This semester she needed to come up with a theme for a series of paintings, but so far nothing had set her mind on fire. As she was pondering ideas, she heard the tinkle of bells on the door. A few men came in, and a darting shadow behind them caught Karou’s eye. It was the size and shape of a crow, but it was nothing so mundane.
It was Kishmish.
She straightened up and cast a quick glance at her friend. Zuzana was sketching puppet ideas in her notebook and barely responded when Karou excused herself. She went into the bathroom and the shadow followed, low and unseen.
Brimstone’s messenger had the body and beak of a crow but the membranous wings of a bat, and his tongue, when it flicked out, was forked. He looked like an escapee from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and he was clutching a note with his feet. When Karou took it, she saw that his little knifelike talons had pierced the paper through.
She unfolded it and read the message, which took all of two seconds, as it said only, Errand requiring immediate attention. Come.
“He never says please,” she remarked to Kishmish.
The creature cocked his head to one side, crow-style, as if to inquire, Are you coming?
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” said Karou. “Don’t I always?”
To Zuzana, a moment later, she said, “I have to go.”
“What?” Zuzana looked up from her sketchbook. “But, dessert.” It was there on the coffin: two plates of apple strudel, along with tea.
“Oh, damn,” said Karou. “I can’t. I have an errand.”
“You and your errands. What do you have to do, so all of a sudden?” She glanced at Karou’s phone, sitting on the coffin, and knew she had gotten no phone call.
“Just things,” said Karou, and Zuzana let it drop, knowing from experience that she’d get no specifics.
Karou had things to do. Sometimes they took a few hours; other times, she was gone for days and returned weary and disheveled, maybe pale, maybe sunburned, or with a limp, or possibly a bite mark, and once with an unshakable fever that had turned out to be malaria.
“Just where did you happen to pick up a tropical disease?” Zuzana had demanded, to which Karou had replied, “Oh, I don’t know. On the tram, maybe? This old woman did sneeze right in my face the other day.”
“That is not how you get malaria.”
“I know. It was gross, though. I’m thinking of getting a moped so I don’t have to take the tram anymore.”
And that was the end of that discussion. Part of being friends with Karou was resignation to never really knowing her. Now Zuzana sighed and said, “Fine. Two strudels for me. Any resulting fat is your fault,” and Karou left Poison Kitchen, the shadow of an almost-crow darting out the door before her.
Kishmish took to the sky and was gone in a flutter. Karou watched, wishing she could follow. What magnitude of wish, she wondered, would it take to endow her with flight?
One far more powerful than she’d ever have access to.
Brimstone wasn’t stingy with scuppies. He let her refresh her necklace as often as she liked from his chipped teacups full of beads, and he paid her in bronze shings for the errands she ran for him. A shing was the next denomination of wish, and it could do more than a scuppy—Svetla’s caterpillar eyebrows were a case in point, as were Karou’s tattoo removal and her blue hair—but she had never gotten her hands on a wish that could work any real magic. She never would, either, unless she earned it, and she knew too well how humans earned wishes. Chiefly: hunting, graverobbing, and murder.
Oh, and there was one other way: a particular form of self-mutilation involving pliers and a deep commitment.
It wasn’t like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn’t burst from lamps, and talking fish didn’t bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn’t gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn’t souls, either. It was weirder than any of that.
It was teeth.
Karou crossed the Charles Bridge and took the tram north to the Jewish Quarter, a medieval ghetto that had given way to a dense concentration of Art Nouveau apartment buildings as pretty as cakes. Her destination was the service entrance in the rear of one of them. The plain metal door didn’t look like anything special, and in and of itself, it wasn’t. If you opened it from without, it revealed only a mildewed laundry room. But Karou didn’t open it. She knocked and waited, because when the door was opened from within, it had the potential to lead someplace quite different.
It swung open and there was Issa, looking just as she did in Karou’s sketchbooks, like a snake goddess in some ancient temple. Her serpent coils were withdrawn into the shadows of a small vestibule. “Blessings, darling.”
