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Boston-in-Common looked more like an art gallery than a dating service. It had polished hardwood floors, subtle indirect lighting, and small photographs with large mats punctuating smooth bare walls. It felt expensive and minimalist, and I felt out of place. I'd never been near a dating service before, and as far as I was concerned I could have gone my entire life without visiting one. Not that I'd ever had much luck on my own, but there was something about the arranged aspect of the whole affair, the forced conviviality that seemed so artificial. The very idea gave me the willies.

"Welcome to Boston-in-Common. May I take your coat?"

A young Asian woman with perfect, pale skin, red lipstick, and a helmet of precisely trimmed, gleaming black hair came out from behind her chrome desk and waited for me to slough off my coat.

"Sure, but it's pretty wet." I pushed a clump of matted hair out of my face. My newspaper-umbrella hadn't provided much cover, and it was not a good day for suede pumps, Scotchguarded though they might be. I felt as if I was standing on two wet sponges. "I have an appointment with Julia Milholland."

"Yes, we've been expecting you, Ms. Shanahan. Would you like to freshen up?" I took that to mean, "You look like hell and you ought to at least comb your hair," but I smiled and she pointed the way to the ladies' room.

When I looked in the mirror, I had to admit she was right. I hadn't been sleeping well, my running schedule was screwed up, and I wasn't eating right, all of which made me grumpy. I was spending my time either at the airport or digging around in Ellen's life, and my complexion was beginning to take on that Dan Fallacaro pallor. I felt even more disheveled thinking about what kind of place this was and why people came here. There wasn't much I could do except pass a comb through my damp hair and pretend I was supposed to look this way. I'd never been much good at primping.

The sound of heels on hardwood preceded the arrival of Julia Milholland. She was what people called a handsome woman, impeccably dressed with unusually good posture. Though she was probably closer to sixty, she looked fifty, and when she introduced herself she asked me to call her Julia. How convivial of her. Perhaps it was my own state of mind, but as I followed her back to her office, she appeared exceedingly well rested to me.

After she settled in behind her desk, she clasped her hands together and smiled at me across her desk as a pediatrician would smile at her patient. "Now then, Alex, let's get you started."

"I apologize if I misled you, Ms. Mil-Julia, but I'm not here to sign up for the service. I'm here to ask you about one of your members." I handed her my business card. "Ellen Shepard."

She didn't even glance at the card, much less take it. I laid it on the desk.

"I'm sorry," she said stiffly. "If I had known, I would have told you over the phone and saved you the trip. We are very protective of our clients' privacy, and I can't tell you anything unless you have Ellen's permission."

My shoulders sagged. I'd assumed she knew about Ellen. I don't know why. It's not as if someone had sent out announcements. Now I was going to have to tell her. I sat up straight in my chair and pushed that stubborn hair out of my eyes. "I have some bad news, Julia. About Ellen."

She turned her head slightly. "Oh?"

"She died. Two weeks ago."

An elegant gasp escaped from her lips as she touched her chin lightly with her fingertips. "Oh, my. I just talked to her last oh, dear. What happened?"

"It appears that she took her own life."

Her hand moved to her throat, her fingers searching for an amulet hanging from a gold chain around her neck, some kind of a Chinese character. She found it and held on tight. "That poor, poor woman."

"Did you say you just spoke to her? Because I saw in her mail that you were trying to contact her. I had the impression you were having a hard time."

Julia, still holding the amulet, was considering my business card again and not listening. At least she wasn't answering.

"Ellen didn't leave a note," I said, "and when I found your name in her mail, I thought you might be able to help. I assumed that she was a client."

"Yes and no."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Let me tell you how our process works, and I think you'll understand." She let go of the necklace long enough to peel a form off a stack at her elbow and pass it across the desk. "When a client signs up at Boston-in-Common, we ask them to fill out this questionnaire, and then sit for a seven- to ten-minute video."

I looked at the form. A background check for a cabinet post couldn't have been more thorough. The questions were what I considered to be personal, some deeply, and I felt exposed just reading it.

"Information from the questionnaire goes into our database. We run comparisons until we find a match. The two clients, the matches, read each other's questionnaires and view each other's videos. If they both like what they see, we get them together."

"Did Ellen do the questionnaire and the video?"

"She sat for the video over a month ago, I think." Julia paged back in her desk calendar. "Yes, it was Tuesday, December 2. She brought her questionnaire with her when she came in. I made a match for her almost immediately. It wasn't hard. She was shy, but I found her to be very attractive and quite charming with a wonderful sense of humor."

