After a quick breakfast I dropped Ness off at the local market so she could restock the apartment. She insisted since it was too dangerous to stay at my place that I would stay with her for a few more nights. This was the closest I’d come to cohabitation with anyone, but with the promise of three square meals and a warm bed who was I to complain. I left her to shop while I headed on over to the police station. Ness had let me know that Fred left a message for me at the Black Raven to come see her. No matter how many times I’d done it before it always felt odd walking into a police station of my own free will, there was always the fear that I wouldn’t walk back out. I nodded politely at the desk sergeant on my way upstairs, most of them knew my by sight and as long as I stood on the right side of the law, they usually treated me well. Relatively speaking.
Fred was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, obviously tipped off from the desk clerk. I handed her a cup of the finest diner coffee the city had to offer. ‘Gold,’ I said, mock toasting our paper cups.
‘Carol.’ She replied in our usual greeting. ‘I’ve found something on your missing girl. It’s not much but it might help.’ She took a seat at her desk and handed me a fat manilla folder. The name on the tab read “Oporto, Scarlett.”
‘Quite a file for the young daughter of a High Priestess.’ I said resting my coffee on the neat pile of paperwork filling her in-tray.
She wordlessly moved my cup onto the desk before replying. ‘From what I’ve read this Scarlett is no priestess, that’s for sure. Most of her stuff is sealed but I pulled a few strings and what I ended up with is a mixture of news clippings, eye witness reports, and a few interview transcripts. She’s in and out of here more often than you, James. In fact, the officer in processing told me they were thinking of putting her on the payroll.’ I flipped through the folder, scanning over the various clippings and reports.
She was right, Scarlett had been in trouble more times than I'd had liquid dinners. Her latest was a punch up outside the temple. According to the witnesses in the diner across the street, where the lovely Imogen worked I recalled, she was going to town on another young lady. The description was close enough to the missing Rosie to get me thinking that maybe all was not right in the temple of this friendship. I drained the remains of my coffee.
‘Vanessa thinks Scarlett offed her friend. We’re not sure on motive yet but I’m going to introduce her to Miss Oporto for a little girl talk.’ I could see Gold’s eyebrows raise when I mentioned Ness.
‘You two back on again huh?’ She hid her smile behind the coffee but her eyes were laughing.
‘She’s a very lovely woman, who happens to have some great insights in the field of detective work.’
‘She’s had some great insights in a lot of fields...’ Countered Gold.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Gold held up her hands in mock surrender. ‘Hey, just stating a fact buddy. The last time you two were together it ended up with you dragging her in here cursing your name. I’m just saying, is all.’ She had a point but at the moment I didn’t want to hear it. Ness did have a knack for getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, but Hel so did I. Last time it was the Russian mob and the only way I could think to save her was to lock her up, those thugs would have killed her otherwise.
‘Just keep your wise thoughts to yourself, Gold.’ I said.
I focused back on the case in hand, ‘have you heard about any disturbances around the temples of Hera and Athena?’
‘Not really, but there was a big rumble at Hera’s place yesterday I hear. Uniform was called in for a DOA, but it was ruled an act of the gods.’
I snorted. ‘More like an act of marble to the face. Did you know one of the priestess was injured as well but Hera managed to save her?’
Fred leaned back in her chair and looked at me, ‘I didn’t. How do you though?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? I’m Hera!’ I said posing like one of the marble statues at the temple. That got a laugh out of the jaded cop, but she soon covered it up with a heavy cough as another officer walked past with an evil look on his face. ‘Hera cultist.’ Fred said, explaining the officer’s reaction. I tried to keep a straight face but we both failed and started to laugh.
‘I’d better head off anyway, don’t want to offend any more of your law enforcement buddies.’ I said after we composed ourselves.
‘Way too late for that, Carol.’ She said as I walked toward the stairs. ‘You be careful out there though, I don’t want to have to sit through your funeral, I see enough of you as it is.’
‘Hey, at least you know my funeral will have an open bar.’ I said, half joking as I descended the stairs and headed outside. It was time to pick up Ness and head on over to the school, classes should have started about now and I wanted to catch young Scarlett unawares.
Ness was waiting outside her apartment when I pulled up. She threw a freshly purchased dress shirt at me before getting into the car. ‘What’s this?’ I enquired, holding up the light purple and white striped shirt.
‘I bought you some new clothes, you’ve been wearing that shirt for the past three days, and while I don’t mind your aroma of stale booze and stakeouts the people around us might.’ She said holding the dress shirt against me, sizing it up. I looked at the smile on her face as she talked about the sliming nature of the stripes and couldn’t help but feel a warm pang in my tired old heart.
‘I’ll have you know that aroma is a key part of my interrogation technique. Let them think I’m a low life bum and then, bam! I smother them with my shirt.’ I said playfully tossing the purchase in the back seat of the car.
