Keeper of the Keys

( 13 )

Overview

For ambitious, troubled architect Ray Jackson, the nightmare begins one sultry California night when his wife disappears. No phone call, no ransom note, no body, reveals whether Leigh is dead or alive.

Then, suddenly, a woman shows up on Ray?s doorstep demanding answers: Kathleen, an old friend of Leigh?s. Ray wants answers, too, but his questions seem strange and shady to Kat. Suspected by his wife?s friend and by the police, Ray launches a desperate and alarming search of his ...

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Overview

For ambitious, troubled architect Ray Jackson, the nightmare begins one sultry California night when his wife disappears. No phone call, no ransom note, no body, reveals whether Leigh is dead or alive.

Then, suddenly, a woman shows up on Ray’s doorstep demanding answers: Kathleen, an old friend of Leigh’s. Ray wants answers, too, but his questions seem strange and shady to Kat. Suspected by his wife’s friend and by the police, Ray launches a desperate and alarming search of his own. Using a collection of keys he has held on to since he was a boy–keys to homes he and his mother once lived in–Ray quietly yet boldly enters each house, one by one, hoping to unlock the secrets of his own past. As past and present collide, as a chilling mystery begins to unravel, Ray is suddenly confronted with the most agonizing decision of his life–to face his own violence-laden past, acting to prevent another horrendous act of violence, or not. His choice will leave nothing and no one the same.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This stand-alone novel of suspense from bestseller O'Shaughnessy (Case of Lies and 10 other legal thrillers starring Nina Reilly) has a glamorous setting, Los Angeles's Topanga Canyon, where a once promising architect, Ray Jackson, lives in a house he designed with his furniture-maker wife, Leigh. Unfortunately, despite some good plot twists and pinkish herrings, none of the characters is particularly interesting not Ray, a tightly wound man who spends his time making models of every house he lived in during his tangled childhood; not Leigh, who may have a buried sex life; and especially not Kat and Jackie, two sisters in the real estate trade who used to be close to Leigh growing up. When Leigh disappears without a trace one night, Ray only with the greatest of reluctance (and nudges from Kat and the cops) sifts through secrets old and new for a truth that's as hard to swallow as it is to care about. Perri O'Shaughnessy is the pseudonym of sisters Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In their 1995 debut, Motion To Suppress, and in the ten novels that followed, Mary and Pam O'Shaughnessy, writing as Perri O'Shaughnessy, put attorney Nina O'Reilly through varied sets of harrowing personal and professional experiences. But with their penultimate book, Case of Lies, Nina's career was put on hold to give the sisters a chance to explore other projects. Their latest is a standalone psychological thriller that moves into a new realm of popular fiction. Architect Ray Jackson and his wife, Leigh, are experiencing marital problems deeply rooted in their individual pasts. Ray is attempting to exorcise his demons by revisiting scenes of his childhood in a manner that dances on the threshold of criminal behavior, while Leigh embarks on more standard coping mechanisms: adultery and desertion. Enter Leigh's old friends Kat and Jacki, who, alarmed by Leigh's disappearance and Ray's conduct, become involved in the couple's complex entanglements. This is a bold step for the sisters O'Shaughnessy that is certain to gain them new fans and please old ones. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/06.] Nancy McNicol, Ora Mason Branch Lib., West Haven, CT Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nina Reilly gets a rest, and everybody else gets seriously overworked. While Lake Tahoe's star attorney-at-law lies fallow after a skein of 11 legal thrillers (Case of Lies, 2005, etc.), trouble busts out in bunches around Topanga Canyon. It's those nice young Jacksons, Leigh and Ray-he the rising architect, she the brilliant furniture designer. Once they were a golden couple, a paradigm of domestic compatibility, admired and envied. He built a house for her; she gave him free rein, even to choosing the furniture (not hers). Now, shockingly, it looks like splitsville or worse, since Leigh has inexplicably vanished, a fact that causes consternation among her parents, her businesses associates, the cops and, perhaps most importantly, Kat Tinsley, her erstwhile best friend. Oddly enough, the one person who doesn't seem unsettled is Ray, which unsettles the daylights out of Kat. Though the friendship has cooled considerably in recent years, Kat, loyal to the memory of the way it was, is determined to come to Leigh's aid, whatever that turns out to require. And after some counterproductive romantic dithering, some digressive and melodramatic twists and turns and a truly Gothic d‚nouement, she does. There's the usual O'Shaughnessy overplotting, but without the saving grace of a certain sharp, tough, yet sweetly feminine protagonist. Won't you come home, Nina Reilly?Agent: Nancy Yost/Lowenstein-Yost Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440241836
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2007
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 604,192
  • Product dimensions: 4.23 (w) x 6.85 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Perri O’Shaughnessy is the pen name for sisters Mary and Pamela O’Shaughnessy, who both live in California. They are the authors of eleven bestselling Nina Reilly novels as well as a collection of short crime fiction, Sinister Shorts.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A white yacht floated deep in smooth water not a hundred feet away, separated from Kat and Jacki by the sheet of glass that made up the back wall of the restaurant. A man in a white cap moved about on deck. Blinding white boats floated at their moorings a long way out under a hot cloudless sky. Kat took off her cotton blazer and nudged off her dressy shoes under the table. Her sister, Jacki, sat across from her, marine-blue eyes hidden by huge sunglasses, lipsticked, wearing a sleeveless blouse that overhung her eight-months-along middle like a steep-eaved roof. “Have a good morning?” Jacki asked.

