A moonlit night along the chateaus of the Loire naturally invoked romantic images to most tourists who have visited the lovely countryside between Orleans and Angers. However, to one particular visitor, the nocturnal scene was illuminated in an eerie red glow. This was because he saw the scenery through highly sophisticated infrared night sensors built within his oddly inhuman mask. The blue mask gave him a vaguely robotic look, but beneath the disguise he interpreted all he saw with a human’s passion and concern. He moved gracefully across the night-shrouded streets with the speed and agility of an athlete, or perhaps more accurately with the relentless purpose of a hunter. His name was Mark Shaw, but the American preferred to be known only as the Manhunter when he donned his colorful red and blue costume and placed his special mask over his features.
Manhunter frowned and gazed up at the nearest building. Regarding the stately elegance of the building, he understood the nuances of its design and had a passing familiarity with the lavish events that had occupied its majestic rooms and carefully styled gardens in the golden days when the area became associated with the leisurely hours of the very wealthy. Still, he paid far more attention to the four men who skulked around the perimeter.
Sentries. They blend in with their surroundings very well, he thought. I’d almost say they were taught in Japan. Still, their prowess leaves something to be desired when confronted with my enhanced perceptions. Their heartbeats are like drum solos thanks to the technology within my mask.
Stepping out into the moonlight, he allowed them to see him. They gasped in surprise and raised weapons with silencers gleaming on the ends.
Manhunter merely raised his own weapon, a slender baton. Aiming it in a precise manner, he touched a hidden switch. A bolt of blue-hued energy erupted out of the baton, creating a temporary shield that deflected their bullets. The shield flickered out of sight in moments, but by that time the Manhunter had extended the baton into a staff, and he had vaulted across the courtyard to land directly in their midst. Spinning around, he sent two of them crashing to the ground as his extending staff buckled their knees. He whirled the staff again and stunned them both before rolling aside to allow the remaining pair to shoot each other in their efforts to strike the fleet figure.
Bending over them, he nodded approvingly. Their flak jackets absorbed the impact. They will live, but they’ll be very, very sore tomorrow! Glancing down, he saw a weird emblem on each of their uniforms. The symbol consisted of a stylized skull. He knew that odd crest from his past days as an agent of the robotic agents who originally formed the Manhunter cult eons ago.
La tete de la mort… the Death’s head! That proves I was right about the viper behind this whole mess. Professor Cadavéreux’s ego is too large for him to let his pawns go around without his precious symbol branded on them in one way or another!
Manhunter thought of the evil genius and how much misery his crimes had inflicted upon the unsuspecting people of France and of the world. He considered how brilliant the mad scientist was and how his gifts could have benefited humanity, had he turned his inclinations from the acquisition of power to the improvement of society as a whole. He pondered these things, but only briefly; there was no time for intellectual speculation or moralizing. He may have rededicated his life to serving justice in its purest form, but Mark Shaw the Manhunter also was given over to the hunt, and this hunt was very personal. Crossing the courtyard, he recalled how the whole thing had started.
He had been a visitor to France with his businessman father Eliot and his brother Jamie. They had become involved with the vengeful schemes of a super-villain named Déjà Vu when that twisted rogue had abducted the elder Shaw in an effort to prevent a business conference from succeeding in uniting American and French industries in various ventures. Mark Shaw had rescued his father with the help of a former lover, Noelle Avril, also known as Fleur-de-Lis.
Noelle had been many things in her young life. As Fleur-de-Lis, she had been the costumed heroine of France as a member of the Global Guardians. However, she was independent and had resigned from that team of champions to go her own way and occasionally accept assignments from the secret governmental agency known only as Department Gamma. This was fitting, since the platinum blonde beauty had started her heroic career years before for that same agency.
In any event, Noelle had aided Mark in his efforts to free Elliot Shaw from Déjà Vu, and during the course of their battle, he had achieved two objectives. First, he had made peace with his own past and had gained a renewed determination to forge his own destiny and regain some self-respect by being a Manhunter created in his own image and not that of the distorted and alien cult. Second, he had also managed to sow the seeds of forgiveness for his past conduct toward the fiery French woman. They had parted abruptly years before, after he first joined the Manhunter cult, when their insidious brainwashing had robbed him of his sense of self. He had felt that there was no room in his life for anything beyond his obsessive devotion to the Manhunter cause. She had tried to make him see the error of his ways, but he had been stubborn, and their romance had ended. Following their successful teaming against Déjà Vu, Mark had hoped that, perhaps, they could eventually mend their damaged relationship in some small way.
That fond wish was now in serious jeopardy, as was Fleur-de-Lis herself.
Mere hours before, the Shaws had been at the Paris airport, ready to return home to America, when a strange little man had stopped them in their tracks. Mark could still see his odd features clearly. He had worn a rather limp felt hat with a patched overcoat. His eyes were clear and blue, and his face had a freshly scrubbed gleam about it that belied the scruffy effect of his coat and hat. He had peered up at them over the railing near the luggage checkpoint.
“Mark Shaw? We require your help, mon ami, or rather a fair damsel in distress requires you to serve as her knight in armor,” he had said in a surprisingly deep voice and in perfect English.
