Dead Ringer

Dead Ringer, by Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler
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Brandon Ringer has a dead man’s face. His grandfather, silver-screen heartthrob James Ringer, died tragically at twenty-one, and Brandon looks exactly like him. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Brandon is unknown, unemployed, and up to his ears in bills after inheriting his grandparents’ Hollywood mansion. He refuses to sell it—it’s his last connection to his grandmother—so to raise the cash he needs, he joins a celebrity look-alike escort agency.

Percy Charles is chronically ill, isolated, and lonely. His only company is his meddlesome caregiver and his collection of James Ringer memorabilia. When he finds “Jim Ringer” on Hollywood Doubles’ website, he books an appointment, hoping to meet someone who shares his passion for his idol.

Brandon? Not that person.

But despite their differences, they connect, and Percy’s fanboy love for James shows Brandon a side of his grandfather he never knew. Soon they want time together off the clock, but Percy is losing his battle for independence, and Brandon feels trapped in James’s long shadow. Their struggle to love each other is the stuff of classic Hollywood. Too bad Brandon knows how those stories end.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Chapter One

Brandon was craving a cigarette by the time he pulled up in front of Dahlia’s house.

No, screw that. A whole pack of cigarettes. So many cigarettes that the clerk down at the Fifth Street Speedway would give him that dead-eyed, judgey, Valley girl stare every time he came in for the next year.

Dahlia’s ancient blue Mercedes had a squeaking rust spot around the back brake, and the mechanic who’d had it since before she died—and who’d charged Brandon almost $300 in “storage fees” like the fucking grifter he was—had told Brandon to “jam it in real hard a couple times, you’ll knock it loose, it’ll be fine,” but Brandon was pretty sure the thing would up and give out if he tried that. So he eased it down, circling the fountain a couple of times before he let it coast to a stop at the bottom of the wide, white steps leading into the house. The whole house was wide and white, even more monstrous than he remembered it being, and he wasn’t sure if he was looking forward to getting lost in it again or not.

Right now, he was leaning toward not.

In the trunk, he had three suitcases—the entire contents of his shit life—and his wallet. And his laptop, which was also a piece of shit. His new set of keys were tagged with the trust attorney’s name and office phone number, plus an advertisement on the flip side that said, PAXTON, BISHOP & WELD: WE’RE YOUR NEIGHBORS.

Yeah, right. They sure were his neighbors . . . when they wanted him to pay up.

Brandon took his wallet and laptop, left the suitcases for now, and ripped the tag off the keys with his teeth on the way up the steps. He got the door unlocked and nudged it open with his hip.

God, it smelled like her.

Brandon knew from the bullshit high school psychology course he’d gone to three classes of that scent was the strongest sense when it came to remembering things. Or so they said. They had to have it wrong, though, because after three whole months of knowing she was gone, for a hot second he forgot that she was dead. He caught himself waiting for her to come around the corner from the kitchen the way she always did, ankle-length flowing skirt billowing around her legs, and wiry gray hair in a long, youthful side braid.

Apparently he had a good reason for not putting much stock in psychology.

Shaking it off, he set his laptop on the floor and spun the keys in his hand, then locked the door behind him to keep out any wandering, ambitious, rude-as-fuck paparazzi. Couldn’t they have some kind of statute of limitations on their hounding? Like say, if someone hadn’t been in a movie in, oh, sixty damn years, then they couldn’t bother them anymore?

And that was assuming they were here for Brandon’s grandmother and not his grandfather, who not only hadn’t done a movie in sixty damn years, but also hadn’t been alive in sixty damn years.

Didn’t they have a new generation of Kardashians to stalk?

“Yo,” he called to the house, which seemed to echo strangely without her in it, though all her furniture and possessions were exactly as she’d left them, reflecting sound the exact same way they always had.

In accordance with her will, her monetary assets had been divided among her favorite charities, while her possessions were bequeathed to Brandon. But the house and all the various royalties and licensing fees James Ringer was still generating were part of the Ringer family trust, and though Brandon’s mother, the next beneficiary in line after Dahlia, had turned down the house out of spite, she hadn’t resented her famous parents enough to refuse the quarterly payouts from the trust fund. So here Brandon was as her alternate, the last of the Ringer line, moving out of a run-down motel and into Dahlia’s huge LA mansion.

Which sounded nice enough, until you realized that this place’s maintenance costs alone were five times more than a high school–dropout fuckup like Brandon made in a year. It didn’t matter that the house was on the outskirts of Hollywood, rather than downtown or in one of the more historic areas—this was rich-people territory, where every driveway was filled with BMWs and Lamborghinis and custom Harley-Davidsons, and Brandon was, as usual, the odd one out.

His shitty income normally wasn’t enough for him to do more than scrape by, and that was when he was living a lifestyle that consisted of motel-hopping, eating at 7-Eleven, and no monthly bills, except his pay-as-you-go cell phone. Now none of his usual last-ditch money-saving methods were going to work. Well, he could keep skipping meals if he had to, but he couldn’t crash out somewhere and save himself a night’s room cost to make his problems go away. Not with an actual house and its contents legally—well, almost legally, as soon as probate court got its ass in gear—attached to him. He’d had a hard enough time before, even when he wasn’t “between jobs,” as Dahlia used to call it. Which he was, currently.

How the hell was he going to pay for this fucking place? He wasn’t going to be able to afford any of the regular upkeep staff or the utility bills. He knew how much the house cost to heat and cool, plus electricity and gas and water, and all the homeowners’ association fees Dahlia used to mutter about, and the landscapers and gardener, and the house cleaners . . . Bare minimum would be a chunk of change that he wouldn’t be able to scrounge up from anywhere.

He’d gotten himself into this. As soon as his mother had decided she wanted no part of the house, it’d been offered to Brandon. The trust’s attorney had been careful to explain that Brandon wouldn’t have any incoming cash flow from the trust or from Dahlia’s personal accounts, and that Brandon could only forfeit the house back to the trust, not sell it. If he fell behind on anything, the trust would step in and evict him. The guy had sounded skeptical of Brandon being responsible enough to keep up, and that was exactly the reason Brandon had agreed to take the house. Also because he couldn’t stand the idea of letting the only decent home he’d ever known slip through his fingers.

If he hadn’t taken it, it would’ve gone to public sale, where some weird fetishists would have bought it so they could brag over shrimp cocktails and expensive, sommelier-suggested water (yeah, that was a thing now) that they lived where James Ringer’s wife had lived. As if she weren’t her own person, just some extension of him. And if he forfeited the place, he wouldn’t have anywhere to put Dahlia’s beloved hippie stuff and the framed photos she’d taken herself. It would all go to whatever cheap auction house he could call in, and then it’d end up on dusty shelves or sold off at secondhand stores, underappreciated and forgotten.

Everything left of Dahlia would be gone.

He couldn’t let that happen.

No, he was stuck here, stuck with the old oak fixtures and the potpourri smell and the basement full of props and paper ghosts. No job and a stack of largely unpayable bills was better than no job and no house and a stack of bills. Probably. At least if they shut off his heat and electricity, he could use the house’s huge not-to-code fireplace and Dahlia’s expansive collection of scented candles to get by. Better than a homeless shelter. A million times better than his parents’ place, not that they would let him back in even if he was down to his last cent.

He wandered through the house, and by the time he’d passed the same midcentury starburst clock in the crossover section between the two wings three times, he realized he was looking for something he wasn’t going to find.

Not Dahlia. He wasn’t delusional. Just . . . something.

Something he’d had or maybe felt, once, in this place. Something he’d lost.

