Friday, September 28, 2007
Free Fiction Friday: "Penumbra"
Judex appears and disappears like a ghost, and would appear to have mild hypnotic powers. Indeed, he is first nicknamed... The Mysterious Shadow! He is a master of disguise, and an excellent fighter. He commands the loyalty of an organization composed of circus folks and redeemed apaches. Finally, he flies a plane and has a secret lair, where he interrogates his prisoners through a "television" screen -- everything Judex writes on the screen on his desk appears on a similar screen on the wall of his victim's cell.The serial was created by Louis Feuillade, who was also responsible for the popular serial Les Vampires, which gave the world the first modern femme fatale, Irma Vep. The image of Vep in a batwinged catsuit is an indelible one, and was a notable inspiration on later characters of the same type.
Just what all of these influences and intersections suggest is where the following story comes in.
by Chris Roberson
The morning papers all carried the story on their front pages, most with huge banner headlines above the fold. Perhaps the various editors thought their readers needed a diversion from another day’s litany about the numbers of young French servicemen dead in a recent military action, or about ground lost to or won back from the Boche. Or perhaps they knew that glamorous crime, particularly so close to home, would always sell newspapers. Either way, over breakfast all of
Ironically, of all of the reporters covering the event, Philippe Guerande of Le Mondial was the one most skeptical of the proposed connection to the infamous gang, the Vampires. Guerande had been writing about the suspected activities of the Vampires since the spring, even if his reports were buried in the back pages of the metropolitan section before the decapitation of Inspector Dural made front page headlines. The editors at Le Mondial, though, knowing full well how many copies a Vampires-related lead story could sell, had commissioned one of their staff artists to do a somewhat hasty sketch of the figure clad in skin-tight black slinking away across the rooftop, along side an inset photo of the victim’s body lying on the pavement, the crushed remains tastefully covered in a white sheet the instant before the photographer had taken the shot. Through the black-and-white grain of the photo, faint shadows could be seen appearing on the impromptu shroud, where the blood pooled on the body had begun to seep through the fabric. The editors then placed above the photo and pen-and-ink sketch a headline reading, “VAMPIRES THROW VICTIM FROM HIGH WINDOW – FLEE SCENE.”
Guerande’s article, however, left open the question of whether the infamous gang was or was not truly involved, stating merely that a man had fallen to his death from a high story window of a residential building, and that a figure clad in skin-tight black from head to toe had been seen fleeing the scene of the crime, running across the rooftops.
At the home offices of the banker Favraux, the topic was mentioned in passing, dispassionately, as one might discuss the weather or the quality of one’s dinner of the previous night. Not too miles away, war raged, and young men bled out their last strung up on wires in No Man’s Land, or huddled for shelter in trenches and hastily-dug foxholes, dreading the whiff of gas that might come drifting across the lines—chlorine, phosgene, or worse yet, mustard gas—but within the cool confines of Favraux’s wood-paneled study, all was peaceful and serene. Favraux and his guest had business to discuss, and the concerns of the wider world dwindled in comparison.
Favraux’s personal secretary, Vallieres, an older man with snow-white beard and hair neatly trimmed, was on hand as he always was on these occasions; but he kept to the shadows at the corner of the room, silent, unobtrusive, never noticed unless and until he was needed. Vallieres was the most trusted of all Favraux’s servants and employees, and the only one to whom the banker entrusted his most guarded secrets. Favraux never kept notes during his meetings, or a personal diary. Instead, he looked to Vallieres to monitor what was discussed, and to recall specific details on demand. So it was with great care that Vallieres followed the conversation between Favraux and his young guest.
Dr. Wayne, a young American in
Favraux’s distress was obvious and genuine, then, when Mrs. Wayne arrived in tears and without the gem in her possession.
“Oh, darling,” she said, throwing herself into her husband’s arms. “You simply must forgive me. I…I no longer have the Gotham Girasol.”
Dr. Wayne stiffened, and cast an uncomfortable glance to his host before turning his wife’s face upwards and looking her in the eyes.
“Martha,” he said, trying to sound calm but his voice audibly strained, “whatever do you mean?” His French was as good as hers, which is to say passable, but pronounced with a thick-tongued American accent that fell hard on Gallic ears.
