Greyson rocked into the beat of the big band record crackling on the turntable. His gold padlock clinked on the metal plates of his mask, flashing against the leaded picture windows overlooking sunlit gardens. "Cross back tap tap. Cross back tap tap. Hop hop right." A sharp jingled head shake. "Your other right, twinkletoes."
This dance lesson had been Redd's brainstorm, his alternative to the mischief Greyson had proposed while stroking his beard over a bathtub gin fizz cheekily passed off by the house as a venom cocktail. His dreamy vision of stepping up in the most literal sense rather than supporting the nearest wall of the grand lobby while Greyson drew all eyes on the floor yet again. Instead it was more so a series of unfortunate missteps.
"Left two three and right two three and in the air. I see that look. You're thinking too much again. Stop that." Greyson crossed his feet and back, kicked a knee, dropped three notches down into a fake swan dive approaching the plush patterned carpet. "Just watch me."
Redd was watching, which was exactly the problem. Greyson slid and shook with natural flair and masterful energy. In his hands and feet and popping hips, the staccato steps of their routine began to distractingly verge on sinuous.
"Cross and tap and shake shake shake. Cross, knee, and down we go. Stay with me, now."
That was, after all, the idea. For Redd to crack his stoic shell and stake his own small claim alongside the perpetual life of the party. To prove himself to be more than a sidekick and occasional savior in the schemes Greyson insisted on calling treasure hunts. Perhaps somehow to express thoughts that he never dared put into words, even when his heart seemed apt to burst in the silence.
"All right. Take five." Greyson lifted the needle off the record, silencing their accompaniment. "Why the long face, Redd? You're starting to get a hang of it."
"At this rate, I won't actually get a hang of it until some time next century." Redd sighed. "The ball is tomorrow night."
"I said it before, and I'll say it again. You think too much."
"I didn't know that was possible." Redd refrained from adding that he often felt the need to do so for both of them.
"You need to loosen up, man. Feel that rhythm and let it take you over. You're as stiff as that robot dealer down at the blackjack table."
"That bad, huh? Then how's this for a Plan B?" Redd began to gesture mechanically, slowing his voice into a rhythmic monotone. "PUT YOUR 'HANDS' IN THE AIR FOR MISTER GREYSON, THE 'KING' OF 'CLUBS'! DANCE CLUBS, THAT IS!"
"You'll be the king of corn if you keep that up."
"HAVE A 'HEART', PLAYER! DON'T BE SUCH AN 'ACE'-HOLE!"
"One more, and I'll call Reggie in here to give you a tuneup." Greyson winced. "Let's not think about where he'd put the screwdriver."
Redd flushed behind the horns of his mask at the notion that Greyson himself had thought about that, though perhaps only in a fleeting and comedic sense. He was once again grateful for the house rule of masquerade, even if it reduced the face of this brash and magnetic rake to strong brown cheekbones and piercing eyes and a mouth full of swagger that just might be taking a softer edge around him.
"Redd. Look. You've got this, and I've got proof. Exhibit A." Greyson held up a finger. "You tackle every numbskull who crawls onstage after Tequila. Then you hold them up over your head and do laps around the casino until they cry uncle."
Redd shrugged. "I figure I should at least give them a chance to apologize before Clay throws them out face first."
"Exhibit B." Greyson plucked a sheet of music from the nearby stand. "You turn this chicken scratch into a one-man piano symphony. I'm lucky if I can pick out notes with one finger."
"I'm not actually much of a sight reader. I can do it if I need to, but I prefer to play by ear."
Greyson sighed. "You get the point. You've got muscles. You've got finesse. So I know you've got the moves somewhere in that dandy sweater vest of yours."
Greyson was effortlessly dapper in his deep green tailcoat, his striped bow tie as wide as his woolly fan of beard, his gold hoop earrings he claimed to have stolen from a particularly noisome bloviator at some spangled extravaganza. Redd felt that most formal wear was out to strangle him. His shirttails untucked themselves when he stood up, and his morning shave became shadow by lunchtime. Tequila had once described Redd's style as upscale casual. Perhaps that had not, as he feared, been a euphemism for hopeless frump.
"Somewhere. Maybe we have to go digging for them."
"Well, we've never gotten into the back half of the basement. Which, by the way, is next on my list for the great egg hunt."
"The egg. The egg. Of course." Redd threw his hands up. "I thought I finally got it off your mind."
"Impossible. That's the main objective. The prime directive. The prize that our esteemed host insists on taunting me with. One egg to rule them all, and I'm the one to find it."
