The place was a much livelier version of the one Mason had known from his previous visit. It wasn’t a disco for kids to sweat their hearts out on the dancefloor and had instead a hip, vaguely classy vibe.
Rhys wrapped his arm around his tightly. “I hope he doesn’t expect us to search for him all over the place.”
Nervous jitters were explainable. The last time Rhys had been here, his boyfriend, the love of his life, had been killed. Mason could tell that the happy laughter that could be heard from groups of expensively dressed patrons and the cheerful lights were a mockery for him.
“Ah, my dear guests.” Renzo moved through the throng of bodies as he descended a flight of stairs that led to the better tables.
Yes, he carried himself like he owned the place, which was true down to a tee. Mason observed him with wary eyes. Rhys left his side suddenly and stopped in front of Renzo. “How could you?” His voice was strung, and Mason noticed his tightly close fists, kept by his sides.
“Let’s take this to my office,” Renzo offered smoothly and raised one arm to point the way.
“Toby --” Rhys started again.
Mason placed a hand on his shoulder. “We will hear what Mr. Ora has to say for himself.”
Renzo sighed dramatically. “I see there’s no love lost for me in your little group. Please, gentlemen, I promise I will reply to your concerns to the best of my abilities.”
Mason had his doubts but kept his mouth shut. One strategy was to let Renzo Ora talk, without interruptions. Maybe he would slip by accident, although it appeared that the man left little if anything to chance. Not a hair astray on his head, one could quickly notice from a single look.
Renzo buttoned his suit jacket; the courteous smile on his lips appeared genuine. But who was to tell that he hadn’t perfected a poker face no one could rival?
They left the central area, and soon they followed Renzo down a large corridor with intriguing exhibits encased in glass cages displayed on both sides. Mason observed them in passing; they seemed to be artifacts related to casino games and not only.
Toby stopped, and Mason watched him silently. “This dude keeps a museum in the hallway? And what the hell are these?” He pointed out at one of the cages.
“What are these?” Mason asked, knowing that Toby would start pestering him with useless questions if he didn’t do something about it.
Rhys threw him a sharp look. “Renzo’s collecting old, useless things.”
“That hurts, Rhys my prince,” Renzo replied. He stopped and approached Mason, who was looking at the case in which an arrangement that appeared close to a part of a pool table, complete with a pair of cue sticks crossing each other, laid. “For instance, this piece was inspired by the way French nobles used to play pool at the end of the seventeenth century.”
Certainly, the cue sticks were nothing like Mason knew. For a moment, he stared at the curved head of one stick. In the milky red lights, the brass appeared stained, old. He had questions, but Rhys took his hand.
“So, these are only replicates?” he asked but followed Rhys dutifully.
“I wouldn’t keep antiquities in the hallway, as eccentric as people believe me to be. Yes, they are replicates. As you can see, Mason, I am a fan of games of skill.”
“I thought you were a big fan of Lady Luck.”
Renzo chuckled. “Careful there, Mason. Rhys might believe we have gotten chummy without his knowledge.”
Of course. These days, he had a loose tongue and an even looser mind.
“Please, come in.” Renzo opened the door to his office at the end of the hallway.
It was as opulent as expected but appointed with much better taste than what he had seen at Levine’s house. In a style competition, Renzo would win against his declared rival, but Mason suspected the battlefield lay somewhere else.
They all took place on a long leather sofa. Billy had been quiet all the time, but he whistled as he looked around and rubbed his palm against the luxurious fabric. “You have excellent taste, Mr. Ora,” he said.
“Thank you,” Renzo replied and smiled.
“We’re not here to exchange pleasantries,” Mason intervened abruptly.
“Why did Toby call you the night he died?” Rhys’s voice was wrought with pain. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Renzo was the only one standing. He walked to the small bar that came with the room, and, without a word, he proceeded to fill glasses and handed them one by one, with a focused expression on his face.
The silence was stretching.
“Toby didn’t talk to me that night. I was, let’s say, a bit indisposed at the time. I couldn’t answer my phone.”
“You were busy fucking someone,” Rhys said.
