Key of light, p.23
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       Key of Light, p.23

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  Chapter Sixteen

  FLYNN closed the door of his office, a signal that he was writing and was not to be disturbed. Not that anybody paid a great deal of attention to the signal, but it was the principle of the thing.

  He let the idea for the column simply flow out initially, a kind of serpentine river of thought that he would channel into a more disciplined form on the second pass.

  What defined the artist? Were artists only those who created what was perceived as the beautiful or the shocking, those who formed some piece of work that delivered a visceral punch? In painting, in music, in literature or theater?

  If so, did that make the rest of the world nothing more than the audience? Passive observers whose only contribution was applause or criticism?

  What became of the artist without the audience?

  Not his usual sort of column, Flynn mused, but it had been kicking around in his head since the night he and Malory had searched The Gallery. It was time to let it out.

  He could still see the way she’d looked in that storeroom. A stone figure in her arms and grief swimming in her eyes. In the three days since, she’d kept him and everyone else at arm’s length. Oh, she paid lip service to being busy, to following different angles on her quest, to putting her life back in order.

  Though from his point of view there’d never been any real disorder to it.

  Still, she refused to come out. And she wouldn’t let him in.

  Maybe the column was a kind of message to her.

  He rolled his shoulders, tapped his fingers on the edge of his desk until his mind shifted back and found the words.

  Wasn’t the child who first learned to form his own name with letters a kind of artist? One who was exploring intellect, coordination, and ego. When the child held that fat pencil or bright crayon in his fist, then drew those letters on paper, wasn’t he creating a symbol of himself with lines and curves? This is who I am, and no one else is quite the same.

  There is art in the statement, and in the accomplishment.

  What about the woman who managed to put a hot meal on the table in the evening? To a Cordon Bleu chef, this might be a pedestrian feat, but to those who were baffled by the directions on a can of condensed soup, having that meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and string beans hit the table in unison was a great and mysterious art.

  “Flynn?”

  “Working,” he snapped without looking up.

  “You’re not the only one.” Rhoda shut the door at her back, marched over and sat in a chair. She folded her arms across her chest and stared holes at Flynn through her square-framed glasses.

  But without the audience, ready and willing to consume the art, it becomes congealed leftovers to be dumped . . . “Damn it.”

  He shoved back from his keyboard. “What?”

  “You cut an inch from my feature.”

  His hands itched to pick up his Slinky. And wrap its coils around Rhoda’s skinny throat. “And?”

  “You said it was running a full twelve inches.”

  “And what you had was eleven solid inches, and an inch of fill. I cut the fill. It was a good piece, Rhoda. Now it’s a better piece.”

  “I want to know why you’re always picking on me, why you’re always cutting my pieces. You barely put a mark on John’s or Carla’s, and they’re all over my work.”

  “John handles sports. He’s been handling sports for over a decade. He’s got it down to a science.”

  Art and science, Flynn thought and made a quick shorthand note to remind himself to work it into the column. And sports . . . If anyone watched the way a pitcher sculpted the dirt on the mound with his feet until it was exactly the shape, the texture, the slope he—

  “Flynn!”

  “What? What?” He snapped back, rewound the tape in his mind. “And I do edit Carla when and if she needs it. Rhoda, I’m on a deadline myself here. If you want to get into this, let’s schedule some time tomorrow.”

  Her mouth pruned. “If we don’t resolve this now, I won’t be coming in tomorrow.”

  Instead of reaching for his action figure of Luke Skywalker and imagining the Jedi knight drawing his light saber and blasting the superior smirk off Rhoda’s face, Flynn sat back.

  The time had come, he decided, to do the blasting himself.

  “Okay. First, I’m going to tell you I’m tired of you threatening to walk. If you’re not happy here, not happy with the way I run the paper, then go.”

  She flushed scarlet. “Your mother never—”

  “I’m not my mother. Deal. I run the Dispatch. I’ve been running it for nearly four years now, and I intend to run it for a long time. Get used to it.”

  Now her eyes filled, and since Flynn considered tears fighting dirty, he struggled to ignore them. “Anything else?” he asked coolly.

