In a place beyond the tapestry of coastal coral and the vibrant ecosystem it cradled, Jinni awoke to pitch-black conditions. He had been chained to the wall in some sort of cave or grotto and was slowly regaining his remaining senses. He pulled the shackles around his wrists and faced his palms together. He began to transfer some sort of energy from one palm to another, creating an orb that put off enough light to fill the grim cavern. The light continued to scout the jagged rock room, revealing a large pool that served as the grotto’s entryway. The light also revealed a substantial collection of milk bottles, most of which contained a paper message. Finally, and much to Jinni’s surprise, the light revealed someone else in the room with him. It was a man, frightened beyond belief and chained to an adjacent wall.
“Who are you?” the man asked, clear waves of panic in his fear-cracked voice. “What are you?”
Jinni acted as if he hadn’t even heard the man’s inquiry. “Do you remember how you got here?”
“What—no. I know I went out to go fishing. Next thing I remember, I was here. Only it was dark. How did you do that thing? With the light in your hands?”
“Have you seen her?” Jinni asked. “Have you talked to her?”
“The—thing that brought you down here.”
“No. You’re the first one I’ve seen since I woke up.”
Jinni took a long, panicked breath as his light went dark, and the cavern’s watery entry began to glow with a neon turquoise.
“Shit,” Jinni said. “Pretend you’re asleep. Don’t talk.”
Lurking beneath the surface was a creature that was often mistaken for the most beautiful mermaid to ever grace the seas. Thick locks of shiny blond hair rested over bare breasts as her bright eyes matched that of the glow in the water from which she emerged. Extending from her lean navel were forty to fifty stringy tentacles. They were similar to that of a sea wasp, and they emitted a turquoise hue that was only visible to anything unfortunate enough to be within the range of her grasp. She could extend them anywhere from three to one hundred times the length of her torso, while years of trial and error had allowed her full control over the millions of regenerative pine-needle-size stingers and the searing venom they discharged. She leaned toward Jinni. Her radiant glow dominated the room.
“Well, well, well,” she said, smiling to reveal a dark-green sap coating her teeth. It had the consistency and coloration of fresh seaweed, a fact she seemed to be proud of, often turning the final word of her sentences into a lingering smile. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, ma’am. It has,” Jinni said.
“How have you been, Jinni?”
“How do I look?”
“Tired,” she said with another smile. “I gotta be honest. I never thought, in a thousand years, I’d ever see you again. Where did you get these?” She tossed the cloth Jinni had been using to carry the stingers.
“Those were in a bottle, along with a letter from Otis Seehus—asking for help. Not sure if the stingers were supposed to be some sort of payment, or if you got ahold of this bottle and lost it.”
“The letter was probably a fake. Like these,” she said, pointing at the cloth and stingers at Jinni’s feet.
“It wasn’t fake. Neither are they.”
“And I suppose you jabbed yourself with one—to test it.”
“Didn’t have to.” Jinni glanced at the nearby pile of milk bottles. “Quite a collection you’ve got there. Those all from Otis Seehus?”
“No. Not all of them. But a good many. Particularly the ones with napkins. Creative fellow. It seems he didn’t have access to ink or paper most of the time. Some of them are written in berry juice, ashes, even blood.”
“So what’s your deal with Otis?”
“No deal,” she said, mildly amused.
“Well, why are you stopping these bottles from getting out?”
She lowered her eyebrows as if the answer should have been obvious. “Because I want him, Jinni. You know as well as I do. There are only a handful of humans out there who are impressive—a small handful at that. I’m talking truly impressive. And you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know,” Jinni said. “I never really thought much of any of the ones they call heroes, if I’m being honest. But I don’t hate them, like you.”
“I don’t hate them. I miss them. There aren’t near as many as there used to be, and they’re much harder to come by. This new generation is weak. Soft. Why do you think that is?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“Come on, Jinni,” she said. “Humor an old friend. You’re up there, and I’m down here. What do you think? I just don’t remember it being this bad.”
“What does this have to do with Otis Seehus?” Jinni asked.
