short story, Writing

Skills that Pay the Bills

(September 2022’s short story of the month. Better late than never!)

As a young girl, she learned how to juggle fruit: apples, oranges, sometimes pears. There was little risk, little drama, and people smiled politely and then moved on. But they started paying attention when she started juggling knives and saws.

She didn’t notice when the same man returned day after day to watch her. She smiled at the crowd and faked moments of danger. She didn’t notice him the first day when he watched in a suit, and she didn’t notice the second day when he watched in a hoodie and jeans. She didn’t even notice him on the third day when he was in a suit again, albeit a much nicer suit than the first time.

She didn’t notice, but Chuck did. Chuck watched her tips and drew in the crowd by hyping her skills.

As they sat on their bunks in their 400 square foot apartment, he asked, “What’s with that guy that keeps coming back?” He didn’t see any reason why someone would want to see the act more than once. It was always the same. The same fake moments of peril and the same planned moments of success.

“What guy?” Laney asked. She stacked the bills in a neat pile with each one facing the same way. “We did alright today. Might make the rent on time this month.”

“The guy in the suit,” replied Chuck. “He’s been back at least three times that I’ve noticed.”

“Weird,” said Laney and went back to counting their tips.

The next day the man returned. This time, Chuck nodded towards the man when he was collecting tips to indicate to Laney this was the guy.

After the performance, Laney collected their things, and Chuck took off after the guy. He followed him until he ducked into a coffee shop. Chuck stood outside waiting to see if the man would go somewhere else. Instead, hours ticked by. The man did nothing but sit in the shop ordering cup after cup of black coffee.

Chuck texted Laney the location. She arrived several minutes later, and Chuck still stood watch outside.

“He moved yet?” asked Laney.

“Nope. Just sits there like he’s waiting for something,” answered Chuck.

Laney looked through the window, and the man was looking right at her and waving.

“Pretty sure he’s waiting for me,” she said as she took a deep breath. “Stay here, and keep watch. If things seem off, don’t let me out of your sight.” Chuck nodded.

As Laney sat down across from the man, a waitress walked over and placed a latte in front of Laney.

“I didn’t order this,” said Laney looking back and forth at the waitress and the strange man.

“It’s all right. I ordered for you. I took a shot. Cinnamon latte. Don’t drink it if you don’t want to.” He folded his hands on the table in front of him.

Laney sat down reluctantly. She could smell the coffee. It was enticing. She didn’t trust the situation, but she wasn’t going to let a six dollar cup of coffee go to waste either. She took a sip. She waited for him to talk.

He smiled as she drank the coffee. “Right. You’re probably wondering why I’ve been watching you?”

She didn’t say anything or give any indication that she’d noticed him watching her. She kept studying him to see if she could figure out his game.

His hair was brown and cut and styled in a nondescript basic cut. He was clean shaven. Today he was wearing a suit that was dark grey with matching jacket. His buttoned up shirt was also grey. Everything about his was designed so that he wouldn’t stand out in any way.

He was caucasian with blue-grey eyes. He had an average build, and average height. She wouldn’t be drawn to notice him in anyway.

As Laney was taking all this in, she realized that the man’s whole point was to go unnoticed. He was boring in every way.

“I work as a recruiter for someone who needs people with a specific skill set. Specifically, the ability to look fear in the eyes and not flinch.” He didn’t smile or smirk. His eyes didn’t have a hint of humor in them.

This guy was being serious. Laney wasn’t sure what to think. What could he possibly want with her? She still didn’t say anything.

“I would like to recruit you to work for me.” He leaned back like he was waiting for her to respond.

“I don’t know what to say to that. Recruit me to do what?” Laney reached into her pocket and texted Chuck. Within a few seconds he was in the coffee shop too.

The man didn’t react when Chuck showed up. “Why don’t you join us, Chuck?”

Chuck shrugged and pulled up a chair. He sat close enough to Laney for their legs to touch.

“He offered me some kind of job, but he’s being purposefully vague,” said Laney. She and Chuck didn’t have secrets.

The man glanced at Chuck and Laney and seemed to come to a decision. “I can offer you both a job. You wouldn’t be the first pair we’ve recruited.”

“Recruited to do what, exactly? You haven’t said anything yet that makes me want to believe anything you’re saying,” responded Laney.

The man was quiet and stared at them for several minutes before he finally spoke. “You would be asked to perform odd jobs. Whatever is asked of you.” He paused and leaned forward. His voice dropped to a whisper, “No matter what is asked, you find a way to make it happen. Do you understand me?”

Laney and Chuck looked at each other. This was nuts. There was no way this guy was for real. Did he think they were stupid?

Without speaking, the two stood up, pushed in their chairs, and turned to leave.

They went back to their apartment hoping that was the last time they would see him. When they opened the door, they thought at first they’d been robbed.

Turning on the lights, they realized their mistake. All their belongings were packed like they were moving. As they stood trying to understand what they were looking at, there was a knock on the door.

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