Several thousand treacherous ocean miles southwest of Calypso Island sat a small yet rambunctious port known as Junction. Its year-round tropical climate made it a pleasant place to visit in terms of views and comfort, but its reputation for corruption, indecency, and sinfulness attracted only the harshest kinds of people. While the distant docks of Port Royal prided themselves on offering any and all vices to those willing to pay, the bustling little metropolis of Port Junction was where these vices had been birthed.
Hidden by shadows just outside the town’s main drag was a shoddy two-story log cabin known by locals and visitors as the Point. Inside, thick clouds of smoke and the upbeat tune of a saloon piano drenched the sticky air, as a handful of women took part in the oldest profession known to mankind. The place was always loud and crowded and only became more so as the night burrowed into the early-morning hours.
Upstairs, behind one of many locked doors, a young man in his early twenties sat on the edge of a squeaky bed and combed his rough fingers through his wild hair.
“There were probably fifty orphans on that ship,” he said to the young woman lying beside him. “Maybe even a hundred.”
“My goodness,” she said.
“Yeah.” His boastful manner filled the room, silencing the crowd and piano downstairs. “And the fire was so big. I honestly didn’t think I was gonna make it out of there.”
“You’re so brave,” she said, sitting up and wrapping her arms around his slender frame.
“If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s that a man’s got to be brave if he wants to do the right thing. Anyway, I didn’t notice till just now, but it seems that the fire got ahold of my britches and burned a hole through my left pocket. And that’s where I usually keep my, uh—my coins. So I’m little light on funds at the moment. But I’ll be back in a month or so, and I swear I’ll pay you what I owe you, plus some for the trouble. Is that all right?”
Normally, the young woman would roll her eyes at such an excuse and the dirty vermin who’d come up with it. All she had to do was yell out to security, and they’d throw him out on the street, face first. But there was something intoxicating about this dreamy young man, and something comforting in his honest emerald eyes.
“I suppose that would be OK,” she said.
“Thank you. So much. I can’t believe I didn’t notice sooner. I feel like such an asshole.”
Downstairs, two rugged members of the young man’s crew, who also appeared to be in their early twenties, sat opposite each other at a wobbly, ring-stained wooden table. The red-haired ruffians took turns nipping sips from a dwindling bottle of whiskey as a young maiden approached and helped herself to a seat.
She looked them both up and down and noticed they were identical twins—something she’d heard of before but had never seen. “Well, I’ll be,” she said. “In all my years, I’ve never seen such a handsome devil. And lucky me, there’s two of you. What do you say the three of us go upstairs, and you show me if you’re—exactly the same?”
Neither answered the charming young woman, but that didn’t hinder her persistence. “What are your names?” she asked, running her soft fingers over one of their beards.
“I’m One,” One said. “He’s Two. And both of us have zero interest in anything you have to offer, sweetheart. Beat it.” One nodded her away from the table, and she sulked away. As she disappeared into the smoky crowd, One and Two were bombarded by another visitor. This time, it was a portly young man named Tootles, who was also part of their crew.
“Oh, man, this place is incredible,” Tootles said, taking a seat. “You guys are missing out.”
“That was quick,” Two said.
“Shiiiit,” Tootles replied in a mocking tone. “That girl’s gonna need at least two days of rest after what just happened up there. I had her hotter than a two-shekel dagger.”
“Looks like she’s cooled off,” One said.
“And she don’t look all that tired,” Two added.
All three glanced toward the crowded bar and noticed the girl Tootles had just been with upstairs. She was quite awake and was acquiring her next customer.
Several stools away, the young woman who had just been told that ridiculous orphan and fire story was in the process of handing over a percentage of her nightly earnings to the manager working behind the bar. The manager was a rather gruff and homely woman. Her sharp, no-nonsense attitude and even sharper temper were hard to take seriously, as they were often paired with a tight, bobbing bun of frizzy gray hair that resembled a bird’s nest clinging to the top of her head.
“Where the hell’s the rest of it?” the manager asked.
“My last customer. He said he lost all his coins on his previous job—saving some orphan children. Isn’t that sweet?”
“What?” the manager asked, tilting her head.
“He said he’d pay me back in a month or so when he returns. Plus some.”
