SO, WE’VE all seen Buffy, right? I mean, you didn’t pick this up because the shop was out of Jane Austen and this looked like the next best thing. It’s just that this story will go a whole lot faster if I don’t have to spend too much time convincing you of the whole ‘they walk among us’ scenario, and we can all just accept it and move on.
Don’t believe me? Just look around you. OK, not so much if you’re sitting reading this on the sofa on a Sunday night – though that might not be a bad idea. Was that a shadow I saw there? (Made you look, right?) But if you’re sitting on the bus or the tube or in the office canteen, take a good look around you and tell me, hand on heart, that everyone you see is 100% human. You’re honestly saying you’ve never wondered? Look at them. Really look. Properly, go on, risk it, they won’t be paying any attention to you anyway; they’re too busy trying to pass as normal. Come on, don’t some of them look a little… undead, maybe? Witchy? A little less than normal? A bit… Other?
Of course, it’s easier for me. I’m what you’d call – if you were in a generous mood and we’d got past all the denial and the labels like ‘nutter’, ‘delusionist’ and ‘freak’ – a Sensitive. With a capital S, if you don’t mind, because I didn’t go through all this crap for all these years to be lower case. What’s a Sensitive? Well, it’s probably easier to tell you what it’s not. I can’t give you the lottery numbers or put you in touch with your dead aunty Betty, and you won’t see me doing mindreading tricks on TV anytime soon. But I can walk into a room and know it’s haunted. I can look into someone’s eyes and know they are a bad, bad person, even if I’ll never be able to articulate why. What it means, in a nutshell, is that when you look at the woman with the saggy grey skin and the cracked fingernails and the slightly red eyes and you’re wondering if, now that I mention it, there isn’t something a little weird about her, or if she’s just another zoned out commuter, one of life’s lost losers with more on her plate to worry about than skincare and a manicure, I would know. Don’t ask me how. I don’t understand the physics or the history of it – as far as I’m aware, I come from a long line of Normals, with nary a sixth sense between them, but there’s no one left anymore I can ask. Like most people I’ve got my own backstory but I’m not sure I know you well enough yet to share. But trust me on this one thing – I’d know. It’s not her, by the way. It’s the guy at the back in the suit.
I’m in my office. As these things go, it’s quite a nice office – small, of course, because I’m always on a budget, but well-located and tastefully if slightly blandly furnished. The windows may only look out onto the other side of the street, but they are large and let in a lot of light. Not now, of course, because this meeting, like most of my work, is taking place at night.
“So, tell me a little about yourself.”
He’s nervous, but that’s not unusual: most first timers are. Scared of what they’re telling me, scared of what I’ll say, scared that this is all some elaborate set up and I am biding my time, waiting to spring a trap. He folds and refolds his pale hands in his lap, looking up at me through an unfairness of lashes that are as long and dark as a girl’s.
“Um, I like the cinema. Westerns, action movies. I like Clint Eastwood. The older ones.”
I nod, my professional smile glued firmly in place. Though my Sense is buzzing slightly, it’s not in alarm: there’s nothing here to worry about except that, in his anxiety, he might knock something over and break it.
“OK, that’s good. Anything else?”
“Books. History books.”
I nod again, encouraging. I have his file open beside me – despite being a few months shy of my 29th birthday, I’m fairly old school in some ways and I like to do everything in hard copy first – and he’s looking at my pen like it’s some sort of weapon. Then again, it is silver, so that’s not an entirely incorrect assumption.
“OK. How old are you, exactly?”
“Um, do I have to say… exactly?”
I try my best to look unthreatening, but I’ve been holding this ‘harmless and professional’ smile so long that my face is starting to hurt, slightly.
“A ballpark figure usually helps.”
His head bobs, as if accepting the reasonableness of this, then he runs a slightly shaking hand over his face. He’s not quite handsome – there’s an almost crooked slant to his features – but he’s not unattractive, with boyish looks and skin so smooth you could believe he had never had to shave.
