LAPD cop Shaun Mason is investigating a missing woman. His guide through the hidden back alleys and BDSM clubs of Simulnet is shadowy hacker Lore. But how much can he actually trust him?
Shaun woke the next morning to the smell of smoke.
He leaped out of bed and dashed down the hallway, expecting to find his apartment engulfed in flames. What he found instead was even more alarming: the door to the balcony was open, and the wind was blowing the smoke from a nearby brush fire into the apartment.
Shaun closed the door and turned the deadbolt, then stood there with his heart hammering in his chest. The door had been locked just seven hours ago; he kept the doorknob locked at all times, and he checked it every night before going to bed. It was possible that he’d forgotten to turn the deadbolt and the wind had forced the door open, but something about that theory didn’t sit well with him.
There was no one in the living room, but he hadn’t checked the kitchen or the bathroom, and he’d bolted from the bedroom too quickly to take stock of his surroundings. Part of him felt foolish for even entertaining the thought—he lived on the fourth floor, and climbing up to his balcony without being seen would take serious skill—but he wasn’t going to relax until he was sure he was alone in the apartment. The kitchen and bathroom were empty, so he headed down the hall toward the bedroom and stopped just outside the door to listen. All he could hear was the faint buzzing of his neighbor’s alarm clock.
Shaun eased the bedroom door open and wished, not for the first time, that the department had issued him a gun. The room looked exactly as it always had, rumpled sheets and laundry pile and all, but that didn’t stop him from checking under the bed and in the closet like a paranoid child. There was no one there.
“Jesus,” Shaun muttered as he sat down onto the edge of his bed and rubbed both hands over his face. His heart was still racing, and he tried to coax it into slowing by taking deep breaths through his nose.
While he waited for the adrenaline to wear off, he let his gaze wander to the framed picture on his nightstand. The girl in the photograph stared back at him, mouth smiling but eyes solemn. Shaun wondered what it would have taken to make her laugh.
The sound of his cell phone vibrating on the nightstand startled him out of his thoughts. He reached over to grab it. There were two text messages waiting for him: one from Hudson (‘new victim will give details later’) and an anonymous message that contained nothing but a Simulnet address. Shaun groaned. He’d been so distracted by his panic that he’d almost forgotten what had happened the night before, but now he was wondering if he’d ever be able to look Lore in the eye again.
The investigation couldn’t stop just because of his lackluster decision-making skills, though, so he pushed to his feet and went to make breakfast. While he waited for his coffee to finish brewing, he wandered into the living room to check the back door. It was locked. Shaun sighed and pressed his forehead against the glass, and stared out at the dirty stucco and peeling billboards of the San Fernando Valley. Smoke was billowing up from behind the hills to the north
Los Angeles was a creature unto its own. There wasn’t a city on Earth that could match its glittering filth. It was a living, breathing paradox: proud and self-conscious, hateful and compassionate. Shaun loved and despised it for the same reasons he loved and despised himself, and sometimes when he was alone, with no one to protect or entertain, he wished the flames would come and swallow the city whole.
* * * *
Brighton Hill was one of Simulnet’s largest entertainment districts. The city was owned by a Fortune 500 development company that used it as a testing ground for new technology. Visitors were treated to zero-g nightclubs, fully immersive movies, the most cutting-edge programs on the market. The buildings in Brighton Hill were sleek and curvy, like overgrown sports cars, and the streets were impossibly clean.
Shaun had always felt uneasy in Brighton Hill. Its artificial sterility reminded him that nothing he saw inside Simulnet was real.
As soon as he emerged from the public transport chamber—this time in the form of a white, cylindrical booth—Shaun’s phone beeped. It was another text message, this time with a set of coordinates. Shaun heaved a sigh and plugged the numbers into his phone’s GPS program.
The map on his screen led him to a large shopping mall in the south end of town. Shaun experienced a little twinge of doubt as he pushed through the mirrored front doors and weaved his way through the building’s lower level. Vendor carts were scattered throughout the mall, selling everything from mobile phones to exotic pets. Shaun dodged a woman who was selling tickets to a fantasy-themed retreat (“Experience real magic! Let us augment your avatar with spell casting abilities and teach you the ways of sorcery!”) and took an elevator up to the second floor where an androgynous holograph was pacing circles around a display model personal jet and explaining its features to no one in particular.
When Shaun finally reached his destination and found himself standing in the accessories section of a chain department store, he voiced his bewilderment aloud: “What the fuck?”
