It wasnt always like thi.., p.9
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       It Wasn't Always Like This, p.9

           Joy Preble
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  Only when Walters had turned and walked slowly out of sight did Emma realize she was clutching Charlie’s hand tight enough that all their f ingers had gone white.


  After that, things happened very fast, the way things do when the world is falling apart. The Church of Light organized a boycott on the Alligator Farm and Museum. And the people went along with them. Even the tourists—all those obscenely wealthy folks from the northeast who didn’t believe in anything but money—stopped coming. Rumors spread that the alligators were poorly housed and dangerous. a threat to the community, read one newspaper editorial.

  Then the museum was vandalized. At f irst just eggs thrown, like boys might do on All Hallows’ Eve. Then rocks through the windows. Shattered glass. Then worse. The birds let loose from the aviary. Charlie’s favorite goshawk, the very same one who’d landed on Charlie’s arm that day Emma knew he was her love, was found dead.

  They reported it all to the police, of course. But nothing was done. The town was watching. Fingers were pointing. Tongues were wagging. And through it all, Emma could see that no one in St. Augustine really knew what to do with a bona f ide miracle except label it as an abomination. Nothing ruined the exclusive promise of eternal life, Emma learned, like f inding out someone could get it and still remain in the here and now. Especially if you weren’t that someone.

  In February, shortly before Emma’s birthday, Art O’Neill leaned forward at the dinner table—his face pale, his voice f illed with emotion—and told his family that it would be time to leave soon.

  “We need to get away from here. We need to make a plan. They’ll never leave us alone.”

  Emma had already known that, even though it would be another few days before she witnessed Baby Simon guzzle that bottle of benzene, left on the table by their father after stripping the paint on an outside museum wall defaced by vandals with awful, damning words.

  A few weeks later, Art O’Neill retained a lawyer—a fellow named Abner Dunn—who kept an off ice in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Together, they set up a trust for each of the O’Neill children. They were not hugely wealthy, but there was enough family money that had been kept aside for emergencies. Emma, his oldest, was named executor. She was the only one who knew. In the end, it wouldn’t matter. She was the only one who survived.

  “Something’s bound to happen, Em,” Art O’Neill told his oldest daughter. “I know I told your mother that it would all go away. But I . . .” Her father rested his hands f irmly on her shoulders. His voice quavered, but only for a moment. “If it does,” he went on, his gaze f irm on hers, “promise me you’ll contact Mr. Dunn.”

  At the time, Emma told herself he was wrong. That if she had Charlie, nothing bad could get to her. Not really. But she looked at her father and promised.

  She had learned many things since her f irst seventeenth birthday three years ago. And one of them was this: Anything could happen. And sometimes it did.

  Chapter Ten

  Dallas, Texas


  Three days after Emma’s visit with Melanie Creighton at Dallas Fellowship—December 31, to be exact—the weather shifted again. Low gray clouds blanketed the sky. The air smelled like rain. It was almost twilight, not long to the new year. In the empty lot across the street, someone set off Black Cats, their sharp, repetitive pops f illing the air.

  Emma’s tiny apartment was spotless: counters scrubbed, cabinets tidied, f loors immaculate. Even the windows were freshly washed. She’d gone so far as to run the clean cycle on the coffee maker. She had sorted every drawer, straightened the sparse items on the shelves in her closet, and wiped a soft cloth gently over the gold pocket watch that hung next to her bed.

  Her mother would have been delighted at Emma’s efforts. Her father wouldn’t have noticed. But old traditions, well, what few had stuck with her stuck hard.

  You start the new year with a clean house. Then good luck will come your way.

  A hundred years ago, Emma had thought her mother a fool. Now, she saw her mother’s fastidiousness as an act of pride, a f ist punching through the empty uncertainty of everything. Not that Emma believed in her mother’s superstitious motive, in the good luck a clean-up would bring. The very opposite type of luck arrived at the O’Neill’s doorstep. But the act itself had merit. It was tradition. It was control, or it tried to be.