“The usual schizoid Sunday in August. I read the paper in my jammies and enjoyed myself until I made the mistake of returning a business phone call and had this knockdown fight with one very angry owner in La Cienega who thought his house should be worth double my appraisal. Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t find legal parking so I’ll probably get towed.”

“The walk nearly killed me.” Jacki lived right here in Marina del Rey, only two blocks away in a loft condo with her husband, Raoul, who taught bioethics and biology at UCLA. Kat couldn’t afford this area on one income, so lived several miles south in Hermosa Beach.

“Braggart. I should have had a margarita instead of this latte,” Kat said, taking a sip. “Things always go better with tequila.”

“You drink too much.”

“So do you when you’re not pregnant.”

“Already the low blows,” Jacki said comfortably, offering her a napkin, “and you’ve only been here”–she consulted her watch–“three minutes.”

“You started it.”

“So I should get the last word.”

Kat nodded. “Always end as you start. I remember that from the one creative writing course I took at Long Beach State.”

“I ordered a turkey on rye for you, okay?”

Kat nodded again, taking the napkin and setting it beside her plate. She made a note to herself to stop for a bottle of wine on the way home. Evenings had been much easier to get through lately, what with this new habit of getting slightly shitfaced every night. Yes, later she would undoubtedly violate the Buddha’s Fifth Precept against intoxicants once again this evening, because she didn’t seem to have any control over anything anymore, but the main thing was to be on the path and do the best you can at any given moment. She was drinking coffee right now and not hurting anything, not engaged in any sexual misconduct, not stealing, not getting whacked on chardonnay, piling up merit to piss away later tonight.

Jacki had just started her maternity leave, and she was becoming quite irksome now that she didn’t have a job on which to expend her prodigious energies. She called Kat a half-dozen times a day.

Leaning back in the blue-trimmed wicker chair, Kat decided she didn’t really mind. In fact, she didn’t have much of a life outside her work and Jacki these days. Her sister’s phone calls gave her a sense of normality. “I love the air here,” she said, breathing deeply, as a sea breeze swept across the patio. “I heard it was a hundred and eight in San Bernardino yesterday. Imagine being there next month, in September, when it really gets hot. We’re lucky, living on the coast. They say being near large bodies of water makes the air heavier or something and so it’s healthier for you.”

“Fewer cooties is what I hear.”

“Ask Raoul, and be sure to use the word ‘cooties.’ He knows all that special science stuff.” Kat checked out the nearby tables, but they were full of women just like her and Jacki at this time of day. The pasty and pudgy waiter wasn’t hot. His dress shirt gaped enough to display part of a blue tattoo she really didn’t want to see the rest of. It took the pressure off, not having to be aware of him or to wonder what he thought of her.

“Hey, you know, Kat,” Jacki was saying, waving her hand at the cloudless sky and ocean beyond, “if we have no other legacy when we die, at least they can say we got the hell out of Whittier.”

“That’s such a Whittier thing to say,” Kat said.

They laughed. They had grown up in a two-story house with a living/dining combo, three bedrooms, and windows closed off at all times with dark drapes against the hot, dusty outside. The town had become a scapegoat for them. Once there had been orange groves, times their parents nostalgically remembered, before their time, before the World War II vets arrived with their new wives and big families, hungry for safe, cheap housing. The old Quaker town thirty miles inland became just another suburb bursting with tract houses, absorbed into the basin-wide suburb which was L.A.

“If Daddy had only let us fix the place up–get some–”

“A/c,” Kat finished. “God, what he inflicted on us, and I don’t mean his sense of humor.” Kat and Jacki both kept their condos frosty in summer. They would go without food before they would give up air-conditioning.

“Remember? He said it was to save the earth when what he was really doing was saving to buy the girlfriend a Camaro,” Jacki said.

“Which she took with her. We never thanked her enough for leaving him.”

“You did pretty well. Even Ma got a kick out of those roses you sent her,” said Jacki.

