An increasingly impatient line of ships and smaller craft ranging in size, cargo, and intentions extended from the southern port of Nestor Island. While the island was quite large, there were only two legal ports of entry. Nestor Island’s emperor was a rightfully paranoid fellow, and his “watchmen” kept a close eye on the coasts. Lethal penalties lay in wait for anyone attempting to gain access to the island outside the sanctioned ports. As a result, traffic could get a little backed up—especially on the south end, where more goods were traded. Peter knew this better than most, and despite Jinni’s insistence that the traffic “wouldn’t be too bad this time of year,” Peter’s concerns were eventually confirmed.
“Good call, Jinni,” Peter said. The skin over his knuckles grew as tight as leather as he squeezed the bow’s railing in frustration.
“It’s not that bad,” Jinni said, knowing full well that no one in his or her right mind would agree.
“It won’t be here in a minute,” Peter said, walking toward the vessel’s wheel. “At least there’s one thing you can always count on when it comes to South Nestor’s traffic.” Peter grabbed hold of the wheel and turned it with ferocity. “Someone’s not paying attention.”
The Elvira whipped around the nearest vessel and swirled ahead like a turkey buzzard about to land. Most who had been waiting in line noticed and were well aware of Peter’s intentions. Some yelled out, expressing their displeasure.
Just as Peter had predicted, someone wasn’t paying attention. When the watchmen guarding the entry port raised the water gate, allowing the first ship through, the Elvira slipped into a perfectly sized spot toward the front of the line.
“Heeeeyyy, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” a gruff, muscular middle-aged man hollered out. “Get your ass to the back of the line.”
“Thought this was the back,” Peter yelled.
“You weren’t moving, so I didn’t th—”
“Typical Lost Boys, acting like they own the island.” The man extended his middle finger.
“Sorry.” Peter grinned and turned his back to the man, satisfied.
“It ain’t funny,” the man yelled out.
With a continuous grin, Peter turned back toward Mac and the Lost Boys. “Which one of you sons of bitches was laughin’?”
No one had been laughing before, but they all were now.
“Smart-ass, huh? Just try to stay afloat long enough to cross the gates in that glorified chunk of firewood.” He concluded his angry tirade by spitting off his vessel and in the direction of the Elvira.
“Nicer than that chunk of shit you’re weighing down, you fat fuck,” Peter yelled.
“You want to come over here and say that to my face?”
“You go practice spitting out teeth and find me when you get to port.”
“Ah, blow it out your ass.”
“Have a good one, sir.” Peter turned around once more, and the man lost his energy and interest in the situation.
An hour or so later, the Elvira made it to the front of the line, and several watchmen boarded to investigate the contents of the Lost Boys’ provisions and cargo.
“What are these?” one of them asked.
“What do they look like?” Peter asked.
“Shoes,” he said. “Glass shoes.” The watchman pulled a glimmering high heel from its box. “Doesn’t seem very practical, does it?”
“You wouldn’t think,” Peter said. “Certainly not with some of the walruses you’ve got here on Nestor Island.”
If any of the watchmen had a sense of humor, they weren’t sharing it.
“But apparently, they’re trendy,” Peter continued, straight faced. “Or so I’m told.”
“The delivery log says these are headed to Tellico,” another watchman said, glancing over some paperwork. “That’s on the north port. Why you stopping here?”
Peter hesitated. “Just stocking up on more provisions.”
“Looks like you’ve got more than enough to get you to the north docks. So I’m going to ask again. Why you stopping here?”
Peter was growing red in the face and beginning to feel heat settle on his forehead and neck.
“Because I instructed them to,” Mac said.
“And who are you?”
“My name’s Mac. My father runs a kiln back in Ithaca, and he’s the one who designed these shoes and put me in charge of their delivery. He also hired these guys to see to it that I made it there unscathed. As impractical as they are, the shoes are custom fit, quite expensive, and rather time consuming to make. Along the way, I had a difficult time finding my sea legs, and I’m in dire need of a good night’s sleep that doesn’t involve puking off the side of the ship every fifteen minutes.”
The watchmen all gave Mac a brief, stern look that percolated with uncomfortable silence. “Well, hell,” one finally said, breaking the tension. “I can’t keep my lunch down out there either. Welcome to Nestor Island, fellas. Behave yourselves. We are everywhere.”