Tequila's melodic voice floated from the doorway as she swept in to observe, elegant as always in royal blue and ivory silk although she was a full day from her next performance. "What sort of tomfoolery are you boys getting up to this time?"
"Just a little heat on the floor." Greyson struck a pose. "Who said anything about some silly old egg?"
"We're practicing a dance for the ball," Redd added. "Well, Grey's dancing. I'm lumbering."
"More like Redd's trying to keep me out of trouble, although I know how to look after myself."
Redd quirked a brow, unseen as it might be. "Except for that time when you got stuck in the dumbwaiter."
"Blame the old cat burglar instinct." Greyson shrugged. "If I fits, I sits."
"And when you locked yourself in the walk-in safe as a prank and left your picks on the dresser. Reggie was none too pleased with the way I got you out."
"That was a stress test - Redd versus door. Door lost, so I redesigned it."
"And when you crawled up that chimney to get onto the roof and almost had a literal fire under your-"
"You can stop any time now."
"You can? Glad to hear it. I was hoping to borrow Redd's hands for a while." Tequila paused for emphasis. "Privately."
"Well, then. I see. If the fair lady calls-" Greyson consulted his pocket watch with a smooth flick of the wrist. "Then treasure calls to me."
Tequila shook her head as Greyson hustled out of the room. "So much for keeping him out of trouble."
"He'll live, even if his pride takes a hit in the process. What exactly is this private business of yours?"
"Not what Grey seems to think from the daggers he was glaring at me." Tequila smiled. "But it would need some extra help on your part, and I do hope that won't be too much of a bother."
Redd waited for her to elaborate.
"There's a seed of a song stuck in my head. I've thought on it for hours, but it still won't grow. If I start humming and you play along, we just might make some magic happen."
Tequila had friendly words by habit and a simple room in this grand estate at which she still seemed shocked to be a guest of honor. Yet she cocooned herself in the practice halls to emerge fully formed, all sequins and poise, a butterfly giving voice with shattering precision. Redd helped her rehearse, enriching the piano arrangements with additions and grace notes and glissandos, but such was a mere coat of polish. The process of composition was a long, oftentimes dissonant stumble towards harmony and rhythm and rime - the sharing of its vulnerability, a rare and cherished trust.
"We just might." Redd scratched his head as if to jump start his mental gears. "I didn't think to bring any pixie dust with me."
"Like the sort that my uncle blew up his tool shed trying to cook? Don't you even think about touching that nonsense. Thank heavens he's out of that racket."
"I was speaking metaphorically."
"I figured. I know you're too sensible for that." Tequila discreetly parted the slit of her gown, revealing a small flask stashed in her garter. "But anyhow, I could offer you a taste of his best moonshine."
Redd considered the sleek silver vial in lace - carefully, to avoid the impression of gawking - and the nerves and promise it seemed to embody. The song he and Tequila were about to write. The confidence she had placed in his artistic input. The multiple left feet of his that he struggled to tame - and the matter of Greyson continuing to loom in his absence.
"Hm. All right." Redd started his robot impression back up. "MIGHT AS WELL GIVE THIS A 'SHOT'."
"That contraption of Reggie's really rubbed off on you, didn't it?" Tequila laughed. "I guess that's one danger of working in the casino."
Redd accepted the flask and took a whiff to prepare himself. The liquor smelled delicately of corn and cider. It went down as a gulp of pure flame that shuddered the full way through him before starting its slow bloom into anodyne.
Tequila had been observing this process with a hand amusedly cocked on her hip. "Did the man of steel finally meet his match?"
"AFFIRMATIVE. I HAVE TO SAY THIS 'SUITS' ME QUITE NICELY!"
"You've either hit full tilt, or you need another. I can't decide."
"I WAS PROGRAMMED TO ENTERTAIN. I'M SORRY TO HAVE 'BUGGED' YOU INSTEAD."
A delicate snort. "Are you done?"
"It's all out of my system now." Redd put up his hands in case his change of voice hadn't made it clear. "That wasn't a joke."
Tequila waited skeptically as if bracing for a followup. When none came, she began to lead the way to the piano hall. "Let's get to work before you come up with any more."
"That bad, huh?"
"Actually, that last one was kind of clever."
"Just kind of?"
A playful swat to the arm. "Don't push it, buster."
Tequila had her ways of making music work, even if it was effectively patched up with duct tape just well enough to get back into the garage. She sang along to Uncle Beauregard - producer of moonshine and a brief stint of much worse - banging on paint cans when he was too drunk on his finest to play the fiddle. She concealed forgotten lyrics with improvised scat that sometimes grew legs of its own to run all the way through to the finish.
