Office of the Provost
February 9, 1372
Bertrand du Guesclin walked to the chair of the provost of the university of Paris and sat. He had sent a runner to inform the king of what had happened and, for the moment at least, had left instructions that the “guests” should be treated with respect.
The parties involved were babbling like chickens. The church, in the person of Bishop de Sarcenas, was busy demanding that they be burned at the stake. And there was a part of Bertrand that wanted to let him do just that. But Bertrand hadn’t let fear rule him since he was six, and he wasn’t going to start now. He looked around the room then said, “No!”
He didn’t shout, not exactly, but Bertrand was used to making himself heard in the middle of a battle. The babble quieted, and he continued. “Did you see the structure of that thing? The front glass? Better than the best glass I have ever seen. The metal, the wheels, the black around the rims, the . . .” He waved a hand. “The whole of it. Any part of that device must be considered the work of a master, if not a miracle. And the whole, taken together, is beyond impossible. The people in the—” Bertrand stopped, trying to recall the word that demon had used to describe the conveyance. Ah, yes. “—the van were ordinary people, if extraordinarily comely. For now, until I have contrary evidence, I will believe this Pucorl in the van about what it is and where its form came from. That makes the people both innocent and potentially exceedingly valuable.” He looked at Bishop de Sarcenas until the man wilted. It didn’t take long.
Then he turned to the alchemist. What was his name? Gabriel Delaflote. “Doctor Delaflote, you go have a talk with the van and find out what you can. Commissaire Dubois, I know this is about your murders, but for the moment you’re going to have to be patient. No extreme measures until the king or I tell you different. These people and the van are to be treated as gently as new babes.”
He looked around the room again, and seeing he had basic understanding among them, stood. “I need to go have a talk with the king.”
He also needed to get a message to his wife. Tiphaine was much better educated than he was. She understood astrology and divination, even.
The Stranger’s Rooms
Three hours later
“What’s going on?” Liane Boucher asked. “This makes no sense.”
Paul rolled his eyes and Annabelle wanted to do the same. Not that Liane didn’t have a point. Because this did make no sense at all. Demons were not real. They didn’t pick up vans from the twenty-first century and dump them in the fourteenth. They didn’t chat about demonic politics and translate between Langue d’oil and twenty-first-century French and English.
Besides, if such a thing were to happen, the locals wouldn’t politely offer the occupants of the van rooms, food, and make oath before God to protect them from harm.
The primitives from the middle ages—okay, the late middle ages, but still the middle ages—wouldn’t show them to what was, for the time, a very nice hall. Apparently a dormitory. It had a dozen cots with bags of hay for mattresses, and windows that were shuttered against the cold, wet weather. She looked around the hall, at the woolen tapestries that hung on the walls, protecting the room from the cold stone behind. She looked at the carpets that were on the stone floor for the same purpose. The arched ceiling and the large fireplace in the north wall that held a warm fire. The lamps on the walls that provided a little light.
Annabelle found herself thankful that it had been a cold, wet day in December when this happened to them. At least everyone had a warm coat. The bread was dense and grainy, the soup was cabbage, with the bare acquaintance of a goat.
And the place stank mildly of chamber pots. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was there in the background.
Still, for all of that, her history classes told her that these were good quarters. What a group of noble students would expect, not what a bunch of peasants would see. And certainly not what a bunch of witches disgorged by a demon should expect.
Liane was right. It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.
But Paul was right too, because Liane had been saying that every five minutes since they arrived. Her repetition of the obvious was getting more than a bit old.
Liane, although French, wasn’t having any more luck being understood than the American students were. Jennifer was spending most of her time crying. Roger was marching back and forth near the door, fists clenching and unclenching as he moved. Lakshmi was just sitting on her cot, not eating, not looking around. Just sitting there, as though she couldn’t process what had happened.
Annabelle looked at Mrs. Grady and fumed. She needed to be out in the courtyard, talking to the demon and figuring out how it was working with the van. But Mrs. Grady insisted they all stay together “for safety.” Like they were any safer here than in the courtyard. Besides, so far the guards had been polite.
Wilber had turned off his hearing aid. He had a cochlear implant and only limited batteries for the external unit. He was lying on his cot, looking at the ceiling and not saying anything. Didn’t Mrs. Grady understand they were under a time limit? All their electronics were going to run down and the van was going to run out of gas. They needed to figure stuff out now, not wait till these middle ages gangsters got around to them.
