Mason moved the toolbox from one hand to another and knocked on Rhys’s bedroom door. It seemed that the earlier ruckus had worn out Rhys a little, and he had asked to be left to sleep for a while. At least, he had eaten a pancake, and Mason had had to be satisfied with that. Seeing how skinny Rhys was, it was a miracle he didn’t come undone at any moment.
Still, he had a job to do, and he hadn’t forgotten about the camera that he needed to install on the balcony. That was why he was there, and not because he needed a reason to check on Rhys. At least, he could tell himself that. Nobody in good health needed to sleep that much.
He waited patiently. At the second knock, a sleepy voice invited him in.
Rhys was still in bed, even in his pajamas. Mason stole a quick look at him. The silk top was open in front, allowing milky skin to show. It wasn’t a good idea to gawk.
“Sorry about this, but I need to secure the perimeter properly.”
Rhys nodded and followed him with his eyes. He turned and propped his head against one hand, lying on one side.
Mason opened the door to the balcony and examined the location. Mounting the camera required a bit of drilling. “If you want, you could go somewhere else for half an hour. It’s going to get noisy.” From his toolbox, he retrieved a portable drill.
“I don’t mind the noise. There’s so much quiet, it’s annoying.”
“Seriously, don’t you have somewhere you need to be? Like making music and that?”
“I’d rather stay here and watch you.”
Mason shrugged. He turned on the drill and stole a quick look at Rhys over one shoulder. It didn’t seem that he was bothered. Without another word, he got to work. His hands were steady; a pretty man watching him couldn’t intimidate him that easily.
He checked the wiring and the Wi-Fi signal. It looked like everything worked well. “This is all for now.”
He turned and looked at Rhys. Why did he have to be such a pretty thing? Mason couldn’t erase if his life depended on it, the taste of those rosy lips when Rhys had kissed him the first time they met. “Well?”
“How come you don’t question me?”
“Question you? About what?”
“You know what.”
“Actually, I don’t. And I never question the people I’m working for.”
“It’s usually Boyd’s job to see that I don’t work for some scumbag. I trust him.”
“Ah, I see. Okay.”
“Is this all?”
“Yes. I mean, thank you. For today. You really were there for me. You went beyond the call of duty --”
“You don’t have to thank me for doing my job.”
“It was more than that, and you know it.”
Mason was trying hard not to stare, but not to avoid looking at Rhys, either. It was a losing battle, either way. “Anything else?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to thank you again.”
“Why are you so cold?”
“I’m working. Something you should be doing, too.”
“Really?” Rhys was trying to start something. His lips curled up, and his eyelids dropped.
“Get out of bed. You’ve slept for two hours already. It’s unhealthy to dwell in bed for so long.”
“Hmm, but I don’t have any reason to get out of bed.” If that was Rhys’s impersonation of a petulant child, he had it spot on.
“Find one.” Mason turned toward the door again.
“Wait, aren’t you going to make me?”
“Why would I do that?” This conversation took longer than expected.
“Because it’s your job or something.”
“My job is to protect you, not to help you out of bed.”
“But you just said it’s unhealthy to spend so much time in bed. And, if you care so much --”
“I don’t care. I’m doing my job.”
“Then do your job and make me get out of bed.” Rhys crossed his arms over his chest.
Mason put down his toolbox. He walked over to the bed, Rhys’s eyes on him, never missing a beat. Calmly, he pulled the blanket from Rhys’s body, folded it, and then threw it on the balcony.
A surprised gasp came from behind him. That wasn’t all. Mason came back and began searching the drawers, carefully avoiding the one he knew well what it contained and hoping there weren’t any other surprises waiting for him. Finally, he found what he was looking for. Armed with a brush, he climbed on the bed. He grabbed Rhys by one arm and turned him.
“Oh,” Rhys murmured.
Mason didn’t plan to waste any more time. The brush went through the blond strands and muddled in them immediately.
“Ouch,” Rhys protested. “This hurts! Do you even have any idea what you’re doing?”
