Lucas Dubois chases down leads. It’s why he’s circled the globe, landing him in Virginia Beach. He sits pouring through files, sipping coffee, and bites into a cheeseburger. The diner, a retired rail car, is a postcard slice of Americana, red vinyl stools and formica countertops.
He’s an investigator with a focus on the paranormal, the occult, and other strange occurrences. Not Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or crop circles, that’s bullshit. What interests Lucas the most is The End of Times.
Lucas questions, if there’s a beginning, is there an end?
Be it the Wrath of Gods, a meteor, or another Ice Age, since the origin of man, we’ve considered our demise. Lucas is just another man searching for answers.
But here’s the difference: he knows he’s on to something.
“I’ve been all around the world,” he says, “and this cheeseburger is the best damn thing I’ve ever had. It tastes like home.” He sets down the burger, picks up a handful of shoestring fries and dips it in mayonnaise. He learned this somewhere in Europe, swearing off ketchup ever since.
The waitress keeps her head down but her eyes on Lucas while she pushes a rag along the counter top. She wears a crisp white apron with a name tag, Denise. She glances at the clock, the minute hand circling around, crawling to the end of a long shift. The job requires her to be on her feet for hours on end. She’s yet to show the bags under her eyes, but someday soon she’ll wake up, and there they’ll be.
“Where’s home, hun?” she asks with a hint of enthusiasm in her voice.
Lucas has been asked this a lot lately, or at least it seems that way. It’s gotten to the point that he’s not exactly sure. He draws a sip from his mug and swishes lukewarm coffee inside his mouth while the waitress wipes the counter clean. She straightens up the salt and pepper shakers and marries one bottle of ketchup with another. Lucas is watching the hands on the clock when he finds his answer.
“I have a room up the road,” he says. “It’s an ok little place, maids tidy it up real nice. The room service food isn’t all that bad, but this place…” He trails off, kissing his thumb and index and says perfecto, another thing he learned trekking around the world.
He opens his legal pad to a blank page and makes notes, underlining some and drawing arrows next to others. From time to time he stops to ponder, to really consider, and unconsciously twists strands of his shoulder length dirty blonde hair around his fingers. When the waitress says she has to shut it down for the evening, Lucas poses one final question.
“Are you familiar with the disappearance of Dr. Connor Kershaw?” he asks.
The waitress breathes a heavy sigh out of her nose. She flips the sign on the front door from Open to Closed and manages a half-smile.
“He was last seen here in Virginia Beach, back in September 1997,” says Lucas. “The case went cold, the authorities simply gave up, but I’ve been retracing his footsteps.” He pulls a photo from a manilla folder, holds it up and asks, “Does this man look familiar to you?”
The photo is a clipping from a newspaper article. The man in the photo is dark skinned with male pattern baldness. The waitress, Denise, is back behind the counter. Her hair is in a bun held in place by a pen. She takes it out, letting her reddish brown hair fall and signs a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard. She puts a fresh cup of coffee in front of Lucas and glances at the photo, a slight smirk creeping up her face. “No, he doesn’t,” she says, “goodnight, Lucas.”
Lucas enters the diner and sits at the counter. This place seems so empty, but it’s the off-season at Virginia Beach. He rests his glasses on top of his head and rubs his eyes, violet and weathered, battered crocuses after a heavy rain. He asks, “Do you serve strong coffee here?”
The waitress is filling his mug as the question rolls off his tongue. She doesn’t ask if he’d like cream or sugar, Lucas likes his coffee black. She’s seasoned, in tune with her clientele.
“Interesting folks in this town,” he says, taking a small handheld recorder out of his bag and plugging a pair of headphones into it. His ball point pen hovers above his legal pad and before hitting play on the recorder he says, “Did you know Neptune was only one of three Roman Gods to accept the sacrifice of bulls?” Lucas loves to tease small tidbits of interesting information. He wants to see how people will react, what they’ll give back to him. People have so much to say, it just has to be coaxed out of them.
The waitress smiles and turns her attention to the man who sits next to Lucas. This man says he’ll have the usual.
Lucas unfolds a newspaper, reads quietly, paging through sections and tracing his finger over the words. He says, “Tides have been rising, huh?” His voice is loud, talking over his headphones. The man sitting next to him is smoothing mayonnaise on the top half of his hamburger bun. Lucas, talking loudly says, “That looks really good.” He’s a sucker for a good old fashioned burger. “Maybe I’ll try one.”
