It wasnt always like thi.., p.18
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.18

           Joy Preble
 
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  And then Kingsley Lloyd unwittingly discovered the goddamn, authentic Fountain of Youth.

  The rest of it unfurled out of his control.

  He felt bad about that, he truly did. He also knew he was lying to himself. He could have told them when he suspected. He could have warned them any number of times about any number of things.

  But Kingsley Lloyd was a pragmatic sort. His own skin—even sallow and waxy with that damn liver disease—came f irst. Successful self-made men prided themselves on seeing opportunities when they arose rather than trying to shoe-horn destiny into man-made plans.

  So he waited. He watched. He ran when he realized that none of them were a match for the zealotry of Glen Walters and his Church of Light followers. At least the bastards weren’t blowing up airplanes or shooting journalists or burning people at the stake. Although you just never knew, did you? Lynch mobs were generally made of one’s neighbors.

  Case in point, the f ire at the museum back in Florida. Case in point, the needless deaths of everyone Charlie and Emma loved. Kingsley Lloyd was still not sure who set the blaze that day, who locked those lovely people in, believing that their deaths would make the world a better place or maybe just ensure the perpetrators a better seat in heaven. In the end, it didn’t really matter.

  As he tried to tell Emma the day they talked about the lobsters, there was nothing new about hatred or fear or greed or even the human desire to make a permanent mark on the world. Everyone wanted fame and fortune, and those who said they didn’t were deluded or liars or both.

  Later, he would add to this theory, having spent enough hours watching both CNN and America’s Got Talent to come to the unsurprising conclusion that Americans in particular snookered themselves into believing they were above the fray, when in truth, they were just distracted by cheap gas, all-you-can-eat buffets, and a wide variety of made-in-China-sweatshop tchotchkes at Walmart.

  Most people, as Kingsley Lloyd saw it, were one shopping spree away from suicide bombings; they just refused to admit it. Occasionally, they slipped up and gunned down schoolchildren and people in movie theaters and ex-wives. But this tended to happen in the suburbs, where people paid less attention.

  He knew that neither Emma nor Charlie would have pegged him for a philosopher. Or that underneath his ugly exterior (yes, he knew what people saw when they looked at him), beat the mostly immortal heart of a philanthropist. A hopeful, optimistic one at that.

  Even if immortality meant that whatever he had wouldn’t kill him, but he would have to drag it with him through eternity. Such was life. A long one, he hoped.

  That he’d chosen to brief ly align himself with the man named Matthew Thigpen was another issue entirely. Keeping your enemies closer was part of it. Finding Emma O’Neill was the other part, not that she’d have believed him.

  He felt bad about so many things, really, including having tossed that copy of the pocket watch at Charlie that day in New York. But he didn’t regret it. He’d known it might come to that. And he was proven right, wasn’t he? He had been smart to make copies of all the little things that mattered to the O’Neills and Ryans. He’d crept around both of their houses when the families were out, documenting in detail everything they held precious. He knew this was a cheat, a fraud, but precious items could be used as levers, as buttons, as marionette strings. He knew Charlie would stop running if he thought his beloved was dead.

  That was his method. He knew no other way.

  Sometimes you do things and you’re not even sure why, just that later, you’ll need it.

  A man did what a man had to do to stay alive. Some tricks were more dangerous than others.

  But like any good con man, Kingsley Lloyd was a keen fan of risk.

  Risk meant survival. In the end, that was all that mattered.

  Lloyd couldn’t make up for all that had happened since the day he found that Fountain of Youth, but lighting Matthew Thigpen on f ire was a start at justice.

  Thigpen had risked and lost. It was, Kingsley Lloyd thought as he hustled from the warehouse, simply the way of the world.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  Only later, much later, would Emma piece together the truth—at least most of it—about Matt. Some of it Lloyd himself had told her at the warehouse. The rest she would f ind out on her own.

