It wasnt always like thi.., p.6
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.6

           Joy Preble
 
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  “Look around you, my brothers and sisters.” Glen Walters’s voice made Emma want to cup her hands over her ears. Instead she held on to Charlie. “Look at the state of the world. We are moving fast toward hellf ire. The faster we move, the more we forget ourselves. Trains. Automobiles. Airships. The telegraph. Are these things making us happier? Are they making us less sinful? No. They are making us covetous and evil.

  “You’ve heard talk that the Church of Light traces its origins to the Druids. To Pagans. I tell you now, that this is true. But the Druids were the Lord’s chosen until they turned from the right path and began building their mighty circles of stone, and the Lord destroyed them.

  “You’ve heard talk that the Church of Light preaches of Atlantis. Of a shining civilization swept under the sea because they, too, believed that they were mightier than the Lord. And the Lord smote their glittering continent as he smote Sodom.”

  “Hogwash,” scoffed Frank Ryan, loud enough that a couple in front of them turned around to stare.

  Emma squirmed. She felt almost . . . naked, as though somehow everything she felt inside—even this new, private love for Charlie—was on display for all to see.

  “He’s an ass,” Charlie whispered.

  “Who?” Emma asked without thinking, and instantly regretted it. Charlie had never uttered a profanity in front of her. He’d probably been talking about Glen Walters, but there was always the possibility he was talking about his father. Charlie bit his lip, the way he always did when she made him laugh. His face turned red, and he squeezed her hand hard, shaking his head and smiling.

  “Both,” he gasped.

  Now Emma was worried she might laugh.

  Her mother shot them both a glare. Emma held her breath, gripping Charlie’s hand as tightly as she could, trying to focus on the sermon.

  “Once again, in our time, Man wants to be God,” Glen Walters told the crowd. “And once again, the Lord will strike us down for it. He already has.”

  He stepped to the very edge of the stage, spreading his arms wide as though he were about to take f light. Emma’s stomach tightened. Why did he think they all needed to be struck down?

  “The Titanic!” Walters hollered. “The greatest ship on earth. Unsinkable, they said. And where is it now, that glorious ocean liner? At the bottom of the ocean, keeping company with the carcasses of Atlantis. All that golden glitter rotting away. And why? Because its creators believed that they were God.” He paused and lowered his voice. “Look among you, brothers and sisters. We shall cast out the sinners in our midst. Together we shall cleanse the community so the Lord won’t have to do it for us. There is no way to heaven but faith. Remember this.”

  The audience rose to its feet and burst into applause.

  Emma didn’t stand. Neither did Charlie. He clung to her hand as tightly as she clung to his. She thought about those poor people on that doomed ocean liner. Was this man saying they deserved to die? That made no sense.

  But the couple on the bench in front of them leaned forward as though pulled toward Walters by an imaginary string.

  “He’s wonderful,” the woman whispered to her husband. “Just wonderful.”

  No, he’s not, Emma felt like saying. Don’t you see he’s just a charlatan?

  After Walters f inished orating, there were tables of pie and cobbler and sweet lemonade, and almost everyone in town seemed happier and more talkative and more alive than Emma had ever seen. But she told herself that it didn’t matter. Glen Walters and his Church of Light didn’t have anything to do with her or her family. Besides, her parents didn’t look happier. No, judging from the looks on her parents’ faces, they wouldn’t be going back to any of these “tent” revivals—good for business or not.

  Two days later, when Emma was working her evening shift in the Alligator Farm and Museum gift shop—and thinking about Charlie (again and always)—a stranger burst through the door, smiling awkwardly as he almost tripped over the threshold.

  He wasn’t a tourist. He looked at her, for starters, not at the gator f igurines and other cheap merchandize the tourists from up north ran their hands over but seldom bought. He was short and stubby. His face resembled a frog’s—f lat and wide and slightly bug-eyed. And he was sickly-seeming, shaky and coated with a thin f ilm of perspiration. She backed away, even though she knew it was rude.

