Vote for Mithras, Part One
May, suburban Washington. Peter Willingham’s favorite time of year. The sticky heat of DC’s summer wasn’t yet a worry, and the dreary winter months had rapidly become a faded memory in the green, blooming face of nature and the spring thunderstorms that rolled in like freight trains.
Peter was between jobs, though he had no concerns that moved him beyond the confines of his house in Bethesda, or the warm, sunny patio of Authentic Pho on Georgia Avenue, overlooking the train bridge in south Silver Spring. A campaign fixer, he came at a high price and invested his money well. As with so many folks steeped in the politics of DC and the nation, he knew that the waves could only break one of two ways. He’d be a lifer, doddering around on a cane dispensing wit and outdated wisdom, or he would freak out and go live in a cabin in Idaho. Either way, it would be best to build a nest egg as soon as possible and be ready for the collapse…or the long, grinding, scotch-fueled health problems of age.
Though the last 20 years had been interesting. He’d worked on the campaign for President Bob Webb. Both terms. A president who presided over the rise of the Old Gods. And who allowed them to become citizens. Something that didn’t sit well with Peter – or with most of the world. But Peter’s job was to get them into office. After that, if they blew up the planet, well… It wasn’t really on his hands. A job’s a job and it ends with the last paycheck. That’s what his grandfather had taught him when he was a kid and, even in his complicated world of political shenanigans, he tried to apply the simplistic rules of that old America.
So why was he here? Meeting Karl Bauer at a dive restaurant in Silver Spring? Of all people to call… The man who spoke for Mithras. He even called himself a high priest and dressed in period costume. Of course, more and more people were doing so these days. Where Karl and his ilk would have been laughed at once, now they had serious backing. The Old Gods loved their gold. Maybe that’s why he took the call. It was an easy paycheck. And he was bored. No better solution than to see what the Mithras campaign had on offer.
The Authentic Pho restaurant was one of the eccentric holdovers in the now-redefined Silver Spring. One of the few remaining old train town buildings, now surrounded by new high-rises and glittering towers. Where once freight and passenger trains rumbled by on aging tracks, a high-speed modern train now screamed by every half hour. President Webb had done some things right. Realizing the bare bones of a goal set forward by his predecessors, the 2030’s looked to be a new golden age. Half the buildings in new Silver Spring produced their own power, and the streets were filled with walkers, bikers, and sleek new electric cars. Peter remembered his childhood in the area. The 90’s and early part of the century. All those images were long gone – the old buildings of a faintly run-down Silver Spring, cars belching gasoline, people fat and rarely on foot. A dead America.
And he hung his head at that though. He’d become the equivalent of his grandfather pointing at an office park and saying, “That was all fields when I was a kid.” Authentic Pho used to be 391 Saigon, and, before that, the Lotus Café and, back when he was born, My Le. His mother’s favorite spot. Always a Vietnamese restaurant… Maybe the place was a fixed point in time or something. The building had a 200 year lease, held by a major Washingtonian family since 1932. It was a holdout because that family refused to sell out.
Peter scribbled a note on his cocktail napkin. He was planning to write a book on Silver Spring, and the changes that the last 30 years had seen. Authentic Pho would be chapter one. Mainly because it was the only place left standing where he could comfortably get drunk. It was always mysteriously empty, and always had the same bartender – a woman now about ten years older than Peter who had worked the bar since he was 20. She never measured her pours and was aggressively anti-social to the pencil-necks or frat boys who wandered in looking to infect yet another bar with their expectations.
You don’t go to Authentic Pho to eat. You go to drink. Sitting in their miserable bar, fans playing lazily overhead, feeling as if you travelled back to 1968 Saigon. Or, in the finer months, out on their multi-tiered deck watching the bullet trains and the people. Drinking beneath the brutal sun and getting that Mediterranean sun-crazed drunk after just a handful of beers. Which is just about where Peter was when Karl Bauer swept into the bar area, stumbled back in surprise as the bartender jumped and brandished a knife, then saw Peter through the side door. He started to head out, but the diminutive bartender was standing in front of him before he could cross the threshold.
“No drink, no patio!” she screamed.
Peter shook his head, then called down to Karl, “Get us a couple of beers, would you?”
“Uh…” Karl looked from Peter to the bartender.
“Actually,” Peter said, “get four or five beers. There’s no service out here.”
The bartender narrowed her eyes.
“What sort of beer?” Karl called back.
“You buy?” the bartender hissed.
“Yes or no! Is yes or no question!”
“Good! Cash up front. No tab!” she pointed at a sign written in Vietnamese.
Peter watched another train go by, jotted down a few notes, and then turned as a dazed Karl walked out with six bottles of beer, holding each one by the neck between his fingers. He liked the lunatic straight away.
“Have fun in there?”
“This place is looped.”
“Oh, Karl, I think it’s charming. Especially on a day like this.”
“Been here long?” Karl nodded to the eight empty bottles in front of Peter.
“Nothing like a good Tuesday afternoon drunk, Karl. It makes the world go around.”
“Not quite the sort of image one would like to present to one’s employer, though…”
“One might not care what one’s potential employer thought if one thought one’s potential employer was a crackpot and one didn’t have anything to lose. Would one?”
“Is that what you think?”
“Yes, Karl, it is.”
“So why agree to meet me?”
“Why complain about my drinking just after you bought six bottles of beer?”
Karl smiled and put the bottles on the table, sitting down opposite Peter. “Because that woman in there scared me.”
“That may also explain why I’ve drunk so much today. She comes out every half hour with another beer and a skinning knife. I just sit here silently and try not to make eye contact.”
“It’s a wonder she keeps her job.”
“She’s always been here. She was beautiful once…before the Red Shift that brought the Martian moons into Earth orbit.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Oh, that hasn’t happened yet.”
“The insanity thing is also a questionable tactic.”
Peter grinned, “Karl, you’re dressed like hippie Jesus at a Victorian beach and you’re working for a horned half-beast god. I think we need to approach today’s interview as if we’re not in a board room, and, instead, plan to embrace our brave, new world. Or…brave, new, ancient world, I guess.”
Karl nodded, sipped at a beer, then sighed. “It is nice out here.”
“Nice.” Peter sneered at the word, then turned his head towards the sky, the thin white clouds and brilliant blue reflecting in his green-tinted sunglasses. “Yeah, it is.”
“I’ll cut to it, then. Can you get Mithras into the White House?”