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§3 Af

     He was big. He was blue. And he wore an unmistakable red and gold bisht over his robes, a cloak patterned with shooting flames so garish that it would have made a muscle car blush.
     “AS-SALAM-U-ALAIKUM! OCTAVIAN, MY FRIEND!” he boomed.
     Loud. Did I mention he was loud?
     “Wa Alaikum Assalum, Af,” I said with a grin, “Seeing you here gives me great pleasure.”
      Af crossed the distance between us in about two strides, then gathered me up in a smothering hug, filling my nostrils with smoke and singeing my bangs. In this world, he was close to 8’ tall. My face was more or less buried in his abdomen. Just when I thought he might actually set me on fire – Af is an Afrit, Jean, his flesh is hot even for a Jinn – he shook me with what I guess was affection, let out a whoop so loud that my ears rang for days, then stepped back over to where Chubby was standing, nodding to himself and smiling.
     Anisette was laughing, almost near tears, though her gun never wavered.
     Getting a hold of herself, she turned to Chubby, and said, ”Don’t feel too bad, champ. Oct, he’s just lucky like that. Pisses you off at first. I mean, we all want to believe you need more than luck to win, right?” 
     Then turning to me, an exaggerated frown on her face, said ”You get used to it.”
     “Still bitter about Stars of Catania, An?” I said.
     “It’s Settlers of Catan, Oct. Catan. And I would be less bitter if you had bothered to learn the rules,” she replied. 
     Ignoring this exchange, a rather shaken Chubby addressed the Jinn.
     “Where did you meet this man, Af?” he asked.
     Af looked down at him, a puzzled expression on his face. Finally, he responded, ”MANY PLACES. I MET HIM IN MANY PLACES.” Then he shrugged. 
     Chubby sighed audibly.
     “Where did you *first* meet Mr. Wells, Af?” he asked, ”And please, speak a bit softer.”
     “Oh. In the town of Malo, in the Alam-e-Araf, the bridge lands,” he replied.
     Have you ever been to Malo, in the Outbact? No? It is a very rough place, something of a border town. Yes, it is Outbact with a ‘t’ – an old joke that stuck. “Bact” from Bactrian, which was the main language spoken there by both humans and Jinn alike, although even in the intermediate realms, English has come to dominate these days. The easiest way to get there, or to any of the other halfway realms, like Avalon or San Borondón, is through dreamwalking. I can teach you the technique sometime if you like, although it is a lot easier to leave the ship when you let someone else grab the wheel, to be perfectly honest.
     “Well, now that you have said hello to your friend, I ask that you obey my command, and subdue him,” said Chubby.
     “YOU COMMANDED ME TO SAVE YOU,” said Af, a bit heatedly. Then checking his volume once again, “And save you I shall. Through clever negotiation!” he said, wagging his finger at me.
     “Just destroy him!” said Chubby in exasperation.
     “Is that a new command?” asked Af, as if he was speaking to a child. “I have not yet finished your third command, Cyrus. If you give me a new command, I will consider the third one unspoken.”
     No, Jean, he was not simply being perverse, even to save me. All of them are that literal, it’s the way their brains work. 
     “Yes! Wait! I mean no, let me think,” said Chubby, whose name was apparently Cyrus, but I think I will keep calling him Chubby.
     “I will negotiate while you decide which of those statements you mean,” said Af, rubbing his hands together and turning to me. He grinned. His teeth were pointed, like a shark’s.
     “What must I give you for the fat one’s freedom, Octavian?” he asked.
     “Give! What must you give! You are a Genie, he is but a man! You are deliberately subverting my command to spare your friend!” shouted Chubby.
     “It is pronounced ‘Jinn’, rhymes with ‘thin’ or ‘spin’”, said Af patiently.
     The second blonde thug, who was still spread eagled on the floor, chimed in at this point.
     “Two guns, they have two guns, you idiot! The Jinn attacks either one, and the other just shoots you in the head. Commandus Interuptus. Jinn goes back to hell or wherever. And me and Sieg are screwed,” he said.
     “Yes. This one who is licking the floor, he has sense. Octavian has the upper hand. So … we negotiate,” said Af, rolling his eyes.
     “Fine, fine. Just get me out of here!” said Cyrus. 
     Af opened his mouth as if to speak.
     “No that is not a new command! Just save me, however you think best,” he said hurriedly.
     “Please hurry. Sieg, he needs a doctor. Like, right now,” said the prone man.
     I heard an inward chuckle, and felt a chill come over me.
     Af raised an eyebrow. 
     “Can I send the man you broke to a hospital, Octavian?” he asked.
     “Yes, and his friend to care for him,” I replied.
     “Fine by me,” said the prone guy. Chubby shrugged, then said, ”Fine, fine, fine!”