“It was stolen from me nearly a week ago,” Mrs. Wayne answered, her voice quavering. “I was wearing it when we attended that ball on
Dr. Wayne held onto his wife for a moment, as his gaze drifted and settled on the middle distance, thoughts racing behind his eyes. Then he released her, and slumped into a chair. Mrs. Wayne, sobbing vocally behind a handkerchief, kept stealing glances at her husband, almost as though gauging his reactions.
Several days earlier, the Baron de Mortesalgues had held a grand ball at his home on
After a long moment, Dr. Wayne composed himself, and rose from the chair, straightening his waistcoat.
“Mr. Favraux, you must accept my apologies,” he said, turning to his host. “It appears that I will not be able to provide you collateral, after all, and as a result my wife and I might be forced to cut short our stay in
Favraux bristled visibly. Vallieres knew his employer’s moods and tempers well, and could see that the banker was pained at the thought of not laying hands on the precious gem, to say nothing of the interest he’d planned to collect on the loan. However, if Dr. Wayne were to return to the States without first investigating in the banker’s funds, Favraux stood to lose a great deal more. Just a few days’ grace, and the cashier’s check would arrive in
“Well, my dear Dr. Wayne,” Favraux answered, visibly pained by what he was about to say, “we cannot allow the criminal element and the capricious whims of fate to interfere with the business of men, now can we? Absent the security of the gem as collateral”—he paused, his face flushing red with suppressed anger and anxiety—“I am still willing to loan you a small sum, sufficient to allow you to stay on in Paris until our business is concluded.”
Dr. Wayne took Favraux’s hand, visibly relieved.
“I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, Favraux,” he said. “It would have been most… unfortunate, if our long negotiations would have been for naught.”
The hard glance Dr. Wayne gave his wife made it clear to Vallieres for whom such an outcome would have been the most unfortunate.
Once the arrangements for the loan were completed, and polite words were exchanged all around, Dr. Wayne and his wife took their leave.
When they had gone, Favraux dismissed Vallieres for the rest of the day. The banker’s daughter Jacqueline had convinced him that his grandson needed more masculine attention, since her own husband had died nearly three years before. As a result, Favraux had reluctantly agreed to take his daughter and grandson to the circus for the afternoon, though it was obvious that he regretted the decision.
Vallieres, unaccustomed to being at his liberty so early in a working day, saw nothing for it but to go home. Pausing only to pick up a copy each of the day’s papers from the newsagent on the corner, he returned to the apartments he kept in another quarter of the city.
Once safely in his study, Vallieres dropped the newspapers on his cluttered desk, piled high with papers, notes, and photographs. He laid his coat carefully across the back of a chair, and crossed the floor to an armoire with a full-length mirror set in its door.
With practiced motions, Vallieres removed his snow-white beard and mustaches, and pulled off his wig of snow-white hair. Dropping them into a bowl on a side table, he stood straighter, an intense scowl on his young, lean face. He smoothed back his short black hair, and regarded himself momentarily in the mirror. Having put aside the mask of the ever-loyal, always patient Vallieres, he stood revealed for who he truly was: Judex!
Of course, Judex himself was something of a mask. Not the name with which he was born, he chose it by necessity, to help him fulfill the oath he made to his mother, so many years before. An oath to avenge the death of his father, the Count de Tremeuse, who took his own life after losing the family fortune to bad investments. Investments made on the advice of an eager young banker, Favraux.
That his father died just as news arrived that a gold claim he had in
Instead, fate had decreed that Judex would own a gold mine, along with his brother, who was currently in
And at the moment, Favraux’s dealings included the young American couple, the Waynes.
Judex sat at his desk, and looked over the piles of newspaper clippings, bank records, notes, photographs, medical documents, receipts and vouchers. Ephemera and trivia, bits of information discarded in the wake of the young doctor and his wife. A portrait of a life painted in tiny bits of data, like the points in a Seurat painting.
Judex had been investing Dr. Wayne and his wife as a matter of course, these past weeks. If the
Before that morning, Judex had found no reason to suspect their sincerity, nor to believe they were anyone but who they said they were. He had initially suspected that the couple might not be the
Why, then, did Judex feel so strongly that something was amiss? Mrs. Wayne’s recounting of the theft of the Girasol this morning, though emotional, was not convincing. It had too much the air of a rehearsed speech, of a dramatic address delivered on queue. She was lying, but about what?
