“The entire estate was only sixty thousand dollars—“
“There’s something wrong with it.” Mu Qing didn't even let Xie Lian finish.
Even on the three-way call Xie Lian let out a sigh.
“You don’t know that!” Feng Xin shot back.
“Yeah, I do.” Mu Qing only kept going. “From that price tag? In this market? That house is fucked. Houses owned by serial killers have gone for twice that.”
“It’s just old.” Xie Lian tried to explain. “It needs renovations.”
“Lot of places are old with four times that price tag. That can’t be all it needs.”
Xie Lian could already see Mu Qing’s nose raising, could in his mind’s eye see that long hair of his sweep over his shoulder as his dark eyes narrowed.
Balancing the phone between his shoulder and his cheek Xie Lian looked back at the map in his hands. Google Maps wasn’t working up here, and even if it was, Paradise Manor wasn’t marked. The road he was on wasn’t even a road according to the internet.
“It needs internal work,” Xie Lian admitted. “But the construction crew has already assured me -“
“I’m sorry, WHAT?”
Xie Lian put down the map. “Mu Qing —“
“You’ve already purchased the house?” That was his Big Mad voice. The kind that was more of a hiss than anything else. This wasn’t his ‘annoy this shit out of Feng Xin’ voice, or ‘critique Xie Lian for the thousandth time that day’ voice. No, this was actually a genuine real deal ‘Mu Qing might kill someone’ voice.
“I — “ Xie Lian sighed again. “I thought this would be a good opportunity…”
“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Mu Qing swore. “How the hell did you think that was a good idea —“
“Oi!” Feng Xin was already popping up in Xie Lian’s defense. “Like you’ve got any room to talk!”
“He bought a fucking house!” Mu Qing snapped. “This isn’t HGTV! Xie Lian isn’t going to have any idea what to do in that place!”
“How the fuck would you know?” Feng Xin roared back. “It’s not like you’ve ever helped with a restoration in your entire life anyway? How do you know what Xie Lian can handle?”
There was a snort on the other side of the line. “After all that he’s— pardon me, if I think after all we’ve been through recently, I’m not confident a house is a great leap to be taking right now.”
Xie Lian opened his mouth and — the words were right there, ‘I’ll handle it.’ And yet… Xie Lian couldn't find them anymore. He let out a breath and looked down.
There was a frustrated sound on the line. “When this bull shit goes belly up, don’t call me.” Mu Qing hissed. “I'm a bit tired of cleaning up Xie Lian’s messes.”
The audible ‘click’ was deafening in Xie Lian’s ears.
He flinched. He didn’t mean to and he didn’t care to acknowledge it, but he definitely flinched.
“Xie Lian,” It took a moment but Feng Xin finally spoke.
“I know,” Xie Lian tried to head him off.
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”
Xie Lian didn’t want to know.
“Look—“ Feng Xin started. “I get it okay, running away after all that — just — just if you get in over your head again, just call me okay?”
He most certainly would not.
“I’ll be alright.” Xie Lian said. He could say that.
He heard Feng Xin let out an audible breath. Xie Lian knew he was probably frowning.
“How’s the auction in LA?” Xie Lian tried to lighten the mood. “Did the Getty snatch everything up?”
“I hate LA.” Feng Xin complained, answering Xie Lian’s second question as well as the first. “And the Rothko was already gone -- another private buyer. There’s not much left here but junk.”
Xie Lian looked straight down at the dirt. What he wouldn’t give to be there, sifting through that ‘junk.’ What if there was a Venetian dresser? A Regency period writing desk? An Art Nouveau illustrated novel? All of the little treasures most galleries passed by, not even knowing their value…
“Just promise me — when that place gets too much, you’ll pull out, okay? Cut your loses and head back to New York?”
‘When’ it failed, not ‘if.’
“I’ll be okay, Feng Xin.” Xie Lian repeated.
Feng Xin didn’t believe him, that much was clear.
“Call me again, okay?” Feng Xin settled on.
“Of course, I will.” Xie Lian smiled. “I certainly won’t be able to call Mu Qing to complain about the house.”
There was a huffed laugh before Feng Xin said his goodbyes and left the call as well.
Xie Lian took the phone away from his ear and got back into his white Buick sedan.
He didn't have to drive much longer before he came up to the main gates. Black iron was set into surprisingly vivid red brick bases.
