Mason took the locket from Rhys’s hand and turned it on both sides. It was solid silver, and it had a flowery pattern engraved on its face, so the fact that the string was just a piece of rope was striking. “What’s the story here?”
Rhys took it from his hand and opened it. A small curl of chestnut hair was trapped inside. “I don’t remember ever sleeping well. Toby took it from his mother’s old case and gave it to me. We were sixteen, and he stole it. For me. He told me to hold it clutched in my fist and sleep would come.”
“How come you two fell in love?”
“I can’t remember. We grew into our love as we grew up.”
“And by the time he gave you this --”
Rhys smiled. “Are you trying to find out when was the first time we slept together, Mason?”
That had been as subtle as an elephant casually strutting through a china store. “You don’t have to answer.”
“We were already boyfriends.”
There was no point in insisting on the topic. “And did it help? Did you sleep better?”
“Yes. Or maybe it was the power of suggestion. Knowing that part of Toby was so close to me had a soothing effect on me, that’s for sure.”
Mason took the pendant and stared at it some more. What kind of clue was that? Why was that important in the context of Toby’s death? Or maybe it had been nothing but Toby wanting to offer his boyfriend solace by reminding him of that old gift? He extracted the small curl of hair and inspected the inside of the locket. There was nothing out of the ordinary. He placed the hair back and handed the pendant to Rhys. That was a dead-end, but he needed to rein in his disappointment.
“Did you manage to get something out of Toby, about his strange behavior?”
Rhys’s eyes darkened. “A series of things that weren’t pretty. I tried to ignore them, thinking that he was just hurt and upset. But I didn’t aquiesce to his request, to drop everything and leave. I began to behave like a selfish bastard, too. And now --”
“We’ve been over this,” Mason warned. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t kill Toby.”
Rhys appeared to fight a bit with his emotions. He clasped his hands together. “I don’t understand why he didn’t trust me enough to confide in me. He could have told me he was unhappy. But not for one moment ... Or maybe I was just blind.”
“The hurtful things he told you, do you remember them?”
Rhys nodded and looked down at his hands. “In detail. He accused me of throwing myself at Levine, although he knew well that it wasn’t true. Then he told me he would have been better without me. In my foolishness and anger, I told him to leave if that was what he felt. But then he turned apologetic and told me he loved me more than anything, that he wouldn’t bear the thought of something happening to me.”
“What could happen to you? Were you in any danger? Did anyone threaten you? You know, disturbed fans and all that?”
Rhys let out a humorless laugh. “I’m still an indie songwriter and singer, even if Levine’s company handles the bills. I don’t have that kind of fans and fame. So, Toby’s sudden concern was surprising, to say the least. It was as if he wanted to protect me and hurt me at the same time. It was quite ... painful.”
“Did he seem scared?” Mason asked directly, remembering Renzo’s words.
“Yes, that, too. But it was anger, too. Mostly anger. I couldn’t understand. I still don’t, as I look back. Toby was happier than me when Levine contacted us to sign a contract. And it wasn’t like he had nothing to do. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else with the design for my posters, or album covers. That was all him.”
Mason rubbed his forehead. “And it was all of a sudden? Right after you sang at Levine’s house?”
Rhys nodded. “You know what’s the most horrible thing, Mason?” His voice was vibrant and low. “As I was coming to my senses in that bathroom stall at the club, I was thinking of telling him that I wanted to do everything to make him happy. And yes, even if that meant that I would never make music again. Too late. Right?”
Mason pursed his lips. “Let’s not lose the focus here. Someone must have been after Toby.”
Rhys’s eyes grew wide as he stared back at him. “You mean, you think it wasn’t random? That it was ... what? ... premedited? Who could want to hurt Toby? Everyone liked him.”
“Except Levine,” Mason said.
Rhys’s face turned into a frown. “Levine spared a couple of minutes a week to talk to me, when he didn’t want me to perform to one of his parties. I don’t want to sound flippant, but the fact that he wasn’t crazy about Toby couldn’t have been high on his list.”
“And then he was suddenly interested in you,” Mason added.
