The diner was quiet once again and I slid into the same booth I had occupied on my previous visit. The temple filled my window and my thoughts as I waited for the same waitress to come and take my order. This time I could see the tattoos hidden beneath her clothes, subtle images of dolphins and roses peeked out under the cuffs of the unflattering uniform. You could be forgiven in thinking that these images were some pretty yet unassuming body art. Yet to those in the know, these symbols screamed out alliances and rank. The train of roses circling her wrists and snaking back up her arms told me she was a trained priestess of the Aphrodidic order. The dolphins were a representation of rebirth in the oceans where the goddess was said to have sprung forth. This suggested she was a late convert, sent fully formed into the order, saved by the love of the goddess. These were the most loyal of servants and were often used as messengers due to their high level of belief. I smiled at Imogen as she took my order, but she ignored me as much as possible. It didn’t take long however before I was graced with Her presence.
I was expecting it this time so I watched her shimmer into existence. The air rippled with heat, like a mirage forming in the desert, it hurt my eyes to focus but I persisted. I found myself looking at strands of golden hair as they flowed and formed around the shimmer. She gradually appeared, draped in a simple yet elegant white silk dress. It clung to her and accentuated her feminine form while also amplifying her boldness and presence. Had I been a worshipping man this is what I would have bowed down to, this woman, this goddess. Her deceptive form of a mortal woman was capable of far more than she let on. The energy that had radiated around the diner dissipated as quickly as it arrived and to an outside observer she simply came into being in the blink of an eye. I looked around at the other patrons, they didn’t even seem to notice, and my waitress simply came over and offered her a cup of coffee. The goddess politely refused, instead choosing to stroke Imogen’s hand sweetly like you would a close friend or lover. Blushing, Imogen excused herself and rushed off.
‘What was that about?’ I asked, once the waitress had disappeared behind the still swinging kitchen doors.
‘I just gave her a little gift from her goddess.’ She looked pleased with herself, like a queen handing out candy to all the kingdom. I felt the air shimmer and my nose picked up an all to familiar scent. The heady aroma of what could only be described as pure lust, but I was prepared this time and actively resisted.
‘I think I’ll pass on that for now, thanks.’ I said, moving my idle hand away from hers and fanning the air around me. She tutted through her pearl white teeth.
‘My touch is only for the true followers, James. You’ll have to earn any gift I have to give.’ She purred my name, and I’ll be honest, it sent an electric tingle throughout my body. Enough to ensure I needed to remain seated for a while.
A different waitress brought over a refill for my coffee, ignoring the goddess completely. Aphrodite didn’t seem interested in touching this one and soon we were alone again. I had taken a mouthful of the black liquid when she asked me what I was waiting for. ‘Let’s cut to the chase James. Why are you here?’ The question that let me know what side she was playing on.
‘Why am I here? That’s not the question I expected to hear from you, goddess.’ It was my turn to play coy. She didn’t like it.
‘Pray tell, what question did you expect me to ask?’
‘The one I had in mind went more along the lines of: ‘Oh, James! What worldly treats can I offer in exchange for the return of my precious apple and title of most fair?’’ My mock impression was the least of my worries judging by the look I was now receiving. It was similar to the look that Hera gave me when I interrupted her fight.
‘You. You have my apple!’ Her poor attempt at feigning shock fooled no one and I called her on it.
‘You’re not fooling anyone, cut the act and let’s talk. How long have you known I stole the apple? Pepworth tip you off?’ I drummed my fingers on the laminate table top. ‘I can wait all night princess, I have no where else to go, you saw to that.’
‘Alright, James.’ She said leaning ever so slightly forward in the booth. ‘I’ve known for a while actually, and no, Pepworth didn’t tip me off although he should have, the idiot.’
‘You were the one who hired me weren't you.’ The look on her face said I was right. ‘I’m not exactly sure why though, although I can take a good stab in the dark. Something to do with getting some of that old feeling back. A nice big scandal ending with you being re-crowned the fairest goddess again. Am I close?’ A noise that could only be described as a ‘humph’ escaped her bright red lips. She crossed her arms and pouted like a spoilt child.
