Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

Judge Dee returns to solve a new case involving a Parisian party gone wrong. But this time? Everyone in attendance is a suspect, including the judge himself.

 

 

1.

Jonathan had liked Paris immediately. The air was just growing cold as the year turned, and the autumn leaves fell beautifully across the paved road as he walked back from the market. He held a round loaf of bread under his arm, as well as a string of sausages, two bottles of decent red wine, three kinds of cheese, and a handful of apples. Just because his master drank blood, Jonathan felt, didn’t mean he should deprive himself of decent food.

And Paris had plenty of that to offer.

The Seine was on his left as he walked back. The sun was setting and the master was soon to rise. Jonathan whistled cheerfully, enjoying the sunset and the reflection of the light on the water and the vista of the big cathedral as it rose from the island in the river. A couple of girls watched him from near a flower seller’s stall and Jonathan smiled at them and doffed his hat. They giggled.

Jonathan had survived the Hell of Black Rock, long ago, and subsequently, on his adventures with Judge Dee, had lived through the Case of the Castle of Horrors and the Nightmare in the Alps and the Werdenfels Massacre and too many others to mention. He seldom slept well anymore. He was seldom warm and he was seldom full and he was never, well . . .

Happy. He realised with some surprise that he was as close to being content as it was possible to be when you were the travelling companion of a vampire judge.

He made his way to their abode. The judge had rented apartments near the university, on the left bank. It was a lively place, what with all the students going about their business, foot traffic from the various monasteries and dignitaries from the palace. Jonathan nimbly avoided a pile of horse manure, passed unharmed as someone tossed rotting garbage from a top floor, tossed a coin to a child beggar and made it to the gates. He slipped into the quiet courtyard and climbed the stairs, only to discover on his arrival that the master was already risen—and he had guests.

‘Ah, Jonathan,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You have grease on your shirt.’

‘Master?’ Jonathan looked down. The sausages, he saw with dismay, had come loose in his grasp and rubbed all across his new, fashionable shirt.

‘This is Lady Aurore,’ the judge said. The visitor turned her attention on Jonathan and grinned, flashing her long canines at him in a vampire’s idea of a greeting. Jonathan tried hard not to flinch, and the lady laughed.

‘He looks so delicious,’ she said, ‘like a fat little blood sausage.’

Behind the Lady Aurore stood a human servant. She looked Jonathan over critically and clearly found him wanting. It was the sort of superior look most Parisians had for Jonathan, as though they reserved it especially for him.

Sausages,’ she said.

‘What?’ Jonathan said. ‘I like sausages.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘My girl, Noemi,’ Lady Aurore said. She waved a hand airily. ‘Perhaps you could give her a tour of the apartments. Or offer her some wine. I have business with the judge.’

‘Of course, my lady.’

Jonathan left them and the human girl, Noemi, followed him reluctantly. Jonathan put down his purchases in the kitchen (which only he used, of course), opened a bottle of wine and poured them both a glass. Noemi sniffed the wine but apparently found it acceptable, because she took a large gulp and some colour rose to her cheeks.

‘There’s a lovely view of the city from the balcony,’ Jonathan said.

‘If you say so.’

But she followed him through the lounge and onto the balcony. The view really was beautiful. The moon rose over the Seine and Notre-Dame glimmered on the Île de la Cité. Boats glided all along the river. Somewhere nearby someone played the flute, a couple were screaming at each other outside a bakery, distant bells rang for prayers and a group of passing students argued passionately over whether philosophy really was, as Aquinas had said, the handmaiden of theology. Jonathan wanted to change his shirt but instead took a sip of his wine. The French truly did good wine, he thought.

‘What is your mistress’ business with my master?’ he said.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business?’ Noemi said.

‘This is my business. I assist Judge Dee,’ Jonathan said. Which wasn’t, he had to admit, strictly true. He never really knew just why the judge kept him around.

Noemi looked at him in amusement. ‘Is that so?’ she said. ‘You collect clues? Solve cases? Pass ultimate judgement on vampirekind?’

‘Well, not as such, but—’

‘I didn’t think so.’

She fell quiet and looked away from the view, to the open door where the judge and Lady Aurore were still speaking. An expression flitted across her face when she regarded her mistress, something deep and strong and true. Jonathan tried to hear the conversation, but the voices were muffled. He thought he heard the expression ‘Sang Noir’ a couple of times, and then something that sounded like a name, ‘Saragossa.’

Shortly, however, the judge and his guest concluded their meeting. Noemi gave Jonathan a sarcastic smile and left with her mistress. At the door, Lady Aurore turned to Judge Dee and touched him lightly on the hand.

‘I hope I shall see you soon,’ she said.

‘Indeed.’

With that they were gone.

‘What was it about, master?’ Jonathan said.

‘She brought me some information,’ the judge said. ‘It is of possible interest. Now, have you not changed your shirt yet? We are to go out. We must not be late for the performance!’

Jonathan’s heart sank. The judge was usually an ascetic. He had renounced most earthly pleasures. Unlike most vampires, he fed only when he had to. But since their arrival in the city, the judge had fallen for a new form of entertainment that had swept the city.

Plays.

Ribald and bawdy street productions, filled with, well . . . actors. They pranced and capered and made a general mockery of things. They were even worse than writers, and that was saying something, in Jonathan’s opinion.

Jonathan had quickly come to realise he did not care for the theatre in the slightest.

‘Again?’ he said miserably. ‘Only it’s the third time this week and—’

‘A bit of culture would do you good, Jonathan,’ the judge said, and he donned his cape.

‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said.

And so he changed his shirt and followed the judge out of the apartments into the night.

 

2.

Paris was never quiet. It was loud and messy and thronged with people from all across Christendom. There were even other English people there, and the English generally hated the Continent.

Judge Dee had found Jonathan buried under a pile of corpses outside his village in England. The judge had saved Jonathan’s life. Ever since then Jonathan had accompanied the judge on his travels. Overall, it was better than lying under a pile of corpses.

At least, most of the time.

They made their way along the left bank. Students jostled them as they passed, priests and monks from the nearby monasteries, ladies of the court and flower sellers and beggars and pickpockets and cutthroats, jugglers and singers and ladies of the night. Paris was surprisingly egalitarian. It didn’t matter who you were, as long as you carried yourself with a certain amount of flare.

Merchants from the Rhine and Venice, Templars from the Holy Land, knights from Normandy and Andalusian Jews all mingled freely. The ships came along the river and docked on the right bank. A steady flow of trade and the grand institutions of the university, the court and the church had made Paris the grandest city in Europe. No wonder it attracted vampires.

Jonathan followed Judge Dee through the crowds to the front of Notre-Dame over the  wooden bridge that linked the left bank with the island. Jonathan had once asked the judge if it was true vampires couldn’t cross running water, and Judge Dee had looked at him strangely.

‘What odd notions you have sometimes, Jonathan,’ he said.