"Would you be willing to give me the match's name?"

"Of course not. It wouldn't help you anyway because she never met him. I couldn't reach her to give her his contact information, which is why I sent the card. When she finally did call back, it was to cancel the service."

"Cancel the service?"

"Yes. She said something had come up. She didn't want her money back, but she knew it was not going to work out for her. She resigned her membership before she ever met one man. I was astounded because she had been so so" I waited, but she became transfixed by a spot on the desk, and it seemed as if her batteries had just run down.


"No. I think determined is possibly more accurate."

"How much money did she forfeit?"

"Eighteen hundred dollars."

"Eighteen hundred? What do you get for that?"

Julia lifted her chin just enough so that she could look down her nose at me. "We are a very exclusive service, Ms. Shanahan. The fee is for an annual membership, and it includes one match each month."

I wanted to ask about guarantees and warranties and liquidated damages, but that would have been pushing it, especially since I wasn't here to plop down eighteen hundred clams. "Okay. So if you sign up and pay the fee, you're probably serious about meeting someone."

"We only accept candidates who are serious and"- she fixed me with a meaningful, clear-eyed, all-seeing look-"emotionally available."

I felt exposed again. Worse than exposed. X-rayed. The radiator in the corner, painted off white to match the walls, had kicked in and the office was filling with that dry radiator heat that I always found so uncomfortable. Finally she continued.

"I told Ellen I would keep her account active for a few months in case she changed her mind. She thanked me and told me to close the account."

"She was that sure?"

"Yes. She said she knew she would never be back"

Her voice died and I watched Julia's face transform as Ellen's statement came back to her with new meaning. The lines grew deeper and she was now looking all of her sixty years.

"If you're agreeable, Julia, it would help me to get copies of Ellen's materials." I pulled out Aunt Jo's power of attorney and handed it to her. "As I said, I have authorization from the family."

She put on a pair of glasses, perused the document, and then looked at me over the tops of the lenses. "May I make a copy of this? I'd like to check with my attorney before I release anything, if that's all right." Julia was not a spur-of-the-moment kind of person.

"Would it be possible for me to wait while you did that? Maybe I could use the time to watch Ellen's video."

She took off her glasses, turned and watched the steady rain outside, and I thought she was considering my request. "You meet all kinds of people doing this work," she said, still staring, "and they all come in saying they're ready to change their lives. But it takes courage and so many of them don't have it. I thought Ellen did, which is why I was so surprised when she quit. I thought it had been a long, hard struggle for her, but that she was ready, and though I didn't know her well, I believed that good things were about to happen for her." She set her glasses softly on the desk and looked at me, her face still strong, but her eyes glistening like the wet windowpane. "I find this all very sad, Miss Shanahan, very sad, indeed."

I didn't know what to say and my voice was stuck in my throat anyway, so I just nodded.

A still photograph is perfectly suited to the memory of the dead. An image frozen forever, it captures the very essence of death to the living, the infinite stillness, the end of aging. I'd seen the pictures of Ellen, but when her video image came up on the bright blue screen and when I heard her voice for the first time, she came alive, alive in a way that made me feel the void where she used to be.

The first thing I noticed was her hair. I'd known it had been red, but the color was richer and deeper than I'd imagined, and under the lights it shone like polished mahogany. She wore it in a chin-length blunt cut that softened her square jaw. Her hazel eyes were riveted to a point just off camera, and she wore the same expression that we all do when we're at the wrong end of a camera lens-horrified. But even as uncomfortable as she appeared, I felt her presence. It was strength or determination or perhaps the sheer force of will it took for her to sit there and subject herself to something I knew I couldn't do. I was impressed.

"We'll start with an easy one, Ellen." It was Julia from off-camera, her blue-blooded Beacon Hill voice easily recognizable. "Why don't you tell us about yourself?"

"I'm originally from Fort Lauderdale. I went to college at the University of Florida, then graduate school at Wharton in Pennsylvania." I was surprised at Ellen's voice. It was almost husky with a tinge of a Southern accent.

"What did you study?"


"Your graduate degree is an MBA?"


The pause was long enough to be awkward, and I imagined Julia hadn't expected such spare, to-the-point answers. But she was a pro and she recovered. "I must say, I'm not very good with numbers, and I always admire people who are. I think you have such an interesting job, Ellen. Will you tell us about it?"

