By T.R. North
Gavin slouched back in his chair, his face washed-out and gray in the harsh fluorescent lights. “What’s the point of being psychic if you can’t predict stuff like this, Em?”
Emily glared at him then sneaked a glance at the security guard out of the corner of her eye. He was watching them closely, planted firmly in front of the only exit, one beefy hand tapping his nightstick. Her shoulders slumped, and she crossed her arms over her chest, suddenly angry at Gavin for getting them caught in the first place.
“What’s the point of having a partner working the crowd if he gets busted every time he sticks his hand in somebody’s pocket?” she hissed at him.
“Sorry for trying to get us enough cash to go back to the hostel tonight,” Gavin retorted.
Emily rolled her eyes. She’d had more than enough for dinner and a bed, right up until Gavin had gotten them grabbed by security. Now everything she’d had in her wallet was in the guard’s pocket, and it was absolutely no comfort whatsoever that his wife was cheating on him with both his brothers, and that he’d die of a heart attack when he found out.
“Children, please. You’re both bad at this.” The voice that came over the intercom was tinny but recognizably older, female, and confident. Emily looked around before realizing that the clunky camera in one corner was still picking up audio, even though its lens was angled uselessly at the far wall. The door behind the guard opened, and a portly middle-aged woman dressed like a soap-opera fortune-teller swept through. She looked around, then shook her head.
“What a dreary place,” she sighed. “This won’t do at all. Reginald, give the boy back their money and see that he gets on a bus. Miss Harris, please come with me.”
“We’re a team. I’m not going anywhere without him,” Emily said, stiffening. The driver’s license in her wallet had been for Patricia Thompson; she hadn’t gone by Harris since her step-mother kicked her out at fifteen.
“I’ll give you an extra two hundred dollars to leave now,” the woman said sweetly, turning to Gavin.
“Sorry, Em. I’ll wait for you at the hostel,” he muttered, getting to his feet and avoiding her eyes. Emily glowered helplessly at his back as the woman paid both him and the guard off.
“Now, Miss Harris?” the woman prompted.
Emily followed her reluctantly, and they made their way through the back corridors of the office complex to a plush, cozily-decorated suite. The sign on the door said, “Madame Cassandra” in a heavy Gothic typeface. Below it was a smaller legend in a more whimsical script: “Fortunes told, fates changed, luck turned.” The decor was similar to the woman’s clothes; a bohemian, New-Age aesthetic put together by someone with expensive taste.
The woman gestured for Emily to sit, then poured them some tea.
“I wouldn’t be too upset about your partner,” she said. “Men are fickle, and that one in particular is more trouble than he’s worth. I’m Laurie Mitchell, which you may have picked up on already. Please call me Cassandra when we’re in the office.”
“That’s a little,” Emily frowned, groping for the right word, “inauspicious, isn’t it?”
“That would require my clients to actually remember the whole myth instead of just vague details,” Laurie told her, smiling. “I’ve been looking for someone like you for a while now. Imagine my surprise at finding her a hundred yards away, distracting sunburnt tourists while her boyfriend relieves them of their pocket change. Honestly, you could make better money selling oranges at an intersection.”
“Someone like me?” Emily hedged.
Laurie settled into an overstuffed chair and clasped her mug in both hands, a cheerfully mercenary expression on her kind face. “I suppose a better way to put it would be someone else like me. Though I’m guessing from the fact that we’re even having this conversation that you have the usual trouble seeing your own future.”
Emily flushed and looked down at her tea. She didn’t like where the conversation was going. Working a crowd using standard mentalist tricks that everyone assumed were part of a bit was one thing. The only part where she had to pay attention was getting it wrong often enough to soothe the audience. Someone who expected her to really predict the future was something else entirely.
“Nobody else likes knowing what their future holds,” Emily said defensively. “Why would I?”
“That, my dear, is precisely the sort of attitude that leads to sleeping on park benches instead of feather beds,” Laurie sighed. “The future might be less mutable than our clients wish it was, but it’s certainly more so than it looks from our perspective.”
“Can you see your future?” Emily asked. That had been a sticking point for as long as she could remember. Everyone else’s life was clear, if she looked closely enough, but her own was a swirl of funhouse mirrors and kaleidoscope colors that only got worse the harder she tried.
“It’s easy, once you learn the right technique,” Laurie said. “Stick around, and I might even tell you about it.” She winked. “I’ll be blunt, Miss Harris. I’m looking for an assistant. If you’re interested, I see a very prosperous future for you.”
