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Key of light, p.5
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       Key of Light, p.5

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  but it needed flowers, Malory thought. Color and shape and texture. And an old bench on the porch, next to a big copper pot full of interesting sticks and grasses.

  The house looked lonely without them, like a perfectly attractive woman, she thought, who’d been stood up for a date.

  Dana took out a key, unlocked the door. “The best I can say about the inside is it’ll be quiet.” She stepped in, and her voice echoed. “And private.”

  The foyer was empty but for a few boxes shoved into a corner. The stairway leading up was a lovely, fanciful curve with a griffin head as its newel post.

  The foyer spilled into a parlor, where the walls were painted a rich, shady-river green that went well with the warm honey-toned pine of the floor. But the walls, like the yard, were naked.

  There was a huge sofa in the middle of the floor, the sort that shouted to Malory, A man bought me! Despite the fact that some of the green in it matched the walls, it was a hideous plaid, clunky of style and too large for the charm potential of the room.

  Some sort of crate stood in as a table.

  There were more boxes, one of which sat on the hearth of a delightful little fireplace with an ornately carved mantel that she could envision dressing up with a fabulous painting.

  “So . . .” Zoe turned in a circle. “I guess he’s just moving in.”

  “Oh, yeah. For the last year and a half.” Dana laid her books on the crate.

  “He’s lived here for over a year?” It hurt, simply hurt Malory’s heart. “And his single piece of furniture is this really ugly couch?”

  “Hey, you should’ve seen his room at home. At least this is neat. Anyway, he’s got some halfway decent stuff upstairs. That’s where he lives. There’s probably not any food, but there’ll be coffee, beer, Coke. Anybody?”

  “Diet Coke?” Malory asked.

  Dana sneered. “He’s a guy.”

  “Right. I’ll live dangerously and have the real thing.”

  “Coke’s fine,” Zoe agreed.

  “Coming up. Go ahead and sit. The couch is an eyesore but it’s comfortable.”

  “All this wonderful space wasted,” Malory decided, “on a man who would actually pay money for something like this.” She dropped down on the couch. “Okay, it’s comfortable. But it’s still ugly.”

  “Can you imagine living in a place like this?” Zoe turned a quick circle. “It’s like a doll’s house. Well, a really big doll’s house, but just as sweet. I’d spend all my free time playing with it, hunting for treasures to put in it, fussing with paint and fabric.”

  “So would I.” Malory tilted her head. At her very best, she thought, she would never look as hip and exotic as Zoe managed to do in simple jeans and a cotton shirt. And she’d done the math, calculating how old Zoe had been when she’d had her baby. At that same age, Malory had been shopping for the perfect prom dress and preparing for college.

  And yet, here they were, together in a largely empty room of a stranger’s house and having nearly identical thoughts.

  “It’s strange how much we have in common. Strange, too, that we live in a relatively small town and never met before last night.”

  Zoe sat on the opposite end of the couch. “Where do you get your hair done?”

  “Carmine’s, out at the mall.”

  “That’s a good salon. Hair Today, here in town, where I worked? It’s mostly women who want the same do week after week after week.” She rolled her big, tawny eyes. “Can’t blame you for heading out of town. You’ve got great hair. Did your stylist ever suggest that you take a couple inches off?”

  “Cut?” Instinctively Malory’s hand went to her hair. “Cut?”

  “Just a couple inches, take some of the weight off. It’s a terrific color.”

  “It’s mine. Well, I get it punched up a bit.” She laughed and dropped her hand. “I get the feeling you’re looking at my hair the way I’m looking at this room. Wondering just what I could do with it if I had a free hand.”

  “Cokes and cookies.” Dana brought in a trio of cans and a bag of store-bought chocolate chip cookies. “So, what have we got so far?”

  “I didn’t find anything that mentions three daughters of a young god and a mortal woman.” Malory popped the top and sipped, though she would have preferred a glass and some ice. “Jesus, this stuff is so sweet when you’re not used to it. I also didn’t find anything about trapped souls or keys. A lot of strange-looking names like Lug and Rhianna, Anu, Danu. Tales of battles—victories and death.”

  She took out her notebook, flipped it open to the first neatly arranged page. One look at it had Dana’s dimples popping out.

  “I bet you were an A student all the way through school. Honor roll, Dean’s list. Fucking the curve for the rest of the class.”

  “Why?”

  “You’re too organized not to be. You made an outline and everything.” She snatched the notebook, turned pages. “And time lines! Charts.”

