Ella walked into the shabby house where the plump, smiling woman from Together for Life had directed her. This was her last chance, she thought, trying to project more confidence than she felt. Mostly she felt despair, but she knew from past experience that most men weren’t attracted to such an emotion.
She had tried Match.com, eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, Tinder, OKCupid…the list of sites, from free to very pricey, seemed endless. She had used Meetup.com and other group sites to find people with similar interests. She’d made some friends, had some flings, but no man had the qualities that she needed.
Ella had started devoting herself to the search for Mr. Right when she was 23 and had seen a bootleg VHS video that had changed her life. She’d never really known who she was before that. A goth, surely, though now at age 41 she didn’t dress as true to her aesthetic as she wanted to. Too many unwanted stares. A geek in many of the typical ways; Star Wars, Marvel comics, Dungeons and Dragons, gory video games. A network engineer, which she’d stumbled into mostly through building computers for people she knew. She had a few close friends, a decent relationship with her parents, though her brother and sister thought she was a freak and never spoke to her. No great loss there. She was still attractive enough, a few extra inches here and there, but she kept herself well-tended. All in all, a very normal, productive member of society.
But none of that was her essence. That long-ago video had ruined her, in a way. She was terribly lonely and growing slowly more desolate, because she was beginning to realize that it would be impossible for her to find the mate she really wanted. This hunt was starting to consume her, making it very difficult to keep her normal routine. Her boss had already spoken to her about missing work; HR had given her the names of therapists she could see. Ella knew a therapist would never be able to solve her problem. She didn’t think anyone could.
Her best friend, Lorne, had given her a card one day. “This is how I met Deandra,” he said, referring to the girlfriend that he was madly in love with.
She had held out the card to give back to him, saying, “Gods, not another dating agency. I can’t take the stress right now.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Do I not know you better than anyone else on this earth knows you? Would I give you an invitation to just any old dating agency?”
“Invitation?” she asked, her brows furrowing as she looked at the card. It looked like a normal business card at first glance, but when she turned it over she could see a small hologram. Moving the card in the light, she saw a very detailed human heart.
“I had to pay $500 just to get that card for you, young lady, so you will appreciate it,” Lorne chided, smiling.
“Five hundred?” Ella looked up at Lorne, aghast. “You didn’t have to do that!”
“Au contraire, my little night nugget, I definitely did. You’ll get no more birthday or Christmas presents from me,” he said, cutting off her stream of protests with a sharp flick of his hand. “Make good use of it, or I’m taking you to that terrible Indian buffet and making you eat greasy, half-raw samosas until you puke.”
Still stunned, Ella turned the card back over and read the front. It said
Together for Life
We will find him for you,
“Alright, Lorne,” Ella said, heaving a deep sigh. “Let’s see what they can do.”
“That’s the spirit!” Lorne exclaimed, giving her a brief squeeze. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll eat the samosas. And a pair of your most disgusting socks.”
“I don’t have any disgusting socks,” Ella said, putting the card in her pocket and smiling at her friend.
“Just poop on them,” he suggested.
“Gross,” said Ella, punching his arm, and then fingering the card in her pocket again.
Ella had gone to the headquarters of Together for Life, which was in a run-down plaza, most of which was “For Lease”. The door was steel, which seemed odd, and had no handle, which seemed odder. There was one of those doorbells with a camera in it, so she pushed the button and gave it an awkward smile.
The steel door slid open into the wall, and she was greeted by four armed security guards. One said, in a deep baritone, “Miss Ella, please present your invitation.”
Ella reached into her purse, slowly, eyeing the rifles that the two rear guard had slung across their backs. She pulled out the card, handing it to the guard who had spoken. He pulled a scanner from his belt and scanned the hologram on the back. He didn’t give it back to her, but he looked up and smiled. “You’re cleared for entry, Miss Ella. Please follow the pink hall on your right to Mrs. Whale’s office. It’s got little pink whales all over it; you can’t miss it. Do not attempt to go anywhere else, please, for your own safety.”
“I won’t,” said Ella, alarm growing in her belly.
The guards all smiled at her and backed away from the door, taking up posts in the corners of the room after the steel door had slid shut behind her. She could now see a small reception desk, a chubby, smiling woman behind it. She saw the pink hallway on the right, and noticed a blue hallway leading off to her left.
