I almost spewed soda.
Standing right next to me was a guy in nylon running shorts and a New York City Marathon T-shirt. He was slim and fit, with salt-and-pepper hair and a sly smile. He looked kind of familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why.
My first thought was that he must’ve been taking a midnight jog down the beach and strayed inside the camp borders. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Regular mortals couldn’t enter the valley.
But maybe with the tree’s magic weakening he’d managed to slip in. But in the middle of the night?
And there was nothing around except farmland and state preserves. Where would this guy have jogged from?
“May I join you?” he asked. “I haven’t sat down in ages.”
Now, I know—a strange guy in the middle of the night. Common sense: I was supposed to run away, yell for help, etc. But the guy acted so calm about the whole thing that I found it hard to be afraid.
I said, “Uh, sure.”
He smiled. “Your hospitality does you credit. Oh, and Coca-Cola! May I?”
He sat at the other end of the blanket, popped a soda and took a drink. “Ah … that hits the spot. Peace and quiet at—”
A cell phone went off in his pocket.
The jogger sighed. He pulled out his phone and my eyes got big, because it glowed with a bluish light. When he extended the antenna, two creatures began writhing around it—green snakes, no bigger than earthworms.
The jogger didn’t seem to notice. He checked his LCD display and cursed. “I’ve got to take this. Just a sec …” Then into the phone: “Hello?”
He listened. The mini-snakes writhed up and down the antenna right next to his ear.
“Yeah,” the jogger said. “Listen—I know, but… I don’t care if he is chained to a rock with vultures pecking at his liver, if he doesn’t have a tracking number, we can’t locate his package…. A gift to humankind, great… You know how many of those we deliver—Oh, never mind. Listen, just refer him to Eris in customer service. I gotta go.”
He hung up. “Sorry. The overnight express business is just booming. Now, as I was saying—”
“You have snakes on your phone.”
“What? Oh, they don’t bite. Say hello, George and Martha.”
Hello, George and Martha, a raspy male voice said inside my head.
Don’t be sarcastic, said a female voice.
Why not? George demanded. I do all the real work.
“Oh, let’s not go into that again!” The jogger slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Now, where were we … Ah, yes. Peace and quiet.”
He crossed his ankles and stared up at the stars. “Been a long time since I’ve gotten to relax. Ever since the telegraph—rush, rush, rush. Do you have a favorite constellation, Percy?”
I was still kind of wondering about the little green snakes he’d shoved into his jogging shorts, but I said, “Uh, I like Hercules.”
“Well … because he had rotten luck. Even worse than mine. It makes me feel better.”
The jogger chuckled. “Not because he was strong and famous and all that?”
“You’re an interesting young man. And so, what now?”
I knew immediately what he was asking. What did I intend to do about the Fleece?
Before I could answer, Martha the snake’s muffled voice came from his pocket: I have Demeter on line two.
“Not now,” the jogger said. “Tell her to leave a message.”
She’s not going to like that. The last time you put her off, all the flowers in the floral delivery division wilted.
“Just tell her I’m in a meeting!” The jogger rolled his eyes. “Sorry again, Percy. You were saying …”
“Um … who are you, exactly?”
“Haven’t you guessed by now, a smart boy like you?”
Show him! Martha pleaded . I haven’t been full-size for months.
Don’t listen to her! George said. She just wants to show off!
The man took out his phone again. “Original form, please.”
The phone glowed a brilliant blue. It stretched into a three-foot-long wooden staff with dove wings sprouting out the top. George and Martha, now full-sized green snakes, coiled together around the middle. It was a caduceus, the symbol of Cabin Eleven.
My throat tightened. I realized who the jogger reminded me of with his elfish features, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes….
“You’re Luke’s father,” I said. “Hermes.”
The god pursed his lips. He stuck his caduceus in the sand like an umbrella pole. “‘Luke’s father.’ Normally, that’s not the first way people introduce me. God of thieves, yes. God of messengers and travelers, if they wish to be kind.”
God of thieves works, George said.
Oh, don’t mind George. Martha flicked her tongue at me. He’s just bitter because Hermes likes me best.
He does not!
“Behave, you two,” Hermes warned, “or I’ll turn you back into a cell phone and set you on vibrate! Now, Percy, you still haven’t answered my question. What do you intend to do about the quest?”
“I—I don’t have permission to go.”
“No, indeed. Will that stop you?”
“I want to go. I have to save Grover.”
Hermes smiled. “I knew a boy once … oh, younger than you by far. A mere baby, really.”