  Matthew Douglas Thigpen, son of Thomas Paul Thigpen, grandson of Samuel Wade Thigpen, great-grandson of Norman Woolsey Thigpen—himself the heir apparent to a crazy man named Glen Walters—had grown up amidst secrets. The Church of Light, having long ago renamed itself the Light Givers, a private moniker which was perhaps no less ironic given their propensity for killing people in the name of heaven, had not actively preached their word since that tent-revival-turned-murder back in Alabama so many years ago. The one that ended with the death of a girl they thought might be Emma. But this did not mean they had disappeared. To the contrary, they had grown stronger and f irmer in their beliefs.

  Finding and destroying Emma O’Neill and Charlie Ryan was a cornerstone. But by the time Matt Thigpen arrived in the wide world, the Light Givers—the leadership of which would eventually pass to him—had failed to achieve that task for close to a century. It had become, as Matt had told her half-jokingly, the stuff of legend, words and promises that amounted to nothing substantial. Faith is built on that we cannot see, but faith without noticeable result—well, it can lose its punch after a while.

  This was the state of the family business the week after Matthew Thigpen graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in economics. He came home to his father’s compound—a private plot of land not far from Celebration, Florida, a master-planned town created by the Disney corporation. What better place to hide his father’s strange and powerful empire than in the Southern-themed, middle-class track-home shadow of the happiest place on earth?

  He was well-educated in business matters, enthusiastic and driven, sporting a fresh believe tattoo and a fondness for biscuits, country music, and small-batch Tennessee whiskey.

  The good thing, as Matt Thigpen saw it the day his father suffered a massive stroke and died on the spot—lingering only long enough to f ix one shocked bright blue eye on his son as if to say, “Well, damn it, I wasn’t expecting that”—was that people had short memories. Sports heroes could beat their wives and still end up with one-man shows on Broadway. Gaggles of celebrities tweeted #bringbackourgirls to help save two hundred kidnapped Nigerian school girls, and then seemingly forgot about them, barely noticing when they remained in the hands of the men who had taken them. And that was just the tip of the societal iceberg.

  All Matt Thigpen had to do was to tell the true believers now under his leadership that he had found a way to succeed. If you said something often enough, made enough noise, it became the truth. Like the antigluten movement. Or those nutjobs who didn’t think kids should be vaccinated. “Real-life clickbait” was how Matt saw it. Matthew Thigpen was a modern boy who thought in those type of metaphors, and so far it had kept him on top of things.

  But destiny is a funny thing. Imagine Matt Thigpen’s surprise when he stumbled upon a man named Kingsley Lloyd—not only because he was searching for him (it was Matt who had informed the leadership that he suspected that a third immortal was roaming the earth, and that if they found him, he would lead them to the others), but also because Lloyd, ever the pragmatist, had also been tracking Emma in hopes to stay one step ahead of those who wanted to nab her. Like Emma surfacing now and then, this had made Kingsley Lloyd noticeable—unlike Charlie Ryan, who in recent years, had proved much slipperier prey. He was out there, though, Matt thought. It was only a matter of time.

  Of course, the string of dead and kidnapped girls had possibly been overkill, so to speak. But this was the plan of action he’d inherited, so what could he do? It had brought Emma out in the open (if only by sparking her fri
endship with Coral Ballard, who had unwittingly posted pictures of her new friend on her various social sites and thus set off every hopeful Light Giver alarm that hey, this might be it!), but it had spooked Kingsley Lloyd, and now Matthew Thigpen had a mess on his hands.

  And then there was his odd burst of conf licted feelings about this girl—woman—whatever she was, who was so many more things than the mere symbol of everything he’d been raised to despise. What he’d felt when he’d held her hand, when he’d kissed her—it was nothing like what he’d expected. She was nothing like what he expected. She was pretty—beautiful, really—and funny and clever and smart . . . and very sad underneath it all. He’d pressed his lips to hers and had somehow felt the terrible loss and grief and loneliness that sat just under her skin.

