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Laura S. Fox

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  1. Laura S. Fox

    Dark Chills

    Chapter Twenty-Three – Dark Chills “We need to look at it.” “I know,” Mason replied. His hands trembled slightly as he inserted the card into his phone. Flicking through the folders, his frown deepened. If that were a loose end … “For Rhys,” he read out loud. That had to be it. He dreaded what he would find, but there was no other choice but to move forward. Both he and Toby held their breath as he clicked on the single video file present in the folder. *** “So you say that it had to be him,” Toby said in a toneless voice. “His car was there. Ary saw it. He must have known you had evidence on him.” “What are we going to do? Do you want to take this to Renzo?” That was the logical thing to do, but Mason was beyond logical at this point. That was the kind of thing people killed for; one mistake, no matter how small, could make the tables turn, and not in their favor. Especially Rhys’s. He was the one in real danger. He was still pondering over it when his phone rang. “Mason Knight, have you thought about our generous offer?” Mason set his jaw hard. “Ah, a little thing. Dare to contact a certain unsavory character you met with today, and the deal is off,” the metallic voice continued. “Don’t try anything stupid; we will know.” So he had been followed. It shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, but Mason could feel his heart beating slower. “All right,” he replied. “Good. We want to know that you can play nice.” Mason held the micro SD card in his palm, staring at it. “Now, about the object in question --” the caller started. “I’m taking it to Mr. Goldman directly.” “What are you doing?!” Toby began gesticulating, but Mason paid him no mind. His decision was taken. Like always, there was no one else he could depend on in his life. Everyone else could go on and forgive him or fuck off. The silence stretched at the other end. It appeared that he had managed to take the caller by surprise. “How intuitive of you.” The voice sounded peeved now. “But the answer is ‘no’.” “Then you and your boss will watch this broadcast all over the six o’clock news today.” “And you become a dead man. We could arrange for that in a matter of minutes, actually.” “Will you be faster than me hitting ‘send’?” Toby was groaning and yelling at him, but Mason turned his back. Which served little since Toby could go through him as he saw fit. “Ah, so we’ve come to a mutual assured destruction type of situation.” “I won’t hesitate,” Mason said in a fierce voice. “Killing me won’t stop the ball from rolling.” “Are you willing to go that far for this person?” “As far as needed,” Mason confirmed. “Well, if you’re so keen. But how are we to know you didn’t keep copies or already send the sensitive content to media outlets?” “How am I to know Rhys isn’t dead already?” “We could arrange a small broadcast.” “Which could be faked.” “Hard to argue with, aren’t you?” “You have my word. Instead, you’ll return Rhys to me safe and sound. With the promise that he’ll be forever safe from you.” “Are you asking nothing for yourself? We could sweeten the deal.” “Not interested.” “All right. When do you plan to visit?” Mason couldn’t be sure he wasn’t talking to Levine Goldman right now, but his gut instinct told him that he wouldn’t dirty his hands, not even for a phone call. Some random minion was out of the question. The only reasonable guess was simple; the person appearing in Toby’s short video alongside Levine had to be the caller. “I’m leaving right now.” “Excellent decision, Mason Knight.” The dark glee in the metallic voice was unmistakable. “What are you doing, Mason?” Toby followed him around the apartment. “It’s the only way. We have no time,” Mason explained grimly. “We can’t contact Renzo. We have no help. It’s only me and you.” “And I have no physical body. We’re hardly the dream team.” Mason fiddled with his phone. “We have insurance. Levine will play nice.” “Don’t bet on it. He could just go ahead and terminate you.” “Terminate. I bet that’s a term he’d like to use.” “Yeah. Weird that I used it,” Toby murmured. “But you know it’s true. You might get killed, Mason.” “I’ll blackmail Levine into letting Rhys go. We’ll see what follows next.” “Quite the optimist. But this feels wrong.” “Do you have a better idea? Any wrong step I take, it’s Rhys’s head on the line. Do you think I’d ever be able to live with that if anything happens to him?” “Fuck,” Toby moaned and covered his face. “We don’t have time to dwell on it. I have a ticking bomb on my hands, and I intend to use it. Levine knows what’s at stake, and he may be evil, but he’s not stupid. I’ll have time to take Rhys out of there and move him someplace safe.” “You sound like you have everything figured out.” Yeah. He sounded like that. *** Levine’s estate seemed deserted. Mason had been left inside by automatic doors opening in front of him. It appeared as if no personnel were present, and the same dark chill from before was ice on his back. “It looks like we have to let ourselves in,” Mason commented and pushed open the heavy door, opening like a black mouth in front of him. His phone rang, and Mason listened to the instructions without saying a word. He knew his way to Levine’s office but pretended he was only hearing about that for the first time. The heavy adornments on the walls overwhelmed him while he walked down the hallway; a person suffering from claustrophobia would have stopped by now. Good thing he didn’t fear cramped places; the only thing he feared was failing to get Rhys out of there alive. He knocked on the door and was invited in by a harsh ‘come in’. It was a safe bet that Levine couldn’t be in the best of moods. Mason schooled his face into a mask as he stepped inside. “It is rather grating to act so polite when you come here to threaten me,” Levine said in a sour voice. “I didn’t start this,” Mason replied. “Do you have it?” Mason showed the micro SD card for a moment and then made it disappear back into his pocket. “Then let’s end this quickly. Hand over the item.” Levine was sitting behind his desk and made no move to invite Mason to sit. “Only after Rhys is out of here.” Levine’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Yes, I know he’s here,” Mason said boldly. It was time to bluff, and that called for surprising his adversary with information Levine couldn’t suspect the manner by which he had come to have it. Levine frowned for a second. “The item,” he said through his teeth. Mason frowned, too. “No. Free Rhys right now.” “Or else?” “Or else, certain information will be released to the general public in less than half an hour.” “Oh. Are you a whizz kid, Mr. Knight?” “No. But it’s the twenty-first century. Everyone has access to technology.” Toby was right about that. “Scheduling an online post to go live at a chosen point in the future is a piece of cake.” “Fair enough.” Levine consulted his watch with seemingly bored eyes. “He’s sleeping quite soundly. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a little for him to come to his senses.” He made a bit of a show while talking on an internal line. Mason suspected the creepy maid had to be on the other end. “Why did you kill Tobias Davis, Mr. Goldman?” Mason asked all of a sudden. “Mason, what are you asking?” Toby hissed at him. “He could order for Rhys to be murdered with a flick of the wrist!” He was there for more than one reason. A certain ghost needed to find his peace, too. Piercing grey eyes sat on his face. Then, amusement made them light up with malice. “That lowlife? I didn’t kill him.” “He had evidence of you ordering someone to be murdered. Therefore, you had a strong reason to make him disappear.” “Ah, of course. Reason.” Levine leaned back into his chair and observed Mason while his lips twitched. It was as if he was trying hard to keep in a good joke, waiting for the right moment to say it. “But me and the fellow in question had reached an understanding. He was dumb as a brick, but he knew not to push it with me.” Mason blinked a couple of times. “You cannot deny it, Mr. Goldman.” “I can,” Levine leaned forward and smiled, “because it’s nothing but the truth.” He turned slightly in his chair and looked to one side as if he was suddenly deep in thought. “I am a man of means, Mr. Knight. I do not have any reason to dirty my hands. Can you even suspect why I hired you and that blob of fat to be Rhys’s bodyguards?” Mason felt the ground under his feet swaying slightly. “Boyd,” he said without thinking. Levine threw him another amused look. “I could have my fun and pretend your friend, the agent, was involved, but … I truly want you to understand the genius of all my actions.” “Why the hell is he telling you all this, Mason?” Toby became agitated again. “I don’t like where this is going.” Mason didn’t like it either, but he had no choice on the matter. “Please go on, sir,” he said in a steady voice. “Cocky, aren’t you?” Levine sighed theatrically. “Such a shame, really. But let’s get back to what I was saying. Ah, right. Mr. Lamartine was over the moon when I contacted him. He was a tiny bit suspicious that I would enlist the services of someone who, by my standards, is as good as invisible, but I put those thoughts to rest when I told him it was only for a trifle thing that would be paid well and require little effort.” Mason shifted his weight from one foot to another. At least, Boyd wasn’t some traitor; he couldn’t put any value on Levine’s words, but he had a hunch why the scumbag was suddenly honest. The ball was in his court, but Mason had his eyes on it. He wouldn’t allow himself surprised by some left-field move. “You see, I knew the little pansy had his late boyfriend’s memorabilia with him, and that the item of interest had to be in his care.” “Little pansy? The fucking asshole.” Toby was moving around Levine, more and more agitated. “You could call him Rhys,” Mason said sourly. Levine offered a sugary smile. “In love, Mr. Knight? How quaint. I’ve seen Rhys at his low; you would change your mind if you knew what I know.” “No, I wouldn’t.” “Hmm. You’ve truly been a bigger headache than expected. Nonetheless, I am the type of man who enjoys a challenge. I live for the worthy occasions that break the same-old, same-old rhythm of everyday routine.” “Why did you hire me and Billy?” Mason asked directly. How long did that maid need to wake up Rhys? “Right, back on topic. Well, I needed to prove to everyone that I did everything I could when Rhys suddenly turned up suicidal and successful at it, too.” “If only I could strangle this asshole a little,” Toby complained as he moved, immaterial and helpless, in and out Levine’s body. Mason could feel a muscle in his jaw tick so hard that it almost took the entire cheek with it. “You see,” Levine continued, grinning and obviously enjoying the torment he was putting his guest through, “I hired bodyguards for poor little Rhys because he had a tendency of hurting himself. Who else to know that better than me, his guardian and protector, who tried to convince him to remain in the good care of doctors and nurses?” “But you let him out,” Mason pointed out. “Yes, but it had to appear that it had all come from him, and I couldn’t keep someone in specialized care against his will. However, worried as I was,” Levine’s eyes flashed, “I took it upon me to hire people who would watch over Rhys without his noticing too much. If I had gone all the way and hired the best specialists, Rhys would have just protested against it. Therefore, I was both caring and delicate about his feelings.” Mason could feel his stomach revolting. Good thing he hadn’t had anything to eat all