It wasnt always like thi.., p.14
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.14

           Joy Preble
 
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  Anything was possible when people had secrets. And everyone had secrets. Even people you trusted. Maybe even especially the people you trusted, because they had an investment in maintaining that trust.

  “No dead bodies matching her description have turned up,” Pete said. “So we’ve got that in our favor.”

  Emma didn’t want to think about that. She couldn’t think about that. Coral was alive. Somewhere. They’d f ind her, and they’d get her to a hospital.

  “Oh,” she said. “I—oh.” How had she not realized?

  “You got something, O’Neill?” Pete’s gaze was sharp.

  Yes. It was possible.

  “Maybe,” she said. “If Coral is bait for me, then they wouldn’t have gone far, would they? That wouldn’t make sense. But that’s not the only thing. Not the important thing. Because they made Elodie sick, remember? They poisoned her, just like they poisoned Allie Golden. To see if she could get sick. Which means they had to have taken her to a place to experiment on her. I’ve been focusing on the idea that they’d held Elodie at a house or an apartment. But looking at this map, I’ve been thinking about the cover story I gave Coral and Hugo. That I was studying to be a nurse. I didn’t pick that out of a hat; half the people who live around here are involved in the medical profession.” She jabbed at the screen with an orange-dusted f inger. “It’s the—”

  “Medical center,” Pete said, and he patted her on the back.

  Emma drew closer to the map, squinting at hospital after hospital. Methodist. Parkland. Children’s. Baylor. Dozens of walk-in clinics of various sizes.

  Pete rubbed his thumb over his narrow chin. The crow’s-feet at his eyes deepened as he frowned again at the screen. “So you think Elodie and Coral were taken by someone with access to poisons or disease cultures? You’re right; there’s lots of research here in Dallas. Especially after that Ebola scare a couple years back.”

  Emma dug for another Cheeto, then decided against it. “Yeah, that explains Elodie. But not Coral. I mean, if they do know Coral’s not me, then why make her sick? Isn’t that a waste of resources? Or maybe they want me to think they’ve made a mistake. Picked a girl who doesn’t f it the whole prof ile. So I’ll think they’re slipping up. And they think they’re leading me to her so they can grab me and . . . I don’t know.”

  It still didn’t make sense. And even the parts that sort of did couldn’t help them; nothing pinpointed where Coral had been taken, or even if she had been taken. Not for sure. On a hunch, Emma reached for her phone. She punched in Hugo’s number, not even sure what she was going to say.

  He answered on the f irst ring.

  “What aren’t you telling me?” she asked without saying hello.

  There was a long silence. She couldn’t even hear him breathe. For a moment she wondered if the connection had broken.

  When he f inally answered, his voice cracked.

  “I wasn’t completely honest with you.”

  “Oh?”

  “We did f ight, me and Coral. It wasn’t anything much. Just silly crap about how she thought maybe I didn’t want to get an apartment with her next year. That once we were in college, I’d want to f ind someone else. Get tired of her, I guess. You know how some guys do. But I would never! That’s bullshit. And she said—she said she was gonna ask you. That you never said, but she knew you understood about love. That she could tell there was a history that you . . . That’s all pretty lame, I know.”

  “Not lame,” Emma said evenly. “Honest.”

  Hugo took a deep breath on the other end. “She said she was gonna ask you. And you know Coral. She does what she says she’s going to. So I guess what I’m saying is, I know you hadn’t seen her, but maybe she was trying to f ind you when she disappeared. You think that’s possible?”

  She could have told him that he was an idiot for keeping this quiet. That Coral could be dead, or worse than dead. So why, why couldn’t he have just told the truth? Both to her, and to that nosy cop with the ponytail? But there was no point in calling the proverbial kettle black. Emma had told Coral and Hugo some half-baked story about spending the holidays with a study group. Had her own lies about going to Brookhaven somehow made Coral an easier target, or just a target to begin with? The target?

