I watched him from across the crowded bar. He was a small man with a thin, pointed nose. He wore a brown and blue plaid suit coat with patches on the elbows, a white dress shirt, blue pants, and ragged fedora. The close cut hair around his ears was greying, and his bow tie was fluffy and sky blue. His glasses were round and delicate, with thin, circular rims. He sat alone at a table in the corner. I’d been watching him for ten minutes and hadn’t seen him order any food or drink. He just sat, satisfied wife his empty island.
I couldn’t help but stare. He was out of place in the noisy tavern bustling with thirty-something hipsters. He wasn’t swept up in the current on social anxiety like the rest of us. He wasn’t sliding from herd to herd, explaining the importance and uniqueness of his day job. He wasn’t pontificating on the flaws in a movie he hadn’t seen, but had read a great deal about online. He wasn’t chatting up acquaintances about his new, revolutionary, scientifically enhanced, completely-unheard-of-but-soon-to-be-the-standard-of-everyone eating habit. He was quiet, alone, and happy.
I turned to the bartender and ordered two beers and a plate of fries. Once they arrived, I gathered the beer mugs with my right hand, snatched up the plate of fries with my left, and made my way over to the odd man’s table.
His eyes grew wide with surprised when I sat down across from him. He removed his glasses and began cleaning them with a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “C-c-can I help you?” he said with a concerned stutter of shock, looking down at his glasses. His accent was harsh and blocked. It sounded German to me.
I placed one of the beers in front of him and the plate of fries between us. “You look like a man with a story to tell,” I said with my best encouraging smile.
He folded his handkerchief with precision and tucked it back into his pocket. He then returned his glasses to his face, carefully wrapping the circular, wire rims behind his ears. With clean glasses on, he looked up to meet my smile. His eyes were grey, deep, and experienced. He smelled of peppermint and smoke. It reminded me of my grandfather’s pipe.
Fearing I was about to be asked to leave, I decided to slow things down and ease into the conversation. I sipped my beer and asked, “Your accent is interesting. Where are you from?”
“Here,” he said.
“Oh,” I said surprised and embarrassed by my mistake. “It’s just, you sound German,” I explained. “Are you from here, originally?”
“I’ve lived here all my life,” he said with a grin. He took a fry from the plate and popped it into his mouth.
I was glad to see him accept my offering. “What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m currently looking for new employment,” he said. “I’ve just finished a, um, a big project.”
“Cool,” I replied, drinking more beer. “So we’re celebrating?” I could tell he was beginning to relax.
“Yes,” he said leaning back in his chair, amused by my interest. “Yes, we are celebrating.” He grabbed his beer, motioned it toward me as a toast, and then took a long swig. I returned the gesture.
He grimaced and put the beer back on the table, unsatisfied. “I miss real beer,” he said to the air as he stared at his glass mug. Then he smiled at me and continued, “Thank you for the drink and food. I came in to… I intended to get something to drink… I just didn’t consider that my money wouldn’t be any good.”
“What?” I said with exaggerated shock. “I’d think any money is good money around here.”
“I’m afraid mine is, um, how do you say, um, irrelevant,” he replied. He then fished into his pants pocket, retrieved a handful of bills and coins, and laid them on the table in front of me.
The currency was like nothing I’d ever seen. The bills were printed in black, grey, and red ink. They were ornately decorated with faces I didn’t recognize and covered in a language I couldn’t read. The coins were gold and heavy with unfamiliar buildings and symbols on them. I held one of the bills up to the light. Watermarked faces and pictures were revealed. It was the fanciest fake money I’d ever seen. “Where’s this from?” I asked.
“Here,” he said, leaning forward to munch on more fries.
“Oh, are these like B-More Bucks?” I’d heard of a group of hipsters trying to launch a city based currency that could only be used in Baltimore. Something about encouraging people to buy local. So far, from what I’d heard, it hadn’t pushed past being a novelty.
The man laughed and shook his head. “No,” he said. “They aren’t B-More Bucks. This is real money. Real currency. From here.” He sighed and smiled. “But no one wants it anymore.”
