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Chapter 4

“Enlightened Conversations and Soured Whiskies”

Twelve hours later

Maryland

This particular dive bar off the 795-north was mostly empty, save for the usual alcoholic fathers nervously boasting of imaginary soon-to-be successes and drunkenly pulling out wallet photos of children they had chronically ignored. This bar was called ‘The Rowdy Screw’ and on any given week night, would not be particularly rowdy. The ordering of drinks were the most common conversations, exchanged over pleasantries and tightfisted tips. For the most part, this was a bar people went to for an opportunity to drink in silence.

In a booth toward the back was a lonely man, whose hair grayed at thirty-one, seated in a tweed Coppola hat and sipping on his fourth Whiskey Sour. The straw crackled in the bottom of the glass and he motioned to the waitress to fetch him another round.

She finished the text to a man she met on a dating site and dropped the cherry into another glass. The waitress walked the beverage to the table at the back of the bar and dropped it off. “Is there anything else I can getcha, friend? Last call is in twenty,” she trailed off as she realized he was transfixed on the television over the bar.

On the program were four talking heads shouting over each other about whatever political brouhaha they had manufactured to fill the hour. He straightened his cap, stood up from the table, and brushed right past the waitress toward the television over the bar. He punched the button to turn it off, turned about face, and began the journey back to his table.

The older gentleman in the Coppola hat froze.

Someone was seated in the space he had vacated. The woman was familiar, and although not unwelcome, this was certainly not the best time to have a conversation. The woman was African-American, around twenty-eight, and sported a closely cropped hairstyle. She smiled, “How are you doing, John?”

John took a seat on the opposite side of the booth, frowned, and began to work his way down the fifth Whiskey Sour. “Don’t call me John, you know the rules.”

The woman laughed. “Yes, dare I refer to you by the most common name on this planet.”

“Mohammad.”

“What?”

He set the empty glass down on the table and replied grumpily, “Mohammad is the most common name in the world, not John.”

She leaned in, hushing her voice from the drunken idiots twenty feet away, “or would you prefer Quincy?”

“One more,” he shouted over his shoulder rather rudely to the waitress, who was once again busying herself by texting at the bar. John returned his gaze to the woman across from him. “Harriet,” he paused. “You’re just about the only one of ‘em I can stomach in all of this, but I believe I made myself clear, with crystalline clarity, that I want to be left alone. I want no part of this.”

Harriet frowned, “who knew the sixth president was such a loner?”

He grabbed the drink from the tray upon arrival and sipped directly from the glass. “Literally everyone that knew me knew that. Now, Mrs. Tubman—”

“I’m obviously a widow now.”

John upended his glass and annihilated what was left of the drink before slamming it back down onto the table. “Aren’t we all, love. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

She stood and shoved him abruptly, sending the tipsy man tumbling back into the booth. “You’re not excused. Pull yourself together, John.”

A crease came across his brow. “You know, I don’t think I’ll do that. I will continue treating this farce without the respect it doesn’t deserve.”

“We are all going through the same thing.”

“I spent the twilight years of my real life fearing this country would fall into a war with itself because a pack of ignorant dung-beetles could no more establish the value of human life than they could fly to the sun in a hang-glider.”

Her face became deadly serious. “Do not misunderstand who you are talking to, John.”

“Apologies, madam, but I do not misunderstand. The country did fall into a civil war after my death and I am most aggrieved to learn we haven’t learned a damn thing since that moment,” he leveled, motioning toward the television he had just turned off moments before.

Harriet reached across the table and grabbed for the saltshaker. She slowly unscrewed the top and set it aside near the napkin holder. There was a moment where she sat there holding it, as if making a lesson for John from it, before throwing the whole bottle in his lap, sending him into the air in a fit of rage.

“What the hell did you do that for?”

A smile once again crept across her face. “To prove a point, obviously.”

The annoyance had not subsided. He brushed at his pants to remove the salt and barked back angrily. “Which was?”

“That you cared more about me dropping salt down your trousers than continuing that childish tirade you were trying to hide behind.”

He finished brushing the seasoning from his zipper and took a seat once more. “Now who’s misunderstanding?”

“People are dying.”

“Well, I certainly hope it goes down easier the second time. People are always dying, Harry. They were dying then, they’re dying now and tomorrow when another war starts for insipid god damned reasons, they’ll be dying for that too. We were all born to die; some of us just have the indecency to try it twice.”

Harriet stood up and dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table in an effort to leave. “For the drinks.”

“Harriet, sit down.”

She did not.

“Harriet, please sit down.”

She did.

John took a deep breath in and tried to relax as much as possible before beginning to speak. “From what I’ve heard, the killings were Mr. Brahe, the insufferable Mr. Voltaire. That’s hardly proof that anyone knows that we—”

“There’s more.”

He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Who?”

“Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan.”

“I didn’t know either one of them had—wait, did you notice that all four victims are not American?”

“No. There’s more,” Harriet mumbled with a grave tone while shaking her head. “Alexander and Eliot were both at a police station in Los Angeles when it came under attack by around ten masked men carrying automatic weapons.”

His eyes widened when he heard what had just been said. “Say that again.”

She did not.

John leaned across the table, realizing the gravity of the conversation at hand. “Were they killed, Harriet?”

“Maybe,” she said, her fingers shaking. “That’s why I came out to talk to you. We are all in very real danger.”

“Then I welcome it.” He paused and motioned to the bartender that they would be leaving shortly. John turned back to Harriet and grabbed her hand, “I’ve lived two childhoods, two puberties, two first loves, and I have wonderful memories of two completely different sets of parents. There is no great miracle here, no great mystery. Some of us returned and some of us are already old enough to die of natural causes for a second time.” He took a sip of her water. “I’ve no desire to entertain anymore of this foolishness. Four of us, possibly six, have been brutally murdered and even that is beside the point of all of this.”

Harriet wiped a tear from her eye. “And what is the point of all of this?”

“That we might be trying to understand something we can’t. Look at it this way, Harriet. We have all been granted an amazing miracle, the gift of life for a second time—and yet, we are all miserable. We all lived remarkable lives and have nothing to try and accomplish with a second one. We are useless husks of former glories toiling away on borrowed time. I think that might be the point of this.”

“Break that down into English, John.”

He laughed and stood up from the table to leave. “I’m saying we all might want to start entertaining the idea that this is Hell.”

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