Mason walked straight ahead and winced when his knee connected with some piece of furniture.
“Watch your step,” Renzo called from behind.
The hint of laughter in his host’s voice wasn’t lost on Mason.
“It would help if you let some light in. What are you, a vampire?” Mason felt rightfully irritated.
“Those are merely rumors. But of course, as an obliging host, I suppose I could turn on a light or two.”
To Mason’s dismay, Renzo didn’t bother to allow some natural light in. Instead, a pair of vintage-looking table lights flicked open at his right. A dark red cloth covered the table they sat on. The entire scene seemed taken from a B-rated movie with tarot readers and denizens of the night. He shook his head and sighed.
“Please, take a seat, Mason. I’ll go fix us some refreshments.”
“There’s no need to --”
It looked like his host didn’t care about his refusal. He was lost somewhere in the darkness, and Mason blinked as he tried to adjust his eyes. With a shrug, he sat at the strange table and felt the cloth with his hands. It could be genuine velvet, but seeing how he wasn’t a member of the high class to know of such luxury, it could be just a cheap fabric cleverly impersonating a nobler one. The armchair on which he sat appeared covered in the same material. It was comfortable, too, so maybe calling the place a dump wasn’t a fair shot. But of course, Mason didn’t have the same taste and nose for the finer things in life as Levine.
Renzo returned with two tumblers filled with whiskey.
“I don’t drink.” Mason hoped that his curt manners would have Renzo cut to the chase. Although he was there with questions, it unnerved him that the club owner had materialized by his side as soon as he had gotten there. Now it felt that the tables had turned, and not in his favor.
Renzo sat across from him, lounging in his armchair. There was something sensual, yet dangerous in how he moved his arms, adjusting his cuffs, only to let his hands rest, one out of view, and one on the table. The fake candles on the table reflected in his dark eyes. If Mason hadn’t known any better, he would have thought Renzo Ora was getting ready to hypnotize him or start a conjuring session.
Speaking of which, Mason wasn’t sure if Toby had followed him inside.
“I’m here. This dude is weird,” Toby said as if he could read his mind.
Coming from a ghost, it seemed like a lot. But Toby had been friends with this guy, so it was worth a shot to try getting out of him some valuable information. He also needed to let Toby know Renzo Ora had been close to him, in one way or another.
“You used to be friends with Toby,” he started.
The forward statement took Renzo by surprise. And he wasn’t the only one. “Was I friends with this dude? And I died in his club?”
Mason tensed, his eyes trained on Renzo, and paid no mind to Toby’s surprise.
“I liked Toby.” Renzo angled his head, and a small, wistful smile appeared and faded quickly on his lips. “He was smart, witty even. Also, the kind of guy that was easy to have around.”
“If he was that easygoing, how come he fought with his boyfriend so much?”
“Hey, if the guy says I was easygoing, that clearly means that I wasn’t an asshole.” Toby was quick to grab at straws, but Mason was there for answers.
Renzo’s eyes moved slowly over him, but he didn’t flinch. The whiskey glass remained untouched on the table. They were two shooters, happening upon each other by accident, now evaluating whether they should be friends or foes.
The standoff didn’t last long. “Toby had a terrible secret to guard.”
“What secret?” Mason said the words along with Toby.
Renzo adjusted his position and crossed his legs. “That’s something I would like very much to know.”
“I think you know more than you let on, Mr. Ora.” Mason was curt and formal on purpose. He couldn’t hope to get anything out of befriending this man of dubious nature. They didn’t know each other; it was true. But it was futile to try. He couldn’t show his cards, and his opponent appeared to be playing for himself.
“How many times are we going to go over this? Should I call you Mr. Bodyguard, too?”
“You intend to mock me. I don’t.”
Renzo placed one index finger over his lips, and his eyes narrowed. “You’re Toby’s opposite. So unlike Rhys’s type.”
Mason couldn’t allow his questions to be dodged. There was no need for him to be reminded that. It had been clear from the get-go—no point to dwell over things that couldn’t be changed. “I don’t need to be my employer’s type. I’m his bodyguard, not a companion or a friend.”
A quirk of an eyebrow let him know that his denial didn’t help. “And in what quality are you here?”