“You stupid dunce. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Normally, I’d agree. But this one seems different.”
“Where is he?” the manager asked, almost in disbelief.
The young woman glanced around the room until she spotted the handsome rascal. “Over there. Coming down the stairs.”
“His last job wasn’t saving orphan children, you dumb cow. It was retrieving a load of rum that some pirates highjacked several weeks ago. And I know the little bastard has coins because I just gave him a whole sack of ’em. Hey Pan. Paaan!” the manager hollered across the room.
Back at the wobbly wooden table, One, Two, and Tootles watched as several beefy security guards headed for the stairs.
“Looks like Pete’s gettin’ us thrown out of another whorehouse,” Two said. He then took one last pull from the whiskey bottle.
Several moments later, Pete Pan—or Peter, as he was more commonly known—was thrown face first out the front door and down several steps into the muddy street. The rest of the group was asked politely yet firmly to leave.
Once all were outside, the manager planted her feet in the threshold. “And stay the hell out,” she screamed. “You’re a disgrace to Lost Boys everywhere.”
A fifth member of the crew, Nibs, had been outside on a rocking chair, smoking and staring up at the stars. “Another one? Really?” he asked.
The manager stomped back inside and approached her lead security guard. “I think there’s one more in here somewhere,” she said.
“No. I think he was outside all night.”
“Not that one,” the manager exclaimed, scanning the crowd. “There’s another one—an older one. You and Roscoe check upstairs. That’ll be the last time I ever hire a Lost Boy crew to do anything. Dirty sons of bitches.”
Upstairs, the last remaining member of the crew watched from a bedroom window as Peter dragged his tongue over his teeth to scrape off the grainy clumps of mud. “I’ll be eating sand for the next six months.”
“Oh, not again,” the man muttered. He turned away from the window toward a sink and mirror on the other side of the room and cupped some water in his hands before gently patting it over his middle-aged face.
The young woman with whom he’d just been intimate still lay in bed, her blushed face and giggly manner still overwhelmed. “What did you just do to me?” she asked, tapping the tips of her fingers over her numbing cheeks. “That was amazing. I mean, I say that to every slob who walks through that door, but I can’t recall a time—ever—where it was true. Not to say you’re a slob. Quite the opposite, actually.”
The man’s initial response of silence made her a bit self-conscious, but a few moments later, he relieved her worries. “You don’t have to make up stories just to boost my ego,” he said, smirking.
“Do you know when you’re going to be passing back this way?” she asked, sitting up and concealing herself with a thin bedsheet.
“Not yet. But I will be back.” He cupped another puddle of water in his hands and splashed it over his face.
“What’s your name?” she asked, despite knowing that particular question was against house rules.
He knew she wasn’t just boosting his ego. And he knew there was something special about him. In fact, those who knew him well didn’t think of him as a man at all. Over the years, his Greek-god physique, luminescent presence, and ability to perform what could only be explained as magic set him apart from everyone he encountered. He had answered to many different names over the years, but now, as a free man who’d spent most of his life enslaved, he only responded to one.
“Jinni. I’ve never heard that before.” She continued speaking. It was something or other about unique names she’d encountered over the years. “Not on the job, of course, but you know—just out in the world.” She went on and trailed off as everything in Jinni’s world went silent.
Sitting on the ledge of her sink was a milk bottle with a rolled-up sheet of paper inside. Jinni gave the bottle a pensive look and wrapped his fingers around the top.
“Where did you get this?” he asked, privately growing terrified.
He brought the bottle close to his face and took note of several large stingers piercing through it. They resembled what could only be described as overgrown pine needles that had been doused in turquoise ink.
“Oh, that,” she said, laughing. “Had a guy try to pay me with it one time.”
Jinni pulled the cork from the bottle and carefully slid the paper out before unrolling it over the nightstand.
“You wouldn’t believe what some guys try to pass off as payment these days.”
Jinni ignored her every word as he studied the document with meticulous focus.
“One guy even tried to pay me with some old soybeans,” she said. “Soybeans. Can you believe that? Tried telling me they were magic. Whoever heard of such nonsense?”
“Have you read this?” Jinni asked, never taking his eyes off the note.