day. The satisfaction in the eyes of that bird of prey was unmistakable. “In the event that Rhys finally decided to end it all for lack of a purpose in life and, of course, weakness of character, I couldn’t have been blamed. You and that fatso, however, would have taken the rap for it. Also, you two were ideal for my plan B.” “Plan B?” Mason’s throat was dry like sandpaper. “Yes. Anita told me Rhys was no longer keen on taking the pills the good doctors at the clinic had prescribed for him, and that was bound to make things a bit difficult.” “Why place the ketamine, though?” Levine hid his surprise well. “Anita hid it in the kitchen,” Mason explained. “Anita likes to go beyond the call of duty,” Levine said. “She’s been with this family for a long time.” “So enlisting her help in your murderous activities is part of her job description?” A flash of anger lit up Levine’s face, but only for a moment. “As I said, she’s an excellent servant. But you keep interrupting me, and I bet that you will find my plan B a feat of genius, indeed.” “Not only a servant, I bet,” Toby said. “This asshole treats her like she’s his long forgotten mother or something.” Levine’s self-assurance was vomit-inducing. Mason doubted he could admire anything in the disgusting creature posing as a human in front of him. “There could be problems with declaring Rhys’s suicidal so easily. Plus, I like things to be a bit more dramatic. I wanted blood,” Levine said brightly as if he had just said he would love to go for ice cream. “Therefore, I needed a pair of stupid bodyguards who could be killed easily.” “Killed?” Mason’s frown deepened. “Yes,” Levine said with glee. “Once Anita located the missing item, I could move with the plan. No longer needing Rhys, I could just eliminate him.” “Why not keep him in a hospice?” “Too expensive,” Levine said with a shrug. Expensive. That was everything other people’s lives were to that waste of space. “Did you want to kill him, too?” Mason asked. “Have someone do it, yes. It would have been a burglary gone wrong, something like that. Unfortunate, sad, but well, that’s life. And I would have been stunned with the news, devastated even. Saying to anyone listening – oh, everyone would have listened – how I should have thought of hiring better bodyguards if I suspected, for one moment, for such a horrible thing to happen.” “You don’t care about anyone but you,” Mason said with bitterness. “But how come you’re alone now, Mr. Goldman? Where’s that associate of yours?” A phone rang somewhere. Mason experienced a sudden sinking feeling on the inside when Levine reached for the locked drawer where the hidden phone had to be. The smile stretching on the scumbag’s face told him that his bluff didn’t work. “Oh, it’s all settled? That’s great news,” Levine said with a smirk. He moved so fast that Mason didn’t even have time to freeze in place. One moment, and he was staring at the black barrel of a gun pointing at him. “Oh, shit,” Toby shouted. “The fucker has a gun!” Levine stood up and laughed, holding the weapon. “My associate just informed him that there’s nothing I should fear from your little play with twenty-first century technology. So, let’s come to the point for which we gathered here today. Hand over that item, Mr. Knight.” “Toby, go to Rhys now,” Mason hissed. “Toby? Who are you talking to?” Levine wondered. “Have you lost your mind so quickly? That’s rather disappointing. Come on, be a doll. Give me that thing.” Toby had rushed out, but Mason couldn’t see an opening if it killed him, as ironic as that sounded. He needed to stall for time until something came to mind. “There is something you don’t know, Mr. Goldman. The murder weapon, it’s no longer lost.” “What murder weapon?” Levine quirked an eyebrow. “Are we still talking about that mongrel? Tobias?” “Yes. Your fingerprints must be on it,” Mason continued. “I can tell you where it is, but only if you let me and Rhys leave.” Levine began laughing, first slowly, then louder and louder. It took him a minute to get his bearings. “Ah, I already told you. I didn’t kill that piece of shit. But, thank you for letting me know. I’ll deal with that on my own time. Now, don’t test my patience.” “You can’t outrun your fate, Mr. Goldman. Kill me, do what you want, but the truth will still come to light. It’s game over.” “Oh, really? Who’s keeping score? Ah, wait.” Levine looked for a moment at the gun in his hand. “I think that’s me.” He straightened his arm, pointing at Mason again. Mason closed his eyes. “You’ll have to come take it from me.” If he managed to get Levine close enough, he could try something foolish and dangerous, with minor chances of success. “Oh, playing tough? Like I would risk my neck by getting close to you. No problem, I’ll take it from your corpse. So, game over, Mr. Knight.” “With the risk of sounding trite, that should be my line. Game over, Mr. Goldman.” The first thing Mason noticed was how Levine’s self-assured arrogance fell from his face. The second, how familiar that voice sounded. “Hands up, Mr. Goldman.” Billy emerged from behind the curtains, following his stretched arm that must have had the cold barrel of a weapon resting against the back of Levine’s head. Levine obeyed. “This is ridiculous. Who is this?” Billy removed the gun from Levine’s hand and put it into his pocket. “That would be the fatso, Mr. Goldman.” The surprise on Levine’s face was matched only by that on Mason’s. Billy winked at him. “Howdy, partner? How’s it going?” With ease, he grabbed Levine’s hands, pulled back, and slapped a pair of cuffs on them. Mason was lost for words. “Stop this nonsense right now,” Levine revolted. “Who do you think you are?” Billy deftly brought Levine’s to his knees, forced him on one side, and tied his feet together, too. “What do you want? Who are you?” Levine was in a frenzy now that he must have realized that Billy wasn’t joking. “This guy talks too much,” Billy said with a shrug and produced a gag from his pocket. “Don’t you dare!” Levine struggled, but Billy appeared to be an expert in gagging his victim and reducing him to complete silence. “Isn’t this better?” Billy said and stood up. “I think Anita is poisoning Rhys!” Toby rushed into the room that very moment. “What the hell is happening here?” Mason jerked his head into Toby’s direction without thinking. “What? What’s she doing?” “What’s wrong, Mason?” Billy asked. “We need to save Rhys,” Mason said. “Do you know where he is?” Billy followed him into the hallway. “I tried to search the place --” Mason rushed up the stairs, following Toby. “Oh, Toby found him,” Billy said matter-of-factly, as he kept up with Mason like he didn’t weigh his value as an awesome person in solid gold. Mason stopped for a moment, opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Billy pushed him from behind. “No time to explain, I know. Let’s get to Rhys. What is Toby saying?” Mason began running again. “Anita is poisoning him as we speak.” The air was burning in his lungs as he reached the landing. Billy’s heavy breathing let him know someone had his back. They burst into the room. Anita was holding the IV drip and towering over Rhys, with one hand on his chest. Never in his life, Mason would have thought himself capable of hitting a woman. It looked like he didn’t have to start anyway because Billy was faster than him. Anita dropped the IV drip with a startled cry. Mason had been right to give Billy that nickname. With a move worthy of the best martial arts aficionados, Billy had kicked her arm so hard that she was now on the floor, nursing it and bawling. Mason hurried to Rhys and shook him. He pulled the needle out of his arm. Were they too late? Had all been in vain? “No,” he said with determination as he felt Rhys’s neck. “No, you can’t die.” Billy was busy twisting Anita’s arm. “What did you give him? How much?” “I didn’t!” The woman was squirming on the floor. “Didn’t get the chance!” “Why isn’t he waking up?” “He’s on sleeping drugs!” Anita howled. Mason brought his face close to Rhys’s mouth, and the faint breathing caressed his skin. He shook him some more, and Rhys opened his eyes, only to let them roll in his head. “Rhys, Rhys,” Mason called for him and grabbed his face. He slapped him with all the gentleness he could muster. “What’s going on?” Rhys mumbled. “Hey, stop it … my head hurts …” Mason exhaled and even let out a small laugh. “Oh, God, you’re alive.” He hugged Rhys tightly and ignored the water in his eyes. “I’m not God,” Rhys replied in the same sluggish manner. “You must be mistaking me for someone else.” Mason had many things to say, maybe even that Rhys was like his own personal deity or anyone else he wanted to be. Anything he wanted. Everything. Billy hurried to the bed, leaving Anita be for a moment. He pushed Mason firmly away and began checking Rhys with hurried hands. “Phew, I think we’re fine.” A banshee’s shriek made Mason’s hair stand on end. He turned just in time to block Anita’s raised hands holding a knife. Did that woman ever stop? He grabbed her hands and tried to keep her at bay while she yelled and tried to bite him. The crisp white bonnet had fallen, and wisps of grey hair surrounded her head like a dirtied halo. “Let me kill that dog,” she bawled. Mason shook her, forcing her to drop the knife. For a moment, his eyes met hers, crazed and bloodshot. Nothing of the measured, cold maid he had met before was left in them. “Let me put him to sleep,” she said in a sing-song voice, “just let me.” She turned limp and Mason, taken by surprise, felt her wrists slipping from his hands. With renewed force and a shriek, she hurried for the bed. Billy slugged her in the face. This time, when she fell to the ground, she remained there, crumpled, a pile of bones and starched maid clothes. *** Mason carried Rhys into his arms. “You’re not coming?” he asked Billy. A bit earlier, he had given his former partner the micro SD card. Apparently, Po knew much better what to do with it, and Mason wanted it out of his hands anyway. His partner shrugged and smiled. “I have a lot of work to do. Getting a billionaire to confess to his crimes is not enough. The real chores begin now.” “So, see you around?” Mason had other priorities, but he wanted to ask Billy a few questions. “We’ll meet a little later. After all, you are instrumental to the disgraceful fall of Levine Goldman. The police will want to have a word with you.” Billy winked at him. “Don’t worry. I’ll be there.” “Are you with the police? A true detective?” Billy shook his head. “Let’s talk a bit later, okay, chief?” “Okay, Po. And thanks for today. You saved my ass. And Rhys, too. I cannot thank you enough.” “Don’t mention it. Or mention it. I have a few ideas about what to ask in return.” “Will it cost me everything? Because there’s no problem if it does,” Mason added. “No. Very little.” Billy offered him another big bright smile. “You won’t even feel it.” “If you say so.” Mason couldn’t stop smiling either. “Is Toby still here?” Billy asked in a low voice. Rhys was still mostly out and couldn’t hear their conversation. Mason looked around. “I don’t see him.” “When you do, tell him ‘good job’ from me.” “Will do,” Mason promised. He took Rhys and put him gently inside the car Billy had let them use. It was parked outside. Mason took one look around before climbing behind the wheel. And then he saw it. A dark vehicle that slowed down in front of Levine’s estate and took off suddenly. Mason tried to see the driver’s face, but the only thing he could notice was a pair of leather gloves manning the wheel. Sirens could be heard in the distance. TBC
  2. Mike and Ryan will get their chance to perform no worries. Their turn is coming, too. And they will get - I hope - plenty of coverage, he-he-he ...