  “I’ve been working here since before you could read the damn paper.”

  “Which may be our problem. It suited you better when my mother was in charge. Now it suits you better to continue to think of me as a temporary annoyance, and an incompetent one at that.”

  Rhoda’s mouth dropped open in what appeared to be sincere shock. “I don’t think you’re incompetent. I just think—”

  “That I should stay out of your work.” The genial tone was back in his voice, but his expression remained frigid. “That I should do what you tell me instead of the other way around. That’s not going to happen.”

  “If you don’t think I do good work, then—”

  “Sit down,” he ordered as she started to rise. He knew the drill. She would storm out, slam things around, glare at him through the glass, then make sure her next piece slid in only minutes before deadline.

  “It so happens I think you do good work. Not that it matters a hell of a lot coming from me because you don’t have any confidence in or respect for my skill or my authority. I guess that makes it tough for you because you’re a journalist, we’re the only game in town, and I’m in charge. I don’t see any of those factors changing. Next time I ask for twelve inches, give me a solid twelve and we won’t have a problem.” He tapped the tip of his pencil against the desk while she gaped at him.

  Perry White, he mused, might’ve handled it better, but he figured he was in the ballpark. “Anything else?”

  “I’m going to take the rest of the day off.”

  “No, you’re not.” He swiveled back to his keyboard. “Have that piece on the elementary school expansion on my desk by two. Close the door on your way out.”

  Flynn went back to typing, pleased when he heard the door click closed instead of slam. He waited thirty seconds, then shifted in his chair enough to look through the glass wall. Rhoda was sitting at her desk as if paralyzed.

  He hated confrontations like that. The woman used to sneak him gumdrops when he would come into the offices after school. It was hell, he decided, rubbing his temple and pretending to concentrate on his work. Just hell being a grown-up.

  HE escaped for an hour in the afternoon to meet Brad and Jordan at the Main Street Diner. It hadn’t changed much since the three of them had gathered there regularly after football games or for late-night bullshit sessions that had revolved around girls and life plans.

  The air was still ripe with the smell of the diner’s signature chicken-fried steak, and the counter still held a four-tiered display rack of that day’s pies. As Flynn looked down at the burger he’d ordered out of habit, he wondered if it was the diner that had gotten stuck in the past, or himself.

  He frowned at Brad’s club sandwich. “Trade me.”

  “You want my sandwich?”

  “I want your sandwich. Trade me.” To solve the matter, Flynn switched the plates himself.

  “If you didn’t want a burger, why’d you order one?”

  “Because. I’m a victim of habit and tradition.”

  “And eating my sandwich is going to solve that?”

  “It’s a start. I also started breaking habit by reaming Rhoda out at the paper this morning
. Once she comes out of shock, I’m pretty sure she’ll start planning my demise.”

  “How come you wanted his sandwich instead of mine?” Jordan asked.

  “I don’t like Reubens.”

  Jordan considered, then switched his plate with Brad’s.

  “Jesus, are we finished playing musical plates now?” Brad scowled at the Reuben, then decided it actually looked pretty good.

  Though he was already wishing he had his burger back, Flynn picked at the club sandwich. “Do you think staying in your hometown all your life keeps you too attached to the past, too resistant to change and growth, and thereby inhibits your ability to function as a mature adult?”

  “I didn’t know this was going to be a philosophical discussion.” But willing to play, Jordan considered the question as he squeezed ketchup on the burger. “It could be said that staying in your hometown means you’re comfortable there and have created strong roots and ties. Or that you’re just too lazy and complacent to get your ass out.”

  “I like it here. Took me a while to come to that. Up until recently I’d been pretty complacent about how things were going. Complacency’s taken a backseat since around the first of the month.”

  “Because of the keys?” Brad asked. “Or Malory?”

  “One goes with the other. The keys, that’s an adventure, right? Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.”

  “Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny,” Jordan put in.

  “Right, same deal.” You could always count on Jordan to get your drift, Flynn thought. “None of our lives are going to suffer if we don’t find them. Not really.”

