“After you died? Are you sure?” Mason whispered and threw an anxious look toward the bathroom door. The sound of water running probably masked whatever it was said in the room, but he didn’t want to risk having Rhys question his sanity.
Toby nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving the wall covered in quotes. “It’s strange, and it feels like it must have happened long before the month I believe I’ve been around, as I told you.”
Mason looked at the wall, too. “Do you see anything you recognize? The chances are you must have stood right here if this is what triggered your memory.”
“It’s not a memory. It’s a feel.” Toby let one hand hover over the wall.
Mason frowned. The words were black on white, with not one ounce of color; at least, that had been what he had thought the first time. All of a sudden, something caught his eye. An oddity. Of all the calligraphic letters, one word stood out. A red line, like a scratch, went underneath. Without overthinking, he asked, “Did you do this?”
Toby looked at the underlined word. “I don’t remember.”
Mason got closer and traced the fading red line. Something of its copperish color made him shiver slightly. “In. What’s that supposed to mean?”
Toby remained silent. “It could be nothing. In. It’s just a simple word.”
“Not if it’s part of a sentence,” Mason said, and his eyes began to travel over the wall. “Fist. Your. Clutched. In your clutched fist?” There seem to be no other words underlined.
“In your clutched fist? I have no idea what that means. This color looks like old blood.”
“How would you even know what old blood looks like?” Mason had an ill sensation, and his hand withdrew from the wall. “Show me your palms, Toby.”
Toby opened his hands, his eyes still glued to the wall.
“How come you have no wounds on your hands?”
“Why should I?”
“Rhys got in deep shit with the police after you died because your blood was on his clothes. Apparently, it landed there after you cut your hands in a broken bottle.”
Toby looked at his hands. “I don’t know why there are no traces of that.”
“While the wound on your temple --”
“Maybe that’s the only wound that matters.”
Mason sighed. “I think you came in here after you died and underlined these words with your bloodied fingers.”
“A little bit too goth, don’t you think?”
They were on the point of a big discovery, and Toby cared only about joking.
“Seriously, dude, this could be a major clue,” Mason warned. “Think. What the hell do these words mean? In your clutched fist?”
Toby shook his head and looked with dejected eyes at the wall. “Beats me.”
“Ah, dammit, Toby,” Mason said under his breath. “It wouldn’t hurt if you remembered something.”
There was no trace of amusement on Toby’s face when their eyes met. So, maybe it was all nothing but a coping mechanism.
The water stopped running. Mason straightened up. Rhys came out of the bathroom while rubbing his wet hair with a towel. He was naked from the waist up, and Mason didn’t catch himself in time. His hungry eyes traveled over the nicely modeled pecs. Rhys was no gym rat, but he had a bit of meat on his bones where it mattered. Mason could see himself sucking on those rosy nipples and teasing them with tongue and teeth until he would drive their owner mad with lust.
His attraction toward Rhys wasn’t funny anymore.
Toby sighed. “He’s so beautiful. I’ll go around the house, maybe something jogs my memory. Make sure to wipe your mouth, though, bud. You’re drooling.”
Mason turned with an annoyed glare toward Toby, but the ghost was already walking through the wall with quick steps. Was Toby avoiding Rhys on purpose?
“Is there something wrong, Mason?” Rhys’s slightly worried voice took him back.
“Nothing,” Mason replied, a bit too sharply. To keep from staring at Rhys’s naked chest, he turned toward the wall with quotes. “I was reading some of these quotes. Did you write them?”
“No. I just collect them.” Rhys came to stand by his side, without bothering to put something on, much to Mason’s frustration.
Mason pointed at one of the underlined words. The direct approach usually worked. Maybe Toby didn’t remember anything, but Rhys could shed light on hidden corners and that without suspecting anything. “Is there a reason why you underlined this word?”
Rhys’s face changed. “I didn’t do that.”
Rhys shook his head, and the color drained from his face. “Someone surely did. What the fuck?” he murmured under his breath. He moved closer, and Mason let him figure out the phrase for himself. “Clutched in your fist?”
That could be a version, too. A better one.
Rhys touched the wall. “What kind of sick joke could this be?”
Mason sensed the distress growing inside Rhys. He hated himself for putting Rhys in a hot spot with that, but he could be the key to everything. If Toby thought of leaving him a message, there had to be something there.