The house was his to deal with, and he considered it home, but before today he hadn’t lived here for a year. Not since he turned eighteen. It wasn’t that Dahlia had kicked him out or anything. It was just that she had been more like a friend than a mother figure or the guardian the court had deemed her to be, and once Brandon was supposedly an adult, he’d decided it was time to stop being a drain on her and move the hell out.

He regretted that now that she was gone. Of course he did.

Not the money part—not the part where he didn’t have her to hand him an Amex anymore and tell him to get what he needed. He wasn’t that much of a little bastard. He missed her. Missed . . . Fuck, he missed that he hadn’t been here, if that made sense. He missed saying good night to her when she was still up at four in the morning, and finding her asleep out by the pool with a half-potted plant next to her and a dish full of flavored cigarette butts. He missed all their midweek nature documentary marathons. He missed her mixed drinks that she’d always handed to him with an “I know, I know, you’re not old enough to drink” speech and a dismissive, disgusted flap of her hand.

When he got the paperwork, the house had been listed as part of “the Ringer trust.” It didn’t even have her name on it.

But she was everywhere in here. Maybe his grandfather’s name was on the deed, but this was Dahlia’s house. Brandon gave himself a shake, ignoring how his fingertips kept twitching, itching for a cigarette to calm him down, chase away the flutter of nerves from God knew where. Dahlia had always had a no-smoking-in-the-house rule, and Brandon had one more place to look before he would give himself permission to go out and smoke.

If he didn’t go down there now, he never would.

He needed to make sure nothing downstairs had been fucked with. Who knew what these Hollywood lawyers did when they were checking out properties? He’d toyed with the idea of hiring someone to do it. Letting them come in and catalog so the stuff would be ready to sell off as soon as the will came out of probate and the house’s contents were officially Brandon’s. It was the best possible solution. Brandon didn’t have any idea what the hell he was looking at. Whether it was worth anything or not. To him? Not. But to other people . . .

He’d been in Dahlia’s basement only once, and only because his mom told him not to. It hadn’t been his mother who’d found him, though—it had been Dahlia, and she’d told him, strained, that the place wasn’t for looking around in. He hadn’t seen her go down there again, not the whole time he lived with her.

The door to the basement was by the kitchen, between it and the room with the ancient, white baby grand piano neither Brandon nor his grandmother played. The old, out-of-tune thing had been a wedding gift, and Dahlia had said it seemed sad when she tried to move it, so there it stayed.

Just like everything in the basement: his grandmother’s “collection,” which had been the subject of dozens of cold calls over the years from people seeking to buy it.

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and flicked the lights on.

There were no copies of his grandfather’s movies in the house, and since he’d never had any desire to put himself through watching James Ringer “act,” he hadn’t searched for them on his own, either. So he didn’t recognize most of what he was looking at as the lights warmed up and brightened, illuminating it all.

The stacks of flaking, yellowed newspapers announcing JAMES RINGER DEAD were kind of obvious, but the other things, not so much. The boxes labeled with various film names and PROPS could have been from any random movie released in the last sixty years, as far as he was concerned. Same with the costumed mannequins.

But all right, the leather motorcycle jacket, framed on one wall and looking butter-soft under its spotlight—that he did recognize. Sort of. Those cheesy commemorative magazines he saw on the newsstands periodically featured it, and cheap pleather versions were a fixture of bagged Halloween costumes year after year.

He ran his hand over the plastic display case closest to the steps. Inside were stacks of monogrammed cigarette packs with pictures of his grandfather’s face, and a few poker chips here and there, scattered around a Las Vegas postcard that said A NIGHT WITH MR. RINGER in faux-neon print.

Framed photographs took up an entire row of shelving on their own. Brandon crept down the center of the aisle, irrationally afraid of touching anything.

His grandfather’s face stared at him from every angle. From every angle, too, Brandon had to look at his long legs, at his slim shoulders and slimmer hips. Dahlia had candids, set shots, staged shoots—and in all of them his grandfather had the same wicked, curling smirk and strangely vulnerable eyes that had gotten him named Hollywood’s hottest boy.

Brandon turned his back on a glossy headshot, sucking in a breath. He didn’t need to be down here looking at all this in order to see that mouth. He saw it in the goddamn mirror every day.

Suddenly ill at ease with the idea of being surrounded on all sides by someone he’d never known, someone whose footsteps he could feel behind his heartbeat, he headed back to the stairs and gripped the railing until his knuckles turned white. He didn’t need to be down here at all. Coming to see the collection was pointless. What did he care if any of this shit had been moved, broken, stolen?

He gave everything else a cursory look from the stairs, telling himself he owed it to Dahlia to at least make sure there wasn’t a leak in the ceiling or some shit. Just because she hadn’t visited the basement didn’t mean she hadn’t had a connection to it. A connection that had nearly fucking ruined her with grief for sixty years, yeah, but a connection nonetheless.

The framed posters that dominated the right-side wall were still lined up evenly, undisturbed, and the shelves of chewing gum boxes, license plates, and Zippo lighters were all neatly organized. Organized and dusty and—not forgotten, but definitely abandoned.

Dahlia hadn’t talked about any of this after Brandon wandered down that one time. But his parents, before they decided he wasn’t their kid, had told him that after James died, people had called Dahlia at all hours of the day, offering to buy weird-as-shit things like tissues James had used or his cigarette butts, or—conversely—offering to give her something of his they’d held on to. People had left memorabilia on her goddamn front porch.

“She did buy some too, Lisa,” his dad had said when his mother broke off to dab her eyes. Brandon’s mom was economical and strict, and she and Dahlia hadn’t gotten along, but if Brandon could say one thing about his mother, it was that she was never cruel to Dahlia.

She’d just never spoken to her, either.

“I know she bought some,” his mom had retorted. “But those people forcing their things down her throat . . .”

Brandon couldn’t really get why Dahlia had bought stuff, unless she’d planned to sell it all and live off the money once James’s royalties and endorsements ran out. That made more sense than the motivations of the weirdos who thought she wanted her dead husband’s collectibles left on her front porch.

Maybe after James Ringer died, Dahlia—and all the rest of them—had wanted to remember him as a young and square-jawed and handsome fantasy, instead of how he’d really been alive, or how he’d died: torn to shreds, skin full of gravel, twenty feet away from his crumpled motorcycle.

Or maybe it felt better to her to have it all in her basement, safely tucked away, instead of sitting on display in Planet Hollywood where people could gawk at the remains of her personal tragedy—everything James Ringer had taken from her, first with his playboy running around and then with his equally reckless, selfish death—while they stuffed their faces with overpriced cheeseburgers. Or maybe hoarding her dead husband’s junk was another tic on a long list of quirks, right after her obsession with new age medicine and those spinning spaghetti wind chimes people hung from trees.

Whatever the reason, it was too late now to ask her. Too late to let her tell him her secrets, confess her regrets.

She’d left this stuff to him, but what he wanted was the house. So now it was his problem and his decision.

He stood there with a hand on the railing and looked out over it all, the big basement stuffed full, and figured maybe his first idea—getting someone in here to catalog it—was the best thing to do. He wouldn’t have to look at it, and he could sell it off to the people who slavered all over eBay. Then, once it was gone and he had the money from it, he’d be able to cover the bills. He hoped. Until then . . . he’d have to figure it out.

Because he couldn’t leave. He couldn’t let strangers have Dahlia’s home. Those faceless leech buyers would comment on the gorgeous midcentury modern features, like the trust’s attorney had, would say they’d heard a rumor that James Ringer sat right over there. That he made drinks at this counter. That they had seen photos of him in the pool. They wouldn’t talk about how Brandon had spent the better part of three years here, spilling macaroni on the floor in the middle of the night and swiping booze from the cabinet in the dining room. Or about how Dahlia had once half painted the living room bright yellow in the middle of the night, found out the next morning that the color caused agitation, then painted the room all over again, the same color as before, like the whole thing had never happened.