Renzo met his crude remark with a sly smile. “If only. I’m afraid nothing came out of it, and when I say ‘came’, I mean it.”
“Just cut the crap already, Renzo,” Rhys said bitterly. “Why was Toby so keen on talking to you that night?”
“Well.” Renzo leaned against his desk and took a sip from his glass. “That’s something I would very much like to find out. He told me some strange things, not that night, but right before.”
“What strange things?”
Renzo looked at Mason as he replied. His eyes were hypnotic. “That I should skip town.”
“With him?” Rhys revolted.
“No, not with him, my lovely prince. He thought, for some reason, that I was in danger, but wouldn’t say why.”
Mason exchanged a brief look with Billy. His partner’s face was impenetrable.
“Danger? What sort?” Rhys continued his interrogation.
“I pressed him for details. He resisted, as much as I insisted. I could tell he was scared to talk ... I wish I could have picked up that night. Unfortunately, I left my suit jacket with my phone in it here while I had to attend to other business. I called afterward, but of course, it was too late.”
Renzo’s sadness as he said the last words couldn’t be staged. If it was, then Renzo Ora was deserving of an Oscar. Mason scrutinized his face and body language and came up empty.
Rhys appeared to be on a different mind track. “Where were you, Renzo, when Toby was killed?”
“Right here, obviously.” Renzo didn’t look offended at the direct accusation.
“In this room?”
“In the club.”
“Any people who can vouch for you?”
“Detective Harmony, you are too sexy for the job,” Renzo teased. “Perps might end up imagining crimes just so that you squeeze the truth out of them.”
“Renzo,” Rhys warned.
“Fine,” Renzo replied. “About a dozen after four AM.”
Toby could have died earlier, Mason thought, so Rhys’s question was legit.
“Earlier,” Renzo said slowly and frowned for a second. “You will have to ask your good friend, the little mouse, about that.”
“Ary?” Rhys asked, visibly surprised. “What could he ... What did you do to him?” His eyes narrowed. Mason could tell he was suspecting the club owner of unsavory things.
Renzo put up his hands. “Nothing, I swear on my boy scout’s honor.”
“You’ve never been a boy scout,” Rhys replied.
“Must you remind me?” Renzo rolled his eyes. “Fine. Since you’re all here, and I’m the willing subject of an interogation, I will put my cards on the table.”
Mason observed Renzo as he stood up, placed one hand behind his back, and began pacing the room.
“Let’s say that I was just monitoring the action in my club when I noticed Ary talking to Toby. By that time, you must have locked yourself in the bathroom, Rhys, too tired with your boyfriend’s penchant for yelling at you.”
“I was dead drunk,” Rhys said tersely.
Renzo grimaced, but his face became smooth again in the blink of an eye. “Naturally, I wanted nothing of another jealousy scene in my club since I had no idea you wouldn’t come out of there until much later.”
“So?” Rhys scowled.
“So, I decided to entice the little mouse with a small bait, to defuse the situation. I left my office in quite a hurry --”
“Wait, how did you know Ary was talking to Toby?” Mason intervened.
Renzo walked to a wall and opened what appeared to be built-in double doors. Mason quirked an eyebrow at the dozen of screens that flickered in front of them. Various areas of the club were monitored by cameras and fed directly there. “I dislike shady business in my club,” he explained.
“So you saw them talking? On these screens?”
Renzo nodded. “I left my phone here, as I told you, and hurried to talk to the little mouse. By the time I got there, Toby had already left.”
“What did you talk to Ary about?” Rhys asked.
Renzo smiled again. “That’s the kind of thing a gentlemen never talks about.”
“It’s the kind of situation that should waive such obligations,” Mason pointed out.
“I don’t see how my teasing of an innocent would have any relevance to the investigation you three appear to be leading.”
Rhys set his jaw hard. “You didn’t,” he hissed. “Ary --”
Renzo chose to placate him with another disarming smile and a raised hand. “He left here with his cherry intact, cross my heart. Much to my chagrin if I may add.”
“Ha! So the only reason you don’t want to talk about it is that you were given the boot,” Rhys said.