     Af concentrated for about five seconds, his eyes losing focus. Then, stretching out both hands into the air, he pulled, as if he was reeling in laundry from an invisible line. Then, all of a sudden, he pushed, and they both vanished. The essence of all Jinn “magic” -- transportation of things from one place to another. I once asked Af how it worked but he said it was just something you do, like walking or flying. My guess is they don’t have the same relationship to spacetime we do. But who knows?
     “Af, 2,” he said, then pausing for effect, “Oct, 0,” holding up two fingers on one hand and making a fist with the other.
     No, I have no idea if that was a joke, Jean. They can be very hard to interpret. They are another species, after all.
     “I just want some information, then you can both go, Af,” I said.
     “No!” said Chubby, “You must tell him nothing of the Labyrinth!”
     An caught my eye, then covered her mouth. This guy was so not a pro. Well at least the enemy had a name, I remember thinking. But it was not much to go on.
     “So I can provide no more information on his masters, the Labyrinth,” Af said simply. “Is there something else you wanted to know, Oct?” he asked.
     “How were you bound, my friend?” I asked. “And do you want to be freed?”
     Chubby vehemently shook his head no, but Af waved him off.
     “These are personal things, Cyrus, so I am at liberty to answer. I will not give away your masters. I was bound by the Ring of Solomon, Octavian, and instructed to answer the summons of that lesser ring on Cyrus’s finger. Five commands, for ___” the last “word” he spoke was more of a hissing sound, like steam. “Since I am need of ____, to pay a dowry, I was happy to accept. As were others, Oct. ____ is in short supply these days. So I am well-paid for this service. I also wanted to visit our old world again. But I thank you for your concern, my friend,” he said, and bowed.
     Yes, Jean, the Director of the Labyrinth apparently has the Ring of Solomon. And apparently a big supply of ____ to boot. Or someone close to him does. I thought you knew.
     “I have provided information. Negotiation successful. Now we shall leave,” said Af, holding up three fingers on one hand, and two on the other.
     I nodded. “I’ll beat you one of these days, Af,” I said.
     He just shook his head sadly by way of reply.
     I could have pushed for more, I guess. But he had already given away a lot more than he had promised. The Labyrinth was not just a group, it was a group of seasoned practitioners, packing at least one serious artifact. Did he tell me this on purpose? I wondered. I like to think so, but it was so hard to tell.
     “It was good to see you again, my friend,” I said.
     “You as well, Octavian,” he said, then turned to face Anisette.
     “Daughter of Fire, you should cover your head,” he said, “Allah sees all times and places, even San Francisco. Please look out for Octavian. For an infidel, he is a good man.”
     An, at a loss for once, simply replied, “I will.”
     Cyrus walked over to Af, whose eyes were already unfocused, whose hands were already in motion.
     “You serve bad masters, Mr. Wells, but a reckoning is coming,” he said.
     “Well, at least I serve them badly,” I retorted, right before they faded out.
     “Phew,” said An, slumping to the couch, “That was touch and go there for awhile.”
     “We need to get moving, An. This place is compromised, and the next team they send might actually be competent. Let me pack a few things, and we are out of here,” I said, already heading to the bedroom.
     No, I didn’t have a go bag, Jean. Probably should have. I ejected the removable hard drive from its dock in my desktop, and put it a shoulder bag with my other electronics, laptop, tablet, phone, and the corresponding mess of cords. I sponged off quickly in the bathroom, and took a leak. Shaving would have to wait.
     I filled another shoulder bag with a single change of clothes.  Then rifling my drawers, grabbed a couple of passports, my checkbook, and some cash. Socks, shoes, belt, jacket, and I was done.
     Back in the living room, An was already waiting by the door, both of her own bags in hand. 
     “I have two tickets for London that leave tonight, Oct. We’ll have to ditch the guns before we go in the airport,” she said.
     I looked at her. “An, I need a favor,” I said.
     Her eyes widened.
     "Oh no! I am not helping you find that monster again, Oct,” she said.
     “He’ll have information. And, information is what we need most right now,” I said.
     “The Stealer of Life. You want me to find someone who answers to the name, ‘The Stealer of Life,” she said.
      “No one knows more information than Lueurs. He has spent lifetimes accumulating it and only you can find him quickly.  Help me find him, An. Then we can go to London and tell the others,” I said.
      Yes, Laurent Lueur. Life Stealer. Who is also my godfather.
      "I'm thinkin' one more push should get it, Oct. She knows you're right, she just can't stand him," said Jesse internally.
      "I concur with Mr. Evans," added Andrews. Yes, it was very rare for her to chime in, actually. 
      Well that made three of us. I decided not to poll the rest.
      “Please, An,” I pleaded.
      “Can I at least call them, tell them what we found out? About the Labyrinth, the Jinn? I won’t mention Lueur. Just tell them we are on our way, although it may take a few days.”
      “Sure, but call them on the way. I don’t want to stay here another minute,” I said.
     She nodded, reaching for her phone as we went through the door. I didn’t even bother locking it on the way out.