Temporary blinded by the sudden influx of light, I was forced to shield my eyes with one hand and reach for my empty gun with the other.
‘Hello? Is this Carol Investigations?’ The disembodied voice was a lot softer than most debt collectors I knew and a lot more uncertain. If experience had taught me anything, it’s that most forgo formalities such as knocking and asking your name. Choosing rather to barge in swinging large wooden bats, if you were lucky. My eyes began adjusting to the light and I could make out the rough silhouette of a middle-aged couple hovering by the open door. The rounder of the two, a man, spoke again ‘Mr Carol, we need your help. Our daughter is missing.’
A sense of relief ran through me. Clients! They were exactly what I needed and the last thing I had expected. To be completely honest, what I actually needed was a new bottle of whisky but I could easily take these two for at a few grand upfront, plus expenses. I let the old revolver fall back into the open drawer and walked over to greet my prospective employers.
‘I’m sorry, James Carol of Carol Investigations.' I said cheerfully. 'You’ll have to excuse me I’ve just had a run in with a rather deranged, and violent man and I’m still a little shaken.’ I waved nonchalantly at the whisky dripping down the wall into a pool of broken glass, ‘mind the mess.’
Polite smiles shone all round as I showed them to the dirty leather couch in the corner and wheeled my creaking office chair around to sit in front of them.
‘So,’ I said leaning back, ‘your daughter is missing?’ I indicated for them to speak and waited for the flow of tears and sob stories that usually accompany such cases. The father began, his wife sitting nervously beside him her head bowed trying to compose herself.
‘Our daughter, Rosie, Rosie Oliver. We... the wife and I, have looked everywhere for her, friends, neighbours, family... Nobody knows where she's gone.’
His eyes shimmered in the half light as he struggled to hold back the emotions this sort of thing inevitably brings up. I gave them both my best sympathetic look. ‘How long has she been missing?’ I asked. The Oliver's looked at each other.
‘Just over two days.' He said. 'The police told us to wait it out, she’ll come home when she’s ready...’
I shook my head in sympathy. Sadly it was the standard response from our lazy local police, and thank the gods otherwise I’d really be out on the streets.
‘You have no idea where else she could be?’ I probed, ‘no significant other, aspiring acting career, older friends?’ I ran through the usual endings to these cases, kids may be new to this word but none of them have an original bone in their bodies. I was met with head shakes.
‘No strong influences coming into her life suddenly or changes in her routine? Has she been saying any different opinions lately, seemingly coming from nowhere?’ The head shaking continued, their unison slightly unsettling. I let my questions sink in, most people stop listening after a few moments as they’re still getting over the relief about finally being able to talk to someone who will listen without saying things like, ‘she’ll come back when she’s hungry,’ or the classic, ‘they’re kids, thats what they do, don’t worry yourselves.’ I watched Mrs Oliver’s face as she began to think about what I asked, I could see her mind turning over under the blond bob cut that adorned her perfectly average head. She gripped a lace kerchief to her breast as she looked up at her husband, ‘What about Scarlett, Richard?’ Bingo.
‘Scarlett?’ I asked, leaning forward. There is always a Scarlett, or a Helena, sometimes even a Betty.
The husband, Richard, shifted nervously, ‘I never liked that girl, too much of a free thinker for my liking. All these big ideas about women’s rights and how the world would be better when we wake up to the true calling or something.’ He gave me a searching look of brotherly solidarity that said "women huh?"
I ignored him.
‘Her mother is quite involved with the Aphrodidic temple in the city. She was always trying to get Rosie to go with her to functions and such.’
Richard looked at his wife, ‘you never told me that.'
‘There wasn’t much to tell, they were just harmless picnics and concerts.’
Her husband pulled his hand away from hers, ‘you know how I feel about those people. We worship Zeus in this house, I want nothing to do with those, those...consorts!’