  Then again, Emma knew better than to try to control anything at all.

  It would be getting dark soon. Emma sipped coffee on her tiny balcony, thinking about Kingsley Lloyd. So far, Pete’s search had turned up nothing, but he had some other sources to mine. Apparently he knew “a guy” who worked Vice up in Santa Fe and could dig up Unabomber types—kooks and criminals who made it their life’s work to stay off the grid. Her eyes wandered to her cell phone. She picked it up and called Pete.

  “Got anything yet?” she asked.

  “Nope. Em, he’s probably dead. Why does this matter now?”

  She bit her lip. “I didn’t think it mattered. That he was alive, I mean. I didn’t believe he was, not when I f irst met you. But then—”

  “I get it,” Pete said.

  Emma made a face, glad he couldn’t see. Luckily, neither of them was a fan of the video call. The whole point of the phone was not having to talk face-to-face, another belief she and Pete had in common. No doubt he’d made plenty of faces on his end, too.

  “Okay,” she said. “I knew he was probably alive. But it didn’t seem important.”

  Pete grunted. He did this when he believed whoever he was dealing with was not, perhaps, the brightest button in the box.

  “Forever,” Emma began, lapsing pointlessly into their familiar joke. “It’s—”

  “Yeah, I know. It’s a long time,” he f inished for her. “But you’re a PI, for God’s sake, Em. I mean, you should think of yourself as one. You know better.”

  “I do now,” she said. Which, for the most part, was true. “Bye, Pete. Happy New Year.”

  “You, too, Em. I’ll spare you the New Year’s jokes.”

  She picked up her coffee again, clutching it with both hands. She wasn’t even sure why she was so hung up on Kingsley Lloyd now of all times, and here in Dallas, of all places. All she had to do was stand still. The bad stuff had a way of f inding you, particularly if you kept putting yourself out there so you could f ind the boy you lost. Not that this was her fault, and not that Charlie himself hadn’t been an ass in those last moments. But love interfered with “knowing better.”

  Screw Pete. At times like these, even given her expertise, she’d hardly call herself a “PI.” She felt as phony as the credentials that had secured her license. A confused hundred-and-seventeen-year-old kid was more like it. She sensed that Pete knew better, too.

  Her thoughts swirled gloomily. More Black Cats popping in the distance, another year was about to begin, and memories of Charlie Ryan creeping up: his wild brown hair, his capable hands, his ability to stay so very still. That was his magic, even before either of them had realized . . .

  On the street below her she noticed a cop car cruising.

  No siren, no f lashing light, no reason for alarm. Still, it caught her eye.

  Then another car appeared, careening around the corner. Her pulse quickened. She set her coffee down hard, liquid sloshing, drops scalding her hand. It was Hugo’s ancient cherry-red Jetta—the ’92 model, all boxy square lines and these funny round headlights that looked like hipster glasses. No one could forget Hugo Alvarez’s car. Especially not Emma. She’d owned the same model car the year it had been brand new.

  It screeched to a stop just out of her line of vision.

  Coral Ballard’s house.

  Thoughts of Charlie faded.

  Emma walked swiftly back inside, grabbing her keys and shoving her feet into her shoes, trying to stay calm but failing miserably. So she gave up calm a
nd ran. She swiped to dial Coral’s number on her phone as she raced down the stairs, not bothering with the elevator. No answer. Not even Coral’s voice mail. Just ring after ring . . .

  Emma shoved the phone into her pocket.

  Hugo was standing outside Coral’s house, agitated, his gaze focused on a wiry female cop in uniform. She wasn’t much older than Hugo, her dark hair in a tight ponytail.

  “Hugo!” Emma called, and he turned.

  In that moment, he looked very young to her. He’d added a blond streak down the middle of his goatee and his oversized navy hoodie and baggy pants looked less like a fashion statement than an ineffective attempt to hide a thin frame. There were also intricate black-Sharpied faces drawn on his raggedy black-and-white Vans, for reasons she could only guess. In short, an adolescent boy, not yet a man. But Emma knew Coral saw these things differently than she did. Coral saw the boy she loved.