  “Shut up.” Laughing at herself, Malory grabbed the notebook back. “As I was saying before being snickered at for my organized research style, Celtic gods die—they appear to pop back, but they can actually be killed. And unlike what I know about the gods in Greek and Roman mythology, these don’t live on some magic mountaintop. They inhabit the earth, live among people. Lots of politics and protocol.”

  Dana sat on the floor. “Anything that could be a metaphor for the keys?”

  “If there was, it was over my head.”

  “Artists were gods, and warriors,” Zoe added. “Or the other way around. I mean art—music, storytelling, all that—was important. And there were mother-goddesses. Motherhood was important. And the number three. So, it’s like, Malory’s the artist—”

  It was a quick and painful twist in Malory’s heart. “No, I sell art.”

  “You know art,” Zoe said. “Like Dana knows books. I know about being a mother.”

  “That’s good.” Dana beamed at her. “That gives each of us our role in this. Pitte said beauty, truth, courage. In the painting, Malory—let’s simplify by calling them by our names for now—Malory was playing an instrument. Music-art-beauty. I was holding a scroll and quill—book-knowledge-truth. And Zoe had the sword and the puppy. Innocence-protection-courage.”

  “Which means?” Malory demanded.

  “We could say the first key, your key, is somewhere that has to do with art and/or beauty. That goes along with the clue.”

  “Great. I’ll pick it up on my way home.” Malory nudged a book with her toe. “What if they just made it up? The whole story?”

  “I refuse to believe they made the whole thing up just to have us scrambling around looking for keys.” Thoughtfully, Dana bit into a cookie. “No matter what we believe, they believe it’s true. So there’s got to be some root, some basis for this legend or myth or story they told us last night. If there’s a root, it’s in a book. Somewhere.”

  “Actually . . .” Zoe hesitated, then went on, “the book I was reading talked about how a lot of the Celtic mythology and legends didn’t get written down. They were passed orally.”

  “Those damn bards,” Dana muttered. “Look, Pitte and Rowena heard it somewhere, and whoever told them heard it from someone else. The information is out there, and information is my god.”

  “Maybe what we have to do is get information on Pitte and Rowena. Who the hell are they?” Malory spread her hands. “Where do they come from? Where do they get the kind of money that allows them to pass it out like cupcakes?”

  “You’re right.” Annoyed with herself, Dana blew out a breath. “You’re absolutely right, and I should’ve thought of that before. It happens I know somebody who can help us with that while we’re looking into the myth.” She glanced toward the doorway as she heard the front door open. “And here he comes now.”

  They heard a thud, a slam, a scramble, and a curse.

  It was just familiar enough to have Malory pressing her fingers to her temples. “Holy Mother of God.”<
br />
  Even as she spoke, the huge black dog raced in. His tail swung like a demolition ball, his tongue lolled. And his eyes went bright as stars as he spotted Malory.

  He let out a series of ear-shattering barks, then leaped into her lap.

  Chapter Four

  FLYNN saw three things when he charged into the room after his dog: his sister sitting on the floor laughing like a lunatic; a sharp-looking brunette standing at the end of the couch heroically trying to dislodge Moe; and, to his surprise and delight, the woman he’d been thinking about for the better part of the day, mostly buried under Moe’s bulk and insane affections.

  “Okay, Moe, down. I mean it. That’s enough.” He didn’t expect the dog to listen. He always tried; Moe never listened. But it seemed the right thing to do as he gripped the dog around the barrel of his belly.

  He had to lean down—well, maybe not quite as far as he did. But she had the prettiest blue eyes, even when they were shooting daggers at him. “Hi. Nice to see you again.”

  Muscles jumped in her jaw when she clenched it. “Get him off!”

  “Working on it.”

  “Hey, Moe!” Dana shouted. “Cookie!”

  That did the trick. Moe leaped over the crate, nipped the cookie out of the hand Dana held in the air, then landed. It might have been a graceful landing if he hadn’t skidded several feet over the uncarpeted floor.

  “Works like a charm.” Dana lifted her arm. Moe loped back, the cookie already history, and insinuated his bulk under it.

  “Wow. He’s really a big dog.” Zoe eased over, held out a hand, then grinned when Moe licked it lavishly. “Friendly.”

  “Pathologically friendly.” Malory brushed at the dog hair that had transferred itself to her once pristine linen shirt. “That’s the second time today he’s landed on me.”