Lore was leaning against a glass display counter near the far wall, tapping his foot and looking out of place in his dusty blazer and tattered scarves. When he glanced in Shaun’s direction, Shaun’s confusion was replaced with a vague sense of dread. There was nothing accusatory in Lore’s expression, but there was a new awareness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Surely, they weren’t going to talk about what had happened the night before; surely they were both grown-up enough to understand that some things shouldn’t be discussed.
“So uh…” Shaun tucked his hands into his pockets. His fingers brushed the silver anchor Lore had given him, and he closed his hand around it as he moved closer and leaned his hip against the counter. When Lore glanced over at him, he offered Lore a lopsided grin. “I didn’t know you were into designer handbags.”
Lore raised an eyebrow at him.
“I mean, it’s cool if that’s your thing.” Shaun shrugged. “I’m just not sure you’d make a good-looking woman. No offense or anything.”
Lore stared at him, then looked away and pretended to study the wristwatches that were on display beneath the glass. “I’m not interested in dressing as a woman, but if I was, you’d hardly be in any position to judge me for it, considering your choice in partners last night.”
“God damn it, I knew you were going to bring that up—wait, what?” Shaun eyed Lore. “What do you mean, my choice in partners?”
“The twins, they were both men.”
“Uhm no, they weren’t,” Shaun insisted, despite a little twinge of doubt. Anything was possible inside Simulnet. “I got up close and personal with them, you know; I think I would’ve noticed if they’d been guys.”
Lore shook his head. “They didn’t look male, but they were.”
“Look, I’ve made out with guys before, okay? Believe me, I can tell the difference.” Shaun huffed and tried to ignore the embarrassed flush tickling the tips of his ears. He’d never exactly been secretive about his love life, but he hadn’t intended to tell Lore that much about his sexual past—or anything about his sexual past, really. To deflect attention away from himself, he asked, “What put it in your head that they were guys, anyway?”
“They’re traps, men who use female avatars to lure straight men into having sex with them.” Lore sounded distracted, like he’d lost interest in the conversation. “Those two in particular are notorious in Okui. Of course, you had no way of knowing that.”
“Yeah, thanks, that makes me feel much better.” Shaun groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. “Fuck, were they really guys?”
“Fuck.” Shaun sighed.
“If you’re planning to have a sexual identity crisis, please wait until we’ve left the store.”
Shaun rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the sympathy. And no, I’m not having a sexual identity crisis, I just feel a little… I don’t know, creeped out I guess. Not—” he held up a finger “—because they were guys. It’s just… I didn’t know, y’know?”
“They presented you with a fantasy that looked and felt real.”
“But they lied,” Shaun countered. “It’s not like they walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, we know we look like super hot elves, but we’re actually wrinkly old men in real life. Wanna fuck us anyway?'”
“Men and women lie to each other all the time for the sake of luring each other into bed.”
Shaun wasn’t deterred. “Lying about what you do for a living or whether or not you’ve had a boob job isn’t the same as lying about your gender. I can’t believe we’re even having this argument. Are you seriously telling me you’re okay with people doing that kind of shit?”
“No.” Lore turned to look at Shaun. He scanned Shaun’s face as if scrutinizing every little nuance of his expression, and Shaun fought the urge to turn away. “But if we’re going to make any progress in this investigation, you need to forgo the notion that a person’s appearance defines who they are.”
Shaun opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat. There was a pretty, Latina woman standing behind the counter, smiling at them. Once she had their attention, she said, “I’m sorry for interrupting, but I found the information you were looking for, Mister Reston.”
“Wonderful,” Lore replied with a smile so dazzling it could star in its own Vegas floor show.
The girl behind the counter beamed. “You’re in luck; I found records of a purchase that was made using your girlfriend’s user ID. Sarah came in three weeks ago to buy a piece of limited edition jewelry.” She tapped a well-manicured fingernail against the counter. The glass seemed to fog over before displaying a set of thumbnail images. She touched one of them, which expanded to show a full-sized photograph of a silver cuff bracelet studded with purple gemstones. “This is our International Women’s Day bracelet. Does this look like the one she lost?”
“That’s the one,” said Lore. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any more?”
“Well, they were a limited run, even here in Simulnet, but I’d be happy to check and see if we have any more in stock.”
“It’s so sweet of you to try and replace it for her. She’s a very lucky woman.” The salesgirl reached over to touch Lore’s elbow, then disappeared off to parts unknown.
Meanwhile, Shaun turned to Lore and demanded, “What the hell was that about?”
“I spoke to some of the staff at Platinum last night while you were occupied.”