If anyone else but Brandon got this house, the new owners would do the same thing. Except they would paint over everything, paint the entire house with James Ringer, until it was like Dahlia had never happened.

Brandon would rather starve.

Sure, it was just a house. Just a building, just a piece of property. It wasn’t magic, it wasn’t special.

It also wasn’t James Ringer’s.

It was hers.

Hers and Brandon’s.

He flicked the lights off, plunging his grandfather back into darkness, and went upstairs.

He’d had enough of James Ringer for a lifetime.

***

Dahlia’s old lounger was still in the same place it had always been: on the patio overlooking the pool, with an overfull ashtray of lipstick-smeared cigarette butts beside it. Brandon brushed off a layer of crumpled leaves—which reminded him, he needed to call and cancel the gardener and the housekeeper before he had to shell out for them too—and fell into the seat.

He flipped open his laptop and lit a cigarette while he waited through the boot up. That first whiff of tobacco, combined with the familiar smell of the garden and the pool, had his eyes stinging with grief. Like hell he was going to cry, though. He sucked hard on the cigarette and stubbornly blinked until the feeling passed, until the more immediate concern of a mild smoke-induced coughing fit sufficiently distracted him. If he got sentimental now, he was fucked.

His laptop chugged and whirred, but finally hacked up an internet browser window. For a moment, he stared at it blankly, cigarette hanging from his lower lip. What the hell was he supposed to type?

“James Ringer collection”? “Dahlia Delair . . . net value collection”? “How much is it to get someone to look at old ju—stuff”?

He moved the cursor into the box and typed.

(In all caps, on account of his laptop having gotten stuck at some point, and by the time it’d fixed itself, Brandon had gotten used to it.)

PAWNING OFF MY DEAD RELATIVE’S MOST PRECIOUS POSSESSIONS LIKE A CALLOUS GOLD DIGGING LITTLE ASSHOLE.

It was accurate as hell, but he wasn’t sure how much use it would be to a search engine. He tapped his cigarette on the lounger’s edge, selected the text, and hit Delete.

Maybe just PAWN SHOP?

He was about to hit Search when he remembered that bald asshole on TV who always lowballed people and fed them lines of bullshit about how their precious heirlooms were gonna take up shelf space for months and he’d never be able to find a buyer and it all wound up meaning that he was only gonna offer less than half of the appraised value.

Aha! APPRAISER.

He could skip the pawnshop asshole and his flapping gums. Go straight to someone who priced this shit for a living instead of trying to sell it to vacationing suckers.

Okay, millions of results. Not helpful.

HOLLYWOOD MEMORABILIA APPRAISER LOS ANGELES.

He hit Enter.

Now he was on to something. The first result was for Silver Era Collectables: Hollywood Memorabilia Bought, Sold, and Appraised. Professionally accredited.

Perfect.

He got out his phone and dialed the number.

“Silver Era Collectables, this is Harry speaking.”

Okay. Okay. He could do this. He took a deep breath.

“Hi, my name’s Brandon R—” No, better not to use the last name in case this guy was shady and had paparazzi on speed dial to supplement his income. “Brandon. My grandmother just died and she’s got this basement full of my grandfather’s old Hollywood stuff, and I was wondering if you had someone who could come by and give me an idea of what it’s worth.”

“Well, son, I only do house calls for larger collections. Otherwise it’s best if you pack it up in a box and bring it down to my store.”

Brandon thought back to the basement, expansive and packed wall-to-wall. That first view as the lights flicked on reminding him of the warehouse in Indiana Jones. “Oh, it’s large, all right.”

“Well . . . hmm. What is it your grandparents have, then?” Brandon opened his mouth to speak, but the guy railroaded him. “I should warn you though, son, that I don’t buy those collector plates they sell on TV. Really, I don’t buy anything they sell on TV or in stores. No reproduction lunchboxes, no velvet posters, no limited-edition coins, no decorative plates, no commemorative anything. So you keep that in mind and tell me what you still got to make my drive worthwhile. Elvis? Marilyn Monroe? Lauren Bacall? She’s a hot item right now.” He cleared his throat, as if picking up on his own callousness.

But then, who was more callous here? The man for whom this was just business, or the no-good, unemployed loser selling off his dead grandparents’ legacy to pay some fucking bills? Dahlia had cared enough to keep all of it, even if she hadn’t wanted to look at it.

Or hadn’t been able to look at it, maybe.

Because it was all stained with James Ringer.

No, he needed to just get rid of it. No dillydallying.

He opened his mouth, and—

“Well?” Harry cut in, smarmy and impatient. “You dead over there, kid? Or are you now coming to terms with the fact that all you’ve got on your hands is a basement full of Granny’s worthless commemorative junk?” He chuckled. “Chin up, bud. There’s always eBay.”

Brandon nearly crushed his phone in his fist. “I’m Brandon Ringer,” he said through clenched teeth, pronouncing the word so forcefully that the g stopped being silent. “My grandmother was Dahlia Delair. Her late husband—my grandfather—was James Ringer. The James Ringer. I don’t know how much of a ‘hot item’ he is in your business, but I’ve got a basement full of his stuff, and it sure as hell ain’t commemorative junk.”

There was a full thirty seconds of stunned silence on the other end of the line.

“O-oh!” Harry finally managed to get out. “Mr. Ringer, sir, I didn’t realize! You didn’t say! Of course I’ll come by. Of course. I’d be honored to appraise Ms. Delair’s collection. I’ll come personally. At your earliest convenience! I’ll have my assistant move some appointments around. I’ll—”

Brandon hung up on him.

Didn’t know whether he was more disgusted with Sleazeball Harry or himself.

Over the course of their conversation—if you could even call it that—his cigarette had burned down to a stub, so he ground it out on the patio stone and dropped it in the general vicinity of Dahlia’s ashtray.

That settled that, at least. Oh, he was still going to get rid of the collection, but there was no fucking way he was going to sell it, not even for eight figures, because if Harry was an example of “professional and accredited” in this morbid business, then no amount of washing would get Brandon’s hands clean after shaking on a deal with any of them. He’d be better off donating it to a museum or something. Better off stuffing it in garbage bags and leaving it out back to rot than selling to fucking Harry.

At least a museum wouldn’t be looking for a fat paycheck.

Speaking of money.

Back to square one. Broke. No job, more bills than he could comprehend. The house had expenses Brandon hadn’t known existed before this. He’d found a payment calendar along with Dahlia’s checkbook in her old writing desk, and the cost of things she’d regularly paid for was way beyond what Brandon had first thought. Added up, it was something like a hundred grand a year, with hefty monthly payments. Pretty much the only way he could pay anything on actual time was to sell his liver. He could ask for extensions, but not for long, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to get on a first-name basis with a collections agent the way so many other people seemed to be nowadays. He had a whole house full of stuff he wasn’t desperate enough to sell. Couldn’t forfeit the house without losing Dahlia’s stuff.

He wasn’t desperate enough to sell his liver, either.

Yet.

So he opened the search engine page again and typed in: MAKE MONEY FAST.

Then added, + NOT A SCAM.

And - SALES JOBS.

The first page of results were scams, of course. I make 20,000 dollars a day using my computer! and the like. Brandon wasn’t gullible, and he wasn’t greedy enough for the dubious promise of $20,000 a day to tempt him into ignoring his suspicions.

