasture. The display of freedom and peace warmed her.

"It's so pretty, isn't it?" the woman behind her said. She'd told Anna that her name was "Cris without the
h"
as if the lack of
h
somehow made her harder and less flexible. And since they were going to be roomies...

"It's wonderful," Anna said. "Everything I dreamed it would be." Cris already had her makeup kit, watercolor brushes, and sketch pads scattered across the bed nearest the door. Anna had nothing but a slim stack of books piled neatly on her dresser. Her attitude toward material possessions and earthly comforts had undergone dramatic changes in the past year. You travel light when you're not sure where you're headed. The pain swept across her abdomen, sneaky this time, a needle poking in slow motion. She closed her eyes, counted backward in big fat numerals.

Ten, round and thin
...

Nine, loop and droop..
.

She was down to six and the pain was floating some-where above that far cut in the Blue Ridge Mountains when Cris's voice pulled her back.

"Like, what do you do?"

Anna turned from the window. Cris sat on the bed, brushing her long blond hair. Anna was glad the chemo-therapy hadn't made her own hair fal out. Not just be-cause of vanity, but because she wanted to take all of herself with her when she went.

"I do research articles," Anna said.

"Oh, you're a writer."

"Not fiction like Jefferson Spence. More like meta-physics."

"Science and stuff?"

Anna sat on her bed. The pain was back, but not as sharp as before. "I worked at the Rhine Research Center in Durham. Investigator."

"You quit?"

"Not really. I just got finished."

"Rhine. Isn't that ESP ghosts, and weird stuff? Like on
X-Files?"

"Except the truth isn't 'out there.' It's in
here."
She touched her temple. "The power of the mind. And we don't do aliens. I was a paranormal investigator. Except I be-came a dinosaur. Extinct almost before I even got started."

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