Key of Light
She toyed with another spoonful of the crème brûlée. “With the twenty-five thousand, I now have approximately twenty-five thousand, two hundred and five dollars, which includes the twenty I found in a jacket pocket this morning. My parents are fairly average middle-class people. They’re not rich or influential. I don’t have any rich or influential friends or lovers. I’ve got nothing worth conning.”
“Maybe they’re looking for something else, something you haven’t thought of. But back to those lovers for a minute. Do you have any poor ones?”
She sipped her coffee, measuring him over the rim. The sun had set while they’d had dinner. Now it was candlelight that flickered between them. “Not at the moment.”
“Here’s a coincidence. Neither do I.”
“I’m in the market for a key, Flynn, not a lover.”
“You’re assuming the key exists.”
“Yes, I am. If I didn’t assume that, I wouldn’t bother to look for it. And I gave my word I would.”
“I’ll help you find it.”
She set her cup down again. “Why?”
“A lot of reasons. One, I’m just a naturally curious guy, and however this thing works out, it’s an interesting story.” He skimmed a fingertip over the back of her hand, and the little thrill danced straight up her arm. “Two, my sister’s involved. Three, I’ll get to be around you. The way I figure it, you won’t be able to hold out against me any more than you could hold out against the crème brûlée.”
“Is that confidence or conceit?”
“Just fate, sweetie. Look, why don’t we go back to my place and . . . Well, hell, I wasn’t thinking about kissing you again until you gave me that snotty look. Now I’ve lost my train of thought.”
“I’m not having any trouble following that train.”
“Okay, that wasn’t my track, but I’m willing to jump on board. What I was going to say was we could go back and do some research. I can show you what I’ve got so far, which is basically nothing. I can’t dig up any data on your benefactors, at least not under the names they used to buy the Peak, or any variations of those names.”
“I’ll leave the research to you and Dana for now.” She shrugged. “I’ve got some other trails to follow.”
“Logic. Goddesses. There are a couple of New Age shops in the area. I’m going to check them out. Then there’s the painting. I’m going to find out who painted that portrait, see what else he or she has done, and where those paintings might be. Who owns them, how they acquired them. I need to take another trip up to Warrior’s Peak, have another talk with Pitte and Rowena, and get another look at that painting. A better look.”
“I’ll go with you. There’s a story here, Malory. This could be a huge scam, which would make it big news and my duty to report it.”
She stiffened up. “You don’t have any proof that Rowena and Pitte aren’t legitimate—possibly loony, yes, but not crooks.”
“Easy.” He held up a hand for peace. “I’m not writing anything until I have all the facts. I can’t get all the facts until I meet all the players. I need an entrée to that house. You’re it. In exchange you get the benefit of my keen investigative skills and dogged reporter’s determination. I go with you, or I talk Dana into taking me up there.”
She tapped a finger on the table while she considered her options. “They might not talk to you. In fact, they may not like it that we’ve brought you into this, even on a peripheral level.”
“Leave that part to me. Getting into places where I’m not wanted is part of my job description.”
“Is that how you got into my apartment last night?”
“Ouch. Why don’t we run up there tomorrow morning? I can pick you up at ten.”
“All right.” What harm could it do to have him along?
“THERE’S no need to walk me all the way to the door,” Malory said as they approached her apartment building.
“Sure there is. I’m just an old-fashioned guy.”
“No, you’re not.” She muttered it as she opened her purse for her key. “I’m not asking you in.”
She slanted him a look as they stepped up to the door. “You say that like you’re an affable, easygoing man. You’re not that, either. It’s a ploy.”
He grinned. “It is?”
“Yes. You’re stubborn and pushy and more than a little arrogant. You get away with it because you put on that big, charming smile and that I-wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly demeanor. But they’re just tools to help you get what you want.”
“God, you see right through me.” Watching her, he twirled a lock of her hair around his finger. “Now I either have to kill you or marry you.”
“And being appealing on some screwy level doesn’t make you less annoying. Therein lies the flaw.”