They crossed the bridge. There was always something going on there on the island. The judge moved smoothly, like a piece of darkness torn from the night. Jonathan struggled to keep up. Pilgrims were gathered before the cathedral, prostitutes offered their services in the shadows, a fruit seller did a roaring trade and there, far enough away from the church so as not to offend, yet not too far as to lose out on its profitable foot traffic, were the jongleurs.

‘Gather round, gather round, ladies and sirs! For you are about to witness a great stuffing’—here the speaker made a rude gesture with his arm and the audience laughed—‘called The Guests at the Dinner Party, here for your amusement and your coin!’

‘Stuffing?’ Jonathan said.

Farce,’ Judge Dee said. ‘From the Latin, Jonathan. To stuff.’

‘Why do they call it that?’

‘Hush. Go give the girl with the hat some money.’

Jonathan put a handful of coins in the girl’s hat. She went around collecting money from the spectators. She wore white face paint and exaggerated rouge on her lips and cheeks. She gave Jonathan a wink and he blushed.

The play began. It seemed to Jonathan the usual fare of this sort of thing, but Judge Dee was enchanted. Lovers were separated by circumstances, a love triangle caused all kinds of complications, and halfway through the play one of the guests just dropped dead. Everyone was a suspect. Naturally. But it all ended well, and there were fart jokes. There were always fart jokes in this kind of play.

The audience clapped as the players took a bow. Then the girl went around with the hat again. Jonathan reluctantly parted with more money. The judge had very little need for money and no need at all for sausages, which cost money. But for some reason he really appreciated street theatre.

‘The bit where the Mysterious Guest falls flat on his face and soils himself really reminded me of Aristophanes in The Babylonians,’ the judge said.

‘Who?’ Jonathan said.

‘A wonderful production, it was, though I heard the play was subsequently lost—never mind, Jonathan. Who is that figure in the black coat and hat skulking before the cathedral?’

‘Master?’

Jonathan turned to look. A tall, imposing man in a black coat and hat was indeed going past with a peculiar gait, his face hidden. He turned when he felt their attention on him, and red eyes flashed suddenly in a very, very pale face.

Not a man at all, Jonathan realised.

A vampire.

‘Do you know him?’ Jonathan said. The mysterious stranger hissed, revealing sharp teeth stained red. He had only recently fed.

‘I had word you were in Paris, Inquisitor Zaragoza,’ Judge Dee said.

The stranger stood up tall and glared at the judge. ‘It is pronounced Saragossa,’ he said. He had a soft, menacing voice.

‘I don’t think it is.’

‘What’s it to you, Dee? This is a free town!’

‘It is. If you have been observing the Unalienable Obligations.’

‘When have I not?’ the vampire smirked. ‘I draw no attention and make few get of my own. I feed only as I must. Does that satisfy you, Judge? You were not summoned, so why do you meddle in my affairs?’

Judge Dee said nothing, and the stranger smirked again, then fled into the night and over the bridge, as swift as wind.

‘You knew he would be here, master?’

‘I had a hunch.’

‘The Lady Aurore,’ Jonathan said. ‘She informed you?’

‘There is little she doesn’t know of Parisian society,’ the judge said. ‘Vampiric or otherwise.’

‘Who is this man? Vampire, I mean?’

‘In life he was an inquisitor. He’d made his name in the city of Zaragoza, in Aragon. He was so bloodthirsty that he put even vampires to shame. Every man he saw was a heretic, every woman a witch. He tortured and killed them by the hundreds.’

Jonathan shuddered. ‘The Church can be cruel,’ he murmured.

‘This man was. Sadly, he was turned into a vampire, and so plagues the world still. He is a stickler for the rules, though, so there is little I can do about him from a legal standpoint. Not that we really have a legal framework, Jonathan. It is more for appearances. I could just kill him, of course. But that would make me no better than him.’

‘You know him, then?’

‘I ran into him on a previous case, long ago.’

‘All vampires are murderers, though, master.’

‘He took joy in it, Jonathan.’

Joy was a sticking point with the judge. Jonathan was fairly certain the judge didn’t approve of joy.

‘So what will you do, master?’

‘Do? I will do nothing. Zaragoza was right. I have not been summoned. I have no authority here.’

Jonathan let that one go. He wondered what the previous case was. It must have really rankled the judge, though.

 

3.

Most nights the judge liked to take a stroll. He seldom fed. When he did, he fed alone. Vampires proliferated throughout Paris. There were little children vampires, pale and diminutive, who haunted the back alleys and passed for beggars. There were vampire players, supposedly, who had their own theatre somewhere on the outskirts of the city, but Jonathan couldn’t imagine they were very good. There were the usual assortment of pretend nobles or those who had a real, if thin, blood relation to one of the noble families of Europe and, in short, it wasn’t the safest of cities if you were warm-blooded and out late at night. But then, if the vampires didn’t get you, then the footpads, cutthroats, random murderers, the king’s men, or disease likely would.

So, as long as not too many bloodless corpses were found in the morning and people took care to clean up after themselves, things were generally fine.

‘But it doesn’t have to be like this!’ Fourier said. He was playing chess with Judge Dee at the Borgo Bar in the Marais. Fourier was a vampire, but he was odd. He said odd things. He was three hundred years old and had been a peasant.

‘The people must rise against the yoke of oppression! What is our kind if not an extension of the parasitical class? The king and his nobles feed on the peasants! The common people must unite and rise as one to claim their right to rule as equals! Democracy, Judge Dee, the way it was back in Greece!’

‘Knight to e four,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Check.’

‘To hell with the king!’ Fourier said. He swept the board of all its pieces and the judge flinched. It was the second time that week that Fourier had done this just as the judge was winning.

‘You concede?’ the judge said icily.

Fourier waved his hand. ‘Sure, sure. I am sorry, Judge Dee. I am feeling a little peckish. I have not fed for some time. As I am sure I told you, I do not feed on the common folk. Only on nobility. But they are harder to catch unless you seduce a duke or romance a baroness. Tell me, am I very pale? It is the height of fashion at the court. I will devour these nobles until none remain, and the Jacques can vanquish them in a popular uprising!’ He clutched the side of the table. ‘I’m fine. Just a little hungry . . .’

He was an odd one, but he wasn’t wrong, Jonathan thought. Nor was he the only one in Christendom preaching revolution. Sporadic uprisings did occur among the villeins and peasants whose lives were lived in eternal servitude. They were ruthlessly put down whenever they occurred, but they happened all the same. Maybe Fourier was right. Maybe, eventually, the Jacques would rise to topple the king. But Jonathan doubted it. The people were poor, and the knights had swords, and this was just the way of the world.

‘A peasant like you, feeding on nobles? Disgusting,’ a voice said. Jonathan saw the speaker enter. He was handsome, pale, with a full head of black hair and an aquiline nose. He wore a heavy ring on his left pinky, a seal in the shape of a marten.

‘In life I was second cousin to the Queen of England, you know!’