Great a domestic, just what I needed. ‘So,’ I interrupted, ‘it’s likely that Scarlett may have something to do with this, it’s a lead anyway. You got a last name for her?’ I asked, reaching for a pad and pen.
‘O, something?’ the husband looked to his wife.
‘Oporto.’ She replied, ‘Scarlett Oporto.’
If I had a drink I would have spat it out. Most of these cases are fairly simple to solve, easy money, but every now and then one throws you a curve ball like Scarlett Oporto.
‘Scarlett Oporto?’ I asked, ‘her mother wouldn’t be Acidalia Oporto by any chance?’
The mother looked surprised. ‘Yes, that’s her. She works at the temple.’ The wife suddenly sounded almost chatty like she was dropping names with her book club. ‘Do you know her?’
‘Sadly,’ I replied, ‘I haven’t had the pleasure.’
I’ve known a few who have, mind you, but I didn’t mention this out loud. ‘She doesn’t quite ‘work’ at the temple though Mrs Oliver. Acidalia is the name given to a high priestesses of the Aphrodite order. The good news is that I have a pretty good idea where your daughter is. She’ll be safe for now but getting her back won’t be easy.’ I let the air hang silent for a moment, if I could convince them it would be a difficult job I could up the initial payment. The wife was the first to break, ‘We don’t care how much it will cost Mr Carol...’
‘...within reason.’ The husband interrupted, no doubt he’s heard stories about guys like me before, along with dodgy mechanics, and used car salesmen. Hey if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. ‘Well, my standard fee for a missing case is five grand, half up front. Plus expenses of course.’ I placed a well meaning hand over the wife’s and gave her my best client charming smile. She smiled back at me and nodded, ‘Of course, of course. Richard.’ She motioned for him to pay up.
‘Cheque will be ok I assume, Mr Carol?’
‘More than fine Mr Oliver. Just make it out to cash and I’ll send you an invoice for the final amount plus anything I incur during the case.’ I flashed another smile at the wife to seal the deal. While I watched Richard write out the cheque I was figuring out how to pass off my bar tab as an incurred expense. Reluctantly, he handed it over and I accepted a little too eagerly. I’ll be able to fix up the car at any rate I figured.
I must have had a far off expression on my face while I day-dreamed at the Olivers expense. They both exchanged a nervous look. Coughing, I pocketed the cheque inside my jacket. Switching to a more serious face I asked the couple for a recent photo of Rosie, and their contact details, should I find anything or have further questions. Mrs Oliver had a wide range of photos readily available and handed them over. Skimming through them I saw a happy young woman all of seventeen years old. In all but one photo she was either laughing or smiling, her auburn hair falling messily around her face and her brown eyes looking happier than anyone had a right to be. The only photo that stood out was what looked to be a candid snap of her studying in her bedroom, a stern, studious expression showed upon her face. Clearly she studied as hard as she played. 'Seems like a good kid.' I said aloud.
'She is.' came the reply from Mrs Oliver. 'Please find her Mr Carol. We just want our Rosie back.' Welts of tears began to form at the corners of her eyes.
I stood up rather briskly and politely motioned for my clients that it was time for them to leave.
‘I’ll start tonight, check out the temple see what I can find out from the regulars. Don’t worry about your daughter, Mr and Mrs Oliver. Little Rosie will be home sooner than you think.’ Despite their obvious worry, they looked some-what relieved. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries as I subtly helped them out of the office. Shutting the door behind them I leaned heavily against it, and pulled out the cheque from my pocket. It shone like a beacon in the darkness that was my eternal pit of self induced poverty. I could already taste the burn of mediocre whiskey sliding down my throat, and the waft of stale alcohol and cigarette smoke filling my nostrils. Sighing heavily I decided it should be business first then pleasure. Although if you ask me, those two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I took one last look at the cheque before putting it away. Grabbing my hat and coat I left my sorry excuse for an office and headed out into the world at large.