Rhys moved away from the wall. He rubbed his forehead. “Who the fuck --” He stopped mid-sentence and went for his phone.
Mason followed him with his eyes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling Levine to ask him who had access to my house and my bedroom while I was gone.”
Mason was so fast to take Rhys’s phone from his hand that he surprised even himself. It was just a gut instinct, but he didn’t want Levine to know about the secret message Toby had left on the wall for Rhys to see, and no one else.
“What the hell, Mason?” Rhys tried to fight him for the phone. “Someone clearly broke in, with the intention to drive me crazy by fucking gaslighting.”
“And I’m in charge of your security. That’s for me to figure out.”
“But asking Levine --”
“Would only get me in trouble. Your boss doesn’t like me, as things stand. I bet he barely waits to fire me.”
“But this must have been here before you came --”
“And how do you know that? We got the cameras up and running, and we can check them, but what if it happened sometime shortly before that?”
Rhys’s forehead frowned in thought. “Do you care a lot about this job, Mason? You’re in charge of a small time singer with serious lost love issues and an alcohol addiction.”
Mason grimaced. “I thought you said you didn’t have an alcohol problem.”
“I don’t. I just described what you think of me.”
“Hey, not fair. I care about you and I want to keep you safe. I can’t do that if I’m fired.” Mason was getting a bit worked up now. He needed to keep Rhys from calling Levine by any means necessary.
Rhys’s face lit up with amusement. “Wow. Was that a small confession?”
“Yes, it was,” Mason admitted.
Rhys came closer. He took the phone from Mason’s hand but only to throw it on the bed. His long arms wrapped around Mason’s neck, and his naked chest pressed against him.
And that he got for playing with fire. If he were in mortal danger, Mason couldn’t break the magic of that moment. From up close, Rhys was even more stunning if that was possible. He was warm and half-naked, and his lips were a promise of sweet water in the desert.
“Don’t call Levine. Let me handle this.”
“Kiss me and I will.”
“There’s no other way?”
Rhys’s lips hovered close to his. “No.”
Mason surrendered. Rhys’s mouth was sweeter than he remembered, and all his rational thinking slipped and slid like a kid on ice, with joy and enthusiasm, but without one ounce of control. There was no regret in him when he caught Rhys by the back of his head to deepen their kiss.
He could only imagine how rough his mouth was on Rhys’s soft lips, but he couldn’t stop. Their tongues battled and danced. There was no memory to compare; it was new and wonderful, and Mason’s heart ached, squeezed between wanting to jump out of his chest and his deep desire to keep himself safe.
He allowed his hands to descend on Rhys’s back, caressing the shoulder blades and follow the spine down to the waist. At the last minute, before losing his sanity completely, Mason managed through sheer iron will, to pull himself from the kiss.
Rhys was panting slightly, and his eyes were moist, hooded by heavy eyelids.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Mason mumbled.
Rhys caught Mason’s face into his hands. “What could you be sorry for?”
Mason closed his eyes. He didn’t have in him to face the fact that he liked Rhys much more than he was willing to admit. He felt guilty, too; Rhys still ached for his dead lover, and the said lover happened to be the ghost haunting Mason presently. It wasn’t cheating, but it was, and Mason was no cheater.
“It’s been so long since I felt anything like this,” Rhys said, his words like gentle raindrops on a roof. “Don’t blame me for liking it.”
“I don’t blame you. I just don’t want to take advantage of you. You’re still grieving and --”
Rhys moved abruptly away from him. “And what would you know about grieving?”
More than you know.
Mason kept silent. It didn’t serve anyone to wallow in pain and misery. And the more unfeeling Rhys thought him to be, the better.
“Please feel free to wait for me downstairs.” Rhys went to his closet, without sparing Mason another look.
“Don’t call Levine,” Mason said, his hand on the doorknob.
“I won’t. I said that if you kissed me, I wouldn’t call him. Let’s say the kiss was good enough for me to honor my promise.”
Mason didn’t say anything else. As much as he wanted to reach for Rhys and hold him in his arms until all the pain was gone, that was not possible. He had plenty on his plate already, such as trying to solve a murder whose victim had chosen to become a ghost and haunt Mason of all people in the world.
Before walking out, a thought struck him. “Those words, do they mean anything?”
