“Best Wishes”

“Caroline and I are going to this new antique store in Shillington tomorrow,” Eleanor Martin told her husband, Douglas. She spooned the last of her lobster bisque into her mouth and dabbed at her lips with her napkin.

Doug indicated his empty bowl and the maid rushed to his side with the soup tureen. “I don’t like you going out with that woman,” he said. “She’s not one of our kind. She’s only a schoolteacher, for Christ’s sake.”

Eleanor stared at the tablecloth and fidgeted with her spoon. “I’ve known her since college. Heath left her last week. It would be so rude to ignore her right now. I will, I promise, but after tomorrow. Please?” she added when his glare didn’t fade.

He gave her an indulgent smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “All right. Just this once.”

Eleanor signaled for the maid to refill her soup bowl.

“Mrs. Martin has had enough, Julie,” Douglas said to the maid.

Julie nodded and returned the soup tureen to its warmer.

“But dear, I’m still hungry,” Eleanor said.

“I’m only looking out for your best interests,” he said. “I noticed you’ve put on a few pounds lately. You wouldn’t want the other executives’ wives talking about you behind your back, would you?”

Eleanor gave him a weak smile and pushed the empty bowl aside. “Of course not. Thank you.”

“The board is meeting tomorrow,” he said, spooning hot bisque into his mouth. “I’m pretty sure they’re going to agree we need to go ahead with the layoffs. Cutting twelve thousand resources will bring the stock price up where it belongs.” He wiped his lips. “Henshaw Industries will finally be the premiere textile corporation in the world.”

“All those poor families,” Eleanor muttered.

“It’s the shareholders who matter, Ellie,” he snapped. “Those people we’re laying off, they’re just mill workers. They can find new jobs. There’s always work for the uneducated. Fast food restaurants are always hiring.”

“Of course, dear.”

***

“I don’t know, Doug,” Jim Smithy said, biting his lip. He always did that whenever he was about to disagree with Doug. “The shareholders have been rather bitchy lately about the possibility of layoffs. They think the public will react negatively.”

“Nonsense, Jim,” Doug said. “You and I are shareholders and we’re not bitchy about it.” The other directors chuckled politely. “Our profits have been down every quarter for the last six. We need to get rid of all that overhead.”

“What about the families of those we lay off?” Mark Jones was ninety if he was a day and always had a soft spot for the “ignorant louts” as Jim Richards called them.

“Those ignorant louts can always find new jobs,” Richards said on cue. “I’m all for it, Doug.”

Doug regarded him without expression. If he said he wanted to murder the mill workers, Jim Richards would be “all for it” if it meant staying on Doug’s good side.

The meeting dragged on without a decision. Doug glanced at his watch. Lillian was expecting him at her apartment in an hour.

“Listen, gentlemen, I have another meeting to attend. Let’s table this until tomorrow.” He walked out without waiting for an answer, ignoring the knowing smirk on Richards’s face. The others probably knew as well, but he didn’t care. They all had their little secrets.

***

He arrived home at midnight, exhausted. Lillian wasn’t as happy to see him as usual. She kept pressing him to leave Eleanor.

She just didn’t understand. Their fight had been long and loud, but he hadn’t meant to hit her. He’d have to send her flowers tomorrow. He thought about the bruise on her cheek. And maybe that diamond necklace she admired last week.

The bedroom was quiet, but he could hear running water and classical music coming from the bathroom. Maybe he would be able to get to sleep without having to listen to a minute-by-minute account of Eleanor’s day, or her not-too-subtle questions about why he was so late.

He hung his tie on the rack and removed his clothes. As he started his nightly ritual of laying out the next day’s suit—a task he never trusted the maid to get right—he noticed a canister on the dresser. A note was folded beneath it.

He slipped the paper from under the canister.

Douglas,

I found this lovely canister at Robierre’s, that new antique store I was telling you about. It’s thirteenth century. Robierre believes it was a gift made for Enrico Dandolo, the ruler of Venice, before his death.