Renzo became serious again. “Unfortunately, Rhys, what I’m about to tell you ... Let’s say that it cannot make you happy.” He let out a short breath. “Ary still hurried after Toby. It must have been something I said,” he added as an apology.
“Hurried after Toby?” Rhys said each word slowly.
Mason knew what Renzo was hinting at. He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t deny that Renzo had a point. “The cameras,” he gestured at the wall of screens, “did they catch anything odd?”
“I had to hand the recordings to the police. Of course, I have copies. But nothing out of the ordinary appeared in them, as far as I can tell. And I watched them over and over.”
“Is Ary in them after the presumed conversation with Toby?”
“Yes. Shortly. He appeared rather shaken.”
“What do the cameras cover?” Mason asked.
“Only the club floor. I’m not some pervert,” Renzo retorted.
“This area, is it also covered?”
Renzo raised his eyebrows. “No. I care about my privacy. I hope you didn’t want to peruse my failed attempt to seduce the little mouse.”
“You tried that, here?” Rhys asked, a bit louder.
“No. Unfortunately, we didn’t get this far and had our little conversation in a less, let’s say, suitable place. And that was why I failed to hear Toby calling.”
Everyone fell silent. Mason could tell Rhys was ruminating over Renzo’s words.
“Ary wouldn’t,” Rhys whispered. “No, I refuse.”
Mason took him by the shoulders. “These details are only circumstantial. We don’t know anything for sure. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
Rhys bit his lips and shook his head. It was easy to notice fresh tears hanging from his eyelashes. “Ary might have been the last person to see Toby alive.”
“We don’t know that, either,” Mason said.
“Can we see those recordings?” Billy asked.
They all needed a voice of reason. Renzo gestured for them to join them. With the help of a remote control, he took them through the chain of events he had explained earlier.
There wasn’t much to glean from those recordings. Renzo had been quite accurate in his descriptions.
“How come the police never suspected him?” Mason wondered out loud.
“What are you saying, Mason? Are we really --” Rhys protested.
“I’m only looking at facts. It looks to me like they only cared to pin it on you and, when they couldn’t, they just dropped it.”
“Crappy job, that’s what they did,” Billy concluded.
“We’ll have to talk to Ary,” Rhys said.
His eyes were dry again. Mason took his hand and held it. “It’s late now. Let’s see about it tomorrow.”
Rhys pursed his lips. “I would be in my rights to wake him up. Why does everyone keep lying to me?”
Mason felt his heart growing small. He was one of the liars, too. Still, he hardened and turned toward Renzo. “Why couldn’t you say anything about all these, earlier?”
“Who would have listened? I imperiously asked Rhys to see me so that we could talk. As I recall, I haven’t been graced with a visit until now. Must I remind you that?”
Mason waved, irritated by the somewhat logical reasoning behind Renzo’s words. He couldn’t admit, in front of Rhys, that they had met behind his back. “Still.”
“As much as that may surprise you, I tried to investigate on my own. So it’s my turn. Did Toby tell you anything about the reason he was so scared? Why did he believe I should skip town?”
Rhys shook his head. “I have no idea. He was very evasive and anxious. He wanted us to leave ... So I suppose you weren’t the only one he believed to be in danger.”
“I guess that settles it,” Renzo concluded affably. “Who is going to shake the little mouse?”
“I’ll do it,” Rhys decided.
“We.” Mason took his hand and held it.
Renzo let out a low chuckle. “I see someone took my advice.”
Mason pretended not to hear. Rhys was caught up in his own ruminations to catch that, which, for the moment, was a relief.
“Gentlemen, I enjoy your company a lot, but I have a club to run.”
Billy stood up. “Sure thing, Mr. Ora,” he said vivaciously. “It’s time for us to be out of your hair.”
“My door is always open,” Renzo offered.
Mason followed Billy’s example and helped Rhys to his feet. All clues led to Ary. He hoped the boy was innocent, but even if he weren’t the one to end Toby’s life, something must have scared him good about that night. And Mason planned on finding out.
It would be better to leave Rhys out of it. Mason wanted to get his hands on Ary’s diary first, maybe glean some essential details first. After all, Ary could deny any involvement, regardless of how much he was pressed. They needed more than just his word.
