The Crooked Bridge to Hell

  

CHAPTER ONE

At the stroke of midnight, two days before the end of 1973, Mary Bartlett slid into one of the guest bedrooms of her grandfather’s majestic log home. She pushed the heavy oak door closed and posed against it. Her long dark hair hid more of her slender body than the lacy piece of lavender nothing she wore. Christopher Bartlett looked up from his suitcase, winced at the sight of her and wrinkled his nose at the smokyfireplace odor that had drifted in with her. So much for making a clean getaway.

 “What are you going to do with your part of the money?” Mary smiled.

 “It’s nice to see you too.” He meant it to sound sarcastic, not breathless. He felt his face color and caught himself staring. During his long absence she had grown up to be even more beautiful.

“How much did you get?” Her intense blue eyes sparkled as she appraised him frankly.

“Two,” he answered, wondering why he had told her. She had him rattled and it was time to leave. Chris closed the leather suit case that lay on the foot of the undisturbed bed. His old room at his grandfather’s estate was the same as he remembered, dark, even in the daytime. Tonight by the pale green light of the desk lamp and with the moonlight sifting through the lace covered French doors to the second storybalcony, being back in Rose Rock Oklahoma seemed like a bad dream.

“See? He didn’t disown you after all.” Mary made straight for the antique double bed, threw back the quilted navy cover and slid between the sheets, pulling them up to but not over those magnificent breasts that Chris couldn’t keep his eyes off of.

You think money makes up for being sent away from my home and family?” He concentrated on glaring into her deep blue eyes.

“Oh please. Thirteen years in London is hardly a prison sentence. By the way, the accent is wickedly charming.” She smiled again, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue.

 “I suppose you think the seven years in boarding school was wickedly charming as well.” Chris grimaced at her.

 “Of course not but it got you a good job, a prestigious job. I’ve heard that you’re quite the financial wizard these days. Actually, that’s why I’m here. I was hoping you could give me some advice.” She batted her eyelashes and pursed her heart-shaped mouth.

 “About ruining people’s lives? I thought you wrote the book.” Chris felt ill with rage.

 Mary laughed a high, musical note that sounded a bit hysterical. “You can’t still be mad at me after all this time. Can you?”

Chris eyed his scheming cousin and said nothing. Conflicting emotions warred within him. In spite of everything she had cost him, being torn away from her had been the hardest part.

 His silence seemed to disturb her. Her lips moved wordlessly, the way they always had right before the excuses came tumbling out.

“It wasn’t, I didn’t, I was in shock!” Her stunning blue eyes filled with tears.

The sight of them tightened his throat and brought back that awful day during Christmas break when everything had changed. He recalled the murky ice on the cove and Mary in her white down jacket and pink stocking cap beckoning him and her brothers to follow her across.

“I dare you,” she had teased.

It almost never got cold enough in Eastern Oklahoma for the ice to get thick enough to walk on safely. They all knew better, but none of them would back down.

The eight-year-old twins, Ray and Roy had rushed ahead, taunting him as usual.

Chris took several paces then stood rooted to the spot where the ice grew dark and the water grew deep, listening to the ice groan, afraid to back track across the maze of cracks behind him. Then came the awful splash, the screaming and Chris looked up to see Ray run to his thrashing brother, only to plunge through with him. 

The two of them had struggled quickly to mute, wide-eyed exhaustion. Chris would never forget the way they had looked at him standing there, paralyzed by the horror of what he was witnessing while Mary ran for the house. 

Chris shook the memory away and found that he had been staring at the lace covered French doors beyond which lay that once beautiful view of Rose Rock Lake. The two of them had died right out there. Chris turned away from the doors, looked at Mary and wished her dead in their place. 

“It was the worst day of my life, and then you turned on me.” 

“It wasn’t like that.” A tear slid down her cheek. 

“Then how did they find out about us? No one knew!” 

“I don’t remember!” 

“Well let me bring you up to speed. You blamed me for everything! Your father called me a murderer and then he accused me of molesting you. Me molesting you! I was twelve. You were fifteen! You were the one who started it all and yet my own parents turned against me. The whole family turned against me because of you.” 

“They jumped to conclusions. They wouldn’t listen!” 

“Oh they wouldn’t, would they? I thought you didn’t remember. Everyone else remembers. I could see it in their eyes this afternoon at Grandpa’s funeral. They still find it easier to believe the lie.” 

“I was in love with you!” 

Chris stared at her with his mouth hanging open. She had never said the words before, in all that time when it might have mattered. In thirteen years she had never so much as sent him a post card. 

“Say something,” she sobbed. 

“Get out.” 

“No, please. You can’t mean that.” She got out of bed and went to him. 

“You’re sick.” He pushed her away and snatched up his brief case and suit jacket from the end of the bed. As he neared the door, he smelled smoke from the fireplace again. The wind must be blowing it back down the chimney. 

“I never stopped loving you.” She rebounded off the edge of the bed and threw her arms around him. “No matter what you say, I know you love me too.” 

Chris let his jacket and brief case fall by the door. He twisted in her grasp, took her by the shoulders and shook her. “There can never be anything between us. Do you understand? Never!” 

“But we’re grown up now. We can do what we please.” 

“That’s why I’m leaving. Nothing you say can stop me.” 

Suddenly she was kissing him and the warm, sweet scent of her filled him up with the desire he had denied so long. Yes, he loved her once, but he sensed a greater motive behind her declaration. It occurred to him to sleep with her and then leave. She deserved it if only for coming to his room dressed like that, obviously confident in her ability to manipulate him. 

Mary pulled away and looked at him long and hard. 