“Yes,” Rhys admitted. “He helped me even against my will.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you would have been okay with taking the rap for Toby’s murder?”
“No, not like that. But I didn’t try to defend myself, either. Anyway, I didn’t want to be an ungrateful scum. I still don’t. As much as Levine might not seem like a good person to you, he did help me.”
“But why?” Mason insisted.
“It was probably because he didn’t want such a horrendous event to be tied to his company and brand. I understand that he didn’t necessarily do it because of the kindness of his heart. Even so, I’m indebted to him.”
“What about his obvious interest in you?”
Rhys looked away. He seemed uncomfortable. “I don’t understand it. He didn’t try anything overt ... I mean --”
“He kept his hands to himself,” Mason concluded.
Rhys nodded. “As of my knowledge, he has never been in a relationship with a man. Maybe I’m just misreading the situation.”
“Am I misreading it, too?” Mason asked, somewhat aggressively.
Rhys looked at him for a moment, and then, to Mason’s surprise, he blushed.
“What? What is it?”
“Nothing,” Rhys hurried to say and shook his head vigorously.
Mason sighed. So far, he hadn’t found out anything. And Rhys was blushing for no reason. He looked around the room in an effort to find a thing to focus on, other than the person in front of him. “I think this is it.” He stood up. “I might bother you with other questions again.”
“This conversation was one-sided. I would like to know more about you, too.”
Mason turned away. “There’s nothing interesting about me.”
“Do you know what the most painful thing was, that Toby said to me?” Rhys’s quiet and pained voice arrested him before he had a chance to run away.
“He told me that he cheated on me. With Ary. But it must have been a lie.”
Mason set his jaw hard. Could it be that Toby had been an asshole, after all? He was nowhere near the truth. But Ary’s name came round and round in conversations lately. Was the little mouse capable of fooling everyone with his pretense of innocence?
“Yeah. It must have been,” he offered Rhys, but his words were hollow, even to his ears.
There wasn’t much to do when Rhys didn’t need to go out. Mason was performing his second set of push-ups when he noticed that there was someone in the room with him. He observed Toby’s shoes as he continued until he finished his set. The fact that the ghost was silent couldn’t be a good sign.
“Have you checked on Ary?” he asked as he stood up.
Toby averted his eyes. “I did.”
“And?” Mason grabbed a towel and started wiping off the sweat from his face and chest. “Why did you find out?”
“That kid spends a hell lot of time crying.”
Mason stopped. “Crying? Where was he? At the studio?”
“I was there first, but then I followed him home. I’ve never seen someone going from being cheerful and ready to put a smile on everyone’s faces to downright despair so fast. The moment the door closed behind his back, he dropped to his knees right there and started crying.”
“Was there something that could cause such a thing? I don’t know … Did his boss yell at him or something?”
Toby shook his head. “That didn’t seem like the kind of crying someone would do if they just got yelled at. It was … heart-wrenching.”
Mason ran one hand over his face. “What else did he do?”
Toby moved from one foot to another. He grimaced, and it looked like he was hesitating to talk.
“Come on, man. How am I supposed to get rid of you if you don’t tell me everything so that I can solve your murder?” Mason had never been good at making jokes. He still sucked, apparently.
“Fuck, this is hard.” Toby began to pace the room slowly. He appeared to be lost in thought and engaged in a battle with himself. “He eventually pulled himself together, but only to drag himself to his bedroom. He didn’t eat anything. Didn’t even undress. He threw himself on the bed and then pulled out his phone.”
“Who did he call?”
“Nobody. He just looked through some pictures, and began to cry again, just not as hard as before.”
“Who was in those pictures?” Mason could feel his gut clenching with dread.
“He was. With Rhys and me,” Toby said in one go. He stared at the empty wall, and there were clouds and thunders in his eyes.
“He might be missing you, just like Rhys.”
“Yes, just like Rhys,” Toby said, and his voice turned into a whisper.
“What do you mean?” Mason needed proper confirmation.
“He …” Toby chocked for a moment, “he kept saying ‘I’m sorry’.”
“Fuck.” Mason smacked the back of a chair with the towel.