Mason rubbed Rhys’s back gently. They were back at his shabby apartment, and everything about it reminded him that whatever they had, it was ephemeral. “I know you must be very upset. But Ary ... Let’s keep our hopes high.”
Rhys nodded, but without looking at him. “Mason, love me,” he said brusquely and turned toward him.
It was as simple as opening his arms to receive the blond head that buried in the crook of his shoulder and that warm body that was his, at least tonight. “You sure you’re not tired?”
The reply was a pair of lips that covered his with restlessness and fear. Mason knew all about that, so he crushed Rhys’s mouth and forced it open. The slight resistance wasn’t for play, but just as true, desire shone through, ready for taking.
Their bodies fit so well. Mason had never been particular about the way his lovers looked, how the scent of their skin tickled his nostrils, or how his hands fit around a wrist, a waist, an offered throat.
Beyond this, he would turn into someone else, someone different, but he welcomed the change, with the truth and pain that would most likely come with it. He inhaled as he rubbed his face against Rhys’s shoulder and bit hard, wanting a chunk of the person trembling in his arms, something to remind him later of it all. A short gasp warned him he had gone too far, so he pushed Rhys on his back and straddled him.
“I’m yours.” Open arms accompanied the simple declaration.
Mason spared few moments to undress and get his lover naked. With hurry, he buried himself deep into the welcoming heat, eliciting soft moans and curses from lips he loved to kiss. They both hurried, he realized, but it wasn’t for the sake of having it done and then forgotten.
One time wasn’t enough. He remained there, inside, until he got hard again while hearing not one word of protest from the other. They kissed and kissed as their desire for one another soared again.
Later, as they laid together, with no desire to move or talk, Mason thought about the following day and what would bring. He held Rhys tightly until he heard his breathing deepening and becoming steady.
Mason watched Rhys a while and covered him with the blanket. He didn’t stir in his sleep. Their clothes lay everywhere, a reminder of the night before. Mason picked Rhys’s clothes and placed them on a chair. Something stabbed at his foot, and he winced.
When he looked down, he noticed Rhys’s pendant. The chain must have broken while they had been busy tearing into one another. The stone appeared to not sit right in its metal frame. That would need repairs. Mason placed it on the nightstand, knowing Rhys would want to see it when he woke up.
It was early, but Ary left early for the studio, as Toby had told him on their way back last night. He would be in and out, and Rhys, being so deep in sleep, wouldn’t even know of his absence. He could always invent something on the spot, such as having gone for groceries.
With one last look at the sleeping body on the bed, Mason walked out of the room, careful not to make a sound. Rhys was so beautiful in his sleep, he wanted to stop and kiss him, but it could wake him up.
He decided against it. There were more pressing matters to deal with.
No one had to know that Mason Knight was a bit of an expert in breaking and entering. His life on the streets had taught him many things, some less honest than others. He wasn’t proud of what he was doing, but it was the only way.
“He left five minutes ago.”
“Damn, Toby, warn a guy before popping up like this,” Mason whispered.
“Like how? Pat you on the shoulder?”
“Nice one. No, but you could have joined me earlier.”
“What can I say? I like to make an entrance.”
“What a diva,” Mason said with mirth. “Now, where’s the diary?”
“He keeps it under his pillow.”
“All right, let’s see.”
Mason wasted no time. His phone at the ready for taking pictures, he began turning the pages.
“I feel ashamed about this,” Toby said.
“I know. But it’s for a good cause. And I’m going to forget everything else written here, the moment I find out what I’m looking for.”
Toby shook his head. “Once you do a bad deed, you cannot undo it. And karma is a bitch.”
Mason offered a non-committal grunt. “Speaking from experience?”
“If I knew the answer, I’d give it to you.”
Mason began taking pictures of the pages. Fortunately, Ary didn’t seem keen on writing every day in his diary, so it didn’t take him long to have it all stored on his phone. “All done here. Let’s hit the road.”
He didn’t want to be there one moment longer than needed. So he was relieved once out the door and breathed in the chilly air of the first days of fall as he walked down the street. A few times, he turned, suddenly aware of eyes watching him. But nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, no matter how many times he turned and looked.
