It wasnt always like thi.., p.10
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.10

           Joy Preble
 
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  He knew, even before the f ire, that there would be no point in living without her. They had been each other’s f irsts, but he rarely thought about it in those terms. Emma was not a conquest. She was simply part of him. The part that had to go on living even after Glen Walters destroyed him. But she could do it. With enough time and distance, she could do anything.

  Charlie was keeping her safe. Those ugly words he’d spoken to her back at that fork in the road . . . he didn’t regret them. He’d worn that mask because it was the only way to get her to separate from him.

  He didn’t regret them.

  He didn’t . . .

  By the time Charlie Ryan reached the outskirts of New Orleans—a city pungent with life and death and sex and food and liquor, the muddy odor of the Mississippi, and the briny whiff of the Gulf—he knew he was a liar. He’d made the worst possible mistake. He was not a hero, Charlie realized now, just a plain old fool. He’d lopped off the only part of himself worth saving: her.

  Later, he would understand that this was the trouble with being forever seventeen: certainty. At the crossroads, he’d been absolutely certain he was doing the right thing. Now he was absolutely certain he had not.

  He hated that he knew exactly how to word the lie. Bring up the hawks—exactly the weak spot to make Emma doubt what they had between them. But everyone was dead. What else could he do?

  A million other things, he realized.

  Idiot. Stupid, stupid, idiot. What if the Church of Light had tracked Emma? He would never forgive himself.

  Charlie stood at the banks of the Mississippi, the wind blustering off the water and realized with that same absolute certainty that he had to go back. He had to go . . . where? He had no damn idea.

  So he walked the streets of the city. At one point he lingered on the sidewalk and watched a funeral procession—a parade, really, some strange mixture of music and mourning and celebration. He thought of his family and Emma’s. He forced himself not to wonder what had been done with their bodies. A dark-skinned woman in a colorful headdress offered to read his palm and sell him a love potion.

  “No money,” he said, tipping open one empty pocket. That much was true.

  The next day, he found a job as a groundskeeper for the Old French Opera House at Toulouse and Bourbon Streets. The place had hit hard times, he could see. But it was still functioning. He knew his way around cleaning and gardening. And it could put money in his pockets.

  “We took on some water during the hurricane last year,” the manager told Charlie. “But we were lucky. Some of the houses uptown weren’t so fortunate.”

  Charlie half-wished another storm would swirl in and pull him out to sea with it.

  A few nights later, after he f inished up his rounds, he stood on the corner of Bourbon Street and waited for the cover of night—best to sneak back into the small room in the musty basement where he could catch a few hours’ sleep. He had no money yet to rent a room anywhere; he was eating mostly leftover scraps from the performers’ dressing rooms. Thieving this space was the best he could do for now. He would leave a few coins as compensation when he moved on.

  “You look hungry,” a girl said to him, startling him out of his thoughts.

  He recognized her; she was one of the seamstresses who came in to f it the costumes. He didn’t know her name. Nor did he ask it. She was short and thick and dark-haired, an odd sprinkling of freckles running in a thin line from her jaw down her neck.

  “I can make you something,” she said.

  He followed her to a boarding house off Canal.

  When she kissed him, he kissed her back. Her mouth had a bitter taste, like stale coffee, but her breasts were large and full and pressed up against him, and her tongue was warm and insistent. He didn’t stop her when she moved her hand down below his waist.

  “You are a handsome one,” she whispered.

  She moaned against him, fumbling with the buttons on his f ly. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in this girl whose name he didn’t even know. Having lost the only person he would ever truly love, this seemed like proof of his betrayal.

  Somehow the thought emerged anyway, the way thoughts do sometimes when you need them the most. He found himself remembering the hawks.

  You had to woo a hawk, had to be patient and gentle and know everything about it. You couldn’t force matters, or it would f ly away and it wouldn’t come back.