  “Hello, my name is Kingsley Lloyd.” He held out his squat hand, and when Emma took it—clammy and damp—he shook so hard that her elbow knocked against the counter. “I’m a herpetologist. I’m looking for Mr. O’Neill.”

  Emma tried not to make judgments—that, she’d learned, was def initely bad for business. “He’s in his off ice,” she said, gesturing behind her. In truth, her father was out by the gator house. One they’d named Horace had been acting sluggish the past few days. She wasn’t even sure why she told this lie except that this man wasn’t here to buy anything; that was obvious. But she couldn’t leave him unattended in the store while she went to get her father, could she?

  “You’ll have to wait,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be out in a minute.”

  At that moment, Charlie’s father stormed through the door, his hair disheveled, his face smudgy, puff ing air in his cheeks like he was ready to explode. “Damn gators,” he muttered. “We’ve got all these shows scheduled and all these tickets sold, and now that one refuses to surface. Dug himself a hole, and that’s that. Damn bastard reptile.”

  His eyes focused on Emma as though just realizing she was there. “Sorry, Emma. Have you seen your father?”

  Well, now what was she supposed to say? To either of them?

  The strange, frog-faced man approached Charlie’s father and held out his hand.

  “Kingsley Lloyd at your service,” he said, and made a little bow. “It is your lucky day, sir. I happen to be an expert herpetologist. And I just so happen to be looking for employment.”

  Emma’s mouth dropped a little. She had to remind herself that this was not ladylike, and snapped it shut. Part of her wished that Charlie would walk in, but another part of her wished he wouldn’t because this would be a funny story to tell him.

  “Herpetologist?” Charlie’s father looked the man up and down.

  “Worked all over the world,” said Kingsley Lloyd. “Zoos and private collections and an alligator farm in Africa. Southern Rhodesia, near the Limpopo River.”

  Emma waited for Mr. Ryan to say, “Hogwash.” Or something more colorful.

  “Epidemic over there two years ago,” Kingsley Lloyd continued. “Hit the gators’ joints. All they wanted to do was hide and stay still. Stopped moving, and then a bunch of them up and died. Healthy as horses, they were. Until they began ailing. A type of reptile rheumatism. I learned all about it. Quite the scientif ic mystery, you see.”

  Another charlatan, Emma thought.

  Even Frank Ryan was sure to make the same judgment.

  Instead, Charlie’s father offered a huge, toothy smile. “It’s a miracle,” he said. “You, sir, are a miracle! A herpetologist, here to save our business. C’mon, then. We’ll go f ind Art. Mr. O’Neill, that is. We run this place together. He’s going to be bowled over that you dropped in just now. Amazing.”

  Mr. Lloyd glanced at Emma. “Thought he was in his off ice,” he said, but he was still smiling.

  Charlie’s father shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “Art never works in there unless he has to.”

  Emma felt her face f lush. It didn’t matter. Neither man paid her any more notice. They were already out the door like old friends.

  Chapter Seven

  Dallas, Texas

  Present

  Pete Mondragon answered his phone on the f irst ring.

  “Emma O,” he said, his voice deep and scratchy. “Knew you couldn’t resist my charms forever.”

  “Forever’s a long time,” Emma said.
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  They were big on forever jokes. Pete was the only one who understood exactly how long Emma’s forever really was, how the moment-to-moment would stretch into inf inity while she stood still. At this particular moment, Emma was quite still—parked at the back end of the enormous IKEA parking lot, not far from the church.

  She wasn’t sure how much she planned on telling him. Her gaze wandered to a man in a striped shirt and baggy khakis. He loped by her, a wool beanie pulled low over his forehead. Five rolled-up rainbow-hued rugs poked from the top of the huge plastic bag slung over his shoulder. She’d probably been born at around the same time as the guy’s great-great-grandfather. What would that man think of his descendant’s rugs?