‘So you keep telling us, James,’ Fourier said tiredly.

‘It’s Lord James, to you! My blood goes all the way to Normandy! English to the core!’

‘Where are you from in England?’ Jonathan said, interested. It had been a long time since he’d met a fellow Englishman, even if this one was technically dead. And had a strange sort of accent Jonathan couldn’t quite place.

‘London,’ Lord James said shortly. He looked at Jonathan the way one looks at dirt stuck to one’s foot.

‘Where in London?’

Lord James hesitated. ‘Westminster,’ he said.

‘The palace?’

‘Near it! Near enough! And you will address me as Lord James, you . . . whatever you are!’

‘You lost your title when you died, you idiot,’ Fourier said.

‘I did not die! I was turned.’

‘It’s the same thing. Besides, you only had a title because some ancestor of yours helped William the Conqueror. You didn’t do a thing!’

‘No, no,’ Lord James said earnestly. ‘You do not understand. It is in the blood, my friend! Noble blood is different, richer, more elevated than that of common folk! My very presence is noble. Nothing can change that. Not even death.’

‘You are ridiculous.’

‘Peasant.’

‘Parasitos!’

‘Judge Dee,’ Lord James said affably. He nodded and passed them by.

‘Lord James.’

‘He is intimate with that Lady Aurore, you know,’ Fourier said. Like all Parisians he found gossip irresistible. ‘He is a twit but she has fallen for him, they say. Hallo, what’s this?’

Jonathan, who had been munching contentedly on a cheese roll, stopped chewing as he saw the dark presence enter. It was that inquisitor again, and this time he was accompanied by three young vampires, all dressed in black just like him.

‘You!’ Fourier said.

Inquisitor Saragossa stared at him with loathing. ‘Do I know you?’ he said.

‘Do not pretend you don’t, you foul fiend,’ Fourier said. ‘Catalonia, fifty years ago. The Sang Noir affair!’

‘If you say so,’ Saragossa said indifferently. ‘Goodbye. Judge.’ He nodded and passed on, his acolytes following. Jonathan watched him go into the same small room Lord James had previously entered, but he thought no more of it.

‘What is Sang Noir?’ he said.

But both vampires shook their head. Clearly, they would not discuss the matter.

‘Come, Jonathan,’ the judge said, rising. ‘I had forgotten how tiresome the company of vampires is. Let us go see a play instead.’

Again, master?’ Jonathan said. ‘I mean, yes, master . . .’

He followed the judge miserably out of the warmth of the bar and into the night, where even the drizzle of rain did not stop a troupe of Moravian minstrels from putting on a clowning display.

Jonathan covered his head with his cowl and grimaced, safely out of sight.

 

4.

‘We are to go to a dinner party,’ the judge announced a few days later. They were ensconced in their apartments and a merry fire burned. Jonathan munched contentedly on caramelised peanuts.

‘Master?’ he said.

The judge passed him an invitation. It was handwritten on a fancy bit of parchment. Jonathan’s heart sank.

Vampires loved to host parties. It was another way of passing the time. They were exceedingly fond of masked balls for some reason, too. Inevitably, people like Jonathan were what was served for dinner. Not Jonathan, because he served the judge. But other people.

‘Could I stay home?’ he said.

‘That is not an option.’

‘I did not think you liked parties, master.’

Judge Dee had been acting strangely, Jonathan thought. They had come to Paris by summons, as usual, but once the earlier case had been concluded, the judge decided to stay. Usually, Judge Dee travelled wherever he was summoned. As a judge serving on behalf of the Council he was the ultimate authority on vampirical jurisprudence, which is what they called it when vampires started killing each other or drawing too much attention to themselves. In those cases, the judge appeared—and his authority was absolute.

Yet here they were, two months in Paris, under an actual roof, with actual food, and barely any unnameable horrors. It had got to the point where Jonathan almost didn’t wake up with a screaming nightmare every nightfall.

Almost.

‘A party hosted by the Lady Aurore.’

‘I . . . see,’ Jonathan said. He stared at his master curiously. Was the judge . . . romantically inclined towards the lady? The thought hadn’t crossed Jonathan’s mind before. It seemed absurd. The judge had never shown the slightest interest in either women or men before. Not of that nature. His keen and ruthless mind seemed solely dedicated to solving the convoluted plots of murderous vampires as they schemed and conspired against each other.

In truth, vampires weren’t exactly bright, Jonathan thought. Being smart wasn’t really a necessity for most vampires. They were strong, fast, and they hunted humans. So long as they kept to the Unalienable Obligations, they were more likely than not to survive.

‘Well,’ Jonathan said. ‘I suppose we could go.’

The judge almost smiled.

‘How kind of you to acquiesce,’ he said.

 

5.

On the night of the party a coach arrived outside. The coach was driven by a masked man who never spoke and was dressed all in leather.

‘Where did he . . . ?’ Jonathan said.

‘He was provided by our gracious hostess.’

‘Of course he was,’ Jonathan said.

The judge wore conservative attire. Jonathan was more flamboyant, with a red cap and a purple velvet cape. He even wore a feather in his cap.

‘You seem to have warmed to the idea,’ the judge observed.

‘I am trying to make the best of it,’ Jonathan said. ‘Besides, that maidservant of Lady Aurore has her charms, and perhaps she will fall to mine.’

The judge pursed his lips. ‘It is unlikely,’ he said.

Jonathan stared out of the window. The city rolled past. They crossed over the bridges from left bank to right. The docks extended in both directions of the river, the ships moored in their berths, the hostelries and inns and brothels open. Song and music and drunken laughter filled the air. The coach rolled on and they soon left Paris behind.

‘Where are we going?’ Jonathan said.

‘Montmartre,’ the judge said.

‘What, that big hill?’ Jonathan said. ‘But it’s just full of Benedictines!’

‘There’s a big abbey there, yes,’ the judge said. ‘It is also secluded, rich in gardens and orchards, and the Lady Aurore owns a large estate on its slopes. Besides, it is an old place, Jonathan, and old places have power. There was a temple to Mars there once, long ago, and to older gods before ever a Roman set foot here. In any case, the country air will do you good, Jonathan! We have been too long in the city, perhaps. I am certain you were slimmer on our recent travels.’

Jonathan reached into his pocket and came back with a small triangle of Gruyère. He took a bite defiantly.

The judge sighed.

‘Why are we really going, master?’ Jonathan said. He wasn’t stupid. And the judge wasn’t the sort of person to go to a party. Not unless . . .

‘Has there been a summoning?’ he said.

The judge sighed. ‘It is that inquisitor, Zaragoza,’ he said. ‘I was alerted to his presence in Paris. That is why we came. I have been after him for fifty years. One of my . . . outstanding cases, Jonathan. Not everything I’m called to judge can be decided right away. I knew he was guilty, but by the time I got to Catalonia the witnesses were either dead or in the wind. The law may be nothing more than a thin veneer of pretence for vampirekind, but I will be damned to eternal life if I do not follow the proper channels.’