The answer, Judex found, was right in front of him.
Amongst the piles of research materials on the
Judex drew a jeweler’s loop from the desk draw, and peered at the photo through its magnifying lens. Around the neck of Mrs. Wayne he could make out the Gotham Girasol, suspended from a silver chain.
Judex laid beside that photo another, clipped from the society pages of the Paris Chronicle just a few days before. It was of Mrs. and Dr. Wayne, taken the evening of Baron de Mortesalgues’ ball on
He sat back, his brow creased. There could be no doubt. In the photo, Mrs. Wayne was clearly not wearing the Gotham Girasol. The gem had not been stolen that night at
Why was Mrs. Wayne lying?
Judex was convinced the Vampires were involved in some fashion. There were simply too many points of congruence to dismiss them as coincidence—the Waynes in attendance at the ballet when Koutiloff is poisoned, and again at the Maillot Avenue ball for the most daring robbery of the decade. What other connections might there be?
Judex was committed. He would investigate the Vampires in parallel with his ongoing researches into the
Judex was not the only one investigating the Vampires. The police were involved, naturally, their every available resource assigned the task of searching for the gang. Impatient at the progress of the investigation to date, though, the authorities had called in the assistance of private detectives like Celeritas Ribuadet and the famous Rouletabille, and citizens such as Cigale Mystère—a civilian adventurer who assisted the Parisian authorities from time to time, cruising the streets in his electric car, loaded down with futuristic gadgets and devices—and the Nyctalope—who prowled the nights for sign of the Vampires, his keen eyes seeing what others could. But so far no one had been able to track the Vampires to their lair, nor divine the mystery of who led the mysterious organization. There were whispers of a Grand Vampire who directed his subordinates movements from behind closed doors, and perhaps even higher echelons of power above even that, but they remained only whispers, nothing more.
But the police and the other mystery men could busy themselves tracking down the criminals. Judex was interested in matters only as they pertained to Favraux. What deviltry the Vampires did in the larger world was of no concern to him. Until his father had been avenged, there could be no justice.
It seemed to Judex prudent to being his investigations into the Vampires at the site of their most recent crime. Their earlier exploits—the decapitation of Inspector Dural, the poisoning of Marfa Koutiloff, the mass robbery and possible kidnapping at the home of the Baron de Mortesalgues—he knew well enough from the detailed coverage provided each in the daily news. If there were hidden connections to the
It took only a few hours investigation and a few francs placed in the right palms to turn up a number of interesting facts about the case. The victim, who had fallen to his death from a fifth story window, was one Jean Morlet, an associate the Monsieur Oreno who resided at that address. However, Judex could find no record of this Oreno before the previous week. In addition, he was able to discover that Oreno had rented out the entire fifth floor of the building the day after the events at the
The next day, once “Vallieres” had completed his duties for the banker Favraux, Judex made for the jail, sure he was feeling around the edges of some larger puzzle. It took only a few francs to learn the prisoner’s name, and a few francs more to convince the gendarme on duty that Judex should be allowed a brief counsel with him in private.
“I’ve already told the other police everything I’m going to say,” the prisoner said, after Judex had been ushered into his cell. The gendarme locked the door.
“Just call when you are ready to go, monsieur,” the gendarme said, retreating down the hall.
Judex waited until the jailer was well out of earshot, and turned his attention to the American. He was young, just entering his twenties, with high, narrow cheekbones, a prominent hawk-nose, and piercing eyes.
“I am not with the police, Allard,” Judex said, drawing his cape tight around him, gazing at the American from beneath the brim of his hat. “I have questions of my own.”
The American seemed to squirm beneath Judex’s steady gaze.
“Alright, then,” he finally said, his eyes shifting to the ground. “What is it you want to know? It’s not as if I’ve got anywhere else to be at the moment.”
“You were arrested for attempting to burgle the residence of a Monsieur Oreno, which I will come to in a moment. But first, I’m curious to know why you are in Paris, Mr. Allard. Why come to a land in the grips of war, when you could easily live in safety at home?”
Judex could not help but think of Raphael Norton and his embezzled fortune. But if this were he, what had become of his female accomplice, Miss Florid?
