I opened the door to my office and sighed heavily, it had indeed been ransacked but honestly these days it was getting hard to tell. Every drawer, cabinet, container, and vessel had been thrown open and in most cases smashed beyond repair. My couch ripped apart with deep score marks running its length as they tried to find where I hid the apple. They were thorough, I’ll give them that. Kicking the door shut behind me I made my way towards the filing cabinet at the back of the room, stepping over the remains of the only plant I hadn’t killed. I dumped my coat and hat on my desk, even it hadn’t been spared. The green leather inlay had been sliced in a large X possibly a desperate attempt at looking for hidden compartments, that or they were just assholes. The cabinet had been done over just as rigorously as the rest of the office, its drawers were spread across the floor one dumped unceremoniously in my waste paper bin. Being empty the cabinet was much easier to move aside than before and in moments I had removed the loose floorboards underneath revealing the hidden safe. It looked untouched but I checked anyway, the apple sat sound amongst a few other objects of minor importance. Its ethereal golden glow dulled by the spare sock I had placed it in. With peace of mind I put everything back in its place, even going so far as put the drawers back and tidy up the various papers and files that littered the floor. Despite the shredded couch and desk the place looked better than it had in years, I should be ransacked more often.
I made myself comfortable behind the ruins of my desk and took the phone in hand. My first call was to the local Chinese place for an order of the usual mu shu pork and rice, with the office and food taken care of I turned my attention back to the case. Managing to catch Mrs Oliver at home I gave her an update leaving out any mention of the visit from the goddess, but I did let her know I didn’t think the temple had much more of a clue than she did to where Rosie had gone. She offered to send over Rosie’s diaries in case there was something in them that I could use, I gave my thanks and again reassured her that her daughter would be fine. It wasn’t exactly a lie but there wasn’t any need to worry her more than necessary. My next call was to a cop friend of mine, I owed her more favours than she owed me but they wouldn’t mind helping to find a missing kid. For the past three months she had been riding a desk due to a slight disagreement with her new boss so she picked up on the second ring, ‘Detective Gold.’
‘They still have you sitting at that desk, Fred. A damn shame.’ There was silence for a moment before she replied.
‘Rung to turn yourself in have you, James?’
‘You first.’ I replied, she was always trying to pin something on me but we had developed a sort of love hate relationship over the years. For the most part she let me be if I didn’t get in too far over my head.
‘I mean it this time, James.’ She said in her best cop impression. ‘Linton Pepworth has filed a report naming you as the chief suspect in a theft of some priceless family heirloom.’
I snorted, ‘it may be a family heirloom but it’s not his family it belongs too, Fred.’
An exasperated sigh came down the phone line.
‘Damn it James, I can’t get you out of this one.’ Her voice suddenly came over in hushed tones as I heard her shield the receiver with her hand. ‘Pepworth owns half the cops in this squad alone. You need to give him back whatever it was you stole and pray to one of the gods that he doesn’t have the book thrown at you.’
I cursed my good fortune. ‘I can’t give it back.’ I said sounding resolute.
‘Why the Hel not? I assume whatever deal you had going fell through otherwise you would have washed your hands of the whole mess and be drinking your commission down at the Raven.’
She was right if this was any other job I’d have sold the apple off to some collector by now or yes even given it back with a small note of apology. Why was I hanging onto this thing? My eyes wandered over to where the hidden safe lay. ‘I don’t know Fred, something in my gut is telling me not to give it back. You know that feeling.’ We sat in silence as a wave of mutual understanding passed between us. I knew I couldn’t give up the apple and she knew she’d have to turn me in if faced with a choice. It wasn’t personal, it was just business. The silence was broken by an uncomfortable cough on her end, ‘So why did you call?’
“I need your help with a missing kid.’
‘Now that I can help you with. Which kid?’ She switched into cop mode, I could feel her sitting up straighter in her chair.
‘Oliver, Rosie. Been missing a few days now. I thought she might have been caught up with the Oporto's and the temple on Market Street but now I’m not too sure. They don’t seem to know too much about her disappearance, well the Oporto kid doesn’t at least I’m going to see the High Priestess tonight.’ I could hear her eyebrows raising over the phone.
‘You going to give an offering or two, James?’ She always had her mind in the gutter.
‘Purely business, Fred, I’m long past my offering days.’ I gave her Rosie’s particulars and asked her to keep an eye out for the kid.
‘I’ll put her out as a person of interest and let you know if she pops up in the system.’
‘Thanks buddy, I’ll buy you a round when you’re not trying to arrest me.’
She let out a laugh, ‘Guess I’ll never get that drink then! Take it easy though, you’ve fallen into something big here and I’d tread very carefully if I was you.’
