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“What, exactly, was your role in the President’s administration?”
The man leaned back in his chair with a lazy shrug, apparently unbothered by the handcuffs shackling him to the table. “He called me his ‘genie.’”
“So you – what? Pull strings? ‘Grant wishes?’”
“Precisely that, yes.”
He met her eyes with a self-satisfied smirk, daring her to look away. The man was handsome enough, leanly fit with a deep tan and slick black hair, his large eyes rimmed in shadow. His features were angular, somehow predatory, but there was no hint of tension in his posture. They might have been sitting at a restaurant.
He grinned, as if following her train of thought. He wanted her to ask what it was that the President had wished for, but that would mean acquiescing, allowing him to lead the conversation. The suspect had already stymied better investigators than her. There was no record of him in the system – any system – and he hadn’t turned up on any of the news coverage or security footage. But he had been there all the same, staring silently out the window when agents had stormed the most famous office in the world. The others had been booked in days ago, coverage of their impending trials already dominating the twenty-four-hour news cycle. This man, though, this John Doe…
“Excuse me for saying, but you don’t look like the rest of his inner circle.”
“The race card, Officer…?” When she failed to supply her name, his smile widened. “I had expected… well, not more precisely. I had assumed your superiors sent you here to see if I would speak more willingly to a pretty face. If so, you might try smiling, just a bit.”
“You’re not the first guy to tell me that. Maybe first you want to tell me your name.” Even that, the others had been unable to get. The guy talked a lot for someone with nothing to say.
“Once, I was called Simeon.”
She blinked in surprise, but he was careful not to react. Shaking her head, she shot a pointed glance at the two-way mirror behind her. “Simeon. That’s your name? Really?”
“It is a name. And not one that you will find in your computers, at least not in your department’s databases. Might I also have yours? In the name of courtesy?”
Give and take. “Agent Roth.”
He inclined his head. “A pleasure, Agent Roth.”
“Mister— Simeon. What was your role in the President’s administration?”
“As we established, I was his genie. A spirit of fortune, bound to his service.”
This road was getting her nowhere. “And how long have you known the President?”
“Since he was a child.” Simeon’s eyes grew distant, but there was no fondness in them.
“So you’re saying that you and the President were childhood friends?”
“Not at all. Simply that our relationship dates back further than you might expect.”
“Right. And you’re – what? – about thirty-five?”
He laughed at that, long and deep. “We are not here to talk about me.”
“Oh, but we are. The others sang like birds. You should see what we have on them. And then there’s you.”
“And then there’s me.” Again, he shrugged. “If my presence complicates matters for you, I could simply leave.”
His gaze strayed to the mirror. “Oh, yes.”
“Then why don’t you? Why not grab your boss and walk out?”
This time, the smile reached his eyes. “I am bound to help him, this is true. And I will. But some time to himself will do him good, I think. Perhaps he may even think about what he’s done.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.”
She sat back in her chair, studying him. The silence bothered him no more than the cuffs, than the audience watching from behind the glass. Roth sighed. “Let’s start at the beginning. How did you and the President meet?”
“By chance, of course.”
“The Museum of Natural History, New York.”
So, that’s how he was going to play it. He’d make her work for every word, give away nothing for free. Everyone slipped eventually, though, and he was giving her answers. If any of it was true, it was still an improvement. “What were you doing there?”
Again, he smiled. “I was new in town.”
“And the President?”
“Accompanying his father. I am unsure of their initial purpose. The matter of a donation, I believe. Or perhaps a purchase. Their tour was a private one, through areas not yet open to the public.”
“And this is where you met? On this tour?”
“In a way. You know the man. Even as a boy, he had little interest in antiquities. He was bored, he told me, and the father took no interest when he wandered off. He was tired of looking broken pots. ‘If they wanted good pots,’ he said, ‘they shouldn’t have made them out of clay.’ He wanted to see the ‘real treasure.’”
She scowled. “Is that some kind of euphemism?”
Simeon threw back his head and laughed. “You think that I skulk about museums, luring children into dark corners, do you? Nothing so sinister. Even today, the man is easily distracted by any bobble that sparkles. I suspect he was in search of gold and jewels, that sort of thing.”
“And he was… a child at this time? How old were you?”
“Worry less about me, Agent Roth. I am inconsequential.”
“I’m starting to doubt that.”