“One of the bouncers remembered seeing Ruby with a blonde woman who matches Sarah’s description. They came into the club together on the night before Sarah died.” Lore tapped his fingers against the glass while he spoke. “He said the blonde woman seemed out of place there, and that she and Ruby had an argument an hour or so after they arrived. Ruby left the club angry, but the other woman stayed.”
“Did she leave with anyone?”
“He didn’t see her leave.”
“Okay, so we know Sarah and Ruby might have known each other,” Shaun said. “What’s with the bracelet?”
Lore was using both hands to tap on the counter now, as if he was typing on an invisible keyboard. “The bouncer noticed that Sarah was wearing one because he’d just bought one for his wife.”
“I see,” Shaun said, then nudged Lore’s elbow and muttered, “You’re ah… typing, I think.”
Lore paused, then folded his arms atop the counter and leaned against it. After a moment, Shaun did the same thing. They were standing close enough to each other that their shoulders touched. To Shaun’s surprise, Lore didn’t shy away from the contact.
“So,” Shaun began.
“I’m sorry for going off on you yesterday—in the bar, you know, after the bomb and everything.” Shaun glanced at Lore from the corner of his eye. “It would’ve been nice to know you had my back, though.” He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he didn’t quite succeed. After he’d logged off and had some time to think, he’d realized just how much danger he’d been in the night before. First there had been the car bombing, then chasing a murder suspect without backup, and finally being kidnapped. He’d survived the ordeal, of course, but that didn’t mean he’d always be so lucky. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me your number so I can get in touch with you if I need to? The anonymous text messages are cute and all, but…”
Lore didn’t reply; he took his phone out of his pocket and started pressing buttons.
Shaun watched, awed that anyone could be so dismissive over something so important. He was about to comment on Lore’s lack of sympathy when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He hoped it would be a message from Hudson, but it turned out to be a blank text message from an unfamiliar number. Shaun stared at his phone, then looked up at Lore. “Are you serious? All I had to do was ask?”
“More or less.”
“You’re really fucking confusing, you know that? Really, really confusing.”
“I know,” Lore said, and went back to tapping his fingers against the glass.
* * * *
Fifteen minutes later, they left the mall with a hundred dollar bracelet and solid evidence that Sarah was the blonde woman who’d been seen with Ruby. Once they were outside, Lore handed the wrapped box to Shaun.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Shaun tried to hand the box back to Lore.
Lore waved him off.
“Fine.” Shaun sighed. He was starting to learn that there was no point in trying to make Lore do anything he didn’t want to do. Besides, he figured the bracelet might come in handy the next time he needed to apologize to Kim for something. “Can we at least stop at a mailbox so I can mail it to my apartment? I’d rather not lug it around for the rest of the day.”
“If Sarah and Ruby were friends, Ruby may have visited Oubliette as well.”
Lore was staring off into space and tugging absently at the frayed edge of one of his scarves. “The club’s logs would contain her user ID, which could be used to find her real name.”
“Can we have one conversation at a time, please?” Shaun pleaded.
Lore’s faraway expression sharpened to one of annoyance. “You don’t need my permission to mail something.”
“I wasn’t asking—never mind.” Shaun shook his head, then turned on his heel and walked away without looking back to see if Lore was keeping up. There was a mailbox three blocks down. Shaun dumped the box containing the bracelet inside, entered the address of his apartment, and sent the bracelet on its way. When he was done, he turned around and promptly tried to crawl backward out of his skin. Lore standing right behind him. “Jesus, man, would you stop that? You’re gonna give me a fucking stroke.”
“Being startled doesn’t induce strokes.” Lore’s expression said, quite plainly, that he couldn’t understand how anyone could be so stupid and yet still function as a human being.
“It’s a figure of—you know what? Never mind. Again. Let’s just go to Oubliette.”
Lore nodded, then turned and strode away, leaving Shaun to catch up as usual.
* * * *
Ruby wasn’t a regular at Oubliette. There was no mention of her in the club’s logs, and no one they spoke to remembered seeing her there. Shaun and Lore stuck around long enough to pretend they were interested in the flogging demonstration, then left again.
“Well, that was a bust.” Shaun sighed as they stepped out into the mid-afternoon sunlight. He was tired and frustrated, and he had no idea where to go next. “So what now?”
“Have you heard from Hudson?” Lore asked.
Shaun shook his head. “No, I was trying to decide whether or not I should send her another text. She said she’d get in touch when she had more info, though, so I figured I should leave her alone until then.”