  “Maybe,” she said f inally. “I’ll call you when I know more. Hang in there, Hugo. It’s going to be okay.”

  Pete reached over and powered down Emma’s laptop. “Where to?” he asked.

  “Brookhaven Community College,” Emma said. “I think she went there to f ind me. There’s a nursing program there. I told Coral I was a student. That I was in this study group over the holidays. Shit. Maybe someone saw something.” She scooped up her bag and headed to the door. “C’mon.”

  He stayed seated. “It’s almost midnight, O’Neill.”

  Emma’s shoulders sagged. “Oh,” she said, and the adrenaline coursing through her veins melted away. Now in addition to being terrif ied for Coral, she felt exhausted and faintly embarrassed.

  Pete rose and walked to her couch. “You got an extra blanket?” he asked. “Unless you’re not comfortable with me bunking here. I didn’t have time to get a room yet, but I can—”

  “It’s f ine,” she said. “It’s all gonna smell like smoke.”

  “I’ve been in worse,” Pete said.

  “Me, too.”

  Later, lying on her bed, Emma stared at the pocket watch she’d hung up. She didn’t even bother to pull back the comforter. She wasn’t about to sleep. Not tonight. Why did she hold on to this heavy, ridiculous thing, anyway? To prove she had been loved once. That there had been a boy who had given her his heart.

  In the dim light f iltering through the window from outside, she studied the outlines of the f lying hawk etched on the case. She remembered the way the metal felt cool against her skin when she wore it. How happy it made Charlie to give her this beautiful gift. How shallow and silly she’d been even to mention its weight.

  Emma sat up and took the watch into her hand. She traced the shape of the hawk with her f inger. Charlie had lied to her that day on the road, or rather, he had not told her the full truth. Hawks wanted their freedom, yes. They were temperamental, and sometimes you had to wait them out. But those goshawks that Charlie had so carefully tended—they mated for life. They found the one for them and they didn’t let go.

  She would keep on searching, not just for Coral, but for Charlie. She wouldn’t give up. Because she didn’t want the watch to be the only good thing she had left.

  Chapter Eighteen

  Florida and beyond

  1918

  Charlie headed back to America after the Armistice with no home, no job, no family, and no Emma. He had left the one person he never should have, and now she could be anywhere. And why? Because at seventeen you do very stupid things, believing with all your heart that they are not stupid at all.

  His goals were the same as they had been since Worley’s death. Find Emma O’Neill and tell her what an ass he’d been. And destroy Glen Walters—if he still lived—and burn his Church of Light to the ground.

  He wondered brief ly about Kingsley Lloyd. Charlie suspected that the bastard had also drunk the tea. But that wasn’t his problem. The world was a big place, and no doubt Kingsley Lloyd had run as far away from the O’Neills and Ryans as he could. Maybe he’d dried up the stream and taken the plants. Anything was possible.

  So when his ship docked in New York, Charlie hopped a train to Florida. Cautiously, he investigated. Asked people when it seemed safe. Even asked after the Fountain of Youth, hoping Emma was trying to f ind it, too. She’d seemed so desperate for the water and its plants that last day. If he was already down in the Everglades—in the midst of the Juan Ponce de León legends, none of which had subsided, not even the tiniest bit—then he might as well ask about the fountain. Maybe there would be something that would
lead him to Emma.

  He hunted through St. Augustine late one evening, sneaking through the darkness, his heart pounding, the sadness f illing him in a visceral way that took him by surprise. He had thought that the war had numbed his ability to feel. It had not.

  The burned shell of the Alligator Farm and Museum was gone. A civic center had replaced it. The sign out front advertised an orchestral concert the coming evening. All that was left of what had once been a vibrant business was the path that led behind the building to a small, deep pool—once the gator observation pool, where the tourists could watch them swim and feed. Now it was f illed with koi and other small f ish. The huge aviary had been torn down and replaced with grass, benches, and a white gazebo.