I thanked her for the concern and promised her all the usual business of keeping my nose clean. Well, cleaner. The smell of my dinner arriving down the hall drifted into the office as I put the phone down. I checked my gun to make sure it was loaded this time and waited for the delivery person to rap on the door.
A few moments later three short knocks sounded on the glass panel, I held the gun behind my back as I called out.
‘China City, delivery for…Carol Hanes?’ I relaxed a little, they never got my name right. I pealed back the door gun still behind me, and saw the delivery guy was alone. The smell of greasy Chinese food permeated my senses and had me salivating. I handed over a twenty and told him to keep the change as I relieved him of my food. I watched the hallway for a while as the delivery guy left and found the floor silent. Closing the door behind me I made my way over to the wrecked couch and started on dinner, it had been a while since I last ate. I was halfway through my pork when another knock sounded at my door. Annoyed at the interruption and on alert I used the same caution as before, gun at my side. ‘Yes?’ I enquired cautiously to the young man who stood before me. His courier uniform told me I shouldn’t be worried but you can never be too cautious. ‘Delivery for Mr Carol, sign here please sir.’ He produced official enough looking paperwork and I scrawled a signature where directed, my eyes constantly scanning for something to happen. In return I was presented with a small but heavy package. I rudely shut the door and dumped the package on the couch next to me. Taking a mouthful of rice I prodded and turned the package over curiously, instantly I saw it was from the Olivers and inside were Rosie’s diaries. That lady doesn’t mess around.
Taking the most recent diary from the pile, its simple red cover boasted in no uncertain terms that the contents were private and I should mind my own business, on pain of death. I levered open the flimsy lock with the thick end of my chopstick and settled in for some quality reading. It was full of exactly what you would expect from a teenage girl, crushes, hopes, dreams, general bitching about teachers and parents. Most of it was uninteresting and didn’t pertain to the case at hand, that was until I got to the entries for the last fortnight. Here were full and detailed plans on how she was going to leave home and join the order of Aphrodite. As soon as her final exams were done High Priestess Orporto was going to swear Rosie in as her apprentice. In between these confessions were spread what I can only describe as love notes to the goddess, professions of love for all her beauty and goodness. Apparently she had even taken up giving offerings from classmates who weren’t quite sold on the whole Zeus deal. While reading through an in depth recount of her most recent offering I almost choked on a piece of pork. This stuff would make even Ness blush, and that was saying something.
Her last entry trailed off into plans to pass her exams and finish school. I reread the last few entries trying to read between the lines but it didn’t look like she had planned to run off at all. The opposite in fact. I chucked the diary aside and tried to think how a young girl from a strict Zeus upbringing could get so involved with the temple. Obviously Scarlett had a big influence on her but I’m betting it was more of the Acidalia’s influence than her daughter’s. I finished my meal and decided to rest up before heading back down to the temple, I had a few questions for Ms Oporto and I wanted to be ready for her. I slept soundly for the next hour or so despite dreaming of gods and gigantic golden apples. That Chinese food had a lot to answer for.
I woke with a start to the sound of talking in the hall, I listened for a panicked moment in a weary, half dream state. When I realised it was only the lawyer from across the hall leaving for the night with his last client I began to calm down. Stretching, I took the rude awakening as a sign to get up and head downtown. After a quick smell check I decided on a splash of cheap aftershave I kept in my bottom drawer. I may look like a bum but those temple girls had a reputation for a reason, no need to turn them away too much. The rental Doge creaked and groaned worse than an old woman struggling up a hill with a bad hip. Still it was better than walking and it meant I could hide out in the car rather than visit the diner again. The hairs on my neck prickled with the memory as I pulled up into a neighbouring car park. I killed the engine and sat listening to the cooling tick of the motor, the windows refused to roll down but they were heavily tinted so it was a trade off I could live with.
Half an hour or so passed uneventfully until the evening prayer group started to move in and I saw my chance. Blending in with the crowd as well as someone like myself could, I made my way up the temple steps and into the huge acropolis. The standard fare greeted me as I passed under the large stone archway. Hundreds of incense holders interspersed with flaming torches and bold statues of the mostly naked goddess. This was definitely one of the old school temples as most had ditched the stuffy high Greek feel in favour of a more modern, crisp look, but as I walked the long halls to the prayer room I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the Zeus upbringing I had as a child. A woman in long white robes carrying a pair of golden scissors was approaching men asking for offerings of hair to the goddess. When she asked me I almost said yes out of habit but politely declined indicating that I was on my way to the ceremonial rooms. She looked me up and down and gave a coy smile before moving onto the next in line. As the crowd flowed towards the various halls I surreptitiously broke off towards an area obscured by heavy red velvet drapes and a plaque marking the area as ‘Private - temple staff only’. I took one last look behind me as I pulled the curtain back into place and headed down the cool stone corridor.
