It was bound to happen. I mentioned the word 'contract' and within hours, Red Stan appeared in the fireplace. As always, he banged his head on the mantelpiece on the way out. The horn-chips he's leaving are starting to look unsightly.
If I hadn't messed up that Christmas invocation he wouldn't be able to come and go so freely. Well, it can't be helped. I nodded to the flameproof chair I bought to save on furniture costs and asked him what was on his mind.
"Your fireplace." He ran his fingers over his horns. "I don't want to blunt these. I've just had them sharpened."
"Perhaps a different means of entry would be appropriate? I have a front door."
Stan's lip curled. "It's cold and wet out there. Not my cup of tea, you know. Speaking of cups of tea..." He raised his eyebrows.
I rose from my seat. "Well, okay. I can't entertain you for long, you know. I have this contract to deal with."
Senga was once again occupied with stitching her wounds after playing with Caligula. I've told her not to do that. It's never wise for a Dumelet to become too attached to his parents, it could make him grow up strange. Anyway, I brought the kettle from the kitchen along with the tea, milk, sugar, rat poison, blood, powdered goat horn and stirring bones. Then I went back for the cups while Red Stan held the kettle until it boiled. One good thing about his visits, he does save me money on the heating.
With a cup of that traditional British brew each, we settled into our chairs.
"So," I said, "what brings you out on such a cold and wet evening?"
"Contract." Red Stan took a heavy wad of paper from the air and dropped it on the table.
I patted at the smouldering bits until they went out. He really needs to reconsider his methods because paper is a poor choice of medium for a creature who's permanently aflame.
"What's this for?" I squinted at the runes on the paper.
"Contract. I heard you were ready to sign one." Red Stan took a swig of tea. I'm never sure if he drinks it or just inhales the vapour because it boils as soon as he picks up the cup.
"Yes, but not that one." I showed him the contract for Jessica's Trap. "This is the contract I'm signing."
"You call that a contract?" Red Stan laughed. "It's so- so small. Barely three pages long. Now this - " he indicated the pile of paper he'd brought, "This is a proper contract. Written by a whole team of lawyers. I have access to quite a lot of lawyers, you know."
"Pretty much all of them, I'm sure." I eyed the contract he had placed on the table. "So, what's in yours?"
"Whatever you want. Fame, fortune, a place at a top school for your child, women, booze, long life, anything." He leaned forward. "I can even arrange to get your books published."
"Well. Sounds very nice." I sipped at my tea. "Fame, I don't want. It means being recognised on the street and I have enough problems with that in the village as it is. Fortune, I have, courtesy of the hoarding nature of the Dume family. There is no point in giving more money to me because I won't spend it anyway. Caligula has already been thrown out of nursery for eating the class hamster so I'll be teaching him at home, and I have one woman already. Why would I want another one? Just having one around is proving to be hard work and terribly expensive."
"The booze is no problem, the pub has plenty of that and I don't drink much of it anyway. Long life, well, the only way to guarantee long life for Senga and myself would be to kill Caligula and I'm not going to agree to that. So I'm afraid your contract offers nothing I want."
Red Stan's flames receded. "It's not possible. There must be something you want, surely?"
I sat in silence for a while and realised I really hadn't thought about it. I have Dume Towers, I have my laboratory, I have dungeons, chains, skeletons, evil possessed toys, an invisibility suit (which I still haven't found), one of those tables that rises up to the ceiling in thunderstorms, everything. I even have a wife and child. Not the prettiest, granted, but certainly the most deranged. What else could I want? Indeed, what else would I have time to deal with?
"No," I said. "Nothing."
Steam rose from Red Stan's eyes. "It can't be. Everyone wants something. Nobody ever turned this contract down before. Well, apart from one fellow about two thousand years ago, but then I found out his Dad owned everything anyway." He wiped his eyes. "Sorry, I'm not supposed to get emotional. It doesn't give a very professional impression."
"Don't worry about it. Nobody will know." Not until Death's next visit, anyway.
"There is one thing you missed. Getting your books published. I can arrange that, you know." His fire returned.
He looked so much more cheerful it seemed a shame to spoil it for him, but I held up the small contract and explained what it was for.
"So you see, I have already managed that part on my own."
A scowl spread over his face. "What kind of world is it when people start doing things for themselves? If this keeps up I'll be out of a job." He lifted his contract and glared at it while it dissolved into smoke.
"I'm certain it's not widespread. The village is full of people who can't be bothered running their own lives. There'll be plenty of call for your services for some time yet, I'm sure." I would have patted his shoulder reassuringly but I didn't have my asbestos gloves handy. Instead I moved to refill his cup.
"No more for me. Have to be going." His flames turned an angry purple for a moment. "I have contracts to sign and others to call in. I can't waste time here." He headed for the fireplace.
"Watch out for the - " I winced at the crack of horn on granite. Then he was gone in a cloud of expletives, some of which would have embarrassed a Feral.
I returned to my contract - the real world one. It's with Damnation Press. Hmm.
I'd better check this very carefully indeed. Red Stan can be a tricky one.