“As Rhys Harmony’s bodyguard.”
“I see. Did he ask you to look into Toby’s death? Rhys was quite adamant when I last saw him, about your staying clear of anything regarding the topic.” Renzo picked his glass, raised it in mock salute, and took a sip.
“Whoever killed Toby is still out there. Rhys might not think himself in danger, but I like to have all my bases covered.”
“You’re the kind of guy who really goes the extra mile. Hmm.”
“What do you know of Toby’s secret?” Mason changed tack. He didn’t have time to go round and round with Renzo Ora.
“Only that it was terrible, and it scared him out of his wits.”
“And he told you none of it. How come you know he had a secret then?”
Renzo appeared to ponder over his answer. “No one changes overnight.”
“He asked Rhys to give up on music and run away with him who knows where. Did you know that?”
The dark eyes settled on him. “You know, this feels like an interrogation.”
“And? Do you have anything to hide?” Mason didn’t waver under Renzo’s stare.
“Do you play cards, Mason? Any type of game?”
Mason shook his head. Indulging Renzo seemed tedious, but he could do that if it meant finding something about Toby. It was worth the trouble.
“But you must have heard of the expression ‘poker face’.”
“Yeah. Like everyone else. What’s this got to do with Toby?”
“He had none.”
“A poker face? What do you mean?” Mason stood still, although his fingers now itched for the drink in front of him. Renzo’s manner of holding a conversation was unnerving, to say the least.
“It means that I noticed he was troubled. Rhys noticed he was troubled. A lot of people did.”
“Please, have a sip. I promise it’s not poisoned,” Renzo said in a courteous tone.
He said nothing but took the glass. “You’re trying to tell me that his killer noticed, too.”
A short move of the head confirmed his theory.
“Then Toby’s secret must have been in regards to someone else, right?”
“That’s the logical thing to infer, isn’t it?”
Mason drank and enjoyed shortly the burn traveling down his throat. “What other logical things do you infer, Mr. Ora?”
“This rather feels like an imbalanced conversation. I will reply to your questions, but, in turn, you have to promise that you will answer mine. As truthfully as you can.”
Mason offered a small shrug. “Sure.”
“Don’t be so quick to agree to everything he says,” Toby warned. “I don’t trust this dude, as much as he pretends he used to be my friend. He’s kind of shifty.”
Mason agreed but couldn’t tell Toby that right now. Instead, he braced himself for whatever half-truths Renzo was willing to let go of.
“Toby must have known his killer,” Renzo said.
“So you don’t think it was something random?”
“No. He was scared for a reason. He didn’t want to talk about it, although I tried --”
“Maybe he was scared of you.”
Renzo smiled, and then, he started laughing. “Have I said that I liked you, Mason Knight?”
“Yeah. Repeatedly. It gets a little old after a while.”
“I didn’t kill Toby. Every crime needs a reason.”
“Maybe he found out you mix your whiskey with water or something.”
“Should I gather that the drink isn’t to your standards?” Renzo pointed at his glass.
“Far from it. It’s exquisite, and, I suppose, expensive. Kind of wasted on me. It was just a figure of speech. You strike me as a powerful man, Mr. Ora.”
“Why? Because I own a few clubs and I have an ear for great music?”
“Don’t play yourself down. You don’t look like the modest type to me.”
That remark earned him another laugh from his host. “That’s true. Well, Mason, it happens that I am, how should I say this? – a moderately powerful man. I’m looking forward to be more, but my area of interest is related only to the topics I mentioned: clubs and music.”
“Is there any rivalry between you and Levine Goldman?”
“The music industry can be a harsh mistress.”
“How about a straight answer?”
“I thought I just gave it to you. Of course we’re rivals, me and good ol’ Levine.”
“Because of Rhys?”
“No. Rhys signed with Levine long before I got to know him and Toby.”
“So what’s the rivalry about, then?”
Renzo relaxed in his armchair and observed Mason for a bit before speaking again. “Not all poker players play for money. Did you know that?”
Mason shrugged. “I can’t say that I did. But I don’t care for games based on luck. Whoever counts on the whims of fate like that is nothing but a fool.”