“You’re behaving like a spoilt kid, so you must be treated like one. The thing is, I’ve never had a kid in my care, so I’m just doing my best here.” To make his intentions clear, Mason pushed the brush harder, making Rhys yelp.
“You’re ripping off my scalp, you demon!” Rhys reached back to grab the brush.
Well, mission accomplished. Mason tried to move out of the bed, but Rhys moved fast and cut his exit by simply throwing himself at him.
Great. Now the blond hair he had tried to brush earlier was caressing his face as Rhys hovered over him. He was pinned to the bed, but that wasn’t a problem. The problem was the sexy guy straddling him and pushing his hands against his chest.
“Your hair is a mess, and you look like shit,” Mason told him. The easiest way to push off temptations and the person causing them had to be an insult. There was no way someone so pretty could tolerate being commented like that on how he looked.
Rhys made a face, but he didn’t look upset. He just reached for the brush, removed it from his hair, and threw it away. Then, he returned to teasing Mason with a vengeance. “There is always something that could convince me to move, although not out of bed.”
Mason grunted as Rhys pushed his crotch into his. “I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone else to play with, sugar lips.”
“Sugar lips? Ah, so you do remember our little kiss. Trust me; it was just a demo.”
Mason moved his head away just in time. Rhys huffed in annoyance but didn’t give up. Instead, he bit Mason’s cheek. Not hard, but enough to be felt.
Their little fooling around was getting out of hand. Mason pushed himself up, taking Rhys with him. There was laughter as he stood up, without releasing Rhys. Of course, it stopped when Mason planted Rhys on his feet.
“You don’t like me?” Rhys whined, but Mason could tell it was all an act.
“I don’t like spoilt celebrities with unkempt hair and who don’t brush their teeth.”
Rhys blew air into his cupped hand. “I brushed my teeth this morning. And I didn’t sleep for real. My mouth doesn’t smell or anything.”
Mason had no plans of checking that in detail. “To the bathroom with you. Brush your hair, brush your teeth --”
“Yes, again. And get out of these pajamas. You look like a clinically depressed housewife.”
Mason bit his tongue. For all he knew, Rhys could be depressed. He surely showed some signs, although Mason was no doctor.
To his relief, Rhys began to laugh. “What else do you want me to do?”
“Anything that doesn’t involve you spending time in bed all day long, feeling sorry for yourself. Okay?”
“Okay,” Rhys agreed. “But, I want something to keep me motivated.”
Mason sighed. “A kiss, and you’re going to stop moping around?”
Mason took Rhys by the upper arms, looked him in the eyes for a moment, and then kissed him quickly on the lips with a loud sound. The beautiful blue eyes grew wide but then warmed with laughter.
“Thank you, Mason.”
“Nothing to thank me for.”
“Why? It wasn’t that unbearable?”
Mason’s eyes narrowed. What was Rhys playing at? “What do you mean?”
Rhys began walking toward the bathroom while discarding pieces of clothing on his way. “I was worried you’d be really straight, Arnie. Good thing you’re not.”
Mason left the room as Rhys was pushing down his pajama bottoms. By the looks of things, there was no underwear anywhere in sight.
He wouldn’t question Rhys about what that thing at the radio station was about, but he didn’t want to start reading tabloids, either. What he needed was an opinion from someone who wouldn’t judge Rhys like a media monkey with a mental disorder.
Billy was busy testing the surveillance equipment in the small room they had set up for that purpose downstairs. “How long do you think we should keep the records?” he asked, without moving his eyes from the screen.
“We could archive them and upload them to the cloud.”
“Most people would erase them after twenty-four hours.”
“I know, but I don’t want to miss anything, just in case.”
“You know we’re not guarding the president.” Billy finally moved slightly from the computer so that he could reach for his bag of chips.
Mason took the bag before Billy could have it. He opened the trash can placed near the desk and dropped it inside.
“Hey, man, not cool.”
“Yes cool. You might hate me now, but your heart won’t twenty years from now.”
Billy snickered. “I and Rhys both might get in shape while you lord over us like this.”
“Hopefully. Hey, Po, you’re an expert in all things Rhys Harmony, right?”