It was — monstrous. Gnarled faces with fangs and masks all wove through the surprisingly artistic design of the gates. They were faces twisted in agony and pain, gaunt in silent cries as they stood there soundless and captured, cast in iron forever.
Xie Lian sucked in his breath -- it was haunting and beautiful.
And stretching across the top of the gates was written ”Paradise Manor.” In a script Xie Lian could only point out as possibly art nouveau in origin but with influences of futurism.
His mind was already set ablaze.
Yes. He was running away. But at least he was hiding himself away in what he was convinced, with a bit of elbow grease, and some time would be an absolute masterpiece!
The grounds of the estate were over 50 acres, most of which were populated by thick, lumbering trees. Maple trees apparently were the species most common and as Xie Lian pulled up to the house itself, he paused.
It was only September -- and yet the leaves of those giant trees were all a vivid red. And through the sea of red was a black towering mansion. Gothic in nature, Xie Lian's breath stalled for just a moment as he looked at the home.
In disrepair, yes, and in need of a new coat of paint and a thorough cleaning, possibly even a new set of shingles for the roof but --- it was breathtaking. The home, Xie Lian remembered was originally built in 1892. It held eight bedrooms, four full bathrooms, and two half bathrooms, there was also somewhere on the grounds a greenhouse, two gazebos, a lake, and a small chapel. The house itself was tall, with a rail-lined wrap-around porch. Three stories, it was hard to tell if the jutting tower was on the third floor or separate. The house was worn and the black paint was chipped and fading, but Xie Lian still nearly bounced in his seat. Pulling the car to a stop next to a small pickup truck parked at the front as well, Xie Lian paused as he shifted in his seat. He could see just the sliver of what he hoped was the back atrium.
That atrium was why Xie Lian couldn’t say no to this house. It was a wide hall and completely enclosed in stained glass windows. Those windows despite all odds, and the everything the home had gone through -- were completely intact, original stained glass.
The photos Xie Lian had seen online had inspired such a flutter in Xie Lian he had called the realtor immediately, and now he could not wait to see them in person.
But first, as Xie Lian had pulled up to the house, a tall man in worn overalls had stepped up from a bench on the porch.
Eager to get inside, and to not keep the man waiting Xie Lian got out of the car, waving, “Hello! I’m Xie Lian, the restoration artist!”
The man frowned at him.
Well -- Xie Lian gave a sheepish smile, he did look -- like a New Yorker. Standing in beige slacks, polished brown leather shoes, a tasteful yet designer white button-down, and a slightly more golden-hued tan cardigan Xie Lian glanced over at the muddy path separating him from the porch.
The dark black rock stepping stones had long sunken through the dirt of the years of rain wash and the slow overtaking of foliage.
“Well,” Xie Lian murmured under his breath. “This is going to be an adjustment.”
The man on the porch stepped forward. “Mr. Lee H-Han?” The man’s voice was unsure and accented heavily with the thick drawl of the rural country.
Stalling, Xie Lian looked down as he pulled a white and tan Louis Vuitton checked luggage bag from the back seat.
An adjustment, he repeated to himself.
Taking several gingerly steps, Xie Lian set the luggage on the porch, under the eaves, and away from the mud. There was no helping his shoes.
“Xie Li--” Xie Lian rethought at the last second. “Just Xie is quite fine.” Xie Lian said with a sheepish smile again as he extended a hand to the man.
“Sshhheeee.” The man repeated.
Well, he was trying. Xie Lian smiled still.
“Are you Ted? I believe we spoke on the phone.”
The contractor was a bit hesitant, whipping his hand first on his paint-smeared overalls before taking Xie Lian’s own small fair-skinned hand.
He dwarfed Xie Lian -- not that that was rare. Just about everyone dwarfed Xie Lian with his slight build and slender lithe frame.
“Yes sir, that’s me.”
Xie Lian gave a nod. “Oh, how perfect. It’ll be much easier to talk with you about the house in person!” Xie Lian straightened up as he placed his hands on his hips. “Absolutely magnificent, isn’t it?” He looked out over the house.
Ted did not look like he shared that opinion, eyeing the house rather wearily.
Xie Lian moved on. “So the main amount of damage was in the kitchen, correct?”
“Uhh,” Ted was still eyeing the house for a moment longer before he looked back at Xie Lian. “Yes, sir. And down through the basement.”