But for months after her husband left and again after their brother, Tom, died, their mother had just sat dully on her couch, exuding, in that dim overhot room, the familiar smell of what Kat secretly called Eau de Dumped, the smell of the lonely women of Southern California. No emollients, no deodorant could disguise that stink of loneliness.

I ought to take a whiff of my own armpits, Kat thought glumly, and tasted the hot milky drink the waiter had just brought.

In her working life as a realtor, Jacki had always appeared supremely coifed and styled. Today she wore her streaked hair snapped into a clip, the dark roots shiny and clean but untreated. Her skin looked pinker these days, no doubt due to the pregnancy, but the color didn’t hide the million freckles she usually erased with foundation. Kat said, “You’re starting to look just like Ma when we were little. I expect you to say, any second now, ‘Pick your nose again and I’m calling the cops.’ ”

Jacki swatted at her.

“You said you wanted to talk to me about something?” Kat asked.

But Jacki, relaxed since leaving her job and under the spell of a modified endocrine system heavy on the maternal hormones, appeared in no hurry to discuss whatever was bugging her. “I ordered myself a salad, nothing heavy. I’ll graze like the enormous hippo I have become and continue with meal number six of the day when Raoul gets home. You have plans tonight?”

“Not really, no.” Unless maybe getting laid by someone Kat had not yet met counted as making plans. His name was Nikola and he had a promising twinkle in his eye, at least in the one-inch shot he had posted on Match.com. They were on for dinner at a bistro in Hermosa.

“What do you do for fun these days?” Jacki asked.

“Work sixteen hours a day, as you well know. I looked at six houses today desperately seeking comps for an old thirties shack on the beach at Zuma that only has one bathroom.”

“Some fun,” Jacki said. She too had always worked long hours, but somehow had found time to date her husband, cook elegant dinners, host quasi-scintillating friends, see all the latest movies and concerts, and it seemed, organize good weather wherever she went. Now, she would have her baby at age thirty-six, just like she had always planned. “So how much did you decide it was worth?”

“A million three. A teardown.”

“Who’s listing it?” They talked about their favorite subject, residential real estate, for a few minutes. Kat worked as an appraiser, comparing ineffables. Jacki was a realtor. Real estate cluttered up their genes, and besides, with the market smokin’ as it was, they were both making enough money to live and sock away a little, and to hope for The Big Lebowski, the monster hit, to come someday and wipe out all their financial insecurities.

Jacki was definitely working up to something, Kat could tell by the thoughtful way she dropped her ice cube in her coffee and swished it around. Finally she cocked an eyebrow and said far too casually, “What happened to that Internet guy you were dating?”

“That didn’t work out.”

“Really? You said the sex was so hot and he had the potential to become real someday.”

“I never.”

“You implied it.” Jacki’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t even remember who I’m talking about, do you? How many men do you see in a given month?”

“Make up your mind, willya? First you insinuate I’m a drudge. Now you’re mad that I do just wanna have fun.”

“Okay, intervention time.”

“Not again.”

“Kat, you have to be careful. It’s crazy–in these times–for you to be running around like a . . . like a . . .”

“Hooker too stupid to demand her money up front?”

“You prowl mindlessly. It’s not going to get you a man who loves you and wants to spend the rest of his life with you. You have to know that.” Lunch plates appeared. Jacki hunkered down to her Shrimp Louis, crunching loudly, not like a single woman, but like a complacent one.

“You’re just jealous, stuck for life with an accomplished egghead who loves you madly,” Kat said.

“Take the advice of your wise older sister, who, yes, figured out what it takes to be happy. And it isn’t all Raoul’s doing, I’ll have you know. A person has to achieve a certain integration of self.”

“You know it all, big sister.”

“I do know a few things–”

“You’re getting smug.”

Jacki smacked her hand down on the table, spilling a few shreds of dressing–soaked lettuce. “I’m worried, okay? I can’t tell you what’s going to make you happy. I know what makes me happy: a solid relationship. I love Raoul. He holds me up. I don’t have to spend all my time trying to find renters to lodge in my heart, like you do. You exhaust yourself and you waste your time being unhappy.”

“How else am I going to find love? I don’t know anybody in my condo development. I quit going to church when I was fourteen; going clubbing alone is dangerous. I don’t have friends except you–at least, you were my friend up to five minutes ago. I’m rethinking that now. Everybody meets online these days. It’s safer than you might think.”

“I figured it out,” Jacki said, with the infuriating gaze of an older sister who had figured it out. “You don’t know what will make you happy, do you?”

“You’re about to let me know, though, aren’t you?” Kat’s turkey sandwich was huge enough to satisfy King Kong, and was accompanied by a vast pile of fries. Kat poured on the ketchup, hungry.

Her sister speared a soggy shrimp, her steady chewing implacable. “Well, do you? Know?”

“Sure.”

Jacki put her fork down and folded her arms. “Okay, then. What will make you happy?”