‘What happened in Catalonia, master?’ Jonathan said.

‘Sang Noir,’ the judge said. Then, before Jonathan could ask any more questions, the judge said, ‘We’re here.’

‘Master?’

‘Montmartre, Jonathan. Now, mind your step and mind your manners. We are in the viper’s nest.’

‘Master?’ Jonathan said, alarmed.

‘Zaragoza is here. As are his acolytes.’

‘But master!’

‘Oh, do not worry, Jonathan! It is only a dinner party.’

‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said.

He followed the judge miserably out of the coach. The driver whipped the horses and took off. The night was dark and there was no moon. Jonathan stumbled following the judge. They climbed stair after stair until they reached a dark door and Jonathan was out of breath.

The judge knocked.

The door opened.

‘Be welcome in my house!’ The Lady Aurore beamed. ‘Enter of your own free will! And so on and so forth! Judge Dee! Come! Let me introduce you! And you brought your . . . person! Noemi, will you take the person? We don’t want someone mistaking him for the food.’

‘Yes, mistress . . .’ the maidservant said, materialising beside Lady Aurore and looking less than enthusiastic.

‘Well, come on, then,’ she said to Jonathan. ‘Is that cheese in your pocket? No, don’t even tell me. Come on. The kitchen’s this way.’

And she sailed on.

Jonathan followed reluctantly.

 

6.

The kitchens were set apart from the main rooms by a service door. In the event, there was plenty of actual food. Gleaming trays offered a selection of roasted birds, cold cuts, bread, fruit, and appetisers. These were not for the guests, of course. They were simply dinner for the dinner.

Healthy young farmhands and maids were assembled in the kitchen. Their skin glowed with health. They had been well fed. Jonathan watched as they stuffed themselves with sweetened meats, the better to flavour their blood. They wore loose garments. The vampires liked to feed without the cloth getting in the way of their teeth. Noemi barked orders. Jonathan helped himself to a chicken drumstick. He tried to reach for a plate of buttered mushrooms but Noemi slapped his hand away.

‘These are for the dinner,’ she said.

Every now and then one of the vampires would wander in. They looked at the young people, appraising just what they’d like to have later. Jonathan saw Fourier, the revolutionary, and Lord James. Lord James pinched the buttocks of a big farmhand and Jonathan noted again that strange ring with the marten on it. Lord James nodded as though appraising a particularly impressive piece of steak. He sneered at Noemi.

‘Your mistress says to tell you to send in the appetisers,’ he said.

Noemi nodded but didn’t speak to Lord James. She barked more orders at the food. The first young men and women lined up and departed the kitchen to circulate through the party.

‘Is it true Lord James and your mistress are courting?’ Jonathan said.

‘Mind your own business,’ Noemi said.

Jonathan discarded the chicken bone and wiped his chin. He followed Noemi to the party. The vampires stood around chatting politely. The young men and women circulated and from time to time one of the vampires would nibble gently on a vein or an artery. Everyone was being very polite, but Jonathan knew what a feeding frenzy could look like. He sought out his master.

Lord James and Lady Aurore stood talking intimately to one side. From time to time Lord James would touch her on the shoulder and once he nibbled her neck.

Judge Dee stood chatting to Fourier . They spoke in low voices, occasionally glancing to the side of the room. Jonathan followed their gaze.

Inquisitor Saragossa stood apart from the others, with his three acolytes. He eyed the circulating food hungrily.

More of the young people came out of the kitchen. They were clearly to be the main course. The beefy young man Jonathan saw earlier was evidently to be the main dish. The vampires eyed him with appreciation. Lord James licked his lips.

The young man looked nervous. He moved a little sluggishly. At first he went towards the mistress of the house and her man, but then he stumbled and turned. He took a few cautious steps.

He made the mistake of passing too close to Saragossa and his acolytes.

This was all it took.

Saragossa moved fast. He leaped onto the young man and sank his teeth into his neck. Blood spurted. The acolytes followed their master’s example. They bit into the young man’s muscled arms, his bare stomach, his thighs. Jonathan averted his eyes. The vampires fed like hungry dogs. Jonathan had seen vampires feed like this before, but it was never pleasant to watch. They had, as the judge often told him, even worse table manners than Jonathan’s.

Jonathan couldn’t watch. Yet when he turned back the four of them were still feeding, and the young man’s eyes were open and staring into nothing, his skin as white as pumice.

Then the life went out of him. His heart stopped and the blood stopped spurting and Inquisitor Saragossa and his acolytes pulled from the wounds and stood dazed and drunk, their eyes red and their fangs extended.

‘I . . . am . . . the Inquisition!’ Saragossa roared. He swayed in place and turned a long, pointing finger on the assembled guests. His nail was long and black and sharp.

‘Abominations!’ he said. ‘Creatures of darkness! You must . . . embrace . . . the Lord or . . . die!’

‘Steady on, old chap,’ Lord James said.

‘Filth! You should have all . . . died . . . with the—’

The inquisitor looked surprised. He blinked twice and closed and opened his mouth wordlessly.

And then he vomited a violent torrent of inky black blood.

 

‘Argh!’

Jonathan jumped, but a splash of the ichoric bile still hit him on the leg. The inquisitor swayed in place. His eyes were maddened.

‘What . . .’ he said. ‘What!’

Black lines crisscrossed his pale skin. Saragossa’s eyes bulged out of their sockets, their redness turning black. His three acolytes threw up in tandem. Their vomit became a lake that threatened to drown the empty husk of their meal who lay on the floor.

The smell was sickening.

The inquisitor clutched his throat. The black bile poured out of him. It really was an awful sight, Jonathan thought. He had quite lost his own appetite, and regretted the earlier combination of chicken drumstick and Gruyère.

Chicken and Gruyère.

He nearly lost his own meal right there and then.

‘You!’ the inquisitor screamed. He pointed that awful finger—right at Judge Dee. He took one step, and then another. ‘You murde—’

Then he toppled over. His body hit the ground with a wet, squelching sound. His skin hissed and the black lines crossing it grew until the tainted blood burst out of him, the skin parting ways.

In moments, there was only a puddle of black ichor on the floor and an empty suit of skin.

Jonathan was promptly sick on the floor.

And then, without much fuss, the inquisitor’s three acolytes exploded.

 

7.

‘Sang Noir!’

It was Fourier who spoke first. He pointed at the horror on the floor.

‘Inquisitor Saragossa has been poisoned!’ he said.

It was perhaps a little dramatic.

‘It’s pronounced Zaragoza, actually,’ Lord James said. He held Lady Aurore to him passionately. ‘I am so terribly sorry you had to witness this, my darling!’

Lady Aurore pushed him away. ‘In my house? At my party? Who dared do this to me!’ She cast her cold, red eyes on the assembled guests. ‘I demand blood!’