  3. Thank you! Mike will hand in his resignation ... and then things will happen! (not saying anything more)
  4. Hope you're not the only one, Wes!
  5. Chapter Nineteen – Reverse Musical Chairs Adrian lay in bed, his eyes on the ceiling. His mind was full, filled with possibilities and the challenge of a puzzle that carried one name: Edward Hastings. After their torrid affair on the yacht, Edward had gotten an emergency call, and apologetically, he had bid goodbye to Adrian after leaving him on the shore. When that had happened, there had been something in Edward’s eyes that Adrian wanted to think he knew exactly what it was. Edward hadn’t quite wanted to let him go, and, for a brief moment, Adrian had debated whether it would be a good idea to ask to come along. But, just as fast, the moment had been gone. If he wanted to be more to Edward than just another lover of many others, Adrian needed to up the ante. That meant that he needed to break through the impenetrable wall that was Edward’s life outside his usual proclivities. Adrian knew that Edward was a doctor and that he came from money, but details were lacking. Where did he work? Who were his parents, his family? At the Awakening, it was clear that people there had known each other from their respectable lives, but Adrian, just like others, had been an outsider. That was what he needed to become: not an outsider, but an insider. Adrian smiled at the joke that came to his mind. He had been inside Edward enough for that, but this was about real life, not the one spent in the throes of passion and the shadows of an existence that, apparently, was meant to be kept under wraps. Edward hadn’t struck him for one moment as someone hiding his sexual orientation, but there was still the matter of his wealthy family and those secretive Sunday meetings that Edward was required to attend without fail. Adrian knew he would get with Edward where they needed to be. Edward needed it, too, although he probably hadn’t become aware of it just yet. He could run his mouth all he wanted, stuck in his pretense that he was somehow too jaded to enjoy some trite romance. Adrian knew that he needed to lay the net and wait. He could be patient and careful. There was no way he would let Edward get away from him, now that they had found each other. With that refreshing thought in mind, Adrian climbed off the bed and hit the shower. Someday, he would get Edward to spend entire Sundays with him, but, until then, Adrian had plenty of other things to do. After showering, he would call Jared and Mike and see what they had been up to. *** Mike clasped his hands together and paced the room while waiting for Jared. Had he gone completely insane? He needed to swear off booze forever; what guy in his right mind handed in his resignation while completely off his socks drunk and stupidly in love with his boss? Apparently, one Mike Cavanaugh. He grabbed both his cheeks and then slapped them at the same time. That should teach him to be so reckless. Tequila was one hell of a drink if it could turn him into someone who dared to quit his job so that he could pursue a romantic affair with his boss. His phone pinged, letting him know that Jared was almost there. Without waiting for his friend to reach the door, Mike went into the hallway and looked down the stairs. Jared was jumping the stairs two by two, and his hair looked like a bird’s nest. Yeah, they had all drunken like bottomless pits last night, and it looked like he had taken Jared directly from his bed, and, probably, a hungover. “Hey,” Jared said breathlessly, but brightly, like it was a good morning or something. His eyes were shining, and his skin was glowing, but Mike couldn’t quite imagine why Jared looked like that. Maybe tequila had a rejuvenation effect on some people. Clearly, Mike wasn’t one of them. Jared was a lucky guy. “Oh, J,” Mike said and collapsed in Jared’s arms once his friend reached the landing. “Hey, hey, it’s not that bad. Let’s get inside, and I’ll make some coffee, what do you think?” “Maybe some chamomile tea instead? My stomach hurts a little.” Jared patted his head. “I’ll figure out something. I’m sorry I got a little carried away and let you drink more than you should. I, of all people, should know how much of a lightweight you are.” Mike allowed Jared to take him inside his apartment and then followed him like a kicked puppy to the kitchen. Without asking for directions, Jared began preparing the tea. His moves were a bit abrupt, and, through the fog of his hangover and self-loathing, he felt the seed of a suspicion growing. “You really hold your liquor well, J. I envy you.” “Well, you know, I might have drunken plenty of gallons of the thing in my life. Shane and his ideas,” Jared said and shook his head. Mike scrutinized his friend, but Jared stood with his back to him, so there wasn’t much to tell from his body language. The suspicion just grew stronger. “What did you and Shane do after you two dragged home my sorry ass?” “We called it a night,” Jared said. He turned and smiled at Mike. Mike observed Jared a little more. Bed hair. The same clothes from last night. Stupid grin on his face. Okay, not stupid, but … satisfied? Mike’s eyes grew wide. “You slept with him again!” Jared’s face fell. He put up his hands and began waving. “No! No! Why would you say such a thing? I didn’t! Who are you talking about? Shane? No, no, definitely no, I didn’t sleep with him!” Mike could feel some of his hangover going away. He grinned. “You so totally slept with him again. Yes, with Shane.” Jared blushed so quickly that Mike couldn’t believe his eyes. “What happened with being just friends?” Jared grabbed one elbow with the other hand and stared down at his shoes. “We are friends,” he protested in a meek voice. Mike scratched his head. “You are? Of course, you can’t say boyfriends without friends, so --” “No, we’re not boyfriends. Just … friends.” Mike blinked a few times. So, his brain was a complete mess, but what sense was in that? “Friends who have sex together?” Jared nodded, although it was clear as day that he was embarrassed. Still, he wasn’t denying it, so Mike was happy that at least, one time, he had read the situation right. If only he were a keen observer of whatever was happening to him or what he was doing when smashed on tequila. “What kind of friends are those, though?” “With benefits!” Jared snapped. Just that moment, his shoulders slumped. “Sorry, Mike. I shouldn’t yell at you since it’s all my fault I’m getting in this kind of situation.” “It’s okay. So that you know, I’m not judging you or anything. But why friends with benefits? Can’t you two be boyfriends?” Jared continued to look down. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he said quietly. “I don’t have much to offer right now, and it wouldn’t be fair toward Shane to use him as a rebound relationship or something like that.” “And does he agree with this?” Mike asked, puzzled now. “Agree? He came with the idea. And I said ‘yes’ because, obviously, I’m not in my right mind lately, and somehow, I thought, at the moment, that having a friend with benefits was an awesome idea.” Jared’s voice was bright again, but a bit forced. Hmm, so Shane had come up with that. Mike was pretty sure Shane wasn’t the kind of guy to do friendships with benefits, which meant that he was a bit sly, though. He could just go ahead and tell Jared that he was played, but, in this case, Mike decided to keep his mouth shut. If Jared suspected just a smidge that Shane was using any means necessary to keep him close with the clear intention to make him his boyfriend, after all, he would shut down everything, and that wasn’t an option. Funny thing how he could see things clearly for other people, but not himself. Mike sighed. “Okay. I suppose you guys know better what we’re doing. What am I saying? Anyone with half a brain in this world knows better than me what they’re doing. The hell did I do, J? I messed up everything.” Changing the subject would let Jared off the hook for now. Jared looked at him now. “Oh, Mike, you didn’t mess up. Actually, it was kind of heroic and a bit funny. Tequila!” He made an impersonation of Mike’s antics from the previous night. That wasn’t terribly encouraging, but, yeah, Mike could admit, it was a bit funny. He snickered, and then he remembered right away that he was unemployed. “Fuck. I quit my job.” “It was just a verbal resignation, but I’d say that it reached the correct recipient, so it’s all good.” Jared grinned now. Mike moaned and covered his face. “I quit my job. I am insane!” “You’re not. All right, so maybe it was a little Shane’s fault for nudging you to do that, but, well, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.” Mike took his hands off his face. “Is Shane mad at me?” “Mad? Why would he be? I think he worries that you might be upset with him.” “I could never be. It was my decision. I drank, got smashed, and quit my job.” Jared poured the tea and came with two cups at the table. “Look, Mike, I know that this is way out of your comfort zone, but it’s all for the better. Do you want all your life to think of ‘what ifs’? Now, you’re free to find a new job, and also to pursue Ryan. I think it’s a good trade. And you’re smart and hard-working. Everything will work out for the best, you’ll see.” He caressed Mike’s head. “Drink your tea. You’ll feel better soon.” Jared’s phone rang. “It’s Adrian. Hey, lover boy,” he said as soon as he answered. “I’m at Mike. Long night, and long story. Hey, Mike, it’s okay for Adrian to come over now?” “Sure thing. He doesn’t have to ask. I could use another pep talk.” “Mike says you should hurry,” Jared said with a big smile. “He’s on his way,” he added after finishing the conversation with Adrian. Mike nodded. “This is some delicious tea, J. Sometimes, I think you know my kitchen much better than me.” Jared offered a warm smile. “I let you drink too much, so it should be up to me to put