“I love it how you never mince words. Dealing cards can have meaning, and of another type than the one people who thirst for profit look for. It’s about running predictions, finding order in chaos.”
“I’d say it’s all a bunch of bull.”
“Of course. You don’t believe in luck, and therefore, luck has no rules for you.”
Mason stared at Renzo. What was the man hinting at again?
“Any other questions?”
“Yeah. How come you knew I would be here?” Mason asked directly.
“I didn’t. It’s just that this particular property has given me a fair share of headaches lately.”
“Besides Toby being murdered in the alley behind it?”
“After that,” Renzo explained, “someone has broken in a total of five times. It has always happened during the day, and it’s why I keep an eye on it. Satisfied?”
Mason nodded curtly. “What did they take?”
Renzo leaned over the table and looked him in the eyes. “Well, that’s the strangest thing. Nothing.”
“Has it happened before?”
“No. The place is, after all, a dump,” Renzo replied with the hint of a smile.
“Sorry about that. I’m no critic,” Mason offered.
“Right.” There was something dry in Renzo’s voice as he said that.
“So someone keeps breaking in, but doesn’t take anything?”
“Precisely. Which becomes a tad annoying, as you may imagine. Whoever does this, it’s a pro, too. No cameras catch anything, and they inexplicably skip frames, and it is only now that I’m considering to hire flesh and blood security.”
“What’s your educated guess?” Mason asked.
“Are you willing to listen to my theory? Here it is. Toby gets killed in the back alley, as you know it, but there's no murder weapon. The police come, check all the patrons here, and, you guessed it, no one has any suspicious looking object on them.”
“They arrested Rhys.”
“Because of the blood on his clothes. Yes. But they were quite thorough when they checked all the people who were here at the time Toby was killed.”
“Wait, weren’t they already home, in their beds, when Toby’s body got discovered?”
“Man, this is getting weirder and weirder,” Toby complained.
Mason was so focused on Renzo’s words that he wanted to slap a certain ghost upside the head. Too bad, he had no material body.
“No. The papers must have said something else, but Toby’s body was still warm when someone stumbled over him.”
“Who was that someone?”
“One of the cleaning people who work the night shift just to take broken glass and whatnot to the trashcans in the back.”
“But the police must have taken some time --”
“Not quite. They were prompt.”
“Are you trying to say that the killer was here, inside the club? That he let himself frisked by the police? And that he hid the murder weapon somewhere around and now he’s trying to recuperate it?”
Renzo began clapping his hands. “Quite a good theory, isn’t it?”
“But it’s just a theory. You must know your property, Mr. Ora. Can’t you find the murder weapon if what you say it’s true?”
“Would that I could. Right?” Renzo offered. “I personally supervised my personnel ransacking the place so that I could find that damned murder weapon. Nothing came out.”
Mason pressed his fingers against his temples. Something was missing from the picture, and he couldn’t pinpoint what.
“Even if the killer was here, maybe he threw the weapon somewhere. Or maybe he snuck out of the club before the police got to the murder scene.”
Renzo shrugged. “Everything’s possible. But why the mysterious burglaries that never end up with anything being taken?”
“That’s strange, all right. But shouldn’t the killer know where he hid the weapon? Why come again and again?”
“I’m as intrigued by all these as you are. Maybe he lost the murder weapon somewhere inside my club? Or someone changed its location by accident?”
Mason could sense that he was being led on, but he wasn’t sure where to and to what end. “Things as you tell them don’t make a lot of sense right now.”
For a few moments, it was nothing but silence between them.
Mason was the first to break it. “Were there many people inside the club that night?”
“Three hundred and eighty-four.”
Mason cursed under his breath. “The police must have taken all their details, right? Even so, such a big number --”
Renzo smiled and put one finger up. “But let’s not forget about the theory according to which Toby knew his killer.”
“Right. Of course. Besides Rhys, who else was here who knew him? I suppose they were with a group, right?”
Renzo nodded and reached for his pocket. “This is the list of names.”
Mason took the piece of paper and stared at it. He didn’t recognize any names until his eyes rested on one. “Ary Whitaker?”
“Ah, the little mouse. Have you met him?” Renzo didn’t blink as he waited for an answer.