It was the middle of the day, a time I rarely saw of my own volition. Even through my heavily tinted sunglasses the sun was still too bright for my liking. People milled about running errands, seeing friends, and generally having a good time. I pulled my coat collar up, pushed my hat brim down, and walked through the sea of people, my tasks burning clear in my head. Car. Bank. Booze. Temple. Preferably in that order. Turning a corner I made my way towards the only garage in town whom I didn't owe money too. A quick word with the owner arranged for what was left of my car to be towed in for repairs. They could be the ones to deal with any of Pepworth’s goons still hanging around, let them earn their outrageous fees. The promise of a big tip kept my name out of any paperwork or snoops that should come past. With transport sorted I continued on to the bank to bring myself back into good standing. The trick was to budget and pay off all the urgent debts first and by urgent I of course mean who would cause me the most bodily harm should I stiff them again for another week. Within a few moments the teller declared me almost bankrupt again, save for a few hundred of walking around money. I hoped the Oliver’s would be happy to have their daughter back at any cost because my expense account was going to be very liberal.
It was almost four by the time I finished with my errands and I decided that happy hour was close enough, plus I needed to pay off my bar tab. Vern the barkeep was a good guy but not unaccustomed to breaking the odd bone over an outstanding debt or two. The glass doors of the Black Raven pushed open easily enough and soon the cool, dank world of the bar engulfed me. My home away from home. I sided up to the counter and set down two crisp hundred dollar bills on the bar. Vern gave me a silent nod, scooped up the cash and put down a bottle of his finest whiskey and a glass.
‘You’re a good man, Vern Taylor. A good man indeed.’ I said pouring myself a drink and toasting my server. In a moment I had downed the whole glass, its smooth flavour in stark contrast to the usual swill I find myself imbibing. For a brief, fleeting moment I was happy again. Money in my wallet, a case on hand and a liquid warmth in my soul. Life was starting to look up. Pouring another drink I turned around on my stool to take in the rest of the bar. Being early, it was mostly empty but over the next hour the bar began to slowly fill. Most were regulars I knew by sight, we greeted each other with universal nods of camaraderie and misery. She didn’t come in until well after five.
I had known Vanessa a long time but every time I saw her, my poor black heart skipped a beat. Not a big beat mind you, but enough to give a guy like me a thrill. Her hair shone deep red as the light from the door backlit her entrance. I sipped my whiskey as I watched the regulars pay her homage, waving and smiling like temple worshippers. Funny, in her green flowing dress she almost looked like a goddess, beautiful, radiant, and utterly charming. Like all gods though, she was flawed. I'd had the pleasure of witnessing her less than glamorous side more than once. Kid had a thing for horses and a knack for loosing, I’d had to drag her back home more than a few times, usually with some guy chasing her debts. She gave a worried smile in my direction, her hair falling lazily across her face. I returned the smile and motioned with my drink for her to take a seat.
‘Hello James,’ she said sidling up beside me. Her delicate violet perfume cut through the heady staleness that the bar swam in, filling my senses with all the wrong thoughts.
‘’lo Ness,’ I replied, sipping my whiskey and trying to play cool.
‘What’s it today, James? Business or pleasure?’ Her slightly worried look melted away when I replied both. She smiled back at me, ‘buy a girl a drink then?’
I motioned at Vern and ordered the lady a gin and tonic. We clinked glasses when it arrived, mumbling ‘Yassou’ and downed our respective drinks. She asked Vern for another and I refilled my own glass from the bottle. We both sat in silence for a while, happy enough to enjoy being in each others company without handcuffs or loan sharks for once. Well, there was that one time we both enjoyed the handcuffs. Although I recall waking up two hundred dollars short and having to explain to a very unsympathetic loan shark why I was naked and didn’t have his money.
‘Remember that favour you owe me?’ I prompted whilst contemplating the bottom of my drink.
‘That thing with the thing, that time?’ she replied, a sly smile cracking.