  “Have you seen Coral?” Hugo asked her, his voice thick with panic. “Her mom called because she didn’t come home. She thought Coral was with me, but I haven’t seen her all day. I f igured she was getting ready for New Year’s Eve or . . . I don’t know. She’s not answering her cell.”

  Emma shook her head. It could be nothing, she told herself. Coral just lost track of time. That happens.

  Hugo was in motion now, pushing past the cop, or trying. She grabbed him by the collar.

  “Hey, easy,” the cop warned.

  “I’m Coral’s boyfriend,” he snapped. “Has something happened?”

  The cop glanced at Emma. Something had.

  Missing. Runaway. Kidnapped. No one was sure.

  First the cop hustled Hugo into the backseat of her patrol car for a little one-on-one. Emma hung back, hands in her pockets to keep them from shaking. Five minutes later, the cop shoved Hugo back out and screeched off, leaving him to pace back and forth on the sidewalk. He was a wreck—rambling, almost incoherent.

  All anyone knew for certain, the cops included, was that Coral Ballard had left her house early that morning and not come home. She was not answering her phone. The GPS had been turned off. No one had heard from her.

  “They think I had something to do with it,” Hugo kept saying. “They think—”

  “You don’t have anything to do with it,” Emma f inally interrupted. She narrowed her gaze, more out of hope than suspicion. “Do you?”

  Hugo froze on the sidewalk. His jaw tightened. “No. What the hell, Emma?”

  “Had to ask,” she said. “Were you two f ighting? Did she go somewhere? Off with her girlfriends, maybe? It’s New Year’s, Hugo. People get weirded out sometimes.”

  He stared at her. “You sound like a cop. Thought you were in school to be a nurse.”

  Emma brief ly pondered possible responses to this. “I, um, well. I have friends who are cops. And detectives. And private investigators. Lot of nurses do.”

  It was dark out now. Someone was setting off f ireworks again, more than just Black Cats. In the sky behind the trees, bright explosions of color f lickered and vanished, leaving small, sparkling threads in their absence.

  Hugo kept pacing. “Coral wouldn’t run off without telling me. We’re not f ighting. We love each other. There’s no one else. I’d know.”

  He’s so young, she thought. Too young. But it wouldn’t help Coral for Emma to remind Hugo that people wore masks, that you didn’t know if someone was cheating, not really—not that she thought Coral would. Except people did cheat. The masks came off, and they said awful things and cheated and lied and kidnapped and tortured and killed. They demonized anything they considered “other,” convincing themselves they were making the world a better place.

  But Hugo’s desperation to f ind Coral wasn’t a mask. It was very real.

  Which was bad news for all of them, Coral included.

  Because that was it: conf irmation that Coral’s disappearance was connected to Emma herself. And to Elodie Callahan, and to Allie Golden, and ultimately to the perpetrators—to those who considered her the “other,” who wanted her dead. Did they even know anymore why they wanted that? The image of Glen Walters with his gnarled hand on her brother Simon’s head drifted up from the recesses of her memory, sharp and painful even a century later. People always said that time healed all wounds.

  People said a lot of things. Believed an endless stream of bullshit.

  “I’ll help if I can,” Emma said to Hugo now. “You just need to tell me everything you remember about the last week or so. Everywhere you and Coral went, everyone you remember meeting, even if it was only brief ly. Anything you can think of. I know you probably told a bunch of this stuff to the cops. But now I need you to tell it to me, okay?”

  His stare hardened. In part, she knew, because he suspected that her student nurse story was probably bullshit, too. But after a moment, he nodded.


  “Good,” Emma said. She glanced back toward her own apartment. They didn’t have much time. If she were right about the kidnappings and the murders, it wouldn’t take long. Just enough time to inject Coral with some poison and wait to see if it killed her. See if she was the girl they were looking for: seventeen years old with light, freckled skin, blue eyes and—at least in its original form—wavy, dark brown hair. And when they f igured out that Coral was not Emma and therefore not immortal, they’d toss her body aside like garbage.