At those words he caught her face in his hands and crushed his lips enthusiastically to hers. The heat shot straight up from her belly and seemed to burst out the top of her head.
“Neither does that,” she managed. She shoved her key in the lock, pushed the door open. Then shut it in his face. Half a beat later, she yanked it open. “Thanks for dinner.”
He rocked gently on his heels when the door shut in his face a second time. When he strolled away, he was whistling, and thinking Malory Price was the kind of woman who made a man’s life really interesting.
DANA gulped down her first cup of coffee while standing naked in her tiny kitchen, eyes closed, brain dead. She drained it, hot, black, and strong, before letting out a soft whimper of relief.
She downed half the second cup on the way to the shower.
She didn’t mind mornings, mainly because she was never awake enough to object to them. Her routine rarely varied. Her alarm buzzed, she slapped it off, then rolled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen, where the automatic coffeemaker already had the first pot ready.
One and a half cups later, her vision was clear enough for a shower.
By the time she was done, her circuits were up and running, and she was too awake to sulk about being awake. She drank the second half of the second cup and listened to the morning news report while she dressed for the day.
With a toasted bagel and her third cup of coffee, she settled down with her current breakfast book.
She’d turned only the second page when the knock on her door interrupted her most sacred of rituals.
She marked her place. Her annoyance faded, a little, when she opened the door to Malory.
“Aren’t you the bright-and-early girl?”
“Sorry. You said you were working this morning, so I thought you’d be up and around by now.”
“Up, anyway.” She leaned on the jamb a moment and studied the minute green checks of the soft cotton shirt that precisely matched the color of Malory’s pleated trousers. Just as the dove-gray slides she wore exactly matched the tone and texture of her shoulder bag.
“Do you always dress like that?” Dana wondered.
With a little laugh, Malory looked down at herself. “I’m afraid so. It’s a compulsion.”
“Looks good on you, too. I’ll probably end up hating you for it. Come on in anyway.”
The room was a compact, informal library. Books stood or were stacked on the shelves that ran along two walls from floor to ceiling, sat on the tables like knickknacks, trooped around the room like soldiers. They struck Malory as more than knowledge or entertainment, even more than stories and information. They were color and texture, in a haphazard yet somehow intricate decorating scheme.
The short leg of the L-shaped room boasted still more books, as well as a small table that held the remains of Dana’s breakfast.
With her hands on her hips, Dana watched Malory’s perusal of her space. She’d seen the reaction before. “No, I haven’t read them all, but I will. And no, I don’t know how many I h
ave. Want coffee?”
“Let me just ask this. Do you ever actually use the services of the library?”
“Sure, but I need to own them. If I don’t have twenty or thirty books right here, waiting to be read, I start jonesing. That’s my compulsion.”
“Okay. I’ll pass on the coffee, thanks. I already had a cup. Two, and I’m wired.”
“Two, and I can just manage to form complete sentences. Bagel?”
“No, but go ahead. I wanted to catch you before you left for work. Fill you in.”
“Fill away.” Dana gestured to the second chair at the table, then sat to finish her breakfast.
“I’m going back up to Warrior’s Peak this morning. With Flynn.”
Dana’s lip curled. “I figured he’d horn in. And hit on you.”
“Are either of those things a problem for you?”
“No. He’s smarter than he comes across. That’s one of the ways he gets people to spill their guts to him. If he hadn’t horned in, I’d have baited him until he helped out. As for hitting on you, I had to figure he’d go for either you or Zoe. Flynn really likes women, and they really like him.”
Malory thought of the way he’d moved in on her in her kitchen, the way she’d gone pliant as putty when he had. “There’s a definite chemical reaction there, but I haven’t decided if I like him or not.”
Dana crunched on her bagel. “Might as well give in to it. He’ll just wear you down, which is another thing he’s really good at. He’s like a damn Border collie.”