  Other families occupied the house he’d lived in and Emma’s house, too. It was as though the O’Neills and Ryans had never existed.

  The ache inside nearly overwhelmed him, but he forced himself to explore and make sure there was nothing here that he needed to know about.

  There was indeed nothing. That hurt just as much.

  Glen Walters had taken his traveling show of hate to places unknown. If any of his followers remained around St. Augustine, they were keeping quiet about it. The f ire had burned out in more ways than one.

  After that the tiny town of Punta Gorda. A natural spring near St. Petersburg. And half a dozen hamlets and towns in between. Nothing. If he was looking for proof of the magical waters, he would f ind them in the mirror and nowhere else—a daily truth that made him want to both laugh and weep.

  And so he continued, up and down and across the country, then up to parts of Canada and south to Mexico and eventually even back to Europe, on a hunch that Emma might have gone looking for the Ryan relatives who had supposedly passed down all those tales of immortality that Charlie’s father had loved to tell. He listened and looked and remained patient like his falconry training had taught him. He would f ind her. The human network of stories and gossip and the random but continual interconnections of one place to another, of someone who knew someone who might know something, fueled his search.

  This would not end like Robert Worley’s story, a man lying dead in a foreign f ield. He wouldn’t let it.

  Charlie discovered a talent for vagrancy. He took jobs as he needed, never growing too attached to anyone or anything, always staying long enough just to make what money he could and then moving on. Always quiet, always polite, never attracting attention. He changed his name as it suited him. Bland names. He was Benjamin Hollis while he lived in Chicago. Charlie Murray in Boston. Brief ly, he boxed under that name. He was broke and they were paying.

  “You’re one hell of a brawler,” the trainer told him. “Where’d you learn to f ight like that?”

  “In the war,” Charlie said, which was true.

  He moved on the day he saw they’d put his picture on a poster. Notoriety was good only if he controlled it.

  He worked at zoos. He tended aviaries and private menageries and veterinary hospitals. No one had steadier hands with frightened animals than Charlie Ryan.

  One day at a vet practice in Louisville, a girl brought in a mangy mutt, back leg gone lame. Doc Barrow was out at a horse farm, tending to a diff icult birth.

  “Let me see,” Charlie told the girl. “You stand by his face and talk soft to him so he’s not scared.”

  He ran his f ingers slowly and thoughtfully over the dog’s leg and hip, his eyes closed as he concentrated. Doc Barrow was a good teacher and Charlie loved to learn. He would hate for the pup to be lame so young. Then he felt it: A muscle in the leg. Not torn, he didn’t think. No. Not grave after all.

  “Your pup has a sprained muscle,” he told the girl. “You need to keep him quiet for a few days. No running around. I think it should heal on its own just f ine.”

  He was right.

  Barrow offered to make his job permanent. He needed a reliable apprentice.

  “I’ll be moving on,” Charlie told him. “But thanks.”

  Another possible life that he had no choice but to leave.

  In a dark moment, he considered becoming a daredevil pilot and crashing in a ball of f ire, a f leeting moment of fame, a way to proclaim, Charlie Ryan was here! Everyone else in the f lying business wanted notoriety these days: barnstormers and wing walkers and f lagpole sitters.

  Instead, he found a series of jobs f lying crop dusters. The Agricultural Department of the US government was developing a domestic purpose for airplanes.

  “You’re gonna make a ton of cash,” the guy who’d f irst hired him promised, a guy now long dead and gone.

  The guy had been right, of course. Lots of other people hired him after that; he couldn’t stay longer than a year dusting the same farmland for obvious reasons. Every gig was two years, tops. But America was big and wide. It was mostly farms.

  Charlie kept to himself the notion that if he continued f lying, if he stayed aloft and moving, he might even spot Emma someday from the sky—spot her far below in some random place. Stranger things had happened.

  The fact that he was still living and still seventeen was proof of that.

