Big Five Bridge
Jonathan Tulane Baldwine leaned out over the rail of the new bridge that connected Charlemont, Kentucky, with its closest Indiana neighbor, New Jefferson. The Ohio River was fifty feet below, the muddy, swollen waters reflecting the multicolored lights that graced each of the span’s five arches. As he rose up onto the tips of his loafers, he felt as though he were falling, but that was merely an illusion.
He imagined his father jumping off this very ledge to his death.
William Baldwine’s body had been found at the base of the Falls of the Ohio two days ago. And for all of the man’s accomplishments in life, for all of his lofty pursuits, he had ended his mortal coil tangled and mangled in a boat slip. Next to an old fishing trawler. That had a resale value of two hundred bucks. Three hundred, tops.
Oh, the ignominy.
What had it been like to fall? There must have been a rushing breeze in the face as William had been fisted by gravity and pulled down to the water. Clothes must have flapped as flags, slapping against body and leg. Eyes must have watered, from gust or perhaps even emotion?
No, it would have been the former.
The impact had to have hurt. And then what? A shocked inhale that had sucked the river’s foul waves in? A choking sense of suffocation? Or did a knockout render him blissfully unaware? Or . . . perhaps it had all ended with a heart attack from the adrenaline overload of the descent, a stinging pain in the center of the chest radiating down the left arm, preventing a lifesaving swim stroke. Had he still been conscious when the coal barge hit him, when that propeller had chewed him up? Certainly, by the time he went over the falls, he was dead.
Lane wished he knew for sure that the man had suffered.
To know that there had been pain, tremendous, agonizing pain, and also fear, a ringing, overwhelming fear, would have been a powerful relief, a balm to the swill of emotions that his father’s watery death caused him to drown in even while he stood on dry land.
“Over sixty-eight million dollars you stole,” Lane said into the uncaring wind, the disinterested drop, the bored current down below. “And the company’s in even more debt. What the hell did you do with it? Where did the money go?”
There was no answer coming up at him, of course. And that would have been the same if the man were still alive and Lane were confronting him in person.
“And my wife,” he barked. “You fucked my wife. Under the roof you shared with my mother—and got Chantal pregnant.”
Not that Lane’s marriage to the former Chantal Blair Stowe had been anything other than a certificate he’d been coerced into putting his name to. But at least he was owning that mistake and taking care of it.
“No wonder Mother is a drug addict. No wonder she hides. She must have known about the other women, must have known who and what you were, you bastard.”
As Lane closed his eyes, he saw a dead body—but not his father’s swollen, mottled mess of a corpse on that slab from when Lane had gone to the morgue to ID the remains. No, he saw a woman sitting upright in her office at the family’s mansion, her sensible, modest skirt and button-down blouse arranged perfectly, her bobbed hair only a little mussed, grass-stained running shoes on her feet instead of the flats she had always worn.
There had been a horrible grimace on her face. The Joker’s mad grin.
From the hemlock she had taken.
He’d found that body two days before his father had jumped.
“Rosalinda is dead because of you, you sonofabitch. She worked for you in our house for thirty years, and you might as well have killed her yourself.”
She was the reason Lane had found out about the missing money. The former controller for the family’s household accounts had left a kind of suicide note behind, a USB drive with Excel spreadsheets showing the alarming withdrawals, the transfers to WWB Holdings.
William Wyatt Baldwine Holdings.
There were a good sixty-eight million reasons she had poisoned herself. All because Lane’s father had forced her to do unethical things until her sense of decency had snapped her in half.
“And I know what you did to Edward. I know that was your fault, too. You set your own son up in South America. They kidnapped him because of you, and you refused to pay the ransom so they’d kill him. Business rival gone while you get to look like the grieving father. Or did you do it because he, too, suspected that you were stealing?”
Edward had survived, except Lane’s older brother was now nothing but a ruined shell with an irregular heartbeat, no longer the heir apparent to the business, the throne, the crown.
William Baldwine had done so much evil.
And these things were only what Lane knew about. What else was out there?
Equally important was what to do about it all. What could he do?
He felt like he was at the helm of a great ship that had been turned to a rocky shore—right before its rudder snapped off.
With a quick surge of strength, he swung his legs up and over the heavy steel railing, his loafers slapping on the six-inch lip on the far side. Heart pumping, hands and feet going numb, mouth drying out until he could not swallow, he held on behind his hips with an under-grip and leaned even farther into the abyss.
What had it felt like?
He could jump—or just step off . . . and fall, fall, fall until he knew for certain what his father had been through. Would he end up in the same boathouse slip? Would his body also find the propeller of a barge and be great white’d in the filthy fresh waters of the Ohio?
In his mind, clear as day, he heard his momma say in her deep Southern drawl, God does not give us more than we can handle.
Miss Aurora’s faith had certainly seen her through more things than most mere mortals could bear. As an African-American growing up in the South in the fifties, she had faced discrimination and injustices he couldn’t even imagine, and yet Miss Aurora had more than endured, triumphing in culinary school, running the gourmet kitchen at Easterly not just like a French chef, but better—while also mothering him and his brothers and sister as no one else had, becoming the soul of Easterly, the touchstone for so many.
The beacon that, until he had met his Lizzie, had been the only light on the horizon for him.
Lane wished he believed as his momma did. And oh, God, Miss Aurora even had faith in him, faith that he would turn this all around, save the family, be the man she knew he could be.
Be the man his father was not and never had been, no matter the trappings of his wealth and success.