“You did it!” Loretta exclaimed, patting him on the back. The cigarette’s column of ash, dangling by the filter from her bottom lip, quivered and fell on the carpet. She brushed its remains from the lapel of her jacket and the spine of the book she carried under her arm before she ground them into the outdated pattern of the musty, faded carpet with a scuffed stiletto.
Darren Holme was exhausted. It had been a long time since a magician had been offered a residency of this size in Atlantic City. Let’s face it, Vegas was much more where it’s at. But, he had been there and done that, at least a dozen times.
“Thanks, Loretta!” He smiled, avoiding eye contact. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you.”
Her rough laugh sounded more like the bark of an aggressive rottweiler. She placed her blue-veined hand protectively on his shoulder. It lingered there for a long moment. There were whole conversations unspoken, resting beneath the palm of her hand. She pushed her intentions gently but relentlessly down into his flesh so that he would understand perfectly. When she was sure he had, she released him.
“I’m going for a walk.” He said, changing without waiting for her to leave and grabbing his coat should he need protection from the late-night autumn air on the Jersey Shore.
He didn’t bother trying to hide. He realized that most people don’t recognize magicians unless they are on stage doing magician things. The reality was, that even though he had been on every late-night talk show, Good Morning wherever, nobody seemed to recognize him at all once the lights came up.
He slouched into his jacket as he emerged from the casino doors. His feet hit the boardwalk with a familiar sound he could never find anywhere else. The boards of the legendary Atlantic City Boardwalk had a sound all their own. A modern-day Ship of Theseus, the boardwalk had been there since 1870, but not a single timber remained from that original structure. Yet somehow, each new board set in place retained the spirit of its forebearers. The whole transcending the ever-replaceable parts.
The bright electric screens which shone like torches along the edge of the dunes lit the entire boardwalk, even during this off-season. He couldn’t help but laugh when he saw the advertisements for his own show, growing smaller as they repeated into the distance on those electric screens.
He crossed the storefront with a giant iguana out front. A weathered, salt-stained pizza place was open on the corner. Massage parlors, psychics, and dollar stores resided at alternating intervals between souvenir shops. He smiled as he lost himself to the rhythm of his feet walking along the boardwalk.
When Loretta proposed the residency, the casino was immediately onboard after his success out West. They would have preferred that he had chosen one of their other spots, but anything to draw crowds. Four nights a week with a matinee on Sunday, and a suite each for herself and him.
He walked past the vacant mall, its quiet hallways connected to the neighboring casino by a bridge to the greatest evidence that the city itself was in deepest hibernation, waiting patiently to awaken and regain its glory. He found the Steel Pier and looked up the grand Ferris Wheel reaching into the sky. Its lights were on, but the pier was closed.
“Technology is the greatest magic humanity has ever worked.” He thought.
He continued his journey to the very end until he could see the beacon of the Absecon Lighthouse keeping time in the distance. He remembered the first time he had seen it. That was a very long time ago.
He remembered his last agent. He was a good man. Together they had made each other a lot of money. But, as all things must, their partnership came to an end. That was when he first walked these boards. He was not a magician then. He had been credited as a partner in a law firm. If there were two things existence had taught him, it was to interpret rules, and how to use magic to break them.
It was for that reason he was here now. Turning, he saw that there were no stragglers behind him. He had passed the scant barrier which marked the end of the boardwalk. The final casino on the strip had grown smaller behind him and the lighted screens beckoning the crowds to his shows were fireflies in the distance. Confident in his solitude, he summoned the warm saltwater-infused winds to himself and gently ascended through the iron bars of the catwalk surrounding the lantern room.
He stood there for quite some time, wishing that he could just get a moment’s darkness. Darkness was so hard to find here. But darkness is what this required. Taking a deep breath he focused his will and, knowing that his power would only provide a few moment’s respite, he called out to the abyss, pulling its darkness to him and unleashing it down the weathered boards. It was as if the entire boardwalk had simply gone to sleep, lights winking out in a great wave all along the beach until the darkness was complete.
“Nu!” He screamed out into the dark and roiling waters. “Free me! Bring me home! I have been too long in this land!”
For a moment the ancient sea itself rose in acknowledgment of his pleas. The surf roared and the waves crashed. Just as those waves slithered back to the mighty Atlantic, the lights began their return. Winking back into brightness in the distance, they slowly made their way to him until the light of the Absecon burned once more.
Turning, he saw Loretta. She was standing there in her bathrobe and her slippered feet as she unsteadily gripped the metal grating around them. She held in her hand the book which bound them together. She saw him and her eyes widened in fear.
“I still have one wish!” She said defensively.
“Do you know the paradox of the Ship of Theseus?” Darren asked.
“Whatever foolishness you’re thinking of, get it clear out of your head,” Loretta ordered him, choking on the last words as a wracking cough rattled in her chest.
“Long ago, I realized that the lamp was an encumbrance that had outlived its time.” He explained. “I had my partner melt it down and guild the pages of this book with its essence. Rub a lamp, open a book, what’s the difference, right?”
“Let’s just go back and shoot some craps!” She choked. “We’re good! We’re living the life!”
“This too is a game of chance, Loretta.” Darren conceded. With a wave of his hand, the iron barrier between them and the night-time sky disappeared.
He walked to her and gently opened the cover of the book. The page was not important. The gilded edges sparked to life, catching the light each time the beacon came full circle and shone upon them. He caressed the paper-thin skin of her fingers and gently curled them around the corner of the page.
“Please,” She looked up at him, a tear forming.
“Please,” His plea was equally heartbreaking.
Guiding her hand he tore that page from the book. Guiding it again he lifted it to the sky. He whispered in her ear and together they let it go, watching as it drifted away on the wind, it landed gently upon the water, and was swallowed by the dark and hungry sea.
Each page they tore together. Each page they sent to the abyss. When the final page had wafted down and they were left with only the leather binding she turned to him. Her eyes had sunken deep into their sockets and the skin around her lips had been pulled tightly to her teeth.
“Please?” She begged.
“Yes,” Darren replied. Still gently guiding her hand he hurtled the empty cover of his prison out into the darkness and as it flew through the air the remains of Loretta whorled with them. With each moment, the distance grew between them and time consumed her. By the time the splash was heard from atop the Absecon Lighthouse, she had joined the twinkling stars as the very particles of her were lifted into the sky.
“What’s going on up here?” The door burst open and Darren started.
The lighthouse keeper balked, blinking. Darren blinked as well. It had been a long time since he had taken his true form. It had been a long time since a human had beheld his true form. The keeper simply fainted, falling backward down the circular staircase, but not falling too far. The passageway was rather narrow here at the top.
The long black hair at the top of Darren’s head was gathered once more in that golden ring. That golden ring which had once been stolen to forge his lamp. That golden lamp which he had melted down to be gilded upon the pages of the book. But now, with the spell broken, it was his once more. It looked like molten fire each time the beacon shone upon his crimson skin.
“Where will I go next?” He asked himself, not wanting to rush the decision.
The light of the Absecon rounded once again and as it fell full upon him he rode those electric currents to its core. The beacon's flaring could be seen for miles beyond its normal range. The Absecon light now had a beating heart all its own. For now, the spirit of the djinn abides within.