“Blessings,” Karou returned fondly, kissing her cheek. “Did Kishmish make it back?”
“He did,” said Issa, “and he felt like an icicle on my shoulder. Come in now. It’s freezing in your city.” She was guardian of the threshold, and she ushered Karou inside, closing the door behind her so the two of them were alone in a space no bigger than a closet. The outer door of the vestibule had to seal completely before the inner one could be opened, in the manner of safety doors at aviaries that prevent birds from escaping. Only, in this case, it wasn’t for birds.
“How was your day, sweet girl?” Issa had some half dozen snakes on her person—wound around her arms, roaming through her hair, and one encircling her slim waist like a belly dancer’s chain. Anyone seeking entry would have to submit to wearing one around the neck before the inner door would unseal—anyone but Karou, that is. She was the only human who entered the shop uncollared. She was trusted. After all, she’d grown up in this place.
“It’s been a day,” Karou sighed. “You won’t believe what Kaz did. He showed up to be the model in my drawing class.”
Issa had not met Kaz, of course, but she knew him the same way Kaz knew her: from Karou’s sketchbooks. The difference was that while Kaz thought Issa and her perfect br**sts were an erotic figment of Karou’s imagination, Issa knew Kaz was real.
She and Twiga and Yasri were as hooked on Karou’s sketchbooks as her human friends were, but for the opposite reason. They liked to see the normal things: tourists huddled under umbrellas, chickens on balconies, children playing in the park. And Issa especially was fascinated by the nudes. To her, the human form—plain as it was, and not spliced together with other species—was a missed opportunity. She was always scrutinizing Karou and making such pronouncements as, “I think antlers would suit you, sweet girl,” or “You’d make a lovely serpent,” in just the way a human might suggest a new hairstyle or shade of lipstick.
Now, Issa’s eyes lit up with ferocity. “You mean he came to your school? The scandalous rodent-loaf! Did you draw him? Show me.” Outraged or not, she wouldn’t miss an opportunity to see Kaz na**d.
Karou pulled out her pad and flipped it open.
“You scribbled out the best part,” Issa accused.
“Trust me, it’s not that great.”
Issa giggled into her hand as the shop door creaked open to admit them, and Karou stepped across the threshold. As always, she felt the slightest wave of nausea at the transition.
She was no longer in Prague.
Even though she had lived in Brimstone’s shop, she still didn’t understand where it was, only that you could enter through doorways all over the world and end up right here. As a child she used to ask Brimstone where exactly “here” was, only to be told brusquely, “Elsewhere.”
Brimstone was not a fan of questions.
Wherever it was, the shop was a windowless clutter of shelves that looked like some kind of tooth fairy’s dumping ground—if, that is, the tooth fairy trafficked in all species. Viper fangs, canines, grooved elephant molars, overgrown orange incisors from exotic jungle rodents—they were all collected in bins and apothecary chests, strung in garlands that draped from hooks, and sealed in hundreds of jars you could shake like maracas.
The ceiling was vaulted like a crypt’s, and small things scurried in the shadows, their tiny claws scritch-scritching on stone. Like Kishmish, these were creatures of disparate parts: scorpion-mice, gecko-crabs, beetle-rats. In the damp around the drains were snails with the heads of bullfrogs, and overhead, the ubiquitous moth-winged hummingbirds hurled themselves at lanterns, setting them swaying with the creak of copper chains.
In the corner, Twiga was bent over his work, his ungainly long neck bowed like a horseshoe as he cleaned teeth and banded them with gold to be strung onto catgut. A clatter came from the kitchen nook that was Yasri’s domain.
And off to the left, behind a huge oak desk, was Brimstone himself. Kishmish was perched in his usual place on his master’s right horn, and spread out on the desk were trays of teeth and small chests of gems. Brimstone was stringing them into a necklace and did not look up. “Karou,” he said. “I believe I wrote ‘errand requiring immediate attention.’ ”
“Which is exactly why I came immediately.”