The man sitting next to him is wearing a dark grey suit. The arms of wired framed glasses are tucked behind his neatly trimmed silver hair. Between bites, he watches Lucas scribble in his yellow legal pad and scrawl Xs on a map of Virginia Beach. When Lucas takes the headphones off, the man asks, “Are you looking for somewhere in particular?”
Lucas looks the man over. A good investigator can talk to anyone but is careful about what he says. He controls the information, the flow of conversation. “Just researching the tides,” he says.
“Maybe I can help,” says the man who’s now extending his hand towards Lucas and introducing himself. “Dr. Thomas Blackwell, I have a slip at the marina off of Pacific Ave.”
Lucas drops his pen on top of the legal pad and swivels in his stool to shake Blackwell’s hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he says. He points to his map with the Xs and asks, “Are you near Neptune Park?”
“It’s a couple of miles up the coast, I drive by it every day.”
Lucas is excellent at drawing information out of his subjects. He nonchalantly picks up his pen and taps it twice on the handheld recorder. Getting people to agree to go on record is the tough part, but this is a strong point of his unique skill set. People like to be helpful and Blackwell has that familiar look about him, that kind, understanding, supportive look. Lucas flashes a broad smile and says, “Maybe you can help.” He takes a photo out of a manilla folder and asks, “Are you familiar with the disappearance of Dr. Connor Kershaw?”
Blackwell pauses for a moment and says, “The scientist that went missing a few years back? Sure, I remember seeing it on the news.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“There’s not much to it, really. He was here to study the King Neptune Statue and supposedly vanished. There was an investigator poking around town, asking questions, and that was it.” Blackwell pushes his plate, fries uneaten, a pool of ketchup alongside them, towards the edge of the counter. The waitress smiles and refills both men’s mugs.
“King Neptune, exactly!” says Lucas, his dark eyes growing with excitement, a live one on the hook, “have you read much mythology, Mr…”
Lucas opens his manilla folder and thumbs through his collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, finds the one he’s looking for, and slides it over to Blackwell. He says, “Dr. Kershaw published this in 1996.”
Blackwell briefly skims the article, releasing a series of hmms and ahhs before handing it back to Lucas.
Lucas pushes the article back to Blackwell and taps twice on the picture in the clipping. The picture is of the King Neptune Statue. In the forefront is a pair of twin girls, olive complexion, black hair, beautiful.
“Some Roman Gods, Neptune, for instance, had two wives, the Paredrae,” says Lucas. He continues, “One wife was named Salacia, she is the forceful, violent waters. The other wife, Venilia, is the still, tranquil waters.” He taps his finger on the picture twice more and asks, “Do you follow me?”
The waitress is checking boxes on a sheet of paper attached to a clip board.
Lucas strokes the grey stubble on his chin and pinches the bridge of his nose. Part of his job is simplifying complex ideas and making it understandable to the layman. He reaches into his briefcase, takes out a black journal, and flips through pages upon pages of nearly indecipherable handwriting. “This was Dr. Kershaw’s journal,” he says. “It documents his travels around the world, visiting the statues of Neptune–or Poseidon–basically the same god.”
Lucas’ rate of speech increases, he’ll gloss over some facts for Blackwell’s benefit, then get the information he needs. “For decades, witnesses have been reporting sightings of twins at the Neptune statues. They mostly appear in tourist photos.”
“And you’re saying these twins, they’re here in Virginia Beach?” asks Blackwell.
Lucas balls up his fist and sighs into it. What he’s about to tell Blackwell is tough for most to grasp. When it comes to phenomena, the average person needs a little more. Lucas reaches into his briefcase, takes another photo out and lays it on the counter. “This statue is at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.” He pounds his finger on it twice and asks, “Do you see the two girls in the photo?”
Blackwell answers, “I see two girls, yes, but they’re not the same two girls that were in the first photo.”
“Precisely!” says Lucas. He’s getting through to Blackwell, now it’s time to drive the point home. He takes a stack of photos out of his briefcase and sets it on the counter. The waitress says she’ll be closing soon, she’s looking exhausted, Lucas needs to work fast. He sets a new photo in front of Blackwell and says, “This one’s in East Berlin, two girls, see?” In the faded photo, there is a set of twins off to the side of the fountain, they’re dressed similar, pale and old, Eastern European, maybe.
