Mason opened his eyes as the clock struck five in the morning. He didn't need an alarm to get up at the same hour day after day. Discipline was one of the defining principles guiding him in life, and events like those from the day before weren't enough to disturb his routine.
He looked around as much as he could without getting out of bed. There was no sign of a ghost. Of course, it had to be some weird incident, or maybe he had dreamed it all. It surely hadn't felt like a dream, especially since it was clear as day that everything else had happened for real. He wasn't in his bed at his rented apartment, so at least the part where he had been hired to protect a celebrity who looked like he needed protection only so that he didn't drink himself into a stupor and do something stupid was true.
Well, he wouldn't ever tell anyone that at one point in his life, he had thought he could see ghosts. He went directly to the bathroom and began brushing his teeth. There was plenty of planning he needed to do for the day. Security equipment didn't come cheap, but Boyd had informed him that he could order anything he needed and put it on Levine's tab. He almost felt the itch to overcharge the bastard, but that wasn't him. As much as he didn't like the guy, Mason was always correct in his business dealings.
He couldn't even say why he disliked Levine so profoundly. He wasn't the first rich bastard Mason had ever met in his life, and usually, stuff like that moved under his radar. As long as he didn't have to interact with the asshole more than needed, things were fine.
"So glad you're awake."
"Fuck," Mason let out and almost hit his head against the mirror.
"How are you going to start?"
Great. Just fucking great. Mason shook his head. "I must be crazy."
"Crazy? Why? Because you can see me? You're not crazy."
"And how do you know? Are you a doctor? Sorry, let me phrase that correctly. Were you a doctor?"
"By how I'm still dressed, I don't think so. And, I don't know, I don't give off that vibe, right?"
Mason pushed the balls of his hands into his eyes.
"I'm not going away. I've been wandering for days, and no one, absolutely no one, saw me."
"Hmm, so lucky me, right?" Mason liked to think he was a practical man. If that were all it took for the ghost to disappear and him to get his sanity back, he would find out who the guy was.
"No. Lucky me," the ghost said, and he sounded serious.
"Let's do this," Mason said abruptly. The ghost followed him back into the room. Mason grabbed his phone. "Do you have roughly any idea for how many days you've been a ghost?" He couldn't believe himself. He was talking to an imaginary person. Things like that didn't happen to people.
"It's a bit of a blur. At first, I was in complete shock, just running to and fro, and yelling at people. It must be a month or so."
Mason stopped for a moment. How did it feel to be so alone in the world, screaming at strangers who didn't hear you and didn't give a damn? He shook off the wave of empathy rising like a tide; pity and other feelings served for nothing. What he could do to help was to find out the identity of the stranger.
"I will start by checking any news related to people going missing or, you know, dead, in the area, one month ago," he explained his strategy. "Wait, did you travel a lot to get here, in this city?"
"No, I woke up here."
"Okay. Hmm, can I take a look at your head? It would serve to know if you got shot or not. To narrow down the search."
The ghost lifted his hair on the left side, and Mason moved to examine the wound. "You weren't shot. You got hit with a blunt object, by the looks of it. A baseball bat or something like that."
"I must have pissed off someone really bad. Maybe my lover," the ghost said and chuckled.
Mason frowned for a moment. "Last night, you kept pestering me about the guy I'm in charge of protecting. Do you like guys?"
The ghost shrugged. "I have no idea, but your boss is really pretty. Maybe I swing both ways, who knows?"
"Let me check the news from one month ago." Mason began typing on his phone. He ran one hand over his face. Just how many people turned out dead every day? If he wanted to lose faith in humanity, all he had to do was read all the news related to crimes of all sorts.
A loud rap on the door startled him. "Hey, Arnie, rise and shine!"
So Billy was an early riser, too. Who would have guessed?
"Sorry, man, but duty calls," Mason told the ghost. "As soon as I have a free moment, I'll continue my search, okay?"
"Okay, man, no sweat. I can wait. And it's a nice place to wait. I feel like it has positive energy, this house."
"It belongs to a musician. I guess it should have a certain vibe," Mason agreed with a shrug. He wasn't the type to get attached to places, but Rhys's home was nice. Even he had to admit that he hadn't expected the bed to be so comfortable. Also, there was something about the color scheme chosen that was pleasant to the eye. Kudos to the decorator, whoever that was.
