The door of the bakery hung open, the broken steel lock twisted and gaping, like the maw of some felled beast. It was the back door, used mainly for deliveries for bulk ingredients, and it opened on to the inky dark of an alley way. The light over the door had been smashed too, and the starlight from the smog covered city sky didn't help much with illumination.
She heard the footsteps approaching before she saw the dim beam of a flashlight, followed by the man in the rumpled sport coat, shirt and jeans. His shaggy brown hair was only a bit less unkempt than his clothes. It curled around a face that looked far too young to be an experienced private detective, even covered with rough stubble. The eyes however betrayed something of the man that wore the boyish face, intelligent, tenacious, feral? Maybe. Elle had said he was more than he appeared to be. And that she could trust him.
"If anyone can help you find what was stolen it's him."
Elle hadn't asked and Dora hadn't volunteered what the stolen item was. Not to the police, who were here earlier, and not to the private detective.
"Let me get this straight, you want me to find a stolen item, but you can't tell me what it is?"
"Precisely. I was told your abilities to handle difficult cases were...uncanny."
The detective had snorted. "Well, it's not like this is the strangest request I ever had," he'd replied, taking a cigarette from his pocket and sticking it between his lips. He'd been about to light it when Dora pointed to the wall of the bakery. Below the painted logo with the words Dora's Delights written in bright script, was a sign that read 'No Smoking' in black, bold letters. He'd grunted at that but plucked the cigarette from his lips, before starting his routine questions.
Enemies. Rivals. Jilted lovers.
If he only knew the half of it! Enough to fill several lifetimes and then some. Even she couldn't keep track of it. Her memories blurred together, fact and fiction, mixing and mingling into a shroud of myth, glazing her brain. Sometimes there would be clarity, albeit too late.
That had been maybe thirty minutes ago. More or less. Keeping track of time was something Dora didn't bother with anymore. Now the detective was standing in front of her, scrawling something on the back of a card, which he passed to her.
"You think of anything else, even if you don't think it's important, give me a call."
She watched him leave, letting him out through the front door this time, and then sat down at a small corner table. She hadn't always been a baker. She'd been a scientist once. When asked why she switched, she'd said baking was like chemistry but a lot more fun. She was good at it too. But that wasn't what made her treats special. It was the secret ingredient. She hadn't always used it, hadn't meant to but then the pandemic had hit and the economy had gone to shit, and well, people needed something. Something to make them smile, to tide them over, to see them through. People needed hope. She closed her eyes and tried to remember. She'd been here before. She could feel the memory floating on the edge of her conscious mind. But if she tried too hard to grasp it, it would shatter, like spun sugar, handled too roughly. It had to come on it's own. She twirled the detective's card between her fingers, hoping it would come soon.
Detective Legend stared out over the city, tiny points of light in a black sea. His cigarette glowed orange, competing with the night and all the other lights for purchase. He exhaled the smoke slowly, then spoke.
"You agree, Vik?" He asked the shadow that had slithered up behind him, that was now coalescing into the shape of a man.
"Human, but more," the man replied. The last word hissed out. It always took Vik a while for his vocal cords to work out the kinks of transformation.
John turned and faced his friend, who was dusting powdered sugar and flour from his clothes.
Vikram frowned, then shook his head. He fixed his dark eyes on John. Eyes that never blinked. Eyes that felt cold and deep and old, like an ancient cavern leading down and down and...
John broke the gaze first. He always forgot about the eye contact. Vik usually was the careful one, but he seemed distracted.
"No? Then what? Come on Vik, I'm still new to all this!"
"Something in between. A race apart. Blessed. Cursed."
"No, not like me. I am one of many. She, I think, was made alone. That is all I can tell."
"Well...made alone. We have that in common then." John said. He took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled, clearing unwanted memories along with the smoke.
"She doesn't really know either," John said thoughtfully. He had smelled secrets on her, wrapped up in uncertainty.
"No, I suspect not fully. And there was nothing at the site. The police pulled prints from the broken door, linked it to a gang responsible for a series of robberies but..."
"That's just a front. A misdirection," John said.
Vik nodded, and John continued speaking.
"So we have someone who is more than human, missing a mysterious secret ingredient, taken by a thief that left no trace."
"I going to guess that means either the thief wasn't human himself or had preternatural help."
"I'm not sure I like where this is going. She might not even tell you anything. Some sort of code," Vik's lips turned down in an expression of distaste.
"Maybe, but Laverna's all we got right now. Besides, I think she likes you."
Dora stared down at the gelatinous green pill. The hand that held the glass of water shook, spilling some on the bed. This was the thing that had gotten her in trouble. The miracle drug that she had spent a great part of her life working on. The drug that was supposed to save many Alzheimer's patients, especially those like her with early onset disease. The drug was supposed to be her salvation. But instead, wound up being her curse.
Oh, it had worked. Dora had tested it herself. On herself. She had known the ethical implications of what she had done, but her neurological decline was beginning to progress. And Hope Labs still hadn't gotten the green light to start clinical trials, being embroiled in a patent dispute with Prometheus Drugs. She was running out of time. So, she had taken the drug, becoming her own test subject.
The results had exceeded her expectation. It not only slowed decline, but seemed to reverse it. Dora had a good memory before her illness but the drug had transformed it into photographic. What's more it had sharpened her creativity, allowing her to formulate more wonder drugs.
