The Shape Stealer (Excerpt)

Take a look at Lee Carroll’s The Shape Stealer, out on March 5:

Jewelry designer Garet James is the Watchtower—the last in a long line of powerful women sworn to protect the world from evil. Although she had once defeated evil in New York City, her pursuit of her true love, the 400-year-old vampire Will Hughes, has now unleashed an age-old evil onto the modern world, and the entire planet is at risk.

Marduk, the ageless descendant of a demonic Babylonian deity, is now loose in Paris. He has joined forces with the villainous John Dee in a plan to destroy the world’s economy and plunge the entire world into chaos.

To fight this threat, Garet enlists the help of a modern-day band of knights who are dedicated to preserving the sanctity of the timeline. As she and her allies face this threat, new challenges arise in the form of a rival faction of knights who will stop at nothing to bring about the destruction of everything Garet holds dear.

 

1

The Little Bridge

 

Paris in the morning. The streets newly washed by rain. The smells of coffee and fresh baked bread wafting from cafés. Sunlight a glittering promise of the day on the Seine. I’d dreamed of walking like this across the Pont Saint Michel with Will Hughes some day. How after four hundred years of night he would see his first daybreak by my side. To win that dawn we’d traveled back in time, faced a conniving alchemist, an evil astrologer, an ancient sorceress, a monster, assorted crocodiles, and Will’s own sordid past . . . and won a cure. We’d come back using the Astrologer’s Tower and a timepiece I’d fashioned as a time machine, and I’d handed Will the cure—the blood of the shape-shifting creature that had made him a vampire. He had drunk and become human. Descending the Astrologer’s Tower we’d learned that the creature, Marduk, had traveled back with us. But I knew that together we could handle even that. When Will looked around him, amazed at the new world at his feet, I thought it was wonder at the new world of daylight after four hundred years of night, but it wasn’t. He was amazed because he’d never seen twenty-first-century Paris. The Will I had brought back with me was not the man I had fallen in love with. It was his earlier self. Nineteen-year-old Will Hughes, the callow youth whom I’d found when I traveled back in time to 1602 and inadvertently brought back with me.

“You’re not my Will,” I had told him. “I saved the wrong one.”

 

“Tell me again what he said to you in the alley?”

We were in the Café Le Petit Pont across from Notre Dame. I was on my second café au lait. Will was sipping his, his childish delight at the beverage beginning to grate on my nerves.

“What my dark twin said?”

I sighed with exasperation. “I’ve explained. He’s not your dark twin. He’s you—four hundred years later. We came from the future—now—to find a cure for him.”

Will pouted. My sexy, virile vampire pouted. I preferred those lips when they snarled back over fangs. “He said I was his better self.”

I snorted. “He was flattering you, probably because he knew it would work. Then what did he say?”

“He told me he knew a way that I could become human again and regain my true love, Marguerite.” He made moon eyes at me again, as he had every time he’d mentioned Marguerite. I slapped the table.

“I told you, I am not your Marguerite. I’m a distant descendant.”

“Well, he told me you were. He said I’d find you at the top of a tower in Catherine de Medici’s palace. That I’d have to fight my way there, but when I did I’d find you . . . er . . . Marguerite . . . on top with my cure. And I did fight! There were crocodiles!”

“Yes, you were very brave,” I said for the fifth time. “But didn’t you ask him why he was sending you instead of going himself?”

Will’s brow creased. “Why should I question my dark twin’s desire to save me?”

I sighed and lowered my head in my hands. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

“But now that you mention it, he did say one other thing.”

“Yes?” I said, picking up my head. “He said to tell you—well, to tell Marguerite . . .”

I made a circular motion with my hand to urge him to go on.

“Let’s see, what were the exact words? He made me memorize them . . . oh yes, that he was sending you his better self because that’s what you deserved.”

“Then you’re both idiots,” I said, tossing a euro coin onto the table and getting up. I headed east along the Seine, battling the early morning flow of tourists, not caring if he followed me. But of course he did. He caught up with me in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where a shop keeper was setting up the outdoor bins of books in the little square in front of the store.

“I don’t know why you’re angry with me, good lady. I merely followed the instructions of what appeared to be my dark angel.”