  So he f lew, every plane he could get his hands on. A Fokker like those ones the Germans had f lown in the Great War. A Moth, so easy to handle that he would forget his grief for a while as he looped and soared.

  One day, as he headed back to the room he was renting in a boarding house just outside of Monterey, California, he bought a paper from the newsboy on the corner. Charlie had made it a habit to scour the various periodicals. Nothing had ever appeared, but you never knew. Something could lead him to Emma.

  That something occurred one night in the early fall of 1925, in the form of a story on page seven.

  Charlie stared at the page, his eyes scanning. His breath seized momentarily in his lungs. A traveling preacher named Glen Walters had died of a sudden and massive stroke after a series of tent revivals in Alabama.

  According to the story, one of his followers, a man named Norman Thigpen, had taken over the preaching the next night.

  This by itself might not have made the papers. But Thigpen’s talk of the need to root out evil had inspired the brief resurgence of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, who, in a brutal display of their brand of American justice, kidnapped a girl with long dark hair, beat her, then cut off her hair and chained her to a telephone pole. The story was that she’d been accused of immoral behavior, the specif ics of that left vague. What happened after that was unclear. Rumors abounded that it wasn’t even the Klan, but some other group with its own shadowy agenda.

  When the initial shock wore off, Charlie understood the girl was not Emma. But the story stuck with him nonetheless, and not just because that bastard Glen Walters was dead. Or because there was a trail to follow, even though he sensed it wouldn’t lead him to Emma.

  Something was happening. He just wasn’t sure what it was.

  What he was sure of though, was this: The Church of Light was evolving. It was hiding in plain sight, ever on the move as he was. And wherever Emma was, she was like that, too. All of them, like that ever-disappearing town in Robert Worley’s story.

  And he also knew this, although he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it: killing Walters wouldn’t bring back what he’d lost. If the war had taught Charlie one lesson, it was that killing accomplished only death.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  Just before six thirty the next morning, Emma and Pete parked at the edge of the Brookhaven campus. The sun had yet to rise; it was still dark, not even a hint of dawn. The snow had stopped, but a stronger cold front had blown through, and the temperature hovered just above freezing.

  Emma pulled her black peacoat tight around her as she climbed out of Pete’s truck. Her hair whipped wildly in the wind, and she dug into her pocket for an elastic, then swiped it back in
to a messy tail. On this broad, open campus with its anonymous-looking cement buildings, Dallas felt suddenly like a windy prairie.

  Pete followed silently, chugging coffee from a large Styrofoam cup, his expression both alert and weary in that distinctive cop way he had, dark eyes scanning and missing nothing. He hadn’t shaved, but he wore a fresh gray Henley shirt under his jacket, and the same jeans and boots as yesterday.

  He traveled light. It was a habit Emma understood quite well.

  Their plan wasn’t much to speak of. Mostly they were here to nose around while the students began slowly f illing the campus. Catch people early enough before they were suff iciently caffeinated, and maybe they’d be more open. Emma had no idea if this plan would work, no idea if it was any more than a wild-goose chase. She had f inally slept, but f itfully, snatches of dreamless oblivion punctuated by wide-awake brain churning.

  Across the parking lot, a few windows in the main building of the campus were already lit. Classes began early. Emma appreciated the practicality of this. If she ever went to college, maybe she’d start here.

  “Nursing school building’s over there,” she said. She’d looked it up when she’d told Coral and Hugo that series of lies—always best to make them as believable as possible, with a solid foundation of knowledge and fact.

  As the sun rose, the campus slowly rose to life with it.

  Over the next two hours. Emma and Pete talked to everyone they spotted. A tall girl in scrubs and a Navajo-print hooded jacket. Two guys drinking Starbucks. A middle-aged woman who turned out to be the head of the nurse practitioner program. A tired-looking man with a goatee who was actually looking for the computer science building but had gotten lost.

  “Have you seen this girl?” Emma asked each one of them. She held up the picture of Coral on her phone.

 
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