Lore nodded, and shielded his eyes against the sunlight as he looked up at the sky.
“Isn’t there any other way of getting a hold of Ruby’s user ID?” Shaun asked. “I mean, Platinum should have it if she was working there, right?”
“She was paid cash.”
“Of course.” Shaun sighed again and shoved his hands into his pockets. “And I guess you didn’t get anything else out of her co-workers? No addresses or anything?”
“No, none of them know her in real life, and she never mentioned owning any Simulnet property.”
“Fuck. This is like trying to track down a ghost.”
Shaun resisted the temptation to point out that Lore wasn’t much better, and just tipped his head back and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the simulated sunlight on his face. He knew there was really no such thing as a cold trail, that it was just a matter of knowing where to start looking again, but that didn’t make him feel much better. He was used to being able to find the answers, but this wasn’t a problem he could run through a search engine. After a few minutes of pondering and coming up with very little in the way of ideas, he opened his eyes and said, “Well, I guess maybe we could duck into a couple of the places around Platinum? I mean, if she was a regular at the ramen shop, maybe she was a regular at some of the other restaurants and stuff too.”
They made their way toward the club, stopping here and there to ask about Ruby. Shaun knew that eventually, people were going to figure out that he and Lore weren’t who they claimed to be, and when that happened, they would probably end up on the receiving end of some questioning themselves. For now, though, no one seemed suspicious. Unfortunately, they weren’t very helpful, either. Ruby was a regular at some of the local restaurants and convenience stores, but no one seemed to know how to find her. For a social butterfly, Ruby was surprisingly secretive.
Eventually, after almost four hours of talking to people, Shaun couldn’t take the frustration anymore. He stopped and plopped down on the curb with his head in his hands. After a few minutes, Lore sat down beside him.
“I don’t understand,” Shaun said without looking up, “how so many people knew her, and not a single fucking one of them knows where she might be.”
Lore was silent except for the faint tapping of his toe against the concrete.
“No user ID, no last name, no address…” Shaun tugged his fingers through his hair. “I can’t believe that even her fucking employer has no info on her. I mean, what kind of business owner doesn’t keep employee records? It fucking figures she’d be working under the table.”
Lore made a vague humming sound that Shaun decided to take as acknowledgment.
“My fucking life,” said Shaun, “is turning into a fucking nightmare.”
This investigation was turning out to be one of the hardest things he’d ever done, and he was starting to worry that maybe he wasn’t cut out for this line of work after all. The anxiety that came with that thought was almost bad enough to make him want to give up altogether. Life was too short to keep doing something at which he was destined to fail.
Shaun finally lifted his head and stared across the street. Two white paper lanterns swayed in the breeze outside the entrance of a massage parlor. “God, what I wouldn’t give for a drink and a shoulder rub right now.”
A long silence passed before Lore pushed to his feet without warning and shoved his hands into his pockets. He stood there for a moment, then looked back over his shoulder at Shaun. “Are you coming?”
“Coming where?” Shaun threw his hands into the air in frustration. “There’s nowhere else to look, Lore. We’ve been looking all damn day and we haven’t found a single fucking thing.”
Lore sighed and inclined his head toward the other side of the street.
“What?” Shaun frowned and shook his head. Then it dawned on him, and his eyes widened. “Wait, are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
Shaun was bemused. “If I go over there with you, you’re not gonna complain later about me being irresponsible, are you?”
“What’s irresponsible is to languish here in your own self-doubt and self-pity, running yourself in exhausting mental circles that will do nothing but prevent you from thinking clearly when the situation calls for it. This will take an hour, which is an hour that you would probably otherwise spend sitting here, feeling sorry for yourself. Now, stand up and follow me before I change my mind and leave you to your one-man tragedy act.”
By the time Lore was finished speaking, Shaun’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“Stop staring,” Lore said.
Shaun stared up at him, then offered a weak grin. “You were sitting here this whole time, coming up with that speech, weren’t you?”
If Lore had been the type of person to roll his eyes, Shaun had no doubt he would have.
* * * *
The interior of the massage parlor looked nothing like Shaun expected. The reception area was clean and bright, and the front desk was staffed with two pretty girls in neatly pressed uniforms. Shaun was disappointed.
“This place reminds me of the spa my ex-girlfriend used to drag me to,” Shaun muttered to Lore while they waited. “Basically, I’d get a massage and then hang around for three hours while she blew a thousand bucks to take a mud bath. Mind you, this was the same chick who got pissed off at me for splashing around in puddles when it rained.”