  Pete cleared his throat. “Happy New Year, O’Neill.”

  She watched the guy with the rugs. “I think there’s been another one,” she said.

  Pete appreciated when she got to the point.

  He snorted. At least that’s what it sounded like over the speaker. She pictured him on the other end—dark hair streaked with gray, forty-something. Thin ranging toward gaunt, which was hereditary, because the man loved to eat. Not that she didn’t like food herself; she certainly did. Just that Pete consumed things with a level of enthusiasm that verged on animalistic.

  When she’d f irst arrived in Albuquerque, she’d been investigating a string of girls who’d gone missing in and around New Mexico and Colorado. The kidnappings turned out to be the work of a religious fanatic, as she suspected, though not the Church of Light. The girls, thankfully, were all found alive at his survivalist compound down near Ruidoso.

  Emma had ended up staying longer in Albuquerque by accident, really. She went on hard news and rumor, stirring the information until a piece of the puzzle fell into place. But her goals were always the same intertwined two: 1) Find the followers of Glen Walters, the hidden believers in the ever-evolving Church of Light, the killers who were after her—and f igure out a way to stop them. 2) Find Charlie, if those same killers hadn’t found him already.

  The murdered girls resembled her, at least in passing, although sometimes she worked other cases for the money or just . . . because. Beyond that, it was an inexact science. A few lifetimes of inexact science. All of them hers.

  And a new identity as a private investigator.

  It hadn’t been hard to fake the credentials necessary to get a license. All you needed was three years of “investigative experience,” and she’d had decades, more than enough to allow her to ace the exam and the f ingerprint training and even to forge her references and proof of previous employment. She’d gotten her most recent license the moment she’d arrived in New Mexico. Best to make everything off icial in case she had to end up with the local cops.

  Then a girl named Allie Golden went missing.

  She’d disappeared on her way home from school not long after the Ruidoso incident. She was about Emma’s height with long brown hair and brown eyes. No one would take them as twins, but Emma saw herself in the high school yearbook picture of Allie—the ones on all the have-you-seen-this-girl? posters. Enough to convince her that it had started up again, that people were tracking her, closing in, but uncertain of her exact identity.

  The f irst time—that Emma knew of, anyway—had been a girl in Alabama, back in the ’20s. Long dark hair. She’d been attacked by a mob and murdered, for no particular reason anyone could come up with. It stuck with Emma, that crime, the closeness of it, the coincidence. As did the ones that came after it.

  She was being hunted.

  So she investigated. Nosed around the pub in the bowling alley on 4th where Allie worked. Too young to serve the liquor, but she could wait tables. Lucky 66 the place was called. It had been anything but that for Allie.

  “You a friend of the missing girl?” the cop had asked her the day she questioned the bartender. She’d seen him watching her out of the corner of her eye.

  “Hired by the family,” she lied quickly. She could tell he didn’t believe her. But she pulled out her license, brazened it out. He looked worn out, this man, but focused. Brown eyes studying her, thumb rubbing across his stubbled chin. A brown trench coat, almost a duster. No wedding ring, but a faint pale line where one used to sit. A deep sandpaper voice, but f irm, too. And a sadness behind those curious eyes.

  Emma was more than familiar with sadness.

  “Pete Mondragon,” he’d said after a long, awkward pause.

  “Emma O’Neill.” She held out her hand. Inwardly, she winced. She hadn’t used her actual name in longer than she could remember.

  He was there the next place she went. And then the next.

  She was working side by side with him before either of them realized that they were somehow, maybe partnering up.

  Pete was as stumped as to what happened to Allie Golden as Emma was.

  The search dragged out. One month. Two. Eventually, someone dumped Allie Golden in a f ield. The coroner said she’d been dead for less than a day. Poisoned. Something slow. Torturous. Then the murderers strangled her for good measure. All of which meant there had been two months in which Emma had failed to f ind her. Alive, that was.

