“What are you looking to burn?” the small man asked. He was, according to Christian’s associates, a dwarf, though given the orange in his beard and hints of green in his suit, he looked more like a Leprechaun. Given the amount of canine in his smile, he was probably a gremlin. He moved like a gremlin, with a shuffling, sliding grace that was hard to follow. His hands were lepric, blemished with black and brown soars, and he blinked too much. He had a small wand tucked behind one ear.
Christian did not deal with gremlins.
“I have all kinds,” the little creature said, giving his store a nod. Christian felt the store nod back. Or did it wink? There were no lights, just hundreds of fires in hundreds of jars on dark-brown shelves. The shelves couldn’t move, nor could the jars, yet something had. Christian glanced at his watch, though he we was unable to process what the little and big hands were doing. The lighting was wrong—there were too many shadows for such a small room.
“Big fires and little fires, strong and weak,” the gremlin continued. The name Christian was given was Shebasta. “The weak ones can be more useful than the strong ones. Most people don’t realize that, but you look like a man who knows his fire.”
“There’s been a mistake,” Christian said. He had to leave before he agreed to do something he’d regret. “I’m sorry.”
Shebasta smiled a salesman smile. “No mistake, no mistake. I don’t make them, and I know you don’t either, Mr. Gathers. Senators cannot afford to make mistakes!” He clapped his little hands. “Now come, have a look at my fire.”
Christian turned for the door, but the door was gone, replaced by a series of shelves holding a series of jars. He blinked. There was supposed to be a door here. He looked around and saw the only exit on the opposite side of the room.
“Ah,” Shebasta said, gliding over. “You have a fine eye.” The gremlin grabbed the jar and gave it a quick dusting with a purple handkerchief before thrusting it at Christian. “It’s dragon, of course. Go, have a look.”
Having a look was the last thing Christian wanted to do, yet the fire’s twirling forced his attention. He brought the jar up to his face and peered inside, at the bright-red flame that wasn’t a flame at all. A tiny dragon careened back and howled, and Christian heard the rustling of wind chimes. Then the fire was back to normal, a red ember in a sealed jar.
“A little cliché,” Shebasta shrugged, “but the red dragons really do produce the best flames. The green ones are prettier, I think. More in line with what you need.”
No, Christian needed more than dragon fire, but he wasn’t going to tell a gremlin that. He was going to leave. He put the jar back and found himself looking at another. Inside, a volcano was erupting a black spew of ash and rock. Now that was more like it. He picked it up.
“You don’t want that,” Shebasta said, taking the jar and putting it back. “Too much. You want…” he grabbed Christian by the sleeve and led him towards a different set of shelves. “This one, I think.”
Inside the jar was a small lady tied to a wooden log. She struggled against her bonds, opened her mouth to scream, and then burst into a flame the color of dandelions.
“A witch’s fire to kill a witch, right?” The gremlin chuckled. “Mrs. Stumlin is a witch, you know. It’s the only truthful part of your attack ad.”
“How do you know about Laura?” Christian asked, hoping the fire would repeat itself. This wasn’t why he was here, but it was fun to pretend.
“I know everything about my clients,” Shebasta said, his canines poking out from under his top lip.
“I’m not your client.”
“Are you sure?”
Christian shook his head. Dealing with dwarves was bad, but he wasn’t desperate enough to bother with gremlins. He’d have better luck with a monkey’s paw.
“What about this one?” Shebasta asked, picking an indigo ember. “It’s not as flashy as Salem, but it’s guaranteed to burn one house down with no questions asked. No survivors either, save the fish.”
Shebasta shrugged. “Mrs. Stumlin has an aquarium. Would make for an interesting story. Take the public’s mind off of that … incident of yours.”
“There was no incident,” Christian said, more out of habit than anything else. Every member of the press thought they could stump him with that gotcha, but come November, no one would care. Those that still did weren’t going to vote for him anyways.
“If you say so,” Shebasta said with a pointed grin. “You are a man who knows his fire.”
Christian once again turned to the door. It remained stationary, and if he didn’t blink, the gremlin couldn’t use his tricks on him, couldn’t move it across the room. He was done here. Let Shebasta’s cheap tricks rot like the cheap words of the press. Laura the witch could rot with them.
He started for the door and stopped when the small shop shuddered. He put his hands out to steady himself, though nothing had moved. The small room was still standing, and the tiny fires were still inside their jars. The ceiling seemed a bit higher than when he had entered though, and the floor looked askew. Shadows swirled about the ground like snakes. No, not shadows, shadow. It was a singular entity, a monster of tendrils and flat smoke, and it blocked Christian’s path to the door.