  “One year,” Brad said. “That’s a pretty stiff penalty clause to my way of thinking.”

  “Okay, yeah.” Flynn plucked a potato chip from the little mound beside his sandwich. “But I’m having a hard time seeing either Rowena or Pitte punishing these women.”

  “They may not be the ones who do the messing,” Jordan commented. “They may simply be the conduit, so to speak, to reward or punishment. Why do we assume they have a choice either?”

  “Trying to think positive here,” Flynn replied. “And the idea that we will find the keys, and what happens then, is compelling.”

  “Besides the fact that it’s a puzzle, and it’s damn hard to walk away from a puzzle.”

  Flynn nodded at Brad, shifted in his seat. “Then there’s the magic. The acceptance that magic, some kinds of magic, are real. Not an illusion, but an actual kick in the ass of the natural order. I mean, how cool is that? That’s the kind of thing we give up when we become adults. The casual belief in magic. This has given it back.”

  “You want to look at it as a gift or a burden?” Jordan wondered. “Could go either way.”

  “Thanks again, Mr. Bright Side. But yes, I know that too. We’re coming up on deadline here. A little more than a week. If we don’t find it, maybe we’ll pay, maybe we won’t. But we’ll never know.”

  “You can’t dismiss the potential consequences of failure,” Brad pointed out.

  “I’m trying to believe that nobody’s going to screw up the lives of three innocent women because they tried and failed.”

  “You go back to the beginning of this, and the lives of three innocent women—demigoddesses or not—were screwed up simply because they existed.” Jordan dashed salt on what had been Flynn’s fries. “Sorry, pal.”

  “Add in that the women in the portrait look like the women we know.” Brad drummed his fingers on the table. “There’s a reason for that, and the reason puts them at the core of it all.”

  “I’m not letting anything happen to Malory. Or any of them,” Flynn responded.

  Jordan picked up his glass of iced tea. “Just how stuck on her are you?”

  “That’s another question. I haven’t figured it out.”

  “Well, we’ll help you there.” Jordan winked at Brad. “What’re friends for? How’s the sex?”

  “Why’s that always first with you?” Flynn demanded. “That’s a lifelong pattern.”

  “Because I’m a guy. And if you don’t think women rate sex high on the list, you’re a sad and pitiful fool.”

  “It’s great.” Flynn met Jordan sneer for sneer. “You only wish you were having this level of sex with a beautiful woman. But it’s not like that’s the only thing going on between us. We have actual conversations, with and without clothes on.”

  “Including phone conversations?” Brad asked. “That last over five minutes?”

  “Yeah, so?”

  “Just making the list. Have you cooked her anything? Not just nuking something, but using an actual stove.”

  “I just made her some soup when—”

  “That counts. Take her to any chick flicks?”

  Frowning, Flynn picked up a triangle of sandwich. “I don’t know that it qualified as a chick flick.” He set it down again. “Okay, yes. Once, but it was—”

  “No explanations, this part of the quiz is true or false. We can move on to our essay section,” Jordan assured him. “Picture your life in, let’s say five years. That work?” he asked Brad.

  “Some require ten, but I think we can be more lenient. Five works for me.”

  “Okay, picture your life in five years. Can you structure the visual without her being in it?”

  “I don’t know how I’m supposed to picture five years from now when I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in five days.”

  But he could, he could see his house, with some of the long-term plans he had for it in place. He could see himself at the paper, walking Moe, hanging out with Dana. And he could see Malory at every angle. Walking down the stairs in the house, coming by the paper to meet him, chasing Moe out of the kitchen.

  He went a little pale. “Oh, man.”

  “She’s in there, isn’t she?” Jordan asked.

  “She’s in there all right.”

  “Congratulations, son.” Jordan slapped him on the shoulder. “You’re in love.”

  “Wait a minute. What if I’m not ready?”

  “Tough luck,” Brad replied.

  BRAD knew all about luck and decided his was in when he stepped out of the diner and spotted Zoe stopped at the traffic light.

  She was wearing dark wraparound sunglasses and moving her lips in a way that made him assume she was singing along with the car stereo.

