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Before I even begin to contemplate a winner I needed assurance that this would not come back to bite me. Each goddess was made to swear that they would hold my word as final and not take retribution against me or mine. They swore the oath on their word as gods. I would have preferred something far more concrete but decided to leave that one alone. My decision didn’t come lightly and I said as much to the four.
‘When Discordia here first presented this apple, she did so with the intent of causing strife and friction between the houses. To that end she has succeeded, twice over. For that I say she can not stand to claim the prize for she has already won her battle.’ The others glared at the goddess while her followers gave a mild cheer from behind the relative safety of their vehicles.

‘This leaves three, the original three who claimed the prize from Paris, the mortal chosen by Zeus, to mediate the quarrel. Through bribery on each part of the competitors in the first competition, the apple was awarded to Aphrodite...’ She smiled and stepped forward to collect her prize. I held out a hand to stop her.
‘That was then, I haven’t said who deserves it now.’ The goddess reluctantly stepped back, she shot me a look that many people have given me before, usually just before they were about to throw something rather heavy in my direction. I coughed nervously.
‘As I was saying, Aphrodite was chosen by Paris in exchange for the hand of the most beautiful mortal, Helen. While each competitor offered a bribe, it was this that Paris chose to accept. Now the question is, did he accept because Aphrodite was the most deserving winner and he decided to collect on the bribe or was he swayed by her offer? There is only one way to settle this.’ I paused for dramatic effect. ‘A swim suit competition.’

From the silent stares emitted by the goddesses I figured the answer was a resounding no. ‘Your loss then ladies, I look pretty good in a pair of speedos.’ I laughed at my own joke, but no one else did.
‘Enough stalling.’ Said Athena, her sentiments were echoed by Hera and Aphrodite.
‘Fine.’ I said, ‘be that way.’ I held the apple aloft like a winners trophy, my legs dangling over the side the of the alter like a child being asked to say which parent they liked best.
‘Since this trophy has been and will no doubt continue to be a source of contention amongst the three of you the only solution is to melt it down and recast it as three smaller apples, one to each of you.’ Yes, it was a cop out and they knew it but I couldn’t take them at their word, as soon as I favoured one above the other two my life would be marked even more than it was already. I couldn’t take the risk.

Athena nodded in agreement. ‘This is a wise solution. I for one agree.’ The base of her spear thumping into the ground to mark the point. Aphrodite on the other hand was not as agreeable.
‘You would think that, you Sapphic wannabe.’ The mocking tone was ignored by Athena. She turned her furious attention to me. ‘What do you call this James? That apple is mine by rights! You stole it from me, thus you should return it to me. That’s the only solution.’
‘Ah, but I didn’t steal it from you, goddess. It was you who hired me to liberate the apple from yourself. Discordia was the one who stole it from me, but she was working for you, so yet again, you stole it from yourself. Which tells me you don’t value it enough to warrant keeping it. No, this is the only solution that rewards each for their beauty and punishes all for their pride.’

‘You can’t condone this can you, Hera? He has robbed us all of the prize, even you!’ If she was a child, the goddess Aphrodite would be throwing down on the ground in a tantrum, calling out to her mother that life isn’t fair. Hera’s eyes hadn’t left me since I announced my plan, she look neither angry or annoyed, instead her face conveyed a deep contemplation. ‘I agree.’ She spoke, her eyes still locked on mine.
Aphrodite’s face practically shone, ‘I told you!’ She shot me a scornful look.
‘Not with you, child of Cyprus. I agree with the mortal. We have been blinded by this trick of Discordia, you more than any of us.’ She turned her attention to the goddess of beauty and love. ‘No, he is right not to reward one over the other else this jealousy will do nothing but fester and raise its head at another time. Each gets a reward and each suffers a punishment. Zeus himself could not have done better.’

I must admit, a comparison with the old guy himself was a compliment worth framing. I had to hide the smile that threatened to erupt across my face. Hera ignored me and continued, ‘my son Hephaestus, smith to the gods, will take the apple and reforge it into reminders for each that sometimes the gamble does not quite pay off as it promises too.’ I handed her the apple, knowing that she would be true to her word. Stuttering and lost for words, Aphrodite tried to protest the decision but was silenced by the gaze of her queen.
Hera pointed off handedly towards Discordia. ‘Athena, grab this worthless one and bring her to the Father. He will deal with her personally.’
The warrior goddess took hold of Discordia by the arm with a stone like grip.
‘What of Aphrodite? She has dishonoured both our houses.’ Asked Athena.
‘This is punishment enough. She has lost her trophy and seen it divided up amongst those she wished to hold it above. There will be no further discipline here.’
Unhappily, Athena agreed and with a final nod to me disappeared with her captive.