Three more pages of bogus results later, and he was about to give up on the whole enterprise, when he saw it: Confident and outgoing young women and men wanted! Live your own life, set your own hours, never have a boss again! Cam models always needed!

So apparently promises of unimaginable wealth didn’t crank his proverbial chain, but the thought of no bosses, of living his own life, did.

Lighting a second cigarette, he clicked the link.

 

Chapter Two

The first time Brandon heard it, he was probably thirteen or so—right around the age when the things adults said about you started to get under your skin.

“That boy is the spitting image of his grandfather!”

Outsiders always said it to his face, loud and proud, excited to see a cherished, long-dead cult celebrity they’d only known from movie posters and biopics live on in his genetics.

People who knew James Ringer more intimately—Brandon’s parents, Dahlia’s friends, the occasional paparazzo, and the hoi polloi of old Hollywood—all whispered it under their breaths or behind their hands. An ill omen.

As he grew from a boy into a young man, he’d heard it more and more often.

And not always in flattering terms.

“He looks like that damn James Ringer. You watch out or he’ll wind up like him too!”

“You know where your grandfather’s devil-may-care attitude got him, boy?”

“Just because he looks like James Ringer doesn’t mean you have to indulge him like he’s a celebrity. I don’t even think we should indulge celebrities like celebrities! You saw how that turned out, Dahlia!”

James Ringer had been a Hollywood darling in the early fifties. What Harry had said: a “hot item.” Everyone wanted a piece. He’d had five starring roles in a short period and was at the peak of his celebrity when he crashed his Triumph Thunderbird and died instantly, leaving behind his beautiful young actress wife and their infant daughter. He was twenty-one.

Brandon had recently turned nineteen. He wasn’t superstitious at all, hadn’t inherited his mother and father’s toxic Christianity or Dahlia’s less toxic but still completely woo-woo new age beliefs. But after a whole life hearing how much he resembled his grandfather, how much he was destined to become his grandfather, he couldn’t shake the bone-deep conviction that once he turned twenty-one, he would die too.

Every time he managed to convince himself it was all bullshit, something would go wrong, and he’d remember how many traits he and James Ringer shared.

One: looks good enough to let them skate by, but absolutely no special skills or talents. No matter how many damn movies his grandfather had been in, Brandon refused to believe that success was the result of actual ability.

Two: the inability to make their faces hold expressions that looked anything other than sardonic and slightly bored.

Three: their devil-may-care, live-fast-die-young lifestyles, chock full of cigarettes, booze, and drugs. Also their shared propensity for sleeping around. Which wasn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, so long as you were unattached, but the only times James Ringer had slept around—was rumored to have slept around, whatever, he’d obviously done it—were all when he was already with Dahlia.

God, he hadn’t deserved her.

And neither had Brandon.

Maybe that was why he cared so little about his future, cared so little about putting money into savings or getting an education or any of that shit. What was the fucking point in pretending he was going to go anywhere? He’d grudgingly admit that in some respects, he was worse off than James Ringer, because when he died, there wasn’t anyone who was going to be framing his face or keeping his likeness in their basements for the rest of their lives because they missed him. His grandfather’s lingering fame was because he’d died so young, so tragically, and so publicly, but Brandon had exactly two contacts in his cell phone. One of them was the phone company line he called to add minutes to his plan each month. And the other one, Dahlia . . . well.

The only person who would’ve missed him had left him to miss her.

Live your own life, the advertisement for cam modeling promised.

Not the life his parents had tried to force him into—the one where he conformed and quit smoking and straightened up his posture and got a good job and wasn’t a filthy fucking queer. Not the life that his grandfather’s had left him feeling fated for: dead at twenty-one, guttered out like a candle. At least James Ringer had burned.

His own life.

The way things were now, that was as much a pie-in-the-sky promise as twenty thousand dollars a day.

In that moment, Brandon didn’t care.

He knew what “cam modeling” was a euphemism for, of course. Jacking it or fingering himself on the internet while perverts watched and got off and maybe gave him instructions what to do.

No big deal; he was no stranger to whoring his body out, after all. Before Dahlia had come and collected him, driving all the way to North Dakota from LA in her Mercedes, he’d sucked his fair share of dicks to make rent. It was better than fighting tooth and nail for a job at Walmart, and better still than going to fucking conversion therapy, the way his parents wanted.

Cam work would be a walk in the park compared to working on the street. No fighting about condoms. No kissing gross dudes who hadn’t brushed their teeth. No worrying about his backup plan if someone got a little rough or decided he wasn’t done when the hour was up.

Yeah, he could do this.

His shit laptop was just about dead, so he slammed it shut, put it under his arm, and headed inside for a power source.

Paused by the doorframe to chip off the lit end of his cigarette, because even if Dahlia was dead, he wasn’t about to start smoking in her house.

His suitcases were still in the car, but he was too keyed up about the possibility of a job to bother bringing them in, let alone unpacking. Instead, he just found his laptop charger and headed straight for the wing of the house where the bedrooms were.

For this, he’d use one of the impersonal guest rooms. No family photos, no tchotchkes, no smell of Dahlia. Just a sprawling king-size bed with an over-the-top pile of decorative pillows and a framed piece of samey modern art that was probably worth more than what most white, upper-middle-class, noncelebrity people had hanging in places of honor in their living rooms. Maybe he could pawn that. If Dahlia had hung it in here, out of the way, in one of the ten rooms she kept locked so the maid didn’t have to clean them as often, then obviously it hadn’t meant much to her. A gift from a suitor, maybe, or one of those handouts celebrities got from designers and artists and corporations—because who better to give free stuff to than multimillionaires, right?

He shoved at least eight decorative pillows onto the floor, plugged in his laptop, and hopped onto the bed.

The site layout was clean and mostly black, with grayed-out shots of girls’ asses and guys’ abs and feet in high heels and the occasional tanned and artfully oiled sideboob. Most of the information was for people who wanted to watch, but down on the right was a gold panel that said, Saw our ad? Join here. Brandon skipped past the top of the page, which was the general “if you’re not at least eighteen, please leave this site” warning.

Below were two graphics side by side, one of a cute, pouting girl in a corset, arms squeezed together in that coquettish way that made her cleavage stand out, and the other of a grinning, shirtless dude, hands stretched out to the side to show off his heavily muscled chest, the bulges of his biceps. Yeah, Brandon didn’t look like that. He knew exactly how he looked—duh—and had seen the unavoidable ad copy and talk shows that said his grandfather was “unconventionally handsome.” Square jaw, “expressive” eyes, the whole nine. His face was fine. His body . . . Well, he wasn’t this guy. He was leaner, had a naturally slim waist and small shoulders, and he’d never done the weight-training thing the jocks in his high school had. He wouldn’t fall on his ass lifting boxes and shit, and that was enough for him.

Whatever. The website even said: Skinny? Fat? Flat-chested? Small dick? You don’t have to be a model to be a cam model.

People wanted all kinds of bodies. He already knew he could sell his. There was no point in dwelling on the what-ifs of internet creepers’ anatomical preferences.

Make a 60% base commission automatically!!! said the type below the shirtless-guy graphic. Get paid twice a month.

He scrolled through the FAQ section, skimming questions like What can I do to increase my viewers? and Why do I only make 60% base rate? and sailing right past What kind of camera and microphone are best for shows? because if he waited long enough to run to Best Buy before he went through with this, he’d probably come up with some bullshit reason not to, and then he’d wind up sucking dick anyway. Maybe once his first paycheck came in, he could use some of it to upgrade his equipment.

He clicked Sign Up, which brought him to a form where he filled out his sex, age, and body type, then checked boxes on a list of acts he was willing to perform for the camera. All solo, of course, because Brandon sure as hell didn’t have any friends, let alone ones willing to do dirty things on camera with him.