  It wasn’t stalking, exactly, if he just happened to hop in his car, zip out into traffic and follow. The fact that he cut off a pickup truck was completely incidental.

  It was reasonable, even important, that they get to know each other better. He could hardly help Flynn if he didn’t know the women Flynn was connected to.

  That made sense.

  It had nothing to do with obsession. Just because he’d bought a painting with her face in it, just because he couldn’t get that face out of his mind, all that didn’t mean he was obsessed.

  He was merely interested.

  And if he was practicing various opening lines under his breath, it was only because he understood the value of communication. He certainly wasn’t nervous about speaking to a woman. He spoke to women all the time.

  Women spoke to him all the time, if it came to that. He was considered one of the top eligible bachelors—and God, did he hate that term—in the country. Women went out of their way to talk to him.

  If Zoe McCourt couldn’t spare five minutes for some polite conversation, well, that was her loss.

  By the time she pulled into a driveway, he’d worked himself into a mass of nerves and irritation. The vaguely annoyed glance she sent him when he pulled up behind her put a cap on it.

  Feeling foolish and insulted, he climbed out.

  “Are you following me?” she demanded.

  “Excuse me?” In defense, his voice was flat and cold. “I think you’re overestimating your charms. Flynn’s worried about Malory. I saw you and thought you’d be able to tell me how she’s doing.”

  Zoe continued to observe him warily as sh
e unlocked her trunk. Her jeans were tight enough to afford him an intriguing view of firm female butt. She wore a short, snug red jacket with an equally snug striped top that stopped a full inch above the waistband of the jeans.

  He noted, with some fascination that her belly button was pierced and sported a tiny silver bar. He actually felt his fingertips grow warm with the urge to touch it.

  “I stopped by to see her before.”

  “Huh? Who? Oh, Malory.” Now the back of his neck grew warm and he cursed himself. “How is she?”

  “She looks tired, and a little down on herself.”

  “I’m sorry.” He stepped forward as she began to unload the trunk. “Let me give you a hand.”

  “I can get it.”

  “I’m sure you can.” He solved the matter by taking the two heavy sample books of wallpaper from her. “But I don’t see any reason you should. Redecorating?”

  She took out a paint sample book, a small toolbox—which he pulled away from her—a notebook, and some tile chips. “We contracted for this house. We’re going to open the business here. It needs work.”

  He walked ahead, leaving her to slam the trunk. Yes, it did need work, but it had a sturdy look, and the lot was nicely established. Solid location, decent parking.

  “Looks like it has good bones,” he commented. “You have the foundation checked out?”

  “Yes.”

  “Wiring up to code?”

  She dug out the keys she’d picked up from the realtor. “Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I don’t know how to buy a house. I looked at a number of properties, and this was the best value, with the best location. Most of the work it needs is cosmetic.”

  She shoved open the door. “You can just dump them on the floor. Thanks. I’ll tell Malory you asked about her.”

  Brad just kept walking so that she had to step back. Though it took some effort, he refused to let his gaze drift down to her navel again. “Are you always irritated when someone tries to help you?”

  “I’m irritated when someone thinks I can’t handle myself. Look, I don’t have that much time to do what I’m here to do. I need to get started.”

  “Then I’ll stay out of your way.”

  He studied the ceiling, the floor, the walls as he wandered through the entrance area. “Nice space.”

  He didn’t detect any damp, but there was a definite chill. He wasn’t sure if it was a faulty furnace or the woman who was blowing cold. “Which part are you taking?”

  “Upstairs.”

  “Okay.” He started up, nearly amused now by her impatient indrawn breath. “Nice stairs. Can’t go wrong with white pine.”

  Some of the trim needed to be replaced, he noted. And the double-hung window at the top of the steps had yet to be upgraded. She’d need to see to that, get herself a double-glazed for insulation.

  The walls had gone dingy, and there were a few cracks from settling. But that was easily seen to.

  He liked the way the rooms split off and ran together, and wondered if she would remove some of the hollow-core doors altogether or replace them with
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