you back together.” There was a short moment of hesitation, and then he bit his lips. “Mike, do you think we can keep it a secret from Adrian that me and Shane, you know?” Mike snickered. “Keep a secret? From Adrian? He would never forgive you. Or me.” Jared sighed. “Yeah, I know. But I think he’ll give me a lecture again, and I don’t know if I can handle it. I already told Shane that we should keep it hush-hush.” “J, I don’t mean to brag, but it took me a couple of minutes to realize that you slept with Shane. Don’t you think Adrian will be able to tell?” “One can hope. Promise me?” Mike sighed. “With the risk of having Adrian keep me in one of his famous wrestling holds until I can’t feel my body, I promise.” “Hey, Adrian doesn’t do that anymore.” “Luckily. I’m so glad he’s always been my friend because, otherwise, I could swear sometimes, he can be the biggest bully.” Jared rolled his eyes. “Are you telling me? Adrian is into tough love, something big.” They both laughed. Of course, they knew their best friend like the back of their hands. Mike could swear that Adrian would see the truth in seconds from walking through the door. *** Mike opened the door to Adrian and hugged him. “Are we a little emotional?” Adrian asked and hugged Mike back. “What happened with you two last night?” Mike walked with Adrian into the kitchen, where Jared was now preparing a light breakfast. Adrian kissed Jared’s cheek in greeting. “Ah, you got fucked all night. Did your cowboy take you for another ride?” Mike snickered. Jared turned to throw him a murderous glare. “Mike, don’t make the situation worse.” “Hey, I told you Adrian would know,” Mike said in his defense. “Of course, I’d know. When Jared gets a good dicking, it’s all over his face. Wait, did you two want to keep that from me?” Mike put his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t. It was J’s request.” “You little traitor!” Jared turned off the cooktop. “Now I’m going to be the only one who’ll get the brunt of Adrian’s anger and famous chokeholds.” “I thought you said Adrian didn’t do that anymore!” “I lied.” Adrian was all over Jared, holding him and rubbing his head vigorously. “What’s that I don’t do anymore? Spill out everything, or I’m going to tickle you!” “I told Mike that you’re no longer a bully!” “When was I a bully?” Adrian had Jared now in a tighter hold, and he was having fun, by the looks of it. Mike couldn’t even feel down anymore over quitting his job. He sighed and shook his head. His friends always made him feel normal, no matter what an awkward person and bundle of contradictions he was. “So, are you two going to tell me everything about last night, or should I tickle J until he pisses himself?” Adrian asked, still not letting go of Jared. “I quit my job,” Mike said in one go, without one moment of hesitation. “While you were dancing and drinking? How come?” “Ryan was also there, and, well, I had too much to drink, and I also talked to J and Shane, and one thing led to another, and I told my boss that I quit.” “Wow, that sounds like quite the night. Where did you find the guts to do that, Mikey?” Adrian asked with a smirk. “By the looks of it, at the bottom of a bottle of tequila.” “And Shane, kind of, came with the idea,” Jared chimed in. “He just said that I could get with Ryan by quitting my job because he would hire me, and J would let me sleep with him if I became homeless.” Adrian laughed wholeheartedly. “What a scenario. I guess that came straight from Mike’s deepest fears.” “You know, you can let me go now,” Jared said, and Adrian released him not without patting him down as if he needed to adjust his clothes. “Ugh, thanks.” “Okay, you boys had quite an eventful night. So, Mike, what’s next? Are you preparing emotionally for the life of the unemployed and homeless?” Jared nudged Adrian in the ribs, and not quite playfully. “Stop encouraging him to feel bad, you bully.” “Hey, I’m just pulling his leg. With that awesome brain of his, he’ll get hired somewhere in no time. Plus, I suppose Ryan would give him some great recommendations.” “I don’t know about that,” Mike said. “He did ask me not to leave the company before because he thinks I’m a good worker. I have a feeling that I let him down. Even drunk, I know that I saw a look of total dismay on his face.” Jared intervened. “He’ll get over it. He’ll lose the server guy, but he’ll get a lover. I’d say that it’s a good trade.” Mike shook his head. “I don’t know. It could be that I read everything wrong.” “Yeah, right.” Jared snorted. “I suppose that romantic dances on the roof are just part of how Ryan runs the company. Just how many employees did he do that with?” “Let’s not forget about kissing, and that blowjob Mike gave him,” Adrian added. “Hush, don’t be an ass, Adrian. Mike needs to focus on the romantic side right now.” “Romantic? Like you?” Adrian looked at Jared with a crooked smile. “How was your cowboy ride?” “Let’s focus on Mike here for a moment. He’s the one going through the most important change to date in his life.” Adrian looked like he wanted to add something, but Mike could tell that Jared was too happy to be left off the hook. “So, how long should you stay with them before you can go your merry way and romance your ex-boss?” Adrian asked. “What?” Mike asked, a bit confused. “You need to give them two weeks’ notice or something, right? I mean, it depends on the company policy and --” Mike felt a new surge of terror growing inside him. “I don’t know the policy! I mean, I think I knew when I got hired, but right now, I can’t remember!” “Hey, hey,” Jared began, “don’t get upset over details. You will know tomorrow when you go to hand in your resignation as you should. I mean, in a formal manner.” “But it will be so awkward!” Mike covered his face and moaned. “How come I didn’t think of that? Of course, I didn’t think of much, so that’s --” “Mikey,” Adrian interrupted him, “chill, dude. At most, it could be another month of doing what you were doing as usual. A bit of a transition period cannot hurt. You’ll have time to get used to the idea, and you’ll be able to send naughty texts to your boss, with promises of what you’re going to do to him once you’re no longer his employee.” Jared punched Adrian in the shoulder. “Mike won’t do that. He will keep it to the boundaries of employer and employee until he’s off the hook. Then, he’ll do everything he wants.” “Speaking of boundaries, now that Mike knows that he has our full support during these trying times, what about yours? Where did your determination that you would only be friends with Shane go?” “They’re still just friends,” Mike intervened. “Yeah,” Jared admitted and began staring at his shoes again. “Friends? Like fuck buddies?” Adrian asked. “Something like that,” Jared replied, but his voice was getting gradually quieter. “Hmm,” Adrian said. “And what does Shane say?” “He came with the idea,” Jared explained. Adrian opened his mouth to say something, but Mike caught his eye and shook his head. Adrian’s eyes lit up with understanding. A knowing smirk curled his lips. “I see. I didn’t know cowboys were so worldly.” “Yeah. I mean, I was quite surprised,” Jared replied. “And you went with it.” “I guess I did.” “Don’t regret it,” Adrian warned, just about as Jared began to sigh. “But it’s the kind of situation that warrants regrets,” Jared said. “I mean, we met at the wrong moment.” “That’s just your opinion.” “I’m not in a mood for a new relationship. I feel jaded, and I’m afraid I’m going to be mean and suspicious, and treat Shane badly when he doesn’t deserve it.” “And being fuck buddies means that you don’t have to worry about any of that.” “Pretty much, yeah,” Jared replied. Adrian rubbed his chin in thought. Mike exchanged another look with him. It wasn’t totally fair that they were doing that with Jared present, but their friend was a bit of a head in the clouds kind of guy, and he felt the need for emotional complications. Maybe someone grounded like Shane was the best fit for him. Plus, it looked like Shane knew how to deal with Jared better than anyone could have imagined. “Then that’s a great idea,” Adrian said. “We also like Shane, so it’s cool that he’s hanging out with us. Isn’t that right, Mike?” “We love Shane,” Mike confirmed. “I like it that our group is getting bigger. And, you know, we never brought anyone we liked into our circle. Isn’t it a shame?” Jared threw Mike a curt like. “This is about having a new friend, not bringing anyone we liked in a different way, right?” Mike swallowed. “Yeah, that’s what I meant. Since we all like Shane and all. And not the kind of like that makes us want to sleep with him, I mean, nothing is wrong with that, but --” “I get it, Mike,” Jared said, amused now. “It’s kind of crazy what I’m doing. Don’t you guys think?” “Hey, as long as he’s a good lay, I say go for it,” Adrian said with a shrug. “And I think so, too,” Mike added. Adrian could keep a straight face while saying that, but, for him, the struggle was real. “Are you guys making fun of me a little?” Jared narrowed his eyes and stared at them in turn. Great. Mike was sure he was making a face, and now Jared was starting to get suspicious. “We always make fun of you,” Adrian replied promptly. “You’re too easy to tease.” “I thought that was Mike,” Jared said. “Sorry, Mike, not like we think badly of you or anything. It’s just that you’re too cute sometimes, worrying about the smallest things.” Mike smiled. “Yeah, that’s totally me. And I don’t mind, at all. And we’re not making fun of you. It’s that, just, this friends with benefits thing is too new, at least for me.” “Frankly, I don’t recall ever having a friend with benefits, either,” Adrian added. “See, Jared, you’re advanced compared to us.” Jared rolled his eyes. “Seriously, dudes, I’m not buying it. But I laid my bed, and I have to lie in it, I guess. There’s no turning back for now, or I’d hurt Shane’s feelings.” Mike fought the temptation to seek Adrian’s