“That is just so fucked up,” Toby whispered. “He can’t be … right? The one who --”
“Killed you?” Mason pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” He didn’t want to do that, either, but it was one thing his logic kept telling him, and another what his heart considered right.
“I left after he fell asleep.”
“I got Rhys on board with helping me find out who killed you,” Mason said, intent on changing the topic, for now. Things needed to be handled carefully.
“Are you getting him involved? Why?”
“Because you can’t help, and he can,” Mason replied curtly. “We need to find out what happened to you during those last days,” he added, in a slightly appeased tone. “You can’t remember anything, and Rhys knew you better than anyone.”
“You don’t look too happy. I told you, man, I have nothing against you two --”
“There’s no such thing as ‘us two’,” Mason said gruffly. “I sleep with men. I don’t romance them or tell them stupid lies.”
“Damn. What the hell did he tell you about me?” Toby appeared to be deaf to the meaning of his words.
“He sort of confirmed what we learned from Renzo. Two weeks before your death, you turned into a mess.” Mason waited to make sure he had all of Toby’s attention. “You kept telling him that he should give up on making music and move away. Apparently, your sudden change occurred after you two were at a party at Levine’s house. You began complaining about how you felt like a kept man.”
“He made the money, clearly,” Toby said as he looked around. “So I used to laze around, all day long? And suddenly, that got on my nerves.”
“Rhys thinks you were lying. And you handled the covers for his albums and everything design related. It wasn’t like you had no role in Rhys’s career.”
Toby sighed. “What else did he tell you?”
It was Mason’s turn to hesitate. “Some pretty nasty stuff,” he said.
“All right. Out with them,” Toby ordered. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Mason.
“You two kept fighting. You threw ugly things at him, like how he must have slept with Levine --”
“He didn’t. That can’t be true.”
“It isn’t,” Mason confirmed. “But that wasn’t the only lie. You told him that you would have been better without him. Also, that you slept with Ary.” It was time to rip off the Band-Aid.
“What?” Toby appeared utterly flummoxed at that. “No.” He shook his head and looked down. “It can’t be true. I couldn’t be such a bastard.”
“He doesn’t believe it, either.”
Toby drew one long breath. “That’s good, I guess.”
“He also made it clear about the words on the wall,” Mason added. “I’m afraid that’s a dead end, though. You gave him a locket with a curl of your hair when you were sixteen. You told him to keep it clutched in his fist while trying to fall asleep. It helped, too, according to him.”
Mason wondered briefly if it helped to tell Toby how he lost his parents, but he decided against it.
“That can’t be all,” Toby said quietly. “It should have meaning beyond that.”
“Maybe you just tried to comfort him, after you died, to remind him of that old gift.”
Toby shook his head. “It’s a different vibe I got from that. Like it had … meaning.”
“And it does. Just that it was your farewell, and nothing else,” Mason said, as much as he hated to contradict Toby.
“Then it should have been love, not pain,” Toby added.
“Look, Toby, you heard Renzo. You loved Rhys. Madly. Those last two weeks, those close to you can vouch that you weren’t yourself. The thing is … what the hell did you find out at that party that scared you so?”
“Things don’t add up,” Toby agreed. “You’re right. I must have found out something. But what?”
“I don’t know if Levine is keen on inviting us again to one of his fancy parties. I’m afraid you’ll have to go there on your own.”
Toby nodded. “Rhys … how is he?”
“In love with you,” Mason replied simply. “Just as much as he used to be when you were alive.”
“That doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be in love again. With someone else.”
Mason turned away, despite knowing that ignoring a ghost wasn’t as easy as ignoring people who were flesh and blood. “I don’t have anything to offer. I’m not going to get him hooked on some half-assed so-called love. He doesn’t need that. And sex? Well, I guess he can get that anywhere he likes.”
“Why would you judge yourself so harshly?”
“I’m not. I’m realistic.”
He tensed as he expected Toby to insist on the topic. What he heard took him by surprise.
“Now all loves are the same. I may be a ghost, but I’m sure of it.”
