Toby was silent on their way back. Mason appreciated it, once, because he didn’t care for Uber drivers thinking him insane for talking to himself, and second because there was not much to talk about. If he needed any confirmation that Rhys still loved Toby and would do so till the end of time, all he had to do was to replay in his head the conversation he had just had with Renzo Ora.
Not that he could ever ask Rhys to give up on the memory of a lover who had been, genuinely, his half. No, he could never be that kind of selfish bastard. And to what end? What could he offer? Conversations with former lovers flooded his mind. He had been called uncaring, cold, unfeeling ... The list was long. His armor was thick, and a beautiful man with a dead lover might have managed to pierce it, but that wasn’t enough.
For a while, he had let his guard down. Rhys had needed him; Mason had just needed to get off. It couldn’t be a fair trade, and it had to stop, whatever the hell he thought he was doing.
“I have to go check on the little mouse, then,” Toby said curtly.
Mason couldn’t begin to imagine what could be on the ghost’s mind right now. He just nodded.
“Give me the address to that recording studio.”
Mason pretended to check something on his phone and typed down the address to show it to Toby.
“Don’t feel down, Mason,” Toby said. “He’ll have to forget about me, eventually. I have a pretty good feeling that I won’t be coming back from the grave.”
“He will never forget you,” Mason said under his breath, eyeing the driver carefully.
“You tell him that he needs to,” Toby said with determination.
“Don’t count on me for it.”
The car stopped. Mason offered Toby a strained look. He was met by melancholic eyes. Even if he couldn’t recall his love for Rhys, at least, Toby could surely understand the magnitude of the feelings they had shared while together. After all, he was no stupid ghost.
“Finally, home,” Billy welcomed him.
“Yes. But you should learn to cook for yourself. You can’t depend on takeaway all your life,” Mason scolded him.
Billy grinned at him. “But I can depend on you for it. And you’re the one who keeps telling me that I should eat healthy. Just keep pushing my bike, dad, until I can ride by myself.”
Mason shook his head in mirth. “Just let me change into something more comfortable, and I’ll start. You’ll have to get Rhys out of that room, though.”
“So you don’t plan on talking to him,” Billy said in a motherly tone. “No problem. Leave it to me. By the time I’m through with you two, there will be nothing but rainbows and sunshines in this house.”
“And unicorns,” Mason said dryly. “Don’t forget about those.”
Billy snickered in reply. “Rhys will understand that you only care about keeping him safe. Once he sees that, there will be nothing but smooth sailing from that point on.”
“It’s good to have dreams,” Mason offered again. “Off you go, now. I don’t like people staring at me while I cook.” That wasn’t true, and Billy must have known it, but he understood the message, and that was all that mattered.
For the moment, Mason wanted to be alone with his own thoughts. He didn’t like Renzo’s theory about Ary, but it wasn’t wise to discard any possibility at the moment. Hopefully, Toby would get to learn more once he started stalking him.
He changed into a t-shirt and a pair of tracksuit pants and headed over to the kitchen. Cooking had always proved a respite, allowing him to meditate on the ebb and flow of life as he knew it. A lifetime ago, someone had taught him all he knew, and memories like those were as palpable as the food in front of him. It wasn’t true that people left nothing behind once they were gone. His hands moved fluidly as he prepared the steaks and the side dish, and his mind followed the events of the last days.
What did he know so far? Renzo Ora could have a bone to pick with Levine Goldman, but that rivalry must have run for quite some time, seeing how Levine was a big shot, and Renzo, according to the little info he had from Billy and Rhys, wasn’t exactly a newcomer to the scene. Mason discarded that tidbit of information. He needed to focus on what mattered, and that was finding out who had taken Toby’s life and left Rhys to fight with unhappiness and desperation on his own.
The knife in his hand hit the wood of the cutting board. Ary better not be the culprit. Mason couldn’t see himself hurting that boy; he couldn’t fathom him being the one behind Toby’s murder. Even if it had been nothing but an accident, that kind of thing couldn’t be forgiven. He recalled the short conversation he had had with Ary, playing it again and again in his head. No, as much as he looked into it, he couldn’t believe Ary to be the one he wanted to strangle with his bare hands right now.
Or was it Renzo trying to send him off on a wild goose chase? That fell more in sync with his gut instinct, but Mason didn’t plan on jumping to conclusions. If Renzo was the killer, what business would he have, trying to get Rhys on board with finding the person who murdered Toby? He would do better to let sleeping dogs lie. Rhys was hurt enough, and he tried to forget.