And then the hallucinations started. Vivid dreams. Voices. Images. Memories that couldn't possibly be real. Memories of lives she couldn't have lived. Ages and ages of birth and death and rebirth. The blurring of lines between reality and fantasy.
The details of what had happened after weren't clear still. There were gaps in her memory, craters filled with confabulation.
All she knew was that she had left that life behind. But she couldn't stop wanting to help. Couldn't stop trying to make things that would better people's lives.
Is that what she had done? Made something. Some drug? Is that what was in the little earthen jar? She hadn't lied when she told the detective she couldn't tell him what was stolen. All she remembered was that it was a secret ingredient. Meant for dire times.
Dora closed her eyes. She needed to do this. Needed to remember. She could feel a sense of urgency pressing down on her. A sense that something ill would happen if she didn't recover her stolen jar. She had to remember. Without opening her eyes, she lifted her hand to her mouth and swallowed the pill.
He had spent the night with Laverna, much to the disapproval of Vik. Libations she had called it. Loosening of the tongue is what he did.
"Disgusting," Vik had added his title, shaking his head.
"Be careful, John."
"You worry too much," John had replied.
But maybe his friend had a point. Laverna, despite her pretty human face, was something old and dark and beyond human ken. She had a way of drawing you in.
When they had first met she had told him she was the patron of thieves and whores. That it was only those that operated under the cover of darkness that sought her out.
"And which, Mr. Legend, are you?"
"Definitely a thief and sometimes a whore. I screw with death a lot."
He had meant it as a joke and Laverna had laughed.
But they both knew the truth of it.
Abomination, many called him.
Fragments of stolen lives, stolen souls, stolen power.
Wasn't it right then, that she be his Goddess?
John shook his head. It wasn't about him. It was about the case. Laverna was a tool. Nothing more.
Vik was right, she wouldn't betray the thief, but she had no such qualms about his employer. John had already had his suspicions, Laverna merely confirmed them. He had wondered aloud why she had given the information so freely.
"Gods and monsters are fickle beings," she had said.
"Which are you?" He countered.
Laverna had just smiled.
Dora walked down the dimly lit corridor of Prometheus Drugs. At this time of night, the compound was empty, save for the security guards on duty. But even they did not venture to this part. Likely, they didn't even know it existed. Dora suspected she was one of three people who knew the secret.
She walked steadily passed office doors and labs, stopping at a pair of glass sliding doors. She keyed in the code effortlessly, as though it had only been just yesterday she had done it. Her memories, her real memories, ages and lifetimes, were restored fully now, and Dora felt a sense of completeness, of certainty she hadn't felt in years. She could also feel the contents of the jar calling to her.
When she opened the door she saw him sitting on the edge of the girl's bed. She was small, frail, hooked up to tubes and oxygen. Her condition had deteriorated since last Dora saw her. Prometheus was clutching the open jar, his head bent, shoulders heaving as he wept silently. Finally, he flung the jar violently to the ground. It did not shatter, could not, but instead rolled towards her. She picked it up and walked towards the bed.
"She asked me to let her die. She had given up hope. I'm close...so close. She just needs to hold on."
Prometheus spoke without turning.
"I thought I could give her hope...but hope is just a lie, sent by the Gods to prolong our suffering."
"It's not a lie, Prometheus. For all their cruelty, it was the one gift that was true."
Prometheus rose and turned to face Dora. He shook his head, and began pacing the room as he spoke.
"No. It didn’t work...it's nothing. It's just an empty jar! There is no hope!"
"She has hope. I can feel it. It's not the hope you want. She has faith in something beyond this. She has hope in that. She's ready. Let her go, Prometheus."
"Lies!" Prometheus shouted, turning to face her. "Lies. Deceit. Destruction. That's all that is there Pandora. All that you bring!"
Prometheus was now standing between her and the open door, face contorted with rage. Suddenly, he pulled a gun from his pocket and leveled it at Dora.
"Prometheus," Dora said, eyes wide with fear. He ignored her, thumbing the safety off.
"I should have done this the first day you came. You and that cursed jar!"
"I wouldn't if I were you."
Dora's eyes darted to the man behind Prometheus, who had his own gun pressed against the Titan's skull.
"Now I know you're thinking, you're a Titan and you can't die. Which is true. But you can suffer. And see, I have a very special bullet, made from metal all the way from Tartarus. It's won't kill you, but you'll wake up in hell with a nasty headache. I'm sure you have some friends down there eager to see you."
"You're bluffing," Prometheus said through clenched teeth.
"Maybe. Maybe not," Detective Legend replied flippantly. "Oh, by the way Laverna sends her regards. She's a might pissed that you didn't repay her for her help with the whole stealing fire from the Gods business."
At the mention of Laverna's name, Prometheus lowered the gun.
"Prometheus...I..." Dora started.
"Go. Pandora. Just...go."
"So I'm guessing you're not going to press charges," John asked.
They were sitting in his car, parked outside the bakery. John had given her a ride home. Pandora didn't own a car.
"I think he's suffered enough. More than enough. He's a good man," Dora replied. She turned her head towards John, studying him intently.
"This is not the first time you've dealt with beings such as us." She didn’t phrase it as a question.
"No," John said, "I'd really hoped it was just a straight forward case of cooperate espionage, rival scientist, stolen patents. But ordinary doesn't seem to be in my cards."
"That might be a good thing," Pandora replied after a moment. "I may be the keeper of Hope, Detective but you are its champion."
"I don't know about that."
"Don't worry. I do. I have all the hope in the world."