‘Anyway, it doesn’t match my tie.’
That’s when she held up the light pink tie. Subtle stripes ran diagonally across it in a slightly darker shade of pink.
‘I don’t think so, kid. While I appreciate the effort, and honestly, I do. I’ve got an image going on here.‘ I said gesturing vaguely at my outfit as I pulled the car out from the curb and out onto the street.
Ness looked down at the tie. ‘What’s wrong with it? They look good together.’
‘What’s wrong with a simple white shirt, brown suit and matching tie? It’s classic, like me.’
Ness screwed up her face can sat back in her seat, arms folded sternly. ‘Well, I don’t give a fig if you don’t like my taste or not. You simply can’t get away with wearing that filthy rag a moment longer. When we get to the school you’ll be changing and that will be that.’
I knew I had lost and after many inaudible protests, conceded defeat and soon found myself stripping behind my car in order to change shirts outside the school gates. At one point I looked up and I swear the statue of Zeus was looking at me. Ness leaned out the car window and shoved a bottle of eau de toilette at me. ‘Don’t forget some of this, unless it’ll ruin your ‘style’’ She smiled sarcastically and I mumbled under my breath. After I had changed I stood before Ness and asked her if she was happy.
‘Very much so.’ She replied, tightening up my tie. Looking at the reflection in the car window I felt like a fool but had to admit the tie did bring out the colour in my cheeks.
The bright pinks and pastel purples clashed against my carefully curated hard boiled look and had me come off as a fashion model down on his luck. Ness kept slapping my hands all the way to the head mistress’s office as I fidgeted against the buttoned down collar and tight tie. The way she gripped my arm as we waited outside the office door I felt like we were parents called in to talk about little Jenny and her disruptive behaviour. It didn’t help that we were bickering like a nervous couple either. After a reasonable wait, the head mistress bid us entry and we found her behind a suspiciously neat desk.
‘Ms Valentine,’ I declared. ‘I hope you remember me, Mr Carol?’ I extended a hand that was met with a frosty look.
‘Rosie’s Uncle, or some such, yes?’ She eyed me suspiciously, although it could have just been the bright tie blinding her. Ness introduced herself as ‘Mrs Vanessa Carol,’ the overly concerned aunt. She put on such a convincing look of maternal worry that I half believed her story myself.
‘We had a few more questions for Scarlett if that would be alright with you Ms Valentine? James and I figured that maybe a friendly female face might help jog her memory about where our poor, dear Rosie could be. We’re ever so worried you know.’ I jabbed her lightly in the ribs and gave her a sly ‘cool it’ look. I didn’t want to over play this, the last thing I needed was Scarlett’s mother coming along and putting the kibosh on her daughter. Looking away from Ness, I gave Ms Valentine the best sorrowful look I could.
‘I see.’ She said with an air of distrust.
If she did have concerns about us, which I wouldn’t begrudge especially with the shirt I was wearing, she didn’t voice it. Instead she picked up the phone on her desk and simply waved us away with the instructions of, ‘you know where her class is, Mr Carol. Mr Strom will have Scarlett waiting for you.’ We thanked her and left the office, making our way down the winding corridors towards Scarlett’s home room. True to her word both Scarlett and her teacher were waiting for us when we arrived. I gently pulled Ness behind a corner as we closed in on the room, it looked as if Scarlett was outside in the hall arguing with her teacher and it was getting quite heated despite the hushed voices. We both leaned around the corner careful to avoid being seen and tried to listen in on the conversation. I strained my ears and made out the sound of our young Miss Oporto accusing her home room teacher.
‘Honestly, how hard is it to lock a door?’ she whispered harshly at him. ‘We could have been found out because you had to...’ the rest was muffled as Scarlett slammed her foot into a nearby locker out of frustration. Ness looked up at me and mouthed, ‘what a brat.’ I nodded in agreement, but was more concerned about what she was saying and how she was saying it. Their conversation had degraded into Mr Strom pleading with Scarlett to forgive him while she turned her back and ignored him. I decided to use the lull in conversation as a good time to make our entrance.
Both teacher and student were surprised to see us. Again it could just be the tie, I made a mental note to change back to my old brown one in the car.
‘Mr Carol? What brings you back so soon?’ He asked shooting nervous sideways glances towards Scarlett.
‘I said I’d be back, and I’ve brought my...’
‘Wife.’ Ness said, flashing a wide smile. ‘We thought it would be better if Scarlett and I had a good heart to heart about this whole Rosie business.’ Without missing a beat, Ness crossed the hall and scooped up Scarlett’s arm, ushering her outside. ‘It’s much too stuffy in these halls, we’ll be out on the grounds if you need us gentlemen.’ She gave me a subtle wink and the two of them bustled out of the hall. I was left sharing a confused look with David.
