Allow me to present this year’s 24-hour short story. I started it at 11:57 last night, barely staying within the rules. I have to say, it turned out differently than I expected. Check out the other short stories written last night, which will be collected soon on the host blog. Enjoy.
“Tell her she smells like your mom,” said the imp from John’s jacket. “That always works for me.”
John smoothed his lapel. The imp squeaked as John’s hand squashed it.
“Is that him?” John’s date leaned forward. The imp had interrupted while she introduced herself, and he was too embarrassed to ask her name a second time. “The elf?”
“Imp,” said John automatically. “And no. I left it at home. It doesn’t like this jacket.”
“If you’re expecting to keep this woman, I suggest you prevent her from smelling it,” said the imp, poking his head above John’s collar. “Great long johns, fresh air is sweet unto my nostrils!” He snorted noisily. John cleared his throat to cover the sound, but his date wouldn’t hear the imp anyway.
“Is it really that fickle?” she asked, cocking her head. “I thought it went everywhere you did.”
“Everywhere I want it to,” said John with a dead smile. The tips of her red hair brushed her shoulders. John shivered, imagining flames smoldering and burning her skin. “How did traveling treat you? Did you enjoy your first time navigating New York City?”
She deflected the change of subject with a smile. “I’m curious about the terms of your agreement with him. I mean, with it. Is he— it— bound to doing whatever you say, or is it his choice? Can he do anything, or is he limited? I keep saying he, but you know what I mean.” She laughed, touching his arm across the table as if they shared this hilarious joke. Her hand was scorching.
John didn’t like her much.
“You still haven’t told her she smells like your mom,” said the imp. “If you don’t like that line, try this one: Your hair would look great as a throw pillow.”
John poked the imp back under his shirt, trying to make the movement look as natural as possible. He scratched around his chin for extra effect. “It’s about as powerful and willful as a cat, I’d say. If it wants to land on its feet, it does. But if you really need it to catch that mouse running between your feet, it probably won’t.” Ignoring the imp’s squeaks of outrage, he turned in his seat. “Where is our waiter?”
“I thought I saw him over—” She waved a hand toward the maître d’, but her dangling silver bracelet caught on the candle. It toppled, spewing fire across the tablecloth, which caught immediately. She shrieked.
John shot to his feet, tipping his chair backward. The fire seemed to roar before his eyes. He could feel it devouring his skin, imagine it tearing into his flesh. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think.
The imp poked its head from the buttons of his shirt and inhaled. Flame streamed from the tablecloth into the imp’s mouth, lighting its cheeks a soft red before fading. The imp cleared its throat twice and looked up at John. “That one is free, but this cat ain’t catching any more mice until you learn some respect.”
John took a breath, heart seeming to burn through his lungs. They were okay. It didn’t have to happen again. John picked up his chair and sat back down, shaking out his napkin and folding it again. One corner was black.
His date looked at him. She didn’t stare. She looked. What she had just seen had not surprised her.
“So you didn’t leave it at home,” she said.
Before John could reply, their waiter arrived with help. He ushered them to a new table as the other waiters stripped the old table. To avoid looking at his date looking at him, John watched them remove the burnt tablecloth. The plasticky material had melted into the wood, forcing them to use the steak knives to peel it up again.
John blinked. He glanced at his date, but the candle on the table caught his eye instead. Short, squat, and battery powered, it provided the light of a candle with no scent nor safety concern. This candle couldn’t light anything on fire. Even if it could, it couldn’t mess with that tablecloth.
He met his date’s eyes. She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m impressed,” she said.
“You’re not the girl I asked out.”
“I’m a little disappointed it took you this long to notice. Do you really only look at the hair color?”
The imp chuckled. “She just described you in one sentence.”
“Shut up,” said John. He hadn’t thought that many girls had hair that brilliantly red. “What kind of imp do you have?”
“None,” said the girl. “I do all my own stunts.” Fire began dripping from the ends of her hair to sizzle on her bare shoulders.
John swallowed ash. She was here to kill him. She was here to take his imp. She was here to buy an expensive dinner, make him pay the bill, and then kill him and take his imp. He fingered his water glass, newly refilled by the lazy waiter. How much protection would he gain by pouring it over himself?
“I’ll make you an offer,” said the girl. She gathered a pool of fire in one palm, spreading it about with a finger. “I’m part of an organization with a lot of… weird people in it. We think we could use your talents.”
“You mean my imp,” said John.
“Thank you.” The imp’s muffled voice came from within his shirt. “You’ve finally realized who wears pants in this relationship.”
“I mean you,” said the girl. “We’d love to see what your imp can do, but we’re more interested in what attracted it. You have something to offer our team.”
“Like pyrophobia,” said the imp.
“What’s the other offer?”
“The girl you were supposed to meet tonight? She thinks the date is tomorrow. If you want, you can go back to dating redheads.” The girl shrugged. “Her hair is dyed anyway.”
“You’d better tell this girl she smells good before you leave,” said the imp. “We both know you’re not ready for this.”
John smoothed his lapel again, shushing the imp. “Where is your organization based?”
“We’re in the city,” said the girl. “But we go everywhere.”
The girl laughed but didn’t make any effort to clarify.
John toyed with his steak knife. He hated this girl. She was fire and probing questions and secrecy. His instinct told him to run.
The imp said something, but John didn’t hear it.
“Tell me about your organization,” said John. “And start with your name.”
She smiled and reached across the table with a hand that looked no cooler than a bed of coals. “I’m Phoenix. Welcome.”