"Do you mind if I hang out with you?" the ghost asked.
"I can't stop you, right? But keep your mouth shut. The last thing we both need is for people around to think I'm crazy. There won't be much I can do for you if I'm stuck in a straitjacket. Got it?"
"Yeah. I'll be as silent as the grave."
Mason shook his head. Why, oh, why did he have to see dead people all of a sudden?
"Arnie, you in there, man? Rhys needs us."
He dressed up in less than thirty seconds. On his way out, he spared a short glance at the ghost.
"We need to be ready for a radio show that goes live at seven," Rhys explained.
The guy must have slept through the night; yet, the dark circles under his eyes spoke of insomnia. It was his choice to sleep with the lights on, Mason thought. Plus, what was he thinking, drinking until late?
After his antics from last night, Mason would have expected Rhys to be as playful this morning. But the shroud of sadness he had glimpsed the day before was there, again.
"First, we will have breakfast," Mason said.
"We don't have time. I mean, you guys, go ahead. I never eat breakfast anyway."
"Oh, yeah?" Mason quirked an eyebrow.
One layer of shadow slid off Rhys's eyes. "Yeah."
"I don't think so. We're not leaving anywhere until you eat something."
Rhys's perfect mouth morphed into an 'O'. "Who's the boss here?" he managed after a couple of moments of utter surprise. "And what? Are you going to make me?"
"Yes. Billy, explain to Rhys why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In the meantime, I'll make an egg white omelet."
"Billy, you can't be on Mason's side," Rhys protested as he was grabbed and dragged to the kitchen. "You love me, right?"
"I do, but I also love food," Billy said, his tone only half apologetic. "Sorry, Rhys. Arnie here really thinks we should all eat. And he's like the leader of our group."
"Why is he the leader?" Rhys complained some more. "I'm the tallest."
"Yeah, but he is the strongest."
Rhys sighed exaggeratedly. "I can't put anything in my mouth so early. You'll see."
"Yes, we'll see," Mason said and pushed Rhys to walk faster.
"Tormentors, inquisitors," Rhys moaned. "That what the two of you are. Po, you are so unforgiven for this."
"He'll live with the thought," Mason replied in Billy's stead. "Now, you two sit while I prepare the food."
Mason hoped there was something in the fridge. After all that talk about making something to eat, it would have been a bummer to discover the refrigerator empty. At that point, he could just agree with stopping at some fast food place only so that they could grab something before heading over to the radio station.
"Man, how I wished I could still taste food," the ghost said all of a sudden. He was sitting on a counter, his feet balancing above the floor.
Mason pursed his lips. "What the hell, man? I told you to stay silent."
"Po, make this clear for me. Is Arnie cussing at us right this moment? He mumbles to himself, and I can tell by how tense he is that he wants to beat the crap out of someone," Rhys commented.
"I just mumble when I cook," Mason explained. "Some people hum, I mumble."
"Just admit it. You hate it being in charge of me."
"Why would I hate it?" Mason rolled up his sleeves. "Anita, the maid, does she come every day?"
"And, look, how fast he can change the topic," Rhys said. "I can't stand Anita. She'll come when she has to vacuum and change the sheets. Otherwise, she can spend her time doing the hoovering in some bunker somewhere."
Mason chuckled. Rhys looked like the kind of person to appreciate all human beings. Of course, Anita looked only half-human, so maybe that wasn't against his first impression of Rhys.
The ghost came behind Mason and stared at the sizzling pan. "You know what would work with that? A smiley face. Made with ketchup."
Mason ignored him.
"I'm telling you, man. Look at the guy. He could use to see a smiley face, side up."
"Why the fuck do you care? I thought I told you to stay silent," Mason hissed under his breath.
"Wow, Mason, you huff and puff, and even hiss like a dragon. What's next? Are you going to spit fire?" Rhys teased him.
That must have been retribution for making him eat breakfast. Mason decided to ignore the provocation.
"Get the ketchup, man," the ghost insisted. "I'm telling you. He'll love it."
"Fine," Mason agreed and went back to the fridge.
"It's there," the ghost said and pointed at the ketchup bottle on a lower shelf.
Mason shrugged as he took the ketchup bottle. He returned with it and decorated Rhys's plate. "Happy now?" he asked the ghost.
"Perfect. Smiley face, side up."
"What's this?" Rhys asked as soon as he took a look at his plate.