‘Exactly.’ I couldn’t help the grin slipping onto my face, but it faded quickly, ‘I need some info on one of the temple girls. Scarlett Oporto.’
Vanessa suddenly looked bored and slowly sipped her gin and tonic. ‘Why would you want to get yourself involved with temple girls, James? Women like me not exciting enough, or you figure there’s a cheeper alternative?’ Her distaste for the worshipers of Aphrodite came from a similar place as the Olivers’. Ness was an Athenian. Not a very religious Athenian mind you but she still turned her nose down at those who would give themselves away, for free at least.
‘You know a lot of that’s just rumour, spread by jealous virgins.’ I smiled to soften the blow and she scowled in response. ‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘it’s not like that. I need to talk to her about a missing girl she may have led astray.’ Any points I lost earlier by brining up the virgin goddess I made back by shining a dark light on the temple girls. Vanessa moved closer, our shoulders touching ever so slightly. I didn’t move away.
‘You're on a job? Why didn’t you say that before lovely?’ She practically purred and placed a gentle hand on mine. ‘I’ll see what I can find out. In the meantime though you need any help building up your expense account?’
I smiled to myself and slid over a fifty. ‘Go treat yourself, kiddo. I’ve got a few things I need to do.’ With that I finished my drink and gave a quick nod to Vern. ‘You’ll call me as soon as you find anything, yeah?’ I said to Vanessa as I pulled on my long grey coat. Her amber eyes looked up from under streaks of ginger hair, ‘you know it.’ We parted ways and I left the warm comfort of the bar, born once again into the cruel and waiting world.
The crisp evening air washed away the overly familiar sent of smoke and booze, refreshing me against my will. I felt warm enough from the buzz that half a bottle of whisky brings with it, so there was no need to hunker down from the cold. The streets began to light up as I walked the seven long blocks to the resident Aphrodidic temple. I could have caught a cab but I needed to watch my spending in case this didn't pan out, like the apple job. That, and I needed time to sober up. Just enough to keep my wits about me. Rumours are vile things but they usually start for a reason and temple girls are notorious for their rumours.
The night wore on and so did my feet. By the time I reached the temple it was near dark. I took shelter across the road in a late night diner and looked out at the up-lit, marble acropolis. Beams of pure white light shone skywards from hidden footings, bathing the crisp white stone in an etherial glow against a backdrop of darkness. The temple before me was one of the city’s most extravagant buildings and as far as temples were concerned, top third in the country. I often pondered the reasoning behind building monumental structures to the gods in a nowhere city like this. Despite all my staring I was no closer to solving the conundrum this night. Lost in my own thoughts I didn’t notice the waitress approach.
‘You want something, love or you happy to stare out the window all night?’
Slightly startled I turned to see a young woman in a pale blue uniform standing over me. I politely ordered a coffee, black, ‘and keep the refills coming.’ I said, flashing her my least offensive smile. She returned the civility and upped my smile with a coy wink.
First Ness and now the waitress. I’m not normally such a ladies man, there must be something in the air tonight. It certainly wasn’t me, my five o'clock shadow was thicker than anything that grew on my head, and my face itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The waitress returned shortly with a hot cup of strong, cheep coffee and a slice of warm apple pie.
‘On the house.’ She said, fluttering about like a giddy school girl. I mumbled a shy but polite thank you and gave an awkward wave as she wandered back to gossip with the kitchen staff. As I watched her leave I struggled to remember if her uniform's neckline was that low cut when I walked in. Shrugging it off I started to eat the pie, one eye watching the temple.
As the evening wore on, foot traffic up and down the full length steps slowed to almost nothing. I was hoping to get a lucky break and see little Rosie trundling up those marble steps along with the rest of the evening worshipers, but nothing is ever that easy. While I waited my waitress Imogen, who’s name tag I eventually noticed perched rather prominently over her ample breast, informed me that the festival of Apaturia was to begin next week. The festival was a fairly common occurrence amongst Greek orthodox worshipers. I myself have been to more than a few, offering up wine and shaving my head for Zeus and Hera. That was a life time ago though, a world I left behind when my old man passed on. The way I saw it, the world has enough problems as it is without the gods parading around playing with our lives like some child’s toy. Although ever since then I was beginning to figure out that ignoring the gods was easier said than done.
