Brimstone’s arms and massive torso were the only human parts of him, though the tough flesh that covered them was more hide than skin. His square pectorals were riven with ancient scar tissue, one nipple entirely obliterated by it, and his shoulders and back were etched in more scars: a network of puckered white cross-hatchings. Below the waist he became elsething. His haunches, covered in faded, off-gold fur, rippled with leonine muscle, but instead of the padded paws of a lion, they tapered to wicked, clawed feet that could have been either raptor or lizard—or perhaps, Karou fancied, dragon.
And then there was his head. Roughly that of a ram, it wasn’t furred, but fleshed in the same tough brown hide as the rest of him. It gave way to scales around his flat ovine nose and reptilian eyes, and giant, yellowed ram horns spiraled on either side of his face.
He wore a set of jeweler’s lenses on a chain, and their dark gold rims were the only ornament on his person, if you didn’t count the other thing he wore around his neck, which had no sparkle to catch the eye. It was just an old wishbone, sitting in the hollow of his throat. Karou didn’t know why he wore it, only that she was forbidden to touch it, which, of course, had always made her long to do so. When she was a baby and he used to rock her on his knee, she would make little lightning grabs for it, but Brimstone was always faster. Karou had never succeeded in laying so much as a fingertip to it.
Now that she was grown she showed more decorum, but she still sometimes found herself itching to reach for the thing. Not now, though. Cowed by Brimstone’s abrupt rising, she felt her rebelliousness subside. Taking a step back, she asked in a small voice, “So, um, what about this urgent errand? Where do you need me to go?”
He tossed her a case filled with colorful banknotes that turned out to be euros. A lot of euros.
“Paris,” said Brimstone. “Have fun.”
THE ANGEL OF EXTINCTION
“Oh, yes,” Karou muttered to herself later that night as she dragged three hundred pounds of illegal elephant ivory down the steps of the Paris Metro. “This is just so much fun.”
When she’d left Brimstone’s shop, Issa had let her out through the same door by which she’d entered, but when she stepped onto the street she was not back in Prague. She was in Paris, just like that.
No matter how many times she went through the portal, the thrill never wore off. It opened onto dozens of cities, and Karou had been to them all, on errands like this one and sometimes for pleasure. Brimstone let her go out and draw anywhere in the world where there wasn’t a war, and when she had a craving for mangoes he opened the door to India, on the condition that she bring some back for him, too. She had even wheedled her way into shopping expeditions to exotic bazaars, and right here, to the Paris flea markets, to furnish her flat.
Wherever she went, when the door closed behind her, its connection to the shop was severed. Whatever magic was at work, it existed in that other place—Elsewhere, as she thought of it—and could not be conjured from this side. No one would ever force his way into the shop. One would only succeed in breaking through an earthly door that didn’t lead where he hoped to go.
Even Karou was dependent on the whim of Brimstone to admit her. Sometimes he didn’t, however much she knocked, though he had never yet stranded her on the far side of an errand, and she hoped he never would.
This errand turned out to be a black-market auction in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Karou had attended several such, and they were always the same. Cash only, of course, and attended by sundry underworld types like exiled dictators and crime lords with pretensions to culture. The auction items were a mixed salad of stolen museum pieces—a Chagall drawing, the dried uvula of some beheaded saint, a matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Yes. A matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Karou sighed when she saw them. Brimstone hadn’t told her what she was after, only that she would know it when she saw it, and she did. Oh, and wouldn’t they be a delight to wrangle on public transportation?
Unlike the other bidders, she didn’t have a long black car waiting, or a pair of thug bodyguards to do her heavy lifting. She had only a string of scuppies and her charm, neither of which proved sufficient to persuade a cab driver to hang seven-foot-long elephant tusks out the back of his taxi. So, grumbling, Karou had to drag them six blocks to the nearest Metro station, down the stairs, and through the turnstile. They were wrapped in canvas and duct-taped, and when a street musician lowered his violin to inquire, “Hey lovely, what you got there?” she said, “Musicians who asked questions,” and kept on dragging.