Online banking info was next, and then it was time to pick a username and upload photos.

When choosing a username, remember:

- Pick something unique

- That refers to the main draw of your show

- Suggestions for women: LactatingLady, BBW_MILF, Brown$ugar, GymnastForU, etc.

- Suggestions for men: Gay4PayStr8, Uncut_Boytoy, Powerbottom, LatinLover, etc.

Well, Brandon wasn’t lactating, and he was pretty sure “brown sugar” was just racist pervert-speak for black women. He wasn’t gay for pay, he didn’t lift, and his dick wasn’t circus-freak impressive. He’d done some ass play, but he was in no way a power bottom. He didn’t have any hard-core or impressive kinks to speak of, and he wasn’t sure if there was anything he knew to do to make his show “stand out.”

Broke_Boy was taken—surprise—and Broke_Boy_Who_Refuses_to_Pawn_His_Grandmas_Stuff was too many characters.

Boy_Fucked_by_Real_Estate was also too many characters, and kind of misleading, he guessed.

Now a helpful bubble popped up on the side of the application box and told him he could try using Urban Dictionary if he was “having issues committing to a name.”

“Fuck you too,” he told it, and backspaced. The only thing he could think of, the only thing people ever noticed about him, the only thing unique about him at all . . . was his grandfather. His resemblance to his grandfather.

He squinted out at the pool, watching the lapping water. James_Ringer by itself seemed too plain and probably creepy.

James_Ringer_Cam. Too generic? Also—just as creepy as plain old James_Ringer. And, damn it, too many characters.

James_Ringer_Lives.

Again, too many characters. And too reminiscent of the dogged conspiracy theorists who used to call Dahlia’s house, demanding to see proof of his grandfather’s death and listing off pages of reasons why he couldn’t possibly have died in the accident, and why Dahlia was harboring him in the house, protecting him from media storms and scandals and the goddamn sun itself.

He tapped his keyboard, twisting the words around in his head. Yeah, he didn’t want to give anyone the idea that James Ringer was anything but gone and on his way to forgotten. So . . . maybe not “James Ringer lives,” but . . .

Dead_Ringer.

Heck, it was a pun.

Ta-da. He clicked Finish, and it took him through to a poor man’s YouTube-style dashboard. There were, of course, no helpful/obnoxious pop-ups to guide him around the thousand widgets on the page, but he could make out most of it himself: Upcoming Shows, Past Shows, Pay Stub . . . Modify Public Profile.

Modify public profile?

Aw, shit, this thing wanted a profile too?

Well, he was already here. Might as well go all the way. Plus, it wasn’t like he had to tell the truth about himself. Everybody else on this site was probably fake as hell. It was all about show. What kind of show would Dead_Ringer put on?

No-good deadbeat with a famous face. Will debase self for cash.

There were people that would fish in, but he had a feeling the kind of people who went looking for someone else’s reluctant debasement were sociopaths, and yeah, no thanks. Brandon had dealt with enough of those growing up.

He itched for another smoke. Rubbed his fingers to quell the need to crush the soft end of a cigarette between them.

Okay, the site wanted a picture too. That he could do.

He fired up his shitty webcam and twisted sideways, pulling his sunglasses low and taking a grainy picture of his sharp jaw, his brown hair falling into his eyes. Uploaded it. His only viable asset, documented for the world to jerk off to. And speaking of jerking off . . .

He clicked through his computer’s hard drive absently, and sure enough, found a few dick pics and bathroom selfies in an unmarked folder. Leftover presents for an ex-sugar daddy who’d turned out to be a bigger deadbeat loser than Brandon and, unlike Brandon, a liar to boot. Well, hopefully the pics could make him a few bucks now.

Better late than never, he supposed, but tell that to past Brandon, who’d been left hungry and dreaming feverishly about giving in and calling Dahlia to ask for a few hundred bucks. He could’ve lived for months off what she would have given him, but he couldn’t have let himself do that to her. Not after he was sure James Ringer had done the exact same thing: leeched off her and then gone and fucked around, only there for her when he needed something—not money. More like a wholesome family photo shoot when his reputation needed a boost.

There were thousands of paparazzi photos to prove the selfish asshole had never paid her the amount of attention he should have, too busy ritzing it up with his costars and, hell, even some of his movie crews.

No matter how bad a spot Brandon ended up in—and he always seemed to end up in one, and it was always his fault—he hadn’t let himself call her. And if he didn’t do this cam thing right now, he was going to wind up in a bad place again, this time with no one to call.

Maybe beggars couldn’t be choosers when it came to sociopaths. He left the line about debasing himself and hit Save Profile before he chickened out again.

At least this way he wouldn’t get anyone wasting his time with flirting or romantic overtures. Nutcase socios would take what they wanted, metaphorically toss some cash at his feet, and leave.

Just how Brandon liked it.

 

Chapter Three

Parties, like everything else in Percy’s ridiculous excuse for a life, had rules.

The rules were as follows:

You couldn’t skip a party, no matter how miserable you were feeling that day, because then people would talk.

You couldn’t sulk or scowl, no matter how much pain you were in or how much the people around you were being shit-heels, because then people would talk.

You couldn’t overstay your welcome, even if the party was happening in your house, because then people would talk.

You couldn’t enjoy yourself too much or too visibly, even in the unlikely event the party was a great time, because then people would talk.

Make an appearance so you didn’t cultivate a reputation as the family’s dirty little secret. Leave, so you didn’t make people too uncomfortable with your presence. Smile constantly, so nobody thought you were bad company. Don’t laugh or talk loudly, just in case somebody thought you were drunk or showing off.

Be seen and not heard, essentially.

Yes, that.

Percy couldn’t drink, but he held a glass of cognac at every party, because that was what his father did, and if Percy’s stiff hands were empty, people would talk. There would be rumors of alcoholism, of medication abuse, of . . . well, any affliction people could think of. Percy was no stranger to that. Most people in his parents’ social circle weren’t privy to Percy’s condition, but they certainly made a habit of guessing. Outlandishly.

Of course, Percy had tried to tell his parents that if they were honest about it being nothing more interesting than juvenile idiopathic arthritis, the whole issue would be moot, but that would ruin the mystery. Or something.

His knees ached. The drink in his hands felt as heavy as if he were holding a fifty-pound dumbbell. His pain level was always more or less fine for the first half hour or so, a struggle for the second half hour, and then intolerable. Coincidentally, that was also how dealing with the people at these events went, which was why Percy mostly skirted the throngs, making slow circuits to prevent his joints from locking up and to maintain the appearance that he was properly interacting when his parents glanced up to check where he was.

He was a twenty-one-year-old man, and his parents still kept an eye on him at parties. Lord.

At the midway point of the night, when talk was winding down from shallow greetings, “how are yous,” and platitudes, turning to discussions of investments and which real estate markets were ripest for plucking and which charity’s silent auction to attend next month, Percy retrieved a tiny plate of fruit from one of the tables in the ballroom, careful to make sure there wasn’t any pineapple on it. The last thing he needed was to have an allergic reaction in a room full of people who would assume it was E. coli or hepatitis or cancer. Probably cancer. Whatever was most dramatic.

His body couldn’t be counted on to hold the plate in one hand and the glass in the other, and he didn’t dare be seen asking for help, so he stacked the plate on top of the glass, then picked up the whole structure and carried it that way, hoping he could make his way to the seating area without drawing anyone’s attention.