"I work at the airport. I'm the general manager for Majestic Airlines here in Boston."

"That sounds like a big job, and a tough one, especially for a woman." Julia was definitely not of our generation. "What exactly does a general manager do?"

"That's the first thing I had to learn when I arrived. I came to the field straight from a staff job, which means I didn't have the experience to do this work, and it's been challenging."

She gave an articulate, detailed description of her job-our job. As she talked about her work, her face relaxed and grew more animated. Her voice grew stronger, and she spoke with such pride about her position, I felt bad for ever having questioned her right to be in it.

"I have the ultimate responsibility for getting our passengers where they want to go on time with all their belongings. But it's my employees who determine how well we do that. My most important job is giving them a reason to want to make it work."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

"Do you get to fly for free?" Julia asked the question with the sense of awe and wonder that always made me smile. For people not in the business, flight benefits are absolutely irresistible.

"Yes," Ellen said, smiling as well, "that's a great benefit. I don't travel as much as I'd like, but I'm hoping for some changes."

Julia jumped on the opening. "Can you elaborate on that? It sounds as if you're making lots of changes in your life."

The quick shift seemed to catch Ellen off guard. She tried another smile, but it was tight and tentative, and it came out more like a grimace. We weren't talking about work anymore.

She began slowly, reaching for every word. "I started working when I was in high school. I worked through college, worked through business school, and started my job with Majestic two weeks after I graduated. I would have started sooner, but I needed two weeks to move. I've been working ever since."

I sat in my curtained cubbyhole at Boston-in-Common with my earphones listening to Ellen talk and nodding my head. Except for the fact that I went to graduate school at night after I'd started working, she could have been describing my life.

"I love my work," she added hastily, "and I have no regrets. I love the airline. But there are long hours and you move every couple of years. It's hard to there are sacrifices you can get fooled into thinking that you're happy and sometimes you make choices that aren't right for you."

She seemed torn between wanting to sell herself and needing to unburden herself. For someone with no regrets, she looked very sad as she stared down into her lap.

"I've always picked people, situations that were never going to work out. I'm here because I want to stop doing that." She reached up with a manicured finger and gently brushed away a strand of hair that had fallen into her eyes. She wasn't even trying to smile anymore. "I hope it's not too late."

"It's never too late, Ellen." Julia's response was automatic, but then there was a pause and I imagined that she was a little stunned by Ellen's frankness. Some of the perkiness had gone out of her voice. "One final question, dear. Describe for me a picture of your life if all your dreams came true."

Ellen turned slightly and for the first time gazed completely off-camera, the way she might if she was looking for her response through a window. But I knew she wasn't. I knew she was looking inside and she was struggling, trying to hold off her natural inclination to close herself off, to deny herself even the simple pleasure of saying her dream out loud. Because if you never say it out loud, you can still pretend the reason you don't have it is because you never wanted it to begin with. Anything else hurts too much.

"I believe it's a gift to know your dreams." Ellen had gathered herself and leveled her gaze directly at me-at the camera. "If I'd known before what my dreams were going to turn out to be, I'd have made different choices. That's not to say that I wouldn't have worked, but my priorities would have been different. I want" She paused, started to speak, stopped, and tried again. "I want to learn to let people know me. I want to meet a man who wants to know me better than anyone else does. I want to be a mother so that I can leave something behind. If there's a place for me in this world, I want to find it. That's my dream."

She smiled into the camera, a radiant, hopeful, almost triumphant smile. That was the last image of her as the tape ran out and the screen went blank.

I stood in Boston-in-Common's sheltered entryway and stared out at the cold rain. It was one of those gloomy days where indoors you have to keep the lights on and outside there's no way to stay dry because of the wind. It was the kind of winter day that seeps through to your bone marrow and makes you feel that you're never going to get warm again.

Ellen's video was under my coat where I could protect it. I'd watched it twice waiting for Julia, thinking both times that she'd been wrong; it can be too late. It had been too late for Ellen, and I had the feeling that when she sat for that video, Ellen had somehow known that.

I turned on my cell phone and dialed the airport.

"Molly?" The rain started to pound the bricks harder, and I had to step back not to get splashed.

"I've been calling you for an hour," she said. "Where have you been?"

"I had to run an errand. I told you I was going out."

"You didn't say you'd be unreachable."

"Can't I have an hour to myself?"

"No skin off my nose." I heard her taking a drag on her cigarette. "I just thought you'd like to know that your bag room blew up."