‘I think we have enough blood here, darling . . .’ Lord James said. Noemi, the servant, ran to her mistress’ side. She cast an accusing glance at Lord James.

‘My lady, are you all right?’ Noemi said. Lady Aurore stroked Noemi’s hair distractedly.

‘I want blood,’ she repeated with finality.

There was an awkward silence.

It was the sort of awkward silence that always happens at a dinner party when one of the guests bursts open and explodes into a puddle of stinking goo.

The corpses smelled worse than the Gruyère.

Judge Dee stepped across the floor, avoiding the black blood. He stood over the bodies.

‘I am not sad to see him dead,’ he said. ‘In Catalonia, five decades past, he set up an operation selling tainted blood to the local vampires. The Sang Noir. By the time I got there all of the witnesses were dead. I was sure he had done it deliberately. In life he hated the living. In death he hated the undead.’

He turned and looked at the assembled guests, and his eyes were cold. ‘One of us in this room killed him. I can imagine many had a motive against the inquisitor. I am personally gratified—but I am a judge. I will find out who did this. And I will judge them, and pass sentence.’

There was another short silence.

Then – ‘Absurdo!’ said Lord James. ‘I mean, preposterous! I had nothing to do with it! I barely even knew the man. How do we know you didn’t murder him, Judge Dee? You have just confessed to holding a grudge against the fellow! It must have been you who poisoned the food!’

Jonathan winced at the word ‘food.’ And at Lord James’ tone. One simply did not speak in this way to Judge Dee. Not if they wanted to keep on living.

But the judge nodded calmly.

‘You are right,’ he said. ‘I am a suspect. We all are. I would ask that none of you leave until this matter is settled.’

‘But I must go back to Paris!’ Fourier protested. He looked nervous. ‘I had nothing to do with this, Judge Dee, and I refuse to be kept a prisoner!’

‘This is hardly a prison!’ Lady Aurore said, bristling. ‘This is my manor, and my party!’

‘So much of a party!’ Fourier said, snarling. He pointed to the corpses. ‘I for one do not plan to eat any more! Perhaps you poisoned all of the food, Aurore!’

‘Are you accusing me?’ the lady said. She stared at Fourier with loathing. ‘How dare you!’

‘Jonathan,’ the judge said in a low voice. ‘A word?’

‘Yes, master?’

‘Wipe the sick off your chin.’

‘Yes, master.’

‘We do need to ascertain if all the food was contaminated. Will you examine them, please? Assemble them all in the kitchen, perhaps.’

‘Yes, master.’

Jonathan clapped his hands. The humans in the room, he saw, were all cowering in various states of distress, their eyes expressing their shock. Jonathan knew how it usually worked. The people at such gatherings did not usually expect to be murdered. Most offered their blood willingly, in the hope that a vampire would take an interest in them and perhaps turn them. Others saw the opportunity to be fed upon even as a way of gaining status. They would be pale and glamorous for a while, and have a story to tell.

Most, of course, did it because they were paid, or they had nowhere else to go. Life wasn’t easy; sooner or later everyone became somebody’s dinner.

‘Please stand!’ Jonathan said. ‘You, you, and you! You, into the kitchen too. Let’s take a look at you.’

None of them, he saw with relief, showed any immediate signs of being poisoned. The beefy young man that the inquisitor and his acolytes had fed on did seem drugged, now that Jonathan thought about it. He had moved sluggishly and looked confused.

He lined the help up in the kitchen.

‘Stand up straight.’

They tried, but they were still in shock. He checked their eyes, their reflexes.

‘Well?’ the judge said, materialising noiselessly by his side.

Jonathan shrugged. ‘I am not a medical man,’ he said, ‘but they seem, well, alive.’

‘Very astute,’ the judge said.

‘Master?’

The judge surveyed the assembled help but, as Jonathan said, they all seemed to be among the living.

‘It was a fast-acting poison,’ the judge said. ‘I suspect it was nightshade. It works particularly well on vampires.

‘Oh?’ Jonathan said. This was new to him, and he filed it away in his mind.

‘They are small black berries,’ the judge said. ‘Have you checked the food?’

‘Master,’ Jonathan said, alarmed. ‘You don’t think I may have ingested poison?’

‘I suppose,’ the judge said, ‘we shall soon find out if you suddenly drop dead.’

Jonathan blanched. Was his heart beating too fast? He felt blood rushing to his head. His hands tingled. He was definitely feeling something!

‘Calm down, Jonathan,’ the judge said. ‘You are not dying. Now check the food, please.’

‘Yes, master . . .’

Jonathan and the judge moved through the kitchen, examining the plates of human food. A butchered chicken, a few glasses of wine, a cheese board, bread and fruit . . . It was a decent spread, but it hardly looked dangerous.

‘The buttered mushrooms!’ Jonathan said. He pointed to a tray. ‘I remember now, the young man ate from that tray. I think.’ He tried to remember. All he could remember for sure was that he’d tried to eat the mushrooms, only to be told off.

‘Mushrooms are deadly, aren’t they?’ he said.

‘Not these ones,’ the judge said. ‘These are common variety champignon.’

‘I didn’t know you knew so much about mushrooms,’ Jonathan said.

The judge looked at him askance. ‘It is possible the poison was distilled,’ he said. ‘In which case it could have been slipped easily into— Aha!’

The judge pounced. There were several glasses and goblets on the table. Vampires liked blood that was flavoured with wine. The judge sniffed.

‘Here,’ he said. He raised a goblet. ‘Deadly nightshade. Belladonna, as some would have it. She is a quiet assassin.’

He passed the goblet to Jonathan. Jonathan sniffed, but he couldn’t detect any difference. The judge paced.

‘The wine was poisoned by someone at this party. Who had access to the kitchen during the party, Jonathan?’

‘Well, everyone, master,’ Jonathan said. He tried to remember. ‘The Lady Aurore, of course, came and went. Fourier came in at some point. So did Lord James. Do you know, I don’t think he is English like he says he is. He has a very odd accent. In any case, they were all inspecting the . . . err, the food. But I didn’t see anyone poison the wine.’

‘It would have only taken a second, Jonathan. Search the kitchen! See if we can find— Aha!’

The judge fished a tiny glass vial from behind a cabinet.

‘Just as I thought. Whoever poisoned the boy discarded the bottle immediately, knowing I might otherwise order a search of their person. Well, what have we learned so far, Jonathan?’

‘Master?’ Jonathan tried to focus. His stomach ached and so did his head. He reached instinctively for a glass of wine to fortify himself, then snatched his hand back quickly.

He said, ‘We know the inquisitor was murdered?’

‘Go on.’

‘He was poisoned by, well, his food was poisoned. By someone coming into this kitchen. Which means someone at this party. Discounting yourself, master, the suspects are Lady Aurore, Fourier or Lord James. But why would any of them wish to kill Saragossa?’

‘That, Jonathan, is what we must ascertain,’ the judge said. ‘We must interview each of the suspects in turn. Come.’