eyes again. Jared continued. “I need to ask you guys something. I told Shane that I want to keep it a secret from you, and he now thinks that you two don’t suspect anything. Can you keep it a secret from him that you know?” “Sure,” Adrian said. The answer took Mike by surprise, but usually, Adrian knew what he was doing. He would have to ask him later. “Yeah,” he agreed, too. “All right. Thanks a lot, guys,” Jared said. “Just so you know, the moment he finds someone he wants to be with, I will just get out of the way, no hard feelings.” “Yeah, that’s like the first rule of friends with benefits,” Adrian replied. “And how do you know? I thought you said that you never had any relationships like that,” Jared shot back. “Hey, I’ve never been to the North Pole, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot point it on the map,” Adrian said with a smile. Jared shook his head. If he had any suspicions, he looked like he kept them for himself. “So, no word of it when we hang out.” “Of course,” Adrian said. “Shane is one of the guys. We totally get it. Right, Mike?” “Yeah,” Mike hurried to say. “Now that you know all about our crazy night, how was yours, Adrian?” Adrian leaned against the kitchen counter. “Quiet. I slept in my own bed. Alone.” Jared turned toward him. “Alone? How come? Weren’t you supposed to be with Edward on his yacht or something?” “That was during the day. And we did fuck like rabbits,” Adrian said matter-of-factly. “But he got an emergency call from work, so he had to leave.” “You don’t seem disappointed. You fucked your fill, right?” Jared teased. “Yeah, that, too. But, you know, I like this about Edward, that he takes his job seriously. The guy has a frigging yacht, but if there are people who need him, he doesn’t hesitate. I’d say that makes him a good guy.” Jared laughed and pushed himself against Adrian’s shoulder. “Since when are you into good guys, Adrian?” “Since I kind of feel the need to settle down with one guy.” Mike felt his jaw-dropping. All their teasing, his and Jared’s, about how Adrian had found himself a boyfriend, had been only that. To hear Adrian say that he wanted to settle down was the biggest thing ever. “Settle down? Like marriage?” Adrian smirked. “Hey, let’s not jump the shark here. I’m only talking about a serious relationship, like in the kind of guy that I would bring home to mom and dad.” “Oh, damn, Adrian, you are serious!” Jared exclaimed. “Look who’s the advanced one of all of us. And what does Edward say about it all? I thought he was against relationships or something.” “He’ll come around. We’re getting to know each other more and more. I told him that I’d win the game.” “What game is that?” “The one in which I make him need me, for real. He likes to think that he’s this cynical bastard that will never do relationships. And I told him that I wasn’t after some romantic thing.” “Aren’t you?” Jared asked a bit puzzled now. Adrian smiled. “Well, I am, but I’m not going to let him know that. I’ll just be so deep in his business that he won’t be able to say ‘no’ to anything I ask.” Jared seemed to ponder. “Adrian, there is a chance Edward is, indeed, the cynical bastard he claims to be. He says it without hesitation, from what you’re telling us.” “Hush, J. Don’t project your disappointment in dudes over this. Edward just hasn’t met the right person. I mean, until me.” Mike remained silent, although he did have to agree with Jared; Edward did seem a cold person, and Adrian was getting worked up over him. Maybe the opposites attracted, and that was why things like that were happening. Still, it wasn’t like Adrian to be blind; it looked like he was caught up in a challenge, and there was no way of telling just how involved he could end up. “Maybe you could bring him to meet us,” he said. “I mean, it would be cool. J and Shane already met Ryan, kind of. It’s only fair that we get to meet this famous Edward.” “It’s an idea,” Adrian agreed. “All I’ve been thinking is how to infiltrate his life outside what he does with me when I could get him more involved with mine, too.” “That sounds swell,” Jared replied. “I’m curious to meet him, too.” Mike watched Adrian. He seemed preoccupied all of a sudden. It was great that he liked this guy so much, but Mike knew that Adrian, as tough as he wanted to believe himself to be, he didn’t take being hurt well. When he had ended things with Alexander, he had been down for months and then chosen to be a playboy who took guys and discarded them at will. Mike could only hope Edward wouldn’t be another Alexander. It had taken Adrian so much to be over that hurt from a long time ago. *** They parted ways with the promise that they would hang out in the evening as usual. Jared was barely home when his phone rang. He smiled when he saw who was calling. “Hey, Shane. What’s up?” That was totally normal between friends. There was no need for excuses to call. “How’s Mike? Is he all right?” Shane asked after greeting him. There was genuine worry in his voice. “He’s fine. We helped him think up the resignation letter so that he doesn’t get cold feet tomorrow.” “We? Was Adrian there, too?” “Yeah, he came a little later.” “Ah, cool.” “We’re hanging out tonight. Do you want to join us?” Jared asked. “Sure thing. I’ll have to do something at the pub, but then I’ll join you. Same place?” “Yeah. We’re creatures of habits,” Jared explained. “You might get bored with us.” “I have my doubts about that,” Shane replied. “You’re a cool bunch. And I had fun with you and Mike the other night. It wasn’t boring at all. Actually, it was pretty exciting.” Jared laughed. “Yeah. Mike quit his job.” “Yeah.” Shane chuckled. “But I wasn’t talking only about that.” Jared could feel his cheeks catching on fire. “Ah, you’re teasing me.” “Just a little,” Shane drawled. “O-kay,” Jared replied in turn. He was new to the whole friends with benefits thing, but he could hold his own. “So, will you come to the bar directly, or should I pick you up? I really won’t drink tonight, so I think it’s a safe bet for me to be the driver tonight.” Shane chuckled. “Are you looking for an excuse to drive me around as you please?” Jared snorted. “Better said, I’m looking for an excuse not to drink, for once. It looks like I take the craziest decisions while I’m under the influence.” There was a moment of quiet on the other side. “Do you regret it?” Jared didn’t need additional explanations for what Shane was talking about. “No, not one.” He was, sort of, lying, but he didn’t have the heart to retreat, not at this point. As long as they played it safe, no one was bound to get hurt. “Good, that’s good. Will you wear those tight jeans tonight, again?” “I think I’ll go for something more comfortable.” “You look good in those.” “Thanks,” Jared said quickly. “So, should I come to get you tonight? I’m just being a good friend, I swear.” “Come by the pub. I’ll be there until later.” “Sure thing. See you, Shane.” “Bye, Jared. Can’t wait to see you.” Jared sighed as he put the phone back into his pocket. It was nice talking to Shane. Everything seemed so simple, so direct with him. Even this friends with benefits thing. Nothing was awkward. Shane was an awesome guy all around, and Jared was happy to have him as a friend. Maybe he could wear the tight jeans again, just for Shane. *** Adrian frowned as it looked like the person on the other end didn’t want to pick up. He was about to give up when Edward’s voice came through. “Hello, Adrian.” “Hi,” Adrian replied, a bit surprised that Edward had picked up the phone, after all. “Is there something the matter?” Edward’s voice was distant. “Are you free tonight? If you are, I’d like you to meet my friends. My best friends.” Adrian spoke quickly as if he was afraid he would be refused. “Meet your friends?” Edward said every word as if he needed the time to understand their meaning. “Yeah. You must be done with your obligations by now.” “Not by far.” Edward’s tone was clipped. Adrian got a bit annoyed. “What is it that you have to do all Sunday? And it’s not until tonight so --” “Are we doing this, Adrian?” “This? What do you mean by this?” “Are we having our first conflict? And over the phone?” Conflict. Not a fight, like between lovers. They weren’t part of adversary debate teams, for fuck’s sake. “No, we’re not.” Adrian needed to chill a little. Getting hot-headed with Edward wasn’t a good idea. He had the power of an iceberg on his side. “I just wanted you to meet my besties.” “Intriguing,” Edward commented. “And what, exactly, would it achieve?” “Achieve? Nothing. They’re just curious about you, and they want to know you.” “Have you told them a lot about me?” “Just that we fuck,” Adrian said. He didn’t like to become vulgar like that, but Edward was getting a bit on his nerves. “I see. So they must have a strange idea of me already.” “No, they don’t. They just know you’re the guy I like.” Shit. Talking about slips of the tongue. Edward laughed. Adrian wanted to strangle him through the phone. “Honest to a fault, aren’t you, Adrian?” “Nah, that’s not it. You know already that I don’t want to take you for moonlight walks.” Adrian was in full damage control now. He and his tongue. “Good. Does this little meeting matter to you, then?” “A lot.” “Say ‘please’.” Edward’s voice dropped to a seductive whisper. Adrian wanted to laugh it off, but he wasn’t in the mood for games. “Please, Edward, come and meet my friends.” Another chuckle followed. “You are disarming, Adrian. Send me the details, and I’ll see what I can do.” “That’s great.” “Is this all?” “Yeah. Wait. About your emergency yesterday, how did it go?” Edward sounded a tad surprised when he replied. “There was an accident involving kitchen equipment. There were quite a few victims, and I can help when there’s a shortage of hands on deck.” Adrian smiled. Edward’s voice warmed considerably when he began talking about his work. He sat on the couch and stretched his legs. “Tell me all about it.” “Are you