“The runner at the recording studio, right? Yes, I did. He appears to be Rhys’s only real friend right now.” He had no idea why he let that slip. Talking to Renzo was engaging, and he didn’t realize when he had become willing to volunteer information.
“That breaks my heart.” Renzo placed a demonstrative hand over his chest. “I cannot fathom why Rhys wouldn’t see me as a friend.”
“I have some ideas,” Toby said, but Mason ignored him.
“Maybe he has his reasons,” Mason said roughly.
“Ah, don’t be like that,” Renzo teased. “I walk the straight and narrow. I’m like the jack of spades, but on your side.”
“I don’t think I get the reference. And shouldn’t you see yourself as the king of spades, at least?”
Renzo grinned. “I told you, Mason. I’m not that influential. I represent ambition and intelligence, and maybe,” he allowed a second of suspension before continuing, “my purpose is to dethrone the king.”
“The king being Levine?” Mason asked directly. All this roundabout way of talking started to become annoying.
Renzo ignored him. “Do you have any other questions?” Mason shook his head, so he continued. “Now it’s my turn to ask you a few things.”
“Who were you talking to in front of my club, earlier?”
Mason tensed right away. “To myself.”
“Hmm, and yet it appeared as if you were talking to someone. Could it be that someone sent you here?”
Ah, so Renzo thought he was talking on the phone or something along those lines. But, in a way, to admit to that lie would put Mason in a serious situation. “Nobody owns me. As I said, I was talking to myself.”
“Are you a lonely man?”
The question took Mason by surprise. “I don’t see what relevance would such a thing have, under the circumstances.”
“You’re calling him Toby.” In the same manner Mason had already gotten used to, Renzo started another conversation thread.
“And how should I call him? The dead guy?”
“Hey, man, not funny,” Toby complained. “I might be dead, but I’m sensitive about it.”
“You didn’t know him, so you could call him Rhys’s boyfriend, Tobias Davis, or even, yes, the dead guy. To my ears, it sounds like you call him as you would a friend.”
“Am I a friend to you, Mason?” Toby intervened, visibly excited.
“It’s the easiest way to refer to him,” Mason replied. He felt more and more irritated. “Any other things you want to know?”
“In a hurry? All right. Have you fucked Rhys already?”
Mason set his jaw hard. “It’s not in my job description.”
“Hmm. And yet, he wants you. Don’t let sexual frustration get in the way.”
“You’re wrong. There’s no such thing.”
“Ah. So, at least, you want to.”
Mason grimaced. “Anything else?” Two could play that game.
“Yes. When I told you not to let frustration get in the way, I was talking about Rhys's. You have my blessing to give it to him hard. If you don’t, I’ll feel obliged --”
“Don’t talk about him like this,” Mason said through his teeth.
Renzo grinned. “Ah, so you did sleep with him,” he said with satisfaction.
“Mr. Ora, you might want to brush a little those so called gentleman skills.” Mason was one breath away from taking a shot at breaking Renzo’s perfect nose.
“Don’t take it to heart, Mr. Bodyguard. Sometimes, I’m rude on purpose to determine the others to be honest. Don’t worry your pretty head. As I said, I’m on your side. And leaving aside my naturally flirtatious manner, I have nothing but Rhys’s wellbeing in mind.”
Mason shook his head. He had no poker face, either. It had taken Renzo very little to find out about him and Rhys. “Do you suspect Ary?”
“I thought we were done with the questions. But the little mouse? Do you think he has it in him?”
Mason hadn’t thought of that for one moment, but now he understood where Renzo had wanted to bring him with all his leading on. “No, frankly I don’t.”
“Don’t hurry to discard him as a suspect.” Renzo was watching his every move like a hawk.
“He’s too --” Mason didn’t know what terms to use to describe Ary. No, he couldn’t see him as someone turning murderous. Plus, he didn’t look strong enough for something like that.
“Short?” Renzo completed his sentence. “Well, according to the police report, and here I am, divulging to you an important piece of information I came about with much patience and pain, Toby was hit and killed by someone shorter than him.”
Mason watched Renzo, looking for any signs of a bluff. But either the guy had a perfect poker face, or he was telling the truth. “That’s why they had to let Rhys go,” he said matter-of-factly.