  “He likes girls.” Flynn took off his sunglasses, tossed them on the crate. “You never told me your name.”

  “Oh, so you’re the idiot and his dog. Should’ve known. This is Malory Price,” Dana said. “And Zoe McCourt. My brother, Flynn.”

  “Are you Michael Flynn Hennessy?” Zoe crouched to stroke Moe’s ear, looked up at Flynn under her bangs. “M. F. Hennessy, with the Valley Dispatch?”

  “Guilty.”

  “I’ve read a lot of your articles, and I never miss your column. I liked the one last week on the proposed ski lift up on Lone Ridge and the environmental impact.”

  “Thanks.” He reached down for a cookie. “Is this a book club meeting, and will there be cake?”

  “No. But if you’ve got a minute, maybe you could sit down.” Dana patted the floor. “We’ll tell you what it is.”

  “Sure.” But he sat on the couch. “Malory Price? The Gallery, right?”

  “Not anymore,” she grimaced.

  “I’ve been in a couple times, must’ve missed you. I don’t cover arts and entertainment. I see the error of my ways.”

  His eyes, she noted, were the same color as the walls. That lazy-river green. “I doubt we have anything to offer that could complement your decor.”

  “You hate the couch, right?”

  “ ‘Hate’ is much too mild a word.”

  “It’s very comfortable.”

  He glanced over at Zoe’s comment and smiled. “It’s a napping couch. You nap, your eyes are closed, so you don’t care what it looks like. Celtic Mythology,” he read, angling his head to read the titles on the books scattered over the crate. “Myths and Legends of the Celts.” He picked one up, turned it in his hands as he studied his sister. “What gives?”

  “I told you I was going to that cocktail party at Warrior’s Peak?”

  His face went hard the instant the affable smile faded. “I thought you weren’t going because I said there had to be something off about that since nobody I talked to got an invitation.”

  Dana picked up her Coke can, gave him a mildly interested look. “Do you actually think I listen to you?”

  “No.”

  “Okay, then. Here’s what happened.”

  She’d barely begun when he turned away from her and those green eyes sharpened on Malory’s face. “You got an invitation?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you.” He nodded at Zoe. “What do you do, Zoe?”

  “Right now I’m an unemployed hairdresser, but—”

  “Married?”

  “No.”

  “Neither are you,” he said as he looked at Malory again. “No ring. No ‘I’m married’ vibe. How long have the three of you known each other?”

  “Flynn, stop doing a damn interview. Just let me tell you what happened.”

  Dana started again, and this time he boosted a hip off the couch, took a notebook out of his back pocket. Doing her best to appear as if she wasn’t the least bit interested in what he was doing, Malory slid her gaze to the left and down.

  He used shorthand, she realized. And real shorthand, not any sort of bastardized version, as she did.

  She tried to decipher it as Dana spoke, but it made her a little dizzy.

  “ ‘The Daughters of Glass,’ ” Flynn muttered and kept scribbling.

  “What?” Without thinking, Malory reached over and clamped her fingers on his wrist. “You know this story?”

  “A version of it, anyway.” Since he had her attention, he shifted toward her. His knee bumped hers. “My Irish granny told me lots of stories.”

  “Why didn’t you recognize it?” Malory asked Dana.

  “She didn’t have my Irish granny.”

  “Actually, we’re steps,” Dana explained. “My father married his mother when I was eight.”

  “Or my mother married her father when I was eleven. It’s all point of view.” He reached up to toy with the ends of Malory’s hair, grinned easily when she batted his fingers aside. “Sorry. There’s just so much of it, it’s irresistible. Anyway, my granny liked to tell stories, so I heard plenty of them. This one sounds like ‘The Daughters of Glass.’ Which doesn’t explain why the three of you were invited up to the Peak to listen to a faerie tale.”

  “We’re supposed to find the keys,” Zoe put in, and snuck a peek at her watch.

  “You’re supposed to find the keys to unlock their souls? Cool.” He stretched out to prop his feet on the crate, crossed his ankles. “Now it’s my duty to ask how, when, and why.”

  “If you’d shut up for five minutes, I’d tell you.” Dana reached for her Coke and drained it. “Malory goes first. She has twenty-eight days, starting today, to find the first key. When she does, either Zoe or I goes next. Same drill. Then the last of us gets her shot.”

  “Where’s the box? The Box of Souls?”