certain? I might bore you to death with medical terminology, or gross you out with details on human suffering that should never happen to anyone.” “I’m not squeamish. And I’m sure those people were lucky to have you take care of them.” Edward hesitated for a moment. “I suppose I can spare a few minutes and tell you all about it.” “Go ahead,” Adrian encouraged him. “It’s unusual to have non-sex talk,” Edward pointed out. “Not at all,” Adrian replied, determined not to let Edward off the hook. “All right then.” Adrian smiled as Edward began talking. Whoever the guys who had Edward’s attention before had been, they must have been idiots not to get to know the real man. Adrian really wanted that; he wanted to get to know Edward completely. He had a hunch that he would like him even more. *** “Hey,” Shane greeted him and kissed him on both cheeks, the moment he climbed out of the car. Jared replied in kind and kissed back, although he couldn’t completely deny the sudden trepidation he was experiencing when Shane let his hands lingered on his waist. “So, all done here, then?” “Yeah. Now I’m free to hang out with you and the rest of the crew. How’s Mike feeling?” “I think we’ve already talked about Mike over the phone.” “Yeah, but I want to make sure that he doesn’t want to strangle me the moment we see each other.” Shane hooked one arm over Jared’s shoulder. It was just casual, and it didn’t mean anything. “I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Mike’s a sweetheart, really.” Good thing they had to get in the car and Shane let go of him. His reaction toward the simplest touch from Shane was totally out of whack. He needed to rein in his stupid attraction. The point of getting laid like friends was to take the edge off that. So far, it didn’t seem to work so well. Maybe more of the same thing was needed. The attraction would have to wear off if there were no feelings to sustain the sex. With that in mind, Jared climbed behind the wheel. A short look at Shane and his knees were butter. Shane leaned toward him before putting on the safety belt and whispered in his ear. “You really look great in these jeans.” Jared blushed but ignited the engine without a word. Shane was just fooling around. He was too serious to play him, right? *** Adrian and Mike were already at their usual table when they arrived. Mike hurried to embrace and kiss Shane on both cheeks, while Adrian offered him a manly hug. Jared couldn’t be happier to see his best friends taking so well to their new addition to the group. Shane was a swell guy, and he was a great friend. This time, Jared didn’t bother when Shane let his arm hanging on the back of his chair in a gesture of possession. Since Adrian and Mike knew what was going on, Jared was no longer on guard about not letting things become too obvious. The only one not aware of what the others knew, like in a reserve game of musical chairs, was Shane. Somehow, Jared felt that it wasn’t fair, but he had already complicated the situation by becoming fuck buddies with Shane and then telling him to keep it a secret. “Mike, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re not mad at me,” Shane started. “I tend to be the idea guy when no one really needs my ideas.” “I’d say you’re a guy full of smart ideas,” Adrian said with a knowing smirk. Jared threw his friend a cutting look. Adrian met his eyes, and his grin grew bolder. He should have known that Adrian would find the situation too funny to leave alone. Under the table, he stretched one leg and kicked Adrian subtly in the shin. The grin on his friend’s face faded a little. Jared smiled sweetly. Mike hurried to put Shane’s mind at ease. “Don’t worry. I was the one who drank too much and then quit his job. You didn’t hold a gun to my head to do all that. I will assume full responsibility.” “That’s great to hear. I really meant what I said. If you can’t find work fast or just need something to tide you over, I think I can use an IT guy to modernize the equipment I have at the pub.” “Thanks, Shane. You’re awesome.” “You’re welcome. And your boss, he’s a looker.” “Yeah, he is,” Mike said, and let out a dreamy sigh. “Maybe, one day, we’ll all get to sit at a table like this one, with all our boyfriends.” Jared tried to pin down Mike with his eyes, but without success. Mike was already lost in a fantasy world, probably dreaming of Ryan and how it would feel to be with him. He would just let this one pass. It didn’t seem that Shane had picked up on that allusion. Yeah, ’cause he was a straitlaced kind of guy, and he didn’t read anything into words like that. “I called Edward,” Adrian announced. “And he might just drop by,” he added quickly. “Really? Edward the royalty?” Shane asked. “I should have worn better clothes.” Adrian laughed. “I won’t let him look at you too much, Shane. You’re a charmer, and I don’t like competition.” Jared snorted. “Seriously? Since when?” “Since I don’t want other guys to get close to my guy.” “Your guy, huh?” Jared smiled. “Does he know?” Adrian wasn’t easy to faze. “He’ll know, don’t you worry your pretty head about that.” “I can barely wait to meet him,” Mike intervened. “But I should have worn better clothes, as Shane said.” Jared patted Mike’s hand. “Shane was just joking.” “I’m not,” Mike replied. “I don’t want to reflect badly on Adrian.” “I can’t see how that would be possible,” Jared protested. “Plus, if Adrian thinks we’re worthy of meeting His Highness, I don’t see why we should be anything but our true selves. Right, Adrian?” “Sure thing. And this is a test for him, not you, guys.” “A test? Like how? Will you drop him if we don’t like him?” Adrian chuckled. “Let’s not go down that path. But so far, we’ve always gone where he wanted and in his type of environment. I just want to see him away from that. You know, in a real light.” “That’s kind of deep, Adrian. I had no idea you’ve matured so much lately.” “What can I say? I’m the wunderkind.” “Hey, hey, tone it down,” Jared said. “We love you, but we don’t want it to go to your head.” Adrian stuck out his tongue. “Too late.” Jared looked around for a server. They had been in there for at least ten minutes, and no one had cared to take their order. “It’s a bit busy tonight. Should one of us go seek someone and tell them that we’re parched down here?” Shane made a move to stand. “I’ll go.” Adrian intervened. “Not you. Let Jared go. He knows the place.” Jared patted Shane’s thigh. “It’s true. And you’re still new. Let me handle this.” He stood up and searched the place with his eyes. It was packed, all right, so he needed to head over to the bar. *** Adrian waited a few moments for Jared to be out of earshot, and then he grabbed Shane by the shoulder. “Look here, lover boy, we know what your game is,” he said in a low, funny voice. Shane grinned at him. He didn’t seem impressed. “Did Jared tell you everything, then?” Mike whispered, “No, but we kind of figured out, and then he couldn’t deny it. Now, he thinks that you don’t know that we know.” Shane laughed. “Wow. What kind of best friends are you, you sly foxes?” “Isn’t that a case of the pot calling the kettle black? What’s the end game, cowboy?” Adrian increased his hold on Shane’s shoulder. “Haven’t you guys figured it out already? I’m not going to let Jared walk into the sunset with some random guy while I still have a chance.” “You know that he’s bent on this idea that it’s not the right moment and all that.” “Yeah. That’s why I’m leaving him a breather. You know, to discover on his own that he likes me.” “He likes you,” Mike confirmed. Adrian patted Shane on the back. “Stay true to your words, cowboy. If you hurt our friend, it will be hell to pay. Mike here, he bites.” Shane made a face like he was terrified. “I do?” Mike asked. Adrian nudged him playfully. “You do.” “Yeah, totally. I’m like a vicious dog.” “A Chihuahua?” Shane teased. They began laughing. “Don’t worry, guys. I really like Jared. I won’t let him get away from me that easily.” Adrian smiled. That was a man who knew what he wanted, just like him. For the umpteenth time since he had walked in, his eyes traveled to the entrance. It could be that Edward wouldn’t come at all, but he couldn’t stop hoping. The noise in the bar died down a fraction, just as Adrian moved his eyes away. And then, his head turned toward the door on its own accord. Looking perfectly yummy in a casual shirt and khakis, Edward was there. He didn’t need a neon sign above his head. The guys sitting at the tables close to the entrance were gawking at him. Yeah, that was his guy right there. TBC
  6. You're onto something about Mason and his future choices, but he might just find another way to make things complicated Even so, it will be the right path to take, me thinks! Congrats again on your detective skills!
  7. And things will get even faster now! Thank you for commenting along the wait and letting me know your thoughts! I still have a few surprises left ...
  8. Yes, it is something big ... and your heart is safe (Also, congrats on your astute observation from last time, you could see now that you were right - plus, it makes me happy when readers pick up on clues, it's apparently part of writing mystery correctly)
  9. Yes, you remembered correctly! @Cachondeo appears to be the resident detective for this story, and I hope he's happy he was right Thank you for commenting, David!
  10. I'm afraid Billy is involved, but, well, how and why will be revealed over the next chapters! And I had to laugh at that last line! (Rhys was held in a hospital before)
  11. Hmm, hmm, that's quite the theory there ... more about that, next time!
  12. No longer that much of a secret, isn't it? But the next question is just as important ... what does the SD card contain? And Billy, as I told Wes, he's make an appearance next time.
  13. Hmm, where is Billy ... indeed! Well, you'll learn next time, and oh, boy, it will be quite an appearance! Hopefully, the surprise will be worth the wait!
