As the predawn hours approached, the herd of patrons at Candlewick’s Saloon had thinned substantially. The piano player was still going strong, the bartender was counting her tips, but the only customers aside from Jinni and Mac were a table of four that kept quiet and to themselves.
Mac burped and looked away as Jinni took another sip of whiskey.
Jinni, not typically one to concern himself with the emotions of others, began to feel somewhat guilty for raising Mac’s hopes. “There’s probably a handful of passenger ships that can take you back to Ithaca,” Jinni said. “You think you’re going to be OK?”
“I don’t know,” Mac said, staring holes into the bar top.
“Because—if you want—I could probably talk Peter and the guys into hiring you full time. Pretty much keep doing what you did on the way here.”
“I appreciate it, but I can’t just leave my mom back there by herself.”
“Listen, Mac. For what it’s wor—”
From behind, Pinocchio interrupted the conversation, stepping between the two and startling both. “Follow me,” he said.
Pinocchio led them to a quiet corner table and requested the server leave them three glasses and a bottle of whiskey and be on her way. His paranoia directed his eyes around the room as he pulled a small wooden case from his breast pocket and dumped its contents on the table. It was the remaining needlelike objects he’d found while cleaning his father’s room. “What the hell are these things? And don’t play stupid and pretend you don’t know. They were in that jar that nearly gave my dad a fit.”
Mac turned his palms toward the ceiling. “I wish I could tell you. But I have no idea what they are.”
“Me neither,” Jinni added.
“One moment, he was more afraid of that jar than anything else in the world. I leave the room for a moment, and he jams one of those things into his leg. Then he started talking to me—like he was normal. Asked how I was. Asked how my daughters were doing. He seemed to know everything that’s going on in my life currently. But at the same time, it was like he’d been away for a few years and was just stopping by for a visit. Then he started talking about you.” Pinocchio nodded toward Mac.
“Me, or my dad?”
“You. Kept calling you Otis’s boy. And he wanted me to tell you to go see the emperor and the empress. He said the information you seek is only known by a handful of people. Elite people. It’s a rather small circle, but if your father is alive, they might be able to help you locate him.”
“Did he say anything else?” Mac asked.
“He did.” Pinocchio turned toward Jinni with a confident delay. “He said to speak to the one who didn’t talk and ask him where to get more of these blue things. ‘He’ll know where to find them.’”
“I’m guessing he wants more,” Jinni said.
“You’d be guessing correctly. That was all he said. Then he fell asleep. What are they?”
“They’re something you don’t want to be messing with. I promise. Whatever good came from them isn’t going to be worth it long term.”
“My dad is eighty-seven years old,” Pinocchio said. “There is no long term.”
“So what’s in it for me if I do tell you where to find them?” Jinni asked.
“Simple. I’ll tell you how to get to the emperor and empress.”
“That’s not something we can do on our own?” Mac asked.
“Most people around here don’t even know how to get in touch with the emperor—much less how to find him.”
“I’m sure if we ask around enough—”
“You really are from Ithaca, aren’t you?” Pinocchio smiled.
“What do you mean?”
“The emperor’s home is not an easy place to find. And it’s not a subject you want to be asking strangers about. People around here aren’t as hospitable as they are where you’re from. You go around asking where you can find the emperor, people are either going to think you’re a watchman trying to sniff out traitors—or worse, you’ll accidentally ask a watchman. Some of these young guys don’t ask a lot of questions before they draw their swords. The emperor takes his security and his wife’s security very seriously.”
Jinni rubbed his chin and pointed to the cloth. “So if I tell you how to find more of these, you’ll tell him how to get to the emperor and empress unhindered?”
“Yes. I’ve only got three more of these things back at the house. I’m not sure how long each one will subdue my father’s…symptoms.”
“Tell you what,” Jinni said. “You take Mac to see the emperor and empress, instead of just telling us how to get there, and I’ll go get you more of those things personally. More than you’ll ever need.”
“Just that easy?” Pinocchio asked.
“For you,” Jinni said. “Not for me.”
Bright and early the following morning, with the remaining shekels that Peter had given him, Mac bought a fresh change of clothes and the provisions necessary for two weeks in the raw desert. While Mac sought out the best deals from different storefronts, Jinni sat on the edge of his bed, seemingly alone, until Peter stepped out of the shadows.
“Wondered when you were going to say hello,” Jinni said. “What are you doing?”
“Tootles told me you were leaving.”
“I’m thinking back to when you said this little excursion would add two, maybe three days. According to my estimation, you and your little buddy’s journey to see the emperor is gonna take at least a month.”
“I’m not going with him,” Jinni said. “I have to go somewhere else.”
“Where?” Peter asked.