Jonathan followed the judge out of the kitchen. The vampires stood glaring at them in the main room. The judge wordlessly held up the vial of poison.

‘Does anyone recognise this?’ he said.

Fourier blanched. Lady Aurore swayed and Noemi was right by her side to hold her. Lord James looked merely irritated.

‘I told you, man, I had nothing to do with it!’ he said.

‘You do keep saying that, yes,’ the judge said. He stared at Lord James intently. ‘And yet, when I was sitting at the Borgo Bar not two weeks past, I distinctly recall you being present when Inquisitor Zaragoza came in.’

‘Nonsense!’ Lord James said.

‘That’s right,’ Jonathan said, remembering. ‘You were playing chess with Fourier, master. Lord James came in and then retreated into a private room. A short while later the inquisitor came in, spoke to you, and then went into the same private room as Lord James.’

‘So?’ Lord James said.

‘So you did know him. You had business with him!’

‘I had no such thing! Business? I am a lord! I do not lower myself to, to . . . trade!’

‘I remember that too,’ Fourier said accusingly. ‘I remember even at the time I thought it odd. Come clean, James! What was the nature of your relationship with Saragossa?’

‘This is ridículo! I mean, absurd!’ Lord James looked pleadingly to Jonathan. ‘Come on, man! You’re English! Are you going to let them speak to me like this?’

Jonathan was taken aback. Lord James had barely seemed to register his presence up to this point.

‘Where in England are you from again?’ he said.

‘London, boy.’

‘Where in London? I am sure you said only I have quite forgotten.’

‘What is this—’ Lord James hesitated. ‘Westminster?’ he said.

‘Westminster Palace?’ Jonathan said.

‘Well, no, not the palace,’ Lord James said. ‘The, ah, the bit by the river where the— Look, what is this? How dare this creature question me?’

‘I do not think you are English,’ Jonathan said. ‘Your accent is different and you seem hesitant, as though unsure of the geography of London, though you claim to be from there. And you keep using words like absurdo when I think you mean to say absurd. Is your name even really James?’

‘Why, you!’ Lord James roared in fury. He opened his mouth and his fangs caught the light. His heavy fist rose and Jonathan could see the signet ring with the marten on it. The fist came down to strike Jonathan for his impudence.

Judge Dee’s hand shot out and held James’ captive. He’d done it with no seeming effort. Before the startled lord could react, Judge Dee twisted and Lord James roared in outrage, his arm caught painfully behind his back. The judge pushed him down and knelt with his knee on the other vampire’s back.

Jonathan saw Noemi smirking at the sight. Clearly, she had no love lost for her mistress’ paramour.

‘I wanted a look at your ring,’ Judge Dee said. He reached down and coolly broke the vampire’s finger. Lord James screamed. Judge Dee removed the ring and examined it.

‘You are quite right, Jonathan, of course,’ he said. ‘I, too, have noticed the anomalies Lord James displayed. The use of Spanish, for instance, slipping into his speech every now and then was a dead giveaway. And this ring is quite unusual, is it not? The marten, a nocturnal predator.’

‘Symbolic of a . . . a vampire!’ Lord James gasped, in pain.

‘Indeed, indeed, that is one interpretation,’ Judge Dee said. ‘But why not a bat?’

‘Bats aren’t . . . predators,’ Lord James said. ‘Everyone knows that. They eat fruit for goodness’ sake!’

‘But more traditional, surely you would agree?’ Judge Dee said.

Liber— let me go!’

‘La Garduña,’ the judge said. ‘The marten is the symbol of the notorious Spanish secret society of criminals who bear that name. They are the secret arm of the Inquisition, whose motto is martyrs before confessors. You were one of them, James?’

‘Let me go!’

The judge abruptly released him. Lord James rose, panting. He reset his broken finger and snarled.

‘Yes, yes, very well!’ he said. ‘My name was Iago. I was with La Garduña. So what? In death I was reborn! And James is merely the name Iago in English.’

‘You are a Spaniard?’ Lady Aurore said in horror. Noemi smirked.

‘My darling! It is nothing!’ Lord James said.

‘It is everything!’ Lady Aurore said.

‘It matters,’ Judge Dee said, ‘because the Garduña worked with the Inquisition. And Zaragoza was an inquisitor in life. Tell me how you knew him, James.’

‘I told you, I did not kill him!’ Lord James sighed. ‘Oh, very well. You think you are so clever, don’t you? Yes, I was there in Catalonia! I was the Garduña’s point man for dealing with Zaragoza. I helped procure the . . . the tainted blood.’ He looked vaguely ashamed. ‘I was only mortal, and doing as I was told. You cannot lay the blame at my feet! Zaragoza took a liking to me and before he fled he . . . he turned me.’ He stared at them defiantly. ‘Yes, I was his cursed get! But I had nothing to do with him, I never even saw him again until he came strolling into the Borgo Bar one night, cool as you please, and saw me!’

His confession cast the assembled guests into quiet. Even Noemi lost her smirk at the revelations.

‘We saw him come in,’ Judge Dee said. ‘What did you speak of?’

‘What do you think?’ Lord James said bitterly. ‘He knew I was not who I pretended to be. And he blackmailed me! I was to pay him, or he would reveal my secret. He knew how my beloved Lady Aurore feels about the proud Spanish people.’

Lady Aurore stared at him in hatred and clutched Noemi to her. ‘Filth!’ she said.

Lord James sighed. ‘I swore there and then I would kill him,’ he said. ‘I had hoped for an opportunity tonight. It was why I had pushed for this evening, and for Zaragoza to be invited. I would have made short work of the bastardo! But someone had beat me to it. I would have used a stake, put it right through his heart. A proud Spaniard never uses poison.’

‘Spaniard!’ Lady Aurore said.

Lord James—Iago—turned his eyes to her. ‘My darling!’

‘Get away!’ Lady Aurore said. She stood straight and furious. ‘Clearly he is the murderer, Judge Dee! You must pass your sentence.’

But Judge Dee stared her down, with those cold, deep eyes that had seen every sort of evil the world had to show.

‘I will judge,’ he said, ‘when I have found the culprit.’

‘But he is standing right there!’ Noemi blurted, startled out of her customary silence.

‘Perhaps. And if so, he will be judged accordingly. And yet was he the only one with a grudge against the inquisitor here tonight? I do not think so. How about you, Fourier?’ The judge turned on the revolutionary, who blanched and turned even whiter than his customary shade.

‘You knew him too, Fourier. We have both discussed this. You were there during the Sang Noir Affair.’

‘Of course I was!’ Fourier said. ‘I was there, as you well know!’ His eyes turned soulful. ‘I worked with the local peasants. Trying as always to encourage an uprising. I had heard word of this monster, Saragossa. I, too, am glad he’s dead! I had a close friend, an intimate friend, who died horribly at the hands of that man. I, too, would have taken vengeance if I could! It is why I gladly accepted our kind hostess’ invitation tonight. I hoped to despatch that fiend of hell during the party, though I would have decapitated him with a sword! I would have never used poison. To do so would have made me no better than the inquisitor.’