“OK. Um… 60. About 60.”
It’s my turn to nod: I’m not surprised, that’s the age I tend to cater for. Not so old to be stuck in their ways, not so young they don’t need me. I make another note on my file, and he winces at the sound of the pen scratching on paper.
“And do you have a particular type of person you’d be interested in?”
“A girl, obviously.” A short, embarrassed laugh. “Well, not obviously, these days, I suppose. But yes, a girl. Blonde, or brunette or… well, it doesn’t matter. Colour… of skin, I mean… that doesn’t matter, either. But maybe… a bit older? I mean, older than I look?”
I laugh kindly, still trying to put him at ease, though I am starting to think that particular task is beyond me. No wonder he needs my help.
“I’m sure we can find a nice cougar for you.”
I’m not sure he understands my terminology, but like a puppy he is soothed by my tone, and he nods again in sheer relief that this part of his ordeal is over. Part of me is wondering how he managed to stay alive at all over the last few decades. He watches me fill in his form as if I am signing his death warrant – a not uncommon reaction. They tend not to like things being written down.
He pauses, frowns, then licks his lips slightly, before leaning forward as if confiding a terrible, embarrassing secret.
“Um… O positive?”
I nodded and made a note.
So, you’re probably wondering, who is this girl? What’s so special about her that she has this insight into the underworld? Does she spend her spare time sharpening stakes and hunting down freaks? Well, that would be a no. Partly because, in my experience, most of the underworld is no more freaky than the overworld, and it’s rude to murder something that did nothing to you but use up more toothpaste. You’re going to laugh when I tell you – plenty of people do (not that I tell many people outside my target clientele, of course) – but I run a dating agency. That’s OK, go on, I’ll wait, get it out of your system.
Odd as it might seem to you, it makes perfect sense to me. I’ve always been fascinated by people – what drives them, what makes them tick, what makes them who they are. I did a little bit of psychology at university before dropping out (for reasons I don’t need to go into here) and I loved it. Maybe it’s the Sensitive in me, but I’ve always had good instincts, was always good at matchmaking, entertaining and throwing parties, so making a living doing those things seemed a natural next step. People just interest me – even those who, strictly speaking, don’t qualify for the label of ‘people’. So a few years ago when I was broke, unemployed and coming out of a bad relationship (the only kind I manage – ironic, yes, I’m aware) I realised there was a gap in the market I was uniquely placed to fill. I took all the lack of romance in my own life and put that energy into creating it for other people. And so, after a lot of work and a few false starts, Dark Dates was born.
But why monsters, you’re asking? Why would any sane person pursue a career where they deal every day with the kind of nightmares that would send most people running away screaming? I suppose mostly – crucially – I don’t think of them as monsters. Over the years I’ve had more than a few run ins with the Other Races, and once I got over the gigantic, screaming mind*** that was discovering they existed at all, I realised they weren’t that different from anyone else. Some are bastards, some are sweeties – set aside by their nature they may be, but for the most part they are just like us, rubbing together alongside the humans in a world that isn’t easy for anyone. Once I got used to the idea that they were different, but not that different, I realised that not only were they an underrepresented part of the community, they were also a great business opportunity.
Or maybe it was because – pop psychology time! – sometimes I felt like a monster myself. I’m human (though, in fairness, plenty of Others started out that way too) but I’m hardly normal. For a long time I was ashamed of what I was, scared of it, and that was after years of not even believing it to be true. That didn’t make for an easy growing up. I was young and lost and wanted the craziness to go away, for the world to go back to how I thought it should be. Then I realised – with a little help, admittedly – that ordinary, if it even existed, was greatly overrated. My Sense was a gift. Yes, the world was bigger and crazier and scarier than I had ever imagined it, but I was also better equipped to deal with it than most. I could use the knowledge I had, I could befriend the other freaks and I could make my difference work for me.
Of course, I should have known better. I was young and naive and when I thought I’d looked into the darkness, I had barely even seen shadow. You can’t control chaos. You can only hope to survive it.