It was impolite of Toby to leave him with such words of wisdom without elaborating further, but Mason was relieved. He didn’t want or need to justify himself. Rhys was someone who loved completely. There was no room for someone else once he had given his heart.
“I will have to go out, but without you two,” Rhys announced. Before Mason had time to protest, he added, “Levine’s chauffeur will be here shortly. He’ll take me back, too, so there’s no need for you two to move.”
“It’s not about need,” Mason reminded him.
Rhys kept touching the pendant resting on his chest as if he tried to draw power from it. “I know it well, Mason. But Levine told me clearly that he wants to see me alone. He didn’t even allow me to insist much. Seeing how I want to keep you as my faithful bodyguards, I didn’t want to antagonize him. At all times, I will be in the company of people who don’t plan on hurting me, so I think it’s not a big deal.”
Mason didn’t like it one bit, but it was true that no solid argument for the presence of two bodyguards could be brought. With the evidence starting to gather against Ary, there was no point in acting overly protective when Rhys needed to visit his producer.
“Where will you be?”
“At his house,” Rhys replied promptly. “I will try to be back home as fast as I can.”
For a second, Mason felt struck by how vulnerable Rhys looked as he said those words. He noticed the dark suit briefly. Rhys’s shirt was buttoned up, and his entire attire appeared conservative, and not only in contrast with his usual clothes. Could it be an unconscious choice or a much-weighed one, seeing how they had both agreed that Levine had a distinct interest in his protégé, interest that went well beyond a normal relationship between an artist and his producer?
Only remembering how Levine had talked about Rhys that day at the party made Mason grind his teeth. That scumbag better not think this was some kind of booty call.
“Keep me on speed dial,” Mason ordered.
That earned him a small surprised look from Rhys. “Of course. You and Billy both are.” He pressed his hands on his hair, pulled back into a ponytail. It appeared that he didn’t want to draw attention to himself at all, like a woman afraid of being sexually harassed by her boss.
“Anything happens, call,” he added.
Rhys nodded on his way out. Mason needed to think of a way to follow him without Billy noticing.
“Chief, are you smelling something fishy here?” Billy had remained silent during their exchange.
“It might be your bag of chips. Are you trying some weird flavor?” Mason tried to downplay the earlier conversation.
“Come on, I’m not like that. But seriously, it’s … what … almost ten o’clock? Who keeps meetings so late in the evening?”
“They don’t have to be too formal, right? After all, Levine had been Rhys’s jailer for quite some time,” Mason said with a hint of sarcasm.
“I knew you didn’t like it,” Billy said. “How about we follow Rhys?”
“Seriously? I thought you were all about not stalking him. We know where he will be.”
“Yeah. But now I feel like we need to make sure.”
Mason didn’t need to be told twice. He was already convinced, and Billy had proven a dependable companion so far.
The taillights of the car in front of them signaled a left turn.
“Well, that’s weird,” Billy commented.
“What is?” Mason was busy turning the information he had on all sides and had let Billy in charge of following Levine’s chauffeur without being noticed.
“Unless they suddenly planned on taking the scenic route, that’s not the right way to Levine’s house.”
Mason tensed. “He’s a billionaire. He probably has more than one place he calls home.”
“Without a doubt. But still, don’t you find it a bit weird?”
“Let’s just follow them. Whatever the destination is, we’ll find out.” For the moment, there was not much else to do.
The vistas changed, and Mason took in the waterfront spreading at their left. One could only guess the waves crashing against the shore. The road was heavily illuminated, but that made the rest of the landscape appear drowned in darkness.
“It looks like they must head over to Levine’s beach house.”
“Strange time to go for a swim,” Mason commented dryly. “Do you know anything about this property?”
“No. I’m just assuming things, at this point,” Billy said.
Mason nodded. They had to allow more distance between them to avoid detection. At that hour, the traffic was light in that part of the city.
It appeared that Billy’s assumption was correct. They soon noticed the car in front of them turning left once more, only to stop in a driveway behind a coquet beach house.
“This weirdly has the air of an illicit affair,” Billy pointed out.
Mason had to agree. There was only one light on, and it didn’t look like Levine had other people over. They stopped at a fair distance. “What now?” he murmured to himself.
