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I made a deal with the adorably sweet guy next door before I discovered his fascination with masks. And, God, do I wish I meant those fancy theater faces or those old-fashioned masquerade pieces. Those I could handle since I’d dated my share of Broadway wannabes.

These ones were damn spooky in their own unholy place of honor on his wall.

“Do you like them?” Albert asked, his blue eyes sparkling with unrestrained excitement. He had a boyishness about him. A youthful exuberance. Something I’d given up on a decade or two ago.

“They’re interesting,” I said, making sure not to show my hesitation.

“Handmade, every single one.” He raised his wine glass toward the wall to point out a particularly lifelike one. “Created from the dried and treated skin off of some of the more notorious criminals in the state. That one is from a man who went on a four year murder spree across three states. You may have heard of him. Nathan Woton. Picked up women during the winter every year and would leave their bodies in shallow graves on the beach after raping and murdering them. If you put his mask on you can actually see how he would go back, walk along those stretches in the spring and summer to see if they’d been uncovered yet. I was actually able to help attribute seven more women to his victim count, women who had washed up elsewhere or hadn’t ever been found. His memories are intense.”

I swallowed a little too much of my wine in astonishment and did my best not to glance toward the door, focusing instead on Albert’s handsome profile.

“Oh, and this one.” He tapped on the glass case housing a trio of faces. “The three Sinclair Sisters. They aren’t too famous outside the county, but that was the case that proved to the force I wasn’t a crock. Made the sheriff believe in me enough to grant me my consultant job. If not for them I’d still be making weak ceramic memory mementos out of grandma’s hair or dad’s fingernails.”

Albert’s exuberance was infectious, if a tad startling give the dark nature of his current work. Behind his head the human skin masks seemed to smile grimly down on me; the empty holes where eyes of blue and green and hazel had once sat were disturbing in their slightly off-kilter shapes.

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

Albert grinned widely. “Almost six years now. It’s insane to think I’ve actually watched some of these people commit their crimes. It’s like a movie done Blair Witch style but from the opposite side. Sickening, but completely fascinating.”

I sipped my wine to hide how uncomfortable I felt. Then stepped away from Albert under the pretenses of examining the rest of his masks. They spanned the entire wall, stopping short eight inches off the corner. I glanced out the window on the adjoining wall, but the evening duskiness had made the world gray and indistinct. At least the other two walls of the living space were home to more familiar items: a television, a rack of DVDs and two tasteful paintings of nude men. Well, one was nude. The other wore a pair of sunglasses and a tie.

When Albert spoke next, I heard a nervousness in his voice. “It’s a simple process really. I’m not a genius or anything. It’s intriguing work though, getting to show the investigators anything they might have missed. A lot of older cases get put to rest and I’m able to clear up ambiguity at crimes by allowing the officers to see what happened through the victims’ eyes.”

I paused. “Some of these were victims?”

“Oh, Rich, no. No, I mean I generally try to use other skin on the victim’s body so as not to desecrate them too badly and then, of course, I can’t keep those masks. Would be classless of us after the pain the families are in.”

“Right. But the criminals…”

Albert’s grin returned. “People are less likely to clamor for them so…” He waved the hand holding his wine toward the wall again. “Do you want to try one on? Jessica Perez has quite tame memories if you want to see—” He was already reaching for the glass, the woman’s face the perfect reflection of my own horror.

“No!” I caught his hand, stopping him, but in the process managed to spill his wine. Just a few drops, but the red liquid ran along the back of his hand. With a blanch, he licked the drops before they could fall to the carpet.

“Sorry,” he murmured, his enthusiasm dampening considerably.

It saddened me to see that spark fade so quickly. To watch it form into self-conscious embarrassment. He escaped into the kitchen, leaving me cursing my own insensitivity and carelessness. The last thing I’d wanted was to scare him off, not after his heartfelt insistence I agree to three dates before he said yes to the first. It’d told me he was looking for the same thing I was and really, the deal had been harmless. Still was, regardless of his particular brand of macabre fixation.