“I’d like to think so. I’m a big fan and everything.”
“What was that shit on the radio this morning?”
Billy’s eyes grew wide. “You mean, you don’t know?”
Mason shrugged. “I never knew who Rhys Harmony was until yesterday.”
“And you didn’t google him or anything?”
“No. I don’t pry, as a general rule.”
“It would hardly be prying. It was all over the news a year ago.”
“Okay, what was?”
“Did you really miss it? You must have seen it by accident when turning on the TV --”
“I don’t watch TV. I don’t even own one.”
“Wow, that’s, um, that’s healthy, I think.”
“So, now, what happened one year ago? Why was Rhys questioned by the police?”
Billy looked away, and his facial features morphed. He suddenly seemed sad. “Rhys’s boyfriend got killed.”
Mason froze. “For real?”
“Yeah. Toby. Tobias Davis, that was his name.”
“All right, how did it happen? Was Rhys the main suspect?”
Billy nodded. “It was an ugly thing. They were at some club, and Toby went out after a row with Rhys. It was around five am, and the people were starting to leave. There was a big party or something.”
“They were fighting?”
“Yeah. A bit too often. About money and things. At least, that was what everyone was saying at that time.”
Mason nodded. Now he needed to know everything. “So, what happened?”
“Rhys wasn’t quite himself that night either. He was drunk, like really drunk. It happened when he got into those fights with Toby. The thing was, he went to the bathroom after Toby walked out. He locked himself in a stall and passed out.”
“Hmm. And don’t tell me. People say they don’t remember when he disappeared from view.”
“Exactly,” Billy confirmed. “Not that you could count on anything anyone said. They were all a bit too drunk, a bit too high; you know how it is. The thing was, Toby was found in the back alley, dead, only a few hours later.”
“I see. And how did he die?”
“At first, people thought that he was just dead drunk and slipped. You know, fell and hit his head. But the police came, and what do you know? They suspected foul play after quickly checking the body.”
“He said he couldn’t remember a damn thing.”
“All right, so the cause of death was what?” Mason asked in a measured voice.
Billy looked straight at him. “Blunt trauma to the head.”
“Where to the head?” Mason could only congratulate himself for keeping a steady voice. A suspicion was starting to form. The timeline didn’t match, but he couldn’t take the words of a wandering ghost who didn’t remember anything about his former life at face value.
“Does it matter?” Billy asked, a bit surprised by Mason’s line of questioning.
“Just tell me if you know.”
“The left side of the head, above the temple, I think.”
Mason nodded. “Why did they suspect Rhys?”
Billy grimaced. “They fought a lot. And they were loud about it, too, especially that night.”
“But many people fight, and they don’t turn murderous on each other. The police must have had more than just that.”
“Besides probable cause, you mean?” Billy’s eyes shone in the semi-dark of the surveillance room.
“Yeah, besides that.”
“Rhys couldn’t say what he did during the time frame established for Toby’s death. He completely blacked out.”
“And he was in the bathroom. Even with no one seeing him go there, still, what reason did they have to believe he was involved?”
“Toby’s blood was on his clothes.”
“Shit.” Mason rubbed his mouth. “Was there an explanation for that? Other than killing him in a feat of rage?”
“There was broken glass. Toby had broken a bottle while fighting with Rhys. There were cuts on his fingers. When Rhys had tried to reason with him, Toby’s blood might have gotten on his clothes.”
“Fair enough. What about the murder weapon?”
“None in sight,” Billy said.
For a moment, Mason’s mind searched for something. “Was all this in the papers?”
“Yeah. It made the headlines for days. The problem was that Rhys, well,” Billy sighed, “he even thought, at first, that he might have done it.”
“What? For real?”
Billy waved. “It was more like he blamed himself. I don’t like Levine Goldman, either, but the guy went the extra mile to get Rhys out of this mess. He couldn’t have done it.”
“You seem so sure of it. Don’t tell me that, being the rabid fan that you are,” Mason joked, “you managed somehow to get your hands on the police report.”