How had Rhys been before all that tragedy in his life? Mason tried to picture a happy person, someone with nothing but love in his eyes, with an adoring boyfriend by his side. And yet, something of what Renzo had let on about Rhys and his insecurities didn’t sit well with him. He seemed a complicated man, and given his background or what Mason had managed to learn from eavesdropping on Levine, that wasn’t surprising. Nonetheless, Renzo had talked about it as if it had to be a nuisance.
Regardless of that, Mason needed to focus on nothing but his role in the drama he was living through no fault of his own. Yeah, he deserved the last penny, for having to disentangle the mystery of a murder that had taken place one year ago and fight off the intense desire he felt toward the man he was working for. Yet, it wasn’t about money.
The nuisance Renzo was talking about was Mason’s kryptonite. He wanted someone to depend on him like that. It gave him a sense of security that went deeper than anything that had to do with romantic feelings and sexual arousal. All the rough edges on which his soul hurt itself when he wasn’t careful enough could be smoothen out by someone like that.
He couldn’t allow himself to dream of such things because that someone was in love already, and not with him. It wasn’t him Rhys wanted; it wasn’t him Rhys needed.
Lost in his own mind, he wiped his hands on a kitchen towel. The sizzling of the steaks in the pan and the low hum of the vegetables steaming were the only sounds creating the acoustic background of his thoughts. He didn’t notice when someone walked into the room.
“I suppose I owe you an apology.”
Mason turned on his heels. “You suppose?”
Rhys walked toward him but stopped a couple of feet away. “I owe you an apology,” he said, this time with more conviction.
Had there ever been a time when those beautiful blue eyes hadn’t been filled with sadness? Mason hoped so. Life was, after all, a collection of moments of ups and downs. With all his heart, he hoped that Rhys had been happy with Toby during their time together.
“You’re right. I should have told you about my wanting to go see Toby.” Rhys followed an invisible line on the counter with his fingers, his eyes down. “You have a job to do, and you don’t need me to make it more complicated than it is.”
Mason steeled his resolve. As much as Billy wanted to see rainbows and unicorns, and Rhys wished to make peace with him, that didn’t mean that he could allow the situation to go back to how it had been before. “I’m glad we’re finally seeing eye to eye.”
Rhys took another step toward him. Mason pretended to be busy with the cooktop, to avoid the non-verbal apology the other probably wanted to offer.
It looked like his determination to stay clear of any involvement hadn’t been obvious enough. Rhys embraced him from behind and placed his cheek against the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Mason. I promise it won’t happen again.”
“All right. You don’t have to grovel.”
The tender hands pressing against his chest stilled and then moved away.
“I understand. You’re still mad. I will be good from now on.” There was something in that anxious tone that made Mason want to turn and hold Rhys. He could recognize it, too, and hated himself briefly. But he decided against it.
Rhys’s departing steps interrupted his debate with himself. All he had to offer was that. Good words and promises had never offered anyone anything. He would see the mystery surrounding Toby’s death to the end, and then he would be out of Rhys’s life.
Was that what he truly desired?
Are you a lonely man? Renzo’s words came to mind. Maybe he was, but changing that was impossible.
Billy filled the silence with happy banter, but there was no one to banter with, and Mason felt gradually more and more uncomfortable with his partner’s efforts. Rhys offered a few laughs and replies, but his voice was strained, and his laughter forced, and Mason felt bad for him, too.
“Will you two cut it out already?” he said.
There was instant silence.
Mason sighed. “I just want to be able to do my job in peace. Rhys, just don’t go anywhere without telling us where you are. We are here for your protection. You can count on us for everything.”
There was no reply, and Mason didn’t risk to look at either of his companions. “That is all,” he added. “Now enjoy your meal, and don’t worry about a thing. That’s what I’m in charge of.” The last bit was directed at Rhys, and no one else.
The rest of the meal was spent in silence.
“I’ll do the dishes,” Rhys announced, and he got up.
Mason didn’t stop him. Billy, the traitor, claimed he had something to do and made himself scarce. Great; that left him in the room with the one person he didn’t want to be near right now, for no other reason than he couldn’t trust himself.
He looked at Rhys, taking in the slumped shoulders, the bent head. For a moment, he squeezed his eyes shut, and then, with a small curse under his breath, he got to his feet. Without a word, he took Rhys by the shoulders and turned him. He pulled him tight into his arms and held him close. “Don’t cry,” he ordered. “Just don’t, okay?”
“I’m not crying,” came the muffled reply. “I realized that you don’t like it.”
