The Secret of Tate's Hell Swamp

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic


The mysterious letter arrived with the gloomy sky of the approaching hurricane....

Submitted: June 07, 2018

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Submitted: June 07, 2018

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The Secret of Tate’s Hell Swamp

 

a suspense novel

penned by

Sean Terrence Best

 

Chapter 1

 

The Letter

 

 

It all started way back at the beginning of the summer of 2004 when I received a strange letter in the mail concerning Borkum von Straud, an old friend of mine from college days who I hadn’t seen or even spoken to for several years.  As I was soon to discover, the suspicious letter had come from a person suffering under the unbearable strain of some vaguely defined deeply disturbing brutal fear.  It was on a Saturday afternoon on the eve of June when I found the portentous epistle lying unopened on the writing desk in my study.  My dedicated secretary’s regular hours were Monday through Friday, however she always made sure the Saturday mail was on my desk before starting her weekend.  

A light rain thrust sideways by an increasing gale pelted the glass panes of the French doors through which I had just entered my quiet retreat.  No lights were on in the room.  There was a creeping sense of isolation and distance in the muted iron-gray half-light that suffused the dusky chamber with the solemnity of a tomb.  Shadows in the corners could have been lurking there since unknown ages past.  I had been out to the dock to make sure all the hatches were battened down in preparation for the approaching tropical cyclone.  Having moved my bay skiff into a little slough far up into the tidal salt marsh, I barely made it back to the safety of my bungalow before a sudden squall rushed in off the lagoon with the awesome speed of maritime fury.

The sky overhead was ominously gloomy.  Not just any ordinary rainy day gloomy, but the truly soul-haunting gloom that foretells a big storm.  Far out at sea, the first named hurricane of the season was brewing over a churning Gulf, the warm water of the southern tides feeding the hungry low-pressure center which had already formed a well-defined eye throwing the deadly winds of its monstrous spiral bands out in all directions for over two hundred nautical miles.

With the gusts of sea-spawned precipitation pecking away at my humble waterfront abode, I eyed the curious letter with wariness, the source of which was not readily apparent to me as it lay deep in the subconscious primordial instinct, that ancient and mysterious adaptation which so many of us in the artificial fast-paced modern world have lost nearly all connection with.

The fateful letter was postmarked ‘Carrabelle, Florida’, which was a new one on me.  I didn’t know anything about Carrabelle at the time.  If I had known then what I know now, I still wouldn’t know anything about the sleepy little fishing village that lies cryptically tucked away along a boggy stretch of remote seashore known as Florida’s Forgotten Coast.  There’s a reason it’s forgotten.  Those who’ve been there want to forget - those who have been there and come out alive.  Instead of opening the apocalyptic letter that unknown to me at that moment foreshadowed catastrophe, I would have somehow gotten word to von Straud that he should vacate that witch-haunted backwater and never return, blocking all memory of the otherworldly place from his mind forever.  

However, I did not listen to that old and ever-alert voice far back in the recesses of my psyche that warned me to leave well-enough alone.  Like a fool, I sat down at my escritoire, pulled out my gold-plated Gothic letter-opener, and removed the ill-omened contents from the accursed envelope.

What I held between the index finger and thumb of my left hand was a brief note that had been hurriedly scrawled onto a single sheet of professional letterhead stationery.  The elegant cursive had obviously been inscribed by the hand of a woman, although one terribly agitated under the relentless stress of intense anxiety.  With a growing sense of uneasiness, I began reading.

 

Dear Mr. Bridger,

You don’t know me, but my name is Darla Swan.  For the past four and a half months I’ve been employed as an assistant to a very good friend of yours, Borkum von Straud.  I pray you’ll forgive my presumptuous forwardness, yet I must speak directly, for there is not a moment to lose.  You see, our Mr. von Straud has run into trouble.  I fear the situation is grave.  Having last been seen by myself and our guide, Gatien Cottard, entering a shady trail he had hacked out with a machete into the tangled quagmires of dreadful Tate’s Hell Swamp, my employer (your former roommate) has disappeared - vanished without a trace.

From the outset of my tenure with Mr. von Straud, he reminded me incessantly that if he should per chance meet with any misfortune, I should contact you immediately.  I pleaded with him to go no further with his bizarre researches if he felt there was serious risk involved.  I even suggested contacting state or federal authorities if disaster struck, yet he was adamant that under no circumstances whatsoever should I bring outsiders into this mystery.

According to Mr. von Straud, the secret of what he had stumbled upon deep in the shadowy heart of the dangerous primeval swamp bore potential global implications, affecting the future of humanity.  If knowledge of this ancient force of immeasurable power should fall into the wrong hands, it would spell certain doom.  I have the utmost respect and admiration for my employer.  During the last few months, he has treated me as an equal.  His manners and intellect are second to none, yet speaking honestly, I had come to suspect the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and biting stinging bloodsucking yellow flies had adversely affected his formidable reason.  The old timers in these parts have a backwoods saying for when someone begins to show signs of mental instability.  There were rumors circulating that Mr. von Straud had gotten so hot he had been ‘bear-caught’, but what could I do about it?  I needed the money he was paying me, so, against my better judgement, I humored him in his insane explorations of that frightful swamp.