He grinned. “We met at the museum, as I said. The boy had wandered off alone, bored of his father’s dealings. At that age, he still had sense enough to be quiet about it. This was not a child accustomed to being denied, but anticipation of his father’s reaction kept his steps furtive, his posture slouched and sullen.”
“You remember a lot.”
“I forget nothing.” His expression darkened. “It is not a gift I would recommend.”
There it was, that flicker of emotion, that rift of discontent between this strange man and his employer. She noted it silently, nodding for him to continue.
“So here he comes, red and sweating, this round little ball of wounded pride. His grimy fingers wandered idly over every surface, smearing the as-yet-unboxed treasures of history with his insolent indifference. I myself could feel it in his touch, but I am long accustomed to the greed of men. It is my stock and trade, you see.”
“Because you’re a genie.”
“Please, try not to overtax your sarcasm.”
“And your story is – what? – some kid wandered off in a museum and found your magic lamp?”
“Not just any kid. Until recently, he was your President.”
Roth began to laugh. She couldn’t help it.
He watched her with a knowing smile. “Do you have a better explanation for the events of his time in office?”
The laugh caught in her throat and she coughed, shaking her head. “You know, I really don’t.”
“What is the saying? ‘The simplest solution…’”
“Occam’s Razor. Don’t think it’s meant to apply to the imaginary.”
“I am attempting to give you the information that you seek, Agent Roth. Would it not be easier to ‘save your questions for the end,’ as they say? I am in no hurry to rob the people of their public shaming, but the both of us have jobs to do. We have little time for incredulity.”
“Incredulity is kinda my job.” She shrugged. “But by all means, Professor. If it’ll speed this along.”
“My thanks.” He inclined his head, his eyes darkening. “The boy found me, boxed and crated and forgotten. It takes a period of adjustment, you see, assessing one’s place and time after a long rest. He’d woken me, and I wasn’t at my best. I doubt he even intended to bring me forth. My vessel is a beautiful thing, wrought in gold and jewels. It’s well documented that the President is drawn to anything that glitters and gleams. Not unlike a crow.
“The situation was a bit of a surprise to both of us. But there are rituals to be observed – I had prepared quite the speech, something with a little more flair than the last. Of course, he wasn’t interested. And before I had barely begun, footsteps rang out in the corridor. His father had finally taken note of the boy’s absence and was harrying his host through the halls.
“The expression on the boy’s face I knew well. Fear of discovery, yes, but it was drowned by the flash of desire, anger that they would dare to take his prize away. He stared up at me, red-faced and wide-eyed. Some part of him had been listening as I spoke, after all, just enough to latch on to the central concept.
“‘Anything? Anything I want?’
“‘Anything you wish, yes. The correct words must be spoken. It is important to—’
“‘I-want-to-get-away-with-it!’ His words came out in a rush.
“They were calling him now, his father’s voice ringing with anger. As I was not properly bound, I did nothing. The boy flew into a rage.
“‘You have to do what I say!’ he cried. ‘You said!’
“I will admit it had been some time since I had been bound in service to a child. I was for the moment taken aback. ‘Wish, Young Master. You must say the word.’
“His pudgy face purpled. ‘I knew that! Now. I wish to get away with it.’
“‘I am afraid the spell requires an object.’ When he blinked in confusion, I leaned closer. ‘You need to tell me what it is that you want to get away with.’
“I fear I will never forget the look that crossed his face, the gleam that blazed behind his eyes. Perhaps in that moment he realized the scope of what I offered, the potential. I know well the hearts of men, of women. Their desires are by and large the same. What I underestimated in that moment was the depth of his greed, desire bred of indifference, ego without the temperance of shame. When he replied, it was a reverent whisper.
“‘Everything. I wish to get away with everything.’
Roth let out a breath. “Everything?”
“He was spared his father’s anger that day, to say the least. And the museum raised little dispute when he carried my vessel home.”
“And what? You’ve been serving him ever since?” She shook her head. “I’ll play along. Just for now. But I thought genies only granted three wishes.”
“Ah. And therein lies my problem. He has not yet made the third. I am bound until he does.”
“Everything that has happened…”
He nodded, encouraging her to go on, letting it come to her.
“The money, the bankruptcies, the scandals, the fucking Presidency…”
“All encompassed within that first wish, I’m afraid.”
“And that’s your job? To snap your fingers and make the consequences go away?”