Shebasta grabbed another jar. “There’s a fire for burning money, you know.” He held it out to Christian, who did not want to touch it. “More of a metaphorical flame, yet it burns. The smell is bad. Like…” the gremlin tapped his chin in mock thought. “Like coal.”
“There was no incident,” Christian said again, though now the fire was taking shape, morphing from a little candle’s flame into a man writing a check. Christian had done that years ago, had made a small man go away so a bill could be passed. It wasn’t an incident though, and it wasn’t a problem. It was politics.
“A man who knows his fire,” the gremlin repeated.
“What do you want?” The room felt hot now, though maybe it always had. It was hard to discern the place. Even Shebasta didn’t seem so little anymore.
“To help you.”
“What do you really want?”
Shebasta gave another canine grin. “I don’t like witches. They’re … bad for business.”
Christian returned to the shelf with the volcano, or maybe it returned to him. He watched it spew another horde of ash and rock. It was close, but not quite right. He knelt down to another jar, this one with a purple flame. Inside, a wizard wearing dark robes was casting a spell. The flame puffed up, filling the entire jar, and then the wizard was gone. The flame returned.
“Nair Dworak,” the gremlin said. “Poor fellow. You don’t want that one.”
“No,” Christian agreed.
“Come,” Shebasta tugged on Christian’s sleeve. “I have more appropriate ones over here. You need something subtle. You need—”
“I need something that will destroy a state.”
Shebasta’s salesman grin slipped off his face, and for the first time, the gremlin looked confused. “What?” the little creature asked.
Without waiting for permission, Christian grabbed another jar. “I need to burn a state.” Inside, a landscape of brush and weedy trees was ablaze. Animals were running around the perimeter of the fire, hugging the glass walls that kept them confined. This was better, though still too small. He put the jar down and started for another.
“What?” Shebasta asked again.
“You want to help me, right?” Christian said. “Then get me something that will torch Hawaii. Make it look like North Korean launched a missile.”
Shebasta fingered the wand behind his ear and gave Christian an obscene look. It was one the Senator had seen before, and one he knew how to deal with. It was not, however, one he expected to see from a gremlin.
“No,” the little creature finally said.
“Why not?” Christian asked, surprised. The bigger the favor, the bigger the price, and for a gremlin, the price was everything. Yet Shebasta looked confused. Even the shadow oozing along the floor wasn’t sure what to do.
A heavy arm fell around Christian’s shoulder. He jumped. Shebasta was gone, and the burned, blemished appendage holding him was too big for a gremlin. Christian followed the arm to a face that was Shebasta’s yet not. The creature was no longer little, and his beard was now bony. Four other horns poked out of his head in the shape of a rough pentagram. The wand stayed wedged behind his ear.
“Come,” the demon said, embracing Christian like they were drunken frat buddies. “Away from that shelf.”
“First,” the demon continued, hauling Christian away from his wares. “I will not sell something you already have. And second,” the demon gave Christian an uncomfortable squeeze. “What on Earth makes you think I’d condone this?”
Christian shrugged as the shadow pulled away, stretching until all that remained of it was a dark spot in one corner of the room. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t,” he said. The shelves with their little jars of fire began disappeared next, fading away as if their batteries were dying. For the first time since Christian had entered the strange shop, the lighting was normal. He looked at his watch and read the time: 11:58. Two minutes until the witching hour.
“I could guarantee you a reelection, yet you want to destroy a state.”
Christian laughed. “I’m already guaranteed a reelection. My state’s so gerrymandered not even your magic could stop me.”
“Then why are you here?”
The politician smiled. The problem with demons is they always thought small and personal. It’s what kept them from being humans. “President’s poll numbers are down. America likes a war. We need at least two more years to pass—”
Shebasta yanked the door open and shoved Christian threw. Christian stumbled back and bumped into a man wearing a suit and tie. He looked around, at familiar walls with familiar paintings. He was back in the White House.
“How’d it go?” a Senator from Georgia asked. He had liver-spotted jowls and no chin. “You get what we need?”
“No,” Christian said, not sure how he should view what just happened.
The Senator from Georgia shrugged. “Magic isn’t the only way to start a war. It’s not a problem.”
Christian nodded. There were other ways to ensure another four-year term, and fire was still the easiest.