The majority of the tables were full or at least claimed by groups of men with expensive suits and slicked hair. Standard fare for his father’s friends, most of whom were good ole boys: many of them former fraternity brothers, some fellow board members, all of them united by old money, equally old brands of cologne, and overinflated bank accounts with egos to match.

Near the back of the room, though, was a ten-seater table with only one occupant: a young woman Percy’s age who looked roughly as bored and miserable as Percy felt. He headed that way.

“May I sit?” he asked. The woman glanced over at him and nodded with a quirk of her lips. Percy mumbled his thanks and sank into a seat on the other side of the table to pick at his food.

He’d expected to be ignored, but to his surprise, a moment later she stood up, walked the whole way around the table, dropped down into the seat right beside him, and said, “If you’re not drinking that, can I have it?” She gestured at his glass.

Percy blinked, then pushed it toward her. “It’s cognac,” he warned, and she gave him a dry no shit look before she tossed back a healthy mouthful.

“Not bad,” she said, surveying the glass. “Cognac’s not your thing, Mr. . . .?”

“Percy. Just Percy’s fine.” The fact that she didn’t know his name was refreshing. “And no, it isn’t.” But if I don’t have a drink in hand, they can accuse me of not having a good time.

She set the glass down and stuck her hand across the white tablecloth. “I’m Kovie.”

It took a second for Percy to understand she wanted to shake.

That . . . never happened. Ever.

He lifted his hand, letting her see his contractures, the awkward way they pulled his pinkie down and how his muscles were collected in the cup of his palm, knotting up the tendons and flesh there. But she didn’t pull away. Didn’t look down.

Her grip, when they shook, was firm, and her fingertips were callused. It hurt, putting pressure on his already-tense muscles, but it was good too, this time.

“Sooo, what are you into?” she said, after another mouthful of her pilfered cognac. Her curly black hair was cut close, and she was wearing twinkling handfuls of chunky gold and pearl bangles that stood out against her dark skin and clinked merrily every time she moved. “Or did you get dragged here by the ’rents too?”

Percy studied her for a moment. Wondered if her reaction would be exactly as he expected. “My mother is our hostess this evening.”

Her eyes widened in recognition. “Oh!”

Ah yes. There it was.

That “Oh, it’s Percy. The Percy. The sick boy” gasp.

At least she didn’t say it. At least she didn’t coo or furtively try to excuse herself.

“I hate these things,” she said instead. “But I guess you’re used to them, huh?”

“I wish I weren’t,” Percy replied, then flinched at his own honesty. Just because she seemed trustworthy now didn’t mean she wasn’t about to go blabbing about how ungrateful and unsociable he was.

Her laugh was low and genuine, a relief. “I’m trying not to let myself get there just yet. I’m only here because my mom’s out of town for work and my dad—” she gestured subtly to the table of businessmen “—didn’t want to show up alone. You know. Oh, the horror of not having an escort on your arm.”

“You should have told him that if it was that much of an emergency, he could have just hired one,” Percy said under his breath.

Kovie choked on her sip of cognac and slapped a hand over her mouth. Percy didn’t have time to wonder if he’d offended her—she was giggling, her dark eyes glittering. “God,” she sighed, “you would’ve made the rest of these things so much more interesting. Are you going to anything next month?”

Percy opened his mouth to tell her he was going to everything, he always did, but Hazel’s familiar voice, dripping with concern, cut him off.

“Percy!” she said, coming up behind him. She gave him a terse, close-mouthed smile and didn’t bother hiding her surprise when she cast a look at Kovie and said, “I see you’ve . . . met someone.”

Yes, Percy supposed the one thing he could be grateful for was that his parents had never tried to push him into sitting at the kids’ table or into attending the social gatherings popular with their friends’ children. He’d never been encouraged to have friends, so he simply . . . hadn’t bothered trying to make any. The fact that he was sitting with someone was practically a novelty. That she’d engaged him in friendly conversation and he actually wanted to participate rather than feeling compelled to was as common as a planetwide cataclysm.

Hazel laid a light hand on his shoulder, being cautious not to squeeze him, as usual. “I’m sure we can find you somewhere empty to sit, Percy.”

“Oh, no, no, he’s great here, I’m not waiting on anyone,” Kovie chimed in. She half stood from her chair and offered a hand, bracelets swinging. “I’m Kovie Mittelstaedt, nice to meet you.”

Hazel took her hand off Percy’s shoulder to shake, her wrist limp. “Mittelstaedt,” she said, with an odd tone. Then she cleared her throat. “I’m Hazel, Percy’s caretaker. I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you.”

“Nope, seriously, I’m all alone too, and Percy here was giving me some desperately needed company.” Kovie flashed a brilliant smile and sat again, lifting the cognac glass. “Plus he got me a drink. What a gentleman.” Her smile turned a little more secret, and she aimed it at Percy, who flushed. How could he not?

“Well.” Hazel cleared her throat again. “Percy, you should be eating more than that, since you skipped dinner. And thank you, Miss, mm, Mittelstaedt, but Percy must be going now.” She slipped her hand under Percy’s elbow, the way she always did, the way he hated, “helping” lever him out of his seat when he could have done it fine himself, with a bit more effort. “Come on, Percy, we’ll find somewhere—”

“Um—no, it’s okay.” Kovie’s grin was gone, and her eyes flashed to Hazel and back to Percy, the muscles over her jaw flexing. “If you two need some privacy, I can go.” She held Percy’s eyes for a moment longer, until he nodded. Then she stood, collecting her pearl-colored clutch and Percy’s cognac glass. “Have a nice night, Percy. Hazel.”

“You too,” Percy said, forcing himself to smile.

“Yes, you too.” Hazel released his arm and sniffed, taking Kovie’s vacated seat. “Oh, Percy,” she said, reaching over to fix the fold of his suit. “If you want company, I can always stay closer to you at these parties. You know I’d rather be nearby in case . . .” She waved a hand, indicating what she surely thought were millions of things that could go wrong. She was a former registered nurse, Percy knew, and had worked in one of the first children’s wards his parents had put him in. They’d hired her full-time once Percy had reached that in-between state of too healthy for the hospital but too sickly to be solely under the care of his parents, a state he’d never passed through. “I don’t want you to have a miserable time.”

“I’m not having a miserable time,” Percy protested, careful to keep his voice level. Or at least, I wasn’t. “We were just sharing some small talk.”

“Please don’t make a scene,” Hazel chided gently, talking like a ventriloquist now. “People are looking.”

Percy took a deep breath through his nose. Forced himself not to flex his hands or twist his head. “Maybe I am getting a little tired. All this standing and walking around. I should say good night.” Go back upstairs to his suite, to his movie collection and his books. He’d gotten a remastered signature edition of James Ringer’s third movie in the mail this morning, and right now, he couldn’t imagine anything nicer than sneaking into the kitchen, making tea, and going upstairs to camp out on the couch and watch the three hours of B-roll footage and extra interviews. Chances were he’d already seen most of the content on YouTube and messaging boards and Tumblr, but seeing it on the TV would be a totally different experience. You just couldn’t compare a miniscule 280p video with the picture quality on a full-size, liquid crystal television screen.

Hazel sighed and smoothed her skirt down. She always dressed up for these parties too. Percy remembered the pinched look on her face when she’d shown up in high heels to the second party after she was hired, and she’d told him his father requested she “look the part” in front of guests. It was those remembered moments of solidarity that made him want to forgive her constant hovering.

“You’ll do no such thing,” she said. “I told you, I’ll keep you company. Your parents don’t want to close down until nine. Going upstairs two hours early isn’t acceptable.” She heaved another sigh and stood. “You should eat.”