Billy was already halfway through his. Mason sat and began eating. "You're not a child, Rhys. Eat."
"I'm serious." Rhys's voice was tense. "What's this?" There was such a strong expression of revulsion on his face that Mason put his fork down.
"An omelet. Oh, yes, with a smiley face, side up."
Mason sighed. What kind of stupid game was that? "It's only ketchup."
"I know what it is. Why did you add it? And only to my plate?" His voice rose a notch with every word coming out of his mouth. "And why did you say it like that? Is this your idea of a joke?" Rhys stood up abruptly and walked out of the kitchen.
Mason stood there, flabbergasted. "What was that about?" He turned toward Billy. "Some guys just hate breakfast, huh?"
Billy seemed as surprised. "I don't think it's about breakfast, Mason."
"Right. It's about a flighty character who runs hot and cold as he sees fit."
"I'm going after him to ask him what's wrong." Billy stood up.
"Sit and finish your breakfast," Mason ordered. "We're not here to indulge the tantrums of a spoilt child. Rich people, am I right?"
Billy looked at his plate and said nothing. For a guy who seemed to like food more than many other things in life, it appeared as if he was trying hard now to work an appetite.
Rhys kept looking out the window on their way to the radio station. Force of habit or not, Mason got in the back with him, but this morning surely wasn't last night. There was a solid distance between them, filled with an invisible block of ice. Mason felt a small itch in his fingers. One strand of golden hair haphazardly curved to one side of Rhys's head, as if its owner hadn't cared about brushing after waking up. It would take so little to run his fingers through that beautiful mane of hair and make it behave.
Mason got a hold of himself. His attraction toward the guy he was supposed to protect was uncanny. He saw a ghost with a sense of humor, and he couldn't stop feeling drawn to a celebrity named Rhys Harmony. Stranger things had happened before, but nothing as strange as that.
"We're here," Billy said.
Rhys said nothing and got out without waiting for Billy to hold the door for him. Mason followed them quickly. Purposely, Rhys walked in front, without waiting for them, or even acknowledging them. The guy at the entrance threw them a surprised look.
"They're with me," Rhys said from the tip of his lips as if it was too much effort to talk.
Mason wanted to feel pissed at the guy. He really wanted to, but his built-in human repellant didn't seem to work in this case. Maybe he just needed to get laid, take the edge off; find a pretty blond like the one walking in front of him, give it to him hard, and then get back to business as usual. His hands were full, though, for the moment. So, no time to get laid.
"So, your boss is a singer or something?"
What business as usual? He saw ghosts. "I thought I told you I'd get back to you once I have a free moment."
The halls of the radio station were teeming with people, so his mumbles passed unnoticed this time.
"I know. But I'm bored."
"How can you be bored? Can you even feel boredom?" To mask his mouth, Mason covered it with one hand, while observing his surroundings. He was there as Rhys's bodyguard, so he was supposed to pay attention to possible threats. So far, he hadn't noticed crazy fans throwing themselves at Rhys, not even last night at the club, so maybe his charge wasn't that big a celebrity.
"I told you. Being invisible to the world is not funny at all. There's nothing for me to do. So I'll just hang out."
"Do it and stay quiet."
Rhys was invited inside a broadcasting room, and Billy and Mason remained outside. Through the large window, Mason could clearly see Rhys taking a seat and nodding politely at his hosts. The two men measured him a few times and exchanged a look between them. Mason watched them. One of them smirked and leaned toward his coworker, whispering something while placing a hand over the mike. Rhys seemed deep in thought as he arranged the headphones on his head.
A young assistant passed by. Mason turned and caught his arm. "Can we listen to what's going on inside?" He pointed at the window.
The assistant looked at him like he had horns on his head. "It's live. It's on the radio. Do you think you can figure it out, big guy?"
Mason let go of the young man's arm. He reached into his pocket for his phone, but Billy touched his arm.
"We can listen on mine," Billy said.
"Okay." Mason crossed his arms over his chest and watched.
Rhys raised his eyes and stared at him. Mason didn't look away. Eventually, Rhys gave up on the staring contest. His hosts began firing questions at him.
"So, Rhys, it's been … how long?"
"Since I've been on a live show, you mean?"
Rhys's voice was as pleasant as always, but he sounded tired and a tad distant. If all it took was a poor breakfast choice to make him feel like that, Mason could understand why Levine was overprotective of his little protégé.