Rhys turned, surprised to see him still there. His face closed, his lips in a straight line. “No, not really.”
Which meant that they did. Mason needed to find a subtler way to find out what, and that without ending up kissing Rhys and losing his head.
Billy was in the kitchen, and it looked like he had upbeat music streaming through his headphones because he was swinging his hips with quite a lot of grace, seeing the size of his girth.
Mason watched him in silence for a while. These days, he was starting to get suspicious of his own shadow. Seeing how his shadow was a ghost sometimes, that wasn’t that surprising.
Billy turned and dropped his peanut butter sandwich when his eyes landed on Mason. “Hey, man, how long have you been standing there?” Billy took off his airpods and hurried to clean the floor and throw the sandwich in the trashcan.
“Billy, have you noticed some suspicious activity around the property since we got the cameras on?”
Monitoring the surveillance equipment was Billy’s job. However, he needed to check on him, and, right now, he needed to make Rhys believe that he was looking for a possible intruder, although he knew who that was. Dropping hints later in his conversations with Billy, when Rhys would be present, sounded like a plan to make him think that.
Billy was thoughtful for a moment. “No, nothing. Why?”
“Rhys has this idea that someone’s been in his room.”
Billy frowned. “Did they steal anything? What’s missing?”
“It’s nothing like that. More like a feeling.” Mason lied through his teeth. “You know, like when you come home after a long day, and your sleepers are not where you left them in the morning.”
“Did someone use Rhys’s sleepers?”
Mason shook his head. Billy was smarter than that. Now, he was just pulling his leg. “He may seem a little flighty, but Rhys knows what he’s saying.”
Billy smiled. “Look who’s a bigger fan than me. I’ll double my vigilance. But it would help if you told me what Rhys thought it was missing, or moved.”
“He cannot quite tell. Maybe it’s just nerves, him being back home and all, in a house where he must have lived with Toby before. Is the same house, right?”
Billy nodded. “Yeah. I’m on it, chief. Any perp with a desire for pain should be warned. I’m going to spare nothing.” He cracked his knuckles in demonstration. “Now, I’m going to make myself pretty, for our little outing.”
Mason stared after Billy for a few moments. Was Rhys’s address well known by his fanbase? Billy seemed so sure about being the same house where Rhys and Toby had used to live. That was a bit strange.
Or very strange, depending on how you looked at it. Oh, damn, it had to be that suspicious streak at work again.
A fresh red rim marking Rhys’s eyes filled Mason’s mind with guilt, the moment the owner of the house stepped outside. He and Billy were waiting at the car, as if both had known by pure gut instinct that Rhys needed to feel alone, from time to time, in his own home. It was just a state of mind, but Mason thought he could read it well.
“Where to?” he asked, as he held the door for Rhys to climb in the backseat.
“There’s a small event for indies I’m interested in,” Rhys explained. His eyes looked anywhere but at Mason. He gave Billy the address.
Mason hesitated. Maybe he could ride in front with Billy for a change.
“Are you coming?” The question was directed at him, but Rhys had his head turned away from him.
With a shrug, he took his seat next to Rhys and gave Billy the greenlight to move. If Rhys didn’t want to punish him for his transgressions from earlier, that was a good sign. With Toby’s memory of his former life non-existent, Rhys was the key to most things.
Therefore, it was natural to keep him close. Nothing else to it, but that. Rhys’s subtle cologne filled his nostrils; it seemed like he had brushed his hair, too.
“You clean up nicely,” he ventured a joke.
For two beats, no answer followed. “Thank you.” It was a prim and proper reply, but encouraging, nonetheless. Mason wanted nothing more but to bury his hands again into that mane of spun silk; it hurt to feel like that about an unattainable man.
“Did you two have a fight?” Billy maneuvered the car through a maze of narrow streets as if he had a map built in his brain. So far, Mason had to admit that Po was handier than him as Rhys’s employee; he knew his way around the surveillance software and the city much better than Mason.
Where did that leave him? Apparently, in charge of a dead lover’s ghost and his mysteries.
Mason clenched his teeth. Did he have the mind power to summon Toby the moment he thought of him? “No.”
Billy stared at him through the rearview mirror. “That sounded like a ‘yes’.”
“Totally,” Toby confirmed. For some reason, he had chosen to ride shotgun this time, and it unnerved Mason to no end that Toby could behave so naturally while no one but him could see him. At least, when he was doing ghost stuff like going through objects, he didn’t make Mason feel completely insane.
