The Man-in-White sips from his expensive whiskey before he begins. "Shall we discuss business? I think you have something for me."
I nod, then slowly take the handkerchief from my pocket and place it on the table between us. When I unfold the cloth two of the petals fall out. "Sorry about that." I pick the red petals up and place them on the handkerchief, next to the slightly squashed flower.
His sharp intake of air makes me look up. He stares at me, wide-eyed, then a suspicious look creeps into his eyes. He picks up the coin, presses it against his lips, then sets it on its side and sends it spinning. It doesn't slow down, it doesn't move around. It stays in one place, never slowing down. Magic.
I shrug. "It's just a flower."
The man in the white suit shakes his head and studies the red flower as if it is the most valuable - and most dangerous - object in the world. From an inside pocket he takes a silver pen, and gingerly tips one of the loose petals over, making sure he doesn't touch it. He uses his other hand to make a circular motion above the flower and the petals before his now thoughtful gaze returns to me. "You're an interesting… person. Oh well, a deal is a deal. I just wished you would have packaged it better."
He sighs, ignoring the spinning coin. I keep my hands away from it, fearing that any action on my side might stop the motion. I tense when he picks up something from the bench. It turns out to be a large, brown envelope. He keeps it with him, his hand resting on it.
"If you ever find out who this is you tell me, and I will reward you handsomely," he says.
He only shoves the envelope in my direction when I nod. Inside I find the photo of a stranger, someone I've never seen before.
"Do you know this man?" the Man-in-White asks. He's not looking at my face but watches the coin.
"No idea. Who is it? And what's with the coin?"
There's a flash of disappointment on his face when I tell him I haven't got a clue. He hides it well, but it was there. His tone is light when he continues. "Oh. It will tell me if you lie. Nifty trick, isn't it? When it stops spinning one of us lied, and our negotiation will be over."
"I assume that goes both ways? I didn't bring a coin."
"Yes, it does. So I suggest not to answer any questions you have to lie to. I will do the same. See?" He points at the coin which is still spinning. "Grass is blue," he says, and the coin falls flat. He smiles and sets it spinning again.
Refusing to answer a question would also give a kind of answer. I watch the coin and think it over. This man's a criminal, but I think he's an honest criminal. The kind that won't lie about a painless end but will just cut you up and be straight about it upfront. Which doesn't mean the coin's the real deal, or that this little chat will end well... for me.
Our eyes meet, and he nods. "It might prove advantageous to both of us. Or we both might regret it more than we like. Truth has a habit of doing that. Please excuse me." He pulls out his phone, picks a contact, then instructs the other side. "We're almost done. Get me a container or an envelope or something similar... Yes? Yeah, that will do. We'll… Interesting. We'll take the backdoor then."
When he puts his phone back in his jacket he looks at me. "You didn't tell me you brought company." There's no accusation, just confirmation of something he already knew.
I shrug. "You didn't ask."
"That's what friends are for."
The smile he shows is all predator-to-predator. When he beckons his men over they exchange a few whispered words, and his bodyguards nod. Mexican Sven leaves via an exit in the back, through a door marked 'Private'.
The Man-in-White produces a little plastic bag from the same pocket his pen came from. The red powder inside looks familiar. He smiles when he spots my grimace. "I guess you've seen this before."
It isn't a question. I shrug and sit back.
"Do you know what it does?"
I shrug again, trying to give away as little as possible. The fat man at the gas station was carrying a satchel before I flushed it. I'm unwilling to lie with that coin nearby. "I've seen it before."
"I'm more than happy to provide if there is demand. This, however, this isn't mine." He taps the little plastic bag.
"So you know. As you asked for a sample I assume the people you represent are interested in either the product itself or my involvement. I don't care what you do with it, just don't cause trouble and don't get in my way. Now this," he taps the bag again, "this I want gone."
It takes a moment before his words register. Mom and I, we've been played, we never asked for a sample of anything. In other words, this is a setup.
Think, Ellen, think. He's handling the bag himself and isn't afraid of leaving fingerprints. That's a bad sign. But if it's a setup then it's a rather convoluted scheme, involving a book, a Witch, a spinning coin, a nightly meeting in a biker's bar… And though I wouldn't put those kinds of machinations beyond him I just don't see the point. It isn't a case of mistaken identity either. He was expecting somebody to deliver the flower, and he's willing to trade a sample of the drug for it. Maybe the Witch wants that sample and is using Mom and me as an in-between? But would she expect us to exchange the sample for my book? Mom would never do so.
I discreetly scan the bar, wondering who the real Witch is and when she's going to spring her trap. Tony and Sven look back, angrily. Everybody else seems to ignore us, which is suspicious in itself.