“Look,” Allard said, raising his chin defiantly, “I’m not about to sit out the war like those cowards back at home in the States, too fat and lazy to come to the defense of their European cousins. If all men don’t act to stamp out evil at its root, it’ll spread like a weed all across the globe. And then where will we be?”
Judex’s mouth drew into a tight line, and he said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Well, I couldn’t sit idly by while others fought for the cause of justice,” Allard went on. “I’m a… how do you say it in French?” He paused, and then said the English term, “barnstormer.”
Judex nodded slowly, and translated into the French, “An aviator.”
“Yes,” Allard answered, “I’m an aviator. Anyway, I have relatives in
“If you already suspect that this Kentov will never contact you here, why remain in
Allard’s gaze shifted, and a blush raised on his cheek.
“I have been… distracted,” he finally said, a faraway sound to his voice.
Judex pulled his cape tighter, but nodded slightly.
“Very well,” he said. “Now we come to the matter of Monsieur Oreno. Who is he to you?”
“He’s a cheating bastard, and a liar!” Allard scowled, teeth clenched, his eyes flashing. “Oreno stole something of considerable value from me, and I was just trying to get it back.”
“How did you know him?”
“I’ve been going to a cabaret called La Veuve Joyeuse a great deal these past few weeks,” Allard said, a wistful tone creeping into his voice, “and I met Oreno there one night. We talked a bit about the art of mesmerism, which he claimed to have some special knowledge of. I don’t have any proof of this, but I think that he might have clouded my mind in some way. How else could he have known about the…” He paused, and bit down on the next word he’d been about to say. “About the item, that is,” he finished, lamely.
“What was it that he stole from you?”
Allard expression was guarded, his lips drawn tight.
“Something very dear to me,” was all he would say.
A few nights later, after fruitless investigations, Judex returned to his apartments late in the evening. He looked forward to the day when his brother returned to
Judex’s rooms were darkened, but he knew in an instant that something was amiss. A subtle scent on the air, a tingling sensation on the back of his neck. Once the door was shut and locked behind him, he knew. He was not alone.
“Do not turn on the light,” came a soft, sultry voice from the darkness. “Or, if you must, turn on only the table lamp. It is so much nicer that way, don’t you think?”
Judex’s fingers ached for the brace of pistols he kept in the armoire, a dozen steps across the room. He would never go out unarmed again. In a flash, he calculated the path and distance to the armoire, the seconds needed to reach it and open the door, grab and aim the pistol—if the intruder were armed, he’d never reach it in time.
“If you’re thinking of these,” the voice from the darkness said, followed by the distinctive sound of a pistol’s hammer being pulled back, “I liberated them from the cupboard when I came in. I do hope you don’t mind.”
Judex stood in place, but reached down to the table at his knees at switched on the lamp.
Seated in his chair, with her feet up on the desk, was a woman wearing a skin-tight black jumpsuit. She was covered head to toe, with only her face left revealed. Her smoldering, fierce gaze caught Judex’s, and she smiled.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Judex,” the woman said, gesturing him towards the couch with the barrel of the pistol, the other held casually in her lap.
“Who are you?” Judex stood his ground, arms crossed.
“Who I am is not of particular importance at this juncture, but whom I represent most definitely is.”
“The Vampires,” Judex hissed through his teeth.
“Got it in one.” The woman smiled. “I have come to tell you something. This murder that you’ve begun investigating, the man who fell to his death from that building—the Vampires had nothing to do with it. Our leader has only recently become aware of your existence, and has ordered that you be left alone for the moment because he is not yet sure whether you can be of use to us in future. If you interfere in our affairs, though, and go from being a potential asset to being a nuisance, we will be forced to eliminate you.”
“And to forestall this you deny one of your crimes? How do you benefit?”
The woman bristled, a cloud passing momentarily across her smooth features.
“We deny none of our actions!” The woman gestured with the pistol, and Judex tensed involuntarily, anticipating a shot. “Did we cut the head from that oaf Dural? Yes! Did we poison that bitch Koutiloff? Yes! But did we throw this Morlet to his death last night? Most definitely not.”
“Why should I believe you?” Judex’s eyes narrowed.
“Because if we were truly guilty of the killing, we wouldn’t be warning you away. We’d just kill you for interfering in our business. But I prefer to kill those who deserve to die.” Her mouth drew into a line, and she added in a hushed whisper, “Like that bastard
“And what about the
The woman jumped to her feet, tossing one of the pistols to the ground with a thud, and pointing the other square at Judex’s chest.