Hera now turned her attention to the Discordians. They were still cowering behind the vehicles hoping to be forgotten in this godly feud. Unfortunately for them, Hera was not in a forgiving mood. Raising a hand in the air Hera caused all three cars to melt. The gloss black bodies converging in a hot slag, fire burst out of the shattered windows as the upholstery burnt on contact. The cult of Discordia members fled from the warehouse, each not looking back in fear of being struck down. In the ensuing evacuation I could have sworn I heard Hera chuckle a little. Satisfied that her divine duty had been done she offered a courtly nod to myself and a sneer to Aphrodite.
‘I hope we don’t meet again, Mr Carol. It has not been the most pleasant of experiences.’ Said Hera as she began to fade away. I gave a mock salute to the disappearing queen of the gods and for once kept my mouth shut.

Soon the warehouse was empty of all but the still unconscious Rosie, myself, and the not so happy Aphrodite. This is where a verbal contract doesn’t do much to protect you. ‘So,’ I said, trying not to look her in the eyes, ‘that went well.’ My skin started to prickle with the electrical charge of the goddess’s power. The gentle breeze that constantly swept around her had grown into a gale force wind, changing her sweet, innocent look into something far more terrifying. Instincts cut in and I leapt to my feet as the sound of the cars cooling in a puddle crackled along with the small sparks now flicking from the goddess’s fingers. I scrambled backwards to get some distance between us, but stumbled over Rosie’s legs and tripped backwards. Aphrodite rose up over the alter, walking on air, stalking towards me. I knew I should have gotten a written contract.

I held up my hands to protect my face. What protection I thought my week flesh would offer against this enraged love goddess I don’t know, but it was all I could think to do. She was almost on top of me when I called out, ‘wait!’ She didn’t stop so I kept on speaking, it tumbled out in one long jumble.
‘Look, wait, I can explain! You won! The apple is yours for the taking now!’ I closed my eyes, my arms poised above me and I waited for the end to come. I waited and waited some more, but the world didn’t end. The burning smell of flesh, the electrical pulse through my heart, nothing. Cautiously I opened an eye. The goddess stood above me, her hair whipping about in the personal storm around her.
‘Speak.’ She barked at me. Her eyes were pure white orbs in her head. I shuddered and did what I was told.
‘Ok, look, I couldn’t just give you the apple, Hera would have done exactly what you’re doing to me now. And I’d have both you and her on me if I gave it to Athena. Right? So I offered the plan to have it melted down, knowing full well that Hera would give the job to her son, your husband, Hephaestus.’ I waited for this to sink in, hoping she would make the connection on her own. She continued to look at me with those blank eyes. I sighed. ‘Your husband now has the apple, and he’s going to melt it down into three smaller apples...’ still she didn’t make the connection. This was like pulling teeth. ‘Go to your husband, take the apple and have him make three smaller fake copies? Couldn’t spell it out more for you, really I couldn’t.’

Slowly the storm faded, leaving behind the pure goddess in all her divine glory. She looked down at me, confused. ‘You set this up?’
‘Yeah, well, I figured you were the rightful owner I was just worried about living to see another day. You gods tent to take things to heart a lot more than you think you do. You better head off, make sure Hephaestus hasn’t already started melting the thing down.’
Aphrodite regarded me, her head tilted to one side as if she was looking for the magical angle that would enable her to figure me out. Good luck with that one sister.
‘I guess I did pick the right man for the job after all.’ She said preparing to disappear.
‘Just don’t pick him again any time soon ok?’
The goddess may have let a small smile slip as she shimmered into the void, off to sweet talk her man and steal back her prize.

I laid back on the dusty floor, finally able to relax without fear of gods, followers, or missing kids. As I stretched  out on the cold concrete floor I shut my eyes and listened to the slow ticking the cooling mass of melted cars were making. At last I could breath easy, the gods are in their heaven and all is right with the world. I let out one big sigh and felt the worries of the past few days slip into nothing. Shit. I suddenly sat bolt upright, ‘bloody hel!’ I said out loud. ‘I should have gotten her to write my cheque!’ I felt like an idiot, and cursed my own inability to focus on the important things in life. Sighing heavily once again I decided that was enough self pity for one night. I pulled myself to my feet and pulled a knife from inside my boots and cut down poor Rosie. She was ok, but it would take a few weeks for the bruising to go completely.

‘Sorry kid.’ I whispered to her as I hefted her over my shoulders in a fireman’s lift. Seeing the cars had melted into the roller doors, fusing them shut, I headed for the back gate. As I made my way around the side of the building I could see my beautiful car sitting across the street, just where I hoped it would be. The fleeing Discordians had conveniently left the chain link gate open and I strolled merrily across the street and into the waiting arms of Ness. Together we wrangled the sleeping Rosie into the back seat of the Buick. Ness fussed over her to make sure the kid was ok, while I climbed into the front passenger’s side, reclined the chair as far back as it would go and instantly fell asleep. I may have mumbled something along the lines of ‘thank you’ to Ness but I was too tired to give her proper thanks as the car rolled quietly down the empty warehouse streets.

Chapter Fifteen...