The Elvira proceeded through a narrow canal surrounded by roving hillsides covered with bare treetops and glided to a graceful stop at the first available dock. As diverse as the Lost Boys could be in personality, one thing they all had in common was their need to unwind after an overseas journey, regardless of the length.
Joined by their typical self-assuredness and strut, Peter, Jinni, and the remaining Lost Boys guided Mac over the cobblestone streets that lined the hectic area. Houses and storefronts were jam-packed throughout the grid, but neither Peter nor the Lost Boys could remember the location of their favorite local establishment.
“There it is,” Tootles said, pointing to a crude wooden sign with chipped lettering. “I told you guys it was called Candlewick’s.”
“Nobody gives a shit, Tootles,” Two said.
As the group approached the entrance, Peter pulled Mac aside.
“Listen,” Peter said. “I wasn’t too sure about bringing you along for this, but you’ve gone above and beyond when it comes to cleaning and the meals you made. And feeding Cecil. Lucky cat’s as fat as he’s ever been. Anyway, you’ve earned more than just a ride, so here’s a few shekels. Have some fun tonight.” Peter handed Mac a small sack filled with coins, and the two stepped into the smoky sanctuary known as Candlewick’s.
They approached what looked to be the only open table and glanced around the room and its occupants.
“Where’d everybody go?” Mac asked, surprised.
“They’re around here somewhere.” Peter scanned the room. “There’s Nibs,” he said, pointing.
Nibs was in the process of invading a table occupied by the four most attractive and elegant women in the saloon. All were in their midtwenties, dressed to impress, and began to recoil in horror as Nibs dipped his filthy finger in one of their drinks and placed it in his mouth. “Mmmm,” he said.
“Gross,” one of them uttered.
“You are disgusting,” said another.
“I don’t suppose any of you gals happen to be watchmen,” he said.
“Do we look like watchmen?”
“Not really, but if you want to get out of here, I’ll let you strip search me anyway.”
“Get lost, piglet.”
“Last chance,” he said, grinning.
The only woman who hadn’t spoken finally had heard enough. She stepped forward and smacked him in the face with a robust open palm.
“Nibs,” Peter yelled from across the room. “Get your ass over here.”
At this point, One, Two, Tootles, and Slightly had joined Peter and Mac at their table. “All right, fellas. First round’s on me,” Jinni said.
Nibs approached the table, rubbing the palm-shaped discomfort from his face.
“How’d it go over there?” Slightly asked, smirking.
“She might be the one.”
“Ales all around?” Peter asked. “Mac, ale good with you?”
“Make it a whiskey,” Mac said, prompting a few looks from his new bar buddies.
“All right.” Peter’s lips curled into a mischievous grin. “Whiskey it is.”
With the help of One, Peter brought back the table’s ale and Mac’s whiskey. In no time, their first drink was a distant memory, and Nibs and Slightly were retrieving the table’s sixth round. Everyone expected Mac to switch to ale at some point, but he’d only had minimal experience with ale and had yet to acquire a taste. While whiskey wasn’t his preferred flavor, either, he found it easier to hold his breath, slug it back, and endure the burn that followed.
“Next round’s on me,” Mac slurred, turning toward the bar.
“Two. Go help him,” Peter said.
“This’ll be his seventh shot,” Slightly said. “He’s gonna be shit housed.”
“I don’t know,” Two said. “Doesn’t look like his first go-around with whiskey.”
“Where’d Jinni end up?” Tootles asked.
Peter took the final swig and set his mug on the table. “He’s out looking for some carpenter that knows Mac’s dad. Told us to keep an eye on him, and he’d find us later.”
“How much later?” Slightly asked. “One or two more shots and he’s gonna be blastin’ mutton all over this place.”
“No way. Kid’s a natural,” Two said.
“You care to place a friendly wager on that, Two?” Slightly asked, taking advantage of Two’s love of gambling.
“What’s the bet?”
“He yaks in the next twenty minutes, you buy my drinks for the rest of the night. He doesn’t—I’ll buy yours.”
“Oh, you’re on.” Two reached out and shook Slightly’s hand.
Less than ten minutes later, Mac was out back, bent over, and letting loose a foul stream of warm whiskey and bile. As if losing the bet wasn’t punishment enough, Peter ordered Two to keep Mac company. And because One was Two’s brother, Peter ordered him outside as well.