"Yeah. You disappeared."
"Around a year. Yes, one year."
"And now, you're ready to be under the hot lights, again."
"It appears so."
"How are you feeling?"
"Great. Everything is … just great."
Rhys wasn't that good a liar. The two radio show hosts exchanged another look that didn't go under Mason's radar. They were with their backs at him, but their interactions were pretty obvious.
"But, as you know it, I'm working on a new album."
"Yes, we listened to your latest song, and we're fired up. Should we take it that the other songs on your album will be in the same vein?"
"What vein is that?"
Mason grinned. Rhys was no fool. Whatever those two hosts wanted to do to get a rise from him, they were subtle like bricks, and Rhys was showing them that he wasn't blind.
Exaggerated trash. That was the translation Mason thought up in his head. Whoever those two radio hosts were, they had no lost love for Rhys Harmony by how they talked, sugar mixed with poison.
Rhys straightened up in his chair and linked his hands in front of him on the table. "Yes."
"Would you like to tell us more?"
"Sure. I am trying to bring a new instrument to the mix. I don't know if you noticed, but there's a harp in there."
"We are more interested in the lyrics. You still write your own songs, right?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
"So, what are the songs about? Heartbreak? Don't you think they are a bit on the nose?"
Rhys's blue eyes fogged, and he licked his lips slowly. Mason tensed.
"An artist never creates in a vacuum. It is only natural that artists are influenced by what happens in their lives."
"Influenced by what? In your case?" That was the other man speaking.
"One of you tells me my music is too obvious, and the other asks me about it like he cannot understand a thing. What is this shit? Good cop, bad cop? I've been there before, thank you very much."
"Hey, hey, Rhys, what the f, man? You just can't say four-letter-words on the radio."
"Really? I thought we were busy milling garbage right now."
"Wow, wow, don't come so hard at us, man. We just want to help you promote your new album."
"Let's put the cards on the table, boys. What is really that you want to know? It's not about my music, right?"
Mason threw Billy a short look. "Is this how this radio show is supposed to go down?"
Billy shook his head, and he looked tense, too. "They're just a bunch of assholes. Good for Rhys that he had seen straight through their bullshit."
"Well, if you put it like this, yes, we want to know what everyone wants."
"And what's that?"
"What really happened that night?"
"I've been questioned by the police, time and time again. I have nothing else to add."
"Still. I mean, you say you can't remember a thing? Who can believe that?"
Rhys wavered. Mason straightened up. He had no idea what was going on, but he wouldn't wait, arms crossed.
"There was probable cause." That was, again, the other host.
"And we just want to know. Did you do it?"
Mason pushed open the door.
"Hey, man, you can't just walk in like this!" One of the hosts protested. "Can't you see we're live?" He pointed at the neon sign.
Mason brushed against the man, making him squeeze, chair and all, against the table. He offered Rhys one hand. "We're going," he said calmly.
Rhys took his hand without a word of protest.
"Hey, Rhys, you're supposed to be on air with us for twenty minutes more!" The first host called loudly, and half stood from his chair.
"Your little show is over." Mason pushed him back down with one heavy hand on his shoulder.
He marched out of the room, with Rhys by the hand. Billy hurried after them. "Jesus, Arnie, that was so friggin' cool!"
"Let's get home. Is there somewhere else you need to be?" Mason asked Rhys. "Right now?"
"Is home all right?"
"Yes, it is."
Rhys's hand was cold in his, and Mason could feel him trembling slightly. Whatever that shit had been in there, it had rattled him quite badly.
"Billy, drive. And you can be fast, as long as you don't break the law."
Once they were on the backseat, Rhys started shaking for real. Mason took off his jacket and put it over Rhys's shoulders. Then, he pulled him close to his chest and held him tightly. Rhys's phone went off.
"Let it," Mason said shortly.
Rhys continued to tremble, but he ignored Mason's order. He answered the phone with shaky hands, without pulling away from Mason's arms. "Yes?" His voice was a whisper.
Mason leaned in to listen to the conversation.
"How could you leave a live show like that, Rhys?"
Ah, sure thing. El Crappo di tutti crapi. How the fuck had he found out so fast?
He let go of Rhys only to take the phone from his hand. "Mr. Goldman, sir. They were harassing Rhys. I intervened."
"Who's this? The mute bodyguard?"
