The animal market in Saigon was one of her least favorite places in the world. The caged kittens and German shepherds, the bats and sun bears and langur monkeys, were not sold as pets, but food. An old crone of a butcher’s mother saved teeth in a funerary urn, and it was Karou who had to collect them every few months and seal the deal with a sour swig of rice wine that left her stomach churning.
Wednesday: Northern Canada. Two Athabascan hunters, a sickening haul of wolf teeth.
Thursday: San Francisco, a young blonde herpetologist with a cache of rattlesnake fangs left over from her unfortunate research subjects.
“You know, you could come into the shop yourself,” Karou told her, irritated because she had a self-portrait due the next day and could have used the extra hours to perfect it.
There were various reasons why traders might not come into the shop. Some had lost the privilege through misbehavior; others weren’t yet vetted; many were simply afraid to submit to the serpent collars, which shouldn’t have been a problem in this case, since this particular scientist spent her days with snakes by choice.
The herpetologist shuddered. “I came once. I thought the snake-woman was going to kill me.”
Karou smothered a smile. “Ah.” She understood. Issa was no friend to reptile killers, and had been known to coax her snakes into semi-strangulation as the mood arose. “Well, okay.” She counted out twenties into a decent stack. “But you know, if you do come in, Brimstone will pay you wishes worth much more than this.” He did not, to Karou’s bitterness, entrust her to dispense wishes on his behalf.
“Maybe next time.”
“Your choice.” Karou shrugged and left with a little wave, to head back to the portal and through it, taking note as she did that a black handprint was scorched into its surface. She was going to mention it to Brimstone, but he was with a trader and she had homework to get to, so she went on her way.
Up half the night working on her self-portrait, she was groggy on Friday and hopeful that Brimstone wouldn’t summon her again. He usually didn’t send for her more than twice a week, and it had already been four times. In the morning, while drawing old Wiktor in nothing but a feather boa—a sight Zuzana almost did not survive—she kept an eye on the window. All through afternoon painting studio, she kept fearing that Kishmish would appear, but he didn’t, and after school she waited for Zuzana under a ledge out of the drizzle.
“Well,” said her friend, “it’s a Karou. Get a good look, folks. Sightings of this elusive creature are getting rarer all the time.”
Karou noted the coolness in her voice. “Poison?” she suggested hopefully. After the week she’d had, she wanted to go to the cafe and sink into a couch, gossip and laugh and sketch and drink tea and make up for lost normal.
Zuzana gave her the eyebrow. “What, no errands?”
“No, thank god. Come on, I’m freezing.”
“I don’t know, Karou. Maybe I have secret errands today.”
Karou chewed the inside of her cheek and wondered what to say. She hated the way Brimstone kept secrets from her, and she hated even more having to do the same thing to Zuzana. What kind of friendship was based on evasions and lies? Growing up, she’d found it almost impossible to have friends; the need for lies always got in the way. It had been even worse then because she’d lived in the shop—forget about having a friend over to play! She would exit the portal in Manhattan each morning for school, followed by her lessons in karate and aikido, and go back to it each evening.
It was a boarded-up door of an abandoned building in the East Village, and when Karou was in fifth grade a friend named Belinda had seen her go in and had come to the conclusion that she was homeless. Word got around, parents and teachers got involved, and Karou, unable to produce Esther, her fake grandmother, on short notice, was taken into DHS custody. She was put into a group home, from which she escaped the first night, never to be seen again. After that: a new school in Hong Kong and extra caution that no one saw her using the portal. That meant more lies and secrecy, and no possibility of real friends.
She was old enough now that there was no risk of social services sniffing around, but as for friends, that was still a tightrope. Zuzana was the best friend she’d ever had, and she didn’t want to lose her.
She sighed. “I’m sorry about this week. It’s been crazy. It’s work—”
“Work? Since when do you work?”
“I work. What do you think I live on, rainwater and daydreams?”
