Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

By Lavie Tidhar

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 flair.

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.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/09/15/judge-dee-and-the-poisoner-of-montmartre-lavie-tidhar/

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