“You know how they herd sheep?” She used her free hand, zagging it right and left to demonstrate. “How they keep heading them off, working them around until the sheep end up going where the collie wants them to go? That’s Flynn. You’ll think, nope, I want to go over here, and he’s thinking, well, you’ll be better off over there. So you end up over there before you realize you’ve been herded.”
She licked cream cheese off her finger. “And the hell of it is, when you find yourself there you almost always realize you are better off. He stays alive by never saying I told you so.”
She’d gone to dinner with him, hadn’t she? Malory considered. Kissed him—twice. Three times if she was going to be technical. And he was not only coming with her to Warrior’s Peak, he was driving her. Huh.
“I don’t like being maneuvered.”
Dana’s expression was a combination of pity and amusement. “Well, we’ll see how it goes.” She rose, gathering her dishes. “What are you hoping for with Rowena and Pitte?”
“I don’t expect to get much from them. It’s the painting.” Malory followed Dana into the little kitchen. It didn’t surprise her to find books here as well, stacked in an open-fronted pantry where the average cook would have stored food staples.
“The painting’s important somehow,” she continued while Dana rinsed off the dishes. “What it says, and who said it.”
She took a moment to explain the rest of the tale as Flynn had relayed it to her over dinner.
“So they’re taking on the roles of the teacher and the guard.”
“That’s the theory,” Malory confirmed. “I’m interested in how they’ll react when I broach it. And I can use Flynn to distract them long enough to give me time to get another look at the painting and take a couple of pictures of it. That could lead to other paintings with similar themes. It might be helpful.”
“I’ll do a search on mythological art this morning.” Dana checked her watch. “I’ve got to go. The three of us should get together on this as soon as we can.”
“Let’s see what we come up with today.”
They walked out together, and Malory stopped on the sidewalk. “Dana. Is it just crazy to do all this?”
“Damn right. Call me when you get back from the Peak.”
IT was a more pleasant, if less atmospheric, drive on a sunny morning. As a passenger, Malory could indulge herself with the scenery and wonder what it was like to live high on a ridge where the sky seemed only a hand span away and the world was spread out like a painting below.
A fitting view for gods, she supposed. Lofty and dramatic. She had no doubt Rowena and Pitte had chosen it for its power as much as for the privacy.
In another few weeks, when those elegantly rolling hills felt the chill of fall, the colors would stun the eye and catch the breath.
Mists would hover in the morning, sliding into those folds and dips between the hills, spreading like sparkling pools until the sun dissolved them.
And still the house would stand, black as midnight, with its fanciful lines etched against the sky. Guarding the valley. Or watching it. What did it see, she wondered, year after year across the decades?
What did it know?
The question brought on a shudder, a sudden sharp sense of dread.
She shook her head, and rolled down her window. All at once the car seemed hot and stuffy. “No. I’m spooking myself, that’s all.”
“If you don’t want to do this now—”
“I want to do it. I’m not afraid of a couple of rich eccentrics. In fact, I liked them. And I want to see the painting again. I can’t stop thinking about it. Whatever direction my mind goes off in, I keep coming back to the painting.”
She glanced out her window, into the deep, leafy woods. “Would you want to live up here?”
Intrigued, she looked back at him. “That was fast.”
“I’m a social animal. I like having people around. Moe might like it.” He gazed into the rearview mirror to see Moe, nose jammed into the narrow window opening, floppy ears flying.
“I can’t believe you brought the dog.”
“He likes to ride in the car.”
She angled around, studied Moe’s blissful expression. “Obviously. Have you ever considered getting him clipped so his hair isn’t in his eyes?”
“Don’t say clipped.” Flynn winced as he muttered the word. “We’re still not over the whole neutering deal.”
He slowed as they drove along the wall that edged the estate. Then stopped to study the twin warriors who flanked the iron gate.
“They don’t look friendly. I camped up here a couple of times with some friends when I was in high school. The house was empty then, so we climbed over the wall.”
“Did you go into the house?”