“Somewhere I thought I’d never have to go again.”
“I don’t suppose it has something to do with those blue things from the bottle. The ones you’ve been carrying around in your pocket.”
Jinni reached into his pocket and pulled the cloth. With steady thumbs, he unrolled it, revealing the contents within. “Do you know what these are?”
“Well, they’re valuable. Rare. So much so that people make fake ones and try to sell them to tourists. People make tea with them. They smoke them. I’ve even heard of some who smashed them to dust and snorted them up their nose. They make you feel a certain way. In some instances, they make you see things. Things that either aren’t there—or part of this universe.”
“What about those? Those fake?” Peter asked.
“Afraid not. I wish they were, but they’re the real deal.”
“So you have me interested, and I’m not trying to be an asshole when I say this, but when do we get to the part where we sell ’em and get this shipment delivered on time?”
Jinni ran his palms over his forehead and dragged his fingers down his face. “Will you shut up for two seconds about the goddamn shipment? Where I’m going, what I’m getting—it’ll pay for this shipment six times over.”
“Let’s hope so.” Peter wasn’t accustomed to losing arguments, but he was quick to acknowledge when he had lost and even quicker when it came to moving on. “So Mac’ll be gone for a month. How long you gonna be gone?”
“Two weeks,” Jinni said, holding up corresponding fingers. “I’ll make you a deal. If I come back empty handed, we won’t have to wait for Mac.”
“Really?” Peter asked. “And what if you’re not back in two weeks?”
Jinni had the words but was hesitant to say them aloud. “It means I won’t be coming back. Because I’m dead. In which case you don’t have to wait for Mac. And you’ll only be two weeks behind instead of a full month.”
Armed with one of six remaining stingers, Pinocchio entered Mr. Geppetto’s room and opened its only curtain.
“Time to get up, Pop.” Pinocchio sat on the edge of the bed and squeezed the lower part of his father’s leg. “Dad. Dad…Dad?”
Mac and Jinni attended Mr. Geppetto’s funeral, a gesture much appreciated by Pinocchio and his family. “Thank you both for coming,” he said.
“If there’s anything we can do, you know where to find us,” Mac said.
“I appreciate that. Listen, I, uh. I’ll still take you to see the emperor and empress.” Pinocchio turned to Jinni. “And you don’t have to worry about those things. You were right. No good came of ’em.”
“If you’re not up for it, I understand,” Mac said. “Even if you just wanted to tell me how to get there, I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it out.”
“Kid, I gotta wife and five daughters, and my dad just died. A four-week round trip through the desert sounds like a pleasant dream right now. Just give me three days to get some things sorted out and arrange for some mules, and we’ll leave at dawn.”
And so they did.
Around the time Pinocchio and Mac were running short of daylight and seeking out a suitable campsite, Nibs was the only Lost Boy present on the Elvira. The rest were out and about, stirring up mischief. Nibs took a drag from his hand-rolled cigarette and pressed a charcoal briquette against a large sheet of paper, confident that this drawing was going to be special. Before he could get settled and delve into what he referred to as his artistic zone, he was startled by Jinni’s emergence from the lower deck.
“Didn’t know you were here,” Nibs said. “Scared the shit out of me.” The surprisingly bright light of the crescent moon accentuated the thick breath of smoke pouring from his mouth and nose.
Jinni looked determined, angry, and terrified, all at once. Shirtless, and with a small burlap satchel slung over his shoulder, he walked with the attitude of a man about to leave town.
“Where you goin’?”
“Nowhere you want to know about, Nibs.”
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Jinni lowered the Elvira’s only lifeboat into the warm water, where he and it were swallowed by the fog.
Over the next three days, Jinni covered more nautical distance than any human rightfully should have in such a short time and without a sail. Eventually, he brought the lifeboat to a stop over open waters that were all too familiar. Jinni reached into his burlap sack, pulled out a bottle of wine, and guzzled it down, only breaking three or four times before it was empty. He placed the bottle back in the sack and exchanged it for a dagger. With his eyes closed, Jinni took two long breaths and ran the dagger over his left palm, cutting it deep in the process. He balled his gushing fist, allowing a steady stream of black blood to drip and dissipate into the water. Then he jumped in.
The graceful flow of his swim bordered on ornamental. The poetic presentation and pure beauty of his movements were reminiscent of a dancing jellyfish. He stopped for a moment to admire the stars and catch his breath. Just as he was about to dive back under, a curious dolphin joined him and smiled. Jinni nodded and returned the creature’s grin before its friendly demeanor turned skittish, and it fled with the type of speed that could only be inspired by a predator.
Jinni, knowing what was coming next, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, timing the last one perfectly before someone—or something—plucked him under the water.