  Dana frowned as Moe deserted her to sniff Malory’s toes. “I don’t know. They must have it. Pitte and Rowena. If they don’t the keys won’t do them any good.”

  “You’re telling me you’re buying this? Miss Steeped-in-Reality? And you’re going to spend the next few weeks looking for keys that open a magic glass box that holds the souls of three goddesses.”

  “Demigoddesses.” Malory nudged Moe with her foot to discourage him. “And it isn’t a matter of what we believe. It’s a business deal.”

  “They paid us twenty-five thousand each.” Dana offered. “In advance.”

  “Twenty-five thousand dollars? Get out!”

  “The money’s been deposited in our bank accounts. It’s been verified.” Forgetting herself, Malory reached for a cookie. Moe immediately dropped his heavy head on her knee. “Could you call off your dog?”

  “Not as long as you’ve got cookies. These two people, whom you don’t know, gave each of you twenty-five grand to look for magic keys? Did they have any beans for sale? A golden goose, maybe?”

  “The money’s real,” Malory said stiffly.

  “And what if you don’t deliver? What’s the penalty?”

  “We lose a year.”

  “You’re, what, indentured to them for a year?”

  “A year gets taken away from us.
” Zoe looked at her watch again. She really had to go.

  “What year?”

  She gave him a blank look. “Well, I . . . The last year, I guess. When we’re old.”

  “Or this year,” he said and pushed to his feet. “Or next. Or ten years back, if we’re being weird, which we sure as hell are.”

  “No, that can’t be.” Pale now, Zoe shook her head. “It can’t be from before. That would change everything. What if it’s the year I had Simon, or the year I got pregnant? That can’t be.”

  “No, it can’t, because none of this can be.” He shook his head and looked down at his sister. “Where’s your head, Dana? Didn’t it occur to you that when you don’t come up with the goods these people might hurt you? Nobody dumps that kind of money on strangers. Which means you’re not strangers to them. For whatever reason, they know you. They’ve looked into you.”

  “You weren’t there,” Dana said. “Eccentric is definitely apt in their case. Psychotic isn’t.”

  “Besides, there’s no motive for them to hurt us.”

  He spun back to Malory. No, he wasn’t affable now, she realized, but annoyed. And working his way rapidly to irate. “And there is one for them to dump big gobs of money on you?”

  “I’ve got to go.” Zoe’s voice shook as she grabbed her bag. “I have to get to Simon. My son.”

  She streaked out, and Dana leaped to her feet. “Nice job, Flynn. Very nice job scaring the single mother witless.” She bolted after Zoe, hoping to calm her.

  He jammed his hands in his pockets, stared hard at Malory. “You scared?”

  “No, but I don’t have a nine-year-old boy to worry about. And I don’t believe Pitte or Rowena wants to hurt us. Besides, I can take care of myself.”

  “Why do women always say that after they’ve gotten themselves in a really big jam?”

  “Because men usually come along and make things worse. I’m going to look for the key, as I agreed to do. We all are. So would you.”

  She had him there. He jingled the change in his pocket, considered. Cooled off. “What did they tell you would happen if you found the keys?”

  “The souls would be unlocked. And we’d each get a million dollars. And yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. You had to be there.”

  “When you add that these three goddesses are currently sleeping in crystal beds in a castle behind the Curtain of Dreams, I guess you did have to be there.”

  “They have a painting of the Daughters of Glass. They look like us. It’s a brilliant painting. I know art, Hennessy, and this is no paint-by-numbers deal. It’s a goddamn masterpiece. It has to mean something.”

  His face sharpened with interest. “Who painted it?”

  “It wasn’t signed, not that I could see.”

  “Then how do you know it’s a masterpiece?”

  “Because I know. It’s what I do. Whoever painted it has an amazing talent, and a great love and respect for the subject matter. That sort of thing shows. And if they’d wanted to hurt us, why didn’t they do something last night, when we were all there? Dana was there, alone with them, before I arrived. Why not bash her over the head and chain her in the dungeon, then do the same with me, with Zoe. Or drug the wine? I’ve already thought about all that, already asked myself all the questions. And I’ll tell you why. Because they believe everything they told us.”

  “And this eases your mind? Okay, who are they? Where do they come from? How did they get here? Why did they come here? This isn’t exactly Mystic Central.”

  “Why don’t you find out instead of scaring people?” Dana demanded as she returned.

  “Is Zoe okay?” Malory asked her.

 
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