Bill had dug into his backpack and pulled a pair of red plastic dice out of it. He was now trying to interest the guards in a game of craps. But at least he was doing something. Jeff was just lying on his cot, asleep. He probably didn’t understand what was going on, but not understanding what was going on was not unusual for Jeff, so he was less bothered by it than the others.
Annabelle got up. She would try again to talk some sense into Mrs. Grady. Annabelle knew she wasn’t being fair, but she was scared. Honestly, scared half out of her mind, and she needed to be doing something before she came apart at the seams.
“Okay, Annabelle,” Mrs. Grady said before she even got there. “If you can make the guards understand and it’s okay with them, it’s okay with me. But I want you back here before dark.”
Annabelle headed for the door to the courtyard.
He had form. He had shape and substance through his vessel.
He didn’t know how his new form worked. He didn’t know, not clearly, that he was thinking with electrical fields and current flows. A microprocessor is small, but not nearly so small as a neuron. And there aren’t nearly so many neurons on a chip as there are in even a mouse’s brain. The van didn’t have a twenty-first century supercomputer.
On the other hand, a demon is still a demon. It can function even if it’s placed in a pewter statue of a mouse. The van was a whole lot better and more functional than a statue. Pucorl was using the “brain” of the van to help his thinking, and that brain gave his thoughts a clarity and an edge of precision that he never could have managed without it. Besides, a demon like Pucorl was strongly influenced by the form he occupied and the form he was in was a twenty-first-century van that informed Pucorl’s understanding of the world and his vocabulary.
The van’s electronic functions were designed to be voice-activated. The driver could make calls or activate the cameras by voice. The magic infused the speaker as well as the speech centers and soft- and firmware on his chips. Pucorl could talk with a facility and control that even a supercomputer couldn’t match, because part of what was happening was magic.
The same was true of the fly-by-wire circuitry that would have let the van parallel park on its own on a Paris street before Pucorl had joined with it. Now that circuitry, in combination with Pucorl’s demon nature, meant that the van could drive itself.
If there was anywhere to drive.
He was still stuck in the courtyard and the locals weren’t in any hurry to take down the walls and let him out. So, for now, all he could do was talk.
He had spent the last several hours talking to Gabriel Delaflote about the nature of magic, and was finding it rather difficult to keep his story straight. The truth was that Pucorl was not a demon lord. He wasn’t one of the beings that the ancients had called gods. He was an imp and a trickster, a clerk of sorts, a very minor figure in the demonic power structure.
This vessel helped a lot, but he didn’t understand how it helped. Part of that was because no one had yet asked him the right questions.
Pucorl was of a class of demons who were designed to serve as sources of information. Asking them a question let them find the answer, if the answer was within their range. If someone would ask him how the van affected him, he would know. But he wouldn’t until he was asked.
Though Pucorl didn’t realize it, that was why he had spent eighty million years chewing on the same spot on the same dinosaur bone. No one had asked him why that spot or suggested another. Without that external stimulus, Pucorl hadn’t thought to change what he was doing or how.
He welcomed the arrival of Annabelle Cooper-Smythe with considerable relief. That relief was turned into out-and-out joy when the first question she asked was, “How are your batteries?”
In that instant, Pucorl understood that he had two batteries. One was located in his engine compartment, the other, center body, left side. And while they were interconnected and one could back up the other, they performed different functions. The one in his engine compartment ran the starter motor, the external lights, the external speakers that he used when someone pushed the horn button, the external cameras, the windshield wipers, and so on. The other operated the internal cameras, the GPS, the entertainment center, and his radio and phone.
He knew as well that both were gradually losing charge, and because he was a demon he knew how to charge the batteries. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to him that they might need charging. A moment’s thought and the use of a tiny fraction of his essence, and the batteries were fully charged.
“My batteries are fully charged and will stay charged,” Pucorl said smugly.
“Cool. What about gas? Diesel, that is.”
And again the question brought the answer. The answer was partly Annabelle’s knowledge of how his vessel was supposed to work and partly the readings that told him. What he knew was that he had seven gallons of diesel and he couldn’t fill the tank from his essence. He couldn’t will it filled. He would never, as long as he occupied the vessel, run out of power. But he would run out of fuel, and once that happened he wouldn’t be able to move. He knew better than the sensor how much fuel he had because, like the circuitry, the sensor’s function was augmented by his magic. He knew to the milliliter how much fuel he had.
“I only have a quarter tank,” he said. “And I can’t make more.”
“Why can you make electricity and not diesel?” Annabelle asked, and the question brought the answer, if not understanding of the answer.