“I’m not a good man,” Mason said. “I’m always looking at the bottom line. I do things for my own gain. I don’t care about others, unless I have to.”
“You’re doing your best. And I think you’re the kindest man I know, Mason,” Rhys replied.
“Then you must have known some pretty shitty people in your life.”
Rhys snickered and hid his head into the crook of Mason’s shoulder. “Yeah, maybe.”
Good. The crisis was averted, for now. Mason sighed in relief.
“I’ve been thinking,” Rhys started. “About what Renzo said, that I should do something to find out who took Toby’s life.”
“That’s dangerous,” Mason said. His lips set in a straight line.
“Even if it is so, Renzo is right. How can I go on with my life, while that person is still out there, enjoying theirs, and Toby’s resting in the ground?”
Mason’s fingers curled against Rhys’s back. Although he wanted his cooperation so that he could learn more about Toby, having Rhys getting involved wasn’t supposed to be in the cards. “You leave that to me. Although it would help if you could tell me more about Toby’s last days.”
“Are you secretly a detective, Mason?” Rhys pulled away, but only so that he could look into his eyes. “I thought of going to the police again.”
“And do what? Have them reopen the case? On what basis?” Mason was rough on purpose, but he knew there was plenty of truth in what he was saying.
Rhys chewed on his bottom lip. “Toby has no one but me. There was no one to insist that they looked properly into it at the time.”
“And? Where you two married to have any legal claim? Don’t count on the law to take kindly to you, especially since you were a suspect.”
“Then I should hire a private investigator. By myself, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“But I do,” Mason interrupted him, earning a curious look in turn. “And I have a feeling Levine wouldn’t approve of your spending money on having Toby’s death investigated,” he added quickly. “I doubt you can keep it a secret from him.”
Rhys cocked his head and observed him. “I ... yes, you’re right. How can I help then?”
“I’ll think of something,” Mason said. He had plenty of ideas what, but, for now, he needed to make sure that Rhys didn’t misinterpret his goodwill for something else. He let his arms drop.
It looked like his message went through. Rhys mimicked his move, and now they just stood facing each other, communicating without words.
Mason was the first to look away. “I want to keep you safe. That is all.”
“I know. You’ve done more than anyone else.”
“Levine spared you from spending time in jail.” It had to be said, and Mason needed to establish where Rhys’s loyalties stood when it came to the scumbag.
“It’s true. And put me in another.”
“Yes, still. Levine didn’t like Toby. He kept telling me that he was holding me back, not wanting to hear and understand that Toby was the reason I was able to move forward.”
Mason took a look at Rhys and brushed his hair out of his eyes. “I know you love him.”
Rhys looked back. “Thank you, Mason. For doing this. But there’s something else you want to say to me, isn’t it?”
He nodded slowly.
“You don’t have to. I understand. I’m still grateful. You pulled me out of the darkness and it wasn’t your job to do so. I’m nothing but a stranger to you. One day, I’ll have more to offer, and, if I’m lucky, you’ll still be within reach.”
Mason caressed the smooth cheeks and contoured the lips and chin with his thumbs. If you ever want me.
Rhys took one of his hands and placed a small, soft kiss inside his palm. “Whenever you’re ready, ask me about Toby.”
Not right now. Right now, he couldn’t.
“I have no intention to go tip-toeing around you, so here’s the thing,” Mason said, as soon as he was with Billy in the surveillance room. “I intend to find out who killed Tobias Davis.”
Billy observed him for a moment. “How is that news?” He reached for a bag of chips on his desk, but a sigh from Mason stopped him. “I thought you were already on it.”
“How did you … Forget it. The thing is, as much as I might like to close my eyes and pretend to be nothing but a dumb bodyguard, I can’t. I don’t buy it that Levine hired us to keep Rhys from hurting himself. He doesn’t look like he’s ready to take to the bottle again. He is a mess because of some weird medicine Levine is feeding him. As I see it, the danger is somewhere else. And it has to be about Toby’s killer.”
Mason could read Billy’s body language, even in the semi-dark.
“Why didn’t Levine say it was about that the first time he hired us?”
“That’s what I want to know,” Mason replied firmly.
“Just don’t ask him directly, please,” Billy said.
“I don’t intent to, but why are you telling me this?”
A shrug was the short answer. “You’re the kind of guy who takes the bull by the horns, chief. But you can’t grab the horns if it’s not a bull you’re dealing with.”
“You’re trying to tell me that it’s a different animal I have to face?” Mason didn’t suppress a smirk. How was it that Billy could read so much into the situation? It was assuring, in a way.
“Could be. A snake comes to mind.”
