Was attraction a tangible thing? Mason’s mind was a swirl of thoughts, none of each making any sense. He didn’t dare to look at Rhys, not even for one second, afraid that what his heart held true would burst through. With a sigh, he adjusted his position on the backseat, aware that Billy could spy on them to his heart’s content on the rearview mirror. Rhys placed a hand on his knee. Despite his determination to keep it together, Mason stared at the elegant long fingers. Rhys Harmony was beautiful, delicate. And also, not for him, as he needed to recall and remind himself over and over.
“Don’t tell me you’re nervous, Arnie,” Rhys teased him. He moved and kept his face close to Mason’s, blowing warm air on his cheek. “It’s nothing but a boring dinner. I promise that I’ll come up with something so that we can all leave early. I like this as little as you if not less.” The hand on Mason’s knee squeezed. “I have something important to look forward to, after all.”
Damn. Between a rock and a hard place. If he escaped unburned tonight, it would be a miracle. Mason closed his eyes. Rhys stole a quick kiss, taking him by surprise. “There is no way I would forget. You’re mine.”
“Yours?” Mason needed to put some distance between them. “Like a toy?” The soft press of Rhys’s lips on his was fading already, but its memory was stubborn.
“No. Nothing like that.” There was a note of determination present, suddenly. “All my life, I’ve been one man’s only.”
“You’re still his.” It was lame to hang on to Toby’s memory to push Rhys away, but he had to keep things real. Whatever was happening to them, Mason had no reason to believe that it would be anything but fleeting. With each minute, each turn of the car wheels, they were closer to a place that was much more familiar to Rhys than it would ever be to the likes of him.
“That’s no reason for you to feel insecure,” Rhys replied as if he had just read his thoughts. “I’ll always be his.”
That was surprisingly honest. Mason appreciated it. “We’re almost there.” He had said the words matter-of-factly. Billy was pulling the car through the massive metal gates guarding a gigantic property. Toby had been right. Levine Goldman lived in a palace. The driveway was crowded by expensive vehicles, and the limousine they were in appeared shabby by comparison.
Rhys straightened Mason’s tie and kept his hand there for a moment. “I won’t give you away. Levine has a knack for taking enjoyment out of everything I do. That’s why I got good at hiding. Very good.”
Mason didn’t miss the playful note at the end. Levine was a dangerous man, and Rhys had no idea. That made his mission difficult in more ways than one. If he failed, Rhys would remain alone and exposed to who knew what risks. And that, that was something Mason couldn’t live with.
Maybe it was better for Rhys to remain unknowing of whatever shady business Levine ran in his spare time. The less he knew, the better. With that thought in mind, Mason strengthened his resolve. “I suppose Billy and I will have to mingle with the help.”
Rhys grimaced. “Unfortunately for me. I’m sure I’d have a lot more fun with you two than with this whole party.” He gestured at the crowd of well-dressed people rushing up the grand marble staircase.
“Try to have fun,” Mason said and squeezed Rhys’s hand for a moment.
“For you, I’ll try.” Rhys offered him a broad smile.
A short pang gripped his chest. Maybe he would have fun, and Mason’s prophecies would all come to life. Regardless of that, Mason had a mission at hand, and he would commit to it; after all, he didn’t want to remain stuck with a ghost haunting him, neither with dreams of keeping the man sitting so close right now.
“I’ll make sure you two have everything you need. The food at these parties is pretty great.”
“Oh, no, really?” Billy sounded disappointed. “And I stuffed myself at home because Arnie said so.”
“You had a healthy early dinner,” Mason intervened. “We couldn’t know about the food.” Great. Now he sounded like a complete idiot.
“That roasted chicken was pretty great,” Billy said. “You’re a great homecook, Arnie. But I think there is still enough room.” He patted his belly in demonstration.
Mason shook his head and hid a smile. “Po, just hurry and keep the door for Rhys. If you do your job well, maybe I’ll let you stuff your face again.”
Billy snickered. “That’s good motivation.”
“You know, guys, I feel pretty guilty for letting you come with me tonight. This isn’t me, this world.” Rhys looked out the car window.
Mason chose not to say anything. There was nostalgia in those words. But the world kept pushing and pushing, and no one could return to what they had before. Only forward one could walk, with no other way out but through.
“We’re here because we care,” Billy offered courteously and hurried out of the car.
That was their cue. Mason got out, as well, and waited for Rhys to walk in front. He stopped Billy in time from walking side by side with Rhys. As the protocol required, he fell in step, but slightly behind Rhys, and made a small sign for Billy to follow his example.