“That’s why I’m angry with you,” I said, wheeling on him. “You followed orders; you didn’t think to question him, did you? If you had, he might have told you that he was you four hundred years later and merely because he’d done some questionable things in those four hundred years he didn’t think he was good enough for me. Then you might have asked, ‘Verily, good sir, have you asked the lady what she thinks?’ And he would have been forced to admit that the lady had already told him that she didn’t care what he’d done, that she loved him, the man he was, with all the experiences he’d had, not the silly boy he’d been four hundred years before.”

Will, who had grown nearly as pale as his vampire self under my tirade, fidgeted with the frills of his shirt cuff. “I am not silly,” he said. “And neither was my older self an idiot. We both did what we did for love. Can we not be friends, you and I? We both want the same thing. You want your beloved Will back and I want my Marguerite. Can that not be arranged? I am willing to go back in time and change places with my dark . . . er . . . my older self.”

“That’s very gallant of you,” I said, “only as I mentioned earlier, the timepiece we used to travel back in time is broken.” I held up the watch that hung around my neck. Its glass face had cracked and its gears no longer moved.

I sighed and looked away from him, toward the river and the square in front of Notre Dame where tourists were lining up for morning tours. Time was moving on. Irrationally, I felt it was moving me even further away from Will—the real Will, stuck in 1602. But then something occurred to me. Time was moving on. Will wasn’t stuck in the past. Without Marduk’s blood he had remained a vampire, which meant he would have continued living from then until now. He must exist somewhere in the present . . . but then where was he? The question quickly made my head hurt. I needed to find someone who understood time . . . Of course! Horatio Durant, the watchmaker who had helped me make the timepiece. He hadn’t admitted to any supernatural knowledge, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have any. I would start with him. Relieved to have come up with a plan of sorts, I turned to share it with Will . . . but Will was gone. I spun around in a circle, searching for him, but didn’t see him anywhere. He’d vanished into the crowds of tourists streaming along the Seine as completely as his older self had vanished into the river of time.


2

Tender Like a Rose

 

Despondent over Garet’s iciness, Will had turned away from her in front of the bookstore named for his long-lost mentor and love rival, its presence another unfriendly rebuke to his spirit. His eyes had wandered across the faces in the crowd, searching for a friendlier mien, when suddenly he had spied a familiar façade. Not of a person, but of a building. It was the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, where he had kept his Paris vigil over Marguerite four centuries earlier after they had parted in London in a conflict over his desire to join her in immortality. A sign at her previous lodgings in London had directed him to wait for her at this church. She never arrived, but another sign he encountered there eventually guided him toward Paimpont in Brittany, where he had found her. Perhaps even now there would be a sign there that would lead him to her. He’d headed toward it, leaving Garet behind him in the crowd.

A distinctive tree near the church’s north wall, which he recalled clearly from 1602, was still here, now with a plaque on its trunk labeling it “the oldest tree in Paris.” It was, indeed, an ancient-looking specimen. Poor thing, it had weathered the centuries badly. At some point in its long life it had leaned so far to one side that it had been propped up by a metal girder and its trunk had split in two and been filled with stone. Will sank down onto a bench in front of the tree, feeling at this evidence of the centuries that had passed for him and the tree as if he, too, needed support and as if his heart, too, had been filled with stone. He was still staring morosely at the tree when an odd little man approached him. The man was no more than five feet tall and gave the impression of a human egg, waddling about rotundly on two short legs: of a robin’s egg in particular, given the pale blue tint of his summer attire, shorts and a tennis shirt. Dispensing with any social niceties, the man approached Will, closely observed him with deepset blue eyes, and told him that he happened to know that Will was in need of a time portal. The man knew where Will might find such a portal, or where rumors among the fey suggested he might find one.

“How on earth do you know my plight?” Will asked, astonished.

The man allowed himself the smallest crease of a grin. “It’s not on earth that I know your plight. It’s in earth.”

“How so?”

“I have familiarity with subterranean circles where certain fey wander. Word travels there. I happen to be Paul Robin, descendent of the great royal botanist Jean Robin, who remains somewhat alive below ground in this very locale, amidst and part of the roots of the tree you see before you. Indeed, my great-great-etc. grandfather has heard of your arrival here from his sources, and he has sent me to help you.”

“Arrival at the church? Or arrival in 2009?”

Paul smiled. “Both. Sources tell me that there’s a certain bookstore along the banks of the Seine, Kepler and Dee’s, where—assuming you were to find it—if you browse along its shelves long enough, a time portal might open. At least, this is an experience some fey have had. It’s through a method called transmigration of atoms, though I have no idea what that is . . .”