“It seems, since you and I last saw one another, I’ve acquired a taste for these so-called heroes. There’s something about their blood—their flesh. It’s tastier than the ones they call normal.”
“Horseshit,” Jinni said. “All those years, going up and down the coast—hunting. You’re just now figuring this out? Who do you think you’re talking to? The bravest man in the room. Biggest coward in the world. They both taste the same. And you know that. So what is it, really?”
“Believe what you wish, Jinni,” she said with a chuckle. “But you’re in no position to demand anything from me—least of all, information.
“I can’t get to him, if it makes you feel any better,” she added, turning her back to Jinni and giving life to the dark parts of the cavern with the shift of her glow. “He’s been the Calypso Queen’s pet for some time now. She’s got him all to herself in that dungeon she calls a castle.”
“And what? You’re just out here on the coast waiting for her to finish with him? A buzzard waitin’ for the eagle’s scraps.”
“I’m sure whatever she leaves will be worth the wait,” she said, flashing another sinister green smile. “And the queen is almost due for a new man. Or so I hear from the mermaids. Until then, I’ll just have to snack on sailors and fishermen.” She nodded toward the other prisoner, who pretended to remain asleep as a frightened lump filled his throat.
A neon tentacle whipped out from under the water. Like a vine extending toward Jinni’s face, it stopped just short of his cheek before reaching to caress it. “Oh, Jinni. It really is good to see you again. You should stick around this time,” she continued, now wrapping the tentacle around Jinni’s throat. “We’ll have some fun. Like the old days.”
“No thanks,” he said with a grave expression. “Not sure I remember ’em quite like you. Fun doesn’t strike my memory.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Aside from that tiny little incident with your little mermaid, you know we were magical together.”
Jinni scowled. “You know damn well there was no ‘we,’ you crazy bitch. It was her. It was always her.”
“I really do mean it when I say it’s is good to see you.” Her tentacle became inflamed and pierced his throat with several glistening turquoise stingers.
In the fringes of town on the south of Nestor Island, the Lost Boys entered a whorehouse unlike any they had frequented before. The rich chestnut floors outlining the room were covered by thick carpet shaded with various grays that worked its way up the walls in the form of floor-to-ceiling drapes. The exotic fabric wrapped around each piece of furniture looked tight and bouncy to the touch, and so clean it looked as though it had been upholstered earlier that evening.
Led by Peter, the Lost Boys entered with quiet, casual steps. As their eyes roamed around the room, they all thought the same thing.
“This is the fanciest whorehouse I’ve ever seen,” Tootles said quietly.
“There’s not even any sawdust on the floor,” Nibs said.
“Hi there, sugar.” An elegant young woman grabbed Nibs by the arm. “How you plan on spending your night?”
“But I didn’t come here for sawdust,” he said, disappearing.
One by one, all of them were taken by the arm and escorted away. All but Peter, that is. Having waved off each attempt to subdue him, he found himself in the presence only of women he’d already rejected. The madam looked down from her balcony. Despite her smile and pleasant demeanor, he knew she was judging him. Another stinky lot of Lost Boys.
“Not seeing anything you like, dear? Or maybe it’s not a woman you seek?”
Peter smirked. “No. Just a little tired right now. I’m afraid if I were to take one of these lovely ladies upstairs, it would be noticeable. And I can’t stand the thought of being remembered like that. Not at a lovely establishment such as this.”
“I’d offer you a room, but the rate’s the same with or without a girl in there. Are you sure you’re tired?”
Another hand reached out and gently grabbed Peter’s right arm. Then another, on his left. Neither were used to being turned away. And although Peter was quite hesitant when a third arm joined, he left the brothel and ended up at a saloon closer to town.
Peter felt much more at home here. The saloon looked like it could have been a room in the Elvira. Wooden ceilings creaked under the heavy footsteps of hotel guests above as dim candles dripping with white wax told the time of night. It was the type of place that one could go drinking—after a night of drinking.
Peter grabbed a stool and made himself comfortable at a corner of the bar with a line of sight that covered the entire room.
“Whiskey, please,” he said.