This song had no legs and didn't even look apt to roll over. Tequila and Redd tinkered with tempo and meter, jumped to odd notes just to shake it up a bit. Still they kept circling back to that same initial scrap of melody, as if this past hour would be stuck on repeat until either of them managed to break the cycle.
Redd pushed his bench back from the grand piano. "Want to take five and get a drink of water? Maybe then I won't keep coming up dry."
"You've got no shortage of puns, at least." Tequila was somewhat disappointed that this latest hadn't been delivered in the robot voice. "Though I could stand to step away from this for a while."
"Likewise." Redd reached around his mask, forking a hand into his thick sweep of chestnut hair. "I've beaten my head on it long enough that it's starting to hurt."
"The song, or you?"
"Both. I'm not sure who's getting it worse."
"Does it matter?"
Tequila settled at a small table in the audience area while Redd went off to fetch their refreshments. Watching the retreat of his broad back, Tequila began to think that his woes went beyond this little project. They had their share of struggles in rehearsal, repeating the motions over and over until that first wellspring of energy began to bubble. But Redd worked through that process with determined patience, his rhythm a natural metronome. Before their break, he was stiff and pensive, rushing the beat and falling behind in equal measures. When he stared off toward the back of this great hall, as if seeking inspiration in its stained glass mural of some abstract and avant garde harpist, she had never seen his eyes so blue.
Redd returned, clutching the water pitcher tray as if not trusting himself to keep it stable. Even so, he shivered while setting it down, clattering the glasses and nearly causing a spill. "Is there a draft over here, or is it just me?"
"That's the music hall ghost, or so the rumor goes. I know you've heard those stories."
"I have, but I'll only believe them when I see them."
"I hear that. My uncle once had a haunting in his trailer. He stayed up all night, back against the bedroom door, shotgun clenched in his hands. Come morning, the ghost turned out to be a creaky old fan."
"The same uncle who is, shall we say, an avid homebrewer?"
Tequila laughed. "Did you have to ask?"
Redd took a heavy brass lighter out of his pressed khakis - as he explained, a castoff souvenir from one of Greyson's jaunts - and lit the candle on their table to stave off the chill. The wick ignited with a sudden flare, its long thin flame surprisingly bright in the cavernous hall.
"You do know that's supposed to summon the ghost."
"Might as well. Maybe it can tell us stories about the great talents of years past."
"I've felt that draft enough times in the dressing room that I'd more so expect a rundown on the color of their undergarments."
"Kind of a waste, isn't it? Talk about thinking with the wrong head."
"Redd! Really!" Tequila scolded him in jest with a flap of her hand. "Do ghosts even have heads to think with?"
"You're asking the wrong person with no knowledge of the paranormal." Redd leaned back wistfully. "It would be nice to hear, though, wouldn't it? Music never transcribed, much less recorded. Ghosts of songs themselves."
Tequila thought of a subject she had considered bringing up earlier, but was so personal it never felt like the right time to ask. This offhand comment seemed to push her to go for it. Maybe the spirits were here and helping after all.
"Why don't you play me one of yours?"
Redd startled back upright. "One of my whats?"
"Your songs, Redd. The ones you save for yourself alone."
Tequila often came to practice to find Redd already set up in the piano hall. Generally he was warming up on old standards or the songs they planned to rehearse. Sometimes he played music from no composer that she knew of, and sometimes he also sang in a raw, almost vulnerable tenor. At first footstep or hinge creak or darkening of door, Redd jerked upright and switched over to scales, confirming Tequila's suspicions - these were his works, his untold stories. His undisclosed emotions, perhaps even pieces of his heart.
"Oh. Those. They're nothing that anyone else needs to hear. They're not even finished." A bashful shake of the head. "Just ideas, really, and not particularly good ones."
"Then play me an idea. I bet it's better than you think."
"What if it isn't?"
"Then I promise I won't laugh."
Redd took a few moments as if deciding whether or not to believe her. Like a man on the march to his own funeral, he got up and walked over to the piano. Tequila kept her seat in the audience, hoping to give him some illusion of being alone and unheard.
Redd played a major bass chord, then another, and another. His right hand joined in on the backbeat, building up a sly, steady march. Redd exhaled heavily, drew himself up with a breath, and began to sing.
They say you're just a scoundrel and a greedy ne'er do well
Who chases after riches at your first whiff of their smell
But your mind is quick, your quips are slick, your company is swell
In matters of security, your talents do excel
Tequila's lips quirked up in appreciation, and she covered her mouth so Redd wouldn't take it for mockery if he happened to glimpse her. The lyrics were fun - and surprisingly cute from such a reserved and muscular fellow - and the playful accompaniment even sounded like Greyson's signature strut.