He climbed into an Uber to head home. Toby sat by his side and watched over his shoulder as he began to scroll through the pages of Ary’s diary. The good thing was that the pages didn’t appear to be filled with an adolescent's usual drivel, and that made things easier. The little mouse was neat, dating his entries and writing them in a rounded, easy to read calligraphy that was tale-telling of the keeper’s personality.
There was the page Toby had spoken about.
These guys are dreamy! I know I’m gushing like a fanboy, but I have a feeling Rhys is going to be a star. Toby’s so handsome, too. I’ve been in this city for a while but never got close to a gay couple before. I have a feeling I can learn a lot from them. Maybe what love is?
Ary wasn’t exactly a twelve-year-old writing about their crush, but he did draw a small heart next to that.
Mason continued reading.
This shouldn’t be happening. I feel so guilty. It’s so strange that I feel like this. But I just can’t help it. Today, Toby ruffled my hair and called me ‘kid’, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. We watch old movies together sometimes. It’s so much fun!
That explained the acting Rhys and Ary had performed when they had met at the studio. The trio must have had their good times.
I must be out of my mind. Seriously, I should be past the age of a schoolboy crush. But I cannot get them out of my head. Either of them. Am I normal? What does this make me?
Mason could sense Ary’s anxiety through the pages. He had short entries, most of the time, except a few in which he struggled with his developing feelings for Toby and Rhys. Toby was right about one thing. It was a sacrilege what he was doing. He hoped for forgiveness, in another world, which, by Toby’s presence, had to exist.
He browsed quickly through the entries that weren’t relevant. There was a blank page, which he must have taken a picture of in his hurry, and then ... Mason sighed, and Toby let out a small sound that told him they were getting somewhere.
My knees are still shaking ... What am I going to do? I can’t go to the police! I thought they would take me in for questioning! But they just frisked me and moved on. Why did I feel relieved? What I’ve done ...
I hid it well. At least, that I know. No one would ever think of that. I stayed clear of those cameras, too. Everyone knows where they are. I can’t believe I could think of that in a moment like that.
Why am I even writing this here?
His blood ... It was everywhere. Oh, Toby! Why ...
Please forgive me, Rhys, Toby. I just can’t. I don’t even know why I did what I did.
I can’t. I’m afraid. They took Rhys in. They think ...
If they find him guilty, I need to step forward.
I’m so afraid.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. If anyone finds it ... But I don’t know. I need to tell someone, or I’ll go insane.
Oh, Toby, why?
The discoloration of some letters was a clear indication that tears had fallen on the page. Mason breathed out through the nose. Was that an admission of guilt? He wasn’t sure. Ary didn’t clarify that many things with that entry.
And what was that he could be talking about? Hiding it?
“The murder weapon,” Toby said, confirming his suspicions.
But Renzo had said that he had turned the place upside down. By what Ary was saying in his diary, it couldn’t have been thrown in some garbage can, either. But why had he hidden it if he weren’t the killer?
They needed to talk to Ary. But, first, he needed to see Rhys. He wanted to make sure he was okay, now that they were getting close to the truth.
“Have you checked on Rhys after I left?” Mason asked Toby once they were out of the car.
“He was sleeping. I left after some time, to catch you at Ary’s.”
“All right. I’ve been gone less than an hour.” Why did he feel the need to justify himself?
He let himself in his apartment while making as little noise as possible. After their night together, it wouldn’t have been that surprising to find Rhys still sleeping.
The bedroom was empty, and Rhys’s clothes were gone, too.
“Rhys,” Mason called, louder and louder, as he moved through the apartment.
“He must have gone to see Ary by himself,” Toby concluded for him.
“Yeah,” Mason replied.
He would have felt disappointment, but there was something else bothering him—a sixth sense telling him that he needed to find Rhys and quickly.
Thank you for reading the new chapter! The characters won't have time to catch a breath as action picks up, so I hope you'll also find what follows exciting. I know things are still unclear, but more pieces of the puzzle were delivered. Next time, even more will be revealed, and so on, until the picture - hopefully - will be complete.
Until next time,
All the best,
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