Renzo nodded in agreement. “So, you see, Mason, no one can be above suspicion.”
“Not even you?” Mason jabbed on purpose.
“I prefer legal means to get rid of any competition I may have,” Renzo explained and offered a magnanimous smile. “And Toby, as I told you, was a friend. Plus, I hope you noticed how tall I am.”
So full of himself. But the s.o.b. was attractive, and he knew it.
“Rhys told me you two just liked each other, but you weren’t close.”
“Of course. That was because Rhys tended to get jealous easily.”
Mason’s ears perked up. First, everyone had thought Toby was jealous; now Renzo offered a different version. Rhys, jealous? “Why would he? Toby was a pretty good looking guy --”
“Wow, thank you,” Toby commented.
“-- but it’s not like anyone couldn’t see that Rhys was the more beautiful. It would make more sense if Toby was the jealous one.”
“Maybe jealousy is a strong word,” Renzo admitted. “Rhys had bouts of insecurity that could drive anyone mad. Except for Toby. His entire world was Rhys.”
“And Rhys forbade you two to hang out?” Mason expressed his disbelief.
“No, nothing like that. But a love like they had,” Renzo said and began rubbing his bottom lip with one thumb, “it was strange and special. When they were together, you could tell that they didn’t need anyone in the whole wide world. There were days, after Rhys finished recording an album, when they disappeared together, maybe locked themselves in their house, and cut contact with everyone else. And they emerged from wherever they were during that time, their eyes shining, holding hands, and staring into each other’s eyes as if they had just met and fallen in love. It was like a honeymoon over and over again. They didn’t need many friends, as you can imagine.”
Mason said nothing. Dead lovers were tough competition. What had he expected to hear?
“It sounds like we used to be madly in love,” Toby said quietly.
Yes, that was the truth. And Rhys still loved Toby with all his heart, so it didn’t matter what his body wanted. It was a good thing to hear it loud and clear like that.
Renzo stood up, a sign that Mason’s visit was over. He followed his host’s example without another word.
“I hope that, given our intel exchange, you won’t be a stranger, Mason. And get as close to Rhys as possible. It might be that Toby had left some traces behind that could lead us to his killer.” Renzo placed one hand on his shoulder as they walked out of the club.
After a short debate with himself, Mason decided to keep from shaking off the touch. There was something comforting in how Renzo held his hand there, but it could be a false sense of security. Mason was a bit annoyed at how at war he was with himself when it came to this man. Without a doubt, he was charismatic, but it wasn’t like Mason to fall for cheap, politician-like, charms.
The light outside hurt his eyes, so he had to blink a few times to adjust his vision. Renzo didn’t appear affected. “Were you ever interested in Rhys?” Mason addressed his last question.
“As in him as an artist, or a man?”
“No. Feel free to court him, Mr. Bodyguard.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t tell me to go ahead and fuck him hard,” Mason said tersely.
Renzo laughed and squeezed his shoulder. “That, too. I know he must need it.”
Mason wanted to ask how he could know such a thing, but his phone rang.
“See you around, Mason,” Renzo said and walked away from him as he answered.
Billy’s voice came through. “Mason, hey, where are you?”
He straightened up. “Is it Rhys? Is he okay?”
“Yes. But I’m hungry, and if you’re not here to make lunch, I might opt for some unhealthy stuff.”
Mason breathed out, relieved. “Did he come out of the isolation room?”
“Not yet. He might be on a roll, creating and stuff. But I’m sure you can lure him out with a steak or something.”
“Are you sure you’re not the one in the mood for steak?”
“Hey, it’s a healthy choice, right? Come home, Mason,” Billy said fondly. “He misses you already.”
Mason didn’t reply to that. As a number one fan, Billy must have known how deep and unique the connection between Rhys and Toby had been. His decision was taken. He would help Toby and protect Rhys, but that without getting involved more than needed. There was no room for him. He was no one else but a passerby who had to play his role as a secondary character, and nothing else.
Thank you for reading! Feel free to tell me what you thought of Renzo in this chapter, and about what he revealed to Mason. Can he be trusted? Which side is he really on? Please let me know.
Until next time,
All the best,
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