“And the fire didn’t seem to harm the integrity of the house supports?” Xie Lian checked. There was a lot he could do, but a crumbling house could stall any sort of hopeful restoration.
“The house is quite old and two central support beams were replaced, so structurally it shouldn’t be going anywhere,” Ted said. “As well we reinforced the basement foundation with a new layer of cement. The foundations of that house aren’t going anywhere.”
“Excellent!” Xie Lian said, thrilled. “And the kitchen?”
Ted’s face screwed up a bit. “I know you were hoping to salvage as much as we could from the original --“ He shook his head. “We managed to pull out the old stove, it’s out in the carriage house,” He gestured. “It’ll need a lot of work after sitting for fifty years like that.”
Xie Lian looked to see a dark foreboding simple square building tucked back through the trees.
“But I’m afraid most of that kitchen had to be replaced.” Ted shook his head. “We managed to save one wall of original cabinets but the majority was replaced.”
“I see.” Xie Lian nodded. “No worries, I expected with that level of damage, and the subsequent nearly fifty years of neglect, there would be some extensive renovations needed. And the modernization?”
Ted looked nervous again. “Right.” He scoffed as he looked down at his feet. “Opening up the walls of the home has proven -- difficult.”
Cocking his head, this was the first Xie Lian had heard of this. “You assured me before there was no termite or pest damage you could find…?”
“Oh, there’s none of that.” The man scoffed. “It’s just --- it’s just the house don’t really seem to like it, when we start rooting around in the walls for wires and pipes and things.”
The house doesn’t like it?
Xie Lian’s brows rose. “Uh huhhhh.”
“Right” Ted repeated moving on quickly. “Two of the bathrooms have been successfully updated. A new water heater has also been installed, and we’re working through most of the lead piping still. The kitchen and bathrooms I mentioned are safe, of course, with the rest shut off until we can get to them.”
“And the wiring?”
Ted scrunched his nose.
Xie Lian had a feeling he wasn’t going to like this.
“That house -- the wiring quite frankly is a mess.”
“Understandable.” Xie Lian dipped his head. “The records show electricity was added only in the 1920s and updated at some point in the early 60s.”
“Well, sort of.” Ted gave a shrug. “Quite frankly -- there wasn’t much we could salvage.”
“Right…” Xie Lian wasn’t sure where his apprehension was coming from.
“The main floor is done,” Ted said, proud of his good news. “And the second and third floors are on their way -- if we could figure out how to get up to the tower we could speed things up.”
Now that -- was not something Xie Lian had heard. “I’m sorry?”
“Oh, the tower.” Ted pointed up. “It’s structurally supported so there’s a room if not several up there but I’ll be damned if we can figure out how to get up there.”
“There’s not --” Xie Lian wasn’t even sure the word he was looking for. “A staircase?”
“Staircase, door, hallway -- we can’t really find anything.” Ted shrugged.
“Right.” Xie Lian tried to remember, but as far as he knew that was the first mention of the tower at all, even though from the online listing.
“And there’s one more thing.”
Xie Lian figure might as well get all the bad news upfront. “Of course.”
“Welllll” Ted drawled out the word. “There’s no power to the basement.”
Xie Lian’s brow furrowed, hands back at his hips. “I thought you mentioned the first floor was entirely redone, the outlets and all replaced.”
“Oh the ground floor, for sure.” Ted nodded. “But -- his face scrunched. Whatever words he was looking for were not immediately forthcoming. “The house won’t let us dig in the basement, not in the floors, not in the walls. We managed a bit of digging to replace supports but anything else--” Ted shook his head.
Again with the personified house.
“The house won’t let you?” Xie Lian repeated.
Ted did not look like he wanted to elaborate and he didn’t. “The control box was refitted into the kitchen, which will make it a bit easier. Honestly, since that house don't want no one even close to the basement, we were lucky to get done what we could. As we keep going upstairs through the house having a box on the ground floor will make it easier, but just so you know if you go down to the basement, take a flashlight, 'cause ain’t no power down there.”
Xie Lian bit his lip but--
Finding someone even willing to take on the home's reconstruction had been an arduous task, and Xie Lian had barely found Ted, who was moderately local and willing to help, if not as was being demonstrated quite reluctant.
“I see.” Xie Lian just ended up saying. He looked back to the house.
The front set of double doors were a deep black, waiting to be refinished and polished. A large tarnished silver knocker was sent into the door, and oddly enough it was in the shape of a cluster of sharp-winged butterflies.