They had forgone the clichéd flaming torches in the staff areas in favour of modern electric sconces, the orange glow from the bulbs cast shadows along the stonework. The hallway ending at a spiral stone staircase that descended beneath the main temple. This was where the temple priests or priestesses, depending on which order you visited, prepared for the coming prayers and offerings. Rumour had it that this was also where young women wishing to enter the order of Aphrodite were trained in the various ways to make an offering to the goddess of love and fertility. I quickly checked my breath and ran a hand through my hair as I descended the staircase. The stairwell evened out and I was brought to a large chamber lit above by elaborate candelabras and torches scattered about the room. The floor was a sea of silk pillows in various shades of red and pink set upon a background of pure white stone, the effect was one of instant seduction and romance, picture perfect for the goddess. Before I had a chance to further explore the chamber a voice broke out from behind one of many greek columns that spanned the chamber. I froze on the spot and again the voice called out.
‘Excuse me.’ It was not a friendly tone. A white robed figure emerged, beautiful gold jewellery adorned her from head to foot, one breast exposed by the cut of the ceremonial robes. It was a sight to behold. Despite the adornments I recognised her instantly if not from reputation but from the sceptre of the hight priestess in her hand. I had found Ms Oporto.
‘It’s desecration to be in here before the ceremony. You would dishonour our goddess in such a manner?’ She spoke plain and too the point, a deep tone hung in the air from the echoing walls after every word.
‘Speak!’ She commanded. I very nearly barked back at her like a good little puppy.
‘Ms Oporto I presume?’ My voice cracked. I cleared my throat and tried again, putting on my professional voice. ‘My name’s James Carol, I’ve been hired by the Olivers to find their missing daughter and I need to have a word with you in regards to young Rosie.’ As an after though I tacked on, ‘if you could spare me the time, high priestess.’ I bowed to one knee in the fashion I had been schooled in. She glared at me while she approached.
‘Get up child of Zeus, your affectations have no merit here.’ I slowly rose till we were standing face to face. She cast a wary eye over me before half heartedly saying ‘ask your questions.’
‘Thank you, Acidalia.’ I decided to play it safe and try the old charm and respect to get what I needed, for now at least. ‘I understand that you were looking to take Rosie Oliver under your wing, as it were.’ The high priestess regarded me for a moment before answering, no doubt trying to figure out who my sources were.
‘Yes. Rosie showed great promise and love for the goddess; she wanted to enter the order but I insisted that she finish her schooling first.’
‘Aphrodite doesn’t want idiots as followers,’ I concluded. ‘So she was going to run off and join up, just not anytime soon.’ This confirmed what she wrote in her diary so where the Hel was she? The Acidalia’s kindness was wearing thin and she was beginning to look impatient.
‘Is that all Mr Carol? I do have a ceremony to conduct.’ She gestured upstairs with her sceptre.
‘Just one more if you don’t mind. What about Scarlett?’ I asked.
Her face twisted into an air of disgust. ‘What about her?’
‘She seems to be quite chummy with young Rosie, probably was the last one to see her.’ I let the almost accusation hang in the air.
‘Are you suggesting that Scarlett had something to do with Rosie’s disappearance? What an absurd idea.’
‘People get jealous, Ms Oporto. Things happen, we don’t always mean for them to. Something simple like giving someone a scare because she was getting too close to her mother maybe? A kind of sibling rivalry that escalates into an all out fight, a sacrificial knife slips and before you know it a young life is ruined. I’ve seen it before and believe me covering it up just makes it worse.’ It was a stab in the dark, if you’ll excuse the pun, but it was something that I was considering. Scarlett did come across as the jealous type. A snort came from the high priestess.
‘She may be my daughter, Mr Carol, but that girl couldn’t care less about who I spent my time with. Rosie and her were friends, nothing more, nothing less. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a temple to run.’ She swept past me and gracefully ascended the stairs leaving me alone in the empty chamber. Before I could even contemplate exploring the rest of the space a young priestess descended the staircase.
‘High Priestess Oporto wished me to escort you out Mr Carol.’ She gave a graceful bow and indicated that I should make my way upwards. I resigned to defeat and extended an arm to the young woman, ‘Shall we my dear?’
As I was climbing back into my car I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck begin to prick. ‘Not again’, I said to myself looking around for the apparition of godliness. She appeared in the passengers seat beside me when I turned my head back.
‘Bloody Hel!’ I cried as I half leapt out of my seat, smashing my knee into the steering column and my head into the roof.
‘Ugh. Would you mind not bringing that Poetic Edda bitch up when I’m around. She’s such a bore.’ Aphrodite somehow looked more beautiful than the last time we met. Even in the dirty leather seat of the Doge her skin shone brighter than the evening star of her namesake. She looked at me with a mixture of disgust and curiosity in her piercing blue eyes.