‘Close enough to ring true. I’m losing worshippers every day, we all are. I needed a bit of a push, a headline grabber, something to bring them back to the temples.’ She stared out the window where the lit temple shone like a beacon to her followers. I understood why she did it, I just resented being the butt of it.
‘So you just grabbed some poor sap to peg the blame on or did you single me out because you like to see a this particular man suffer?’
‘It wasn’t like that.’ She dismissed the thought with a half hearted wave of her hand. ‘I picked you because I knew you would get the job done.’
‘Anyone can break into a high security compound and steal and apple from under the noses of a few dozen men.’
‘James, you’re so modest. No wonder I like you.’ She smiled, placing her hand softly over her heart. ‘Anyway, that was only half the job. The other half was keeping it away from Hera and that bitch Athena. Who else do you know with the will to resist two of the most powerful goddesses, especially when they would offer you anything.’
I let out an annoyed grunt. ‘The only thing they’ve offered me is a few painful hours before ending my life. I guess they figure flattery and bribery didn’t work last time, especially when they are up against you.’
‘Oh James.’ She said looking sweetly at me. ‘That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me!’
‘Yeah, well, don’t expect me to start walking up those steps every day for you. I’m my own man and no god is going to tell me how to live my life.’ I downed the rest of my coffee and waved for some more.
‘James, James, James.’ The goddess cooed. ‘We already do.’ She flashed a toothy grin and I knew she was right. I had been well and truly played. Without even knowing it I had been sent to do the bidding of the gods, their pawn in the cosmic game of who’s more popular. Free will is fine and all but ultimately useless in a world where your destiny can be controlled by any deity with the patience to care. One day I’ll just give up and sit on my bed for the rest of my sad little life, free in the knowledge that I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I sighed. ‘Let’s get this done with so I can go home and drink myself stupid. Do I just hand you the apple or does it involve some official ceremony with gods and sacrifices everywhere.’
‘You have it here?’ She said with a worried tone to her voice.
‘No, it’s in my office. I’m an idiot but I’m not stupid.’ She looked relieved.
‘I would have liked to organise an official press conference, maybe a party...’ I raised my eyebrows and gave her a look. ‘But, after getting to know you, James, I’ll be a happy with a simple hand over.’
‘Let’s do this then.’ I said getting up to leave. ‘Your car or mine?’ I asked pointing to the newly restored Buick outside.
‘Mine.’ She said and in a blink the world disappeared.
Melting around me the diner fell backwards into nothing and I struggled to stay upright with no ground below me. Alone I tumbled end over end into darkness, my senses were blind yet I could see and taste and smell everything all at once. If time was passing I couldn’t tell, and yet it felt like eternity. A glimmer of light began to form around me. The light kept building and with it a floor formed under my feet giving me a feeling of gravity, a direction in the void. Like the ripple effect that I had seen as Aphrodite formed in the diner, the world started to ripple into place. Shimmering furniture and walls came into existence around me while my stomach continued to churn around and around. Imagine being weightless and suddenly gravity kicked back in. Half of you thought was up was down and the other half thought the opposite. Soon my faculties returned, the extra smells and sounds I had been bombarded with faded away to reveal the familiar and comforting world of my office. I was home.
Seconds after the world stopped melting I rushed to the bin by my desk and threw up. A mess of chocolate chip cookies and black coffee poured out of me, leaving traces of reflux and regret in my mouth. I steadied myself on the desk, my head still by my knees in the effort to regain some composure. A warm hand ran along my back, while its owner made soothing noises.
‘Sorry, I forget sometimes that not everyone is used to travelling that way. You’ll feel better in a moment.’ The heat from her hand warmed me from the inside out. I could feel its radiant heat taking away the nausea and disorientation.
‘Thanks.’ I said softly, grateful for the devine help. Once I could stand I looked around for a spare bottle of anything to get the taste out of my mouth, that’s when I noticed it and so did she.
‘Wow, Pepworth really did a number on your office. Unless this is how you usually live?’ She looked me up and down, casting aspersions on me from across the room. Usually I wouldn’t hesitate to quip back but after the trip and surprise at seeing my office trashed again I had nothing left.