“And what business would that have with you?”
“Oh, so it was nasty,” Billy commented.
That hadn’t been aimed at him, but lately, little Mason could do to control his reactions. Seeing ghosts could do that to a sane person.
“It wasn’t nasty,” Rhys intervened. “Nothing happened, Billy. And Mason, stop sitting so stiff over there. I might begin to think that you don’t like me.”
There was still tension in his voice, but Rhys made an effort to offer a peaceful hand.
“Rhys can’t stand being mad at anyone,” Toby commented.
“How would you know that?” Mason could feel his irritation growing.
“How would I know what?” A hint of laughter could be read in Rhys’s voice. “That you don’t like me? I don’t. But I’d say that you don’t kiss me like you don’t like me.”
“You two kissed?” Billy threw Mason a wink in the rearview mirror.
Toby just let himself drop on his back through the seat and looked at Mason from below. His head was, sort of, in Mason’s lap. “Did you kiss my boyfriend?”
Mason ran one hand over his face. How did he manage to get himself in such situations? There had to be some weakness in him when it came to Rhys Harmony.
“I hope you’re not going to deny it now, Mason,” Rhys said, his voice a two-edged blade.
“I don’t kiss and tell,” he snapped.
“Oh,” Billy said and snickered. “Feel free to tell, Rhys, if Mason doesn’t want to.”
Rhys waved one elegant hand. “Mason is a wonderful kisser. I think I should be on a diet that includes his kisses. They simply take the pain away.”
The blade still cut. Mason had no idea what to make of it all.
Toby still stared at him from that awkward position. “He likes you.”
Mason bit his tongue. This three-way conversation was bound to get messy if he kept at it.
“I don’t want to be fine with it,” Toby continued, “but it’s not like I want him to cry over me a lifetime.”
Mason sighed and rubbed his eyes with one hand.
“But it looks like it pains him to admit it that he likes me,” Rhys said. “If that’s how it is, I might just fancy myself a man with a masochistic streak.”
Billy laughed. Toby snickered.
“Aren’t you a bunch of comedians?” Mason said and stared out the window. The car was too damned crowded.
Rhys rested one hand on Mason’s knee and squeezed. “I’m just messing with you. I don’t really like you.”
“Geez, thanks,” Mason offered in reply.
“He is messing with you,” Toby confirmed.
Rhys’s hand was so close that if Toby had been there for real, it would have touched him. Mason shook his head.
“Isn’t this the weirdest threesome in the universe?” he murmured.
“Threesome? I like the both of you, but I’m not that much into experimenting,” Billy said with a small laugh.
“I like to think that I’m open-minded, but I’m not into group sex,” Rhys added. He laughed, as well.
At least, it looked like someone was in a good mood.
“Then what about Ary?” Mason regretted the moment the words flew out of his mouth.
Rhys tensed. “What about him?”
Damn, the stone was cast. “You, him, Toby. What’s the story?”
“Who’s Ary?” Toby asked.
“The one you already heard,” Rhys replied, his voice clipped.
“I don’t buy it. They made you jealous.”
Toby let out a surprised sound. “I cheated on Rhys with this Ary guy?”
“It was a misunderstanding.” Rhys moved his hand away. “And how do you know about that anyway?”
“I’m not stupid. I just put two and two together.”
From the driver’s seat, Billy took in the scene with curious eyes. For him, they were probably putting on the most exciting reality show.
“Okay, if you’re that smart, figure out the whole thing yourself.”
Mason cursed under his breath. The whole idea was to get Rhys on his side and help him, albeit unknowingly. Now, he was just digging himself into a hole. “Toby wouldn’t cheat on you,” he said in one go.
“I wouldn’t?” Toby was surprised.
“He’s not that kind of man,” Mason found himself talking.
“He wasn’t, you mean,” Rhys replied.
Billy’s eyes were two question marks in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah,” Mason said. “That’s what I meant.”
“Did you ever meet Toby?” Rhys was genuinely puzzled.
“No, but I read your story in the papers. It must have been true love,” Mason said.
“Were you curious? About me and Toby?”
“Yes. Blame me, I don’t care.”