It could have been worse, certainly, and often was. Brimstone sent her to some god-awful places in pursuit of teeth. After the incident in St. Petersburg, when she was recovering from being shot, she’d demanded, “Is my life really worth so little to you?”
As soon as the question was out of her mouth, she’d regretted it. If her life was worth so little to him, she didn’t want him to admit it. Brimstone had his faults, but he was all she had for a family, along with Issa and Twiga and Yasri. If she was just some kind of expendable slave girl, she didn’t want to know.
His answer had neither confirmed nor denied her fear. “Your life? You mean, your body? Your body is nothing but an envelope, Karou. Your soul is another matter, and is not, as far as I know, in any immediate danger.”
“An envelope?” She didn’t like to think of her body as an envelope—something others might be able to open up and rifle through, remove things from like so many clipped coupons.
“I assumed you felt the same way,” he’d said. “The way you scribble on it.”
Brimstone didn’t approve of her tattoos, which was funny, since he was responsible for her first, the eyes on her palms. At least Karou suspected he was, though she didn’t know for sure, since he was incapable of answering even the most basic questions.
“Whatever,” she’d said with a pained sigh. Really: pained. Getting shot hurt, no surprise there. Of course, she couldn’t argue that Brimstone shoved her unprepared into danger. He’d seen to it that she was trained from a young age in martial arts. She never mentioned it to her friends—it was not, her sensei had taught her early, a bragging matter—and they would have been surprised to learn that Karou’s gliding, straight-spined grace went hand in hand with deadly skill. Deadly or not, she’d had the misfortune to discover that karate went only so far against guns.
She’d healed quickly with the help of a pungent salve and, she suspected, magic, but her youthful fearlessness had been shaken, and she went on errands with more trepidation now.
Her train came, and she wrestled her burden through the doors, trying not to think too much about what was in it, or the magnificent life that had been ended somewhere in Africa, though probably not recently. These tusks were massive, and Karou happened to know that elephant tusks rarely grew so big anymore—poachers had seen to that. By killing all the biggest bulls, they’d altered the elephant gene pool. It was sickening, and here she was, part of that blood trade, hauling endangered species contraband on the freaking Paris Metro.
She shut the thought away in a dark room in her mind and stared out the window as the train sped through its black tunnels. She couldn’t let herself think about it. Whenever she did, her life felt gore-streaked and nasty.
Last semester, when she’d made her wings, she’d dubbed herself “the Angel of Extinction,” and it was entirely appropriate. The wings were made of real feathers she’d “borrowed” from Brimstone—hundreds of them, brought to him over the years by traders. She used to play with them when she was little, before she understood that birds had been killed for them, whole species driven extinct.
She had been innocent once, a little girl playing with feathers on the floor of a devil’s lair. She wasn’t innocent now, but she didn’t know what to do about it. This was her life: magic and shame and secrets and teeth and a deep, nagging hollow at the center of herself where something was most certainly missing.
Karou was plagued by the notion that she wasn’t whole. She didn’t know what this meant, but it was a lifelong feeling, a sensation akin to having forgotten something. She’d tried describing it to Issa once, when she was a girl. “It’s like you’re standing in the kitchen, and you know you went in there for a reason, but you can’t think of what that reason is, no matter what.”
“And that’s how you feel?” asked Issa, frowning.
“All the time.”
Issa had only drawn her close and stroked her hair—then its natural near-black—and said, unconvincingly, “I’m sure it’s nothing, lovely. Try not to worry.”
Well. Getting the tusks up the Metro steps at her destination was a lot harder than dragging them down had been, and by the top Karou was exhausted, sweating under her winter coat, and extremely peevish. The portal was a couple more blocks away, linked to the doorway of a synagogue’s small storage outbuilding, and when she finally reached it she found two Orthodox rabbis in deep conversation right in front of it.