Billy laughed. “I may be a rabid fan, but I’m not that well connected. The thing is the police eventually decided that Rhys couldn’t be the perp. End of story.”
“Was anyone else suspected? Did they even consider someone else?”
“Not that I know of. All eyes were on Rhys. For all the shitty papers and entertainment media, it was like mana from heavens. They just loved it, the fucking scumbags.” Billy got a bit agitated as he continued. “Rhys and Toby had been childhood friends, joined at the hip and all that. They left the slums together; they did everything like they were brothers. They were two lost children facing the world together. At least, that was one of the stories some papers loved to tell. But Toby got all kinds of weird ideas in his head. Rhys started making money, but, you know, he’s not Beyoncé or anything. Toby thought he could do better. He even suspected Levine of not giving Rhys his share. Well, at least, that was what the papers said at the time. They could have fought about anything, from money to who didn’t take out the trash. Who knows? Rhys got through a really rough patch. He’s better now, but, you know.”
“How can you be so sure he didn’t do it, Billy? It could have been an accident, not that he meant to off his boyfriend. You know. Shit happens.”
“His blood alcohol level was almost zero point four. Well, that was the estimate, considering the drop for the hours that went between five am and the time when Toby’s body was found, and the police took Rhys in for questioning. How could he manage to hide the murder weapon? And then, what? Just waltz back inside and pass out? Zero point four, man. Not even the highest functional drunk can pull off something like that. Also, there were plenty of people vouching that all night, he poured booze into his system like it was the last thing on earth he wanted to do.”
“That much?” Mason’s head spin. “He could have died.” He couldn’t even think of Billy’s reasoning right now. A cold chill traveled down his spine. “Why didn’t you tell me? We should have never let him drink last night.”
Billy offered him a strained smile. “I kept emptying his glass when he wasn’t looking. He didn’t have as much as he thought he did. If we told him ‘no’ directly, he would just go behind our backs, right? Why do you think Levine considered having two bodyguards with him all the time? So that he doesn’t get into the same kind of trouble again.”
“You think that’s the reason?”
Billy moved his head to one side, then the other. “I have my suspicions.”
“Spit out everything,” Mason ordered.
“Whoever killed Toby, it’s still out there, right?”
“Yeah. I guess because no one really cared to investigate more, right?”
Billy’s smile thinned. “Right. So who’s to know if this person is not after Rhys, too?”
“That’s a bit of a stretch. That Toby character could have just gotten into a fight with some street punk. It could have been something completely random. And why get the needed security for Rhys now? It’s been a year, right?”
Billy grimaced. “Until one month ago or so, he’d been in rehab.”
Mason ran one hand over his face. But it made sense in a way. If the pieces of the puzzle fell as he suspected, that was a link of sorts. “Again, why the hell didn’t I know all that? That guy doesn’t put a damn drop of alcohol in his mouth again, do you hear me?”
Billy just nodded.
“I don’t hear you, and I need to hear you.”
“Crystal clear, chief.”
At least, that was one thing to put down to rest. Mason’s favorite ghost would learn about his real identity, soon. But first, he needed to check on something.
Mason opened the cupboards one by one, methodically taking bottles and bags of food out and putting them back. So far, so good. The house seemed clear. But drunks could be inventive people when they had to be.
With one hand, he fiddled with his phone. The string of search results flicked on the page. On the top, from a series of pictures, Rhys and his boyfriend smiled for the camera, from a time when things must have seemed all right. Yeap, that was his ghost, right there. Nice to finally put a name on him.
For a moment, he left the phone on the counter as he began searching through yet another cupboard. Crouched in front of it and half inside, he missed approaching steps until it was too late.
“Curious, after all?”
Mason almost hit his head. First, his eyes met a pair of long legs, this time dressed in jeans, not pajama bottoms. His eyes traveled higher. Rhys held his phone and was, without a doubt, checking the information displayed.
“Not surprised,” Rhys said and threw Mason’s phone back on the counter. He turned on his heels and stormed out of the kitchen.