“There wasn’t enough courage in a six-pack of beer for that, but we had a hell of a time freaking ourselves out. Jordan claimed he saw a woman walking on the parapet or whatever you call it. Swore he did. He wrote a book about her later, so I guess he saw something. Jordan Hawke,” Flynn added. “You might’ve heard of him.”
“Jordan Hawke wrote about Warrior’s Peak?”
“He called it—”
“Phantom Watch. I read that book.” As a ripple of fascination raced up her spine, she stared through the bars of the gates. “Of course. He described it all perfectly, but then he’s a wonderful writer.” She looked back at Flynn, suspiciously. “You’re friends with Jordan Hawke?”
“Since we were kids. He grew up in the Valley. I guess we were sixteen—me, Jordan, and Brad—sucking down beers in the woods, slapping mosquitoes the size of sparrows, and telling very inventive lies about our sexual prowess.”
“It’s illegal to drink at sixteen,” Malory said primly.
He shifted, and even through the shaded lenses of his sunglasses, she could see his eyes laughing. “Really? What were we thinking? Anyway, ten years later, Jordan’s got his first bestseller, and Brad’s off running the family empire—that would be lumber and the HomeMakers chain for Bradley Charles Vane IV, and I’m planning on heading to New York to be a hotshot reporter for the Times.”
Her eyebrows winged up. “You worked for the New York Times?”
“No, I never went. One thing and another,” he said with a shrug. “Let’s see what I can do about getting us through this gate.”
Even as he started to ste
p out of the car, the gate opened with a kind of otherworldly silence that sent a chill dancing along the nape of his neck. “Must really keep it lubed,” he murmured. “And I guess somebody knows we’re out here.”
He slid back behind the wheel and drove through.
The house looked just as strange and stark and stunning in daylight as it had in a night storm. There was no magnificent stag to greet her, but the flag with its key emblem flew high and white, and rivers of flowers ran below. Gargoyles clung to the stone, and looked, to Malory’s mind, as if they were considering leaping, not so playfully, on any visitor.
“I never got this close in the daylight.” Slowly Flynn stepped out of the car.
“Yeah, but in a good way. It’s terrific, like something you expect to see on a cliff above a raging sea. Too bad there’s no moat. That would really top it off.”
“Wait until you see the inside.” Malory moved up beside him, and didn’t object in the least when Flynn took her hand. The tickle at the back of her throat made her feel foolish and female.
“I don’t know why I’m so nervous.” She caught herself whispering it, then her hand jerked in Flynn’s when the big entrance door opened.
Rowena stood framed in the towering doorway. She wore simple gray pants with a roomy shirt the color of the forest. Her hair spilled over her shoulders, her lips were unpainted, her feet bare. But however casual the outfit, she managed to look exotic, like some foreign queen on a quiet holiday.
Malory caught the glint of diamonds at her ears.
“How lovely.” Rowena held out a hand on which rings sparkled elegantly. “How nice to see you again, Malory. And you’ve brought me such a handsome surprise.”
“Flynn Hennessy. He’s Dana’s brother.”
“Welcome. Pitte will be right along. He’s just finishing up a call.” She gestured them inside.
Flynn had to resist gawking at the foyer. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d find telephones.”
Rowena’s chuckle was low, almost a purr. “We enjoy the advantages of technology. Come, we’ll have tea.”
“We don’t want to put you to any trouble,” Malory began, but Rowena waved her off.
“Guests are never any trouble.”
“How did you find out about Warrior’s Peak, Miss . . .”
“Rowena.” She slid an arm silkily through Flynn’s as she walked them to the parlor. “You must call me Rowena. Pitte always has an ear to the ground for an interesting spot.”
“You travel a lot?”
“We do, yes.”
“For work or pleasure?”
“Without pleasure, there’s little point in work.” She trailed a fingertip playfully down his arm. “Won’t you sit? Ah, here’s the tea.”
Malory recognized the servant from her first visit. She brought the tea cart in silently, and left the same way.
“What business are you in?” Flynn asked.