  14. It appears that's a consensus, lol!
  15. Chapter Twenty-Two – A Little Mouse In A Too Big House His calls to Rhys’s phone went unanswered. Was Rhys upset about being left alone? Or did he think that Mason could have gone by himself to see Ary? “We’re going to the studio,” Mason said firmly. Toby was on his heels. “Why do I have a nasty feeling that I shouldn’t have left Rhys alone?” he murmured. He wasn’t the only one to think that, but it didn’t serve to act all paranoid now. Rhys must have left by himself to question Ary about that awful night; it was the only logical thing to believe. As for why he didn’t pick up, there could be plenty of explanations, too. So why was his heart in his throat as he walked out of his building? He wasn’t even three steps out into the street when his phone went off. Hurriedly, he pulled the phone out of his suit jacket, hoping to hear Rhys’s melodic voice on the other end. Instead, a strange metallic voice began, “Mason Knight, we have something you want.” “Who is this?” Whoever the caller was, he was using a voice modifier of sorts. “Don’t waste precious time for both of us. You, too, have something we want.” “Where is Rhys?” Mason felt the muscles in his legs stiffening. “Don’t insult our intelligence by expecting an answer.” Mason stopped, no longer capable of walking. By his side, Toby was getting restless, asking questions, but he just tuned him out, too afraid of missing one word of the conversation with the mysterious caller. “What do you want?” he asked directly. “That’s more like it.” The metallic voice didn’t change its pattern, but Mason could swear he could read satisfaction in it. “It’s not much. Just a certain small object that got lost, somehow.” Mason instantly knew what that was. “I don’t have it.” His heart was in his throat, but his voice was blunt. “Ah. Now, now, this is no way to start a negotiation. The person concerned doesn’t have it on him. He must have given it to you.” “You’re wrong,” Mason said, his blood curdling to a stop in his veins. “You should ask the police where that is. They had it for a long time.” “It appears that we need to educate you, Mason Knight.” Something was irking in how the caller used his name. And how he was talking in the name of another or others. “The police never had it.” “I don’t have it, either.” There was a pause on the other end. “That complicates the situation, then. Find the object, or you’ll never see the person in question again.” “Wait,” Mason shouted, but the line went dead. “What is going on?” Toby jerked his immaterial body around, in an acute state of agitation. “Where is Rhys? Who has him?” “I have no idea,” Mason mumbled. “How can you not?” Mason no longer cared that people on the street looked at him like he was some sort of lunatic talking to himself. “Whoever that was, it could be a pro. Which means that he was hired by someone else.” Toby ran his hands through his hair and pulled at it. There was no way he could feel pain. “I shouldn’t have left Rhys alone,” he said. “I had already told you where Ary lives. I failed him.” “We failed him,” Mason said through his teeth. “Why do I get the feeling that it’s that asshole Levine Goldman behind all this?” Usually, he wasn’t the type to let out what he was thinking. But, this time, the thought hit him with impossible clarity. Rhys disappearing the moment Mason had left him alone. Renzo’s words about being in danger and Toby’s warnings. A pro calling to stall him from searching aimlessly. Only a master of strategy and means could be behind all that. “What if it’s just a prank?” Toby interrupted his train of thought. “A prank?” “Yeah. How did that guy on the phone sound?” “Like a machine,” Mason replied. “He evidently used specialized software for that.” “And? By what I heard during these weeks being a ghost, it looks like everyone has access to advanced technology.” Mason stopped. It annoyed him that Toby could be right. He set his jaw hard. “You forget one thing that applies to any crime. What would be the motive?” Toby’s shoulders slumped in defeat. It was easy to tell that he was trying to stay hopeful. “I know,” he said suddenly. “I’ll go and check that asshole’s palace for signs of Rhys.” “He’s a rich asshole. He could keep Rhys anywhere. And don’t take everything I say like it’s set in stone. I could be wrong. We still have no idea why Levine would be involved. There’s a lack of motive here, too.” Toby grimaced. “The asshole tried to seduce Rhys, although he’s not into men. He’s hiding something.” Mason ran his hands over his face and looked around. For a long time, he hadn’t felt as confused and lost as he was now. It wouldn’t serve to remain stuck like that. A decision formed in his mind. “Toby, you go search Levine’s place. I will go see Ary. If there is something he knows, now it’s a good time for him to spill the beans.” “On it,” Toby said shortly. “Hey, man, you okay?” It was a tad funny to have a ghost worrying over him like that. “Don’t worry about me,” he said automatically. “Too late.” Toby smiled and made a move as if he wanted to punch Mason’s arm in a friendly gesture. “Just go. We don’t have time to lose.” It was just as funny to feel moved by that simple thing, too. *** Dirk, the producer, came to talk to him, as Mason argued with an assistant at the door he hadn’t seen the last time he had been there. “It’s all right,” Dirk said, and the assistant immediately backed down. “You’re one of Rhys’s bodyguards, right?” Someone didn’t appear to have been brought up to date about the changes. Mason nodded shortly. “I’m here to see Ary.” “He’s not here.” “What do you mean, he’s not here?” Mason could feel his temper flaring and didn’t have the means to stop it. “Didn’t he come to work today?” “He did. Then he got a phone call and left in a big hurry.” “A phone call? From whom?” Dirk examined him with curious eyes. “Funny that you don’t know. By what I could tell, it was Rhys calling. What, he ran away on you or something? Celebrities,” he added with a shrug. “Who knows what goes through their heads?” Mason pinched the bridge of his nose hard. So Rhys had managed to call Ary before being kidnapped? And where had Ary hurried off to? “Did he say where he was going?” Dirk shook his head. “I asked. But I didn’t even manage to warn him that he’d get fired if he took off like that, he was that fast. Kind of the thing that makes him such a good runner.” “Thanks,” Mason said curtly. “You’re welcome. Hey, if you see Rhys, tell him that I’m still waiting for a new piece. He promised.” “Sure thing,” Mason replied, now eager to leave. He had no clue what to do next, but he had no time for idle chatter. He bid Dirk farewell and was out in the street again. Could it be that Rhys had asked Ary to meet him somewhere? But where? He paced the sidewalk, unsure of what direction to take. Not a good time for indecision. If there was one person capable of pulling strings and powerful enough to go against Levine Goldman, his name was already known to Mason. He stared at the phone for a while; although he hadn’t cared at the time, Renzo had insisted that both he and Billy had his contact details the first time they had met. Now, they came in handy. *** “Do you prefer this place in particular?” Mason asked Renzo, the moment he was invited to step inside Dreamland. There was little light inside the club during the day, as he had noticed the first time he had seen Renzo alone. “I told you. Something irks me about it, so I like to keep an eye on it. Plus, as you learned the last time you were here, I am directly interested in clarifying this situation. Are you telling me that someone kidnapped Rhys?” Mason was well aware that he couldn’t keep things hidden if he wanted Renzo’s help. As shortly as possible, he explained the missing micro SD card and some other details he had kept hidden, the main exception being that he could see Toby’s ghost and communicate with him. Now wasn’t the time to be put in a straitjacket. They were in Renzo’s office, and the flickering lights of the screens gave the room an unnatural feel. As he explained the situation, Renzo’s eyes moved to them once in a while. Suddenly, he straightened up, and a sly smile appeared on his face. “Well, well, well.” Mason stopped and stared at the screens, too, until he noticed movement in one of them. “If it isn’t a little mouse in a too big house for him,” Renzo commented. They stood up at the same time. When they reached the door, Renzo placed one finger against his lips and then opened the door slowly. Hunched over one of the exhibits in the large hallway, Ary was busy fiddling with something, unaware that he was being watched and about to be caught in the act. Mason didn’t have time to react. Renzo moved stealthily, but fast, his steps muffled by the thick rug. He caught Ary’s arm as he lifted the lid from the exhibit in front of him. “You little thief!” Ary screamed and let go of the object in his hands. The glass fell and caught a corner, breaking into little pieces. *** Ary was shaking, even after taking two sips from the whiskey tumbler in his hand, at Renzo’s insistence. He had been pushed into a chair, and Renzo was towering over him like an inquisitor bent on getting the truth out of his victim. Mason watched everything, without saying a word. There were so many things he wanted to ask, but he was scared Ary would clam up if he jumped into that interrogation, too. They didn’t have time for that. Rhys’s life could be at stake. Mason let that thought slide; if he started to worry, really worry, he would be lost. And Rhys needed him, wits and all in their rightful places, not broken into a million little pieces. “So,” Renzo began. “Care to enlighten us what were you doing, little mouse?” Ary shot Renzo a dirty look over the glass he held with both hands as if his life depended on it. “My name is Ary.” Renzo waved as if that detail didn’t concern him. “What were you trying to steal?” Ary pursed his lips and stared down stubbornly. Renzo grabbed his chin and forced him to look up. Mason blinked a few times; there was something in how Ary opened his lips slightly and licked them, and how Renzo’s fingers softened their grip. “Ary, please,” he intervened, hoping his voice wasn’t already over the edge. “I--” Ary started and swallowed hard. Mason exchanged a quick look with the boy’s tormentor, and Renzo stepped away. Ary looked down and started sobbing. Renzo’s voice was no longer as harsh as earlier. “Just talk. How did you gain access in the hallway here right now?” Ary seemed to calm down a fraction. “I saw you punching in the code that night.” Nobody in the room had to ask what night that was. “Congrats on your attention to detail,” Renzo replied, rather vexed. “I would have thought my security measures to be unbreakable.” “Who doesn’t change a password once in a while?” Ary shot back at him. That animosity hid something else. “Apparently, me,” Renzo said with a sigh. “Now, tell me, what did you want with that exhibit?” Ary looked down again. “That cue stick … the one underneath,” he spoke so softly Mason had to lean forward to hear him, “that killed Toby.” Renzo let out a curse and hurried into the hallway. He came back into the room with the respective object held by the end of its handle wrapped gingerly in an expensive handkerchief. “This was used to kill Toby?” he asked. Ary stole a brief look at the cue stick and nodded. “Ha, go figure. Now let’s not waste any more time. Why did you whack Toby with my seventeenth