It was raining extremely hard on the Fourth of July when Peter Benedict Bartlett and his son Julian Bartlett II, named after his powerful deceased grandfather, were driving back into Bartlett Bay from business in New Haven.
Peter left the Interstate 95 but instead of continuing down Worthington to Edmonton like normal he went east down Charlotte Rd toward the expensive neighborhood known as Edwards Grove where Julian’s girlfriend lived. The two of them had some kind of special night planned for the Fourth and Julian didn’t feel like driving.
They crossed over the Orange River and Peter gave a passing glance at some of the creepy tents that housed members of the Savior’s Fold cult who lived just around the bend some hundred feet or so north up the river. All he could see were a few of their white tents with their red crosses as he passed, the people there a fanatical Christian group who were unpredictable and quite possibly dangerous.
The instant he looked back at the road he let out a loud, startled scream as something appeared before him, holding out its arm as if embracing the car coming toward it. In his terror Peter lost control of his vehicle alongside what was the worst possible place in Bartlett Bay: the cursed woods known as the Engelstad.
Peter’s 2009 cherry red Ferrari plowed through the tall chain link fence that blocked the south edge of the woods and when he braked the car slid across the muddy ground like it was ice right into a thick tree. Both airbags shot out, saving both passengers, but the car wasn’t going anywhere.
Peter recovered first, feeling mortified by what just happened, and he looked into the dark forest with its abnormal trees that belonged nowhere in Connecticut. They looked wide and fat and had vines of all things and he was told farther inside, he never had the nerve to enter, the tops were so heavy with foliage they could create a canopy thick enough to block out the sun.
The forest is calling me… his mind whispered but he shook it off quickly, terrified by such an abnormal childish thought.
“No!” cried Julian when he saw what happened. “No, I cannot fucking believe this!” He slammed his hand several times on the dash, threw open the door and threw himself out in the rain screaming in rage. “I don’t need this shit! Not NOW! Not EVER!” He turned to his father. “I’m supposed to be with my woman now, Dad! This will take hours to deal with!”
Suddenly Peter remembered the figure in the road and he quickly scrambled out of the car and turned to the fence. He let out a heavy sigh of relief when he saw the figure walking across the opening the car had made was not only human but known.
It was Argyle Coughlan, the last of the Coughlan men of Bartlett Bay. He was in his fifties, around ten years older than Peter, with very short dark brown hair surrounding his bald head and a neatly trimmed beard touched with gray. He was wearing a black suit, with matching tie and black gloves with a long black jacket that reached to his ankles. His shoes were dress shoes, covered in mud, and he was soaked like he had been walking around in the rain for quite some time.
The funeral of his son had been a few days before, buried just a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday. Argyle had evidently been extremely upset, having barely eaten for days and remained dressed in the same clothes he attended the funeral in.
He stopped at the rip in the fence as if to block it, rubbed his gloved hands together and focused his eyes on them in a way they did not like. “Is there going to be a problem here, Mr. Coughlan?” asked Peter as he adjusted his expensive black jacket. He hated rain, his polo shirt and slacks already feeling soaked through.
Argyle said nothing and thunder struck in the distance behind him.
“Is there a problem, old man?” asked Julian in a half-scream as he took out his black trench coat from the car and wrapped it around himself.
Argyle still said nothing.
Julian suddenly gave him a wide, cocky smile. “Are we still angry about your son’s ‘little drinking problem?’ ” Argyle tilted his head a bit, his expression unchanged. “You think—” Julian made an exaggerated shrug “—there’s something you want to do that the United States court system could not?” He shrugged wider, eyes wide. “Not guilty, Argyle. Not guilty.” He then frowned and pointed a finger away. “So get the fuck out of here!”
Argyle nodded and said, “All he wanted to do was be your friend.”
“Yeah, well, he’s dead now!” cried Julian and he looked at his watch and groaned. “Call a fucking tow truck already, Dad, and while you’re at it, call the police!” Argyle took a deep breath and then continued to look at Julian again in that same blank way. “Well, old man, are you going to do something other than eyefuck me?”
Argyle looked over at Peter as if expecting to find something more sympathetic in an elder generation or fellow father but there was nothing there. Peter, like his father Julian I, felt the courts were right when they made the right decision.
And the wrong decision was for his son, future heir of the Bartlett Empire, to go to jail for some nobody.
Argyle nodded again, sadness creeping into his face. “Say something Peter,” he said. “Say something about the truth. Anything—please, just anything.”