“Perfect,” she muttered. She continued past them and leaned against an iron gate, just out of sight, to wait while they discussed some act of vandalism in mystified tones. At last they left, and Karou wrangled the tusks to the little door and knocked. As she always did while waiting at a portal in some back alley of the world, she imagined being stranded. Sometimes it took long minutes for Issa to open the door, and each and every time, Karou considered the possibility that it might not open. There was always a twinge of fear of being locked out, not just for the night, but forever. The scenario made her hyperaware of her powerlessness. If, some day, the door didn’t open, she would be alone.
The moment stretched, and Karou, leaning wearily against the doorframe, noticed something. She straightened. On the surface of the door was a large black handprint. That wouldn’t have been so very strange, except that it gave every appearance of having been burned into the wood. Burned, but in the perfect contours of a hand. This must be what the rabbis were talking about. She traced it with her fingertips, finding that it was actually scored into the wood, so that her own hand fit inside it, though dwarfed by it, and came away dusted with fine ash. She brushed off her fingers, puzzled.
What had made the print? A cleverly shaped brand? It sometimes happened that Brimstone’s traders left a mark by which to find portals on their next visit, but that was usually just a smear of paint or a knife-gouged X-marks-the-spot. This was a bit sophisticated for them.
The door creaked open, to Karou’s deep relief.
“Did everything go all right?” Issa asked.
Karou heaved the tusks into the vestibule, having to wedge them at an angle to fit them inside. “Sure.” She slumped against the wall. “I’d drag tusks across Paris every night if I could, it was such a treat.”
Around the world, over a space of days, black handprints appeared on many doors, each scorched deep into wood or metal. Nairobi, Delhi, St. Petersburg, a handful of other cities. It was a phenomenon. In Cairo, the owner of a shisha den painted over the mark on his back door only to find, hours later, that the handprint had smoldered through the paint and showed just as black as when he’d discovered it.
There were some witnesses to the acts of vandalism, but no one believed what they claimed to have seen.
“With his bare hand,” a child in New York told his mother, pointing out the window. “He just put his hand there, and it glowed and smoked.”
His mother sighed and went back to bed. The boy was an established fibber, worse luck for him, because this time he was not lying. He had seen a tall man lay his hand on the door and scorch the mark into it. “His shadow was wrong,” he told his mother’s retreating back. “It didn’t match.”
A drunken tourist in Bangkok witnessed a similar scene, though this time the handprint was made by a woman of such impossible beauty that he followed her, spellbound, only to see her—as he claimed—fly away.
“She didn’t have wings,” he told his friends, “but her shadow did.”
“His eyes were like fire,” said an old man who caught sight of one of the strangers from his rooftop pigeon coop. “Sparks rained down when he flew away.”
So it was in slum alleys and dark courtyards in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, San Francisco, Paris. Beautiful men and women with distorted shadows came and scorched their handprints onto doors before vanishing skyward, drafts of heat billowing behind them with the whumph of unseen wings. Here and there, feathers fell, and they were like tufts of white fire, disintegrating to ash as soon as they touched the ground. In Delhi, a Sister of Mercy reached out and caught one on her palm like a raindrop, but unlike a raindrop it burned, and left the perfect outline of a feather seared into her flesh.
“Angel,” she whispered, relishing the pain.
She was not exactly wrong.
When Karou stepped back into the shop, she found that Brimstone was not alone. A trader sat opposite him, a loathsome American hunter whose slab-of-meat face was garnished by the biggest, filthiest beard she had ever seen.
She turned to Issa and grimaced.
“I know,” agreed Issa, coming across the threshold in a ripple of serpentine muscle. “I gave him Avigeth. She’s about to molt.”
Avigeth was the coral snake wound around the hunter’s thick throat, forming a collar far too beautiful for the likes of him. Her bands of black, yellow, and crimson looked, even in their dulled state, like fine Chinese cloisonné. But for all her beauty, Avigeth was deadly, and never more so than when the itch of impending molt made her peevish. She was wending now in and out of the massive beard, a constant reminder to the trader that he must behave if he hoped to live.