Kat said, “Questions are demands, did you know that? Like e–mails. You have the right not to respond. In fact, I recommend that strategy. You can’t imagine how annoyed people get when you don’t respond to e–mails; ergo, fewer e–mails, fewer demands on your time. In other words just because you ask doesn’t mean I have to tell you.”

Jacki smiled evilly. “Meaning you don’t know the answer.”

“It’s insulting, you implying I’m unhappy, you know.”

“Tell me you’re happy. With a straight face.”

“Quit nagging, Jacki.”

“Like you said, I’m your only friend. It’s what friends do. Plus, hey, I brought you something. Damn, where did I put that thing? I cut it out for you.” She pulled out an enormous wad of cash, receipts, gum wrappers, hard candy, coins, and pens from her tiny Chinese silk purse and sorted through it. “Guess I forgot it,” she said, stuffing everything back in somehow. “It was in the Times real estate section last week, this article about a mansion being built at Laguna Cliffs. Ultramodern, you know, mucho concrete-o, geometric palm trees, and an infinity pool. Probably list at around four and a half million.”

“What about it?”

“It’s being designed by her husband. Leigh Hubbel’s. Remember, we heard he was an architect? Now I can’t remember his name–sort of common like Jones or Johnson. Shoot. His firm is doing really well. They designed the new history museum in Pasadena, the one with the Native American mummy. Did you know the Chumash buried people in urns, all curled up in a sitting position?”

“No stranger than draining their blood and replacing it with fixative, putting makeup on their poor dead faces, stretching them out in a coffin in some fine outfit, then burying them surrounded by concrete.”

“Geez,” Jacki said, placing a hand on her tummy. “You’ve given this entirely too much thought. So listen, to return to my actual point, Leigh’s husband is described in the news as the next Hockney.”

“I doubt that. Hockney’s the artist, the swimming pool painter, photo-pastiche master. Could you mean Michael Graves?”

“That’s our man. I swear”–Jacki stretched down and rubbed her foot–“all the blood flow gets hijacked down to here.” She tapped her stomach. “I can’t think straight anymore.”

“Did you ever?”

“But let me tell you, the universe is conspiring and even you should listen when that happens. It must say something in your Buddha studies about how the universe tells you things and you should listen.” Jacki, who attended a Quaker church, treated Leigh’s interest in Buddhism as an aberrant phase.

“I haven’t got to that part yet, I guess.”

“Anyway, last Friday I went to the cemetery. You know, it’s been six years since he died?” She wiped away a sudden tear as easily as someone brushing off a fly.

“Oh, Jacki. Was that such a good idea?”

“It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me happy to visit him and the folks. You never go, do you?”

Kat did go at times, although never with her sister. She had marked that awful anniversary in private again this year, at home where she could howl into a pillow observed only by the birds outside her window. Death made her so angry. She would never make her peace with it, never.

“Anyway, I wasn’t the only one, turns out.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I was gathering up a bunch of chrysanthemums from the back seat, and who should I see in the car window?”

“You saw Leigh.”

“Yep.” Jacki sat back, smiling as if delivering a wonderful gift. “I got out as quick as I could, but she took off. It takes me a long time to get out of a car these days, you know. Anyway, I thought she looked like hell, haggard, her eyes all swelled up. I know she saw me, but she left anyway. When I got to Tommy’s grave, I found the most beautiful bouquet of irises. She must have left them there. He liked them, remember?”

The bouquet of irises in his kitchen had wilted and died by the time Kat and Jacki had gone to clean out his apartment. “Of course.”

“You two used to be close. You should call her,” Jacki said.

“Oh, you do make it irresistible, reconnecting with a haggard, crying former friend who– Tommy never would have died if–!”

“You’re too harsh–”

“She’s old business. Not your business, by the way. I haven’t seen Leigh since his funeral.” However, the image of Leigh standing by Tommy’s grave did rise up like a ghost before her, strange, unwelcome and compelling, a blurry image seen through a screen of tears.

“Exactly.” Jacki ate her last shrimp. “So I saw her at the cemetery, then I read this article, and I started thinking about the three of you, how golden you were. I was always jealous of how close you and Leigh were, and I don’t think I’ve seen you happy, not really, since Tommy died and you and Leigh quit being friends.”

Kat rolled her eyes and motioned to the waiter. “Margarita, no salt,” she said. “I get it, Jacki, I’m an antisocial flake. Can we move on?”

“Oh, get over yourself. I’m not going to compliment you for your terrific professional success, your ability to be independent and strong and fun and”–Jacki reached over and stroked the edge of Kat’s blazer–“fashionable and loyal and the best friend I could have on earth. But see how cranky you got just then? You have issues and they’ll never go away until you deal with them. What’s the harm in giving her a call?”