‘Sorry, I forget that you all know each other.’ We sat silently for a moment watching the temple lights glimmer in the night, surrounded by her eternal glow. Eventually the silence became too awkward.
‘So, uh,’ I mumbled, ‘twice in one week, I’m flattered.’ I stopped myself short of swinging an arm behind her back like we were parking in high school. An idiot I may be but I didn't have a death wish.
‘I’m here because you ignored what I told you, James.’ My eyes were having trouble focusing on anything but her, with each word she spoke my mind screamed out how beautiful she was and I struggled to resist. I had seen first hand what happens when a mortal gets too familiar with a god, and frankly one curse is enough.
‘What was it you told me?’ I said, closing my eyes trying to regain some control.
‘I told you to stay away from my temple.’ Despite her tone, her voice was soft and sweet like honey wine.
‘This is your last warning, James Carol. Stay. Away.’ I opened my eyes cautiously as she placed a soft hand gently on my cheek and looked me dead in the eye, and in an instant was gone. Her heady perfume remained which did nothing to clear my mind. Through sheer brute force and desperation, I was able to coax the window to open a crack letting in the cool night air. As I sat there, breathing deeply of the fresh air the fog clouding my head slowly cleared and I was able to process the goddess’ warning for what it was, a death threat. A sobering thought. It took all my willpower to get the car into gear and drive, but apparently my head was clear enough to steer me towards the Black Raven. I was in need of comfort and I’d either find it at the bottom of a glass or with Ness and the Black Raven was sure to have both.
I had already bought her a drink by the time I arrived at the bar, the lesson here being never allow anyone but yourself to add to your tab. I took up the stool beside Ness and waved at Vern for the usual.
‘Ness,’ I said, taking off my worn out fedora. ‘You’re looking rather radiant tonight.’ She was, it wasn’t just the after effects of Aphrodite’s pheromones or what have you, although they did help things.
‘And you’re...’ she paused to look me over taking in my messy hair, tired frame, and collection of clothes that a charity store would reject, ‘as radiant as ever, James. Thanks for the drink by the way I told old Vern here you wouldn’t mind too much.’ The Vern returned with my drink and Ness beamed up at him.
‘See Vern, I told you James wouldn’t mind letting me use his tab. He’s such a sweetie.’ She moved in close and squeezed my arm tightly as the soft folds of her red silk dress brushed up against my hand. I let my hand drop to my side and ran my fingers softly up and down her exposed, stockinged leg. Her tone shifted from silly playful to serious and seductive in a heartbeat.
‘Mmmm, James.’ She purred, ‘are you getting fresh with me?’ I downed my drink. For now I was riding an aphrodisiac high and thought, what the Hel.
‘What if I am, Ness.’ I said looking deeply in her eyes. ‘I’ve just had a death threat from the goddess of love and I’ve realised life is too short. How about it, want to get out of this dive?’ I was surprised when she grabbed my hand in hers, blew a kiss to Vern and practically pulled me out of the bar and into my car. I barely had the wherewithal to grab my hat and coat.
‘I don’t know what happened to the old one but I’m liking this new James Carol.’ She said as we settled into the car. ‘Your place or mine, detective?’
While I hadn’t thought this entire situation out I did had enough fore thought to suggest hers. The last thing we needed was Pepworth’s mooks ruining a perfectly indecent night. Plus my lonely room screamed bachelor for a reason. We drove in relative silence neither of us wanting to ruin the tension with words, but our hands danced between gear shifts and soon we were in Ness’s modest apartment.
My aphrodisiac clouded head had almost cleared up completely on the ride over but my own instincts had long since taken over and I had went with it. Ness disappeared into the bathroom to do whatever it is women feel they need to do. I was happy to go right now but I was a guest and waited patiently. Chucking my old trench coat onto a spare chair I found her liqueur cabinet and poured us both a whisky. I had downed one and was onto the second before she emerged refreshed and almost covered in black lace. Despite wearing far more clothes than her I suddenly felt under dressed. Ness looked at me coyly and strode purposely into her bedroom. I loosened my tie, shucked back my braces and quickly crossed the small apartment following Ness..
In moments we were a mess of lace, pastel pillows, and shabby menswear. The mixture of alcohol, lust, and pure aphrodisiac reached a cumulation and in one heady night I had found release in the arms of a friend. Without meaning to I had given the goddess what she wanted, a sacrifice. An offering. From my pleasure she would draw power, a power she would no doubt hold over me in the coming days. For now though I could only think of the warm tangle of arms and legs around me, and I cherished it. I feared this feeling wouldn’t last long, but I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and lived in the moment.