Emily snorted, then covered the noise with a cough. It hardly took a clairvoyant to see that a steady paycheck would improve her life. Laurie shook her head and clicked her tongue at Emily’s obvious skepticism.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Emily said. “What is it you want me to do?”
“I’ve gotten something of a reputation amongst the well-to-do, and it’s led to an increase in demand for my services,” Laurie explained. “Unfortunately, there’s only so much time in a day to make sure things go smoothly.”
Emily rolled the mug between her palms and let herself go blank for a moment. “You’re a matchmaker? That’s what this is about?”
“After a fashion,” Laurie laughed. “As you said, people don’t like knowing their futures. Not really. You took that as a sign that you should stop telling people what’s going to happen, that you should shrink yourself down until people were comfortable again. You can just as easily set them up with what they’re so desperately looking for.” She leaned forward and put her hand on Emily’s knee. “I assure you, the second method is much more profitable.”
“So you, what, tell them love is in their future and then set them up on a date with another desperate loser?” Emily demanded. It was better than actually trying to tell someone their real fortune, she supposed, but not by much.
“Nothing so crass,” Laurie assured her. She got up and poured more hot water from the kettle. “I tell them love is in their future and then arrange a fortuitous and entirely natural meeting with an appropriately pliable and eager-to-please partner who’s been equally primed for a rich or well-connected stepping-stone to appear in their path.”
“So you get paid twice,” Emily said slowly. “That’s actually not a bad business model.”
“The universe loves us and wants us to be happy.” Laurie beamed, and Emily hid her grimace behind her mug. That hadn’t been her experience with the universe at all. Laurie gave her a disapproving look. “My clients expect a certain amount of positivity from me, Miss Harris. You don’t have to believe it, but you’ll have to project it. They’re certainly paying enough for it.”
“Would I have to dress like a hippie, too?” she asked. Even aside from not being able to pull off the look, blowsy, draping clothes that were easy to grab or get caught on things made her nervous.
“No, no. People find it easier to believe predictions coming from a certain type of person,” Laurie said. She gestured from her scarves to her sandals with a sweeping motion. “This is how I cater to that. As I said, I’m looking for an assistant, not an apprentice. You would book appointments, do preliminary interviews with potential clients, that sort of thing. We’d confer about them later, in private. I don’t expect you to do readings for them.”
“In exchange for?” Emily prompted. It didn’t take ESP to tell that Laurie wanted more than what she was asking for, but Emily couldn’t see much danger in grabbing what she could before the other shoe dropped.
“A generous wage now while we see how things pan out,” Laurie said. “If I like your work, and you like the business, we could work out a profit-sharing agreement later.”
“Uh-huh.” Emily bit her lip. “This seems like the sort of arrangement where there’s not much room for growth. How many rich guys around here can possibly be looking for sugarbabies?”
Laurie tapped her lacquered nails on a thick brocade-covered binder sitting on her desk and smiled. “This is California, dear. Half the state is only here because they want more than what they have now. For every client who wants a pretty wife half his age who forgives his every lapse, for every client who wants a rich husband who can make her a star before he decides he’s really in love with his daughter’s college roommate, there are ten more looking for a personal assistant who can make their climb up the ladder easier, or a boss who can get them out of the internship ghetto. Actors are looking for agents; agents are looking for the new star. The rich and bored are looking for an adventure. People with frankly alarming business proposals are looking for hands-on investors. And they are all, every last one of them, potential revenue streams if handled properly.”
Emily sipped her tea. She had to admire Laurie’s ambition, if nothing else. It certainly put her own petty street theater to shame. Laurie sat back down, crossed her ankles, and clasped her hands expectantly in her lap.
“So, Miss Harris, what do you say? Would you like to make something of yourself?”
Emily considered the thin mattresses and even thinner sheets in the shared room she’d be going back to. The one packet of ramen noodles she and Gavin had split for dinner the night before. The blazing sun she’d been working under, the mixed smell of sweat and sunscreen and beer that blended into the smell of a crowd. If Gavin had taken the money and bolted, as she half-expected him to have done, she’d have all that plus the extra trouble of breaking in a new partner. And, most importantly, the squats and the marks and the instant noodles would all be there again if things went sour with Laurie. She really didn’t have anything to lose.
“Yes, Madame Cassandra,” Emily said firmly, plastering a fake smile on her face. “Yes, I would.”
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida, and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Forthcoming short fiction will appear in the Confessions of a Shapeshifter anthology from Alban Lake Publishing (April), Lit Select’s Legendary Stories (May), and The Flash Fiction Press (June).