Mom isn't too angry when I take the long way home, bringing with me the spoils of a night of Hellhole-style club-hopping. Which amounts to little more than popping a soda and exchanging near-lies with the local crime lord, and I didn't even earn an 'all I got is this lousy T-shirt' for all my efforts. To top it off, I wasn't ambushed on my way home.
Mom looks a little… I would not use the word 'surprised', more 'puzzled' when I show her the photo of the stranger. After a little prodding, she admits the face seems familiar but she can't place him. Just to be sure she'll ask around. The coin makes her laugh but she doesn't tell me why. She's careful with the powder, leaving the bag sealed. And then she spots the address written on the back of the photo.
She gives me ten minutes to get ready.
It takes a little longer, for both of us, but around three o'clock in the morning I find myself slouching in Mom's car. I'm hurting. I'm trying to sleep, whilst Mom is doing a combined engine-suspension test, pushing our old Ford to its limits. Outside Hellhole proper she barely makes the first turn left, past the underpass, swiping a few plastic traffic posts on our way up the ramp. Seconds later we're racing westward.
"Is this really necessary?" I ask. Behind us, the lights of Hellhole disappear in the distance.
"Yes, it is," Mom says. "It's a three-hour drive I'm trying to squeeze down into two."
"Why the sudden hurry?"
She shrugs, pushing the pedal to the metal, holding it there until the noise and vibration become too much. "Call it a hunch."
"You know, like, a feeling. Are you comfortable?"
I shake my head and look at the darkness outside. "No. Should I?"
"I did let you change, and made you coffee."
"That's because you had to change as well." Which is true. We're both wearing camo pants and black polo shirts, and I've put on my boots again. Behind the chairs lies the rest of my gear. Mom brought our Kevlar vests. I prefer not to be shot in the first place, but - I look at Mom's grim face - I might need it unless stealth has the topmost priority.
She moves to the left lane and passes an eighteen-wheeler. "See if you can find some decent music on the radio," she tells me. I try, but it's mostly country, and our radio tends to drift a little. There's another newscast about the suicides and the bushfires. When I finally find a station that's playing the Eagles it disappears in the static. Disgusted, I switch the radio off.
"Tell me about the eyes again," Mom says.
"The junkie came in, all red-eyed. They made a picture, and it showed the same red eyes. But White-suit acted as if there was a difference between the eye color of the real person and on the image. I couldn't see it."
"You think it was the drug? The powder?"
"That's what the Man-in-White said. I think he spoke the truth. The girl had those same eyes."
Mom slows down a little to throw me a glance, ignoring the dented eighties Cadillac that blows its horn at us. "What girl?"
"The one at the gas station this morning, I mean yesterday morning. She was in the passenger seat of that red Mustang, the one with the big sunglasses."
"The car had sunglasses?"
"Then how do you know the girls' eyes were red?"
"I dunno'... I just noticed when she took them off, I guess." This isn't the right moment to tell her about my bout of gallantry.
"Well, don't you worry. Or maybe you should. She put on her glasses just before I entered the shop. There was nothing wrong with her eyes. The bruises though, that's another matter. Whoever did that deserves some serious punishment."
I lean forward and put my head between my hands, hiding my satisfaction. "Yeah, I'm sure he'll get what's coming for him, someday. But I did see red eyes, the same kind I saw tonight."
"It seems like in both cases you saw something other people did not."
I rub my thumbs against my temples. "That's how it seems."
"I believe you," Mom says, then swerves dangerously whilst consulting phone and map at the same time.
I dare not look. "You do?"
Mom nods. "There was a hint of magic surrounding that girl, a glamour of sorts. I thought the girl cast something to hide the bruises, and that it didn't work too well. It might be related to her eyes, now that you bring it up."
"That junkie didn't look like he could hide anything, let alone cast."
"Which makes me think that this red powder has something to do with it. Though I've never heard of anything which would cause the change to change color, then hide that change. But I guess it's a possibility. Anything's possible. It would also explain why other people like me couldn't see the change, not directly." She takes one hand off the wheel and taps the tip of her nose, lost in thought. "Hmm. That would require some kind of illusion. Which explains why you couldn't spot the difference between the real thing and the photo. It's easier to cheat the mind than some dumb camera. It all makes sense when you think about it."
"If you say so. You're the expert on magic." I feel a headache coming up, either due to my lack of sleep or Mom talking nonsense. Some things are lost on me, and 'magic' is one of them. "So I'm a dumb camera?" I ask, mock-offended.
"If you say so. You're the expert on you."
We pass another eighteen-wheeler, this time on the right side, I mean wrong side. Some slow-pokes still seem to think you're allowed to cruise in the left lane and pass on all sides, but most states have done the sensible thing, and tell you to stay in the rightmost lane as much as you can. This trucker apparently forgot, and Mom thanks him for that with a finger and some curses.
"Does it matter?" I ask, ignoring Mom's foul language.
"It may not," she admits, "but you'd better be careful. Don't give yourself away by seeing things others do not."
I hide my smile. Well, don't worry Mom. I'm not going to bring up imaginary cats and translucent cowboys any time soon.
"I wonder…" Mom keeps her hands on the wheel but uses a finger to point at the envelope on the dashboard, containing the photo, the powder, and the coin. "A magical drug… what is the world coming to."
"The powder is magical?"
She bits her lip as if she said too much, then shrugs. "It is. Or I think it is. I've heard of it before, and if it is what I think it is, then it isn't good news."
"But you said -"
"I didn't know it could hide itself. There's a friend I'll have to ask, but I wouldn't worry about it." Our trusty Ford eats up another mile or two before she adds, "For now."
I let that sink in, then ask, "What's with the coin?"
That seems to lighten her mood. "It's a Talespinner, you don't see them often. They spin until someone tells a lie. To be honest, they're not very useful. They'd be flat on the table every time a politician opens his mouth." She chuckles.
"I would expect a simple tool that helps to identify lies to be very useful," I object.
"Ah, but therein lies the problem. They work just like a mundane lie detector. They look for attitude, tone, voice, heartbeat, sweat, that kind of physical evidence. All things any good magician can fake. It won't catch professional liars or people who actually believe in what they say, even if it's wrong. If you can fool yourself you can fool a lie detector. If you can fool a lie detector you can fool a Talespinner. They're mostly made of old pennies, by the way."
I groan. "Don't tell me…"
"Yeah. A penny for your thoughts, dear, but taken to a whole different level."
We shatter another land speed record whilst I consider the consequences. Did the Man-in-White know he could cheat on his own device? I didn't, but he might know and be able to. He also couldn't have missed the fact that I wasn't bothered by a coin that kept spinning endlessly. Maybe that was the whole point.
We pass two bridges in a row. The signs tell us to slow down, but Mom ignores them and continues full-speed. "Still, you need some magic to make them, so that makes the man in the white suit a mage. Not a strong one if he resorts to trinkets like that. Maybe he's one of those hedge wizards, self-made, taking some online courses. Those amateurs give the profession a bad name, you know."
"They have online courses to teach hedge wizards these days?"
"Probably. This is the twenty-first century after all. Did you ever consider taking online math lessons?"
I tell myself this is going to be a looong trip.