  Amateurs saw this as a f law in the creature itself. That hawks were high-strung and temperamental. The amateurs forgot, or maybe they never learned that some hawks, like the goshawk Charlie had cherished, mated for life. They were headstrong birds who found the one they loved and never let go.

  Charlie pulled away from the girl.

  “Hey,” she said, frowning.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t. I . . . there’s someone. Someone I love.”

  She uttered a string of profanities, but he was already walking out the door. He was gone from New Orleans before morning. He didn’t bother leaving a note at the opera house.

  He backtracked all the way to Florida, traveling everywhere he thought she might go. But there was no Emma. Not anywhere he went.

  The only thing Charlie knew for sure was that he loved Emma O’Neill, had never stopped loving her. She was his hawk as he was hers. But he had let her go, had in fact forced her to f ly, and nothing would ever be the same until he found her again.

  Always he waited for the Church of Light to catch up with him. Surely he had left an obvious trail. They would f ind him, and he would kill every last one of them, but only after he made sure that Emma was still safe.

  But they didn’t. Once, somewhere outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, he thought he saw a short, bowlegged man watching him from a corner. Kingsley Lloyd? But when he turned to look again, the man was gone.

  A few months later, Charlie boarded a ship for England. War was raging even if the Americans had yet to take the leap, and Charlie half hoped the Germans would blow the ship and his guilt right out of the water. But they didn’t.

  And so, consumed with a dual desire to destroy everyone in his path and to lead astray those who wanted to destroy Emma, Charlie Ryan found a way to go to war.

  Chapter Twelve

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  The next morning, New Year’s Day, the kidnapping of Coral Ballard—or “alleged kidnapping,” as there was no actual proof—was all over the Dallas news. The day after that, it was trending online. By January 3, it had been replaced by stories on weight loss and gym membership, restaurants with heart-healthy menus, and an investigation into a local congressman’s cocaine addiction.

  Emma couldn’t blame the media. Girls disappeared all the time.

  None of the coverage mentioned Coral’s friend, who had launched a full-scale investigation of her own. The media, of course, did not know Emma O’Neill existed. Or if it did, she was of no particular consequence. Which was how Emma liked to work. Off the grid, or making only the slightest of pings. If she was lucky, she’d f ind Coral before the Church of Light anticipated Emma’s movements.

  If.

  No, she corrected herself. Not if. When. She would do this. She had to do this.

  Since the news conference, a neighbor had come forward and reported hearing Hugo and Coral argue loudly about something. The media had attached themselves to the idea that Hugo, the boyfriend, was a viable suspect.

  This made Emma simultaneously furious and wary. People always went for the easy answers. On the other hand, Pete Mondragon would have suspected Hugo, too.

  Coral’s parents appeared on TV, pleading for anyone who knew anything about their daughter’s disappearance to come forward. Classmates taped up posters on light poles and stop signs.

  Nothing.

  The crazies had called, of course. Missing girls
always brought out the crazies. The cops had followed up on as many leads as they could. After all, everyone remembered those girls who’d been held for years by that bastard in Cleveland.

  This, Hugo informed Emma, gave the Ballards a strange sort of hope.

  On the afternoon of January 3, Emma returned to Dallas Fellowship.

  Even after having been subject to the likes of Glen Walters, Emma wasn’t opposed to the idea of a deity. But if God existed, He or She might very well be as perplexed about Emma’s immortal condition as Emma was. And seemingly unavailable to help f ind Coral, although Emma was not one to rule out the impossible. It’s up to me, she thought as she pulled back into the church parking lot for her appointment with the previously elusive Pastor Meehan.

  Maybe there was something, even the tiniest coincidence or connection, in terms of the Elodie Callahan murder case that would help her f ind Coral.

