This story was originally published in Short Fiction Break on April 10, 2018. Enjoy!
My neck tensed, and I felt a tingling sensation spread between my shoulder blades as I dropped the can of spray paint into my bag. A glance over my shoulder showed me no one was strolling past the abandoned warehouses that lined the street. Part of the fun of being a graffiti artist was the element of risk, of getting interrupted midway by a cop. Even on nights when I felt jumpy, like tonight.
The other part of the fun came courtesy of my customers and their odd requests. A few would ask for drugs. These I sent away with nothing. If they had to ask, I knew I didn’t have what they were looking for.
Mostly I sell love potions or enchanted objects. Here’s how it works. I set up near some nice empty stretch of wall and start creating my graffiti. I always work flowers into the art, all different kinds.
People who are looking for what I have to offer know roughly what area of town I work in. They also know to smudge the flower in my painting that represents what they’re looking for. Smudge a rose, I’ll sell you a love potion. If it’s prosperity you want, rub out a peony. I can make a potion for that, too. That’s how I know what they want. After that’s, it’s just agreeing on a price and a place to exchange the money for the goods.
The business was working well. I was able to start over the disaster caused by my business partner. I took a new name and made a new life for myself far away from the people who might want to hurt me. I kept my guard up, though. It doesn’t pay to get careless. People in my line of work can make enemies.
I wiped at some sweat on my forehead. Summer nights in St. Louis could be brutally humid. I shook my head, looking at the purple streaks on my fingers. I probably had matching stripes in my dark curly hair.
I jumped at the sound of my name and turned, holding my brush out like a weapon.
“It’s just me, Nicole.”
One of my regulars. She stepped to the wall and gently caressed an aster. Variety, that’s what she wanted. Another lonely soul relying on my potions to break up the monotony of her life. We agreed on price and the exchange point. I didn’t have to ask for the usual 50% down payment. She knew the drill and handed over the cash. As she turned away I reached for a can of turquoise spray paint.
A tapping noise from down the street made me whirl in place to identify the source of the sound. A blind woman was making her way toward me, swinging her cane in front of her, tapping with each step. I made sure to make a little noise as she got closer, spraying the paint on the wall, dropping a can on the ground. I didn’t want her bumping in to me. That would be embarrassing for us both.
She tapped her way toward me, slowing as she approached. Goosebumps raised on my arms. I turned to face her, and my eyes flew open. I swallowed hard, trying not to make a sound. It couldn’t be.
I looked closer, trying to keep my breathing steady. The blind woman was Kelly, my former business partner. Even though she had dark glasses hiding her eyes and had dyed her blond hair red, I knew it was her.
Years ago, we sold a whole line of enchanted objects that could heal wounds, restore function to paralyzed limbs, or repair broken items. We made potions that could change people’s minds, make people sick, or even kill, if used improperly. We were careful to explain the proper and improper use of our products. What people chose to do with them was their business. We never wanted to know.
Then Kelly got a little greedy and wasn’t so careful about which clients she took on. I tried to pull back. One of our customers set us up so we’d take the fall for his business rival’s death. I managed to get away. Kelly ended up in jail. She blamed me for the whole disaster and vowed to track me down.
I made sure to keep tabs on her and was relieved to hear she’d lost her sight in a prison brawl. That would make it harder for her to find me. Surely her showing up on my turf was a coincidence, right?
I faced her, trying to figure out what to say. She saved me the trouble. “Are you Tanya?”
I lowered my voice, so she didn’t recognize me. Unless she was faking being blind, in which case, I was already in trouble. “Yes.”
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“I need something from you.”
“I understand your normal way of taking orders, shall we say, requires me to see what I’m doing. Will these work as well?”
She held out a bunch of plastic flowers. Mostly daffodils, with a few snapdragons. She wanted a new start, that much was clear. What did the snapdragons mean? The only thing I remembered was strength. Or maybe it was honor.
“A new start for what?” I asked.
“My eyesight. I want strong sight.”
“Fair enough.” I let out a sigh. Using plastic flowers meant she wasn’t making a request. All of us potion makers took a vow, on our honor, to fulfill any order made using plastic flowers.
Which meant I couldn’t refuse her, or else I’d risk losing my abilities to concoct potions or enchant objects. I’d be left with no way to make a living.
And of course, if I restored her sight, she will have found me.
“There’s no potion that can give you your sight back.”
“No, but crimson glasses can.”
She had me there. “What did you say your name is?”
“Andrea.” Like me, she was using an alias.
“Andrea. Can you come back tomorrow?”
She nodded. I gave her directions and set a time. “That will be half down, the rest on delivery.”
She handed me a wad of bills. “The rest, once I know they work.”
That’s the Kelly I knew, never one to trust. “Fine.” I picked up my brush and started painting, sweat running down my back as she tapped her way down the street.
The next evening was as hot and humid as the night before, the moisture in the air so thick you could almost see it. Every motion raised sweat, sweat that never dried. I had the crimson glasses in my pocket, my plan ready. By making the glasses and delivering them, I will have fulfilled my professional obligations. All I had to do was try them on before I handed them over. Then the power would be diluted. She’d get some sight back, but not all. I’d be able to get away from her before she recognized me.
OK, it was kind of feeble. Not much chance of working. But it might take her awhile to link dark-haired Tanya with blond Emily. Even if she saw through the way I changed my looks, surely I’d be able to outrun her.
To pass the time, I started another mural. This one had lots of daffodils and snapdragons in it. Funny, not too many people went for snapdragons. I would have thought strength would be a popular thing to ask for. Did snapdragons have another meaning? I couldn’t remember.
Finally, I heard the tapping of her cane. I waited until she was a few feet away. “Did you bring the rest of the money?”
She held it up in her left hand and extended her right hand for the glasses. I pulled the crimson glasses from my bag and slid them on my face. They worked great. Everything I looked at was magnified and clear.
I removed the glasses and placed them in her hand. She put them on and smiled. “Emily. So nice to see you again.”
That was my cue. I took off running down the street, then stopped. Two large men were walking toward me with a purpose in their steps I took as not healthy for me. I turned to run the other way. Over Kelly’s shoulder I saw two other men.
“I told you I’d come for you,” she said. She ripped the glasses from her face. “Good thing I didn’t need them.” She pulled a knife from her boot. “Long ago, you betrayed me and set me up. Now I tricked you. I never was blind.” She held the blade up, letting the dim streetlight glitter on its edge. “Don’t worry. I won’t kill you. You’ll just wish I had.”
My heart nearly stopped. Ruthless Kelly would be neither fast nor merciful.
She leaned over and touched the wall, smearing the purple snapdragons. “Didn’t you know? Along with strength, snapdragons mean deception.”