century billiard mace, Ary?” So that was how that thing was called. Mason could feel his fingers turning numb from digging his nails into the leather sofa on which he sat with much difficulty. “I didn’t!” Ary protested. “It doesn’t serve to be a liar. You’ve been caught already,” Renzo chided him. “I bet your fingerprints are all over it.” Ary bit his bottom lip hard. “Yeah. That’s the problem. But I didn’t kill Toby. And that’s not yours.” Renzo placed the billiard mace on his desk and observed it for a few moments. Mason stood up, no longer capable of standing still. His stomach sank as he noticed the few dark stains on the curved end. It could have been why Toby had been drawn to look at that when they had been there the last time. Now he knew why those stains had stood up to him, but that didn’t make him feel any better. It was a good thing that he had let Toby go check on Levine’s place. “It’s not mine,” Renzo admitted, with something akin to surprise in his voice. “How do you know?” Mason asked. “I like to be able to identify the things I own, especially when they are deemed to have a value of sorts,” Renzo explained without giving away much. “As far as I can tell, indeed, this doesn’t belong to me. Plus, it’s a slightly different model.” Mason turned toward Ary. “Ary, Rhys is missing,” he said. It was getting harder to control his voice. So many things were at stake now. “I know. I mean, I heard him on the phone --” Ary stopped and sobbed again. “I knew they must be coming after me, too and --” Mason was next to Ary in a heartbeat. He caught his arm, reining in hard his temptation to shake him. “What do you mean, you heard him?” “And who are they?” Renzo added. “Speak up, little mouse. As you can see, no one here is in the mood to play.” Ary made himself little into the chair. Mason had managed to make the whiskey spill from his glass, so he let go of the boy’s arm, embarrassed by his rashness. Renzo took the glass from Ary’s hand and put it on the table. “He called me this morning because he wanted us to talk about Toby. I had a hunch he knew something more than before and I was just about to ask him when I heard him ... Something happened, and there was a muffled sound like people struggling, and the phone went dead. I tried to call again, but Rhys didn’t answer.” Mason nodded. That confirmed his fears, but there was no point in denying them. He let out a deep exhale. “Ary, please tell us what happened that night.” “I didn’t kill Toby,” Ary said and sobbed again. “We believe you,” Mason replied. “We do?” Renzo seemed surprised. Mason looked curtly at him. “If Ary is the one behind Toby’s murder, who kidnapped Rhys and to what end? Things don’t add up.” Renzo nodded one time, brusquely. “The little mouse still needs to confess to what he was doing that night.” Ary wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve cuffs. “I went to talk to Toby ... I suspected him to have gone outside, to get a bit of fresh air --” “What did you want to talk to him about?” Mason wished silently for Renzo to shut the fuck up for a moment. That wasn’t relevant. Ary rubbed his closed fists together. He looked even smaller and more vulnerable than usual, drowned in his large clothes. “I wanted to ask him why he was fighting with Rhys so much.” “So that you could sweep in and steal Toby from Rhys?” Why the hell did Renzo sound like a scorned lover? Someone had to tell the guy he sucked as an interrogator. “No.” Ary scowled. “I had already decided that there was no room for me between them. I wanted them to make up and things to be the same again. They were yelling at each other, and I was losing them both.” Like a kid, helpless while watching his parents tearing their family apart. “Ary, what happened when you went after Toby?” Mason placed a sympathetic hand on Ary’s shoulder. “We need to know. It’s important. Rhys --” he swallowed his words, not wanting to let his worries speak for himself. Ary looked down and fidgeted. “I didn’t see him at first. I almost stepped on him, and I thought he had passed out, but ... he wasn’t moving. I checked on him and then I saw ... the blood. I reached for his neck, to see if he had a pulse ... my mom used to be a nurse ... and I froze when there was nothing. I was about to pull my phone to call for an ambulance, but ... I heard a noise ... it was a car engine. And I saw a car at the end of the alley.” Silence followed. “Did you recognize the car, Ary?” Mason asked, measuring his words carefully. Ary nodded. “It was an expensive limo. Not the kind you see everywhere.” As the boy’s lips moved, Mason didn’t even need to hear the words because he knew he was right. It felt as if he had been right all along, but it was a different thing to have a confirmation of all his suspicions. “That son of a bitch,” Renzo said with disgust. Mason rubbed his forehead. Even knowing that Levine must have been at the murder scene that night wasn’t enough; that feeling that he was missing something came back in full force. “Are you sure it was Levine’s car?” Ary nodded. “It felt as if that car was leaving in a hurry. Then I noticed the ... stick thing.” “I’m willing to bet that Levine’s fingerprints are all over it,” Renzo said. “But why would he leave such evidence behind?” Mason murmured. “Beats me,” Renzo said. “We need to have the murder weapon checked for fingerprints.” “You cannot go to the police with it,” Ary said. He began to fidget again. “I grabbed it, so my fingerprints are there, too.” “You don’t worry about that, little mouse,” Renzo replied. “I have my ways that don’t involve the police.” “How did you manage to hide it here?” Mason asked. “Ah, yes, and what the hell happened to my vintage piece?” “You tell everyone they are replicas,” Ary said petulantly. “Some are,” Renzo replied and shrugged. Ary stared at his closed fists. They were so small; Mason felt pity. “I took it inside. I knew now that someone must have killed Toby. I was scared ... because I knew where I had seen that kind of thing before. So I stayed clear of the cameras and walked into the hallway here, expecting one of the cue sticks to be missing. But they were both here. It took me a second to decide to replace one of them ... The one I took, I just threw it in one of the bins the cleaners use. And I picked it with my wrapped sleeve, like this,” he explained. “That is just great,” Renzo commented, but without a bite. “The police frisked everyone,” Mason tried to stay on track. “Could it be that they didn’t find that particular object thrown by Ary? And how about them checking this area?” “They weren’t allowed here,” Renzo said promptly. “Strangely enough, they didn’t insist.” Mason ran his hands through his hair. “They just thought someone would have it.” “I suppose,” Renzo confirmed. “Ary, please forgive me for asking this, but why did you hide it?” Ary trembled and wrapped his arms around himself. “I knew it was important. They took Rhys in, and I thought I should take it to the police. But then I would have had to talk about what I saw ... And my fingerprints had to be everywhere ... So I was relieved when they let Rhys go. I just wanted to forget about it.” “Did you try to break in and steal it before today?” Renzo asked. Ary shook his head. “No, this is the first time I’ve stepped foot in here since that night. And only because I thought the people who took Rhys must be after me, too.” He looked drained as he said the last words. Mason pondered for a few moments. “If Levine is involved, he’ll make another move soon. Whoever called me, he will call again.” “Who called you?” Ary asked. His teeth were clattering now, after the rush of adrenaline from earlier. “We don’t know right now. Renzo, do you think you could take care of Ary?” “I don’t want to stay here,” Ary protested. “We won’t be cooped up in here all day,” Renzo said. “You’ll come with me to my house.” “I don’t want to.” Ary pouted like a child. “Ary,” Mason said gently, “you’re safe with Renzo. If anyone catches whiff of what you did, you could be in real danger.” He didn’t want to make Ary feel more scared than he already was, but there was no other reasonable choice. “You’ll come with me, little mouse, and that’s final,” Renzo said. “I can offer you five different types of cheese.” “Carefully placed into a trap?” Ary shot back. Mason would have laughed if he hadn’t been overwrought with worry. “What will you do?” Renzo asked and stared at him with questioning eyes. “I will try to find the missing card from Toby’s phone. The caller was sure Rhys should have it. As I already told you, he was also confident that the police hadn’t found it.” “Toby must have hidden it,” Renzo confirmed his guesses. “But where will you search for it?” “I don’t know yet. I’ll have to think.” “You could do the thinking at my house. You’re invited.” “No. I don’t want whoever is behind this to become suddenly shy about contacting me. I’m not sure what good I did, if any, by coming here.” “Don’t be hard on yourself,” Renzo told him. “Keep in touch. I’ll see about the fingerprints in the meantime. And if that fucker calls --” “I know, I know,” Mason said in a hurry. “And he will call again,” he added with conviction. There was one thing Renzo and no one else had any idea about. His trump card was a ghost, and as weird as that sounded, Toby was his best bet in figuring out how to save Rhys. After all, who else could go through walls and have eyes everywhere? *** He was barely back at his apartment when Toby startled him, like usual, without any introductions. “He has Rhys, Mason.” He turned on his heels. “At his house?” Toby nodded gravely. “He keeps him in a room on the uppermost floor. I think he … drugged him or something. There was an IV drip stuck in Rhys’s arm, and he looked dead to the world.” Mason felt the rush of adrenaline coursing through his veins, but tightened his hands into fists to rein it in. What could he do? Rush into Levine’s house? He had a hunch he wouldn’t be allowed to cross the threshold, let alone investigate the place. Even more, he would be removed by force if Levine so decided. Being rash was no strategy. “Is there someone there with him?” “That maid, Anita,” Toby confirmed. “She sat by the bed with a book in her hand as if she was taking care of a sick person. The whole thing gives me the willies, Mason. That room looks like it belongs in a hospital or a hospice.” “We need to figure out a way to get inside,” Mason said, his lips set in a straight line. He began pacing the room, thoughts curled like snakes inside his mind. Toby followed him with his eyes but said nothing. “He has no reason to harm him,” Toby said in a meek voice. “Not before getting what he wants.” Mason laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling. To think straight, he needed to clear his head. He touched the place on his right where Rhys had slept that morning, safe and sound. No bigger failure on his part existed. All his promises had been empty, nothing but words. As he moved his head, Mason noticed Rhys’s pendant he had left on the nightstand that morning. He reached for it, in a futile hope that something of its owner lingered with it. He wrapped the chain around his fist and held the pendant tightly until he felt the stone coming undone from its socket. Now he had gone and ruined it completely. He opened his palm, and his eyes grew wide. “Clutched in your fist,” he murmured, his entire body overcome by a dark, deep chill. TBC
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