  It wouldn’t be an obvious thing, she knew. As far as Emma had discovered, Glen Walters had personally and carefully trained his Church of Light followers. And they in turn had trained the ones who’d succeeded them over the years, on and on, for over a century. They’d grown skilled at hiding themselves in less overt trappings than a facility large enough to house its own Starbucks. In point of fact, they had lost their surface religious cover years ago. After that attack on the girl in Alabama—not that it had ever been directly linked to the fanatical disciples of Glen Walters by name—the Church of Light had not-so-mysteriously faded from the public forum. The tent revivals became less publicized and ultimately went the way of Prohibition and f lapper dresses.

  But their purpose, their focus, never seemed to waver. They hid now, but they wanted Emma dead like the others. That was their mission, passed on from fathers to sons, to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Were there women in their leadership, too? Who knew?) Emma would have found that intensity of purpose absurd if she hadn’t lived through so many wars and conf licts. People held grudges for longer and killed for less. She knew it.

  In a weird way, she sometimes found herself envious of the delicious false security that must come with thinking you know exactly how the world works. She hadn’t felt absolutely certain of almost anything for longer than she could remember. Oh, she was positive she liked stylish cars and junk food and expensive shoes, not that she begrudged herself these too often. Positive that she’d been a shallow idiot once upon a time.

  But her instincts made her wonder if she was even sure anymore what the Church of Light wanted with her. Maybe it was less her death (and Charlie’s, because she refused to be anything but absolutely certain that he was alive) than the need for a symbol, something to hold their followers together. Emma O’Neill, eternal glue for the crazies.

  And now, if her instincts were right, those fanatical disciples were hiding very close by.

  And so, another trip to Dallas Fellowship.

  “Good to see you, Emma,” Melanie Creighton told her as she entered the reception area.

  Emma noted that this time, the secretary’s smile did not reach her eyes.

  Pastor Meehan believed they were going to chat about baptism. It was as good an excuse as any, although Emma Catherine Mary O’Neill had long ago been baptized one Sunday afternoon at St. Agnes Catholic Church on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Of course, it might surprise the pastor to know that this particular church was no longer standing. It was a Whole Foods now.

  Meehan stepped out of his off ice. He was a tall man with a shock of thick brown hair threaded with gray. He had a strong, square chin, bright blue eyes, and a slightly crooked nose, like maybe he’d been a boxer.

  “You must be Emma,” he said.

  He ushered her inside, leaving the door open, and then gestured to two armchairs by the window. There was a small table between them. On it sat bowls of pretzels and ice, soft drink cans, and paper cups. He wanted her to feel comfortable. Or maybe this is what he did for all his guests.

  Emma sat.

  Pastor Meehan lowered himself into the chair across from her. “So,” he said over the snacks, “what can I do for you, Emma?”

  It was not the question she had expected. Not when she had rambled on about baptism and youth group T-shirts in her voice mail. Also of note: he didn’t offer her anything. Not even a, Help yourself, young lady.

  She held his gaze. In the outer off ice, she could hear Melanie Creighton talking animatedly to someone on the phone.

  “I’m worried about what happened to Elodie Callahan,” Emma said.

  Pastor Meehan raised one nicely groomed brow. Then his eyes went sad. “Emma,” he said slowly, his voice gentle. “What is this about? You’re not a student at Heritage.” Only then did he point to the bowl on the table between them. “Pretzel?”

  If they spot you, Pete had taught her, you have two choices: Keep up the lie or go for the truth.

  She contemplated the pretzels. “This was the last place she was seen alive.”

  Pastor Meehan leaned over the soda cans. Emma could smell something crisp and sweet on his breath. Peppermint. The scent reminded her, swiftly and viscerally, of Glen Walters and that day with her brother Simon at McClanahan’s mercantile. Silly, she told herself. But her pulse jumped anyway and she struggled to hold Pastor Meehan’s gaze.

  Meehan’s eyes softened. “I know,” he said. “I think about it every day. Elodie was here, and then . . .” He raised that brow again, clearly waiting.

  So you’re a poker player, Emma thought. Okay, then.