“That’s it,” One said, patting Mac’s back as if burping a baby. “Get it all out.” He turned to Two and glared. “I oughta beat your ass for this.”
“What? I’m not the one who made you come out here.”
“Yet somehow, once again, I’m on the ass end of one of your stupid bets. It was so obvious he was going to puke. Now I’m stuck out here, playing nursemaid. With you.”
“Shut up,” Two said. “This place is boring tonight anyway.”
As if on cue, a massive burst of flame shot out the nearest window, followed by roaring applause and a random voice. “Hey! You girls need to get your clothes back on if you’re going to be downstairs.”
One refreshed his glare. “I hate you,” he said, before looking away and patting Mac’s back.
Jinni turned the corner of the alley and joined them. Two was the first to spot him. “Hey, Jinni. You find him?”
“Yeah. Guy’s shop is closed right now, though. We’re going to see him first thing tomorrow morning.”
Mac let out one last burst of vomit, followed by a miserable groan.
“What the hell happened to him?” Jinni asked.
The following morning, Mac was the last one to wake and only did so in response to a water-filled ladle, courtesy of Jinni.
“What’s this about?” Jinni asked.
Mac dug the backs of his fingers into his eyelids. “What’s what about?”
“This. Are you here to find your dad? Or are you here to join the party?” Jinni knew as well as anyone that young men want nothing more than to impress their fathers. But when that young man has grown up without the guidance of his father, he wants to impress everyone. Sometimes—oftentimes—it’ll lead him down the wrong path.
“Sorry,” Mac said, sitting up with a handful of his forehead. “I’ve heard stories about the Lost Boys. I just wanted to keep up. Maybe earn a little respect.”
“Well. You didn’t do either last night,” Jinni said. “Get up. Get dressed. The day’s wastin’.”
Once Mac had shaken off the brown-bottle cobwebs and gotten dressed, he and Jinni wandered outside of town to an area where the tight cobblestone grid stopped and a vast plain of desert began. As they approached the modest cottage, they were only looking to speak with one man, but when they reached the front door, two voices were coming from inside.
“Are you calling me a liar?” one of the voices yelled.
“You bet your ass I’m calling you a liar,” said the other. “I gotta a few other names I can think of, too, if you prefer.”
The conversation reached a sudden halt and was followed by a heavy thud that shook the outside walls. The front door swung open with fury, and a slender man was tossed end over end with just as much. As he landed in the sunburst sand, a portly freckle-faced man with angry, rosy cheeks filled the doorframe. “If I ever walk in on you running your scam on my father—or anyone else around here again—I’m gonna kill ya.”
At this point, the larger man disregarded the smaller man as no more of a threat than a nearby cricket that happened to be watching from an open spot on the wraparound porch. The hefty fellow looked away from the man he’d just tossed, and up at the surprise surrounding Mac and Jinni.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Good morning, sir.” If Mac had a hat, it would have been in his hands.
“Save it. What do you want?”
“We’re looking for a man named Carlo Geppetto.”
The man was taken aback that someone as young as Mac was asking for Carlo. “He doesn’t want to see anyone.”
“Please, sir. My father. He’s been missing for years. One of his last visitors was Mr. Geppetto. If he’s heard anything about him, or he can point me in another direction, it’d be a tremendous help.”
The man took a hesitant breath and nodded Mac and Jinni inside. “Come on in,” he said, extending his hand for a greeting. “Name’s Pinocchio.”
“Carlo is my father, and I’m happy to let you talk to him if you think he’ll be able to help you. But I must warn you, his memory is far from where it used to be.”
Pinocchio led Mac and Jinni inside the home. The initial light was made brighter by the vibrant colors bouncing off the painted models, toys, and puppets on various shelves lining the walls. The hallway ran from front to back, choking the daylight as its dead end opened to the darkest room in the house. It was lit by dust and smoke-filled beams of natural light sneaking in through three small windows.
“He just sits there most of the time smoking his pipe,” Pinocchio said, regretfully watching as his father’s mind withered further away.
Mr. Geppetto sat in a wheeled chair, mumbling to himself with varying voices and inflections.
“One day, he and I were having a conversation, and he couldn’t remember my name. A couple of weeks later, he tried to set the house on fire. I watched him do it like it was no big thing—like he was putting together a birdhouse. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, he stopped walking.” Pinocchio paused and stopped himself from shedding a tear. “I put him in here and pulled out everything that could catch flame.”
