Key of Light Page 70

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—”

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