“It’s been”—he consulted his pocket watch—“forty minutes.”
“I was across town. If you want me to travel faster, give me wings, and I’ll race Kishmish back. Or just give me a gavriel, and I’ll wish for flight myself.”
A gavriel was the second most powerful wish, certainly sufficient to grant the power of flight. Still bent over his work, Brimstone replied, “I think a flying girl would not go unnoticed in your city.”
“Easily solved,” said Karou. “Give me two gavriels, and I’ll wish for invisibility, too.”
Brimstone looked up. His eyes were those of a crocodile, luteous gold with vertical slit pupils, and they were not amused. He would not, Karou knew, give her any gavriels. She didn’t ask out of hope, but because his complaint was so unfair. Hadn’t she come running as soon as he’d called?
“I could trust you with gavriels, could I?” he asked.
“Of course you could. What kind of question is that?”
She felt his appraisal, as if he were mentally reviewing every wish she’d ever made.
Blue hair: frivolous.
Erasing pimples: vain.
Wishing off the light switch so she didn’t have to get out of bed: lazy.
He said, “Your necklace is looking quite short. Have you had a busy day?”
Her hand flew to cover it. Too late. “Why do you have to notice everything?” No doubt the old devil somehow knew exactly what she’d used these scuppies for and was adding it to his mental list:
Making ex-boyfriend’s cranny itch: vindictive.
“Such pettiness is beneath you, Karou.”
“He deserved it,” she replied, forgetting her earlier shame. Like Zuzana had said, bad behavior should be punished. She added, “Besides, it’s not like you ask your traders what they’re going to use their wishes for, and I’m sure they do a hell of a lot worse than make people itch.”
“I expect you to be better than them,” Brimstone said simply.
“Are you suggesting that I’m not?”
The tooth-traders who came to the shop were, with few exceptions, about the worst specimens humanity had to offer. Though Brimstone did have a small coterie of longtime associates who did not turn Karou’s stomach—such as the retired diamond dealer who had on a number of occasions posed as her grandmother to enroll her in schools—mostly they were a stinking, soul-dead lot with crescents of gore under their fingernails. They killed and maimed. They carried pliers in their pockets for extracting the teeth of the dead—and sometimes the living. Karou loathed them, and she was certainly better than them.
Brimstone said, “Prove that you are, by using wishes for good.”
Nettled, she asked, “Who are you to talk about good, anyway?” She gestured to the necklace clutched in his huge clawed hands. Crocodile teeth—those would be from the Somali. Also wolf fangs, horse molars, and hematite beads. “I wonder how many animals died in the world today because of you. Not to mention people.”
She heard Issa suck in a surprised breath, and she knew she should shut up, but her mouth kept moving. “No, really. You do business with killers, and you don’t even have to see the corpses they leave behind. You lurk in here like a troll—”
“Karou,” Brimstone said.
“But I’ve seen them, piles of dead creatures with bloody mouths. Those girls with their bloody mouths; I’ll never forget as long as I live. What’s it all for? What do you do with these teeth? If you would just tell me, maybe I could understand. There must be a reason—”
“Karou,” Brimstone said again. He did not say “shut up.” He didn’t have to. His voice conveyed it clearly enough, on top of which he rose suddenly from his chair.
Karou shut up.
Sometimes, maybe most of the time, she forgot to see Brimstone. He was so familiar that when she looked at him she saw not a beast but the creature who, for reasons unknown, had raised her from a baby, and not without tenderness. But he could still strike her speechless at times, such as when he used that tone of voice. It slithered like a hiss to the core of her consciousness and opened her eyes to the full, fearsome truth of him.
Brimstone was a monster.
If he and Issa, Twiga, and Yasri were to stray from the shop, that’s what humans would call them: monsters. Demons, maybe, or devils. They called themselves chimaera.