“Ah, don’t be mean,” Mason teased.
“Me, mean?” Billy pointed at himself like he couldn’t believe such an accusation had just been directed at him. “I’m just telling it like it is.”
“All right, Po. Then let me see about this. Whoever killed Toby is out there. And they might try something nasty with Rhys, too.”
“Care to tell me more?”
“At the right moment. I wouldn’t want to put you in any danger. If anything happens, I prefer to bear all the responsibility.”
“If you say so, chief. I’m with you, either way.”
“Funny. I thought you would be all over me to let you in what I’m doing.”
Billy put his hands up in surrender. “I know all about boundaries and how important they are. How are things between you and Rhys?”
“And here goes all you said about boundaries just one second ago.” Mason sighed exaggeratedly. “Nothing’s going on between us.”
“Hmm. But you surely did it last night.”
“Which was a mistake and both Rhys and I decided that it shouldn’t happen again.” That was not exactly what they had talked about, but it was close enough. Having Billy involved, with all his good intentions, was not advised.
“How disappointing.” It was Billy’s turn to let out a dramatic sigh. “Now there’s not going to be a wedding, right?”
“Were you planning to eat the entire cake? Why were you fixated on this wedding idea?”
Billy shrugged. “I don’t know. I just could hear the wedding bells ring is all.”
“Take your mind off of it. Don’t do like me. When you have a job to do, do it. Don’t get involved and keep it in your pants,” Mason warned.
“Yes, dad. Although I already love you and Rhys both.”
Mason shook his head in mirth. That was Po, and nothing could change him. “Let’s say I can live with that.”
Billy called for him while he had his hand on the doorknob. “If you need anything to help you in your investigation, you can count on me.”
“Okay,” Mason agreed. “How long until you get the results for those pills?”
“I should get them soon. I might have them tomorrow.”
“That’s good. I have a feeling they won’t be Advil.”
“That’s what my gut tells me, too.” Billy patted his belly. “It’s a good gut.”
“Just take care not to let it grow too big,” Mason teased him in turn.
That had been a satisfactory conversation. With one less thing to worry about, he could see about the most important stuff.
He had chilled enough to face Rhys again, so he decided that it was no moment like the present to continue with what he needed to find out. His hand hesitated for a moment before knocking on the bedroom door. It felt like an eternity had passed since he had been there. No, for no reason, he would think of what had happened there the night before.
Rhys invited him in. When he walked inside, Mason noticed the papers and old photos spread on the bed. His legs tucked under him, Rhys was picking them and then placing them in an order that probably made sense to him.
“Is this a good moment for us to talk?” He could only congratulate himself for the neutral tone of his voice.
“Yes, please come. These are things I have left from Toby. I thought that they might help.” Rhys talked to him but didn’t look at him.
This would be harder than he had initially thought. Carefully, he sat across from Rhys on the bed and looked at the various things spread between them.
“You know that we were childhood friends, right?” Rhys began. He picked one of the photos and handed it to Mason. He noticed right away the two kids of around ten years of age against the backdrop of a house. They both wore face-splitting grins and hand-me-downs. Still, Mason could read, even in that photo, a certain melancholy on Rhys’s face. His eyes were angled, watching his friend, while Toby was valiantly staring right into the camera’s objective.
“Who took this picture?” Mason asked.
“We convinced another kid from our neighborhood to take it for us. He had one of those old cameras.”
“Yes, that. Anyway, I have no idea where we should start. I know you told me that you would be interested in learning about Toby’s last days, but it feels unfair. He was much more than what he showed during those last days.”
Mason could tell Rhys what he had found from Renzo, but just like with Billy, he didn’t want him involved more than it was necessary. He would settle things with Renzo later. “Feel free to tell me what matters.”
It was easier to take in the memories spread on the coverlet than look at Rhys.
“We grew up together. Toby’s folks passed away before he hit eighteen. Mine, well, I only had my dad. He might still be alive, but I don’t care enough to find out.”
Mason waited, but Rhys didn’t elaborate.
“We decided to come here and strike it big. Toby believed in me so much.” A short pause followed. “We met Ary, and he began coming to gigs with us. We didn’t have enough equipment to require a third person, but a friend, that we needed both.”
Mason recalled what Renzo had told him about how Rhys and Toby hadn’t really needed anyone else in their lives.
“All right, maybe it was more Toby than me who needed someone else to talk to, besides me. When I make music, I’m not the most interesting companion, I must say. I was glad for Ary joining our little group.”
And yet, there had been those jealousies, Mason pondered. Could it be that Rhys didn’t see things like that?