“I don’t want to see her. I hate her.” She threw cool margarita down her throat.

Jacki shook her head. “You hate yourself.”

“I gotta go.” Kat put a lot of cash on the table, because although Jacki and Raoul were okay financially, she knew they worried about the baby coming and how they could survive without Jacki working for a while. She reached down and pulled on the leather stacked-heel shoes. “I gotta rush now, off to the liquor store to stock up for the evening’s debauchery. Give the clerk my phone number while I’m at it. Thank goodness wine’s so cheap in California. I’m not yet reduced to drinking plonk from some place in the world where you wouldn’t even drink the water.” She drank the rest of her drink standing up.

Jacki patted her hand. “You deserve much, much more out of life than a little apartment, a stressful job, and the memory of our brother to keep you company.”

Kat jumped up, hugged her sister, and said, “Enough, okay? You give good advice. If I were an integrated person like you, I would do whatever you say. I’d have two-point-six kids, an eight-hour work day, and a kindly rich fella by my side, hanging on tight to make sure I didn’t slip on an old banana peel.”

Jacki looked her in the eye. “I’m telling you, the stars are aligning. I dreamed about us as kids last night, you and Leigh swinging in the backyard on Franklin Street. You pushed her, and she–oh, she laughed in this itty-bitty-little-girl voice, and then she tickled you until you fell. It’s precious, what you had.”

Chapter Two

Esmé Jackson bustled around, wiping down the granite countertops in her kitchen, slipping a serrated knife through tomatoes. Her son, Ray, was due for their usual Sunday meal. She had considered something elaborate for dinner but rejected the idea, settling on strata-baked layers of bread, eggs, cheese, vegetables, cooked sausage, and crumbs. Peasant fare. He liked that sometimes.

Fifty-nine, tall, still strong except for occasional breathing problems, she swung around her generous kitchen feeling lucky, so lucky to have a son like Ray, who loved her, who still came to dinner once a week. He was as dutiful as she had been to her own mother, sometimes at great personal risk. Her mother’s old flowered apron, stained with curry from last night’s dinner–or was it the night before’s–covered her carefully chosen slacks and blouse.

She flipped open the cupboard where she kept baking ingredients. She would make chocolate pie, his favorite, she decided, pulling out a box of graham crackers along with a pudding mix. He had eclectic taste in food, liking boxed macaroni and cheese as well as homemade pasta with a creamy béchamel. He loved pudding pie. Big baby, she thought, smiling to herself, stirring whole milk into the pudding mix in her non-reactive aluminum pot.

Humming a show tune, she turned the fire down to medium, stirring with a wooden spoon so that the pudding would not burn. When she finished, she crushed graham cracker crumbs with butter and sugar into a glass pie plate. She dusted the top with crumbs, too. Make it look fun. Ray needed bucking up. Her job made it hard to do the things she had done for him when he was young-she always tried so hard to make him happy, had devoted her life to it, in fact.

Ray filled a glass of water at the sink, then opened the cupboard door and peered underneath. “I sent Lamont over to fix that leak. He said you sent him away. It’s running down the back wall, Mom. Probably down behind the bricks in the basement by now. That’s going to be hard to fix.”

Esmé bristled. “I don’t need your fancy plumber, although of course, I really appreciate how you always want to help me. But as I told you, let me take care of my own home, okay? I’m not entirely useless, you know.”

A dozen maintenance problems always hung like spiders behind the newly painted exterior of the fifty-year-old house on Close Street, Whittier. In the past year, Ray had designed a garage to replace the sagging carport. He had built a gazebo in the backyard, had established plants in the front yard, and added shutters to the windows, creating what he jokingly called “curb appeal.” The house did look good, better than most old houses. However, the chimney blew smoke. The floors were so uneven you could roll a ball up and down them.

“I could build you something nicer,” Ray said, looking around.

“Admit you love this place.”

“Kind of. This kitchen. The old range. Even though the outside changes, the inside stays the same.”

He always said that. Although he wished she would move on, he took comfort from what didn’t change, just like she did: the pink and green bathroom tile, the checked curtains above the kitchen sink, the linoleum on the floor of the den. This was the place where they had stopped moving and Ray had finally made some friends.

For his own home, he had designed a showplace. Architectural Digest had featured it last spring. Of course, Ray’s house had too few lamps, Esmé thought. The couches weren’t comfortable. You couldn’t leave a book lying around without the place looking messy. Too big and too clean, it was no wonder Leigh had problems with it.

Ah, but here they could relax. Home.

Leigh never did understand Esmé’s house on Close Street. So many times she had harped on replacing the fixtures in the bathroom, installing a new stove, insulating the attic, removing the old asbestos, rebricking the uneven basement walls. Esmé had refused and Ray had backed her. “Leave it true to its time period,” he said.