Lucas takes out another photo, this one black and white on an 8×11 piece of paper, a copy from a cheap library printer. “Fontana di Trevi, Rome,” he says. In the picture, there is a set of teenaged twins standing amongst a group of students.
He shuffles through his stack of photos, laying one on top of the other while pointing out the statues and the twins. “Bristol, England. Bologna, Italy. Gdanski, Poland. Devonport, Austraila. Kansas City, Kansas. Madrid, Spain.” He lays down the last of his collection, slams his fist on the counter and says, “Epcot Fucking Center!”
Blackwell is speechless. Throughout the explanation, his face remains unchanged, perhaps unimpressed. Lucas decides he’ll back up, he’s gotten way ahead of himself.
“Dr. Kershaw studied this phenomenon with the twins at the statues. He traveled the globe, mostly Europe, visiting each statue and interviewing the locals. But when it started happening in the states, places like Hilton Head and Sarasota, the sightings around the world became more frequent.”
Lucas feels both jittery and drowsy. He’s nervous with excitement. He points to the mug and the waitress, Denise on her name tag, pours him more. Without asking, he takes a french fry from Blackwell’s plate, drags it through the ketchup, and continues his lesson, talking while chewing.
“Dr. Kershaw was on his way up the coast to the Brewer Fountain in Boston when he stopped here in Virginia Beach, and that’s the last anyone’s ever seen him. The trail ends here.”
Blackwell points to the black journal and asks, “And what did Dr. Kershaw have to say about all of this?”
“He believed it to be a sign–disasters, droughts, floods, violence–Kershaw believed we were nearing The End. He didn’t think we were getting the message.”
Blackwell asks, “And you’ve retraced his footsteps, Mr. Lucas DuBois?”
“And let me ask you, just how far are you willing to go for the answers?” Blackwell swivels in his stool to face Lucas, leans in closer and asks, “After all, isn’t this very place the end of the line?”
Before Lucas can find an answer, Blackwell is posing more questions. “And isn’t that an interesting concept, Mr. DuBois? The answers.”
The waitress is drawing the shades down and turning off the lights with the exception of the lights above the counter shining down on the two men engrossed in conversation.
Blackwell asks, “And would you prefer to follow the footsteps of Dr. Kershaw and die, just as he did, with all of the answers?”
Lucas is the one who asks questions. He is the one who controls the flow of conversation. He’s here in Virginia Beach to get the answers.
Blackwell asks, “Or would you just assume a life of chasing questions?”
Aside from a beach town’s winter whisper, it is all but silent. Lucas looks around the diner. The waitress is gone. It is just he and Blackwell. The red light on his handheld recorder no longer glows. As far as Lucas is concerned, the interview is over. Even with that familiar look, Lucas has made a rare misjudgment of Blackwell, a man who talks in circles.
He runs his hand through his short cropped grey hair and answers him anyway, “There’s no difference.”
“No, Mr. DuBois, there most certainly is. And I do believe you’ve made your intentions quite clear. We wish you the best of luck with your investigation.”
It’s late Sunday morning, brunch time. Lucas imagines this old retired railcar once sang with the sizzle of breakfast meats, maybe a pair of sunburned twenty-somethings play oldies on the jukebox, sipping on malts. It’d be full of tourists who would spend their days soaking up sun rays on the sands of Virginia Beach.
Instead, much to his surprise considering the time of year, it’s quiet. But maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe a local will come in. That’s a better subject for him to interview, anyway. He takes a black journal from his briefcase, opens to a dog eared page, and studies the writing while running his hands through his shaggy dirty blonde hair. He asks the waitress if they serve strong coffee.
The bags under her eyes are dark and heavy, the way they get when you stick with a TV series for too long–waiting, hoping–for the finale.
She sets a cheeseburger plate in front of Lucas.
He asks for mayo, says he just came from a job in Europe.
She glances up at the clock when the bell on the front door jingles. A man with neatly trimmed silver hair wearing wire framed glasses and a dark grey suit takes a seat at the counter.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jason Metz lives in Somerville, MA with his bulldog, Karl. He’s currently procrastinating on a novel and but does an alright job getting words down for short stories. When he’s not writing, he’s playing bass with The Real Makers in Boston and Rhode Island.