The first impulse was to run after him and hold him. But Mason didn’t follow his instinct. No matter how protective Rhys could make him feel, that wasn’t in his job description. Not that kind of protection. There was personal, and there was stuff that wasn’t personal. The two didn’t mix, ever.
Mason abandoned his search for hidden alcohol for the time being. He took his phone and leaned against the counter. There was a lot of history to cover, and, as much as Mason didn’t get involved in the lives of those he worked for, this time, he had to do it.
His sanity was in balance, so, whether he liked it or not, it was a fair trade.
He skimmed through a bunch of articles that said nothing he didn’t already know from Billy. Never one to judge people, Mason still wanted to know more about Rhys’s relationship with his boyfriend. Had Tobias, Toby, been violent toward his lover? Whatever had happened between them before that fatal night, it had been at a boiling point for some time, according to the tabloids.
He shifted his weight from one foot to another as he took in the pictures with Rhys in cuffs. His shoulders were slumped, the look on his face was distant, and he could barely walk. One could say that was a guilty man, right there; Mason saw something else. Rhys’s whole world must have come crashing down that night. For all the judgmental commentaries and hardly veiled satisfaction some of the authors of those articles must have had while writing that garbage, he understood one thing. Rhys had only had Toby, and Toby had only had Rhys. There were no mentions of families, past, or anything along those lines.
Things were much clearer now. Mason, like Billy, couldn’t stand Levine, but the man was looking out for Rhys. He hadn’t come out and told them they needed to protect Rhys from himself, more than the outside world. Probably, he hadn’t wanted them to believe Rhys was a helpless drunk who might have killed his boyfriend and forgotten about it. For his tactful attitude, Mason had to commend him, albeit reluctantly.
It was easy to see the world in black and white. But things were never like that. Levine Goldman had protected Rhys against the world at the right moment. Maybe he had done it for the wrong reasons, but the truth remained. It was most likely that Rhys wasn’t rotting in a prison cell, somewhere, innocent or not, only because Levine had stood up for him.
Funny how things looked now. Toby had a lot of things to be held accountable for. Could it be he had gotten on the bad side of some loan sharks? Why would he be so obsessed with his boyfriend’s money otherwise? Gambling? Addictions? His ghost looked like a swell guy, but that was, for now, at least, an empty shell.
For all that Mason knew, Tobias Davis could have been a world-class scumbag while alive. Levine Goldman stank of scumbag, too, but at least Rhys was home, and relatively in good health, only because of him.
Mason closed the browser and stood there for a while, phone in hand, taking in his surroundings. It wasn’t an easy job, for sure, and on several accounts. Rhys Harmony looked like an angel, but his closet was full of skeletons, and that wasn’t just a way of saying. Levine Goldman was a rich prick with dubious interests in Rhys, but who seemed capable of doing the right thing.
And, last but not least, Tobias Davis, who was supposed to be dead and buried somewhere, had decided to become a friendly ghost. Mason pinched the bridge of his nose. Boyd must have thought that he had gotten him the best job ever, but Mason had a feeling he would earn every penny, to the last one.
At the back of his brain, a somewhat annoying sensation was telling him that he was missing something from the picture. He would figure it all out later. For now, maybe it was a good idea to find Rhys and apologize for prying. Perhaps his words wouldn’t sound sincere, but Mason needed to build a new bridge of trust between them. Even if it wasn’t in his job description, it was something he wanted to do.
He was lost in thought as he walked out of the kitchen.
“Man, you won’t believe what I just found out!”
Mason cursed under his breath. Before him, the ghost was jumping up and down as if he could barely wait to break some news to Mason.
“Could you stop that? It’s pretty annoying.” One beat. “Tobias.”
Damn. That was going to be a long explanation.
So, now Mason knows who the ghost is, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. What do you, guys, think? Will Mason be able to disentangle the mystery ball? Feel free to speculate, but if you guess everything, I might not tell you! (Just a friendly warning) You still get the consolation prize of saying at the end 'I knew it!' (and rub it in my face).
With that said, I wish you a productive week starting tomorrow - or a fun one, if you're free of obligations - and I'll see you next time in full formation (now with Toby joining the crew properly).
All the best,
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