Percy glanced around for Kovie, hoping she’d come back so he didn’t have to sit here with Hazel watching him take every bite. But no, Kovie had heard Hazel call herself his caretaker, made her convenient excuse to leave, and was likely as far away as she could get by now.

Hazel seemed to know what he was doing anyway. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her put her strong workwoman’s hands on her hips. “There are some cold cuts on the main table. Go and get some, and then, since you want company that obviously isn’t me, find a group of men to mingle with, all right?”

Now she wanted him to mingle? Force himself on some group of people his parents’ age who wanted nothing to do with him when she’d just finished chasing away someone who seemed to actually want him around? He didn’t understand that at all—but then, how could he possibly? It wasn’t like he had ample chances to learn the nuances of human behavior beyond the rote performance these gatherings required. He had no friends. No experience with unplanned or unsupervised human interactions whatsoever. If he understood anything at all, it was how to be an excellent windup toy.

“Your parents won’t be pleased if we both sit over here looking so antisocial. We’ll suck all the party out of the room.” She said “we” in a sickly sweet way that made it abundantly clear “we” was Percy.

She meant well, he knew. And he was also all too aware of how depressing his presence was at every party, how he moped in corners and looked ungrateful for all the extravagance. How people avoided him, then whispered to his parents what saints they must be, to be a lifetime support system for someone like him.

He knew.

“Fine.” He ducked her evaluating look, picking apart a strawberry.

She reached over, nudging his hand away. “Percy, come on. Stop that. Use a fork. Are you really having that terrible a time?”

He shrugged, then hurriedly shook his head before that comment—or lack thereof—could escalate into another discussion with his parents about whether the limits his condition put on him merited a prescription for antidepressants. “No.”

“Percy . . .” She tipped his chin up. He hated that. God, he hated it. It made him feel three years old, every time. “You know I only want to take care of you.”

Yes, I know. That’s your job. “I know.”

She searched his eyes, then patted his shoulder. “Go and get some food, all right? Later, I’ll draw you a bath with your favorite Epsom salts.”

“Sure,” he murmured. She patted him one last time and bustled off to do her own showing around. At forty-six, she was in the middle of the age range for attendees, and seemed to get along well no matter what group of people she spoke to. She always had him as common conversational ground—discreetly, of course, and in what he was certain were veiled and polite terms. All the better for piquing people’s interest.

He went back to picking his strawberry into pieces, his appetite having deserted him. The very idea of walking over to get cold cuts made his stomach turn.

“Find a group of men to mingle with,” she’d commanded. The one Kovie had indicated right next to him would do; at least that way he wouldn’t have to do any more walking than strictly necessary. Percy stole a look at them and found somebody had brought out a deck of cards and they were lazily playing poker as they talked. One surfaced after his hand was dealt and reached out at a passing waitress, skimming his fingers down the length of her arm as he asked for more whiskey. She was perfectly polite to his face, but Percy saw her barely keep from rolling her eyes as she turned away.

Snorting, Percy halved a grape, trying to figure out if there weren’t some other group that might be slightly less insufferable—ha!—and then the men next to him burst into raucous laughter, and he heard one of them say “James Ringer.”

His heart double-thumped.

He froze and stared hard at the grape, straining to listen over the din from the rest of the partygoers.

“Tell ’em, Harry,” one of the men said, absently twisting his Rolex around his wrist. “Tell ’em.”

“He hung up on me, the little prick,” Harry said, sneering. “He sounded all of fifteen, thought he was a big man, you know. Told me I’d be missing a huuuge opportunity if I didn’t come look at his shit. Of course, once I gave him the usual spiel about not wanting any commemorative crap his grandmother bought on the TV, suddenly he’s calling himself James Ringer’s grandson—his actual grandson!—but now the offer to come see the collection is mysteriously off the table. How convenient, right?”

Laughter and raising of glasses followed as they all guffawed on and on about how smart and wily and rich they were.

Meanwhile, Percy was thinking, what if it had been James Ringer’s grandson? It niggled at Percy some, that a self-proclaimed expert like him didn’t know whether James had a grandson in the first place, and, if he did, where the boy—man now, obviously—was. But that was a spectacularly invasive thing to know, he thought, even for someone who hoarded James Ringer information the same way an apocalypse-happy survivalist hoarded cans of green beans. Dahlia Delair had been private about her personal life after James’s death, but Percy knew that she and James had had one child, a girl. So the secret grandson had every chance of being a reality.

And what if he was? What if he had Dahlia Delair’s house and inheritance to himself now? What if there was a huge, priceless James Ringer collection out there in her attic, waiting to be discovered, and this moron Harry had laughed it off and passed it over for the sake of his ego?

It would be exactly the sort of collection Percy wanted to get his hands on.

To do what with, he wasn’t sure. Donate it maybe, to a museum where it could be appreciated and cared for and contextualized, versus pieced out and sold off and scattered into private collections across the world.

Or he could purchase the entire collection and treat it as a personal investment—one that wasn’t his trust fund from his grandparents, which was stuffed away in a bank and tied up in mysterious “investments” that his parents had only recently allowed him grudging access to.

Or he could keep it all to himself as a fuck-you to Harry and every other one of these ignorant, egotistical men.

Or he could hoard it, not because it was worth a fortune and bragging rights, but because it was James fucking Ringer’s stuff, and if he could never meet the man or occupy the same earth as him or see another new movie with him in it, then at least he could have this one big thing.

Because this wouldn’t be in a league with any other collection out there. If it was Dahlia Delair’s—and he knew it was a big if, he did, but that wild frantic hope was seizing up inside his chest and making it difficult to breathe—then it wouldn’t be mass-produced collectibles. It would be things she’d cared about. It would be things James Ringer had touched. Things he’d owned. That collection would be ten times rarer and more important than That Interview, and that had taken Percy months and months to track down a copy of.

Somehow, he got out of his chair and made his way over to the poker table. Somehow, he found himself speaking in a loud, clear voice.

“What if it really was James Ringer’s grandson?”

Harry looked up at him, taken by surprise, with a completely unguarded expression, and he could see it right there on the man’s face, plain as day.

It had been.

Not that Harry would admit it. He shook off his brief look of shock and tilted his chin proudly, his greased hair catching the low lighting from the chandeliers overhead. “It wasn’t. It was just some pranking little shit who thought he had a bigger pecker than he does.” His eyes skimmed down Percy’s front, suggesting Percy was much the same. On the way back up, they caught on Percy’s hands.

Percy set his jaw and took advantage of Harry’s silence. “Or it was a wasted business opportunity that cost you a valuable personal connection to old Hollywood and a fortune in profit,” he said, snapping each crisp word. He sounded like his father, and he hated it, but he saw some of the other men at the table raising their eyebrows and sitting back, their attention on him—and not on his hands. On him.

“Well!” Harry sputtered, clutching his whiskey tumbler tighter. “That’s your opinion, son. And you’re welcome to it. Maybe you can track down this Mr. Ringer yourself if you’re so sure!” He chortled meanly, which got the other assholes at the table laughing too. “Don’t bother yourself with the expert’s opinion!”

“I will track him down.” Percy’s heart was racing, either from adrenaline or anger, but his voice was remarkably steady. It was the most passion he’d held inside him in a long time. “And I would bother, if the opinion were actually expert.”

He turned on his heel, careful not to overbalance himself, and left, striding through the ballroom and across to where Hazel was sitting, drinking champagne. “I’m going upstairs,” he told her, and watched her cough into her glass at his attitude. He’d learned a long time ago not to take any kind of disrespectful tone with her, but the same boldness from talking to Harry was carrying over, and he wanted to go. He wanted . . . “Good night.”