‘Damn it.’ I said wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve. ‘Not again.’ I knew I shouldn’t have tidied it up the first time. It wasn’t as neat as Pepworth’s ransacking, this was more the work of a very localised tornado or one angry goddess. My already shredded couch was now in pieces, flattened beyond recognition, save for a few shreds of fabric stretched on the splintered frame, clinging on for dear life. My desk was thankfully in one piece albeit upside down and covered in the twisted remains of a filing cabinet. The filing cabinet!
My stomach lurched again, this time from the sight of the empty spot where the hulking grey cabinet used to stand. ‘Damn it.’ I said under my breath. Aphrodite stood in the middle of my office, a golden vision in the middle of a dump. She was trying not to touch anything in the office, probably hadn’t had a tetanus shot recently.
‘What’s wrong?’ She asked. ‘Apart from, you know, the obvious.’ She said, turning up her nose at the mess around her. ‘Is the apple still here?’
I shook my head. ‘It’s gone.’
‘What do you mean it’s gone?’ She was starting to become displeased and I was ready to join her.
‘It’s gone. They’ve taken the apple, Hel, they’ve taken the entire gods damn safe!’ I was more than a little displeased to be honest. Looking at the gaping hole in the floor where my safe used to be I was mentally running a list of names who would be capable of ripping a ten inch steel safe out of the floor with what looked like their bare hands. Aphrodite stood next to me looking down into the black cavity.
‘I’m a little disappointed, James. I figured a man of your talents would be able to keep a little apple safe for a few days. So, how exactly do you intend to get it back for me?’ She stood, hands on hips, her beautiful grey eyes glowing slightly. Places about my body began to grow and shrink in a mixture of fear and arousal. I was most certainly a dead man. Even more so than usual which is probably what led me to say ‘how much?’ I shocked myself and the goddess even more.
‘How much what, James?’ She asked with an annoyed tone.
‘Well, it’s a recovery job now. Seeing as you neglected to collect on our first deal the apple was mine by rights. Now that it’s in someone else's hands I can pretty much breath easy, I don’t have to worry about which goddess is more deserving or who will inflict the most damage if I don’t give it to her. No, this is now officially none of my business unless you want to hire me to make a recovery, then we can talk.’ I walked over to the door and held it open for her. ‘Don’t let it hit you on the way out goddess.’ I was pushing my luck and my nerves were betraying me. If I weren’t holding on to the door I’d be shaking like a leaf as the goddess of love and beauty walked past, impossibly slowly, giving me the most evil of looks. She paused halfway out placing a soft hand on the frosted glass. I tried not to look her in the eyes as she scanned me up and down.
‘How much?’ Even on this end of the stick I knew she still held all the power but I had to make a run at it, glory for glory’s sake. ‘My original fee of ten grand with another twenty on top. Plus expenses, and you tell me where the girl is.’ I could see her mind running over, her perfect blond hair turned a scornful face into the classic pose of a runway model, beauty on the edge of sinister. I took a quick glance at her eyes, the usual grey was fading into a pale blue. I didn’t take that to be a good sign.
Eventually she spoke, an air of displeasure pleasure ringing through her voice.
‘Deal.’ She said. ‘All except the girl. I have absolutely no idea where she is but if you find her I’ll be more than happy to compensate you for your troubles. Good priestesses are hard to find these days, even ones in training.’ She left in a shimmer of fake warmth and smiles. I had to keep myself from falling over as I shut the door, eventually collapsing back against it and breathing deeply. I honestly couldn’t tell whether I was up or down in the great balance of things. Sure I had lost the apple and by now almost anyone could have it, I had even less of a clue where Rosie Oliver was being held or if she was still alive, and to top it off my car was now a good two hours walk from me. On the other hand, my car was fixed and paid for. I had a promise of sorts for enough money to keep me alive for the rest of the year and I no longer had three goddesses breathing down my neck expecting me to be a judge at the Miss Olympus beauty contest. It was a tricky thing to call. I’m still alive and looking more likely to stay that way for the immediate future, I think that counts the whole thing as a plus. For once, life wasn’t looking so bad.