“Yeah. A whole bunch of times. Still don’t know if it’s actually from him, though. I heard he was dead.”
“Yeah. That’s what I heard too,” he said.
“And it was like that when it came here,” she added. “Those little blue things sticking out. And that one passage where the ink’s faded. I could never quite make it out. Can you?”
“No.” The very sight of those little stingers made him petrified, but he couldn’t put the bottle down. “Is it OK if I keep this?”
“What’s it worth to ya?” she asked, raising flirtatious eyebrows.
It was around this time that security guards kicked in the door.
“You. Time to go,” the manager said. “And tell your scumbag captain that if he ever shows his face in here again, he’s gonna die an extremely young man. Got it?”
Jinni didn’t have much of a reaction. His fears were still reserved for that bottle. “I got it,” he said.
The manager and guards stayed to watch as Jinni finished getting dressed. While they didn’t place their hands on him, the guards were invasive with their presence as they escorted him down the stairs and to the front door. Just as Jinni was about to step on the porch and make a successful, incident-free exit, the young woman he’d been with shouted out in horror.
“He stole my Otis bottle! He stole my Otis bottle! Stop him.”
Jinni locked eyes with the security guards, who had already started walking back to their posts, and the chase was on. Jinni ran out the front door, leaped off the porch and into the muddy street. The two guards followed in close pursuit.
He could hear them starting to breathe heavily and smiled, knowing that he was just getting warmed up. He sprinted so hard and so fast through the crowd that both he and the guards blasted right past Peter, Nibs, Tootles, One, and Two without noticing any of them.
Peter and Tootles were in line for some street meat, as a grouchy old woman with a heavy smoker’s cough slow-cooked lush piles of red meat on a cast-iron skillet.
“Why is it that every time we stop for food at the end of the night, it’s only the skinniest and fattest ones eating?”
“Shut up, Two,” Tootles said, turning around and stepping forward.
“Why don’t you make me, Tittles?” Two said, reaching up and pinching Tootles’s nipple and surrounding flesh.
“Why don’t both of you shut up?” Peter said, turning away from his place in line. As Peter turned back around, the unpleasant woman taking orders was already staring through him as if he had just wasted the last thirty years of her life.
“Ahem,” she said.
“Yeah. Sorry. I’ll take the, uh—”
She turned her head away from the counter and began coughing uncontrollably in every direction, and very close to the meat she was about to serve.
“Ribeye,” Peter said deflated.
“Me too,” Tootles said.
She responded with a wet cough, causing both to recoil.
“Hold the gravy,” Tootles said. “Actually, you can just hold mine altogether,” he added, before stepping away.
Peter handed over a few shekels in exchange for the steaming plate. “You know you can skip one every once in a while,” he said, raising his fingers to his mouth to make a smoking gesture.
“Just take your plate and get out of here, wiseass.”
The group walked away, laughing all the way back to their vessel, the Elvira. As they stepped on board, Tootles began to hassle Peter for his last remaining bits of fat and gristle.
“No,” Peter said, shielding his plate from Tootles’s pudgy fingers. “You was standing right behind me, and you didn’t get any, so you ain’t getting any of this. You’re always pullin’ this shit too.”
Peter, One, Two, and Tootles stomped belowdecks to find the last remaining member of their crew, Slightly. Slightly lay awake in bed, groggy from the laudanum sitting on his nightstand.
“Back so soon?” he asked, his eyes half shut.
“Pete got us thrown out of another whorehouse,” One said.
“Nuh-uh.” Slightly gently placed his forearm over his eyes.
“Be careful with this stuff,” Peter said, picking up the laudanum bottle.
Slightly nodded. “I will. I am. Just wanted to get a good night’s sleep while we were docked.”
As Tootles disappointedly watched Peter throw the final bite of rich steak fat to Cecil the cat, Jinni rushed down from above deck and closed the hatch behind him. He was covered in mud, out of breath, and wearing clothes that he hadn’t been wearing when he left the Point.
“What the hell happened to you?” Peter asked.
“Those guys were faster than I thought,” Jinni said, struggling to catch his breath.
“Why were they chasing ya?” Nibs asked.
“I found something.” Jinni raised a rolled and tattered piece of paper to eye level and grinned. “You guys need to see this.