Posted by: lordkyler | April 18, 2015

Insight – Short Story Week

Rain pounded against the windshield of my car, distorting the glow of the neon signs across from me. “Madame Zandoori’s Psychic Readings,” the sign proclaimed in cherry-red letters, and a smaller, unlit sign underneath explained that they also did palmistry and tarot cards. It was a small place, wedged between a Lebanese restaurant and a laundromat. It seemed banal and incredibly clichéd, but that was what I was looking for.

I checked my phone, stalling against the moment I would have to get out of the car, and saw I had missed six calls. That was enough to get me moving.

I nearly pulled on my gloves out of habit, but I caught myself and stuffed them in my pocket. I needed to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could, that meant I couldn’t have my blinders on, however uncomfortable the experience might be. I stepped out of the car and walked up to the door.

The air was thick with smells despite the rain, cigarette smoke, spilled gasoline, the enticing aroma of cooking meat. My stomach growled, but I had to ignore it. I had a hard time eating at restaurants. Some things cannot be un-learned. It felt as though the rain had a personal grudge against me, and was intent on bringing me down.

Despite this, I paused in front of the door, and reconsidered. The open sign beckoned luridly, but the dark interior of the building seemed like a trap of some kind. I almost laughed. You wouldn’t think a psychic would have these kind of problems. Unfortunately, I cannot see the future. It was this fact that led me to take the final step and enter Madame Zandoori’s parlor. As soon as I touched the handle, I could feel the lingering touch of all the souls who had come to this place. They had been as nervous as I was, fearful, lonely, guilty. Out of curiosity, I touched the handle on the other side. While they were still tinged with worry and doubt, there was some hope and relief among those leaving, which helped to hush my own fears. She may not be a genuine psychic, but she was at least an effective placebo.

A bell chimed as I entered, and I was suddenly surrounded by a heady combination of cigarette smoke, cheap perfume, and incense. I nearly choked. A slender woman appeared through a bead curtain from a back room. She was swathed in silks and draped with jewelry. A pair of half-moon glasses was perched at the end of her nose, but she pulled them off to get a look at me. She was middle-aged, with abundant crows-feet and deeply-tanned skin, but her eyes were as sharp and focused as an eagle’s. Those eyes scanned me in an instant and seemed to reach a conclusion.

“Hello, darling,” she crooned in a vaguely eastern-european accent. “I sense that you are worried. How may I help you?”

“I understand you are… gifted.”

“You could call me that,” Madame Zandoori said. “I like to think of myself as good listener.” Good line. I might have to steal that.

“My name is Cornelius King,” I lied. “Pleased to meet you,” Another lie, but I offered my hand anyway. She proffered her own withered hand palm-down, as if inviting me to kiss it. I grasped her fingertips and focused. Memories flashed by as if in a dream. A dim, messy apartment. A kiss beneath a streetlamp. Rough, brutal hands. A bus ride. I released her hand and faked a small smile.

“Let us begin.” She led me back to a small room, brushing yet another bead curtain out of the way. A small table with a plain white tablecloth was the only furnishing aside from a pair of decrepit chairs. She motioned me to sit, and then sat across from me. She stared at me with those piercing eyes for some time, smiling gently. She waited for me to speak first. Another good trick. It would give her something to build on. I decided to take the bait. I would fabricate a story to see how she worked.

“I must confess I am a bit of a skeptic,” I said. “But I’m, uh, well, I’m kind of out of options.”

“Please, there is no reason to be nervous. You will find what you look for here. You can check Yelp.” I blinked. The statement seemed oddly out of place, like an iPhone in the Mona Lisa, but I suppose it’s important to keep up with the times. I knew that as well as anyone. “What you want, darling?” Madame Zandoori continued. “I sense you need something big, yes? No palm or tea leaves for you.”

“I need answers. I have too many problems and too little time.”

Madame Zandoori closed her eyes and leaned back, “I will contact the divining spirits now. Please stay quiet. I must peer beyond the horizons of the future, and must concentrate. Try to open your minds to the energies.” That was convenient. I needed to dig deep and learn fast, and concentration helped me work my mojo. I bowed my head and focused. My ability doesn’t really allow me to see further so much as deeper. I can see past and present to a small degree, but my true skills lie in seeing what I call the soul of a thing. Its identity, its function, its personality. Intense personalities or sordid histories tended to leap out at me whenever I was nearby, but most of the time, I had to touch something or someone to read it. With focus, though, I should be able to read this Madame Zandoori and learn her secrets.

I started by evaluating the memories I had received from our handshake. I focused on the image of the apartment I had seen and reached out to her with it. After a moment, more images began to trickle in. Nights spent reading under covers. Morning sun through church windows. A bloody knife laying on the bedroom floor… My eyes snapped open in surprise, but Madame Zandoori was muttering to herself. I quickly resumed my concentration, my curiosity piqued. The images resumed as though I hadn’t stopped. Park benches. Dumpster diving. Eyes, bluer than the sky. Soft lips and whispered secrets. A song that-

“I have contacted the spirits,” Madame Zandoori announced, “Someone wishes to speak with you. I’m getting a name… Something with an ‘S’?” This was a trick I knew. I decided to make her work for it.

“An ‘s’? I don’t think I know anybody that’s an ‘s’.”

“Hmm. Perhaps not a name, but a connection. A sister?” I nearly scowled when I thought of my sister Stephanie, but I managed to suppress the emotion.

“I have a sister,” I confessed. “But she isn’t dead.” Madame Zandoori fixed me with a soul-piercing stare. “Are you certain?”