“Why not cherry it up?” Leigh had persisted. “A Nelson sunburst clock. Basket chairs. Let’s turn the back patio into a real lanai, with netting and colored-glass balls.” This was not long after she and Ray had married, and their hands had always touched as their bodies leaned toward each other.

“No, thanks, Leigh, although you are always so full of helpful suggestions, aren’t you?” Esmé had said as kindly as she could considering how upset these suggestions made her. “I come home after a long day of checking out people’s groceries and water the sweet peas against the back fence. I run the water in the sink, which fills up a lot quicker than your water in your fancy new house. My toilets don’t spare the water, either, and the wall furnace may be rusty, but by God it heats the place in two minutes flat.”

“In other words, don’t touch,” Ray had told Leigh, smiling, looking into her eyes, squeezing her hand.

“What a summer we are having,” Esmé said to Ray, as he took his place at the bird’s–eye maple dining room table. She thought to herself, he isn’t sleeping. He looked scruffy, like he had slept in his clothes. Masking her concern, she went on, “My pink roses are in bloom. Have you ever noticed how much scent affects mood? It sure does mine. Surely there’s some research on it. These sweeties smell like . . . the ocean at dusk.” She stuck her nose into a cluster she had placed in a handblown vase she had bought at a flea market that harbored an invisible crack on the underside. “They smell like a world striving for perfection. Better than incense. Better than Chanel No. 5. More delicate.”

Ray began to eat.

Esmé talked for a while about things that interested her that she thought might interest him, but Ray fiddled with his meal in almost total silence.

“What’s the matter? You’re hardly eating.”

His fork rattled against the table as he set it down. “What kind of a man was he? My father?” He looked so healthy and young, so–unhappy.

She put her fork down, concentrating on her answer. Wasn’t it strange that even a grown man like Ray, in his late thirties, married, was still mourning the loss of a father he hadn’t seen since he was two years old? “You haven’t asked about him in years. What’s going on with you, Ray?”

“I’ve been thinking about my life. I would like the information. You never told me much. All I really know is that he left before I was born and died when I was two. You weren’t married long.”

She sighed. “Like I’ve told you before, Henry looked like you, but not so tall or good-looking. His hair was dark like yours. Had a job in a bank.”

“Why didn’t you keep photographs? Wedding photos, at least?”

“I told you, when he left, I was very upset, Ray. I put them in a box and somewhere along the line the box got left behind.”

“And he had no family?”

“An aunt in South Dakota or somewhere. Ray, I have told you all this. He had left home very young to come out to California. He never got along with his parents. I can’t remember what the problem was, anymore. He was . . . hard to get along with.”

“Why did you break up? Was it me?”

Esmé sighed. “What do you mean?”

“Was he . . . afraid. Or maybe he didn’t want kids.”

“Maybe he was afraid, but he never knew you. It wasn’t personal, honey. I’m sorry you grew up without a father, but I’ve tried to make it up to you.” Her breathing wheezed slightly. She got up, opened a sideboard drawer, took out her inhaler, and took in a long breath. She was feeling disturbed by his haranguing, all this ancient history they had been through so many times before. Ray always went back to the past when things went wrong in his life. The medication went into her lungs, relaxing the bronchi, but making her feel a little dizzy.

She said softly, “You know I don’t like talking about those years. It was hard, raising you, feeling like I had so much responsibility and no support. I love my life now. I love thinking about what good things might happen today. Like a visit from my son.”

“Why did we move so much when I was growing up?”

She shrugged. “We had good reasons. Can we talk about something else?”

“Sometimes we left in the dead of night. Were we evicted?”

“Maybe once or twice. Usually not.”

“Until we moved to this house, I never had a friend for more than six months.”

“We had each other.”

“When you’re a kid, however you live is normal. If you have a parent that screams at you, well, that’s life. If you’re poor, you don’t notice. But I look back and I wonder. You had jobs that barely covered the rent. It wasn’t like your career forced us to move constantly. Eight schools before high school. That isn’t normal.”

“Nobody in Southern California has what you would call a normal childhood,” Esmé shot back. “It’s a place you come to change your life. Everybody came from somewhere else, Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas. Here you get to be who you want, and you’ve benefited from that, by the way. Thank God for the great public universities. Like the Marines say, suck it in, soldier. Move on. Anyway, we did settle down, staying right here from the time you were twelve.”

“You know, I used to play a game with myself. At each new place, be a new guy. Be friendly; stay aloof. Be smart; play possum.”

“Well, that sounds like a strategy. You had to fit in somehow.” Her patience had about given out. She wondered if Ray, always a little obsessive, was developing a real problem.

“It’s bothering me. I think about this house or that one, and try to remember the day we left. Who was I that day? Why did we have to start all over again? You know, I’ve been building models in the past few months of all the houses we lived in.”