Peter scoffed. “What truth? Yours?” Argyle looked incredibly disappointed and he shook his head in that arrogant high-and-mighty way that the trashy Irish Coughlans always did.
“How about you?” Argyle asked Julian. “Anything repentant to say?”
“Our car just crashed, old man!” cried Julian. “Unlike your son we actually have something other than lying around to do!”
Argyle sighed, shook his head again in that same arrogant way and reached into his jacket. Then, after sighing one more time, he pulled out a semi-automatic and fired.
Julian let out a shriek like a girl as the bullet sliced cleanly across his right leg, and he fell against the back of the Ferrari. He was instantly defeated even though he could have likely walked or even ran if he tried and he cried out, “Don’t hurt me! Please! I’ll do anything! Anything!”
Peter felt his bladder release, too terrified to come close to action, and he froze in place. He had been in the military, most Bartlett men had, but it was a champagne unit and everyone knew it. He had seen about as much action there as he would have working in a salon.
Thus, the several key moments when he could have rushed forward and done something were wasted while he stared as though in a trance.
“Why?” asked Julian. “How could you do this to me?”
Argyle’s eyes hardened and he raised the gun up to Julian’s forehead. He pulled the trigger, splattering the back of his head against the Ferrari’s trunk, and watched calmly as his body slipped down into mud. He then slowly leaned over and looked into the dead light blue eyes of Peter’s only son as they stared blankly up into the raining sky.
Peter shook his head, unable to believe what he just saw. How could this happen? It was against everything natural in the world, against God Himself. “You’re—” his mind fought for some kind of logic as Argyle looked at him “—going to Hell!” Argyle raised the gun toward him and that broke the paralysis. Peter charged away in the only direction he could be certain there was cover.
The woods: the dark and cursed woods.
His hope, when he finally regained lucidity in his thoughts, was to cross the Engelstad to the other side and flag someone down off the Interstate 95, but it seemed one of the stranger aspects of the forest was true and the woods really did get bigger. He scrambled over roots and under branches for quite some time and, not only did it not end, but he soon saw hills or possibly mountains in the distance.
Peter was no woodsmen nor was he dressed as one and after just ten minutes he was covered in mud and bruises from countless slips and falls. Having no choice but to go on he had proceeded for over an hour, screaming and yelling and wailing with every fall until he hit a root and stumbled out of the trees into a soaked meadow by an overflowing stream.
He cried out in agony, having nearly broken his toes, and looked up to suddenly see a horror he heard rumors of all his life. A great wall of tall hills or possibly mountains stretched across the north and on a pass high up between two of the tallest peaks was the dark castle. There was no doubt about it, the clouds had parted from over it alone, and he could see its many towers and walls silhouetted while stretching high up into the darkening blue sky.
That castle had been spotted multiple times over the years going back even as far back as the 17th century. Who lived there? What do they want? What happens to those who seek it out? It sure can’t be good because they never came home.
He charged west, splashing across the ankle deep stream, and disappeared into some more trees. He chose west because he had crashed farther west than east on the south entrance of the woods leaving the exit closer in that direction.
He also chose west because he would rather run back at Argyle with his loaded gun and get shot before even thinking of going in the direction of that castle.
* * *
“Walk west down Charlotte Rd at five-thirty tonight if you want a chance for your son’s vindication,” a woman’s voice had said on Argyle’s answering machine that very morning. It was strange because his wife Alice was home all that morning and the entire day before and did not hear the phone ring once.
Alice did not want him to go and he told her he wasn’t going to but he did anyway. He wasn’t sure why he believed the voice but he did.
He was thinking about her when he stepped out into the meadow and looked around. The sheer scope of the Engelstad was mindboggling and there was that castle everyone whispered about. He ignored it, not the easiest task in the world, and looked around for Peter Bartlett. Argyle doubted he would have the nerve to go north but which other way did he then go: east or west?
“That way!” cried a voice.
Argyle turned his eyes to a figure directly north standing amidst the trees. With the rain, the distance and the shade created by a heavy canopy of leaves it was impossible to determine anything of the figure except that it was cloaked in something dark from head to toe and it spoke with a woman’s voice.
“He went—” she pointed to her right, his left “—that way!”
Argyle didn’t question it. The voice was the same as the one on his answering machine and she had been right before. He could not think of any possible reason she would suddenly lie and he was beyond carrying what reasons she had for helping him.
* * *
The stitch in Peter’s side had become unbearable and he leaned up against a tree for a moment. He looked to his right, to a rocky verticle hill side with a jutting overhang and saw four goblins sitting underneath looking at him. “Oh God, no!” he cried and he started to stumble away. “Not now!”