So, where does that leave us? The Man-in-White will walk out with his price, and so will I. And then the Witch will pounce on me and take her loot by force.
I smile at my companion, trying to hide my discomfort. "If you ask me if we're interested in selling drugs, then the answer would be no."
"And in the people selling?"
Now would we? "I don't think so, but I'm not certain. I'm not the one defining our… objectives." The coin agrees, that wasn't a lie, technically. And the only objective I have right now is to leave in peace.
Even though the coin's still spinning his smile has become frugal. It touches his lips but steers clear from the rest of his face. He blinks slowly, once. Twice. It seems we are out of words, and we eye one another over soda and coffee and melting ice cubes in a square pool of single malt. The coin spins and spins as we wait for Sven to return.
Sven isn't alone. He's dragging a scroungy-looking fellow along. Pale skin, liver flecks, sunken eyes. Poor youth, sad circumstances, no future. Hands on your wallet, and don't you step on a used needle. I don't have to look for the markings they left. This is a junkie, plain and simple.
Sven stands the junkie in front of us, then places a lunchbox on the table.
"Look at his eyes," the Man-in-White tells me.
I do as he says. The part of the junkie's eyes that's supposed to be white is a bright red. Something else I've seen before. "So?" I try to sound as disinterested as possible.
The Man-in-White holds up his phone and shows me an image. "This is our friend here, two hours ago, before we shot him up."
It's the junkie's face, the eyes still white.
"Now, this is where things get interesting…" The Man-in-White aims his phone at the addict and snaps a picture. "Take a look."
I compare this new image with the real person. Were the junkie's eyes on the earlier photo white, now they're just as red as the real thing. I shrug.
"Why," the man in the white suit asks, "why do eyes retain their normal color, except on camera?"
I look at him, trying to hide my puzzlement. To me, the junkie's eyes are red, both in real life and on the image on his phone. "Say again?"
"Tell me, what makes the sclera, the tunica albuginea oculi, the white around the iris, turn red on images but not in real life? What can fool our human eyes, but doesn't fool a camera?"
"Could be the flash," I suggest. The coin hesitates and slows down, but doesn't stop spinning. It wasn't a lie but walk with care, Ellen. The right answer is magic, and you know it.
"You know better," he says. He looks at the still spinning, considering my words. "Perhaps we should take you with us and find out."
"I didn't lie. I've seen the eyes before," I admit, trying to hide my nerves. "It's the drug, it turns the white of the eyes red. But I'm not sure how it works, or what else it does. All those things are above my pay grade, I'm just a soldier. Also, my side would take offense if you would break the terms of our meeting." Oh, Mom would be seriously pissed if any harm came to me, that's for sure.
"I never said it would be a peaceful meeting," the Man-in-White replies coolly. To my dismay, the coin keeps spinning.
I just stick to the truth. "We're not here to take you down, as far as I know." The truth and nothing but. He might be our target, but that's for Mom to figure out. "We may have similar goals." And the faster I'm out of this backwater town with its white-suited local crime boss, the better. And he can keep that damned witch all to himself, as long as she returns my book.
"You may not know," he points out.
I do not know. I nod conceding the point. I'm not even partial to all my mother's plans, and I don’t want to be. I watch in silence how he opens the lunchbox, then gingerly lifts the handkerchief by the corners to deposit the flower in the box. A piece of cheese and some breadcrumbs will keep it company.
When he puts the lid back on he fires off one last question. "Do you believe in magic?"
I hesitate, eyeing the coin. Of course I do. I suck at it, but that's not the point. He doesn't wait for my answer, but gets up and reaches for my hand. He takes it, brings it to his lips, then places a soft kiss on the back. I'm too baffled to pull back. What the hell is wrong with this town, or has hand-kissing become the latest fad, and did I just miss the memo?
"I don't do magic," I answer, feeling my cheeks heat up.
"Neither do I," he says, and the coin finally stops spinning. "Keep it."
The Man-in-White and his two gangsters leave the building through the backdoor, dragging the junkie with them.
I reach for my soda when my brain finally shifts into gear. I'm in an Irish bar, in the depth of night, wearing blue lipstick and a baseball cap. Mean-looking bikers and two hookers eye me tentatively. On the table in front of me lies a brown envelope, which certainly doesn't contain Sweets' book. The criminal mastermind, the Man-in-White, just left the building, and I bet there's a Witch out there, waiting for me to show up so she can take away that which he gave me. I pick up the little plastic bag full of red powder and drop it into the envelope. Next goes the coin, and... shit. I forgot to call mom.
She picks up on the first ring.
"I think…" I start, then hesitate. "It's complicated."