“When I signed with Levine’s company, we were so happy. We kind of threw a party for three.” Rhys’s voice turned wistful. “Ary, he --”
Mason took a look at Rhys. “He what?”
“He drank the most of all of us. And he kept asking me if I wanted to share Toby with him. I got a little mad. Maybe I drank too much, too.”
“Was the alcohol a problem back then?” Mincing words would serve no one.
Rhys offered him a slanted look. “I got drunk only a couple of times in my life before … you know, before Toby and I started fighting, two weeks before his death.” He said the last words quickly as if he was afraid that they would physically hurt him if he kept them inside.
“Feel free not to trust me. I can’t really ask you that you do.”
“I trust you,” Mason said gruffly. “Go on.”
“I found Ary a job at the recording studio. We were no longer as close as we used to. I also felt that there was some truth in what Ary had said back then. In vino veritas, as they say.”
“So you were jealous of him.”
“Yes, I was,” Rhys admitted. “Call me old-fashioned, but as much as we were friends, I couldn’t see myself in a threesome.”
“What was Toby’s stance on all that?”
“He laughed it off. He was a bit cocky, my Toby.” Rhys smiled for a moment. “When I reminded him of Ary’s words, he brushed them off, told me I shouldn’t sweat it. But I could say that he felt flattered.”
“Did you two fight over that?”
Rhys shook his head. “The only conflict I had was with Ary. Toby and I, we never fought. He always knew how to shut me up with a kiss.” Another smile flew over his face.
“Until you did,” Mason reminded him.
“Yes. It was so strange.” Rhys stared at the memorabilia in front of him. “It was like he was a different person. I asked him what was wrong, and, for the first time in our life together, he lied to me.”
The terrible secret. It seemed that Toby hadn’t shared it with Rhys, either. They were advancing at a snail’s pace. “How was he? How did it all start?”
Rhys pressed two fingers against his mouth and stared at the ceiling. It took Mason all his restraint not to reach for the slender neck and caress it. He could picture his rough hand wrapping around, his thumb brushing over a bobbing Adam’s apple, as its owner’s breath would grow deep and erotic.
He looked away.
“It was after I had a small performance at Levine’s house. It was one of those parties, like you witnessed.”
“Was Toby with you there?”
“Yes. He accompanied me everywhere.”
“And? What happened that night?”
“On our way back, Toby was distraught. I didn’t notice at first, to my shame. I kept talking about the notes I missed. Suddenly, I realized that I was talking to myself. Toby threw me such a strange look when I tried to draw his attention that I think my breathe stopped for a moment. Only one time I had seen before that look on his face.”
Mason fought the dryness in his throat. “When?”
Rhys looked at him with dull, pained eyes. “When he received the news that his parents were killed in a fire.”
“What did he say? Can you recall his words?” He expected painful, but not so many shades.
“He told me he just felt under the weather. I insisted, and he snapped at me. I insisted more, and then we started fighting for real. I tried to keep it low, for the sake of the driver’s ears --”
“Who drove you around?”
“Someone Levine had designated for the task. Neither I or Toby cared about driving much.”
“I suppose you tried to reason with him once you got home.”
“Yes. But he got madder and madder. He told me that I couldn’t understand his position.”
“What did he mean by that?”
Rhys sighed. “I made the money. Toby no longer had a role, well, that was what he thought, since everything regarding concerts, and whatnot, was handled by Levine’s company. But he had never complained about such a lack of purpose until that moment. It came as a shock for me.”
There was another pause.
“Was then that he asked you to give up on music and move away?”
Rhys nodded. “Yes, the first time. It would turn to countless times over the next days. I ... didn’t handle it well. I thought he was jealous of my success,” he added quietly.
There were many layers to that story. Mason needed to unravel them slowly. For now, they could take a small break from the pain. “What do the underline words mean?” He pointed at the wall.
Rhys turned his head in that direction. “That. It’s something from a long time ago. But who could know about it, save for me and Toby?” The last question was rhetorical.
Mason knew the answer to that one, but he had to keep silent.
Rhys returned to the memorabilia on the bed and took a small locket on a piece of rough string. He offered it to Mason. “This is what it must be about.”
I know you are bound to hate me at one point for all the cliffhangers ... but I haven't read one mystery/thriller novel in my life that didn't have them, so blame those authors for twisting my mind! Nonetheless, I hope you're still enjoying the story and that you'll stay with me until the end. All will be made clear, I promise you that. I hate stories that fail to offer explanation, so I will do my best!
Until next time,
All the best,
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