“Can you believe this place?” Billy expressed his wonder.
By force of habit, Mason looked around, scanning the other guests for signs of ill intent. He had no time to admire Levine’s palace. If possible, he hoped to avoid the man the entire evening.
“You, guys, are finally here.” Toby greeted him, materializing from the crowd.
Mason set his eyes on him. Toby grinned and shrugged. Then, he imitated pulling a zipper over his mouth. What did you know? Ghosts could be trained, too.
Just as some guests left their coats at the door, in the arms of dutiful servants who appeared to have no other purpose but that, Billy and Mason remained behind. Rhys offered them an apologetic look over his shoulder as he was soon approached by people who expressed, in the same well crafted, empty words, their delight at seeing him again.
A servant came and guided Billy and Mason to an area assigned to various types of personnel. Even that was opulent, way beyond the means of the people gathered there. Most were professional chauffeurs, Mason noticed. He and Billy seemed to be the only bodyguards; apparently, Levine’s guests didn’t need security. They thought they were safe.
With a small grimace, Mason observed the lavish buffet offered to the hired help. Impressed by their surroundings, those present engaged in whispered conversation. The double doors opened into a large hallway, and they could observe how the rich partied, but from a safe distance.
Mason allowed his eyes to wander, searching for a certain someone. Rhys was leaning, allowing Levine to kiss both his cheeks. From that distance, he couldn’t read Rhys’s face, and a pang of jealousy punished him for his curiosity. There was a sizeable group of sycophants around the host and his special guest. Rhys moved away from Levine, although the master of the house still held one hand on his arm. From where he was, Mason observed the scene with keen eyes. It could be a trick of the light projected downward by large crystal chandeliers, but Levine’s hand hooked into Rhys appeared like a twisted gnarly tree branch, a contrast against the white fabric. If the decor changed into an evil forest, all of a sudden, Mason wouldn’t be surprised.
“Mason, you have to try this. It’s to die for,” Billy interrupted his train of thought.
Reluctantly, he moved his eyes away from Rhys. For tonight, Rhys had to fend off for himself to the best of his abilities. Mason needed to work on a different front. He shook his head, denying the delicious-looking canapés pushed under his eyes by Billy. “You can have it all. And feel free to mingle. Don’t let me stop you enjoy your evening at the palace.” He was aware of the insincere smile stretching his lips. As soon as possible, he needed to make himself scarce, and that without Billy noticing.
“I don’t know anyone here. But I know you, partner,” Billy said playfully and pressed one fist into Mason’s bicep.
“I’m afraid I’m not good company tonight.”
Billy looked over to the large room housing the guests. “Levine might be into Rhys, but it’s not the other way around. You have nothing to worry about.”
Billy had guessed right, but that didn’t mean that Mason was willing to let him know it. “It’s not that,” he said somewhat aggressively. Billy threw him a curious look. Mason needed to make sure Billy couldn’t guess he intended to carry a little bit of exploration of the place. “It’s just my stomach,” he added, cursing at himself for opting for Toby’s stupid idea. “I’ll go look for a bathroom in this place.” He began walking right at that moment, to prevent Billy from trying to help.
Toby gestured for him from a corner of the room, and he walked in that direction.
“I’ll go ahead to check and you follow,” Toby said.
Without a word, Mason moved behind the ghost. There was a slim chance of finding evidence of conspicuous activity just lying around, but it was worth trying. He was shooting darts in the dark, and there was no way of knowing where they would land. For now, it was all he had.
He walked after Toby through a side door into a long hallway. The plush carpet muffled his steps, and the air was cooler. Wall lights illuminated the hall, and mirrors and small statues were adorning it. It felt like walking through a museum, only that there were no paintings on the walls, only reflections of his own. Mason could read tension and worry in his eyes as he glanced at one of them, and then decided against doing it again. Dwelling on feelings was useless; unless it was some gut instinct warning him of dangers ahead, Mason didn’t need them.
Toby peaked from behind a corner. “All clear.”
Mason hurried. With so many personnel moving to and fro, it was a far shot to reach Levine’s study without stumbling over someone. He and Toby needed to act quickly.
The place was a labyrinth. Mason was thankful for having his own Ariadne’s thread guiding him through that dangerous maze. The mirrors were soon replaced by old paintings of people who must have lived centuries ago by headdresses and attire. Their dead eyes followed him. A small shiver coursed down his spine, ice-cold, but Mason looked ahead and followed Toby without paying any mind to the lifeless guardians.