“If I were in a jewel, the jewel would glow with my presence as long as I was in the jewel. But if I were in a cat, the cat would still need to be fed.”
“What does that mean?” Annabelle asked.
“Diesel is my food.”
“I got that part,” Annabelle said. “It was the part about making the jewel glow—” She stopped speaking for a moment, then continued. “Not even that. It’s that if you can do the one, you ought to be able to do the other. There are electric cars, after all.”
“I don’t truly understand myself,” Pucorl half admitted, half lied. Her question had given him a part of the answer. It is in the nature of a jewel to shine. Pucorl could expand that nature. But it is not in the nature of a cat to live without food. He could make the jewel shine even when there was no light to reflect, but he couldn’t make the cat live without food. It had to do with the inherent nature of things. A battery was part of a piece of electronic equipment. It was meant to be charged and provide power. An engine took fuel and used it up.
Annabelle went to the back of the van and grabbed the back door handles.
“Hey,” said Pucorl, “watch the hands.”
“You can feel that?”
“Of course,” Pucorl said. He hadn’t actually objected when her hand touched his door handle, but wanted to make the point that he was the van now. It wasn’t some inanimate object.
“What do you mean, how? How do you know when someone touches you?”
“I have nerves.”
“That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about it.” Pucorl did think about it. When he was called, he occupied whatever vessel was available, and he had to adapt to that vessel. If he was called to a living creature, he integrated with it, taking on its physical characteristics, gender, and to an extent its personality. If he was called to a statue, he took on its form, not that he was the sort of powerful demon who could actually animate a statue. All he could do was talk through its mouth. But now, in the van, it was like both things were happening at once.
“Well?” Annabelle asked.
Pucorl tried to decide how much to tell her. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I can feel your hand on my door handle.”
Annabelle shrugged, and opened the door. She lifted the floor panel to expose the storage area.
Pucorl felt that too.
She pulled out the scanner. Pucorl felt it being removed, like you might feel a glove removed or keys come out of your pocket. He looked at it with his camera. It was a yellow plastic device with a liquid crystal display and buttons. It also had a plug that fit under the dash and let it interface with the van’s onboard diagnostics.
“What are you planning to do with that?” Pucorl asked.
“I’m planning to check your systems.”
Pucorl locked his doors. “I’m not that kind of van!” Then he laughed and unlocked them, and noted that Annabelle was grinning at him.
Royal Palace, Hôtel Saint-Pol
Even here in the king’s private chambers, Bertrand bowed deeply as he entered. The king was fifteen years his junior, and Bertrand had known him since the king was a lad and Bertrand was a hotheaded young fool. But Charles V of France was his liege lord, much smarter than Bertrand, and a better lord than Bertrand or France deserved.
“Oh, stop that,” King Charles said, and waved him to a chair. The room was as much a library as an office, with oak bookshelves inlayed with gold and silver and actual bound books. The new palace, the Hôtel Saint-Pol, was barely a decade old. Charles V had dedicated a lot of money and effort into making it luxurious as well as functional.
“Would you truly want me to, Sire?” Bertrand asked, moving to the chair.
“No, probably not,” the king admitted, “but it does get tiresome sometimes. Tell me of the summoning. Did it actually work?”
“In a manner of speaking, Sire. Though not in the manner Delaflote expected. On the other hand, I think the way it worked out might be better for us than if he had gotten the imp in the form of a bird or a cat that he was expecting. What we got was a cart full of people from the future. A future where they can make sheets of glass as long as a man is tall, and as clear as a summer’s day. Where they can make carts out of steel. Carts that can move themselves without the need of horses or oxen to draw them. I spoke a little to the demon and to the teacher before leaving orders and coming here. I think the people in the van will be of . . .”
“You left out what happened, Bertrand,” the king interrupted. “Now, go back to the beginning and tell me what happened.”
Bertrand did. It took a while. While he was talking, other members of the king’s privy council came in and interrupted. Then things had to be repeated.
They talked through the night and came only to tentative conclusions. First, they would, for now, leave the strangers and their demon to work with the commissaire of police to investigate the murders, but they would be watched with care.
“Duke Philip is in Burgundy at the moment, but his spies will tell him about this within days. He will return to Paris, looking for advantage. So will my other brothers,” King Charles said.
“We can’t afford open war with your brothers, Your Majesty,” Bertrand said. “Not when we’re in the middle of the war with England.”
Nicolas du Bosc asked, “You said they were from the future. Doesn’t that mean they know our present as their past?”