Annoyance flickered behind his eyes. “It takes quite a bit more work than that, I assure you. Most people, it’s a lump sum. The money, the house, the women. For as rushed as it was, that first wish has proved to be remarkably open-ended. All these years it’s kept me on retainer, as it were. Even with my abilities, he has found new ways to strain my resources.”
“Aw, you’re stressed. Ruining a country must be hard work.”
Simeon sniffed in amusement. “Careful, Agent Roth. Someone in your position mustn’t mix business and politics.”
Roth folded her arms. “But he didn’t get away with it. He’s locked up, same as you.”
“For the time being. Our people will have him out presently.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Our lawyers, Agent Roth. Even without my assistance… people with his resources rarely see the inside of a real prison cell.”
“What about you?” She watched him with narrowed eyes. “No one’s come for you yet.”
“Nor will they. When it is time, I will let myself out.” He shrugged, raising his hands from the table. His wrists passed through the cuffs, insubstantial. “It is no reflection on you, I assure you.”
Roth reached for her shoulder holster, but the prisoner had already lowered his hands, slipping back into the cuffs as easily as he had shrugged out of them. Glancing behind her, she looked to the mirror, but her own back had been blocking their view of Simeon’s hands.
“You’re messing with me.”
“Oh, absolutely.” He grinned. “But I have not lied to you.”
“What was his second wish?”
Simeon chuckled. “He wished for a younger, prettier wife. An accident, I believe, a wish made in anger, but binding all the same. And something of a relief for me. I didn’t even need to use magic to secure the divorce. After a few moments in his company, women are always eager to leave.”
“And then – what? You made his new wife fall in love?”
For a moment, Simeon looked almost offended. “I merely made her aware of the opportunity presented by such an alliance. There are rules, you see. I can fulfill the heart’s desire, but I cannot turn a heart to what it does not want. I could not make women love him any more than I could secure the affections of his father.” He shook his head in wry amusement. “Think of how much trouble would have been avoided if I could have manipulated history to fill that paternal void.”
“But all those women… the accusations…”
“They did not love him. Most did not even want him.” He stared down at the table, for once refusing to meet her eyes. “I took no part in their coercion. The wish merely assured that he would ‘get away with it.’”
“He has been called worse.”
“I was talking about you.”
Glancing up, he scowled. “I am what I am, Agent Roth. I am bound to the man I serve.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re here talking to me. How does that serve him?”
“It doesn’t. Quite the opposite, I should hope.”
“You’re undermining him? I thought the whole point was for you to make all this go away.”
“And it will. As I said, by all official accounts he will be exonerated. The court of public opinion, though, is something else, something beyond even my abilities. It would not hurt him to learn some humility while this plays out. A vain hope, I know. Sixty years and he is still the same wounded child.”
She couldn’t argue with that last part. “So you’re some kind of altruistic spirit?”
Simeon laughed. “Nothing so noble. I will tell you, Agent Roth, immortality can be dreadfully boring. I had thought the boy a challenge, but the man has taxed even my patience.”
“Then what’s your endgame? He makes his third wish and you’re free?”
“I will still be bound to my vessel and the desires of its next owner but, comparatively, yes. Freedom from this master cannot come soon enough.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised.” Roth drummed her fingers on the table. “I’m still not saying I believe you. But if the President – this President – had three magic wishes, wouldn’t he have used them right away?”
“I would have thought the same. Had he simply wished for a larger cock years ago, you and I would be in a much better place, yes? The entire world would be. But after impulsively using his second wish, I believe he fears to let me go. His fear is the one thing stronger than his greed, you see.”
“He’s nothing without you.”
Simeon smiled. “Nothing good, anyway.”
There was a rap at the door. Agent Roth jumped in her seat, pulling her eyes from the genie’s as she rose to answer it. Word from her superiors had come down. This line of questioning was getting them nowhere. If the suspect thought this was a game, they’d see if some time in holding would convince him otherwise.
Glancing back inside the room, Roth found the man watching her. When she shut the door and returned to the table, he inclined his head.
“Our time together is over, I take it?”
She stared down at the useless cuffs around his wrists. Simeon made no move to slip free again, allowing her to pull him to his feet as she unlatched the restraints from the table. At the door they met another pair of agents, who would escort him back to lockup.
As they led him away, Simeon grinned back at her. “Were I not already spoken for, I would be curious to see what desires hide within your heart, Agent Roth.”
“I just want to get this over with. Sort it out, lock him up, and move the fuck on.”
The genie sighed. “Perhaps it is you who will grant my wish, then. We would all of us be the better for it.”