He might have imagined it, but Shaun thought he saw the corners of Lore’s lips twitch.
Eventually, they were led to a small room with two massage tables and instructed to undress. The attendant left before Shaun could protest, and as soon as the door was closed, Lore began unwinding the scarves from around his neck. Shaun was surprised that Lore would not only be agreeable to the idea of undressing in front of him, but that he’d go about it with such disturbing nonchalance.
Shaun wasn’t nearly as mature about the situation. “Wait, wait, wait!”
Lore paused and gave him a look. “What?”
“I just…” Shaun replied. “You know.”
The expression on Lore’s face said that he didn’t, actually, and that he probably didn’t care to either.
Shaun shifted his weight from one foot to the other and tried to come up with a protest that wouldn’t make him sound childish or homophobic. When he couldn’t think of anything, he sighed and flapped his hand dismissively. “Never mind.”
The truth was, Shaun didn’t know why he felt so awkward. He’d always been comfortable with his body, and he was usually comfortable with looking at other people’s, but the fact that it was Lore made him feel inexplicably shy. Still, he wasn’t going to embarrass himself by admitting his discomfort out loud, so he just took a deep breath and tugged his shirt up over his head.
Shaun noticed from the corner of his eye that Lore had started undressing again, and to his credit, he managed to hold out for almost thirty seconds before sneaking a peak. Seeing Lore’s bare neck for the first time shouldn’t have felt so voyeuristic, yet as he eyed the tattoo that covered the side of Lore’s neck and disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt, Shaun felt the sudden need to blush. Thankfully, Lore didn’t seem to notice.
When Lore started to unbutton his shirt, Shaun looked away and didn’t turn around again until they were both naked except for the towels around their waists. To Shaun’s surprise, half of Lore’s body was covered in tattoos. A black dragon wrapped up over his shoulder, down his back, and around his ribcage on the opposite side, and the kanji Shaun had glimpsed when they’d first met ran all the way up his forearm. They were beautiful tattoos, and Shaun wondered why Lore went to so much trouble to hide them.
“Sorry!” Shaun offered Lore a bashful grin, then climbed onto one of the tables and settled on his stomach with his cheek resting on his folded arms. Lore took the same pose on the other table and turned his head so that he and Shaun were looking at each other.
“D’you like my towel?” Shaun asked. “Does it make my butt look big?”
Shaun let out a surprised laugh—he hadn’t expected Lore to respond to the joke—then sobered a bit and asked, “Do you think we’ll find her in time? Ruby, I mean.”
“I don’t know.”
Shaun nodded. Most people would have added something to their reply to make him feel better, even if it was just, ‘I hope so.’ Lore wasn’t most people, though, and the fact that he hadn’t offered any bullshit reassurance was comforting. It meant that one of them, at least, was able to view the situation objectively, without clouding the facts with false hope. Still, Shaun shouldn’t help but to wonder what had happened to make Lore so detached from his emotions.
“You know,” Shaun said, “I still don’t know anything about you. I know Hudson trusts you, but I don’t know why, and I get that you’re a hacker, but I don’t know how you got started. It’d be nice to know something else, even if it’s something you don’t think is important.”
Lore was quiet for a moment, as if he didn’t plan to answer, but then he frowned and said, “I don’t like eggplant.”
The look on his face made it seem like he was divulging the secrets of the universe. Shaun almost laughed, but he knew that would probably damage the fragile bond he was trying to build between them, so he settled for a grin and replied, “I don’t like eggplants either. Actually, I don’t think I trust people who do like eggplants.”
Lore stared at him for a moment before offering him a faint, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile.
Meanwhile, Shaun’s stomach flipped in a way it hadn’t done since the first time he’d seen his kindergarten sweetheart, Marcie Green.
Like an act of divine intervention, their massage therapists chose that moment to enter the room. Shaun was relieved to have an excuse to stay quiet while analyzing his reaction to seeing Lore smile at him. He turned his head away and buried his face in his arms as one of the girls began kneading his shoulders.
For the first few minutes of the massage, Shaun’s mind was a state of chaos. Thoughts came to him in fits and starts, jerking him from one idea to the next so rapidly it made him want to press his hands over his ears as if that would somehow quiet his mind. Eventually, though, everything began to slow down as his muscles gradually relaxed and his breathing evened out. By the time his massage therapist’s hands made their way to his lower back, Shaun was a dead weight on the table and his mind had begun to drift, first to the investigation, then to his sister, and finally to Lore.