“I would assume so,” Bertrand said.
“I think, Your Majesty, I should go and have a chat with these people and see what their histories say of your brothers.”
King Charles nodded. “You do that, Nicolas. But also ask them if they record the presence of a van filled with people from the future. It would seem to me that they would have read of such a thing had it happened.”
Bertrand tried not to let his confusion show. He followed what the king was saying well enough. It was the back and forth of they must know and they can’t know, because if they knew, they would have avoided that spot on that day, and on and on, back and forth, that caused his confusion.
An Inn in Paris
Duke Philip sipped wine as Robert Fabre watched cautiously. You had to be careful when delivering bad news to Philip the Bold. What Robert didn’t know was whether Duke Philip would consider this bad news.
“So they raised a demon, did they?” Duke Philip said. “My brother needs to learn to control his petite gen better.” But there was a smile on the duke’s face. “Contact Cardinal de Dormans. We are going to point out to the church that my brother is dealing with demonic forces.”
Robert Fabre nodded. He knew that Duke Philip had his own dealings with the mystical creatures that had started appearing a few weeks ago. That was why the duke was in Paris. He had been told by a dame blanche of the demon in Paris after dallying with her for a night. He came here to contact the demon lord and make a deal. Philip the Bold was convinced that he should be the king of France. He was his father’s favorite, after all, and he was positive that his cautious bookkeeper brother who was on the throne of France at the moment would lead the kingdom to ruin by his parsimonious ways. Robert knew all this because he had been at the rites that invoked Duke Philip’s creature.
“For that matter, send word to Pope Gregory in Avignon.” Philip snorted a laugh. “I doubt Gregory can do more than Father Augustine could.”
Robert hid a shudder.
Strangers’ Quarters, University of Paris
February 10, 1372
Wilber turned up his mic to listen to Bill Howe as he described what he had seen in the Rue Paul.
“I took one look at the alley and knew we weren’t going to find much. The city guard—they call it the Grand Chatelet—are doing their best, but they don’t know crap about preserving crime scenes. Someone had hosed down the place. Well, bucketed down the place, these people not having hoses, any more than they have fingerprint kits. But the alley was probably cleaner than it had been in the last ten years and there was an old woman going over the walls with a rag soaked in lye soap.
“I told them that the first rule of crime scene investigation is to preserve the crime scene, but I’m not sure how much of it they got. I said it in French, but got nothing back except blank looks. So I pulled out my slate computer and finger wrote it. That got me some warding signs, but that assistant to the commissaire looked at it and seemed to get it.” Bill shrugged. “Maybe. He wrote something on a wall with chalk. Wouldn’t touch my computer. The note read ‘You think we should just wait for the next murder?’
“I shrugged and wrote back that we weren’t even here when that murder happened. Then he brought me back here. I don’t know . . . maybe if we can talk to that alchemist guy, he can fix us up with fingerprint powder. Maybe even PH test strips.”
Bill had volunteered for this because his dad was a lawyer, a high-end criminal attorney. Bill knew more about evidence than anyone in their group, with the possible exception of eight-year-old Paul, whose dad was a French police inspector. But there was no way that Mrs. Grady was letting her eight-year-old go visit a bloody crime scene.
Wilber turned his implant back down when Bill was finished. They had to solve the murders to get back. That was the only reason Mrs. Grady let Bill go.
The Grand Chatelet
The man who six centuries later would have been known as a cop or police officer bowed to the commissaire as he entered the office.
Pierre lifted an eyebrow. “Well, Jacques, what was it like working with a demon-brought stranger?”
“He’s a youngster, Commissaire, and I don’t doubt the claim that they are of good families. I would guess that one’s papa is a baron, at least. The problem was the language. I couldn’t understand a quarter of what he said, even when he wrote it out on that magic pad of his.”
“According to the imp of knowledge, it’s not a magic pad, but a tool. More complicated than pen and paper, but not different in kind.” Pierre stood and walked across his office to a small table that held a jar of wine. He lifted the jar and Jacques licked his lips, but shook his head. Pierre turned back to the table and poured himself wine.
“If you believe the demon in the cart,” said Jacques. In his tone of voice, Pierre heard doubt and distrust to match his own. “The ‘van,’ as they call it.”
“We must teach them proper French as quickly as we can,” Pierre said, turning back with wine in hand. “We need to be able to check the claims of the haunted van.”
“Weeks at the least, Commissaire, and I don’t think we have weeks before the monster strikes again.”