But Will did. He had learned of it in London this past unforgettable summer in which he’d fallen in love with Marguerite, and he had some brief experience with it too. Hope flared at hearing the term again.

“Unfortunately I do not have the address of Kepler and Dee’s,” Paul Robin went on. “But I’m sure that if you walk along the Seine long enough, you will find it. I hope so, anyway.”

Paul Robin wheeled around like an egg spinning on its axis and walked swiftly away, without another word. Will was left staring after him, amidst the fading red and gold sunlight, the burgeoning shadows cast by the church and the trees in the park, wondering if he should take him seriously or not. But the man had known his name and his problem. It was worth a try. If he found the portal he’d not only solve his problem, but he’d prove to Garet James that he was not an idiot, as she had so rudely called him.

But after Will had been strolling along the banks of the Seine for nearly two hours, he still hadn’t found the store. He’d found a few bookstores, but none with a name like Kepler and Dee’s, and the one whose name had rung a bell, Shakespeare and Company, rang it in a somewhat inflammatory way. Nonetheless, he’d been moved to go inside and ask if the store had previously been named Kepler and Dee’s, but the clerk only shook a head for no and looked at him as if he were drunk. As had the half dozen people he’d stopped along the way to ask, in his best court French, if they knew the establishment.

Some had stared, a few had laughed. But on the other hand, they all seemed a very civilized bunch, nothing like the rough street crowds of Elizabethan London who could jostle you in the interests of pickpocketing, or out of meanness. Still, he was becoming tired—he’d like another cup of that excellent beverage Garet had procured for him earlier.

That had been kind of her. Even when she was angry—which he could hardly blame her for, after so keen a disappointment as she had suffered—she’d bought him breakfast. And she would have taken him back to her lodgings if he hadn’t wandered off. In truth, her coldness hadn’t been any more dismissive than Marguerite’s final walk away from him in Paris had been, when he’d revealed to her that he had become immortal, and she’d told him that she had simultaneously had herself turned into a mortal, under the cruel illusion that she and Will could now be together in harmony. How hopeful a situation was that?

The more he walked on, the more Garet came to mind. Maybe it was the irrepressible nature of youth, which needed someone to love close at hand. But a wave of feeling came over him, and, poet at the core that he was, he felt the urge to compose a sonnet. It could begin with a recitation of his lover’s quandary, but he wanted it to end with a fervent expression of his new feeling. He sat on a bench on the Pont Saint Michel and wrote feverishly, in a tumult, scarcely noticing the crowds or the waning daylight. When Will was done he stared down at the lines he had written as though startled by them, as if he had learned something about himself and his situation he couldn’t have learned otherwise, as if a hand other than his own had written the poem.

Love Garet?—Marguerite?—I’m so confused:
whichever way I turn, I seem to lose.
My true beloved’s buried in the past
and yet Time’s twin of hers perhaps could last
as my great love, if she would only see
that I can love her deeply, as truly
as sunlight loves a gnarled and ancient tree,
as wind’s enamored of the clouds that flee
its western onrush; wind pursues them for
as long as there is weather, and birds soar.

I pledge that I am yours forevermore,
fixated like Othello, jealous Moor,
yet tender like a rose embracing spring.
Please understand my plight! Let love take wing!

After reading the poem over, Will went to the nearby railing and stared down at the Seine as if he pondered his own fate there, inside a mirror of water tinged with the red light of the setting sun. And it was Garet’s face he saw in the mirror, not Marguerite’s. They were similar faces but now, for Will, they were so very different. He recited the poem aloud to himself one more time, and then decided it should be entitled “Tender like a Rose.”

Yes, he could . . . perchance he already did . . . love Garet! He’d go find her and show her the poem . . . but find her where? When he’d left her standing in front of the bookstore he hadn’t stopped to wonder where they would meet again. Now he rushed back to the store, but of course Garet wasn’t there. And he didn’t know the name or address of her lodgings. He turned in a circle twice, searching the crowds for her face, but now that night was approaching, the cafés and streets were even more packed. These crowds might be more polite than the 1602 mobs he was familiar with, but they were larger than any he had ever seen. The wall of people seemed to go on and on . . . forever. He turned around and around again . . . and found himself facing a man who was staring at him curiously.

“Are you the man who has been asking everyone for Kepler and Dee’s Bookshop?” the man asked.

“Yes!” Will exclaimed. “Do you know where it is?”

“I ought to,” the man replied. “I am Johannes Kepler.”

 

The Shape Stealer © 2013

 

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