Shaun had never met someone as unreadable as Lore, and he wondered if that was why he was so fascinated. They’d been working together for three days, and he still hadn’t figured out where Lore’s accent was from, what he actually did for a living, or even what his real name was. Lore was a complete enigma—a frustrating, stubborn enigma—and yet, as irritating as that was, it just made Shaun want to get to know him even more.
By the time his massage therapist asked him to roll over, Shaun was so relaxed he could barely make his muscles move. He eventually managed to flop over onto his back, though, and repositioned the towel around his hips. A few minutes later, he heard Lore turn over as well, and Shaun glanced at the other table without thinking.
Lore was watching him. The intensity of his gaze was startling.
Shaun’s heart was doing somersaults in his chest, and he was relieved when Lore finally broke eye contact. The reprieve didn’t last for very long, though, because instead of looking away, Lore let his gaze wander down Shaun’s body. Shaun tensed. The way Lore was looking at him was so uncharacteristically forward that he wondered if Lore even realized what he was doing. Lore was examining him, memorizing him. It made Shaun want to flee the room, but he didn’t; he took a deep breath and stayed where he was, although he couldn’t bring himself to watch Lore’s face anymore. He looked away, trying to find something else to stare at, and his gaze darted to Lore’s crotch.
Lore was hard. His erection was covered by the towel, but he was still noticeably, unmistakably hard.
The realization tore through Shaun like lightning. He had no idea whether or not Lore’s arousal had anything to do with him, but it didn’t matter because his body reacted all the same: his toes curled, and his cock twitched, and the muscles in his thighs tensed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten this turned on this quickly.
To his eternal shame, Lore seemed to notice his reaction. His gazed settled on Shaun’s face again and stayed there, watching him as if he could see inside Shaun’s mind and was busy picking apart every single one of his secrets. Shaun opened his mouth to remind Lore of the ‘no staring’ rule, but all he could manage was a weak-sounding, “I uhm—”
The two massage therapists carried on without comment.
Shaun closed his eyes and lay there in silence, concentrating on the sound of his own breathing and trying to ignore his hardening cock. Eventually, though, curiosity triumphed over self-preservation, and he opened his eyes again.
Lore was still watching him, but there was nothing clinical about it. His lips were parted and his lashes were lowered, and he was scanning Shaun’s face; his gaze flitted here and there, back and forth between Shaun’s eyes, then to his mouth. They were four feet away from each other, but Lore may as well have been dragging his fingernails down Shaun’s stomach for the way Shaun’s body was reacting to him.
The minutes seemed to crawl by. The tension between them grew with each second that passed, until the air in the room felt heavy with it. Shaun’s entire body was tingling, and his cock was embarrassingly hard, and he was fighting the urge to reach over and grab at Lore. He was weighing his options—flee the room before he could embarrass himself, or cut the massage session short and risk shaming himself by making a serious pass at Lore—when the unbearable silence was broken by the sound of his phone ringing.
“That’s my phone!” Shaun exclaimed as he sat bolt upright, startling his massage therapist so badly that she leaped away from him. He almost lost his towel in his haste to scramble off the table and get to his phone. After fumbling with his jeans for a second, he managed to retrieve his phone from the pocket. He didn’t bother to check the caller ID before answering. “Hello?”
“I need to talk to you.” Hudson’s voice sounded gruffer than usual, and Shaun promptly forgot all about the sexual tension in the room. “Meet me at your apartment in ten.”
Shaun cradled his phone between his shoulder and his cheek as he tugged on his pants. “Glad you called, ’cause I need to talk to you too. We’re trying to find a girl who might have—”
“Not over the phone.”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Shaun said. “Lemme just get my avatar back to my apartment here and log out.”
They hung up without saying good-bye. Shaun held his phone between his teeth while he buttoned and zipped his jeans, then shoved it into his pocket. After grabbing his shirt off the floor, he turned to Lore, the awkwardness between them momentarily forgotten, and said, “Sorry, I’ve gotta run. Hudson needs to see me.”
“I gathered.” Lore sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the table.
“I’ll text you as soon as I know what’s up,” Shaun promised. “If you find anything in the meantime, let me know?”
Shaun hurried out of the room, then paused before turning and poking his head back inside. Lore had already slid off the table, and he stood there eying Shaun while holding the towel closed around his waist. Shaun offered him a hesitant smile and gestured to the room in general. “Thanks, by the way. Y’know, for all this. It helped.”
Lore didn’t smile, exactly, but his expression softened and he replied, “You’re welcome.”
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