I heard the gentle ting of glass and then running water, the sounds loud in the sudden silence. I drained my drink, fortified myself and trailed into the kitchen. Albert glanced at me, then quickly away as he dried his hands.

“I’m sorry—” I started, but Albert interrupted me, shaking his head.

“No. No, it’s my fault. I’ve been told I come off strong and my interests are…”

“Different,” I supplied.

“Weird.” He sucked in a huge breath and continued in a rush. “I never meant to even bring them up, but it always happens because everyone looks and I want to explain and it becomes a ramble. I should move them but I don’t know where. There’s just the bedroom—”

“That would be less appealing,” I said with a chuckle. When Albert lowered his head, I went on, “Would you be able to have sex with a dozen faces staring at you?”

Albert remained strangely quiet as he shrugged.

“You probably wouldn’t even notice,” I said in realization.

He grimaced. “I should just box them up.” He seemed so sad, so dejected. “Everyone takes one look at them and I can already tell they’re counting down the minutes until they can escape. It’s just, I’m proud of what I can do, of how I help.” His voice lowered to a mutter. “You can go if you want.”

I would have laughed to lighten the mood, but from my limited understanding of who he was I suspected that might only worsen the situation. So I set down my glass, strode around the counter and took his face between my hands. His eyes widened in surprise.

He’d shaved recently, the aftershave lingering on his skin. He’d also put gel in his hair, making it hard under my fingertips. His shirt clung to his body and his pants tightened around his crotch. He’d so obviously took time to prep for this quiet date despite knowing we wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I think your fascination is cute.”

Then I kissed him. Lightly, because I wasn’t sure if he was the type to spook if I dialed up the heat in the first few seconds. His lips remained soft under mine, as if he didn’t understand what was happening. Then, he made a slight noise—like a happy hiccup that turned into a sigh—and leaned forward, his mouth opening and his hand twisting within the collar of my shirt. I slid my fingers through his hair and groaned to let him know I appreciated his response. Then I pressed my erection against him in a silent request.

Albert eased free from the kiss, his brow furrowed. “Cute?” he repeated breathlessly. “You think what I do is cute?” his gaze even flicked over my shoulder toward that wall.

I certainly found his belated reaction adorable. I liked the idea that my kiss had been enough to cause a lag within his brain cells.

“I think what you do is strange and disturbing,” I corrected. “Useful and good, but freaky. However…” I slowly smiled. “I think it’s cute when you start talking about it. You get this twinkle in your eyes and your voice becomes animated. Your enthusiasm is…” I grazed my lips over his. “Enticing. Most people don’t have that kind of passion for their jobs. I like it.”

Then I kissed him again. Yet, before I could deepen it, extend the moment like I’d done before, Albert turned his face away slightly so he could speak.

“I’ll go to bed with you no matter what,” he said.

My cock gave an anticipatory jump.

“But,”—and here he met my gaze—“about our deal. I’ll understand if you’re not up for dates two and three. It was messed up of me to force that kind of stipulation.”

This time I released the laughter rising up inside me and kissed him hard against his mouth. “You kidding? You’re the most interesting person I’ve met in forever. Here.” I poured us both fresh wine and handed him his. “You tell me about the less disgusting parts of what you do and I’ll regale you with boring stories about contract work.”

“Really?” His brows went up in skepticism.

“Yes. And if we get lost and find your bedroom instead hopefully you won’t mind.” I winked and caught his waist to bring him closer.

Albert relaxed against me, his expression turning more mellow. “Can I maybe have option A and option B together?” he asked shyly, though I could see some of that adorable spark beginning to glint in his eyes again.

This time it was my heart that gave a jump, as if preparing to dive. I swallowed thickly. “Baby, you can have anything you want.” And with those freaky masks as my witness, I meant every word.

The End

I figured this story was a good one for the month with Halloween. The idea behind what Albert can do isn’t completely fleshed out, but there’s something weird and potentially murder mysteresque here. As a side note, I don’t explicitly state it, but I envisioned Albert to be in his late 20s and Rich to be somewhere in his early 40s or around there.

Also, a new announcement coming very soon!