  An odd shock to f ind that Emma O’Neill—despite her immortal condition that was an abomination to be destroyed—was human after all.

  This was the situation as Matt saw it in the warehouse, where he stood wondering what the hell he was going to do with Emma, Coral Ballard, and the detective Pete Mondragon, whom he hadn’t expected to be in the thick of things.

  And that he had thought himself slick enough to manipulate Kingsley Lloyd into helping him while still planning on killing the little man at some point, well, that had been quite the error in judgment.

  However much Matthew Thigpen believed, the truth of the matter was that the idea of having his own eternal life drew him like a moth to a f lame. And Kingsley Lloyd, that creepy bastard, had promised him the solution to that.

  This was the trouble with believing things for so very long. Even when you learned that the entire basis for everything that had driven you and made you was a lie, what could you do?

  Matt wanted to believe he did not have—that none of them had—only one destiny. That he was more than the sum total of his errors or his genetic lottery, that there were roads and roads of possibilities stretching in front of him.

  But a man would have to live forever for that, wouldn’t he? It was just so damn unfair, he thought as the f irst licks of f lame caught on his clothes and he began to burn. Life was too short for all but those immortal few, and now he was lit like a candle.

  The pain and terror consumed him, the shock of what was happening not enough to numb him. Was he dying? Was he even screaming anymore? He didn’t know.

  Like the doomed Titanic, sometimes you foolishly stay your course. Matthew Thigpen had stayed his, and now it was burning him alive.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  If Coral had questions about the strange things that had happened, including with Kingsley Lloyd, she was keeping them to herself.

  Recovering from both malaria and diphtheria and what seemed to be a touch of dengue fever (the doctors were f labbergasted, and the police detectives vowed to get to the bottom of this, which Emma knew they most certainly would not), was enough for her to worry about.

  Hugo and her parents stayed by her bedside, or at least as close as the doctors and nursing staff allowed.

  “Thank you,” Hugo told Emma over and over, hugging her so hard that she couldn’t breathe. “Thank you.”

  “I told you I’d f ind her,” she said, faking a conf idence she had never felt. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there faster.”

  The police were dealing with Matt’s death and the f ire in the warehouse and tracking down anyone else who had been involved with Coral’s kidnapping. No one mentioned a connection to the Elodie Callahan case, at least not anyone off icial. There was security camera footage that while staticky and from an odd angle, showed a suff icient view of Emma and Pete being attacked and hustled into a van, although the faces of the attackers were not visible.

  The off icial conclusion was that Matt, or whoever he was working with, had also set the f ire in Emma’s apartment building.

  The press was having a f ine time of it: a detective from New Mexico and a twenty-one-year-old PI no one had ever heard of had solved the abduction of Coral Ballard, even saving the girl.

  There was no talk of an odd-looking man named Kingsley Lloyd who had set the f ire and then escaped in the commotion of ambulances and cop cars and news vehicles that followed.

  There was no mention of the Church of Light, although many theories rose to explain the kidnappings and the f ire. Gang violence. Serial killers. A prominent Dallas criminal psychologist made the rounds of the news shows, discussing with spirited enthusiasm the idea that serial killers, although typically loners, could be induced by the violence in popular culture to work in pairs.

  Matthew Thigpen had left few clues as to who he really was and what he’d been trying for. He had a sales job at a local furniture store, where he’d worked steadily for the past six months. He hung out at the bar where Emma had met him—enough that the regulars recognized his name and picture.

  But there was little else about him, and Emma suspected that the cops would let things slide. He was dead. No living parents. No local friends who came forth. No signif icant other that anyone could f ind. A distant cousin in Wichita Falls had come to claim the body and arrange for burial.