When she reached the window, her attention briefly turned away from him, Judex prepared to rush forward, intending to tackle her to the ground. As though she could sense his intentions, though, the woman spun around, and pointed the barrel of the pistol directly at Judex’s face.
“Please don’t try that,” the woman said, sounding again all sweetness and light. “I don’t want to have to hurt you unnecessarily, and it would be a shame to mar such a striking profile.”
With that, the woman tossed the pistol to the ground, and stepped over the sill to the ledge beyond. When Judex rushed to the window to look out, she had already disappeared into the night.
Judex could not sleep that night. The information the woman provided, however unintentionally, was the last puzzle piece that he needed. He had only to confirm his suspicions, and all would be clear.
Returning to the night air, his cape wrapped around him and his hat pulled down low over his brown, Judex made his way to the scene of the crime. With ease, he did what Allard and the black-suited burglar had both failed to do, breaking into the home of Monsieur Oreno without once being seen. Oreno was not in, no doubt meeting with his associates at La Veuve Joyeuse cabaret at that hour. Crime does not keep workman’s hours, after all.
In a locked bedroom in Oreno’s suite, Judex found what he was looking for, and more besides, packed into several valises and a few small chests. It was the work of just a few minutes to transfer the contents of the cases and chests to his automobile, parked on the street outside. One item in particular he slipped into his pocket.
Driving to the Public Assistance Bureau to make a donation, Judex cursed himself for his earlier blindness. Monsieur Oreno. “M. Oreno.” He should have seen it long before.
Mrs. Wayne was packing up her belongings in their rooms at the Park Hotel. Her husband had concluded his business with Favraux that afternoon, and they would now be returning home to
“Your pardon,” said a voice from the shadows, and Mrs. Wayne leapt a few inches into the air, her heart in her throat.
“I mean you no harm,” the voice continued, and Judex stepped out from a darkened corner, silent as a ghost.
“W-who are you?” Mrs. Wayne clutched a black leotard to her chest, wringing the fabric in her hands, her packing forgotten.
“You can call me Judex.”
“Did you say… justice?”
Something like a smile played across Judex’s mouth.
“No. Judex. But it is about justice that I’ve come. I know what you have done, Mrs. Wayne.”
Judex pointed to the black leotard in her hands, with scalloped-edge bat wings attached at the shoulders and wrists.
“I see that you even kept the costume you wore that night.”
Tears began to stream down her cheeks.
“I hadn’t meant for anyone to get hurt, honestly. But that man chased me out onto the ledge, and then he fell, and then… But I just had to.. I had to get it back…”
Judex held out his hand and opened his palm, revealing a fire-opal with a faint purple cast and lights dancing deep within. The
“I broke into Oreno’s rooms,” Judex explained, “and found what remained of the loot from the
Mrs. Wayne looked with wide at the gem in Judex’s palm, and then met his eyes.
“Yes, Mrs. Wayne, I know that you gave away the Gotham Girasol some time before the night of the ball.”
Mrs. Wayne struggled to take a breath.
“What will you…” She paused, swallowing hard. “That is, what will you do with…”
“I have given the pilfered goods to the Public Assistance Bureau, where they will no doubt serve society better than they ever could have done in the hands of their rightful owners. I am, however, prepared to return the Girasol to you.”
“No,” she said, turning her eyes away. “I could not bear to hold it. There is another who should have it, who should always keep…” Her words choked off in a stifled sob.
“Allard,” Judex said simply.
Mrs. Wayne was shocked, but she nodded, slowly.
“You met him at a cabaret, unless I miss my guess,” Judex went on, “and you found him a welcome change to your somewhat brusque and acerbic husband, the good doctor. You wanted to give him a token of your affection, one which you prized above all others. Otherwise, the gesture would be meaningless, no?”
Mrs. Wayne nodded still, as though hypnotized.
“No,” she said, then shook her head, as if to clear away cobwebs. “I mean, yes. I mean…” She drew a deep breath, collecting herself. “I met… him… a few weeks ago. My husband had been so busy with his meetings that it was almost as if we weren’t going to have a honeymoon at all. I started going out on my own, to the restaurants and cabarets. It was at La Veuve Joyeuse that I met… Mr. Allard. So intense, and an aviator. How dashing he was. I suppose you could say that we fell in love. She gave him the gem in a moment of passion, symbol of my feelings for him. But I’d soon have reason to regret it.”