She managed a “Don’t forget to take your doses. I set them out for you,” aimed at his back. Percy waved over his shoulder and tried not to look like he was hurrying, his heart still pounding. He wasn’t stopped by anyone on the way out, as per usual, but Kovie gave him a tentative, questioning smile from her spot by the door.

He waved at her—a real wave—and mouthed, Good night. Her smile brightened and she nodded. You too.

Then the heavy ballroom doors thunked closed behind him, and he was alone in the quiet darkness, his mind full of James Ringer.

Their house was old and the walls were thick. The sound of the party faded as Percy made the trek down the long, ornate hallway toward the kitchen for his tea, but spotted three bustling caterers and Discepoli, his parents’ chef, and decided it wasn’t worth getting in their way. He headed out into the entranceway and under the curving staircase to take the discreetly placed elevator to the second floor, where the bedrooms were. Percy had the entire upper floor of the east wing to himself—a bedroom, library, bathroom, and sitting room. Hazel’s rooms were close to his, in the main part of the house. On the other side of the enormous stairwell, in the west wing, were his parents’ rooms, which Percy hardly ever set foot in.

He knew he should be thankful to have his own space within their house. As Hazel loved to remind him, most people with his particular “affliction” and resulting disability didn’t get their own space as adults. They were more often stuck in their childhood bedrooms or sent to live in filthy group homes. It was hard to feel thankful though, when, despite having his own space, he felt like he was under close watch and tight control.

He couldn’t shake the suspicion that Hazel had installed a keylogger on his laptop. For a long time, his parents hadn’t told him the exact nature of his illness; the doctor had named it for what it was, but he might as well have been speaking Greek for all it meant to Percy at the time. His parents, rather than explaining, had told him he was “challenged” and needed extra care. But then, when he was thirteen, he’d gotten his own laptop so he wouldn’t have to sit in the downstairs den with their old desktop, and he’d googled his test results. Read things.

When he tried to talk about it with Hazel, she’d gasped in horror and taken the laptop, telling him he didn’t need to cause himself more anxiety by reading “nonsensical things from doctor search engines and his army of naturopaths” on the internet. He’d protested, but then she’d added something about online bullying and how excessive stress could cause a flare-up that would land him in the hospital (again), and Percy was such an easy target . . .

Of course, that meant he hadn’t been able to do his homework unless he was in the company of his parents, so in the interest of spending as little time with him as possible, they’d made Hazel give it back to him. That first model had been replaced by multiple upgrades since, but he wasn’t about to let that lull him into a false sense of security that his privacy was safe.

Which made finding jerk-off material about as tricky as it must have been pre-internet.

Doubly so for a closeted gay kid, who couldn’t even rely on old standbys. No Victoria’s Secret catalogs or Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions for him.

Nothing wrong with googling “James Ringer,” though, was there? Nothing incriminating about that.

Too bad he didn’t know the name of whoever had called Harry. James’s Wikipedia page mentioned Dahlia Delair, of course, but anyone could find that. Percy had every biography published, had accessed web archives and forum pages from the very beginning of the internet. He knew James Ringer’s daughter had been christened Lisa Ringer, but she’d disappeared out of the public record sometime in the late seventies and never resurfaced. Estranged from her famous mother, according to Wikipedia. Married a simple, Southern boy far from the harsh glare of Hollywood’s lights, said one of James’s biographies. It seemed likely she’d have changed her name, which meant the grandson wouldn’t go by “Ringer.” And considering Lisa Not-Ringer’s determination to stay out of the public eye, she’d probably gone to great lengths to keep her married name—and the names of her children, her whereabouts, any identifying information at all—a secret.

Sure, if Percy were an investigative journalist, he probably could have found Ringer’s grandson sooner or later, but he was just Percy Charles, user of Google and owner of a small library, and the Ringer grandson could be anyone, anywhere.

Percy sighed, scrolling through the James Ringer search results mindlessly. He’d visited all the sites before, most of them—including The Hottest Silver Screen Celebs Database—multiple times. He hadn’t seen any mention of a grandson, but then, even the “reporters” at TMZ probably had a point where celebrities and the people related to them became irrelevant, or not profitable anymore. The unnamed grandson of a man who’d been dead for sixty years probably crossed it.

He checked the News subheading of his search, alternately hoping for and dreading a headline mentioning a sale—just because Harry had fucked up the deal didn’t mean someone else might not have—but the most recent items were the months-old notices of Dahlia Delair’s death.

Widow of ’50s heartthrob James Ringer dies in Hollywood hospital.

He’d already read this one, but he clicked through anyway. Dahlia Delair, silver-screen star and widow of cult icon James Ringer, died today at Good Samaritan Hospital . . .

Maybe there wasn’t a grandson. A con man had as much access to these web results as Percy did. It was entirely possible that he’d seen news of the death, concocted a story, and then . . .

Tried to sell something he didn’t have to sell?

He thought maybe that he’d missed something important the first time, still caught up in the weird secondhand grief of her passing, but nope, no mention of a grandson or a collection. The article barely mentioned anything personal—just gave brief detail about the drama of James and Dahlia’s passionate, whirlwind relationship, sounding more tabloid and gossipy than mournful. There was no mention of valuables or an estate or living relatives. No “Dahlia Delair is survived by” to round out her obituary. The only mention of inheritance was a line noting that she’d bequeathed her wealth to charity.

“A collection,” Harry had said. If it were anyone but James’s grandson, that would mean, unfortunately, exactly what Harry had been talking about: collectible plates bought from QVC and mass-produced lighters emblazoned with James’s face.

But if it was the grandson?

Percy could only imagine. There was so little unique, personal memorabilia around. Newspapers, sure. Movie posters. A couple of props. But not nearly as much as there was for other celebrities: no outfits sold at auction, no journals, no personal photos, no letters, no cars, nothing. It was like somebody had taken everything James had once owned and burned it all rather than let anyone get their hands on it.

Or it was stowed away somewhere, protected by the grieving person to whom it’d mattered most.

Somewhere a desperate, sleazy relative could stumble across it and realize there was a quick buck to be made.

James Ringer collection, he googled. James Ringer grandson. Ringer estate Hollywood.

Nothing.

Good thing Percy hadn’t burned the bridge with Harry, the one man who had a connection to the supposed grandson— Oh no, wait, he’d done exactly that.

Fuck. So much for that sense of victory he’d been high on.

He slammed his laptop shut, furious with himself, then hissed with pain at the impact, which shocked his knuckles and ricocheted up his arms, into his already-tense joints.

Take your doses, Hazel’s exasperated voice reminded him.

Yes, Percy. Take your doses. Sick boy. Good-for-nothing leech. Take your doses and stay stuck up here in your suite forever.

What a fucking joke.

He lurched into his sitting room to do exactly what he’d wanted to earlier: pop one of James’s movies into his Blu-ray player and settle in for a long night of regret.

Five minutes into the opening credits, he remembered his fucking pills.
 

from Bookaholics Not-So-Anonymous

[O]ne of the more original stories I've read this year. . . . I hope this five-starred read goes on your TBR list.

from Manhattan Book Review

[A]n engrossing and original coming of age tale. . . . The story is complex, and the characters multi-layered, making it a five star read.

from Night Owl Reviews

[A] fresh take on an old trope (rich guy meets rent boy). It was creatively done and I found myself pulled in from the beginning.

from Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

[A] beautiful story, thoughtful and crowded with emotions. . . . [K]ept me glued to my kindle till the end.

from Publishers Weekly

*Starred Review* Belleau and Schooler handle the sensitive subjects in a thoughtful and compassionate manner. [A] wonderful, thoughtful new adult story, perfect for introspective readers concerned about what they project and what the world sees.

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