Ali squeezed his way through the gap in the chain-link fence, careful not to get caught on the protruding metal. The abandoned youth centre was the only place he could guarantee was empty on a Monday morning, and for what he was about to do, empty was ideal.
It was Ali’s first time skipping school, but he didn’t do it without good reason. You see, Ali was a good kid, a smart kid. But like all kids, the lingering pressure of fast approaching A-levels made him anxious. And when kids get anxious, they do drastic things; they act out. For most kids, this meant a little bit of bad behaviour here and there. For Ali, it meant doing the unthinkable. It meant enlisting the help of the unseen.
If there was one thing Ali learnt in his short eighteen years of existence, it was communicating with jinn was a no-go. His family made sure of that with all the jinn possession stories they told him as a child. The story of his father’s second cousin’s father-in-law’s brother used to send shivers down his spine. Yet here he was, bunking off school to break into the local youth centre and summon a jinni.
Ali walked across the main hall, plonked his duffle bag on the stage and retrieved the cheap ornamental oil lamp from within. Despite its appearance, the guy who sold it to him promised it contained a wish jinni. Usually, Ali would ignore such people, passing them off as addicts looking for a quick score. But this guy was wearing a tuxedo and looked like he meant business. He also wasn’t asking for a lot: only ten quid. And so, Ali’s knowledge of A-level economics told him the risk was worth the potential reward.     
Ali quietly recited Ayat-al-Kursi and, with a deep anticipatory breath, slowly rubbed the lamp. For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. Realising he’d been duped, Ali released his anticipatory breath in a zephyr of disappointment. How could he be so stupid? Soon, that zephyr of disappointment morphed into a pile of shame which caught alight, fuelling a fit of anger that ended with Ali lobbing the lamp across the hall, crashing into the far wall in a cloud of purple smoke.
“What the fuck?!” exclaimed Ali.
Once the smoke cleared, in its place stood a balding middle-aged man staring into the wall with his back towards Ali. This wasn’t at all what Ali was expecting. For one, his feet didn’t face backwards but forwards like a regular person. In fact, everything about the man standing in front of him seemed pretty regular. He wore a regular white button-down shirt over a regular-sized pot belly, tucked into regular blue jeans secured by a regular belt alongside a regular pair of flip-flops which altogether made for an admittedly irregular choice of clothing but nothing one would expect from beings who were supposedly immortal and wielded immense power. The regular man turned to face Ali, revealing a regular face with regular features neither ugly nor beautiful.
“Oh, there you are,” said the regular man in a regular voice, “you must be the human who summoned me. What be thy name?”
“Ali Deen,” answered Ali, “what’s yours?”
“Will Williams. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance Ali Deen.” Will extended a hand in greeting, which Ali reluctantly accepted. “Tell me, young Ali Deen, where are we?”
“You can call me Ali, and we’re in Mile End.”
“I see. So if this is where the mile ends, where does it begin?”
“Huh?” Ali was visibly confused.
“Oh, don’t mind me, just a little bit of jinni humour for you,” Will awkwardly chuckled, “So tell me, young Ali Deen, why did you summon yours truly?”
Ali wasn’t sure what to make of this. The being who stood before him contradicted every account of what jinn were supposed to be like. Even the name Will Williams didn’t sound very jinni-like. Then again, he did emerge from the inside of a magical lamp. Perhaps, it was the stories that were wrong. After all, he didn’t personally know anyone who had seen a jinni.
“Umm… I summoned you to grant me wishes innit.”
“Why yes, of course!” beamed Will, “it is what we jinn are known for. Allow me to inform you of the terms and conditions though I’m well aware you may already know them given their prevalence in popular culture, Ali Deen.”
In the next moment, Will was suddenly wearing glasses Ali didn’t remember seeing him put on and reading a sheet of paperwork which had to have materialised from thin air. That settled it then. The being who stood in front of Ali was most certainly a jinni.
“‘I, Will Williams, promise to fulfil three wishes for Ali Deen so long as they abide by the following conditions. Condition number one: No wishing death upon anyone, no matter how evil they may be. Condition number two: No wishing anyone to fall in love, no matter how beautiful they may be. Condition number three: No wishing to bring anyone back from the dead, no matter how missed they may be. Condition number four: No wishing for more wishes, no matter what they be.’ And lastly, ‘condition number five: Ali Deen is to pay Will Williams five hundred British pounds sterling prior to the fulfilment of any wishes.’ Any questions?”
“Uhh… Yeah, about that last one. Why I gotta pay you for?” questioned Ali, “like, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to grant wishes for free, right? At least that’s what happens in the movies.”
“Well, in the movies, jinn don’t have to pay rent, nor do they have to cope with an ever-increasing cost of living either.”
“That’s true, but don’t you have, like, I don’t know, a magical home or whatever, where you don’t have to pay rent? Plus, I’m pretty sure I just freed you from that lamp, so you kinda owe me.”
“Oh, please! If I wanted to leave that bloody lamp, I could’ve done so whenever I wanted,” sneered Will, “Now, do you want the wishes or not? Because I could leave and give them to someone who’ll pay me for my services and isn’t such a stingy little git.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll pay,” capitulated Ali, “it’s just, I’m a student. I ain’t got that kind of money lying around.”
“Well, how much do you have then?”
“Umm… I’ve got about fifty quid in my bank account.”
Will paused for a moment to consider the offer.
“Okay, done. Transfer me the money, and we’ll get started,” agreed Will, handing Ali a piece of paper with his bank details.
Ali got out his phone and began inputting the information. He learned a lot today. Lesson number one being that jinn were nothing like how the stories or movies portrayed them. He never considered jinn would have any need for money, let alone have to pay rent. Who would’ve thought beings made of smokeless fire had to deal with the same problems as mere mortals? Not Ali, that’s for sure. He was about to hit transfer when an unfamiliar voice spoke up from behind the stage curtains.
“You know he can’t actually grant you wishes, right?”
After pausing for dramatic effect, the voice’s owner revealed themselves to be a young woman dressed in a navy blue suit with a matching headscarf. She looked like an FBI agent, which wouldn’t have made any sense seeing as they were in London. She must be MI6 then. Or MI5. Whichever one dealt with stuff domestically. Ali wasn’t sure.
“Ah shit,” cursed Will, “Not you again.”
“Hey there, Will. I hope you’re keeping out of trouble,” waved the newcomer, “although it doesn’t seem like it.”
“Of course not. I was only just giving this young man some directions.”
“Yes, directions,” asserted Will, “you see, young Ali got lost on his way to school and wound up here in Mile End. Luckily, I was here to help him. Isn’t that right, Ali?”
Ali was lost for words. His day was getting more and more perplexing by the hour.
“Well, is that what’s happening here, Ali?” interrogated the newcomer, “was Will giving you directions?”
The hall was silent, the newcomer staring into Ali’s soul in anticipation of an answer.
“He doesn’t seem to speak, Will. Are you sure he’s okay?”
“The boy is a little shy, is all. But I assure you, nothing untoward is going on here.”
Despite his frazzled mind, Ali finally put together enough words to blurt out a coherent sentence.
“Are you a jinni too?”
“Me? No,” giggled the newcomer, “I’m Detective Anayra Ansari of the Arbitration Agency; we’re the ones who keep the peace between humans and jinn. Unfortunately, your friend Will here is suspected of running a wish scam.”
“Wish scam?”
“Yes. Hundreds of unsuspecting humans fall victim every year. Basically, a jinni seeking to earn some quick cash finds a gullible human, charms them with a few simple jinni illusions and promises to grant them wishes. However, the truth is jinn cannot grant real wishes, only the illusion of wishes. If Will could really grant you wishes, he wouldn’t be asking you for your money. Instead, he’d magically create some himself. But the truth is: Will cannot make real money, so he resorts to scams like these,” tutted Anayra, “in fact, he already has­— how many strikes is it now? Two?”
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” scorned Will.
“Will already has two strikes,” continued Anayra, “and if he gets a third? Well, then he’s gonna have to do time. Isn’t that right, Will?”
Will refused to answer, his arms crossed to express his disdain.
“So tell me, Ali. Did Will promise he’ll grant you wishes in exchange for money?”
“He did,” answered Ali, “but the donny came in a lamp and everything. Some guy in a tuxedo sold it to me.”
“Seriously, Will? You’re resulting to that orientalist garbage? That’s a new low, man,” sighed Anayra.
“It was certainly enough to fool the Beni Adam,” murmured Will.
Anayra ignored the fleer of bigotry coming from the guilty jinni.
“Who’s your accomplice in the tux?”
“I’m not telling you,” rebuffed Will.
“You know we’ll find out soon enough,” promised Anayra, “ anyway, it looks like I’m gonna have to arrest you.”
Will paused, eyeing the detective, who now held a pair of pellucid blue handcuffs. After a few moments of consideration, the jinni placed his arms out front. Whatever it was he thought of doing, he decided against it. Anayra clicked the handcuffs into place, the pellucid blue turning to a translucent red.
“Thanks for coming quietly.”
“We both know how it would turn out otherwise.”
Anayra nodded her appreciation and began leading Will out of the hall. However, she stopped short of the fire exit before returning to Ali, seriousness etched into her face.
“Forget what you saw here today. Officially, jinn don’t exist. Officially, I don’t exist. Trust me, if you go around telling people, it’s only gonna bring trouble your way. So it’s better for everyone if you pretend today never happened. For your own sake at least, if nobody else’s.”
Ali was still trying to make sense of it all. A jinni with regular feet. A detective with glow-in-the-dark handcuffs. An agency tasked with maintaining peace between humans and jinn. If he couldn’t make sense of it, how could anyone else? And even if he were to tell someone, who would believe him?
“Aight. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“Thank you, Ali,” smiled Anayra, “If you don’t mind me asking, what was it you were going to wish for anyway?”
“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it. It was pretty stupid anyway.”
“Stupid enough to enlist the help of a jinni?”
“Yeah, I guess it was,” chuckled Ali, “I was gonna ask him to give me A-stars for my A-levels.”
“Ah, A-levels. I know the feeling, kid. Trust me, you’re better off putting in the work. The reward isn’t in the result; it’s in the journey.”
“Safe,” smiled Ali.
“My pleasure. And good luck with your exams. Anyway, I better get this one back to the— OH SHIT!”
Will was missing, the fire exit wide open. Without wasting another moment, Anayra immediately bolted out the door, leaving Ali alone with his thoughts. After taking a moment to process everything he’d witnessed, Ali picked up his bag and made his way back to school. He had exams to prepare for.