  “I’m a private investigator,” she told him. Not the whole truth, but not a lie. “I’m sorry for the bit of f iction. We’re never sure how cooperative people will be once they’ve talked to the cops. I’m sure you understand.”

  She unzipped her hobo bag and extracted her PI license. “I go undercover a lot,” she said, which was also true.

  Meehan was still leaning forward, pretending to debate which soda he wanted, hands cupping his knees. Out of the corner of her eye, Emma could see his f ingers tense.

  “And who, exactly, are you undercover for?”

  “That’s not something I can tell you,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.”

  Meehan scratched his head, thick hair barely moving as he did so. Did he use product? She was pretty sure he must. Charlie had never used anything on his hair, that wild mess of hair she had loved so much.

  Outside the open door, Mrs. Creighton was still jabbering to someone, punctuating everything with little whoops of laughter.

  Meehan lowered his voice. “You’re with the media, aren’t you? You people come in here trying to dig up mud when a girl is dead? Shame on you, Emma. What do you think you’re gonna f ind? If you want a reason for a tragedy, I suggest you look in the mirror. If you want me to pray with you, I can do that. I’d like to. But if you’re looking for excuses as to why this girl was killed, I don’t have anything for you. Evil doesn’t discriminate. However old you really are, you look old enough to know that.”

  He really was a poker player. Or was he? The last part about her age threw her, she had to admit. It could have been intentional. But if he was bluff ing, he was doing a good job of it. And there was another possibility, of course: Maybe he was exactly who he said he was. Maybe he’d taken off his mask to get rid of her because she’d taken off hers. If that were the case, she was half-tempted to hug him. Authenticity was a rare bird in this world, past or present.

  “Fine, then,” she said. “Just one more question: Are kids safe here?”

  Meehan stood quickly. “Unless you have a warrant of some sort, we’re done.”

  Emma swallowed and stood, too. Then she went for it. “Do you know a girl named Coral Ballard? She doesn’t go here, I don’t think. But I—”

  “Coral Ballard?” he interrupted. A sharp, curious look crossed his face. “I saw her parents on the news. That’s why you’re really here? Then maybe I
was right not to kick you out before you sat down.” He hesitated, chewing his lower lip. “You look like a bright girl, Emma. Too bright to make assumptions. I’m the youth pastor. That’s what I do. I also have an economics degree from SMU and ten years service in the Navy. Special Forces.”

  Emma fought to ignore his peppermint breath. He was probably telling the truth. It would be too easy to check. That she had not already looked into this was a failing on her part, not his.

  Best to cut to the chase.

  “I think Coral’s still alive,” Emma said. “I’m trying to f ind her.”

  “Isn’t that what the police are doing?”

  “They don’t know everything.”

  Meehan’s eyes narrowed. “True enough,” he said, then walked to his desk, returning with a card. “My personal number.”

  He and Emma stared at each other for a few long beats. For a girl who hated making mistakes, the list of things she’d been off about over so many years was long and distinguished. Then again, she might not be off. He might be a lying bastard.

  Still, she held out her hand and took the card. “Thank you.”

  He arched a brow. “Someone at a church didn’t treat you right, Emma O’Neill. I would say that’s my professional estimation.”

  It wasn’t often anyone dug this close. Did he know about her? Was that possible? Or was she suddenly somehow that transparent? She thought about mentioning the name Kingsley Lloyd just to see how he reacted, but decided against it.

  She shrugged. “That’s not why I’m here.” And that, too, was the truth.

  “Another time, then,” Meehan replied, escorting her to the door. “If you want to talk.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  The nightmare was always the same. First Emma was talking to Charlie.

  “There must be an antidote for it,” he would say. “Some way to counteract, like for poison.”

  She would tell him, “No.” And her heart would pound, and then she’d start smelling smoke, thick and acrid. They would row back from the island. But she would lose her shoes, and her feet became slick with coated mud. Every time, she slipped on the grass and fell heavily to her knees.

 
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