Doug skimmed past a lengthy explanation of Dandolo’s accomplishments. She always did like to show off her history degree.

Anyway, I can’t seem to get the lid off, and it sounds like something is inside. Would you please see what you can do with it?

He tossed the note on the dresser and picked up the canister. It was made of gray ceramic, six inches tall and of equal diameter. A dark blue spiral was painted on the lid, and a painting of a crowned man speared by a peasant decorated the side. “I wonder how long the potter lived after his masters saw that,” he said with a chuckle.

Something rattled inside when he shook it. Three years ago, some old broad across town picked up a smoking stand at a flea market. Hidden in a back panel she found when she was refinishing it were letters from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin dated 1776. The old woman became one of the richest in town.

He held the canister against his stomach, gripped the lid tightly, and pulled with all his strength. The top popped off so easily both objects flew out of his hand and he staggered backward to land against the foot of the bed. “Stupid bitch,” he muttered. “She could’ve at least tried to open it.”

He started toward the container when he noticed the room filling up with a cloyingly sweet smoke. “What the hell?” It rose from the container in a steady stream. The sweet smell thickened until he started to gag. Eleanor was trying to kill him! That bitch!

The smoke began to swirl around him faster and faster until it was a white cyclone with him at the center. He shielded his eyes with his arm and tried to scream. The smoke flowed into his mouth, and he fell to the floor, retching.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped. Several seconds passed. He lowered his arm and looked around.

The room looked no different. His clothes still rested on the chair where he’d laid them. The dresser and vanity table still held the junk Eleanor liked to buy, and the bed was still neatly turned down. Everything was as it should be except….

A man wearing a black four-piece suit and gray tie stood by the bay window holding the spiral-covered lid. His gray hair was parted perfectly on the side and not so much as a hint of a beard interrupted the smooth tan skin of his face. His dark eyes pierced Doug’s own and seemed to peer into him. “Thank you for finally releasing me from that hideous prison.” His voice was low and cultured. “Now, what are your wishes?”

Doug’s mouth dropped open. “Wishes? What? Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my bedroom?” He tried to ignore the fact that he was standing there in only his boxers. He’d be damned if he was going to act like a nervous boy in front of this intruder.

The older man raised an eyebrow. The look was both surprised and supercilious. “Why, I’m the djinni of the bottle, of course. Though bottles have always been such a contrivance. But when society gets it in its collective head that something should be so, there’s no convincing  otherwise. I doubt any of the djinn has ever so much as considered a bottle for accommodations. Terribly cramped, you see.”

He smiled, displaying extraordinarily white teeth. “I see I’ve confused you. Allow me to explain.” He moved across the room to the Queen Anne chair. “The djinn have been around for thousands of years. We are entrusted to grant people what they most desire. Tell me, Douglas,” he said silkily, “what is it you desire? Beautiful women at your beck-and-call? More money? Power?”

“How do you know my name?” Hell, what did that matter? “I want you out of my house. Now. Before I call the police.” He held onto the bedpost to keep his hands from shaking. It was anger, he told himself.

“But Douglas, you’re the one who brought me here.” His smile never faded. “You may have three wishes. I’m sure that is not news to you. You may wish for anything at all–except more wishes, I should add–and you have as long as you’d like to make them. Would you like to lose a few pounds? It looks like age is catching up to you,” he teased.

Doug fought the urge to suck in his belly. He still looked great. Maybe he’d gained a few pounds, but he was forty-two, for God’s sake. It’s not like he’d put on as much weight as Eleanor. And if he had, well, he was a busy and important man. “I don’t know what the hell you’re on, but if you don’t—“

“I’ll make a deal with you,” the older man cut in smoothly. “Make your first wish, and if it doesn’t come true, I’ll leave you be.”

A muscle twitched below Doug’s eye as he considered whether he could make it out the door before the other man got out of the chair. If he could get downstairs, he could yell for Julie to call the police.