"Mason Knight, at your service, sir."
"It doesn't look like you're at my service. Why did you pull Rhys out of that show? It wasn't your place to --"
"You hired Billy and me to do a job, which is to protect Rhys. They were tearing him to shreds for their stupid show. With all due respect, sir," Mason added after one heartbeat.
"It appears that I need to make it clear to you what your job description is."
Rhys covered Mason's hand and took the phone. "Lev, he did the right thing."
"These two are not fit to be your bodyguards. I will find someone else more qualified."
"Don't you dare," Rhys whispered. "It's been a long time since someone stood up for me."
Mason listened, his ears perked up.
"That's not fair, Rhys. I've always protected you. I've always held your best interests in mind."
"I do not want this life, Lev. It is only because I'm indebted to you that I continue. Just say the word, say you don't want me to do this for you, and I'll be out of your hair in a heartbeat. I can sing anywhere."
"Don't say that, dear child." It looked like Rhys's little speech had affected Levine. "Continue to sing, and I will continue to take care of you. Your talent won't be wasted."
"I get to keep Mason and Billy."
"All right. You get to keep them." A sigh followed the words.
Mason had thought that Levine Goldman was a good candidate to meet his fist. Now, he knew why. The fucker wanted to throw Rhys to the wolves only so that he could make a few sales. Just how much money some people needed? He remembered how Boyd had said that Rhys was a pet project for Levine.
Right. Of course, there was that other thing. Levine wanted to get in Rhys's pants, and if Rhys gave up on his help, he would have no leverage.
"Just rest for the day. You still have those pills I gave you?"
"Make sure not to take too many at a time, okay?"
Mason frowned. What pills were those? He put his arm around Rhys after the conversation was finished. At least, Rhys was no longer shivering as severely as before.
"Who are you, Mason?" Rhys asked softly.
"Your bodyguard. You know, as in the guy who has to protect you."
"I know that. You and Billy were great today."
"To my shame, I didn't do anything," Billy said from his driver's seat, apparently in tune with everything happening around him.
"You were present, which is a lot. It sucks to be alone in this shitty world."
Mason felt Rhys sighing. Yeah, it sucked. But one didn't have to dwell on that; one had to fight and push back the world if that was what it took.
"My knight in shining armor," Rhys murmured as he put his head on Mason's shoulder.
"In a cheap suit, rather," Mason said with a small chuckle.
"I'll buy you a better one."
"Don't you dare."
"I like this one. I don't like new clothes."
Rhys snickered. It was a sweet sound to hear after the tense atmosphere from before. "Billy, can I at least spoil you?"
"Yeah, sure," Billy replied. "But don't buy me suits. How about we just all hit a fast food joint and eat greasy food and drink sugary beverages?"
"We had breakfast, Billy," Mason warned his partner.
"Rhys didn't," Billy pointed out.
Mason tensed. Whatever he had done at breakfast had upset Rhys badly, and now he didn't believe it had been just a tantrum.
"I'm sorry, Mason, for this morning," Rhys said. "It's just that … it doesn't matter. I shouldn't have reacted like that. So, let's indulge Billy this time. But no greasy stuff, okay? I can agree with something sweet."
"Hmm, pancakes?" Billy suggested.
"Pancakes sound like the perfect pick-me-up," Rhys confirmed. "Can we, Mason? Pretty please with whatever topping you prefer on top?"
"All right." Mason smiled. "Let there be pancakes. But only this time, okay? You two are the poster boys for unhealthy eating."
"Sure. What do you say, Billy?"
"And look at them how fast they hurry to agree. So that you know, though. I'll have both of you eat your veggies."
"Sounds tough," Rhys said with a small giggle.
"Sure thing sounds tough," Billy added, but he wasn't as amused.
"Worry about that later. Now, let's head over to the best place in town where they serve pancakes. I imagine you know where that is, right, Po?"
"Sure thing, chief."
"Chief? What happened to Arnie?"
"I can give you as many nicknames as I want, right?"
Mason just nodded. Rhys cuddled next to him, and the trembling was gone from his body completely.
For a couple of seconds, he looked around. It seemed that the ghost wasn't with them. Not that Billy and Rhys could see him. But Mason wondered briefly where he could have gone.
I can't start to imagine what you may think after this chapter, so please feel free to tell me! What I know is that I'm weaving something twisted here, so please bear with me!