“This way, Miss Devereaux,” the receptionist bubbled, helpfully pointing to the pink hallway.
“Yes,” Ella said, unable to think of another reply, and briskly walked to the correct hallway, wondering if she would be shot on the spot if she tried going the wrong way. She was despairing, but not quite suicidal, so she made no move to try it.
The pink hallway was painted a nauseating shade, somewhere between a birthday cake and Pepto-Bismol. It was lined on both sides with doors, and Ella read the nameplates as she went. “Mrs. Frog,” said one, on a door wallpapered with varying sizes of stylized pink frogs that seemed to fade in and out of visibility. The next plate she read was “Mrs. Adder,” with curling pink snakes spiraling out from the center of the door. And so on, covering many members of the animal kingdom.
“Mrs. Whale” was at the very end of the hallway on the left. The whales on the door were surprisingly detailed, and she made out several species before the door opened. Ella let out a startled breath.
“Ella Devereaux,” said a slim young woman with black lipstick, blue-black hair and black fingernails. She wore a sleeveless black dress that ended just above thigh high lace-up boots. The boots were pink. “I’m Mrs. Whale. Please come in,” she chirped, giving a florid bow and flourish with her hand as she backed out of the doorway.
Astonished, Ella entered the room, which had spiderweb wallpaper and a number of purple and blue throw pillows on the floor amid plush burgundy carpet. There were gauzy curtains decorating the room, and small tables scattered about with lit candles on them. Mrs. Whale closed the door and strolled past Ella to sit on one of the fluffier pillows, opening a laptop on a table, almost knocking over a candle.
“I really like your sense of décor,” Ella said, stepping over to a purple velvet couch that was the only other furniture in the dim, windowless room. She sat primly, pulling her dark red skirt nervously over her knees.
“Mmm,” Mrs. Whale acknowledged, looking intently at her screen. “I’ve been looking over your files, and—”
“Files?” Ella interrupted. “What files?”
The young woman looked up and smiled, her teeth bright behind her lips. “When a potential client is brought to our attention, as you were by Mr. Lorne Adams, we assemble very thorough background files.”
“Shouldn’t I have given my permission for—”
“You’ll find,” Mrs. Whale said, her smile dropping from her face, “that we don’t need your permission.” She said nothing further, but stared at Ella with an expression that turned her bowels to water.
“Right,” Ella squeaked.
The black and white smile returned. “As I said, I’ve been looking over your files, and I think this case is beyond even my considerable matchmaking abilities. But,” she cried, holding up a finger and smiling even wider, “don’t despair!”
“Too late,” Ella muttered.
Mrs. Whale laughed. “I know exactly who can help you. Unfortunately he isn’t headquartered here, but he’s not far away. Take this,” she said, standing up and retrieving a sealed black envelope from some cubbyholes on the wall that Ella hadn’t noticed. She held it out to Ella, who hesitated only a moment before taking it. She started to open it, but Mrs. Whale put a sharp black nail on her hand. “Don’t open it,” she warned. “Take it to the receptionist up front.”
“Are…we done?” Ella ventured, and Mrs. Whale removed her fingernail.
“We are done, Miss Ella Devereaux, but your journey is just about to begin!” She walked to the door and flung it open, giving Ella her same florid bow.
Ella stood up. “Okay, thank you,” she said, holding the black envelope gingerly and making her way through the door. Mrs. Whale slammed it unceremoniously behind her. Ella walked back down the pink hall, rubbing her thumb across the spot on her hand that Mrs. Whale had touched. A little blood smeared from the spot.
The receptionist accepted the black envelope and opened it, scanning the contents within. She gave a small hoot of delight. “You’ll be going to see Mr. Devotion. He is our very best agent; you’re a terribly lucky woman! However,” she said, putting the envelope and its contents in a slot in her desk and looking at her computer monitor, “he is not cheap. Before I can give you his address, his fee must be paid in full.”
Ella’s heart clenched slightly. She was paid very well for what she did, but she was by no means one of the one percent. “How much is his fee?” she asked.
“$43,256 and thirty-five cents, Miss Devereaux.”
That was exactly the amount Ella had in her savings account. She had just checked it that morning. “What the hell is going on here?” she snapped, finally getting angry at all this flagrant invasion of privacy. “How—”
She stopped as she noticed the guards stepping towards her, hands raising to hover over weapons.