He wanted inside the house. He wanted to look over the dark wood floors and original claw-footed tubs. He wanted to find ever bit of stained glass in the house, and see the refinished kitchen for himself.
And if he was willing to admit it -- traveling the past few days had left Xie Lian weary.
“Well,” He pipped in, eager to resolve whatever else they needed to speak of before he could go get settled in. “I don’t think that will be a huge problem.” he reached down for his suitcase again. “You’ve sent me a further renovation schedule I believe.”
Ted’s hazel eyes darted from Xie Lian to the Vitton suitcases and back. “Well yeah…”
“Perfect.” Xie Lian said cheerfully. He knew he must seem quite rude and eager to end the conversation, but if one of the bathrooms was in working order, that meant Xie Lian could get a proper shower before seeing about ordering delivery. He held out his hand as he gave another bright smile.
“Uhhh, Mr. Shee…” Ted drawled looking at the suitcase again. “You said on the phone, that you were renovating the house for resale, correct?”
Xie Lian dropped his open hand. “Well eventually, yes.” he wasn’t fond of bringing that up -- it somehow felt -- well Xie Lian in no way wanted to be associated as some half-witted house flipper.
Ted’s nervous expression didn't change as he eyed Xie Lian’s suitcase. “...and in the meantime, you’re not staying here, are ya?”
Cocking his head, Xie Lian answered. “Well of course I am,” Now that he thought about it, Xie Lian did realize it’s a detail he’d failed to mention in his calls and emails. “It’s much easier than an hour drive every morning.”
Ted shook his head. “Sir, I don't know if you should do that.” He looked around nervously.
There was a pause between the two of them.
“Is there a problem with the manor?” Xie Lian asked outright.
“It’s just--” Ted looked warily to the door. “Look, Mr. Shee, you’re paying us an awful lot for the renovation of the house and you seem like a really nice guy --” ‘if not a bit strange’ was clearly not added on even as Ted looked over Xie Lian from designer leather shoes all the way up to his long dark hair.
“But?” Xie Lian prodded.
Ted cleared his throat. “Look, every one of my employees makes sure to clear out of this place by the time sundown hits, every night, no exceptions.”
“No one stays after dark?” Xie Lian confirmed, his brow furrowed.
“No one.” The contractor confirmed.
Well that was -- not mentioned in the Zillow ad.
“Look, when people stay here --” Ted was having a hard time with the game of scrabble going on upstairs. “Just if things start getting weird, feel free to just leave, there's a hotel bout fifteen miles out.” He fidgeted with his hands for a second before explaining further. “I wouldn’t want you getting hurt.”
Xie Lian -- honestly wasn’t sure what to say to that.
“I’ll call Mary Anne at the Country Grub Hotel,” Ted hastily said. “Tell her you’ll be headin’ over sometime tonight.”
Xie Lian lifted his hand. “No need,”
If he was honest with himself -- staying in the house had been an aspect of this endeavor he’d looked forward to.
“I’ll make my own reservations.” Xie Lian smiled.
Ted nodded, hopping to. “Oh right, ‘course.” he smoothed si hands over his overalls.“I’ll leave you to look over the house then.”
“I appreciate you sticking around until I managed to get here.” Xie Lian gave a gracious short bow.
“No problem, no problem!” Ted said as he turned to lumber down the steps.
Xie Lian turned on the porch, watching the contractor unlock and open the door of his truck.
And then just as Xie Lian was about to turn back to the house, his hand back to the handle on his suitcase.
“Sunsets right ‘round 8:15.”
Xie Lian turned back, looking back over his shoulder to Ted still standing at his truck.
“Just --” He gave a deep frown. “You know, just so you can get out of here in time.”
Xie Lian didn’t make a move to look at the delicately intricate Rolex at his wrist. “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Right.” Ted gave one last look before he ducked into his truck.
This time Xie Lian waited for the truck to roar to life before there before swinging around and starting back down the long winding driveway.
“Superstitious white people,” Xie Lian mumbled before he bent to pick up his suitcase again and start in.
Once inside the house, Xie Lian set his suitcase down, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior before --
Unbidden the front door knocked shut behind Xie Lian, with a foreboding thud.
“Dramatic.” Xie Lian simply said in reply to the house and thinking not a thing more on it turned with a smile to see what wonderfully unique and beautiful things lay waiting for him.
Story & Art by Pitchgold