  In an unrelated story, two men were found dead in another nearby empty warehouse. Drug deal gone bad, it looked like. They were identif ied through their f ingerprints as Chase Richardson and Travis Lovelace. Both had done jail time in Florida for a variety of small crimes. How and why they were in Dallas in a rundown warehouse sitting in the shadow of the downtown skyline was something the cops had yet to f igure out.

  Emma knew there were more out there—these people who wanted her dead or wanted what she was. The danger would never truly be over. But for now, she could breathe.

  “You think Lloyd will surface again?” Pete asked her the next day.

  “Once every hundred years whether he needs to or not,” Emma quipped, her tone many degrees lighter than she felt.

  She was sitting on a chair next to Pete’s hospital bed, waiting for the doctors to release him. Fractured shoulder. Dislocated collarbone. Contusions on the face and neck. No surgery, but he’d be wearing a sporty blue sling for the next few weeks until everything healed.

  Her own head felt like she’d been hit by a truck: a huge shiner under one eye, a minor concussion, and a couple of nice knots still rising from the back of her head under her hair. An abrasion where the bullet from Matt’s gun had grazed her cheek. It was all healing fast, but it hurt like hell, nonetheless.

  There was so much Emma wanted to ask Kingsley Lloyd. So much he might know that she could use. Why had he promised Matt immortality? Did he know something—anything—about Charlie?

  Lloyd was the one to set the f ire that had killed Matt. She had pegged him as many things long ago, but a killer hadn’t been one of them. Still, people changed. The world changed.

  Only Emma had remained the same—physically, at any rate. Once the bruises healed.

  She told herself that, really, she was no worse off than she had been. In fact, better now that, at least for the time being, the murders had stopped. She could sink back under the radar. Move on. Start over. It would be okay.

  But it wasn’t okay. Not at all.

  “You stopped the bad guys,” Pete said and reached for her hand, squeezing gently. It was a vast oversimplif ication.

  “Maybe.”

  Pete kicked back the covers and, with a low grunt, eased himself up. He was paler than she liked to see, and not just because of the white and blue hospital gown, his thin face even gaunter today. She hated that this was her fault, although she knew he would say it wasn’t.

  “O’Neill.”

  She raised an eyebrow.

  “Girls were dying. Now they’re not. I say you did what you set out to do.”

  Emma shrugged.

  A steady rain was beating against the outside window. The day was gray and bleak. Out
side Pete’s room, the nursing staff bustled back and forth.

  “Em,” said Pete after a bit, “you could come back to Albuquerque with me. Bunk in my spare room till you found a place. Partner up, even. If you want to.”

  In her aching head she was already thinking that, really, it would be better for both of them if she just moved on and didn’t look back.

  “Green chile cheeseburgers,” he added encouragingly, and she laughed, just a little.

  “I’ll think about it.”

  His gaze lingered. “He’d be proud of you, you know. Your Charlie. I wish he could see what you’ve become.”

  “You don’t know what I was,” she said and knew this sounded both f ierce and cruel. But he didn’t know. Most days, she felt she didn’t, either.

  Emma walked out of the room then, telling him she’d be back. In the empty waiting area, she curled up in a chair by the window and allowed herself to cry.

  She wasn’t sure how long she’d been sitting there—just f ive minutes or so—when she felt rather than heard someone else come into the small room.

  Kingsley Lloyd, a wool cap pulled low over his head, wearing a navy nylon zip-up jacket that seemed totally incongruous with the man she remembered, was standing next to her chair, a pained expression on his frog-like face.

  Emma’s heart surged hopefully. Why would he come back now, if not to tell her about Charlie? That was the only reason she could think of.

  But Emma was Emma. Or at least, as Pete had just reminded her, she was the Emma she had become.

  “You lit him on f ire,” she said, although she supposed Lloyd would argue that he had simply dropped a match. In her head, she saw Matt Thigpen burning.

  Lloyd shrugged. “He would have killed you, Emma. Not to make too f ine of a point of it.”

  “Is that how you justify things these days? Then I guess I haven’t missed much in a hundred years.”

 
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