They looked like scrawny short people, four feet tall at the highest, with greenish black skin, long crooked noses and greasy black hair. Their eyes were beady and black and they wore clothes and shoes stolen from children. Those particular goblins’ feet were covered bright sneakers with holes at the ends to let their clawed toes stick out and every one of them wore a hat, three of which were typical baseball caps, one of them a top hat.
“Oh what’s the matter, meat bag?” asked one of the goblins wearing a pink t-shirt with a grinning monkey on the front and a backward Connecticut Tigers baseball cap. He pulled out a survival knife from his side. “Scared?”
Peter could hear the goblins coming up after him, all chuckling eagerly, and he was certain they would soon easily catch up and eat him but then he heard four gunshots. He looked back and saw Argyle moving through the trees past the suddenly dead goblins almost casually. “No!” Peter cried as he ran away. “No, no, nooo!”
He charged onward as fast he could, the space between the trees wider and the branches higher allowing his speed to become greater but Argyle remained close behind, far better at maneuvering through the woods than Peter was and he barely looked winded. Then suddenly Peter stepped around a tree and found himself on a ledge alongside a several hundred foot waterfall he had heard coming but hadn’t given it a thought.
It came from the unnatural mountain range in the Engelstad, pouring down an environmental created waterfall staircase over at least a dozen falls till it became the one above Peter which landed in a rock filled pool seventy feet below the ledge and then it flowed down another waterfall fifty feet below that. That turned casually into a small river which, after connecting to several other small rivers, became the Orange River which flowed peacefully south, out of the Engelstad, across Bartlett Bay and out into the Long Island Sound.
Peter was trapped. There was nowhere to go; down was death, the pool below filled with rocks and the one beyond so far down he almost certainly would not survive the jump; up was a vertical climb through a raging waterfall and climbing down was fatal because, assuming somehow he managed not to just slip, fall and die because of the rain it would still take at least an hour if not hours and that would give Argyle Coughlan plenty of time to calmly aim and fire.
He turned around to double back and hopefully find another path when Argyle stepped out of the woods.
* * *
There were many good reasons for what Argyle Coughlan was doing.
John Bartlett, Peter’s younger brother, had violently raped Argyle’s younger sister Nadine in the mid-1980s and she had never gotten over it. She had gone from a sweet hearted romantic to a bad tempered, embittered drunk spinster. The death of John Bartlett at an ill-fated Halloween party did nothing to appease her or their family as the entire accusation was not only defeated earlier by Bartlett money and power, Peter’s father, Julian Bartlett I, had even gone so far as to somehow brand Nadine as a whore in front of the entire town.
As a girl, Argyle’s wife had gotten an incurable limp after Anne Bartlett, who was a competing dancer in school, had hit her with a car. Alcohol related driving laws were not as well enforced back then, MADD hadn’t even been founded yet, and that, combined with Bartlett power, ended it as being ruled an accident and the Bartletts didn’t even have to pay the medical bills. Sometimes sweet-hearted Alice, who had to give up her dream of being a dancer, even seemed to believe it but Argyle had met Anne Bartlett and, even though she had later became quite an alcoholic, he found himself doubting she was drunk at the time.
Of course there was also the family business, the Coughlan Cannery, which had been started by his great-grandfather John Coughlan when he came over from Ireland. In an odd but unsurprising moment of hypocrisy the Bartletts and Le Sueurs, supposed enemies, suddenly worked together to destroy the business they must have viewed as a competitor even though they were both already transitioning on to very different kinds of businesses by then and had little to fear. With their combined power they succeeded and the Le Sueurs took over and ran the cannery into the ground, forever destroying the Coughlan family business. The Bartletts had been previously friends with the Coughlans and that was a surprising and very hurtful betrayal.
There were countless other incidents anyone in town could claim: sexual harassment, regular harassment, drunk driving, assault, theft and countless others and from every member of that family and never did a Bartlett get convicted. Sometimes they were fined but never did they do any jail time.
James Bartlett, the last one that resembled the noble family that the Bartletts used to be, had acted against his family when Julian Bartlett I had done something very bad, Argyle still didn’t know what exactly, to an eight-year-old girl and it had cost his family five hundred thousand dollars to silence that girl’s parents. It was the closest thing to a 20th century conviction of that family and James’ father was so infuriated he disowned James for talking, while not so much as even getting annoyed with Julian and what did to that girl, and that forced James to take his wife, Argyle’s aunt on his mother’s side, off to California never to be seen again. He had been good friends with Argyle’s father and it seemed very clear had Julian and not James been disowned the Coughlan Cannery would still be functional.