Also at the bar were two gentlemen having a pleasant conversation with a young lady—or so it seemed. With each passing moment and the words they brought forth, it was becoming quite clear that this young woman was not enjoying the aggressive courtship.
“I told you once already,” she said. “Stop touching me.”
The pleas were met with hearty laughs from the imposing figures sitting on either side of her.
Peter slammed his second glass of whiskey and swirled the empty glass to signal for another.
“Oh, don’t be like that. Plenty of women would kill to get a chance at this touch.”
“Themselves, probably,” the young woman quipped back. “I said, stop touching me.”
“OK, OK. We can take things slow,” the other man said, sounding as though he was genuinely trying to ease the tension. “Do you swallow?”
She leaned back, deflated.
Peter fired back his third glass of whiskey, seemingly minding his own business as the man with curious hands and a big mouth lit a cigar. It was short and not too big around, but it shrouded the entire bar with a thick blanket of smoke.
“Aw, that’s just great,” Peter said, locking eyes with the man.
“Excuse me?” the man replied.
“That’s just what I want to do when I’m tryin’ to enjoy a nice glass of whiskey—is smell your stinkin’-ass cigar.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a saloon. If you don’t like it—there’s the door.”
Peter stood up and kicked his bar stool like a mule, sending it halfway across the room. “If you don’t put it out by the time I count to three, I’m gonna put it out, and then I’m gonna beat your ass in front of your girlfriend.”
“I’m not his girlfriend,” she said pronouncedly.
“I wasn’t talkin’ about you, sweetheart,” Peter said, winking. He turned his attention back to the man. “Now, do you want to put that out, or do you want to go outside and talk about it?”
“Then you can go,” Peter said.
“Leave.” Peter moved a different stool to his spot at the bar and sat down. The man sat, stunned, and embarrassed. He had only been challenged a few times in his life, relying on his bark to get him through most of it. He thought of looking over to his friend for help, but that would have been more embarrassing. Plus, his friend had no interest in getting anywhere near this wild-eyed ruffian. “All right,” the man said calmly. “You can come with us, sweetheart.” He snatched the young woman’s forearm, yanking her out of her stool.
“I don’t think so,” Peter said. “She stays.”
Distracted by Peter’s demand, the man failed to notice his lovely young captive had just put a large dagger against his throat. That was the only thing his friend needed to see before leaving in a hurry.
“That is—if she wants to stay,” Peter said, his eyes affixed to the young woman’s dagger.
With a constant exchange of banter and smiles, she and Peter kept the man at bay with both their blades until an on-duty watchman stopped by the saloon. After hearing what had happened and verifying the pertinent information with several witnesses, the watchman escorted the man to the area’s closest dungeon.
The young woman and Peter remained at the bar until the sun came up, sipping on whiskey and chatting as if they had been acquainted for years.
“That’s quite a piece of steel you carry around,” Peter said.
She pulled it from her boot and placed it on the bar. “I’m never out without it.”
“You shouldn’t be. A girl like you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“You know what it means.” He tilted his head forward and lowered flirtatious eyes.
“I used to be part of a traveling theater. One night I was attacked. He didn’t do—everything he set out to do. Thank the gods. But the very next day, I went out and got my first dagger. I trained. I practiced. In case it ever happened again.”
“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “Some guys need some more manners smacked into ’em.”
“I try not to think about it often. And I have so many fond memories. Traveling. Meeting new people. I try to focus on those things whenever I think about that moment in my life. It’s funny how you could spend months…years…with someone, and when they’re out of your life, you forget them. Just like that. But at the same time, you could only have met someone and known them for a single day—and spend the rest of your life thinking about them—wondering what they’re doing. How they’re doing. If they think about you every once in a while like you think about them.”
“What do you say we get outta here? While the night is still young.”
“So what,” he said, with some strange new burst of energy. “Let’s go. Let’s get outta here.”
“You are trouble incarnate, aren’t you, Peter Pan?” She cast a wicked grin that made him blush.
“The very worst kind,” he replied, reaching out for her willing hand.