I repeat that, in the event of trouble, he said I should contact only you.  He did not provide me with your phone number.  I tried 411 but they have no listing for a Stowe Bridger.  So all I had was the mailing address my missing employer gave me to which I have sent this letter in desperate hope that it reaches you and you respond in time.  My candor in this matter is embarrassing to me, because this is not my usual conduct.  I am discrete with the utmost commitment to my time-honored profession, however, the situation is critical.  With each moment that passes, Mr. von Straud’s unknown fate grows increasingly grim.  With each fleeting hour, the trail grows colder.  Our chances of ever finding him alive are waning swiftly.  

Please, Mr. Bridger, please hurry to Carrabelle as fast as you can.  You’ll find me every weekday afternoon at four where I dine in a little eatery on the village dock.  It’s a rustic rundown oddly-named place called Crawldads, but they’re friendly folks and they serve scrumptious seafood, though I haven’t much of an appetite since Mr. von Straud’s unexplained disappearance.  Oh, this is crazy, my nerves are overwrought, I’m rambling.  You’ll find me sitting alone in a booth in the very back corner.  Please hurry, Mr. Bridger.  I fear the worst.

Sincerely,

Darla Swan, ACCS

 

I placed the bewildering letter on my desk, pushed my chair back, stood and walked in quiet contemplation to the French doors.  The little square panes were streaked with pelting rain.  I could see the squalls moving onshore from the Gulf.  There was currently a lull, but I knew another squall was coming.  That’s the way of an approaching hurricane.  Each squall is followed by a lull, but the next squall that comes after the lull is always stronger than the one that preceded it.

“Tate’s Hell,” I whispered.  For some reason, that wouldn’t immediately come to mind, that ominous name was familiar, but no matter how hard I cudgeled my brain, the elusive connection simply would not come forward to make itself known.

What was Borkum doing in such a dangerous wilderness?  The deadly pit viper moccasins were enough to keep most people out, even the hardiest adventurers, let alone someone like Borkum.  Raised in the urban metropolis of Helsinki with every automated convenience at his fingertips, he had always been keenly adverse to such wild untamed places.  His idea of happiness was the orderly synthetic environment of paved sidewalks and climate-controlled buildings.  A bubbling scientific laboratory or hushed library basement was as close to a swamp as Borkum would ever get.  Or so I had thought.

Be that as it might, if what this Darla said was true, and I had no reason to think otherwise, my estranged colleague with whom I had been out of touch for so long was apparently in a serious crisis.  He had, in a round about way, reached out to me for help.  If there’s one thing I can say to my credit, it’s that I never turn my back on a friend in need.

I walked back to my desk, picked up my phone and called my secretary.  True to her reliable self, she answered on the first ring, not giving me a chance to speak first - the marvels of caller ID, “Hello, Stowe, what can I do for you?”

“Uh, yeah, hey, Helen.  I apologize for disturbing you on your weekend, but something’s come up, something I’m not quite sure how to explain.  I need to get to Carrabelle, posthaste.”

“Carrabelle?  Never heard of the place - where is it?”

“According to the postmark on this envelope, it’s somewhere here in Florida.”

“What’s going on?”

“Well, I’m not sure, it’s somewhat vague, but it’s an emergency.  Something I gotta do.”

“How long are you going to be there?”

“I don’t know that, either.  It’s all up in the air at the moment.  I won’t know anything specific until I arrive on scene where I hope to get some definite information.”

“Does posthaste mean today?”

“Yes, today.”

“There’s a hurricane coming, Stowe.  It’s just been upgraded to a Category 2.”

“I realize that, but like I said, it’s an emergency, something for an old friend, something I have to do.”

There was a pause of silence on the other end of the line, then, “All right, I’ll be there in thirty minutes.  Don’t bother trying to pack, I’ll do it for you.  You wouldn’t take half of what you’ll need.  By the time I arrive, I’ll know where Carrabelle is and how I’m gonna get you there.  See you in a bit.”

I heard the tone beep and saw the notification that the call had ended.  I laid my phone down beside the eerie letter and walked back to the windowed door to gaze out in deep thought across the stormy lagoon.  White caps were forming, the crested wavelets swelling tumultuously like breakers crashing on the beach.  I thought of my little bay skiff all alone way up in the tidal marsh in the pelting rain and rising wind.  I had lived on Sanibel for thirteen years weathering I don’t know how many tropical cyclones.  In all that time I never evacuated.  I had never left the island ahead of a hurricane.  

Well, I wasn’t actually evacuating.  I was going to help a friend - a friend who had foolishly gotten himself lost in the lethal maze of a nightmare vermin-infested swamp.  As I stared silently out into the gusting squalls, I mumbled something to the effect of “Borkum, my old chum, what have you gotten yourself into?”

What I really should have been asking was…. what was I getting myself into?


© Copyright 2018 Sean Terrence Best. All rights reserved.

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