“I’m so sorry,” Mac said.
Pinocchio failed to hide the years of pent-up emotion as he knelt beside his father’s wheelchair. “Dad…Dad. There are a couple of gentlemen here to see you.” Pinocchio waved Mac over.
Mr. Geppetto’s eyes lit up, and he began to smile from ear to ear when Mac stepped into the hazy light. “Otis. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Not sure,” Mac said, puzzled, but only at first. “Where should I be?” Mac took a step back. “He thinks I’m my dad.”
“Have you seen the horse yet?” Mr. Geppetto leaned forward and lowered his voice while his eyes scanned the room for potential spies. “They’re only halfway finished with her, but she looks magnificent. You guys are gonna give ’em a hell of a fright when you burst from her belly. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.”
“Who?” Mac asked. “Who are we going to scare?”
“The Trojans.” Mr. Geppetto squinted suspiciously. “Who the hell you think?” He leaned back into his seat.
“Wait. Who’s your dad?” Pinocchio asked.
“Your dad is Otis Seehus?”
“No. No,” Mr. Geppetto said. “Otis only has one son. And he’s just a baby.”
“Mr. Geppetto, do you know where I can find Otis?” Mac asked.
“You feeling OK?” Mr. Geppetto asked, looking at Mac and feeling as though this was just another one of Otis’s pranks, albeit stranger than the others.
Mac stood in front of Mr. Geppetto’s chair and lowered to a knee.
Mr. Geppetto’s body was overcome with frightened chills as Mac pulled Otis’s milk bottle from a satchel and held it up. The old man slapped the bottle from Mac’s hand, sending it sliding across the stone floor, eventually coming to a stop when it shattered against the wall. The unscathed cork rolled to a halt over a pile of broken glass and the strange turquoise pine needles. The frightened old man cowered and shook in his chair as he covered his ears with his hands and began to rock back and forth. “Get those away from me. Get them away.”
As his fit grew more frantic, Mac and Pinocchio moved in closer to console him while Jinni stepped over to the shattered remains of the bottle. He reached down, snagged four or five of the needles, and wrapped them in a cloth. Jinni stuffed them in his pocket before anyone else could notice.
Pinocchio stood up, concerned and displeased. “I think you’d best be on your way now, fellas.”
“Of course,” Mac said.
Back at Candlewick’s Saloon, a disheartened Mac sipped on a glass of water and grimaced as he watched Jinni slug down a gulp of whiskey.
“Sorry, kid,” Jinni said, swirling the caramel liquid. “That’s all I got. I had a really good feeling about this too. Call it a hunch. Or positive energy. I really thought we were going to learn something from that guy.”
A bolt of lightning and volcanic vibration snapped out. The torrential downpour that followed dripped in through the saloon door’s threshold and open windows. Jinni drank down what was left in his glass and signaled the bartender for another. “Looks like we’ll be here for a while.”
Back at his cottage, Pinocchio carried a dustpan full of broken glass and scattered turquoise pine needles out of Mr. Geppetto’s room. Once Pinocchio had left, Mr. Geppetto did something he hadn’t done since senility had robbed him of his ability to walk. He wheeled his chair across the room.
He stopped to examine the area in which the bottle had broken and observed several stingers that Pinocchio had missed. Mr. Geppetto reached down and picked one up, as another crack of lightning filled the room with an ivory hue and shook the entire town. He held the mysterious object to his eye and studied it, pinching and rolling it between his fingertips. Mr. Geppetto then took a deep breath and closed his eyes before jamming the sharp end into his right thigh.
His eyes began to glow with youth, and his lungs took in a deeper breath than any other they had in the past twenty years. Suddenly, a mirage of flashing images and voices ran wild through his mind, and a tapestry of memories came rushing back. As if reborn, he wasn’t some crazy old man in a wheelchair who needed help using the outhouse. He was the Carlo Geppetto. The most exceptional carpenter to ever live—architect of the great Trojan Horse. And the only person who could guide Mac Seehus to the next clue.
“Pinocchio,” Carlo yelled, regaining his senses. As once-charred bridges within his mind began to reconnect, he was overcome with joy and shed tears of raw emotion. “Pinocchio. Hurry up and get in here. I’ve got some things I need to tell you.” His tears of joy soon shifted to tears of remorse. “Pinocchio. Hurry. I’m not sure how long this is going to last. We may not have much time.”