“So sorry, Miss Ella,” the receptionist sighed, resting her elbows on her desk and putting her chin on her interlaced fingers. “My friends here get upset when someone isn’t being nice to me.” She smiled. “Do you think you can be nice?”
“Yes,” Ella said shakily.
“How will you be paying today?” the receptionist asked, pink lips stretched in a wide smile.
Ella brought out her phone and spent a few minutes transferring her life savings into her checking account. What the hell, she thought. If I can’t get what I need, I don’t really want to live long enough to need a retirement fund.
She handed her debit card to the receptionist, who took the card without a word. After handing Ella a receipt, she slid a small key over the desk to Ella. It looked like any old house key. “Leave here and walk down the street to your right for five blocks. Don’t bother driving; there’s nowhere to park anyway, and it’s not as far as it seems. Turn right into the alley between the Chinese take-out and the laundromat, and you’ll see an old brown house at the end. Go in the house, and you’ll see where to use the key. Now shoo!” she said, giggling and waving Ella toward the front door.
“True love awaits you!”
Now Ella found herself in a crumbling room, bereft of even the remains of furniture. She wandered through the house, looking for a place to use the unassuming key in her hand. There was a door in a hallway that was closed, and Ella tried to turn the handle. It didn’t move, and she was startled by a sudden screen that came to life in the middle of the door. On screen was a sun-leathered face with long gray hair sticking out in every direction. “I am Mr. Devotion,” he said, inflectionless. “Please use your key and come in; I’m ready for you.”
Ella was suddenly overcome with near-panic, and almost bolted. But she’d just handed over all of her savings, so she forced herself calm. She took the key from her pocket, opened the door, and went into the room. The door closed behind her.
Mr. Devotion stood near the door, motioning Ella to a dusty couch. She sat on it, trying not to sneeze. Up close, Mr. Devotion was almost the spitting image of Charles Manson. She opened her mouth to express this to him, then closed it. She was far over her head, she knew, and cursed Lorne silently.
“So, a young Ella Devereaux watches a movie called “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer,” Mr. Devotion began, ignoring Ella’s strangled gasp, “and finds that she needs a man like that for herself. Yes?”
“I—you—it’s a little more complicated than that,” she huffed, her hands twisting in her lap.
“I don’t think it is, my dear,” said Mr. Devotion. “You don’t want to kill people. You want a man that kills people, that can’t help the desire, and kills over and over and over again. You want this man to love you, and to confide all of himself to you, and never be moved to kill you. You want to help this man avoid the law so that he may indulge in his impulses, and relate every wretched, disgusting detail into your ears while he fucks you. You want to watch him at his bloody work. You want the blood of victims to splash onto your naked body. You want—”
“Please,” sobbed Ella, shaking all over. Tears streamed down her face. “Please stop.”
“I’m not wrong,” declared Mr. Devotion, more softly. “Am I.”
Ella cried into her hands for a few moments, her heart bursting with unnameable emotions. She lowered her hands from her face, then wiped it with a handkerchief Mr. Devotion gently pressed into them. “No,” she whispered. “You’re not wrong.”
“Then may I present Mr. Xavier Smith,” he said, and stepped back away from her.
Ella heard soft footsteps approach from the shadows of the room, startled to see a man emerge from the shadows. He was so handsome she could hardly bear it. His skin was as ebony as an Alaskan midnight, his fingers long and graceful as they reached up to his face to wipe the tears that streamed down it. “Ella,” he whispered, his voice like a wave of chocolate over stone. “Ella, I have been…I couldn’t believe it when they told me they had my perfect match. But they were right. They found you.”
Ella, thunderstruck, rose from the couch. “You…kill people?”
Xavier threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Fifteen and counting. I will bring you every delight you have ever wanted, and you will have all my love, if you are what he’s said you are. If you want me.”
Ella almost tripped over her own feet rushing to him. “Please,” she said, a fresh wave of tears running down her chin. She grabbed his hands, not sure what else to do. “Please be real,” she whispered.
Xavier responded by pulling her body tight against his and kissing her, hard and aggressive. When they separated, she looked into the depth of his black, shark-like eyes and finally was able to smile, a real, wide smile.
“Good luck and good loving,” Mr. Devotion said, already holding the door open for them.
“No need for luck,” said Xavier, kissing Ella’s hand, and together they walked out of the dimness and into the dark.