Finally, they were out in a larger enclosure, and Toby gestured for him to approach a door. It looked like he needed to punch in a code to go through. With his eyes, Mason asked Toby. The ghost leaned in and whispered a four-digit code.
There was no hesitation, and no way back. If he got caught now, Rhys would be on his own. The only solace would be Billy remaining behind to take care of him, but Mason couldn’t hope that Levine would keep half of the bodyguard team, given how his trust was being trampled right now.
Mason didn’t have time for moral dilemmas. Levine was a scumbag, and if he weren’t at fault at all, that would be for the best. Given his wealth and position, he was a redoubtable adversary. Mason could deal with smaller challenges.
He was in. Making sure not to make any noise, he closed the door behind him and began to scan the room. He ignored the obvious lavishness of the room and headed to the desk. A first tentative let him know that the drawer indicated by Toby was under lock and key.
“Sorry, I have no idea how you could open it,” Toby said. “The asshole must have the key.”
“No sweat. You stay on watch. I’ll see what I can find.”
Toby nodded and disappeared. Mason began methodically, taking the folders on the desk one by one, browsing through them, and placing them back the way they were. They appeared to be business-related, and while it was strange for Levine to have so many official documents in hard copies lying around, they didn’t seem suspicious. Plus, Mason had no idea what he was looking for.
“Shit, man. He’s coming,” Toby warned him.
Mason felt a flush of ice down his back. His eyes scanned the room for a proper hiding place. He opted to sneak behind the heavy curtain and squeeze in so that his shoes couldn’t be seen. Damn it, Toby, what part of being on watch didn’t you get? He kept silent, despite his sudden frustration.
The door opened, and Mason heard feminine giggles. Toby stuck his head through the curtain. Mason grimaced. Good thing he had years of training by his side or a situation like that would have made him give himself away.
“The scumbag is with some chick,” Toby stated the obvious.
Mason held his breath and listened.
“Oh, Levine, you naughty,” a woman’s voice teased. “Do you want a blowjob in your oval office?”
“I’d like to think this place puts the presidential office to shame,” Levine replied in a haughty tone.
Flexing your money much, asshole? You must be compensating for something. Mason hoped Levine would get his blowjob fast so that he could get away from that place, even empty-handed.
“It certainly does,” the woman confirmed in a flattering tone.
It looked like Levine wasn’t keen on conversation, as the sounds that followed left little room for imagination.
“Damn, this girl is like a vacuum cleaner. I suppose that’s why it’s called a job,” Toby commented. “You gotta make it blow, and work hard at it, too.”
Mason grimaced. He could do without the visuals. The noises were self-explanatory. He let a controlled exhale escape as a grunt announced that Levine was done. Good. It hadn’t taken him long.
“Levine, what’s with the rumors?” It appeared as if the woman was busy with the cleanup by the slurping sounds Mason could still hear. “Are you fucking Rhys Harmony?”
“And if I am?” Levine sounded as cold as a fish. This guy probably thought that getting blowjobs was a chore, and he seemed impatient to get it over with.
The woman laughed. “Nothing. Just that I wouldn’t mind a threesome. I could share this with him. Gay guys are awesome at giving head, or so I’ve heard. Plus, he’s so beautiful. I’d love to kiss him.”
“That won’t happen,” Levine said, and his voice carried a sort of finality.
It looked like the woman got the hint, eventually. A rustling of clothes announced that Levine was pulling up his pants.
“You’re so not fun.” The woman seemed miffed, and for all the right reasons. Sucking off that dead fish couldn’t have been pleasant.
“But this is.”
Mason had a hunch what that could be.
“He’s paying her,” Toby let him know.
“Yes, it is,” the woman replied, this time appeased. “But let me know if you ever change your mind. I’d fuck Rhys Harmony, given the chance,” she added.
“No one gets to fuck him,” Levine said in the same cold voice.
“Wow, so possessive.” The woman laughed, but it appeared as she was the one ready to get out of there. “Well, I’ll head back. Coming?”
“Don’t be absurd, dear. I can’t be seen around you. You have a reputation.”
The woman fell silent, and Mason could read the room, even without seeing anything.
“Man, she’s pissed.” Toby confirmed his guess.
“Right,” the woman said tersely. “Let me give you some advice, Levine dear.” Each of her words was sharp like a knife. “It’s a bit too late to play the coming out card. No one would believe you.”