Esmé frowned. “Why?”

“Leigh and I . . . had problems.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” And deeply surprised, since this was the first time she could recall Ray ever mentioning anything so personal about his marriage.

“Life gets to a certain point–” He stopped. “She wanted–” He stopped again. “I wish I knew some things, that’s what I came here to tell you.”

“Don’t get bogged down in things that happened a million years ago, that’s what I want to tell you.” She got up from the table to get coffee and cups. “Hey, after supper, I have a treat for you. Remember how you threw some cantaloupe seeds into the gully behind the house one year, and they sprouted and fruited? Well, I did it again. Three baby cantaloupes–”

His hands were fists. They sat on the table as if he was holding forks in them, and he was staring at the old fruit–design wallpaper, his brow lowering. Alarmed, Esmé stopped talking. She could hear the clock in the living room ticking.

“Mom, listen. Leigh’s gone.”

“Gone?”

His eyes moved to the red vase, then he leaned over, reorganizing flowers, stretching out leaves with his long sensitive fingers. “Didn’t you wonder why she didn’t come tonight?”

“Well, I thought– What happened, Ray?” She sat down heavily in the kitchen chair.

“Did she say anything to you about us, what was happening with us?”

“Leigh doesn’t confide in me. Thinks I’d be too much on your side, maybe.”

“We had a fight.”

She wiped her wet hands on the dishrag, preparing herself for a sleepless night, hating to see him in such pain.

“A physical fight?”

“An argument. Serious.”

“Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault.”

“I’m afraid it is my fault. Most of it, anyway.”

God, she hated seeing her boy like this. Why did women and men, whom nature presumably meant to put together, clash so violently and do each other so much harm? “When did she leave?”

“Friday night.”

“Well–where is she? Is she back here in Whittier with her parents?”

“No.”

“Are you going to try to find her?”

“No point in that. It’s over.”

She put her hand on his arm. Only after he gently wrestled out of her grip did she realize she had squeezed so hard it must have hurt.

Kat’s date that night came from Czechoslovakia, or, as he explained it in his e-mails, Slovakia, since Czechoslovakia had disappeared into history. They met at an outdoor cafe across from the beach in Hermosa. Tired of the brain-numbing hunt for parking, tonight she splurged on a lot, paying six bucks to cover the two hours she thought dinner might take. Gathering up her small bag, hustling down the street on her spike heels, she made it exactly on time, fifteen minutes late.

The prospect had secured a corner table with a glimpse of the sunset over the sea. He faced it; she faced him. She liked how tall he was when he stood to greet her. She even liked the way his eyes scoured her, her spiky red hair, as shiny as expensive products could make it, and her excellent rack neatly packaged in a Calvin Klein bra. She hoped he hadn’t padded his online profile as much as she had padded her physical one.

He ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and skipped salad. Nik did not bike. He did not hike. He did not have an interest in exploring small towns for unusual crafts.

What he liked very much was to smoke, apparently. Since he could not smoke in the restaurant, he instead held on tight to his pack of cigarettes, flicked his lighter, complained about American puritan mores, and reminisced longingly about a past in good old Bratislava or some damn city where you could light up anywhere. He made an effort to amuse Kat with his tales of growing up. He had come over as a young boy before the Cold War ended.

She found herself looking at the door, wondering if Leigh might eat at this restaurant, what she looked like these days, examining people coming and going, watching for someone familiar to arrive and plunk down next to them, ready for a showdown. Jacki had really got her going.

When their coffee came, he took her hand in his and gave her a soulful look, saying, “How I loff American girls.” Meanwhile, blonde, athletic, blithe, his American girls jogged along the boardwalk in the Hollywood sunset, movie-star skin glowing, minds free of archives, not like Kat here, thick with feeling and in a twist about an old friend. And thirty-five years of age, twice the number of years on some of the females he couldn’t keep his eyes off.

However. He seemed interested enough. Except for the lingering tobacco on his clothes, he smelled good. A pushover for a decent aftershave, she had nobody else going and would welcome some peace from the nagging memories. Glad her fingernails had been painted red that very morning, glad her hands still felt soft from all the lotions, Kat rubbed his hand back, thinking, hey, I could settle for a night out of him. He’ll hold me, kiss me, touch me. I won’t feel lonely. I won’t think about Tom or Leigh, or how it all went so wrong.

Excusing herself, she went to the restroom where two women years younger than her primped, worrying about their wrinkles. Washing her hands with the cheap pink soap, wiping them with the harsh paper, she decided to go for it. If he wanted, he could have her, backwards, forwards, upside down.

She returned to the table, offered to split the bill, stood up, and said, “Well, time to go.”