Something in the way she asked ran a chill down my spine, and I realized that I didn’t know, not for sure. It had been five years since I had last seen her, and she tended to keep dangerous company. It wasn’t possible in any case. True psychics don’t contact the dead like that. I should know. But I decided to play along.

“Let’s say she is dead. What would she have to say? She hates me.”

“Her message must be important, to reach so far from the other side, I think. I will attempt to feel her emotions and see what has brought her.” More quiet was fine by me. The second she closed her eyes, I dove back into her memories.

Ink-black puddles shimmered with the light of street-lamps. There he was, standing just outside the light, collar turned up against the rain. But when she came closer, it wasn’t him at all. Suddenly the thoughts slipped away like sand through my fingers, and try as I might, I could see nothing but pain and fists and red lights until the bus ride. I shook my head in confusion, but Madame Zandoori took the expression differently.

“I have it,” she said hurriedly. “She is scared for you. She says you are in trouble.” No kidding. If I couldn’t learn to fake being a fake by tomorrow, I was going to be up to my ears in trouble.

“Does she say what kind?” I asked.

“Let me see…” she said slowly. She stared contemplatively at the star-dazzled ceiling, but I could see she was watching me slyly from the corner of her eye, judging my reactions. “Family trouble? …no, that is just her concern as your sister. Money problems? Ah, something to do with that. In trouble with the government… yes, I can see it now. Oh my, she says it is quite serious.” Damn. I was certain I had kept my face blank. This was, in fact, the true reason I had come. I had used my talents to help out my personal well-being, just like anybody else. It isn’t my fault my talents are unique.

“What kind of trouble?” I asked. “Unpaid tickets, tax audits?”

She shook her head subtly. “No, something worse. Serious men with guns and ties. They want something you have, or perhaps something you can do.” I was beginning to get the creeps. I had come to learn how to fake being a false psychic, you know, handing out statements that seem specific but are actually broadly applicable, getting the target to volunteer information. But this was frighteningly accurate. Or was I just more transparent than I had thought I was? I needed to peer deeply into this woman’s mind, and find out what was going on. If she could fake it this well, maybe the FBI ought to be investigating her instead. I rubbed my eyes for a moment, appearing troubled – which wasn’t difficult – and focused on Madame Zandoori again, this time paying the most attention to her present state.

It was more difficult than I had anticipated, but I managed to push through. There was great anticipation there, great anxiety. Was she worried about something? Then why the anticipation? Perhaps she was looking forward to being paid, but I doubted my payment would change things much. I pressed harder, meeting a iron will. It would take some time to break through. Who was this woman?

“I just- I don’t believe it,” I said, stalling for time.

There was a click, and a sudden thrill chased down my spine like ice water. Danger. I opened my eyes and found Madame Zandoori clutching a large gun in her small bony fist. It was pointed directly at my face.

“I’m glad to find I was right,” she said. Her accent was gone, replaced by a British one. “Just sit right there and don’t move an inch, darling.” She drew the last word out in a parody of her earlier persona. She stood up, keeping the gun trained on me, and stepped lithely around the table. I felt the cold metal of the gun barrel press against the base of my skull, and had to fight to suppress a shiver.

“What is this? Who the hell are you?” I demanded.

“Hands behind your back,” she said, pressing the gun harder. I complied quickly, though my thoughts were spinning so quickly I was nearly nauseated. Madame Zandoori – or whoever she was – produced a zip tie and cinched both my hands together. The plastic dug painfully into my wrists, but I didn’t dare struggle.

“Did you think you were the only one?” she drawled patronizingly, leaning in close to my ear. “Some special snowflake all alone in the world?” She grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and hauled me to my feet. The gun moved down to my heart, and she dug it in, prodding me forward. “It’s true we’re a rare breed, Christopher, but there are enough of us in the world to make a difference.” We passed through the bead curtain into the lobby.

“Us? If you’re a psychic, why do you need me?”

“There are four types of psychic in the world. Those who see the future – that’s me, by the way, so don’t try escaping – those who see the past, those that see beyond, and those that see within. That’s you.”

“I don’t understand. I- I’ve always thought…”

“You’re going to learn a lot of new things. I’ve got some serious work for you, but you’re not quite ready yet. So from now on, I am both your kidnapper and your mentor. You can call me Lucille.” We left the building and she escorted me to a beat-up car behind the building. “Hurry up,” she said, looking around. “The real Madame whatserface will be back soon.”

My already chaotic thoughts went into overdrive. How long had she been planning this? What had I just gotten myself into? I sat awkwardly on the seat with my hands behind my back while Lucille got into the driver’s seat. She reached across and buckled me in, then set the gun in her cup holder. “Now listen carefully,” she said, starting the car. “If you cooperate, I can help you hone your talents in ways you can’t even imagine now. I’ll help you learn your limits and your potential. And if we work together, I can make both our problems go away.”

“What? Why didn’t you just say that?” I snapped, trying in vain to find a comfortable position. “Hell, if you can see the future, why bother asking? You know what I’ll say. And if you bothered to abduct me, I’m betting the answer was no.”

“Limitations. Seeing the future is useful but imprecise, especially with other psychics involved. I knew where you would be, but not necessarily how you would react. I need your skills, and I will have them one way or the other.” She pulled quickly and headed toward the freeway. “So what’s it going to be?”

I didn’t have much of a choice. “You can help me with my problem?”

“If anyone can, we can. But only together.”

“…alright. I’m in.”

“Good,” she said, sounding pleased. “And three days from now, when you try to escape? I won’t take it personally if you hold a grudge after I shoot you.” That was the final straw that broke my mind. I stared blankly out the window in shock, unable to process everything that was happening.

There was only one thing I was sure of. There was no going back now.

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