Judge Dee nodded pleasantly. He scanned the assembled guests until his eyes came to land on Lady Aurore.

‘Then,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘there is you.’

Me? You can’t possibly think it was I who killed him!’

‘Why not?’ the judge said. ‘It would make the most sense. You set up the party. You arranged for us all to be invited. We all hated Zaragoza. You had the means and the opportunity and, more importantly, it was your actions which set the premise for his death. This is your house, my dear lady.’

‘What utter nonsense!’ Lady Aurore said. ‘I was the one who told you of his whereabouts, Judge Dee! I followed the letter of the law! It was I who sent the summons that brought you here! And it was because—’

She fell silent.

‘Tell them,’ said the judge.

‘My sister, Soleil . . .’ Lady Aurore’s voice became a whisper. Noemi, by her side, held her steadfastly. ‘She was turned when I was. We were sisters in life, and in death. But Soleil was always independent. She craved travel, to see the world. She went to Spain, where she fell in love with a mortal Spaniard. The man was a rogue. He sourced blood for her, but he was venal and lazy. He brought her Sang Noir. She died, terribly. I felt her death across the distance. I felt her mind touch mine. I knew who had done it. Imagine my joy when I saw him that night, strolling past Notre-Dame without a care in the world! I knew then he had to be punished. He had to pay for what he did. I would have done it there and then, but he always had his acolytes with him, Vigil, Matins and Lauds, and I knew I could not take them all.’

‘So you’re just as suspect as any of us!’ Fourier said, pointing at her accusingly. ‘She did it, she must have, Judge Dee!’

‘It was James!’

‘It was you, Fourier!’

‘Enough!’ the judge said. He turned to Jonathan. ‘This is a perplexing case,’ he admitted in a low voice. ‘Do you have any thoughts?’

Jonathan scratched his head. He felt hungry again, even with the burst corpses and all that black blood still on the floor.

Some bread, maybe, he thought.

A bit of ham and a pickle.

‘Jonathan?’

‘Sorry, master . . .’ Jonathan tried to focus. It was perplexing. He said, ‘Perhaps we are looking at it all wrong.’

‘Indeed?’ The judge looked amused. ‘Go on.’

‘You let your pet human speak for you?’ Lord James demanded. ‘This is—’

Absurdo?’ Fourier said. Noemi smirked. Even Lady Aurore hid a grin. Lord James flushed blood.

‘Five strangers meet by circumstance,’ Jonathan said. ‘One of them turns up dead. Each of the remaining four seem innocent at first, but they all had a motive. The strangers were not strangers. They were linked by the victim and his crimes. Fourier lost a friend. Lady Aurore, a sister. James was being blackmailed. And you, Judge Dee, were denied the one thing you crave—justice.’

‘Yes?’ the judge said.

‘I propose to you,’ Jonathan said nervously, ‘that what seems chance was only the semblance of chance! That this was premeditated, a calculated conspiracy! You all did it! You were in it together!’

Jonathan ran out of breath. Judge Dee watched him closely. So did the others.

Then Fourier started to laugh.

James followed suit. Lady Aurore got the giggles. Even Judge Dee smiled, a thing he did not do often.

Together!’ Lord James bellowed, bent over. Fourier was laughing so hard blood tears came to his eyes.

‘Together!’ he said.

‘Working in unison!’ Lady Aurore said. She was laughing so hard now that Noemi had to pat her on the back as she got hiccups.

‘We’re vampires!’ Lord James said. ‘We never work together!’

‘Although the formation of union to act for the group rather than the individual must surely follow in order for human society to–’ Fourier began, but mercifully couldn’t finish the sentence as he launched into giggles.

Judge Dee put his hand on the mortified Jonathan’s shoulder.

‘It is a brilliant deduction,’ he said. ‘It truly is. Such a crime would truly be worth solving, Jonathan. But vampires are not so cunning, alas. And Iago here is right. Vampires do not . . . collaborate. No.’ He shook his head ruefully. ‘I’m sorry. It would have been a neat solution. But it is not the one.’

Jonathan pouted. ‘Then I don’t know, master. Any of you could have done it. You all had the means, the motive, and the opportunity. You may as well toss a coin to decide. I say it’s Iago.’

‘How dare you!’

‘I concur,’ Fourier said. ‘The man’s an oaf. It must have been him.’

‘My darling!’ Lord James said, looking beseechingly at Lady Aurore. ‘Surely you can see—’

Lady Aurore grinned at him with her fangs open. ‘You,’ she said with loathing. ‘It was you the whole time!’

The vampires hissed at Lord James. Their nails grew, became claws. Jonathan tried to remove himself. He knew when vampires were about to start killing each other, and it was always best to stay away, ideally behind something heavy.

Lord James’ face lengthened, turning into a wolf’s snout in his fear and rage.

‘I will kill you all!’ he howled.

‘Enough!’ Judge Dee said. ‘Pull yourselves together. Lord James, make yourself presentable, man! The wolf shape is no form for a social gathering!’

‘They want to kill me, Judge Dee! Save me!’ Lord James said.

‘Everyone, stop,’ Judge Dee said. The force of his command was such that the assembled vampires did subside. Jonathan emerged cautiously from behind a sofa. The vampires stood, waiting.

‘Somebody clean up the mess on the floor,’ Judge Dee said. ‘The rest of you, take a seat. I will decide who the murderer was. And I will judge them. Jonathan?’

‘Yes, master?’

‘Watch them carefully. I shall be in the kitchen. I need to think.’

‘Yes, master,’ Jonathan said. The judge vanished. The others sat down. Noemi huddled close with her mistress. No one, of course, cleaned up the mess. Removing corpses was always someone else’s problem, if you were a vampire.

Jonathan, sighing, went to fetch a mop.

 

8.

He found the judge pacing in the kitchen. The judge still held the empty vial of poison. His austere face was frozen in concentration.

‘What am I not seeing?’ the judge said.

‘Master, perhaps . . .’

‘Yes, Jonathan?’

‘Does it really matter?’ Jonathan said. ‘He is dead. You all desired it. Is it not enough?’

Someone killed him,’ the judge said. ‘I would ascertain who!’

Jonathan shrugged. ‘What if none of you killed him? What if the man Zaragoza fed on took the poison himself? It would make just as much sense. Perhaps he disliked being food. I know I would be.’

‘Yes!’ the judge said. ‘That is to say, no! You are quite right, Jonathan.’ His red eyes shone.

‘I have been going about it all wrong,’ Judge Dee said. ‘It is never complicated when it comes to vampires. We do not scheme and plot and work out elaborate ruses. We just . . . kill. It’s what we do. Come!’