Surprised, he stood, too, then shrugged and blew kisses on her cheeks, continental-style kisses o’ death. “My treat,” he said. “Nice meeting you.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 15 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    THE LIES WE TELL OURSELVES

    Who's got a secret? According to author Perri O`Shaughnessy we all have secrets. And, at times, these are not just ordinary secrets such as, a black sheep in the family, credit card debt, or something like that. These secrets can be so dark and hidden so deeply that we are not even aware of them. Such is the case with architect Ray Jackson, protagonist in O'Shaughnessy's latest thriller Keeper of the Keys. Ray's wife, Leigh, has disappeared. He doesn't know where and he doesn't know why. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't even know whether she is alive or dead. It's strange that he doesn't seem too upset about his missing spouse. Yet, Ray is an odd duck who obsesses about an unhappy childhood and the fact that he and his mother had to move frequently. As an adult and an architect he is now building houses like the ones he lived in as a child. He stays close to his mother, Esme, but she offers very little information about his father or his childhood. She will only say that his father was a difficult man and he deserted them when Ray was two . A dutiful son, Ray goes to her home to have dinner with her once a week, and she frets that he is so persistent about digging into his past. This issue is forced when Leigh disappears and he is confronted by her friend Kathleen, called Kat, who accuses Ray of having something to do with Leigh's disappearance. When the police enter the picture with probing questions he takes a set of keys that he has had since boyhood and revisits the houses he once lived in. What Ray eventually discovers is not at all what he hoped to find.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Was not the same as other books by Perri O'Shaughnessy

    I miss the regular characters. It seems to me that this book is one that the sisters put together because they followed a formula that worked for them. It is not a bad plot, I did not have any trouble following it. The book, to me, does not have the substance of the other books. Maybe I am just being critical because I was expecting something different. I have all of the books they have written. I try to always have one with me when ever I am going on a trip to either Tahoe or Carmel. It is fun for me to see the places where the characters are actually hanging out. Some of the places are fictional, but I can usually figure out the general area.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    typical of the authurs

    7.5 on a scle of 10..some of their books have been a 10

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2007

    Not Good

    I have always enjoyed Perri O'Shaughnessy books, except this one,it is so boring, I cant seem to finish it.I can read most books in a few days, but I have been reading this one for over a week. I dont even care how it ends. Its going to take me some time to ever read another one of their books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2007

    A Huge Disappointment

    I am a big fan of the Nina Reilly books. The O'Shaughnessy sisters, however, missed the boat on this one. After about 115 pages, I asked my wife when the story gets moving. She said it doesn't. The story seemed pointless, the characters were not only uninteresting, but unlikeable, and I asked myself if I wanted to continue reading. I didn't. Don't bother.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2007

    Something different

    I enjoyed this book a lot. It was exactly what I was looking for, something different. Although a little strange it was well worth the read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2007

    Don't waste your time on this!!

    This book lacks a plot,characters and editing. Some of the word usage is laughable! 'Big baby, she thought, smiling to herself, stirring whole milk into the pudding mix in her non-reactive aluminum pot.' This is an indication of the lack of style in this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2006

    Don't bother

    This was a TERRIBLE book. It was such a ridiculous plot. I mean,who keeps keys from all of the houses they lived in as a transient child,and then just uses the key to walk in when children are home alone watching t.v. to search for something from their past? The characters were lame and the relationships between them were also just utterly ridiculous. $25 down the drain.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A tour de force with a shocking climax

    Ray Jackson has withdrawn into himself, spending his nights in the basement reconstructing the places he lived in as a child. There were many of them and his mother never gave him an exploration why they moved so much or when his father left them. His obsession began when his beautiful beloved wife Leigh asked him about having a child. On the night she disappeared, they had a terrible fight and he doesn¿t know if she is ever coming back.------------------- He has the keys to all the places he lived as a child and he gets into some of them finding cassette recordings of a man threatening his mother who won¿t discuss the matter with him. As the days go by and Leigh doesn¿t contact anyone, her parents begin to wonder if he did something to her and they report it to the police. When they question him, he lies to them, not telling them about the affair she had with his partner. Kat a former friend of Leigh¿s wants to make peace with her and helps Jackson look for Leigh even if Kat isn¿t sure her husband is telling her the truth. When Ray finally leans the truth, he has a terrible decision to make one that could either destroy him or be the making of him.------------------ This is the first stand alone book apart from the Nina Reilly legal thrillers that this author team wrote and it is a superb work of suspense. Readers don¿t know if Leigh is alive or dead, whether Ray killed her or caused her disappearance. Ray is an average man, content to coast along until Kat gives him the impetus to find out what happened to Leigh. KEEPER OF THE KEYS is a tour de force with a shocking climax that will take readers by surprise.---------------- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2010

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    Posted January 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2010

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    Posted November 30, 2010

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