‘Quite forceful, your wife.’ He said opening the classroom door and taking a seat behind his desk. We had the room to ourselves and I pulled up a chair and put up my feet on his desk. I mumbled an agreement, ‘she’s got a way about her, that’s for sure.’ My shoes had long since lost their shine and dropped small flakes of black leather on the teacher’s desk, as if ageing before our eyes. Knowing Ness I’d have a new pair waiting for me back at the apartment, probably in puce with Ness’s taste. Strom interrupted my train of thought as he cleared his throat and brushed off the bits of old leather from his desk. ‘How can I help you Mr Carol, or are you just here passing time?’
I looked at the man, his meek face accented by the thick rimmed, black glasses he wore. He was hiding something, I could see it now.
‘Mr Strom, David.’ I said, removing my feet from the desk and leant in towards him. ‘It must be difficult being a male teacher in such a prestigious all girl’s school. I imagine that it must take some mighty self control, if you get my meaning.’
David stood up and was instantly on the defence. ‘I’m not quite sure what you are getting at Mr Carol, but I can assure you I follow the strictest moral code and have the full support of the school board behind me.’
‘Hey I didn’t say anything about morals, Mr Strom. Us guys have to stick together, especially when women are always trying to control us.’ I pointed at my shirt and tie, rolling my eyes. I put my hands behind my head and casually leaned back in the uncomfortable school chair. ‘So what was the argument about? With you and Scarlett. It didn’t seem to be about bad grades.’
‘You heard that did you?’ He said, dropping the defensive tone almost instantly, almost sighing with relief to share his burden.
‘So you almost blew the whole thing, huh? Must have been a big mistake to have Scarlett go off at you like that. Not the first time you’ve messed up either I’m guessing?’ I tried to add a sympathetic tone to my voice, play friends first then slap him on the nose later.
David collapsed back into his chair, defeated. ‘She made me do it. She made me take all the risks for her. I could lose my job over this you know? Hel, I could even be thrown in jail!’
I let him sit there quietly for a while. His head in his hands, most likely contemplating the choices in his life that had brought him to this moment. A good minute had past before he tiredly go to his feet and started pacing slowly in front of the class room. The empty desks his audience as he offered up pleading, apologetic mumblings to the gods.
‘Where is she David?’ I said.
He briefly stopped his pacing and looked at me, confused. ‘Who?’ He asked.
‘Rosie, David. Where is Rosie Oliver?’
He shook his head. ‘What? Why would I know where she is?’ His pacing continued, dismissing my question offhand.
Looked like I’d have to spell it out for him. ‘Obviously you and Scarlett were having a little teacher-student conference and forgot to lock the door. Rosie comes along and finds her best friend and teacher together. Not wanting to be fired you conspire with Scarlett to get rid of her. It’s not a new scenario in the human playbook, one I’ve seen a few times before. I need to know where she is David.’
David had developed a far off look as kept up the incessant pacing. The last thing I needed was him developing an insane defence. ‘David.’ I all but shouted. ‘Where is Rosie?’ He continued to ignored me and the question, mumbling quietly to himself.
‘We’ve been seeing each other for a while now. Not in that kind of way, I’m not some kind of animal. No, no we’d been seeing each other as Priestess and worshiper. Scarlett was teaching me the ways of the goddess, preparing me for the temple conversion. The last thing she needed to show me was the ritual offering. I didn’t want to do it she was a student after all, but she insisted that it was the only way to please the goddess. I was so nervous that I just forgot to lock the door.’ He looked down at his desk, his hand absently brushed along the woodgrain. ‘Luckily it was Rosie who found us. She understood. She even helped, said it would be good practice for her. I didn’t want that either. It…it just happened.” He finally remembered that I was in the room and looked over at me with pleading eyes.
“Then she went missing and Scarlett told me to keep my mouth shut. All of a sudden you turn up asking questions. We thought it was all over...’
I tried to digest the long rambling spiel that David emptied out over me. It was only half of the story I was expecting so it took a few moments to re-orientate myself. ‘Wait, so you’re saying you have nothing to do with Rosie’s disappearance?’
‘No!’ He seemed aghast at the accusation. ‘Scarlett and I have been out looking for her. She was supposed to join us the other night for...worship, but she never showed.’ He perched on the edge of one of the student’s desks in front of me. ‘If I knew where she was I’d tell you, I really would. Even if it meant being fired.’ The realisation that the cat was about to rip itself out of the bag hit him suddenly. ‘Oh gods! You’re not going to tell Ms Valentine are you? I’ll never work again.’
The man was on the verge of tears and I was on the verge of throwing up when Ness returned, sans Scarlett. She shot Mr Strom an evil look and beckoned me outside.