Her eyes held a different light in them than he ever seen before as if her mind were somewhere else, moving too fast. It made him nervous. 

“We can be together. We can leave and go somewhere far away where nobody knows us. Just think of what we can do with four million instead of two.” Her slender fingers dug into his biceps. 

Chris pried them off and stepped back. “Is that it then?” 

“What do you mean, is that it? Haven’t you heard a word I said?” She reached for him and caught his sleeve. 

Chris twisted it out of her hand. “It’s more what you haven’t said that bothers me.” 

“I said I love you. What more do you need?” 

“I can’t help but wonder what four million can buy you that two can’t.” 

She exhaled her irritation. “The money we got was from Grandfather’s savings, but your dad and mine got the oil company stock. It must be to be worth a billion. A billion! You know we’ll never see a penny of that when they die.” 

“I know I won’t but you’ve always been in their good graces.” 

“Maybe it seemed that way from England. The sad truth is they can’t stand the sight of me. Since Roy and Ray died, they act as if I’m dirty with something that won’t wash off.” 

“That’s not my fault.” 

“My point is we have to look out for each other. You know no one else will.” Her nimble fingers were undoing the buttons of his silk and linen dress shirt. 

He caught her by the wrists. “I can take care of myself.” 

“I said I was sorry.” Her lips brushed against his throat. 

No, she hadn’t. Chris released her wrists and let his hands slide down her bare back. Her skin felt warm and softer than the petals of a flower and the air in the room seemed to grow warmer by the minute, but not out of passion. He pictured his hands squeezing her throat until her eyes rolled back in her head. “All right then, let’s do it.” 

Mary drew a sharp breath and her eyes lit up with delight, no, triumph. She stepped back from him and slid the lavender satin straps off her shoulders. The lacy night gown fell to the floor around her feet. She kicked it at him playfully. 

Such a pretty package, Chris thought. It was quite clear that she knew it. 

“Make love to me,” she sighed. 

Chris smiled. “Business before pleasure, I always say.” 

“Business can wait.” She stepped forward, reaching for him. 

He stopped her with his index finger planted firmly between her perfect breasts and tried not to laugh at the plan that was taking shape. He would get her on the plane with him, then make an excuse to leave, only for a second to make a call or retrieve a forgotten bag. He smiled wider as he imagined watching the plane take off without him and how frantic she would be when she realized what he had done. He bent and snatched her gown off the floor where it lay between them and tossed it at her. 

“If we’re to leave tonight, together, we have to move now. Get dressed and hurry back here. Oh, and leave the luggage. There isn’t time. I’ll buy your ticket when we get to the airport and I’ll buy you whatever you need when we get to London. Chanel, Dior, whatever you want and wait till you see my flat. It’s extraordinary if I do say so myself. All I need from you is the bank draft, signed over to me. After I invest it, that two will be one hundred before you know it.” 

Her smile faded. “I was thinking this would be more of a joint venture.” 

He smiled gently. “Of course it is, but you must remember that I’m the one with the financial connections. Isn’t that what you came here looking for? I’m offering you everything you’ve ever dreamed of right now. Take it or leave it.” 

Her blue eyes narrowed. “You’re serious? What’s in it for you?” 

“Seeing you again has made me realize that all my wealth is meaningless without someone to share it with.” It sounded so corny that he fought not to laugh in her face. He fished in his pocket, retrieved the keys to the Triumph Spitfire waiting in the parking lot at Heathrow and dangled them in front of her. 

She took them and turned them over in her delicate hands. “A Bentley? You drive a Bentley?” 

She should know that any fool could buy a fancy key chain. “No, love. You do.” 

Her lips moved but no sound escaped them. She threw herself into his arms and kissed him. 

He smelled wood smoke again mingled with the floral scent of her hair and fancied he heard some commotion downstairs. He pushed her away. 

“Go quickly or we’ll be discovered.” 

Mary gave a cry of joy and ran to the door naked, still clutching his keys together with her nightgown. 

Chris allowed himself to chuckle as she opened the door but it sprang open as if someone outside had kicked it in. He barely had time to wonder before a roaring blast of lung searing heat washed over him and a boiling wave of flame broke over the transom, igniting Mary’s long black hair. 

Her screams paled in comparison to his sudden desire to save himself. Chris dashed to the French doors, threw the latch and flung them open, feeling the draft cold in his face and the heat flare against his back. He charged out onto the balcony and searched in the dark and glare for the cottonwood tree that grew close enough to catch hold of, the one he had climbed down from as a child, but he had been gone too long. There was no tree there now. 

Chris moaned with panic and turned to see his room engulfed by fire and Mary running out of the inferno like a creature from hell. To his horror, she grabbed him. 

Without a second thought, he grasped her sloughing arms and threw her over the rail, but then a thunderous explosion shook the building and drove a bank of flame out the doors at him. 

Seeing that he had no choice, Chris vaulted over the rail and landed, broken but blissfully alive beside Mary’s twisted, smoking corpse. As he lay staring at the blaze in all its hideous beauty, the house seemed to shudder, then lean and he saw that he had not escaped. Slowly, slowly, in a flurry of sparks, the wall came down, raining burning timbers upon him with a dreadful force that he could never have imagined and in that final moment before his death, an image appeared in the flame. It was Grandfather, and he was laughing.

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~ by loretta8 on March 4, 2010.

One Response to “The Crooked Bridge to Hell”

  1. Hi!

    Okay, so I was finally able to sit down and read this chapter. I really enjoyed the imagery and your usage of smoke as foreshadowing. The relationship depicted was an interesting one, especially since these two were cousins. That would make for familial tensions for sure! The chapter ended explosively (literally) and with quite the hook. Good job! Bring on Chapter 2!

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