Intrigued by this strange man, I sat up in my chair and ventured forward in the conversation. “So tell me about your project. What are we celebrating?”
The man leaned in, looked left and right to ensure no one else was listening, and then said to me in an excited whisper, “I killed Muller.” Then he sat back and waited for me to celebrate his victory with him.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Nervous I’d just heard a horrible confession, I replied with caution, “Who is Muller?”
“Exactly,” he said, nodding excitedly.
“Is he your neighbor? Or a friend? Or maybe your wife’s lover?”
He laughed loudly. “I am not married,” he said. “But this is a good joke.”
“I’m confused,” I said raising my hands in surrender. “Who’s Muller?”
“This is my victory,” he said with glee. “You do not know Muller. This is what we are celebrating. You do not know Muller.”
“And you killed him? We are celebrating because you killed a man I don’t know?”
“Because,” he corrected. “Because I killed him. You don’t know Muller because I went back and killed him.” His smile grew to fill his face. His pride and joy was infectious. I felt strange celebrating the death of a stranger, but the odd man across from me was so happy; it was hard not to join him in his victory.
“How’d you do it?” I said, playing along.
“Each one has required a unique touch,” the man said with pride. “For Muller, it took years of searching. I didn’t find him until he was a young teen. They grow harder to kill the older they become. For Muller, I waited outside his school until one day, when he was walking home alone. Then I pushed him off a bridge.” The man clapped his hands with joy and laughed. “Right off the side of the bridge.”
I forced a nervous laugh in return. “So you said ‘each one.’ ‘Each one’ means more than one? You’ve killed more than one man?”
“Seven,” he said matter-a-factly as he ate more fries. “The first was Schmidt. Schmidt was a monster. He’s the one that inspired my invention in the first place. But then I came home and there was Schneider. Schneider was worse than Schmidt. Much, much worse. So I went back again. Only then when I came back there was Schafer. So I went back again. Schafer was replaced by Wagner, then Wagner by Becker, then Becker by Hoffmann, then Hoffmann by Muller. But I think now, I think I am done. This time looks like a good time,” he said looking around the room. “I think I like this time. I think I am done now.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said laughing, wondering if this old man was pulling a prank on me. “So ‘invention’, ‘going back’, ‘coming home’,” I said emphasizing his words. “Are you trying to tell me that you created some kind of time machine?”
“Yes,” he replied. He removed his handkerchief and glasses and began cleaning them again. “I thought,” he started. “I believed I could…” He shook his head and sighed. “You must understand. My time, it was bad. Things were bad. They needed fixing. But the balance of power was so out of whack, I couldn’t fix them in the here and now. So I went to then, to back then, to when they went off course, to when the monster took charge. And back then I fixed them. Back then, not here. Not now. But then? Do you understand? I fixed them back then by erasing the monster before he came to power.” He paused and took a long swig of his beer and then began to confide in me again. “What I didn’t understand at first,” he said. “What I missed, was that in the right conditions a monster will emerge. There is never a shortage of monsters.”
I nodded in response, faking belief, still unsure if this strange man was insane or putting me on. Was this his thing? Did he come to bars dressed in odd clothes hoping someone would buy him a beer so he could then lure them in with crazy stories of killing and time travel?
The man ate more fries. He pointed one at me and continued, “You know, Schafer wasn’t half bad. In comparison to the others that is. I feel a little bad about that one. But I didn’t know then what I know now.” He ate the fry and took another swig of his beer. “I was idealistic then. Naïve even. I thought I could make it perfect. But there’s always a monster. If the world is right, there’s always a monster.”
Sure now that the man was nuts, I decided to play along. I finished my beer and said, “If you were going to go back in time to kill someone, I’d think you go back and kill Hitler. I mean, if I had a time machine, that’s what’d I’d do. I’d kill Hitler.”
The man smiled knowingly, replaced his glasses, carefully wrapping the wire frames behind his ears. Then he looked at me and said, “Hitler would make eight.”