He marched back into the lounge and Jonathan followed. The suspects all sat on the sofas. They did not look as cross as before. Lord James was chatting civilly to Fourier about the nature of egalitarianism and Lady Aurore was murmuring into Noemi’s ear and nibbling her neck.

‘This is what happened,’ Judge Dee said. They all stopped and looked up at him.

‘Well?’ Lord James said.

‘Who did it?’ Fourier demanded.

‘Whoever it was deserves a reward,’ Lady Aurore said.

‘Perhaps they do,’ Judge Dee said. ‘Though not for cunning. You see, something Jonathan here said made me figure it out at last. No one killed Zaragoza—’

‘What are you talking about, man?’ Lord James erupted. ‘The rotten creature exploded all over the furniture!’

‘–on purpose,’ the judge said. ‘You see, we all had a motive to kill him. We all came here with the intention of killing him. But we would have done it as vampires do! To have killed him this way was too elaborate, too cerebral. And also, I must point out, too prone to error.’

‘What are you saying!’

‘I suggest to you,’ the judge said, ‘that no one killed Zaragoza because Zaragoza was not, in fact, the intended victim at all.’

‘This is ridiculous!’

‘Not at all. Jonathan, tell me. You were in the kitchen. Who was the boy the inquisitor fed on intended for? Was there a specific person for him?’

Jonathan tried to think. ‘I do remember Lord James coming in earlier and checking him out quite hungrily. But he was not the only one. I do not know.’

‘I do,’ the judge said. ‘I watched as the young man came out. He was dazed by the drug—I had thought it merely wine at the time, of course. He headed for someone—someone else. Then he stumbled. And then, fatally for Inquisitor Zaragoza, he turned. He made the mistake of passing too close to the inquisitor and his acolytes. They pounced—and paid the ultimate price for their greed.’

‘Who was he going to, then?’ Jonathan said. He tried to remember. Everything had happened so fast . . .

‘The Lady Aurore,’ he said. ‘And Lord James.’

‘What!’ Lady Aurore stood up. ‘This is outrageous! You are suggesting it was I who was to be poisoned?’

Noemi rose beside her, held her close, soothed her with soft words.

Judge Dee shook his head.

‘Not you,’ he said. ‘Him.’

Lord James turned pale. ‘Me?’ he said. ‘Who would want to kill me?’

‘I had no motive,’ Fourier said.

‘Neither did I!’ said the Lady Aurore. ‘And the judge certainly couldn’t care. I am sorry, this makes no sense. Explain yourself!’

‘You are right,’ Judge Dee said. ‘None of us had a motive. But someone in this room did harbour a grudge against Lord James. Not for anything that happened in Catalonia long before she was born! Nothing to do with Sang Noir, or blackmail, or the loss of a loved one . . . Or rather, it did. She was afraid, you see. She was afraid of losing the one she loves. Is it not true?’

And he turned his eyes, not unkindly, on Noemi.

‘What is he talking about?’ Lady Aurore said, aghast. She held Noemi by the shoulders. ‘You?’ she said. ‘But why?’

‘Yes, it was me!’ Noemi said. Her eyes flashed angrily. ‘It was easy, too! I was in the kitchen, I had fed the boy the poison, I told him who he was meant to feed! But the drug worked too quickly. He was weak in the mind, and he turned, and now all is ruined, all is lost!’

And she burst into tears.

The vampires exchanged glances uncomfortably.

‘But my darling, why?’ Lady Aurore said. She stroked Noemi’s face.

‘Don’t you see?’ Noemi said. ‘Because of him! I had to get rid of Lord James, because he was taking you away from me! He was romancing you, seducing you to his charms!’

Jonathan stood agape. This explained why Noemi was impervious to his charms, he thought. Although, were he to be honest with himself, most women proved quite impervious to Jonathan’s charms regardless.

‘The girl killed Zaragoza? By accident?’ Fourier said. Then he started to laugh. So did James.

‘Serves him right, the old bat!’ James said.

‘Good for you, Noemi!’ Fourier said. ‘Rise, rise against the oppression of church and state! Tear the shackles of oppression—’

But Lady Aurore and Noemi heard neither of them. Lady Aurore gazed into Noemi’s eyes. ‘But my darling,’ she said. ‘That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!’

‘Aurore? But why—’

‘Oh, darling Noemi—he was only a man!’ Lady Aurore said, laughing. ‘Good for a tumble or two, not for love!’

And as Noemi stared into her eyes, Lady Aurore’s lips closed over Noemi’s in a passionate kiss.

‘Well, judge?’ Fourier said, standing. ‘What is your judgement? You have solved the crime and found the culprit as you promised. What will her sentence be? Death, for killing one of our kind? That seems appropriate. And I am hungry . . .’

‘And she did try to kill me,’ Lord James said. He stood up too, and his mouth opened wide. ‘I second death!’

The judge stared at them coolly. Lady Aurore and Noemi were oblivious. Their kiss grew passionate. Jonathan squirmed as the lady and her maid fell to the floor together. There was some unrobing.

The judge smiled.

‘Death, indeed,’ he said. Lady Aurore raised her head and looked at them for just one moment. Her eyes shone and her smile was wide.

The judge nodded civilly. ‘I bid you good night,’ he said.

‘Always a pleasure, Judge Dee,’ Lady Aurore said. Then she bent over Noemi and bit her in the neck until her blood spurted and spurted: red, healthy blood this time.

 

9.

It was two weeks later when Lady Aurore paid a visit to Judge Dee. It was midnight, the witching hour, which the vampires of Paris merely call breakfast. The judge was in his rooms, consulting a manual on detection by Aquinas. Jonathan was in the kitchen, having a bite of Gruyère. He sighed to himself. He supposed all ended well. But still.

It would be nice, he thought, to find someone companionable to settle down with. Now that the case was over, he supposed he and the judge would soon leave Paris, but he had grown to like life in the city. Jonathan hoped they could stay a while longer yet. Then it would be life on the road again for them: two tiny shadows moving against an immense dark, under a pale moon.

He sighed again and went to answer the door.

Lady Aurore stood in the doorway. Noemi stood by her side. She flashed Jonathan a smile. Her red eyes shone and her new fangs sat oddly in her face. She made no attempt to move.

‘What!’ Jonathan said irritably. ‘Oh, right. I bid you welcome, enter of your own free will, et cetera. Are you coming in or what?’

‘So rude,’ Lady Aurore said. ‘I do not see what the judge finds in you, person.’

‘Perhaps he’s saving him for a special dinner,’ Noemi said, and smirked.

‘Doomed to eternal life,’ Jonathan said. ‘A fitting punishment, Noemi.’

‘It’s Lady Noemi to you,’ Noemi said. ‘Person.’

But she touched him lightly on the shoulder, and she smiled as she said it.

Then she took her vampire wife’s hand in hers, and together they went in to call on Judge Dee.

 

“Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmarte” Copyright © 2021 by Lavie Tidhar
Art copyright © 2021 by Red Nose Studio

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