The immediate reply was a harsh laugh. “I plan nothing of the kind.”
“Really? Then what business do you have fucking a beautiful gay boy?”
“He’s twenty-eight, so hardly a boy. And dear,” Levine’s voice dropped to a sugary note, “when you’re me, you can fuck whoever the fuck you want. Also, you can fuck over whoever you want. All clear?”
Mason could read a threat when he heard it. Apparently, the woman could, too.
“No need to get your panties in a twist,” she replied and forced out a laugh. “Thank you for this. And you know where to find me.”
Mason heard the door opening and closing but didn’t move. Levine must have stayed behind, as implied from the earlier conversation. That meant that he needed to double his vigilance. Levine couldn’t catch a whiff of him being there, or all would be over.
Toby supplied him with information on what was going on. “He’s sitting at his desk. I think he’s going to call someone, on that hidden phone.”
“Where do we stand?” Levine asked in a commandeering tone, without wasting any time to greet the person he was calling. “Still nothing? It’s impossible. Flamboyant sissies like him -- that’s not your concern. I want results.”
Mason frowned. He had heard that phrase before, spoken by the same scumbag. That first time when he had met Levine. But what could be so important that Levine had had to take a call on an insecure line, that time? By what Mason could recall, the scumbag had talked on his mobile phone, the one he carried with him. Unless sometimes he took the secret phone with him.
It was difficult to remember details.
“Man, don’t breathe,” Toby warned him. “He’s staring right at the spot where you’re standing right now.”
Now that was just fucking great. Toby couldn’t help him if anything happened.
“Oh, fuck, he’s standing.” Toby’s voice was alarmed.
Mason braced for impact. No reasonable explanation would save him. Calmly, he raised both arms and placed his hands less than an inch away from the heavy curtain. Where wits failed, muscles had to do. He could only hope that the curtain would come undone as he needed for what he had in mind.
“Don’t tell me to fucking calm down,” Levine hissed.
“Phew, he turned away,” Toby said.
Mason closed his eyes for a second and focused on his breathing.
“Well, that means that I’ll have to fuck the truth out of him, right?” Levine’s voice was full of disdain. “Oh, don’t worry. He knows it. It has to be locked in his messed up brain. You’re doubting my abilities? He’s gagging for a cock in his life. A daddy, too.” Levine laughed. “His real one used to beat the shit out of him and lock him in the basement. I am a god, compared to that. His savior.”
A tick in his jaw warned Mason that he got a bit too worked up over that conversation. There was no doubt Levine was talking about Rhys. All those painful details were needed, too. It could be that was why Rhys couldn’t stand the dark. How old had he been when mistreated that badly? Mason ordered his heart to stop hurting. There was no time for that. Now he had all the more reason to remain unseen by Levine and do everything in his power to protect Rhys.
It appeared that the conversation was over. Mason heard Levine opening and closing the desk drawer and then walking out of the room. He waited, his heart beating wildly. Now wasn’t the moment for a mistake.
“The coast is clear,” Toby announced him.
“Are you sure?” Mason whispered. “Check again. I almost got caught.”
Toby said nothing but returned after a few seconds. “No one in sight. He went back to the party.”
Mason felt out a breath and then began moving. His leg muscles cramped from how tense he had been.
“Do you think he was talking about Rhys?” Toby asked.
Mason nodded gravely.
“What truth does he want to fuck out of Rhys?”
Mason shrugged. That was the crucial question.
“You have to warn Rhys about this creep.”
Didn’t he know it? Of course, that was on the first order of business, only that he needed to do it cleverly so that Rhys wouldn’t become suspicious of him, instead. After all, Mason couldn’t tell him that he was paired with Toby and running a crazy investigation of their own. At some point, the entire thing had turned from trying to figure out who had killed Toby into protecting Rhys. Regardless of how Toby couldn’t remember Rhys, Mason had a hunch that they were in accord over this.
“We have to find out what this guy wants from Rhys.”
“We?” Mason couldn’t stop as he walked back to the room he had come from. The paintings, the mirrors, flew by him. “I’m the only one putting my ass on the line here.”
“If I had one still, I’d put it, too,” Toby replied. “For Rhys.”
It was just like he had thought. Mason was sure Toby must have loved Rhys very much. It didn’t matter that the memories weren’t there anymore, or just hidden somewhere deep inside. Toby knew what was right.