Oh yes, there many reasons to kill Peter Bartlett and his worthless son but Argyle personally only had one.
“My son will not be remembered as a stupid frat boy who killed himself getting drunk when you are dead,” Argyle told him loudly over the sound of the waterfall. “They’ll know you crossed the line and they’ll know why you died. They’ll all say that Peter and Julian Bartlett finally crossed the line and got what was coming to them.”
“I did nothing wrong!” Peter nearly shrieked.
It was over eighty degrees and it seemed the rain was as warm as Argyle’s tears. He held the gun tenderly, an unwelcome replacement for a lost child, the water above like a shower that could never make him clean. “Everyone in the Yale Bartlett House was either your employee’s child or your friends’ child. It was of little difficulty for you to pay off or threaten them into perjuring themselves to ensure your son’s release. I have it on good authority on what your son really did.
“He held down my son Linus and forced alcohol down his throat laughing until he choked to death. I know this true because my son did not and would not ever drink. He’s always been a teetotaler.”
“Is that what you’ve come for? Revenge?”
“No,” he told him earnestly. Argyle would have been satisfied if any appropriate legal measure had succeeded after the death of his son. He could have accepted a weak sentence, even a slap on the wrist, as long it came with an acknowledgement of guilt and of what Julian had done to his son. The knowledge of his son’s goodness remaining intact would have not made him happy but it would have kept him far from Charlotte Rd at five-thirty that evening.
“Killing me won’t bring back your son!” Peter cried.
“I’m not trying to bring my son back to life,” Argyle replied. “This will only bring back the memory of who he really was and will give some peace to his poor mother who has now lost every dream and hope she ever had because of your family.” Argyle thought about what they had done to all the people in the town and the town itself and his hand tightened onto the pistol. “Bartlett Bay will be better without you.”
“Bartlett Bay cannot exist without a Bartlett!” cried Peter, not in anger, but in fear. “We run this town! You kill the last of Bartletts you kill this city!” That sounded like something his father would say; it was if the women of his family weren’t real Bartletts.
“There is another male Bartlett,” said Argyle. “Perhaps he’ll be the man his grandfather, your uncle and my uncle-in-law, had been; a man who will use his immense power to help the city instead of using it to bully everyone; a Bartlett like your ancestors were.”
“That is why you’re doing this?” Peter cried out. “To put a—to put a Jew in my place?” It was then that Argyle realized that speaking to Peter was a complete waste of time and it had just shortened his life.
Argyle raised his gun and fired a single bullet into his chest.
It hit dead center and Peter Bartlett, second-to-last of all male Bartletts, fell backward off the ledge with his arms outstretched. He fell through the air without a cry and died on impact with the rocks below making a very bloody mess. He was then quickly pulled away by the water over the next drop where he went bobbling away face first down the river. Later that day he would catch up under the stone bridge not far from where his son’s body would be found only a couple hours before.
Argyle tossed his gun into the river and the sound of thunder struck in the distance so loudly it seemed to shake the world.
He walked home following the river and saw no one, not even members of the Savior’s Fold as he walked by their camp. When he arrived he told his sister what he had done and waited patiently for the police to come. They didn’t come right away, even though they’d have to be idiots not to know he was the prime suspect, and the rain had slowed down enough by nine to give him what he felt was one last evening of freedom with his wife watching the fireworks shoot off from Lighthouse Island over the ocean around where the Bartletts’ fisheries had once been.
When the police did come, somewhat ironically, nothing came of it. Whatever power the Bartlett men had, the women did not, reinforcing the rumors of Julian Bartlett I’s extreme misogynistic personality. That, combined with the fact several people automatically gave him alibis during the time of the murders set him completely scot-free.
Escaping justice like a Bartlett after killing a Bartlett was an extra special irony he could never have predicted and the real prize couldn’t have come quicker.
Within days or even less the people were all saying what he hoped: the death of his innocent son Linus was the final straw and someone, after years of Bartlett abuse, decided to finally end their tyranny before someone else innocent was hurt and everyone agreed his son did not kill himself. It felt very much like justice, not real justice like an appropriate sentence from a judge after a jury conviction, but justice as good as it could be under the circumstances.
A short time later Argyle heard from a friend at his favorite bar that the last Bartlett was being summoned into Bartlett Bay all the way from southern California.