She’d hoped to make Zuzana smile, but her friend just squinted at her. “How would I know what you live on, Karou? How long have we been friends, and you’ve never mentioned a job or a family or anything—”
Ignoring the “family or anything” part, Karou replied, “Well, it’s not exactly a job. I just run errands for this guy. Make pickups, meet with people.”
“What, like a drug dealer?”
“Come on, Zuze, really? He’s a… collector, I guess.”
“Oh? What does he collect?”
“Just stuff. Who cares?”
“I care. I’m interested. It just sounds weird, Karou. You’re not mixed up in something weird, are you?”
Oh no, thought Karou. Not at all. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I really can’t talk about it. It’s not my business, it’s his.”
“Fine. Whatever.” Zuzana spun on one platform heel and walked out into the rain.
“Wait!” Karou called after her. She wanted to talk about it. She wanted to tell Zuzana everything, to complain about her crappy week—the elephant tusks, the nightmarish animal market, how Brimstone only paid her in stupid shings, and the creepy banging on the other door. She could put it in her sketchbook, and that was something, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to talk.
It was out of the question, of course. “Can we please go to Poison?” she asked, her voice coming out small and tired. Zuzana looked back and saw the expression that Karou sometimes got when she thought no one was watching. It was sadness, lostness, and the worst thing about it was the way it seemed like a default—like it was there all the time, and all her other expressions were just an array of masks she used to cover it up.
Zuzana relented. “Fine. Okay. I’m dying for some goulash. Get it? Dying. Ha ha.”
The poisoned goulash; it was an old groaner between them, and Karou knew everything was okay. For now. But what about next time?
They set out, umbrella-less and huddled together, hurrying through the drizzle.
“You should know,” Zuzana said, “Jackass has been hanging around Poison. I think he’s lying in wait for you.”
Karou groaned. “Great.” Kaz had been calling and texting, and she had been ignoring him.
“We could go somewhere else—”
“No. I’m not letting that rodent-loaf have Poison. Poison’s ours.”
“Rodent-loaf?” repeated Zuzana.
It was a favorite insult of Issa’s, and made sense in the context of the serpent-woman’s diet, which consisted mainly of small furry creatures. Karou said, “Yes. Loaf of rodent. Ground mouse-meat with bread crumbs and ketchup—”
“Or you could substitute hamsters, I suppose,” said Karou. “Or guinea pigs. You know they roast guinea pigs in Peru, skewered on little sticks, like marshmallows?”
“Stop,” said Zuzana.
“Mmm, guinea pig s’mores—”
“Stop now, before I throw up. Please.”
And Karou did stop, not because of Zuzana’s plea, but because she caught a familiar flutter in the corner of her eye. No no no, she said to herself. She didn’t—wouldn’t—turn her head. Not Kishmish, not tonight.
Noting her sudden silence, Zuzana asked, “You okay?”
The flutter again, in a circle of lamplight in Karou’s line of sight. Too far off to draw special attention to itself, but unmistakably Kishmish.
“I’m fine,” Karou said, and she kept on resolutely in the direction of Poison Kitchen. What was she supposed to do, smack her forehead and claim to have remembered an errand, after all that? She wondered what Zuzana would say if she could see Brimstone’s little beast messenger, his bat wings so bizarre on his feathered body. Being Zuzana, she’d probably want to make a marionette version of him.
“How’s the puppet project coming?” Karou asked, trying to act normal.
Zuzana brightened and started to tell her. Karou half listened, but she was distracted by her jumbled defiance and anxiety. What would Brimstone do if she didn’t come? What could he do, come out and get her?
She was aware of Kishmish following, and as she ducked under the arch into the courtyard of Poison Kitchen, she gave him a pointed look as if to say, I see you. And I’m not coming. He cocked his head at her, perplexed, and she left him there and went inside.