“Come now, Douglas. How hard can it be? Just make a wish.” His eyes seemed to bore more intently into his head. “Don’t you want all that you desire?”

Perhaps if he humored the crazy fool, he would let down his guard. “Fine. I wish Eleanor was better-looking now than when I married her.”

He managed a sitting bow. The gesture fit him. “It will be as you desire. When you’re ready for your next wish, just open the canister.”

A wave of dizziness passed over Doug. He sank to the bed. Blinking, he looked around. The man was gone. “I must be tired,” he muttered.

The bathroom door opened, and he lurched to his feet. But it was only Eleanor. He did a double take. “Ellie?”

She tilted her head and gave him a curious look. “Yes?” She wore a royal blue satin bathrobe as usual, but she’d pulled it tighter around her waist. It accentuated her flat stomach, while her breasts strained against the material. Her legs beneath the robe were lean and muscular. Gone were the wrinkles she’d been starting to get, and her hair was a luscious red with no hint of gray. In short, she was easily one of most beautiful women he’d ever seen. She looked behind him. “Were you able to get the canister opened? I can’t imagine what caused it to stick, but I just couldn’t get the lid off.”

He turned. The ceramic container was back on the dresser with the spiral-covered lid firmly in place. “He did it,” he whispered in a stunned voice. “It really worked.”

“Who? Was someone able to open it?”

“What? Oh, no. I couldn’t remove it. I’ll work on it tomorrow.” He moved to block her view of the antique.

She frowned. “Are you okay?”

Doug looked her up and down. She had a better figure than Lillian did. He grinned wolfishly. “Never been better.” He stepped closer and put his hands on her waist, pleased with the way his thumbs almost touched. “I’ve had a long day, and I’m sure you want to hear all about it, but first…” He tugged on the belt and slid the robe off her shoulders.

She wasn’t as enthusiastic as he’d hoped, but she never was.

***

Eleanor was gone when he woke, but he didn’t mind. He lay in bed a moment longer, remembering his wife’s smooth strong legs and slender figure. She had a body fit for a twenty-year-old supermodel.

When he sat up, his eyes caught the ceramic canister, and he grinned. What should he wish for next? To keep Lillian in her place? With Eleanor more beautiful than ever, what need did he have of Lillian?

As he headed for the bathroom, he said under his breath, “Maybe I should wish the damn board would agree to my plans.” He froze at the door. Why not? When the stock price doubled, the stockholders would worship the ground he walked on, and the board would agree to anything he said.

He locked the bedroom door and picked up the canister, taking a moment to study the artwork on the side. Why would someone present a king with a gift that showed a king getting killed? Then again, what did it matter, as long as it gave him everything he wanted?

This time he expected the whirlwind, and even if it made his heart beat faster and his mouth dry, he gritted his teeth and waited it out. The djinni appeared in the same black suit as the night before. “Ah, Douglas, so nice to see you again. I take it you were pleased with my work?”

He nodded. “I’m ready for my second wish.”

The djinni bowed. “It is my honor.”

“I wish the Board of Directors agreed to my layoff plans.”

“It will be as you desire.”

The room blinked and another wave of dizziness swept over him. “Why–?” He stopped when he realized he was alone in the room. The canister was no longer in his hand but back on the dresser.

More eager than ever to get to work, he hurried through his morning routine. He all but whistled during the drive to the office, and he didn’t even care when some bastard cut him off at the Sun Valley exit. The sidewalk in front of the corporate offices was filled with people, some of whom pointed at his vehicle as he drove into the private lot. They looked angry, and he made a mental note to speak with security about having them removed.

His exuberant mood wore off when he walked to his office. People stared and whispered behind their hands. One of his vice presidents avoided him when he saw Doug coming his way.

He reached the corridor that led to his offices and saw a pair of security guards blocking the mahogany doors. One, a tall and very thin man in his mid-fifties said, “I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Smithy said you were to join them in the boardroom as soon as you arrived.”