A deep chill cut through me and I instinctively rubbed the back of my neck as the hair there began to stand up. For those in the know it’s a tell tale sign that you’re about to be ‘blessed’ by a visit from up on high. I motioned Imogen for a refill and sat back, waiting for my brush with godliness. In the time it took for the waitress to freshen my coffee and walk away, she was there opposite me. Even if I didn’t already know who she was, I would have guessed since I had been staring at her marble likeness for the past five hours. The most beautiful woman to ever exist sat a table length away from me and all I could say was, ‘you should try the apple pie, it’s not too bad here.’
Now I’ve dealt with a few gods and goddesses in my short time on this earth and I wouldn’t recommend talking about apple pie as an opening line for your first tete-a-tete with her holiness. Her perfect, olive toned face pursed into a look of disapproval, but to be honest she couldn’t look bad if she tried. Long, black, waist length hair draped around her, flowing over her picture perfect, white silken dress. Parts of me stirred uncontrollably; the parts of me that made it hard to focus on the right things. As if realising the effect she had over me the goddess smiled sweetly and relaxed against the crimson faux leather of the booth.
‘It’s been a while, James. You used to offer me the most beautiful tributes, or have you forgotten?’ That smile seemed evil despite the pure beauty behind it. I swallowed hard and shifted on my seat, desperate to focus on something other than her.
‘What...’ I croaked nervously. ‘What do you want?’ I asked, awkwardly regaining my composure. ‘Obviously you’re not here for the pie.' I loosened my tie and took a swig of the hot coffee in hopes that the scalding pain would help. It didn’t.
‘Can’t a goddess check up on her wayward flock every now and then? Especially when they’re camping out in front of her place of power.’ She swept back a stray lock of hair, an affectation really, her hair was perfect unless she allowed it to be otherwise.
‘I’m not here for you, you know. I’m after a girl.’ I regretted saying it the moment it left my lips.
‘Oh!’ Her eyes lit up like clouds in a thunderstorm, ‘I’m flattered! James Carol is after one of my girls? You always did have taste, James. Which one took your fancy, the High Priestess? I hear she’s a marvel in the art of ceremonies.’ She pronounced ‘ceremonies’ like it was the most sensual word in the world, and at that moment it was.
I shook my head and downed another scalding mouthful of coffee. I never had this problem with Athena.
‘Don’t get your hopes up.’ I said, pushing all my attention to the bottom of the cup, ‘I’m after a missing girl, Rosie Oliver. Might have been led astray by one of your cultists.’
She clutched at her chest. ‘That hurts, James. Really, ow.’
I ignored the display. ‘So, you know her?’
‘Never heard of the little runt but you’re welcome to ask around, politely. Just stay out of my way and we wont have a problem.’
That was odd. I leant forward, pushing the coffee aside. 'Why would I be in your way?'
She flashed a smile that made my teeth hurt, but she remained silent.
‘What about Scarlett Oporto?’ I pressed.
‘What about her?’ The goddess shrugged and looked around the diner with a boredom only an immortal can possess.
‘I’ve got a lead that she might know where Rosie is. You mind if I get in her way and be a bit of a nuisance?’
‘You do whatever you need to, James. I’ll let you know when you’ve gone too far, but,' she said leaning in, 'by then it might be too late.’ With a wink the woman before me folded in on herself in show of white and pink smoke and was gone. I was alone once again.