“I’m not blaming you. I’m surprised. And I don’t know what papers you’ve been reading. Because, as far as I know, according to them, I’m a murderous drunk, and Toby was a violent boyfriend.”
“Was he violent? Ever?”
“No way, man, how can you ask that? I could never hit my boyfriend,” Toby protested.
Mason made a move as if he wanted to push Toby’s head away. The ghost disappeared for a moment only to end up floating in the air, his legs under him like a fakir.
“No. Never,” Rhys replied.
“See?” Toby said.
“We just fought verbally. He was never like that.” Rhys looked away and covered his eyes.
“That’s sad,” Toby said with a sigh. “How could I ever tell one single bad word to this guy?”
Mason shook his head. “How was Toby like?”
Rhys turned his head to stare out the window. “He was the only one for me in the whole world.”
Mason ignored the short intake of breath from Toby. Some things needed to be brought to light. Anything that could jog Toby’s memory would help Rhys, too, in a way. Even if it wasn’t closure, or some other stupid psychological term, at least finding Toby’s killer would give him a bit of peace.
“Guys, we’re not all going to cry, right?” Rhys said in a forced, cheerful voice. “God knows I do enough of it on my own. You two are my rock now. I mean it. Let’s just stop talking about these things.”
“Why can’t I remember him?” Toby’s tone was mournful.
Mason kept his hands by his sides. He would reach for Toby, but it was impossible to comfort a ghost with a touch, right?
Rhys’s fingers linked with his. “I can’t believe I managed to make even you sad, Mason. You’re granite.”
“I’m not sad,” Mason denied. “But I understand that it couldn’t have been easy for you this year.”
Rhys’s fingers squeezed. “For the most of it, I was on meds, or talking to people dry as twigs about what I was feeling.”
“And what came out of all that?”
“Let’s say that those conversations didn’t bear fruit.”
Billy laughed at the pun, and Mason smiled, too.
“So, this event, what’s all about?”
“It’s sort of an amateur night. Not so long ago, I used to hop from one to the next, in the search of that big break. Sometimes, I think that it would have been better if I had never had it. We used to be so happy then.”
Mason nodded. Could it be that Toby might have gotten on the bad side of some loan sharks? But the way he had been killed, it hadn’t been that clean. And loan sharks never killed their golden geese. With a lover who earned pretty well, Toby would have been squeezed to the last penny, but not killed.
The hit to the head he had gotten hadn’t appeared to be too precise, either. A random incident seemed more like a logical explanation. Someone might not have liked how Toby looked or something like that. Maybe the perp had asked Toby for his wallet, and in the spur of the moment, the things had gotten out of hand.
“Could it be that Toby was mugged?” he asked, without overthinking.
Rhys tensed again. “No. His wallet, watch, everything, was there. Mason, are you trying to figure out who killed my boyfriend?” He didn’t sound upset, just surprised.
“It remains a mystery, right?”
“Yes, but the police couldn’t find the killer. And, with all the respect I have for you, they are more qualified to deal with such things. And they came up with zilch.”
“Maybe they didn’t look into it enough,” Mason said what he was thinking.
Rhys touched Mason’s cheek. “Let it go, Mason. One deranged person hanging on to the past is enough. There’s nothing in it for you.”
Nothing further from the truth.
“I need people to move on,” Rhys said, and his voice was tired and honest. “Those nice dry twigs at the asylum kept telling me that. So I’m just passing it on. As much as I don’t give a damn about their opinion, I think you would be right to help me do that.”
Mason didn’t want to think of anything, not how nice Rhys smelled, how close he was, and how the feel of his smooth, cool hand on his cheek still lingered. “Are you sure?” He used a playful tone.
Rhys chuckled, his musical laugh causing a small shiver in Mason. “Nothing’s sure, ever. Right? But you’re strong, Mason. Lend me some of that; don’t be a miser.”
“You can have all of it, whatever you think I have.”
“Famous last words, Mason. Be careful.”
Mason met Toby’s eyes. The ghost stared at them, and his face was an expression of utter angst. Mason moved one hand as if to reach him, but Toby moved away and disappeared.
Thank you for reading the new chapter! One more piece of the puzzle was introduced with this chapter, but just like those large puzzles with many pieces, it's just a small one Still, I hope you - @Wesley8890, I'm looking at you - are still noting everything down so that you can concoct your theory to the minutest detail.
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