Mrs. Wayne glanced at the gem, still resting in Judex’s palm.
“The next day, my husband told me that we might need the gem for collateral. I knew that any day he might come and ask me for it, and I wouldn’t have it. As soon as I could I rushed to see Mr. Allard, to get it back, but he told me that it had been stolen by this Oreno character. He promised he’d get it back from Oreno, but the next thing I knew Mr. Allard had been arrested.”
“So you had no choice but to steal it yourself,” Judex said.
“Yes. I’d heard all the stories about the infamous gang, the Vampires. I hired a costume from the Costumier Pugenc, the same I’d seen in the ballet weeks ago, with the idea that if anyone saw me breaking into Oreno’s apartments, the blame would be cast on the Vampires gang. The man came upon me just as I was entering the room, though, and then he fell to his death. After that, I knew I’d never have another chance at stealing it back, so I told my husband it had been stolen that night in
Mrs. Wayne took a deep breath and sighed. She smoothed the fabric of the black leotard in her hands, and then set it gently back on the bed.
“I suppose you will turn me over to the police now,” she said, sounding resigned. “I am wanted be the law, after all.”
“I wouldn’t give a bent sou for the law,” Judex said, tightening his hand into a fist around the gem. “The law turns a blind eye while villains prosper, allowing a cancer to eat away at society’s heart. No, I care nothing for the law. I care only for justice.”
Mrs. Wayne shook her head, looking like she wanted to spit.
“Justice? Do you want to know about justice, Monsieur Judex? Then I will tell you. I have just learned today that I am with child. Pregnant. And I don’t know whether my husband or my beloved is the father.”
“You talk to me of justice? What are your sordid affairs to me or to Lady Justice?”
Mrs. Wayne lifted her chin, defiant.
“Because even if the law never lays a hand on me, I still pay the price for my deeds. My own life is ended here, for the sake of my unborn child. Were it otherwise, I would leave my husband, and my beloved and I would be together forever. But what kind of life would my child have, with a penniless aviator as a father. Always at the fringes of society, living forever in the shadows. No, better to return home with my husband, letting him think the child is his, so that my baby can grow up in comfort, with all the opportunity in the world. So what if my heart belongs to another, and I die inside a little every moment we are apart? I live now for the sake of my child.”
Judex stood silent, appraising her, and found he had nothing to say. Justice, the only god Judex worshiped, indeed moved in mysterious ways.
Tucking the gem back into his pocket, Judex strode to the door, making to leave. He drew his cape around him, already seeming to blend into the shadows.
“Wait!” Mrs. Wayne said, stepping forward, raising a tremulous hand. “Will you see…” Her breath caught in her chest, and she swallowed hard before continuing. “Will you see Mr. Allard again?”
Judex shrugged beneath his cape.
“I do not know, madam.”
“If you should see him, could you give him the Girasol for me? As a keepsake to remember me by?”
Judex expression remained hard, but he nodded. He turned to the door.
“Only,” Mrs. Wayne said, taking another step forward, “please don’t tell him about the child. He has his own life to lead, and doesn’t need a shadow hanging over him.”
Judex did not turn around, but nodded again.
“I will,” he said softly, and then disappeared into the night, leaving Mrs. Wayne alone with her memories.
The next day, an anonymous party posted bail for the American aviator, and Allard was released on his own recognizance. When his possessions were returned to him, Allard was surprised to find among them an envelope containing a near-priceless fire-opal and a railway ticket. The train left
That same afternoon, Dr. Wayne and his wife were already in
In the home offices of the banker Favraux, Judex hid behind the mask of Vallieres, waiting for his moment to strike.
And in the streets of
Copyright © 2005 Monkeybrain, Inc.
Howard, the title itself is a bit of a clue to the answer of that. :)
Thanks for this, that is great.
The Shadowmen books are on my list as something I'd like to get, but rather expensive here. These are ones I wish there were ebooks of, so extremely cool to see a story from one.
sigh...no telling how many other references I missed....this makes the story even more interesting...thanks