The smell of her ambrosia perfume hung about the air, thick and cloying. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, sighing lustfully as it filled my lungs. Exhaling I forced myself to relax and collapsed back into the booth. Talking to the goddess felt like I was continuously swimming against a current struggling not to be pulled under and consumed. As the perfume slowly dissipated my mind cleared and I could begin to think straight again. This allowed my blood to flow back into more vital areas and helped reduce the heightened state my body was stuck in. After a while Imogen returned and refilled my cup, without so much a smile let alone a wink this time. Even her uniform was buttoned back up to regulation neck height. Whatever effect Aphrodite had had on the area seemingly left with her. 'Well,' I thought, 'that’s a blow to the old ego'.
I decided to call a bust on the temple watching tonight. The presence of the goddesses told me I was probably on the right track, but I needed sleep before starting fresh tomorrow. There was no more I could learn from watching behind cheap diner glass, and when you’ve conversed with a goddess the rest of the night tends to go downhill from there. I paid my bill with a healthy tip for Imogen and left the diner. Despite all the coffee, I was tired and decided to splash out on a cab home. A short, uneventful ride later and I arrived at my extremely modest apartment building, which was also happened to be the building that contained my office. Connivence and price drove my motivations behind the small box I called home.
Built several decades back and neglected soon after, the dilapidated building ran three floors up. The first floor was mostly open foyer and the landlord's home, an ideal location for catching wayward renters as they tried to sneak in after hours. As I climbed up the rear fire escape, a mild inconvenience that I had frequently come to use, I looked in through my office window and saw the place had been turned over. Not that it looked much different mind, but you get to know what’s normal unkemptness and when thugs have turned over your place looking for a certain golden fruit. I decided the mess would keep till morning, it was too late to worry about it. Mentally I patted myself on the back for taking the time earlier to hide my prize rather than leave it holding down a stack of debt letters on my desk. It did however make me a little more cautious as I approached my flat. Peering in through the window it looked to be untouched, not that there was much to turn over in the first place. I cracked the window open silently and slipped in.
Ragged curtains billowed aside as the breeze followed me in. The apartment sat silent in the dark, the small single bed shoved against the far wall was the room’s only occupant. I thew my hat and coat on the cheep mattress as I made my way to the door. I checked the hallway for waiting bruisers or landlords. It was all clear so I flicked on the light. The old bulb hummed to life and bathed the apartment in a dirty golden glow. I slipped out of my braces and fished a semi clean glass from the sink and settled onto the bed. The bottle I kept under my pillow was still half full and I had nowhere to be till tomorrow afternoon.
Watching the thick curtains dance in the cool evening air I couldn’t help but think about the way Aphrodite's hair billowed graciously about her shoulders. She had that affect on you, a moment together and you spent the next few weeks pining for her. Like most things in life, alcohol helped, if only to allow momentary relief by passing out for a few hours. Between drinks I wondered how exactly she knew I was snooping around. Forget the omnipresence myth, the gods are as clueless as the rest of us, only faith blind worshipers still believe that they are all powerful. Sure, some have a few abilities beyond the mortal realm but being everywhere and every when is not one of them. No, she would have been tipped off somewhere along the line. It was obvious in hindsight. Imogen. She was probably connected enough to the temple that the goddess was able to piggy back on her thoughts. That explained a few other things too. Faith is a very powerful commodity and in the wrong hands, well, that doesn’t bare thinking about. I’ll have to be more careful around the temple, that or forgo stealth and go in all guns blazing as it were. You never know, the direct approach might work.
After that last idea I figured I’d had more than enough for the evening and put my company away. I half-walked, half-stumbled over to the window, depositing the bottle on the kitchen bench on my way placing it safely out of temptation's reach. Through drunk and tired eyes I gazed down at the alleyway before securing the window for the night. Below me sat the empty gap between buildings, empty apart from an old stray cat caterwauling into the night. I took a deep breath of the cool night air and shut the world out. As I stumbled back into bed I hit the light switch absentmindedly and let my face embrace the cool comfort that was my pillow. Tomorrow was another day and an entirely new set of problems awaited me when I woke, but for now I was where I wanted to be, alone and asleep.