The cafe was crowded, though Kaz, blessedly, was nowhere to be seen. A mix of local laborers, backpackers, expat artist types, and students hung out at the coffins, the fume of their cigarettes so heavy the Roman statues seemed to loom from a fog, ghoulish in their gas masks.
“Damn,” said Karou, seeing a trio of scruffy backpackers lounging at their favorite table. “Pestilence is taken.”
“Everything is taken,” said Zuzana. “Stupid Lonely Planet book. I want to go back in time and mug that damn travel writer at the end of the alley, make sure he never finds this place.”
“So violent. You want to mug and tase everybody these days.”
“I do,” Zuzana agreed. “I swear I hate more people every day. Everyone annoys me. If I’m like this now, what am I going to be like when I’m old?”
“You’ll be the mean old biddy who fires a BB gun at kids from her balcony.”
“Nah. BBs just rile ’em up. More like a crossbow. Or a bazooka.”
“You’re a brute.”
Zuzana dropped a curtsy, then took another frustrated look around at the crowded cafe. “Suck. Want to go somewhere else?”
Karou shook her head. Their hair was already soaked; she didn’t want to go back out. She just wanted her favorite table in her favorite cafe. In her jacket pocket, her fingers toyed with the store of shings from the week’s errands. “I think those guys are about to leave.” She nodded to the backpackers at Pestilence.
“I don’t think so,” said Zuzana. “They have full beers.”
“No, I think they are.” Between Karou’s fingers, one of the shings dematerialized. A second later, the backpackers rose to their feet. “Told you.”
In her head, she fancied she heard Brimstone’s commentary:
Evicting strangers from cafe tables: selfish.
“Weird,” was Zuzana’s response as the girls slipped behind the giant horse statue to claim their table. Looking bewildered, the backpackers left. “They were kind of cute,” said Zuzana.
“Oh? You want to call them back?”
“As if.” They had a rule against backpacker boys, who blew through with the wind, and started to all look the same after a while, with their stubbly chins and wrinkled shirts. “I was simply making a diagnosis of cuteness. Plus, they looked kind of lost. Like puppies.”
Karou felt a pang of guilt. What was she doing, defying Brimstone, spending wishes on mean things like forcing innocent backpackers out into the rain? She flopped onto the couch. Her head ached, her hair was clammy, she was tired, and she couldn’t stop worrying about the Wishmonger. What would he say?
The entire time she and Zuzana were eating their goulash, her gaze kept straying to the door.
“Watching for someone?” Zuzana asked.
“Oh. Just… just afraid Kaz might turn up.”
“Yeah, well, if he does, we can wrestle him into this coffin and nail it shut.”
They ordered tea, which came in an antique silver service, the sugar and creamer dishes engraved with the words arsenic and strychnine.
“So,” said Karou, “you’ll see violin boy tomorrow at the theater. What’s your strategy?”
“I have no strategy,” said Zuzana. “I just want to skip all this and get to the part where he’s my boyfriend. Not to mention, you know, the part where he’s aware I exist.”
“Come on, you wouldn’t really want to skip this part.”
“Yes I would.”
“Skip meeting him? The butterflies, the pounding heart, the blushing? The part where you enter each other’s magnetic fields for the first time, and it’s like invisible lines of energy are drawing you together—”
“Invisible lines of energy?” Zuzana repeated. “Are you turning into one of those New Age weirdos who wear crystals and read people’s auras?”
“You know what I mean. First date, holding hands, first kiss, all the smoldering and yearning?”
“Oh, Karou, you poor little romantic.”
“Hardly. I was going to say the beginning is the good part, when it’s all sparks and sparkles, before they are inevitably unmasked as assholes.”
Zuzana grimaced. “They can’t all be assholes, can they?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe just the pretty ones.”
“But he is pretty. God, I hope he’s not an asshole. Do you think there’s any chance he’s both a non-orifice and single? I mean, seriously. What are the chances?”
“I know.” Zuzana slumped dramatically back and lay crumpled like a discarded marionette.