  Or maybe they already had.

  After all, unlike the others, Coral had grown up here in Dallas. Two keystrokes would bring up her class pictures and a million other bits of proof that she really was seventeen. She was not a foster child or an orphaned cousin or adopted with closed records. Which begged the question: Why take her in the f irst place? Especially when they’d already killed Elodie Callahan?

  Emma’s insides wobbled. She pressed her lips together in a f ierce effort to stay in control.

  Because they know I’m here. Because they’re using her to make sure. They’re using her as bait to draw me out.

  “We’ll f ind her,” Hugo said. “Us or the cops.”

  The fear had seeped back into his voice. He was, she reminded herself, only nineteen. When Emma was nineteen, chronologically speaking, she was still living in Florida. Her family was still alive, and the magnitude of what they had become after drinking from that stream was only just sinking in.

  “Yes,” she told Hugo f irmly, because the truth was a slippery thing and not always helpful. “We will.”

  Overhead through the canopy of trees, another celebratory f irework lit up the night. In another few hours, it would be a new year.

  It was time for this all to be over. More than time.

  Hang on, Coral. I’ll bring you back to him.

  Pete called again just before midnight. Still no leads on Kingsley Lloyd. If he was alive, he was clever.

  “Yeah,” Emma agreed. “I wouldn’t doubt it.”

  She told him brief ly about Coral. There was no point in keeping it quiet.

  “I’ve got this,” she said. She didn’t have it. Not by a long shot. But what else was there to say?

  “I’ll come to Dallas,” Pete said. “Just say the word.”

  Emma could tell by the sound of his voice that he knew there was more, knew she was selecting the bits and pieces she shared.

  “No need,” she said. She ended the call before he could say something else that might convince her to take him up on his offer. She would do this on her own. It was the only way.

  After that, after Coral was safe and home and alive, she would use whatever Pete uncovered for her—his sources would f ind something, the tiniest of threads—and she would track down frog-faced Kingsley Lloyd. Then she would use whatever he knew to f ind a way to make sure the Church of Light would never come after her again.

  And then she would f igure out why that damn stream and those damn f lowers h
ad disappeared.

  If they’d popped back up somewhere, she would f ind a way to destroy them.

  And if she was still alive after all that—for the f irst time in a long while she fervently hoped she would be—she would f ind Charlie Ryan.

  Chapter Eleven

  New Orleans, Louisiana


  Four days after he left Emma, Charlie had made it to Macon, Georgia. He took rides where they were offered or where he could sneak them, walked when he couldn’t. He f igured Emma would cut north and then east once she made it out of Florida, probably heading eventually for New York like they had originally planned, so he moved west.

  From Georgia, he wound his way toward New Orleans. He knew little about the city except that people said it was like Florida—a hot, humid, slow-boiling pot of everyone and everything. Something in that description drew him like a magnet. Or rather, he allowed himself to be drawn. He put one foot in front of the other, telling himself that it was all part of pulling Glen Walters and his sick followers off Emma’s trail. He would force them to follow him.

  “My name is Charlie Ryan,” he said to everyone he met. “On the road from Florida. St. Augustine.”

  He burned through the little cash he had, getting drunk as often as possible. “Let me tell you a story,” he announced loudly in some bar in Macon, banging his glass on the bar. Then he launched into one of his father’s old tales of Juan Ponce de León. It came as a shock to Charlie that, like his father, he could easily spin out a story. Maybe he hadn’t been lying to Emma back at the crossroads. Maybe there was a kernel of truth there, that Charlie Ryan was more like Frank Ryan than he’d cared to admit. “He never meant to f ind the fountain,” Charlie concluded. Then he added loudly and carelessly, “And neither did I.”

  The other patrons stared at him, some laughing. But he said it again because he needed to dig the trail deep and wide and make sure someone, anyone, would f ind him.

  If they came after him, then his beautiful Emma might have a chance to escape.

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