You roam about this grand estate with treasure on your mind
Gold and jewels and artifacts stashed for you to find
No door unkicked, no lock unpicked, no chimney gone unclimbed
What if the greatest of these was before you all this time?
Redd visibly relaxed as the piano trailed off into a scatter of notes, removing all doubt of what said greatest treasure was. No wonder he never ran a bold eye along silk stockings or tight curves of satin, lounged in the bar with drinks on the house for his lacquered and preening admirers. Redd did have the discretion of a gentleman. But he must also have his interests, just as Tequila felt a thrill at the grace of his sturdy fingers on fine ivory although she was content for the two of them to keep it professional.
Tequila approached the piano as Redd turned his head to gauge her reaction. She only realized that she forgot to contain the spread of her grin as his face fell with sudden embarrassment.
"You promised you wouldn't laugh."
"I'm not laughing. Just smiling." Tequila laid a hand on Redd's shoulder, featherweight porcelain on the ribbed binding of his sweater vest. "I thought that was very sweet."
"So I'm not a hopeless case?"
Tequila was a habitual people watcher, collecting vignettes and words and gestures to be distilled into a resonant swell of catharsis. Observations began to filter back one by one, erstwhile arbitrary details now adding up to a promising whole.
"I'll put it this way. Not once did you ever try to look down my bodice. For what it's worth, neither did Greyson."
"Grey does have manners, even if he doesn't always let on to them."
"He certainly seems to forget them when he's shooing some flirt away from your craps table. He also doesn't seem too bothered when she goes buzzing around somebody else's."
"Well, I am the head croupier, a major security concern. I can't be distracted while I'm working. The rules aren't as strict for my subordinates."
"Then how about this? Every time I've danced with Grey, he's kept a careful distance."
"Maybe he thinks you and I are-"
Tequila gently cut Redd off. "He's like that with every other woman, too - like he doesn't want her getting the wrong idea. For a man so often tempted to take what isn't his, Grey is not the least bit handsy."
"As I said, he does have manners."
"True, but I'd wager there's more to it than that."
Redd looked skeptical. "You don't gamble."
"I don't." With emphasis - "That's entirely my point."
Redd peered at Tequila, mouth slightly open in silent, dawning hope. When he spoke, his words were careful and precise.
"So that wasn't a joke."
"Would I be so cruel at a time such as this?"
A weight had been lifted from Redd's shoulders, leaving butterflies in its wake. Tequila knew, and knew enough for him to believe her. Tequila dealt in straight talk clearly spoken, honeyed as her words might be. Tequila would have let him down gently, and instead she had done the exact opposite. So then what now?
Now was this fresh and auspicious synergy, this energy, this gathering of a storm. Tequila crested peaks, descended in feather steps, steadily swanned atop deepening layers of harmony. Simple notes came alive, burgeoning and sensual, soaring from uncertain darkness into unseen light.
Tequila had been standing by the grand piano. The platinum sheen of her upsweep bobbed above its open lid as she made her way up to center stage. As Redd's fingers turned a corner toward instinct, bringing forth embellishments without effort. As placeholder syllables gave rise to snips and scraps of verse, bits of desire teasing at the innermost chambers of his heart.
Redd braced himself when Tequila flashed a knowing smile and signaled for a lead-in. Drawing her posture up into its full dignity, she raised her chest and began to sing.
If I could only find the words to tell you
I fear my tongue will trip me if I dare
And so within my silent pride, my only refuge is to hide
Behind these horns, behind the mask I wear
A thunderbolt seared Redd's stomach as if he ought to be mortified by this show of his yearning. Instead he found himself electrified, powered by validation. He was no lovelorn oaf, no hopeless butt of mockery. He was worthy - first of Tequila's ear, and now her singular voice.
If I could only make a move to match you
I fear my feet will stumble if I dare
And as I work to find my nerve, I stay patient and observe
Behind these horns, behind the mask I wear
Tequila raised her palm for an instrumental break. Redd relaxed into this lull, unwinding his tension into an offhand solo. He then received the gesture that never failed to chill him with anticipation. The beckoning to modulate higher - the aim to sing for the moon.
As Redd worked his way skyward, a shadow passed over the foyer doorway. It waited there, bearded and besuited and perfectly still.
Indeed it is my heart that you have stolen
Am I a fool to hope you truly care?
