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Creature Catchers Paperback – March 16, 2007


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About the Author

Lisa Smedman is the author of more than a dozen fantasy novels and game books. She lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Alisa Baldwin is a freelance illustrator whose delightfully original style has been recognized in the American Illustration annual. She lives in Montreal.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpted from Chapter 1:

Kenneth glanced around. No one was looking. His twin sister, Candace, was roller skating in circles over by the unicorn pen, her curly blonde hair fluttering out behind her. Near her, a zookeeper was busy pitchforking flowers into the pen. Uncle Nigel had gone to buy a packet of charcoal to feed to the fire salamanders.

Thanks to the commotion Candace was making, the metal wheels of her skates clattering on the cobblestones, none of the people strolling along the zoo's winding paths on this bright summer day would notice Kenneth scraping. That was perfect, since he didn't want to get caught. He flicked open the pocketknife he'd gotten for his eleventh birthday and scratched at the black paint that covered the front window of the exhibit. Slowly, the glass behind it was exposed.

Their uncle had brought them to the Londinium Zoo to see some of the creatures he'd captured for the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. The creatures were temporarily on display here, in the zoo's exotics section, before being shipped out next week. Uncle Nigel had shown them a hippogriff, and a Japanese kirin, and an African intulo-something that looked half man, half lizard-but what Kenneth really wanted to see was the cockatrice.

He'd viewed a zoetrope of it, of course, but looking through the slits of a spinning cylinder at painted pictures wasn't Kenneth's idea of excitement. The cockatrice sounded savage-something like a fighting cock, except with lizard scales instead of feathers, a long forked tongue, and an enormous hooked claw on the tip of each of its leathery wings. Uncle Nigel had described its eyes as "green as demon ichor and equally venomous."

There were only a handful of people in the world who had looked upon one of these fierce animals and lived. One glance from their eyes, and a person would be petrified-frozen stiff! Just wait until the boys at school heard that Kenneth had actually seen one. That would shut them up. Surely they'd stop teasing him about being so short and listen to him, for a change.

The hole was big enough now. He glanced around -- no one was looking -- and squatted next to the glass, ready to peer inside.

--

Her arms held out like wings, Candace did a wobbly turn on the roller skates she'd gotten for her birthday. She imagined herself on the back of a pegasus, taking a graceful soar above the beautiful flower gardens below. Some day, in the Lady Candace Owen's Public Gardens, there would be a stable filled with pegasi and unicorns, and sea-foam steeds, and all manner of beautiful horses. Rides would be free for the children who lived in the Poor House. It was just a dream, of course, but one day that dream would come true.

Skating to a halt at the unicorn pen, she leaned on the wooden rail and stared at the magnificent beast. The unicorn was white as an Arabian steed, but small, like a pony, with a spiral horn and crystal hooves that flashed like diamonds in the sun. It looked at her with soft round eyes while munching on the flowers the zookeeper had provided.

Candace leaned over the rail and extended a hand. The unicorn lifted its head, then took a step toward her. Its breath whuffled softly against her palm as it nuzzled her hand.

"I wish I had an apple for you, dear heart," she told it.

The unicorn snorted and tossed its long white mane.

"Here now!" the zookeeper admonished. "Get your hand out of there, Miss. That beast bites."

Candace did as she was told, though knew that she needn't have bothered. The unicorn wasn't about to bite her; it knew she was its friend. Every animal she'd ever met trusted her. She could even get Mrs. Soames's mean little dog to lick her hand -- something Kenneth could never hope to do.

She would have loved to inform the zookeeper that there was no danger -- that the unicorn would just nuzzle her hand -- but she didn't. Correcting an adult just wasn't proper, even if the adult in question was a rough-looking man with rolled-up sleeves and unkempt hair. She gave him a smile instead, then turned sharply and skated away.

Straight into a man who was taking a photograph.

His tripod toppled, sending the camera crashing onto the cobblestones, where it smashed into pieces. The photographic plate flew out of the back of it and shattered with a loud crash.

Candace, tangled together with the man in a most undignified pose, heard a sharp whinny, then the thudding of hooves. She glanced up and saw the unicorn bolting away across its pen. With a splintering thud, its horn slammed into the far rail. The unicorn pawed the earth and tried to pull free, but couldn't.

"Hey there!" the zookeeper shouted angrily, dropping his pitchfork. He leaped over the rail and into the pen.

"I apologize, sir," Candace said to the photographer in her sweetest voice as she scrambled to get up. But inside, she was seething. What had the man been thinking, setting up his camera immediately behind her? "That was terribly clumsy of me."

The photographer -- a clean-shaven man whose collar had come unbuttoned in the fall -- clambered to his feet, a furious expression on his face. "That camera," he gritted, "cost five pounds. You've just cost the Times a great deal of money and ruined the photograph for tomorrow's advertisement of the contest."

Candace nodded, but she was barely listening. The zookeeper was having difficulties. He'd grabbed the unicorn's horn with both hands and braced a foot on the rail. Although he pulled until his face went red, he couldn't free the beast. The unicorn whinnied in fear and nipped the zookeeper's sleeve, tearing it. By now, a handful of people had stopped to stare.

"Excuse me," Candace said to the photographer. "I'm needed."

Hiking up her skirt, she climbed over the rail and into the pen. The wheels of her skates caught in the dirt, nearly tripping her.

"Oh, Zookeeper!" she called as she staggered across the pen. "If a maiden strokes the unicorn's neck and whispers softly in its ear, it will be calmed."

The zookeeper took one look in her direction as she reached to touch the unicorn, then swore. "Get out of here!"

The unicorn responded to the man's tone by lashing backward with a hoof. Candace dodged it, lost her balance, and fell to her knees. Something soft and squishy seeped through her stocking. It felt like warm oatmeal, and smelled even worse.

Abandoning his attempts to pull the unicorn free, the zookeeper grasped Candace firmly under the arms and lifted her over the rail. Candace landed unsteadily on her skates and turned just in time to see the unicorn yank its horn free. It gave the zookeeper a baleful look and lowered its head, ready to attack.

"No, don't! He didn't mean any harm," Candace cried to the unicorn, waving her hands to shoo it back.

"Of course not," the zookeeper said, thinking she was talking to him. "But he's dangerous just the same."

"Watch out!" Candace cried as the unicorn lunged forward, but the zookeeper didn't pay her any heed.

The zookeeper yelled in surprise as the unicorn's horn jabbed into his leg, tearing the fabric of his rough gray trousers. As he yelped and slapped a hand over his scratched leg, the unicorn trotted off, a piece of gray cloth hanging from its horn like a flag.

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