  She meant to walk away. To pull herself together and move on like always. But when the paperwork was all done and the books were closed on Allie Golden’s unfortunate and unsolved murder, Emma let Pete Mondragon convince her to go out for green chile cheeseburgers at Blake’s.

  “They use Hatch chiles,” he’d told her in a devotional tone. It verged on the mystical. “You know they have to actually register their authenticity with the state Department of Agriculture?”

  “Oh?”

  “Iconic,” Pete said. “Mind-blowingly iconic, this burger.”

  Something about his adoration of a fast-food cheeseburger, his lonely and haunted eyes alight with the thought of those chiles, made her say yes.

  Or maybe it was that he said the word “authenticity.”

  She’d only ever heard it used in conversation once before, in regards to a serial number that proved a certain heavy pocket watch was one-of-a-kind.

  Pete ate three burgers to Emma’s one. It was like watching the gators at the Alligator Farm snap their prey into a death roll. Another nugget of Pete Mondragon wisdom, imparted in between healthy bites of burger: “Eat. Enjoy life. Otherwise this job will kill you. It may kill you anyway. Better go knowing you enjoyed yourself.”

  Here he’d paused to wipe a glob of cheese off his angular chin, a glob he proceeded to eat.

  In that moment, she’d decided to trust him. Not with everything. Not yet. That would come later. Eventually she would tell him who and what she really was. And eventually, he would believe her. But still, she’d told him enough that f irst night, over those authentic burgers. She’d told him that she had tried to enjoy herself.

  That she’d loved a boy once, and he’d loved her. That he’d left her. And that nothing had been right since.

  Now, sitting here in the enormous IKEA parking lot, she was being beckoned again by Pete’s gravelly voice in her cell: “Tell me.”

  “You have the time?” she asked.

  “Em, come on.”

  She told him what she knew about the late Elodie Callahan. That she’d been poisoned, like Allie Golden. When Emma f inished, there was another pause, this one longer.

  “You think it’s connected?”

  “Pete, come on.”

  “Had to ask. You working with the cops?”

  “Not yet. I will eventually.”

  “You want me to take some time and come out there? I have days I haven’t used.”

  The offer was tempting. But Emma knew better. The wise move would be for him to stay in New Mexico. If the Church of Light—whatever that even meant now, whatever they had metastasized into—had tracked her here, she didn’t want Pete involved. She had not yet told him that all the dead girls looked
like her. If he’d f igured it out himself, which he probably had, he was choosing not to tell her. Knowing what she was and really knowing were two different things. She’d told him more since those early days, but not everything. Everything was dangerous.

  “No, I’m good. I won’t get in over my head.” Emma held her breath, waiting for him to call her on her bullshit. She had been in over her head for more than a century.

  “They identify the toxin that poisoned her?” he asked instead, his tone matter-of-fact.

  “Something natural, hard to detect,” she told him. “Reports also say she was strangled before they dumped her in the pool.”

  On the other end, a sniff. “Shit.”

  “Yeah,” Emma said. “Bastards do what bastards do.”

  “So you think there’s a pattern.” More of a statement than a question.

  “Yeah, I do.” She thought of Coral—whom she had also not yet mentioned to Pete, because what if she was wrong about Coral’s and her resemblance? And that reminded her of last night and Matt, and then she sighed again. Someday over drinks (not bourbon), she would f ill Pete in on the rest of her notable lapses of judgment.

  “Well,” Pete said, drawing the word out.

  She knew what he meant. Her instincts were probably right. Yet another Detective Mondragon rule: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . . They were hunting her again, the Church of Light, or whatever they might call themselves these days, just as she was once again hunting them. Only now they’d found a new way to force her out of the shadows. With the other girl, the one before Elodie, it might have been a coincidence. This was no coincidence.

  Even if Elodie Callahan had been the same as Emma, if she’d somehow drunk from the same waters and was immortal, it wouldn’t have mattered. She’d still be dead. They’d have burned her or dismembered her.

 
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