If it's treasure that you seek, take your pleasure, take a peek
Behind these horns, behind the mask I wear
A final pair of signals, a one-two gut punch delivered with a panache that from anyone else would have been outright evil.
Redd swallowed his dry mouth away, expecting to croak regardless. Instead his voice resounded, a throaty woodwind beneath a ribbon of purest silver. When Tequila soared up to her final phrase, piercing the stratosphere in her crystalline vibrato, Redd shuddered as if the stained glass mural behind her were about to shatter along with his soul.
And he continued to tremble as his face burned beneath the mask as if to ignite its papier mache. As Greyson came to him in measured and patient steps, for once without words at the ready.
Except just one, a tender breath of surprise.
Redd steeled himself for Greyson to start the interrogation as soon as they closed a door between them and Tequila. You were serious back there, weren't you? How long have you been holding that in? Talk about a real pisser of a bathroom dance.
But Greyson continued to say nothing, and Redd saw no need to break the silence. He basked in its solace, etching this moment in his memory. The warm glow of burnished fixtures, the brilliant gold of sunset upon carpeting of green and tan and teal. The earthy scent of manuscripts, the faint wax of polished hardwood, the antique dust of velvet drapes. Greyson himself, silhouetted against fine leaded glass and the watercolor sky, so proud and yet so pensive.
Greyson bowed his head as if preparing to speak. Instead he reached up to fiddle with the back of his mask. Greyson picked locks with the ease of turning a doorknob. Now he fumbled with a simple latch, as if struggling with a knotted shoelace, until the mask unclasped with the barest squeal of its hinge.
Redd untied the ribbon above his ears and lowered his horns as Greyson removed his cap of metal. He had, of course, caught glimpses in the happenstance of coming and going - the broad aquiline nose, the glint of earrings, the shiny dome above a tightly curled halo of hair. But he had never traced Greyson's curious arch of brow, searched the depths of roguish eyes wide with what he prayed was a similar fancy.
"Don't look so hard," Greyson teased. "You might fall in."
"What if I already have?"
"Then that makes two of us, because I'm not going anywhere."
"So I haven't managed to scare you off?"
"I ought to be the one asking that." Greyson glanced down. "You're a gentleman. I'm a jackass. You've hauled me out of trouble more times than I can count. What do you get from all of that besides grief?"
"Adventure. Amusement. Just being with you. You're a real card, Grey, in the best possible sense."
"Then I must be a deuce because I feel like I'm about to drop one."
Redd laughed. "You had to go there, didn't you?"
"I pick locks, not hearts. I'm a little out of my element here."
"You're not alone in that."
Greyson had been rocking toe to heel, thumbs hooked in pockets, as he did when he was pondering a tricky set of tumblers, a questionably placed bookshelf, a wall that seemed to enclose an undiscovered crawl space. He rummaged in the record cabinet and switched out the turntable. The slow strains of a string ensemble began to fill the room.
"We'll figure it out together, won't we?" Greyson mused. "Talk about an adventure."
"And if nothing else, amusing."
"Pfft. Have a little faith in me, will you? I can do better than that." Greyson bowed, extending a formal hand. "Mr. Rockridge, may I have this dance?"
Redd had to smile at the earnestness of Greyson trying on the gentleman act for size. Their fingers laced, ebony and ivory, as Redd took Greyson's lithe waist, and Greyson his firm shoulder. This was normally a businesslike act of politeness, its contact a prolonged handshake - and at the very tip of arm's length for the particular sort of high roller chasing the keys to Redd's bedroom. Now there was the woody musk of Greyson's cologne, the trusting clasp of his fingers, the perfect curve of his back beneath fine linen. The distance between them was a tease, and soon it began to dwindle.
Greyson apologized at the first misstep. "I'm no good at dancing this close."
"But I just stepped on your foot."
"And I also thought - you and Tequila-"
"We're friends, Grey. Working professionals." Redd unlaced his fingers from Greyson's and reached to cup his cheek. "What did you tell me about thinking too much?"
Greyson faltered, unsure where to put his free hand before it came to rest on Redd's shoulder. They drew in further, nose to nose, beard to stubble.
"Is my beard too scratchy?"
"I'm still stepping on your feet."
"I don't care."
"You know, for once in recent memory I can say the same about that egg."
"The egg. The egg. Again?"
"No, no more. I'm done. I'm starting to think it doesn't exist." Greyson squeezed Redd's shoulder. "Seems like I should rather think about what does."
"So you like where this is going?"
"I do." A long and nervous pause. "Maybe I could even love it."
When Redd slid a hand up the back of his neck and leaned in to kiss him, Greyson responded as if he already did.