“I’ll join them in a while.” When they didn’t move, he snapped, “Get your asses away from my office now, or I’ll have you fired.” They still didn’t move, and he began to grow frightened. What was going on? The company should have been lauding his praises about now, but instead they acted as if he’d done something wrong. He turned on his heel and stormed to the boardroom, determined to have a word with Smithy.

Talk ceased as soon as he stepped through the door to the boardroom. Jim Smithy looked at him for a split second before he shifted his eyes to the papers before him. Everyone else concerned themselves with paperwork, or removing specks of lint from their suits, or searching their pockets for something of vital importance.

Jim Richards stood and cleared his throat. “Have a seat, Doug.”

Still unsure of what was going on, he walked across the room to his chair and poured a glass of water before sitting. The only sounds came from him.

“I’m going to make this short and simple.” Richards slid a newspaper section toward Doug. He pulled it toward him, dread making his stomach tighten in knots. “As of this moment, you are no longer the CEO of this company. You’re fired, Doug.” He said it with such undisguised glee that Doug looked up from the paper to stare at him.

“You bastard,” he said. “You kissed my ass because you thought it would bring you power, and now you think you have a shot at this job?” He swept his hand at the board, still gripping the newspaper. “Do you really think they want a power-hungry kiss-ass like yourself for CEO?”

“Why not,” he said with a smirk, “they put up with you for three years.”

***

Security escorted him out of the building and handed him a small box of personal effects. He dumped those in the backseat of his car and left the lot. Only on his way home did he realize he still clutched the newspaper section Richards had passed him. The headline mocked him.

Henshaw Industries Lays Off 12,000. Company’s Stock Price Plunges Forty Points Amid Recession Fears

What happened? His first wish came true, so why didn’t his second? Well, he sure as hell planned to find out.

No one was home when he arrived. A part of him wondered where Eleanor was, but his real concern was upstairs. What if the canister was missing? Maybe she had decided to take it back to the antique dealer.

He sighed with relief at seeing it sitting on the dresser. A stack of envelopes rested beside it. Eleanor had an annoying habit of carrying the mail with her and setting it down anywhere instead of leaving it in his office. He casually glanced at the bills as he reached for the canister, and one caught his attention, Shillington Center For Cosmetic Enhancements And Reconstructive Surgery.

What was that doing there? He opened it and saw an itemized bill for cosmetic procedures, of which the sum total was over five hundred thousand dollars. The patient was listed as Eleanor Martin.

“Oh, shit.” Five hundred thousand dollars? He couldn’t afford that.

He grabbed the canister, almost ripping the lid off in his haste. It flew out of his hand and bounced off the wall. The whirlwind surrounded him and then the djinni was standing there.

“Ah, Douglas, nice to see you again so soon. Are you ready for your third wish?” The djinni bowed, and this time Doug wondered if he was mocking him.

“What is this?” He waved the hospital bill in front of his face.

The djinni took the papers and glanced at them before handing them back. “Those appear to be bills for medical procedures.”

“Don’t be a smartass.”

“I’m afraid that’s not in my nature. Are you satisfied with your second wish?”

“No, I’m not satisfied,” he snapped. “They fired me for it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You—“ Fury froze his tongue. He paced the room. “I know what this is,” he said, whirling around to face the older man. “You pervert the wishes. If I were to ask for millions of dollars, it would turn out I’d embezzled the funds or robbed a bank. If I wished Ellie or Lillian would just disappear, I’d be arrested for murder. Forget it. I’m not falling for your tricks a third time.” He stormed out of the bedroom. Moments later, the front door slammed.

***

A figure walked out of the bathroom. Without turning around, the djinni said, “He’s heavily in debt and he’s been fired. Are you ready for your final wish?”

Eleanor Douglas picked up the canister and set it on the dresser. “I think I’ll save it for after the divorce.”

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