Here we go again, George said. Always talking about himself Quiet! Martha snapped. Do you want to get set on vibrate?
Hermes ignored them. “One night, when this boy’s mother wasn’t watching, he sneaked out of their cave and stole some cattle that belonged to Apollo.”
“Did he get blasted to tiny pieces?” I asked.
“Hmm … no. Actually, everything turned out quite well. To make up for his theft, the boy gave Apollo an instrument he’d invented—a lyre. Apollo was so enchanted with the music that he forgot all about being angry.”
“So what’s the moral?”
“The moral?” Hermes asked. “Goodness, you act like it’s a fable. It’s a true story. Does truth have a moral?”
“How about this: stealing is not always bad?”
“I don’t think my mom would like that moral.”
Rats are delicious, suggested George.
What does that have to do with the story? Martha demanded.
Nothing, George said. But I’m hungry.
“I’ve got it,” Hermes said. “Young people don’t always do what they’re told, but if they can pull it off and do something wonderful, sometimes they escape punishment. How’s that?”
“You’re saying I should go anyway,” I said, “even without permission.”
Hermes’s eyes twinkled. “Martha, may I have the first package, please?”
Martha opened her mouth … and kept opening it until it was as wide as my arm. She belched out a stainless steel canister—an old-fashioned lunch box thermos with a black plastic top. The sides of the thermos were enameled with red and yellow Ancient Greek scenes—a hero killing a lion; a hero lifting up Cerberus, the three-headed dog.
“That’s Hercules,” I said. “But how—”
“Never question a gift,” Hermes chided. “This is a collector’s item from Hercules Busts Heads. The first season.”
“Hercules Busts Heads?”
“Great show.” Hermes sighed. “Back before Hephaestus-TV was all reality programming. Of course, the thermos would be worth much more if I had the whole lunch box—”
Or if it hadn’t been in Martha’s mouth, George added.
I’ll get you for that. Martha began chasing him around the caduceus.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “This is a gift?”
“One of two,” Hermes said. “Go on, pick it up.”
I almost dropped it because it was freezing cold on one side and burning hot on the other.
The weird thing was, when I turned the thermos, the side facing the ocean— north—was always the cold side….
“It’s a compass!” I said.
Hermes looked surprised. “Very clever. I never thought of that. But its intended use is a bit more dramatic. Uncap it, and you will release the winds from the four corners of the earth to speed you on your way. Not now! And please, when the time comes, only unscrew the lid a tiny bit. The winds are a bit like me—always restless. Should all four escape at once … ah, but I’m sure you’ll be careful. And now my second gift. George?”
She’s touching me, George complained as he and Martha slithered around the pole.
“She’s always touching you,” Hermes said. “You’re intertwined. And if you don’t stop that, you’ll get knotted again!
The snakes stopped wrestling.
George unhinged his jaw and coughed up a little plastic bottle filled with chewable vitamins.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Are those Minotaur-shaped?”
Hermes picked up the bottle and rattled it. “The lemon ones, yes. The grape ones are Furies, I think. Or are they hydras? At any rate, these are potent. Don’t take one unless you really, really need it.”
“How will I know if I really, really need it?”
“You’ll know, believe me. Nine essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids … oh, everything you need to feel yourself again.”
He tossed me the bottle.
“Um, thanks,” I said. “But Lord Hermes, why are you helping me?”
He gave me a melancholy smile. “Perhaps because I hope that you can save many people on this quest, Percy. Not just your friend Grover.”
I stared at him. “You don’t mean … Luke?”
Hermes didn’t answer.
“Look,” I said. “Lord Hermes, I mean, thanks and everything, but you might as well take back your gifts. Luke can’t be saved. Even if I could find him … he told me he wanted to tear down Olympus stone by stone. He betrayed everybody he knew. He—he hates you especially.”
Hermes gazed up at the stars. “My dear young cousin, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the eons, it’s that you can’t give up on your family, no matter how tempting they make it. It doesn’t matter if they hate you, or embarrass you, or simply don’t appreciate your genius for inventing the Internet—”
“You invented the Internet?”
It was my idea, Martha said.
Rats are delicious, George said.
“It was my idea!” Hermes said. “I mean the Internet, not the rats. But that’s not the point.
Percy, do you understand what I’m saying about family?”
“I—I’m not sure.”
“You will some day.” Hermes got up and brushed the sand off his legs. “In the meantime, I must be going.”
You have sixty calls to return, Martha said.
And one thousand-thirty-eight e-mails, George added. Not counting the offers for online discount ambrosia.