The old year was dying, the tolling bells ringing out its dirge in the night.
Alice squeezed my hand tight,
her death-cold fingers reminding me that I had someone to be strong for.
Shadows were heavy in the LaPrete Mansion's upper dining room.
Of all the places I wanted to spend New Year's Eve with the ghoul of my dreams -- this was the very last.
Cezar Prodanescu, wheezing the prelude to his death rattle, spoke from the oak chair at the head of the dining table.
"Victor Standish, you and your ghoul cost me. That building was going to be my last project."
I shook my head. "The thousands of Katrina orphans needed that place."
"You made the buyers think it was haunted!"
"What can I tell you? My mother's good at making ghosts."
Cezar's son scowled at me. "Because of you we have been made to endure this tedious Romanian ritual."
His wife, sitting beside him, patted his hand. "Andrei, remember your blood pressure."
Cezar snorted, "All you care about, Andreea, is that bearer bond right beside that New Year's Eve Mask."
Her daughter whined, "Grandpapa, must I wear this mask, too?"
He flashed a dying wolf's smile at her.
"If you want your own bearer bond, Doina, yes. Besides, I made yours a faerie princess. And you only have to wear the mask until the bells stop."
Her brother glowered at the mask on the table before him. It bore an uncanny resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman.
"Look at what he wants me to wear!"
Cezar snorted, "Then, don't wear it, Gavril. But you will receive nothing!"
Reluctantly, Gavril put it on. Andreea looked with disgust at her own mask in the shape of a wrinkled old shrew. She fondled the bearer bond. She put on the mask.
Andrei flicked dead eyes to the pig mask and barked an insult of a laugh. "You have made me wear so many masks, Father. What is one more?"
He put it on. Cezar pointed to the braying donkey mask in front of me. "Wear it and I will call off my lawyers from delaying that orphanage."
I shook my head. "The deal was you would do it if I showed up."
His smile reminded me of a snake's - but without as much humanity. "The deal has changed."
I shook my head. "My word hasn't. I've showed up. No jumping through hoops."
Alice lightly touched her mask on the table top done up like a snake's face. "Victor, the orphans."
Cezar turned to her. "Don your mask, and I will still call off my lawyers."
She took her hand from mine. She picked up the mask, slowly bringing it to her face.
I went cold.
Something was brewing, but I knew Alice. If I told her not to, she would do it out of spite.
Cezar looked nothing so much as a vulture as he watched her, then turned to me. "Tell her not to, boy. You want to."
"I - I love Alice too much to take away her right to choose."
Alice's eyes rimmed in black tears. "So I choose ... you."
She placed the mask down.
Cezar scowled and put his skull mask on.
He slid Alice's mask to Doina. "Wear it, and you will receive ten bearer bonds."
"T-Ten?" She tore off the faerie mask, putting on the snake one.
The tolling bells were reaching the end of their countdown. The Prodanescu clan glared at their patriarch. Alice smiled softly and took up my hand again.
The tolling died away.
Andreea wrenched her mask off. Doina screamed wetly. I felt like screaming myself. The mother's face was an exact copy of her mask. Andrei ripped his mask off.
A wet pig's snout quivered at me.
Doina sprang from her chair, sending it to the carpet. She raced to the ornate mirror. A snake's face stared slit-eyed back at her.
She started screaming in peals I knew would never stop until her last breath.
Gavril just sat shivering in his chair. Alice slowly, slowly reached out to Cezar's mask. As soon as her fingers touched the mask, the rubber band crumbled to ash.
Cezar's skull mask dropped.
Andreea began to titter in gibbering madness.
Though dead, Cezar looked merely asleep.
I turned to Alice. "Next New Year's Eve? No parties."
THEY'RE VERY STRICT
3 hours ago