Keeper of the Keys

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9780440241836: Keeper of the Keys

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.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About 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.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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 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?”


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...

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