We walked silently and quickly all the way to the car. Once in, I ditched the pink tie opting for an open collar look instead. ‘Spill.’ I said to Ness when we had safely left the school grounds. She slouched back in her seat and put her feet up on the dash, dropping the proper lady look she had adopted for our little acting role. ‘Scarlett and her over friendly teacher Mr Strom there have been learning of the Aphrodidic ways together. From what it sounds like, Scarlett is the one doing the teaching. She’s a very forceful young lady you know. Told me I was too old to to wear a dress like this.’
I raised an eyebrow at that and looked over at her. Obviously my tastes differ from that of a teenage girl but I thought Ness looked rather fetching in the blood red dress, it’s bodice hugging her tightly before flaring out from the hips. Currently it was slowly sliding back down her elevated legs, exposing the tops of her black stockinged thighs. I corrected the car quickly as I almost drove up the curb.
‘Obviously not that old.’ Said Ness flashing me a sordid grin once I had regained control of the vehicle. ‘Anyway.’ She continued. ‘Seems that their party was crashed by none other than...’
‘Rosie Oliver.’ I interrupted. Ness frowned folding her arms across her chest.
‘Lucky guess. I bet you don’t know what happened then?’
‘She joined in on the festivities.’ I said concentrating on the turn. I hadn't meant to knock the wind out of her sails but it was a habit of mine to beat people to the punch, it usually kept me alive. She started to sulk. It was play acting, mostly, but I still felt bad.
‘Sorry, go on.’ I said.
She glared at me but continued.
‘Well, after that they were a regular trio. Offerings were usually at Strom’s apartment after school. As far as Scarlett was concerned it was all just a bit of fun, she’s not really into the whole daughter of Aphrodite bit. Unlike Rosie, who did take it seriously apparently. Made them offer tribute and do all the prayers beforehand. Then one day, poof, she’s gone.’
‘That’s it?’ I asked. ‘Scarlett didn’t get jealous of Rosie butting in?’
Ness shook her head. ‘No, I think she quite enjoyed it.’ That sly grin crept back. ‘Feeling like a dirty old man now? You should have heard the detail she went into, the girl has a filthy mouth.’
I ignored her baiting as much as I could.
‘Did she mention anything about where Rosie could have been or when she last saw her?’
‘They were due to meet up and head on over to Strom’s place the afternoon she went missing. Scarlett waited for her at the school and then again at the apartment, but she never turned up. Both her and Strom thought that they had been caught out and Rosie was grounded, or worse being held by the police.’
‘No such luck.’ I interrupted. ‘So then they went about covering their tracks and we caught them in an argument about me snooping around the other day. Seems like a bit of a dead end if you ask me. Unless you think she did it? Strom sure as Hel didn’t, not on his own at least.’
Ness thought about it for a moment before answering. ‘I don’t think so. Scarlett is a vindictive, nasty little so and so, but she’s no killer or kidnaper. Yet.’
We rode the rest of the way home in a comfortable silence, contemplating the strange world we live in. A world where inbred, all powerful gods reign supreme but we’re given some semblance of forging our own destiny. In the blink of an eye we can make that fatal mistake that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Sure, sometimes a god may push us in that direction, use us as pawns in a game bigger than the universe and drawn out over the ages but for the most part we are the ones who decide in the end. That choice to do what is right or what is wrong ultimately ours, free will even when we’re too stupid to know what’s good for us. Even if the gods are behind things it’s still us who end up paying for it, I’ve never seen a god take ownership of a mistake, never seen one show up as a witness in a trial. For those of us lucky enough, we get to live with the impact of those choices every single day. The really lucky ones drown our mistakes at the bottom of a whisky glass.
Ness waved goodbye as she bounded up the steps to her apartment. Peeling the car away I turned my attention to what was next. At the moment I still had a missing girl, a stolen apple, and three very angry goddesses on my back and some how I don’t think the Oliver’s expense account will cover my funeral. I needed to find out who hired me to steal the apple and hopefully switch the goddesses attention over to them. The more I thought about it the odder it sounded. Why would anyone in their right mind try to steal the apple of Discord? If Aphrodite didn’t come after you then the other two certainly would, it was a death sentence. We could probably rule out that this was a simple case of someone wanting me dead, most of my enemies would have just put a bullet or a blade in me rather than waste their time with a game like this. No, I was small fry and the apple was big league. I was stuck between a golden apple and a hard place. I couldn’t tell anyone about the apple with out giving away my involvement and I couldn’t turn it back over to Aphrodite because Hera and Athena would have my various parts spread to the four corners of the globe out of pure spite. The number I had for the client who hired me was no longer working, I’d tried it a few times since doing the job and it was disconnected. For now the apple was safe and so was I but that could change at any moment, the gods were not known for their easy going attitude and promise keeping. What I needed was an expert at internal godly affairs. What I needed was an inside man, and whom better to help me than Steven.