“Are you all right, chief?” Billy appeared next to him, the moment he set foot in the room. “You’ve been gone a lot.”
Mason looked at Billy with suffering eyes. “I got it pretty bad.”
Billy looked genuinely worried, and Mason felt guilty, but there was no helping it. “We could go home. Rhys won’t mind.”
“And leave him, here, alone?” Mason protested right away.
Billy smiled. “It might not have been my boyhood dream to become a bodyguard, Mason, but I’m starting to think that it could have been yours.”
All he had ever wanted was to be strong, capable of protecting himself against his world. But Billy was right, and Mason couldn’t deny it. The people he cared for, he wanted to hold them in his arms away from harm, for all eternity. Even if it was an impossible dream, it was his, and no one could take it away.
“I heard someone saying that we’re going to hear Rhys sing,” Billy informed him. “Everyone is quite excited. Let’s go closer and watch.”
Mason couldn’t deny Billy the pleasure of dragging him close to the opened doors. He couldn’t see Rhys, but a small announcement silenced the large room. Then, musical notes from a piano broke the quiet. Low keys were struck, and the tune reminded of a background for a scary movie.
He leaned against the door. Rhys’s deep velvety voice followed the rhythm imposed by the piano keys.
At my door, at night,
A sudden strange voice
Reminds me of a fright
And of all the noise
That I should remember
Words that were once said
Words hot like ember
Words meaning the end.
Mason exchanged a small look with Billy. He reined in a little frisson at the last moment. Rhys’s voice was a macabre whisper, nocturnal and nightmare-induced. Levine’s strange conversation from earlier rushed to his mind. Could it be that whatever the scumbag wanted to find out, Rhys was aware?
Nightmare creatures dance,
They twirl and laugh,
But I’m on the fence
I have it rough
Because giving in
To them of all evils
Would truly mean
The end of all dreams
Of happiness, I glean.
Rhys’s fingers must have hit the piano keys harder and harder, because the harmonious sounds become a discordance, a mess of anguished noises. The guests began murmuring. Suddenly, the music stopped. The announcer from earlier mumbled something about that being an interesting piece and encouraged the audience to offer its applauses and appreciation.
Mason moved along with Billy. He didn’t care what Levine would think about his intervening again to rescue Rhys. Walking on a thin rope was his life, after all. “Please, allow us to go through.” He carved himself a path through the sea of expensively dressed bodies, earning curious looks and disdainful comments. Rhys sat at the piano, his face buried in his hands, unmoving. None of the people who had greeted him upon his arrival hurried by his side. Mason didn’t hesitate. He scooped Rhys in his arms and walked back with him, this time the guests making way for them to pass through.
What worried him was how rigid Rhys was. He didn’t seem surprised by Mason’s actions, but it was like he couldn’t register anything happening around him.
Levine Goldman walked in front of Mason, cutting his exit. “What do you think you’re doing?” The words were hissed at him, and Levine’s eyes spoke of thunder and other punishments.
“My job, sir.” Mason wasn’t impressed.
“Put him down. You’re causing a scene.”
“He needs to rest.” Mason stood his ground. “What the hell do you keep giving him?” He said the last words in a low whisper.
Levine quirked an eyebrow. “Never tired of eavesdropping?”
For a second, Mason felt his blood freezing in his veins. But no, Levine was talking about the conversation he had had on the phone with Rhys after that radio show fiasco.
“It’s my job to take care of him. Please, sir, allow me to do my job.”
The people around stared and kept murmuring. Levine threw one look around, and his face turned to stone, only to display a fake smile one second later. “Go on,” he said to Mason and turned toward his guests. “Yes, he is still not used to such outings,” he explained as he offered his arm gallantly to a woman in her fifties buried in furs.
Mason gestured for Billy to walk in front. “Let’s hit the road, Billy.”
Toby was by his side, too, but Mason kept his mouth shut. He was well aware that there were still eyes on them, curious and judging. What they all needed was to get out of there.
“Mason?” Rhys’s voice was faint. “What happened?”
“Don’t worry. You’re with me,” Mason said and held him close.
Rhys let his head against his shoulder and put his arms around Mason’s neck. “Then I’m safe.”
Mason wished that was true. He would fight to make it true, damned be all consequences.
I can't start to guess what you're thinking right now, so please let me know in the comments! Mason learns of pieces of the puzzle little by little, but it's hard to see the big picture when they don't come tomorrow just enough to make sense. Thank you for reading! You guys are the best!
Until next time,
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