“An interview?” the bartender asks me, eyes wide. “So you’re the one who applied for the open barback position.”
I take another swig from the wine bottle. “A Grand Cru. Classy,” I say, lifting the bottle up like I’m going to cheers her. See? I know my stuff.
“And you’re drinking before the interview?”
“What’s the point in working for a bar if you can’t enjoy yourself?” A cheeky smile emerges from my lips. Now I’m the one putting on a show. “What’s your name?”
“Serena, and yours?”
“Do you have any experience?”
“Not really.” I just guessed the kind of wine you gave me. Does that count?
“Why do you want to work here, specifically?”
“One of my ex-husbands told me I need to get a job.”
“Running out of alimony?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Lie.
I never really understood that line. It was popular among mortals to say they were sorry when they played no part in the wrongdoing, if there even was wrongdoing to be had.
“No, you’re not,” I state matter-of-factly at her poor choice of words.
Serena gives me a phony smile while she says, “I think we’re going to keep looking.” Lie.
“I figured. Thanks for humoring me.”
“And it’s a Merlot, not a Grand Cru.” Interview over. Serena shifts her focus to the couple sitting next to me with empty beer mugs in front of them. My hunt for a purpose continues.
I set my sights on the woman with the laptop. She has a slight grin on her face while she meticulously types away, obviously having been eavesdropping.
Bottle of wine in tow, I plop myself onto the empty stool next to her. “You get to work and drink at the same time. What do you do?” I ask.
I get a good look at her face for the first time. She has dewy skin and kind eyes. There are notches of imperfections etched into her cheeks that she doesn’t cover up with makeup. She’s drinking some brightly colored drink from a fancy-looking glass.
“I’m a journalist,” she says, cradling her drink in her hand. Truth.
“Screenwriters and novelists taking up all the chairs in the coffee shop?”
“I come here for the atmosphere,” she says, gesturing around her.
“I thought it would be more about drowning the sorrows of writing about human cruelty.”
“Well, right now, I’m investigating the riveting and heart-racing story of a theft in a courthouse. Pretty compelling stuff,” she says sarcastically.
“It’s some statue. My boss thinks a bunch of sorority girls did it as a prank.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think it’s a stupid story that I’d rather not be writing.”
This is what I missed most about the mortal world. It doesn’t happen too often, but every now and then, I encounter a whimsical stranger and just talk about nothing for hours. Not that it’s really nothing. It’s the subconscious thoughts swirling around your brain that don’t really have a place in everyday conversation. You can’t just discuss your personal philosophies or how much you detest raisins so openly. You can’t even really plan for conversations like this. They just kind of pop up unexpectedly. I think that’s why she stops working on her story, because we have an opportunity to unleash our gooey underbellies, and they don’t often see the light of day.
And that’s exactly what we do. We talk for several hours. Her name is Starling. “Like the bird,” she tells me. She works as a journalist for some newspaper, with a circulation number dwindling by the day. Every day feels like walking on a tightrope because she doesn’t know if she’ll be the next one to get axed or not. The size of the room she works in has already been reduced by half compared to when she first started. Modern-day doesn’t have much enthusiasm for news.
Right on cue, I am reminded why I don’t let myself get too comfortable. It happens every time I forget about the plates I’m spinning.
In the middle of our conversation, a bloodcurdling scream echoes throughout the bar. It is from another bartender, the blonde doppelganger of Serena. I can’t hear exactly what is being said, but I know something is very wrong.
The blonde bartender paces rapidly, hyperventilating and eyes filling with stressful tears. She is clearly not making sense, and Serena puts her hands on her shoulders, attempting to soothe her enough to calm down. She tells her story in stuttered cries and gasping breaths.
The only word I can make out is body.
Nearly the entire bar clears out to see what all the screaming is about. Starling and I are the first to leave, giving us a front-row seat of what is to come.
In an alley next to the bar, a corpse is sitting upright against a brick wall beside a trash can. It is a man. He looks middle-aged, maybe late 40s, early 50s. He has white, sparse hair on his scalp. He is completely naked, every fold and spot on his body put on display for the world to see. The color is completely drained from his face, and he has a large gash right in the center of his forehead. Blood had poured like a river from the wound.
His body is covered in markings. They look like intentional, deep cuts. Someone tried to create symbols on his bare skin, but they were done so haphazardly that it’s hard to decipher what they’re supposed to be.
Whoever did this was trying to send a message.
People from the bar take out their phones and snap photos. Starling grabs a small notebook from her pocket and begins to scribble down as many details as she can.
The screech of tires breaks through the commotion. The police car parks carelessly near the sidewalk, and the door opens, and a man races toward us to take a gander at what we are witnessing.
“Everyone, step aside!” the man yells. The crowd splits down the middle like Moses parting the Red Sea. People begin to leave altogether, knowing the fun is over now that the cops are here.
“Kelso,” Starling says, recognizing the man.
“Starling. You’re not the crime beat reporter,” he responds, heavy snark in his tone.
“Well, they’re not here now, are they?” Starling snaps back at him.
He moves past Starling and me to question the bartender that found the body.
“That’s Detective Ryan Kelso,” Starling says. “A righteous cop and pompous asshole.”
It is all such a whirlwind. I’ve seen plenty of mortals die in my time. I saw gruesome punishments and death sentences being carried out, but there is something about this one, in particular, I don’t quite understand. It bothers me. It isn’t even necessarily the body or the manner of death. It is everyone’s reaction to it. People got their photos and left. Pedestrians continue to swarm past the alley, peaking a quick glance and then moving on. Not that I expect them to grieve for a strange man that they don’t know, but it is almost as if this is a common occurrence in this city. Among the bright lights and pounding noise from every direction, dead bodies creep up, too. It’s so commonplace that there isn’t much to think about but commemorate the moment with a picture.
I am lost in these thoughts when I feel it creep up once more. A lie.
The only people I hear talking are the bartender and the detective. The bartender had said, “I came inside as soon as I found the body.” That phrase had triggered the feeling. She was recounting the events that led to her screaming and making a scene.
“She’s lying,” I say to Kelso.
“What?” he barks back at me.
The blonde bartender’s eyes widen, still full of tears. Caught in the act?
“This quite frankly is none of your business,” Kelso says, getting angry. “This is an active crime scene, so you and your little writer friend need to get out of here.”
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the blonde bartender makes a run for it. She sprints down the alleyway, jumping over the body and any debris before disappearing around the corner.