He had raised his small hand to reflect the light from a flat but shiny ring with an odd engraving on the center. The Greek alphabet letter gamma. I know Noelle’s Department Gamma works with some curious types, but this takes the cake! mused Mark as he drew closer to the small man, and his brother Jamie sighed in annoyance.
“Really! The nerve of the beggars of this city!” groaned the lawyer as their father frowned silently. “Can’t the airport do something about them?”
Mark had whispered to the small man in insistent tones, “I know you by reputation. Dupin? That is the name you go by. Certain associates have mentioned you to me in the past. I also know for whom you work. Is Fleur-de-Lis in trouble? She was fine not long ago. We had just captured the man called Déjà Vu!”
Dupin tipped his hat to one side and said, “She is in peril. Please, accompany me, oui?”
Thus, with a hasty word of explanation to his family, Mark Shaw had followed the small espionage agent to a waiting car. The car had taken them to a rather nondescript house just outside the city.
“Mr. Shaw, we thank you for coming. Noelle Avril means much to both of us,” Dupin had said. “She was abducted shortly after you parted. We know this because she managed to hit a panic button in her penthouse. We arrived to find her gone and her rooms in disarray. Noelle works for us on occasion, and we take the paternal pride in her accomplishments, since she started with us long ago.”
Mark had listened with concern. He knew how skilled Noelle was, and he prayed that she was still alive. “I’ll help. You know that. If you know so much about Noelle and me, then you know that for a fact. Still, why recruit me? You have other agents. What of the D’Aramis twins? The Musketeer? The Iron Maiden? Harrier?”
Dupin had spread wide his arms and sighed. “Ah! They are a handful. Some are not associated with us. Harrier is a wild card. The Crimson Fox… how shall we put it? We fear that, for all their many charms and assets, they lack your skill. We will blush at the notion, but we do, in fact, lack anyone who is as capable or as much the fatal man that you are. You see, our foe is very likely to be a most deadly rogue long believed to be the single most ruthless criminal mastermind in all of Europe.”
Mark had nodded resolutely as the little man had taken him into a huge lab within the old house.
“We will equip you and tell you all we know! As soon as we learned of your arrival here, we asked the lovely Arabella Mathiene to work her ever-so-magnificent magic on your behalf. We suspected that you might be of help to us, but little did we dream that we would need you so swiftly and for such a matter of personal and national importance!” Dupin had gestured to a very attractive, petite woman with short blonde hair and clear-framed glasses. She wore a short blue dress with a matching hair band and heels. She blushed as the small agent flattered her shamelessly.
“Arabella, your beauty grows like the delicate blossom, ever refreshing to behold and always a welcome addition to comfort both man and beast!” he said. Arabella had smiled and turned her head slightly to conceal said smile.
“Dupin, I have completed the work you requested for Mr. Shaw,” she said softly. “I have altered the design of the original mask and added some rather stimulating new features! The baton was one of the originals as well. I wonder how the department acquired it. Oh, well, it was a delight to examine. I think the modifications I made are really improvements, though I hesitate to appear boastful!”
Mark frowned as he picked up the blue mask and the baton. “You actually have the skill to improve on the science of the Manhunters? No offense, but that’s a bit remarkable!”
Arabella glanced down demurely and said, “I have had a rather extensive experience with alien sciences. You see, my father was not of this world!”
Mark had taken the device and a new costume that combined the colors of the Manhunters with a more individualistic style of his own. He had listened as the shy Frenchwoman explained the new features of both, and Dupin added details about Noelle’s disappearance. “She was abducted — that much is certain,” he had said. “We suspect that the man behind it is a most dangerous foe. His nom du crime is Professor Cadavéreux!”
Mark had been surprised. “No wonder you wanted help! He hates Noelle! For years after their first encounter, she believed him to be dead. When he popped up a while back, she took the time to contact me, because although we had not been together in years, she felt that his hatred for her was great enough that he might try to strike at anyone who had ever been close to her. That conversation was the last time we spoke before our meeting during this visit. He never did try to get me. Still, Noelle was the national heroine of your country for years. She has dozens of enemies. Why do you think he is the one who took her?”
Dupin had sighed and shrugged. “He resurfaced of late in the wine country. He killed an entire village with a potent toxin. No one else could have designed such a weapon and used it with such ruthless and senseless efficiency. Those deaths served no purpose that we can detect, except to announce to the world that Professor Cadavéreux had returned. His personal symbol, the death’s head, had been burned into the ruins of the village. It could be seen by aerial view. Shocking!”
Thus Manhunter had gone after the madman. His trail had taken him to the exclusive Loire area where an informant had claimed to see both shipments of weird equipment and many strangers. The rumor had turned out to be based on fact, as Manhunter’s clash with the guards had proven. Now he approached the chateau and peered through an ornate glass window. He saw a scene of horror.
Within the ancient chateau, a high-tech laboratory had been installed, and within that lab he saw a struggling Fleur-de-Lis. She was fully costumed, and an intricate web of tubes and wires linked her to another woman. