King of the Jinns
Jonathan V. Post

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A Science Fantasy Short Story
approx.3,000 words
© 1991 by Emerald City Publishing
I was watching CNN when Ali brought in the strangest coins I'd ever seen in my life. Patriot anti-missile missiles had just intercepted three Iraqi SCUD missiles over Tel Aviv, but one had crushed an elementary school. Ali entered my Brooklyn coin shop, coughed slightly as the door swung shut, and laid four coins on the black velvet tray in front of my stool. Like most Islamic coins, they heeded the Koran by showing no pictures. Obverse and reverse alike showed only writing -- a slightly squared-off Arabic script -- and both were worn to somewhere between "Fair Plus" and "Good Minus" condition. I poured him a cup of coffee. "How's the wife, Ali?" "I cannot complain, Jed." "This is America, Ali. It's in the Bill of Rights that you're allowed to complain." "America has been most hospitable to both of us, and we Arabs very much value hospitality. But we also have traditional respect for women ... and for camels and other property." "I have only a passing acquaintanceship with your language and culture," I said, trying to keep from rushing beyond small talk to the subject glimmering on the black velvet. Two were copper, and two were gilt-covered copper with most of the gilt rubbed away. "But I can read the inscription on the coins as well as you can. And so I must inquire, with all due respect, where in the world did you get these coins?" "I dare not say, in most specifics, but I'm sure that you are aware that there have been many refugees from Iraq fleeing through Jordan. Some have only those possessions they can carry. Some must sell what they possess, to feed their families." "Yes, Ali," I sighed, "the war is very bad bad for families. I can understand why you would want to protect your source of supply. I'm also pleased that you're not trying to bluff me with supernatural nonsense." "Can you really, not to insult your most estimable study of my beautiful tongue, can you really read what those coins say?" "Yes, Ali. These coins all claim to be minted by the King of the Jinns, the ruler of all spirits." CNN cut to a military briefing from Riyadh, where an Arab journalist in a jelbayah [??] was having his questions dodged by a crew-cut Marine colonel. "Is it not a fact, sir," said the journalist, "that yesterday's bombing did major damage to archeological sites in the Sumerian city of Ur, cradle of civilization, where was born Ibrahim, the father of the Arab peoples, known to you as Abraham?" "We can neither confirm nor deny," said the Colonel, "that ordnance deployed on legitimate military targets within an Iraqi airbase may or may not have inflicted collateral damage at the adjacent site. Be assured that we are taking every possible precaution to avoid civilian centers, archeological sites, religious shrines, and the like, even when such avoidance further endangers Allied pilots and their aircraft." "I shall need to study these coins tonight, Ali," I said, refilling his cup with what must be, to him, very weak coffee. "Please come back tomorrow morning, and I will tell you just how good the news must be." He smiled, frowned, smiled, made a suppressed gesture as if to reclaim the coins, and then, trusting me as I hoped he would, bowed and left the shop. The bells hanging from the door jingled after he left, and their echo seemed to fill eternity. Jinns, of course, are the good or evil shape-changing spirits of the Arab world from which our word "genie" derives. Jinns were said, according to the dusty tomes with which I spent the night, to have been created by God from a smokeless fire thousands of years before Adam. They formed a strict hierarchy of five orders. Shaitai, Efrit, and Marid are evil in nature, horrible to see, and usually fatal to mortals who encounter them. "The ground is littered with bodies, booby traps, shattered glass, and the fierce combustion of armored personnel carriers. Mopping up operations continue, despite sporadic enemy rocket barrages and pockets of stiff resistance," droned CNN. Janns are the most powerful of the five orders, the aristocrats of the spirit world. They are a peace-loving group, it seems, devoted to fine food and drink, beautiful music, and the occasional love affair with human beings. The word "Jinn" refers to all orders, hideous and beautiful alike. But why would these coins before me, as real as the keys to my Subaru, why on earth would they purport to be minted by the imaginary king of a mythical kindom? There were obvious fakes, but what possible motivation would a counterfeiter have in calling attention to his fraud? I opened a can of corned beef hash into the pan I keep on the hotplate in the back room, and continued to read as dinner sizzled and sputtered. The sound of cars whooshing by outside mingled with the air raid sirens on TV. Jinns are said to populate crossroads, as well as the confluences of rivers and streams. They can be invoked by talismans -- Aladdin's lamp being merely the best-known instance -- and by arcane incantations. There are 40 troops of Jinn, each of the 40 being led by a prince. All the princes bear fealty to their king, the supremely wise and powerful Malik Katshan. One of the princes, Bak Tanus, is written to have ruled three troops of Jinn who converted to Islam, and now wander as far as India and Europe. "Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar denied today in New Delhi that the dismissal of the Tamil Nadu administration was in any way related to growing opposition party demonstrations against the Allied war effort in Iraq. 'The breakdown of law and order, the Karunanidhi support of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka and the support by Madras of Assamese rebels are reason enough to have placed the southern state under emergency legislation,' he said." "Anti-war demonstrations in Bonn, Paris, Glasgow, and Rome today continued the uproar that the Iraqi war has provoked as far away as India and Europe." I gulped down the corned beef hash, spiced with a dash of Tabasco. Our troops in the Persian Gulf rate Tabasco highly, as it makes barely palatable the MRE's -- "Meals, Ready to Eat" or "Meals Rejected by Everyone." Some of our soldiers keep Tabasco bottles in their holsters. I dated the coins, from comparison with normal examples in my collection, as being from between 786 and 982 A.D. Fakes they may be, but ancient nonetheless. Of course, this put them centuries after Mohammed journeyed from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. The coins claim to be minted in the Fort of the Sword, the Fort of Safety, and the Fire Temple of the Worshippers. And two of the coins, glinting as I turned them over and over in my fingers, were dedicated to Bak Tanus, the Jinn prince. All bore the imprint of king Malik Katshan. What the hell was going on here? The fax machine began to hum. Tossing the pan in the sink, I went to look. For once, it was not a junk fax advertisement. Lefkowitz had responded to my inquiry on Arabic forgeries between the 8th and 10th Century. It seems that a coin magazine in 1913 had described items very similar to what now lay before me. The article described the coins themselves, and then recounted a tale told widely in the 19th Century. As I read, I thumbed through my moldering reference books for further details. Ali arrived at my shop the following morning, looking jumpier than usual. I not only poured him a cup of coffee, but slid him a plate of bakhlava I'd picked up from the bakery across the street. He mumbled appreciatively as he ate, and as I told him the story. "It seems," I began, "that in the early 1800's, a Persian lord by the name of Fath Ali Shah Shiek Ali Mirza was a good ruler, a good administrator, and a very productive father. Among his many children, borne by his many wives and concubines, there were no fewer than 60 sons, whom he loved no less than he loved his lands." "One of these sons, as a result of his father's munifiscence, ruled a tiny province therein. The prince, alas, was unlike his father in that he was a poor ruler, an indifferent administrator, and saw his wives and concubines as sources of earthly pleasures rather than as mothers to his children. He was, to put it bluntly, a sybarite, whose indulgences with food, wine, and women had depleted his strengths and diluted his judgments until he was virtually feeble-minded." "It came to pass that a man, clothed in costly silks and cloth-of-gold, approached the prince, and showered him with gifts and flowery words. He was, he claimed, a representative of a very significant potentate who desired to extend the hand of the most beautiful and obedient of his many daughters to the prince." "'That is very well," said the prince, 'for I am known to be powerful, wealthy, and abnormally well endowed as a man, but you must tell me who this potentate is, before I can grant your representation the attention to which you no doubt deserve.'" "The man prevaricated at length, in the most polite and civilized manner, for several days of feasting, dancing, music, and such diversions. At last he yielded to the entreaties of the prince, but only gave the answer after all servants had been dismissed, and they could speak alone, in the date-palm shadows of the moonlight." "'I am,' he said, with evident pride, 'the agent of the King of All The Jinns.'" "'The King of the Jinns wants me to marry his daughter?' said the prince. 'This is most glorious news indeed! I must send a messenger at once to my father, and have my staff begin the planning for the most spectacular weding this province has ever seen.'" "It must not yet be so," cautioned the man who claimed to be the agent of the King of the Jinns, 'for the King of All the Jinns has not yet consented to the wedding.'" "'But I thought you said that he was eager to extend the hand of the most beautiful and obedient of his many daughters to me?' said the perplexed prince." "This is true," said the agent, but you have not yet met the bride's price, which is merely a nominal sum in keeping with the respect one must have to the King of All the Jinns, who might, if he should have seen fit, placed so high a price as all your father's lands together could not begin to meet.'" "Just how much is that nominal sum," inquired the prince, who may have been feeble-minded, but was not yet a complete idiot. "The agent named a sum of wineskins, incense, jewels, and gold coins. It was a fairly hefty quantity, though not yet a tenth of the prince's coffers. It came to just about the weight that the agent's Arabian steed could carry comfortably in saddlebags." "Itching to get his hands, and other parts, upon the aformentioned most beautiful and obedient daughter of the King of the Jinns; and eager to prove himself a success to his ever-loving but somewhat disappointed father; and desirous of achieving the political advantages of such a noble marriage, the prince was inclined to agree to the bride price immediately. Still, a grain of the prudence which his father had for the most part failed to instill in him, at this moment emerged." "'How can I be sure, not that I truly doubt your distinguished personage, or the veracity of your offer,' said the prince, 'yet, how can I be genuinely sure that you are indeed the agent of the King of the Jinns? It is not that I question you, nor do I fail to thank you for your many gifts to me, your cultured conversation, and your excellant company these last few days, but this is the 18th Century after all, and in these modern times, in emulation of the otherwise despised Europeans, it has become the custom to require a modicum of proof.'" At this point, Ali's nervous jiggling spilled his cup of coffee on the counter, and I stopped to mop the spill, dismiss his apologies, and pour him another. CNN continued in the background. "In the village of Hilla, near the banks of the Euphrates river, adjoining the ancient city of Babylon some 60 miles south of Baghdad, heavy Allied bombardment proved today to have smashed a residential area, a secondary school, and a downtown childrens' clinic. Broken blackboards in the street and a confetti of shredded medical reports have convinced this reporter that the so-called pinpoint bombing in this area is less than perfectly pinpointed on military sites within the Iskandariya war facility." "Heavy cratering in Khalis, at the junction of the roads to Kirkuk and Sulemaniya, also appears to have done heavy damage to one-story homes surrounded by low walls, typical of rural Iraqui residences. Allied sources continue to deny reports of bombing damage to the great mosque and golden dome of Samarra, although these sources do admit that this site is immediately next to a weapons plant." "Please, please," said Ali, "I pray that you continue your story, which you have evidently researched with diligence, and with which I would like to understand the connection to my coins, which of course I would rather sell to you than to anyone else in the world." "Very well," I continued, munching on a final diamond-shaped piece of bakhlava, and washing it down with coffee. "Once the prince demanded proof, the agent, rather than being offended as the prince had feared, praised the wisdom of the prince, and left the palace for three days and nights. When he returned, he bore with him, on the finest parchment, a letter from the King of the Jinns." "The letter, in somewhat archaic but unambiguous terms, requested that the price go to a secluded valley, four days after sending the bride's price with the agent, and there await the most beautiful and obedient of his many daughters, who would be prepared for the wedding. The letter was signed Malik Katshan, in a firm and regal hand. The prince, of course, recognized this as the true name of the King of the Jinns." "Still troubled by a final ray of uncertainty, he asked the agent if there was any ancilliary proof as to the authenticity of the letter itself. Again, the agent was in no way offended, but praised the prince's perspicacity. The agent then handed to the prince a chamois bag, which contained several golden coins, all stamped with the name of Malik Katshan, King of the Jinns. The prince recalled his father telling him that only a king had the right to mint coins." "The logic was clear. Only a king could mint coins. These were coins, minted by a king. The name of the king was the same as the name of the King of the Jinns. Therefore, the coins must be minted by the King of the Jinns. Thus the letter from Malik Katshan must be authentic. Thus the purported agent must indeed be the true agent of Malik Katshan. Thus the offer of the daughter's hand must also be true. Thus, he, the prince, would soon be experiencing more-than-human transports of bliss with this daughter, plus the concomittant political advantages of the marriage. And all for a few saddlebags of wineskins, incense, jewels, and gold coins. What a deal! Wouldn't his father be proud!" "He gratefully delivered the bride's price to the agent, who departed rather rapidly, though not after numerous words of congratulations." "And four days later, shivering in the night breezes of the secluded valley, the prince awaited the arrival of the Princess of the Jinns. And awaited. And awaited." "Dawn broke, and with it, a terrible realization. His notion of proof was flawed, and he had been taken in by a confidence man. There would be no Princess of the Jinns, no marriage, no political clout, no approval from dear old Dad." "And worse than that, there was a province that could not stop laughing, not even after the prince was deposed by a sorrowful father, and placed under the more capable guidance of a younger but less dissipated son." Ali appeared excited, but puzzled. "This is a most intriguing tale you tell, and for that I am most grateful. But it is not yet entirely clear to me, not having your superior education, experience, and intelligence, exactly how this bears upon the matter of my coins, and on what their true worth must be?" "Well," I said, "this is still only conjecture on my part. But there seem to be three clear possibilities. First of all, the tale might be substantially true, or at least based on a similar but actual event. In this case, the coins were actually the master stroke of one of the world's most polished con men, and are over a thousand years old, quite rare, albeit conterfeit, and certainly very valuable." "Secondly, the tale is a completely fictitious one, and the coins were very cleverly manufactured within the last century to correspond to the story, in hopes that some foolish 19th Century collector would be duped as thoroughly as the legendary prince. If so, further microscopic and isotopic analysis will reveal their recent origins. They will still be of some modest value, as curiosities, but not perhaps enough for you to retire." "Third, there is the intermediate possibility that the coins are ancient, that we do not know the circumstances of their forgery, and that the tale grew up around them. In this case, too, they are quite valuable. And maybe even more valuable than that when scholars can figure out the true conditions of their origin." Ali stared at the ceiling, and stroked his beard, deep in thought. Finally, with some timidity, he haltingly spoke. "Is there not a fourth possibility, which you have not ennunciated?" he said. "Is there not even a shred of possibility that the story is true? I mean, that is, not the story about the prince, but the story told by the agent? Is it not even remotely conceivable that the King of All the Jinns was indeed responsible for the minting of these coins, and that the prince somehow failed to properly execute the terms of the wedding agreement? Is it not possible that random bombing in Iraq has triggered some talisman, or otherwise brought to light a vanished remnant of a civilization which no one today truly understands?" I looked at him in amazed silence for at least a minute, as the steam from the coffee cups spiraled and twisted in the Brooklyn sunlight filtering in through the dusty windows of my shop. And then we spoke long into the night, and there is really no need for me to go into the details of that conversation. For Ali was shot to death in a car the next morning, in what the New York cops and the FBI suspect was an incident of domestic terrorism, and we shall never know how he came to possess the coins. More to the point, the most detailed scrutiny under scanning electron microscopes, and the most painstaking isotopic mass spectroscopy have not only confirmed an 8th Century date for the coins' origin, but found them to have been made of copper and gold found in no mine anywhere upon this planet. Unless the Arab world a thousand years ago had sophisticated atom smashers, and the knowledge of transmutation by such means; or unless these coins were minted from metals extracted from a singular meteorite from somewhere quite unlike our provincial arm of the Milky Way galaxy, there is no explaination as to the manufacture of these coins. And that is why I stand here tonight, in the moonlight, with rare manuscripts in hand, chanting in uncertain voice at these crossroads besides the confluence of two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, while a perimeter of Royal Kuwaiti and U.S. Marine Corps guards shift uneasily on the desert sands, and the B-52s drone in the stratosphere above, deadly as Shaitai, Efrit, and Marid. Will you please hand me that lamp? *** The End *** (Thanks to Jed Stevenson, "Three mysterious coins of the ancient Middle East, fact or fantasy", The New York Times, 1 February 1991)

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