“Now we keep an eye on the house and we wait. Chips?” Billy offered him the bag.
Mason replied with a crooked look. “No, thanks.”
Billy sniffed the bag and then decided against stuffing his face. He began fiddling with the radio until Mason stopped him.
“You can step out of the car and walk around if you have too much energy,” Mason advised him. “This is what you get for eating so many sweets.”
“Nah. I’ll rather stay here and annoy you.”
Mason chuckle and shook his head. “I might smack you upside the head if you fidget too much.”
“Damn. But it’s hard to keep still,” Billy complained.
“You’re so like a kid. Do you want me to tell you a story so that you can take a nap and stop getting on my nerves?”
“Yeah. Tell me a story. I’d like the one about how you plan to get together with Rhys and live happily ever after.”
“So, you’re into fantasy?”
“Come on, chief, give me something. I can tell you’re at war with yourself when it comes to Rhys. Tell me, what do you like the most about him?”
His smile, when he’s not sad. His lips when he kisses me. Mason shook his head. “If you ever decide to stop being a bodyguard, make sure you don’t opt for a career in offering romantic advice. You might end up starving.”
Billy’s laughter was carefree and sonorous. A bit infectious, too, because Mason felt like following his example.
“You’re tough on me, chief, but that’s why I like you. Hey, is that Rhys?”
Mason took in the slender silhouette rushing out of the house. He put one hand on the door handle, but Billy stopped him.
Rhys was out of the driveway and well into the street when someone else rushed after him. Mason exchanged an intrigued look with Billy. Levine was dressed in something that could rival with Hugh Hefner’s famous bathrobe.
Slowly, Billy rolled out the window. The evening breeze carried angry shouts.
“I made you! Don’t you dare to walk away from me!”
“You have no right to talk about him like this!”
Rhys didn’t stop for one second, which made Levine hurry after him, most probably in his sleepers.
“Rhys, stop right this moment! You spoilt child!”
Rhys did stop and turned toward Levine. “I’m not your child! You have no children, thank God, because otherwise, I could have only hoped that you wouldn’t have behaved toward them as you just did toward me!”
Levine said something, but this time, in a subdued voice, so Billy and Mason couldn’t hear him. He appeared suddenly appeased. Rhys looked tensed by how he kept his body and moved away when Levine tried to reach him. A few replies followed, and then Rhys began walking again.
“At least, let Fred take you home!” Levine called after him.
“I’d rather walk,” Rhys replied.
For a couple of seconds, Levine waited, but then he turned on his heels and headed back into the house.
Mason waited until the door closed after the scumbag. Billy stopped him again. “He’ll reach us soon,” he explained.
Rhys could call himself a cab, Mason realized, but it looked like he was lost in thought and truly in the mood to act on his earlier promise. He looked down, and his shoulders were rigid. What the hell had Levine done to him? Whatever it had been, Rhys didn’t appear to have allowed it, making Mason feel relieved.
Billy patted his arm to draw his attention. “Let’s go, chief.”
They got out of the car at the same time. The noise drew Rhys’s attention, and he looked straight at them. The bitter grimace on his face dissolved. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Protecting you, what else?” Mason said gruffly.
“We can’t leave this noble duty to anyone else,” Billy said courteously and hurried to hold the door for Rhys.
“Thank you, Billy,” Rhys said and caressed Billy’s cheek. “You’re such a sweetheart.”
“Mason, too,” Billy said.
Rhys stopped for a moment and smiled fondly at Mason. “He’s not. He’s a tough guy and I like him to the moon and back for it.”
Mason didn’t have to be told to climb in the back. He looked straight ahead and said nothing as a familiar arm wrapped around his, and Rhys rested his head against his shoulder. Knowing he couldn’t be seen, as Billy was just taking his place behind the wheel, he allowed himself a small smile.
And now, Rhys is out of Levine's clutches ... or is he? I'll let you take a wild guess! But Rhys needs to take control of his life, and this is one good place to start! Please let me know in the comments what you thought of the new installment! I always appreciate your feedback!
Until next time,
All the best,
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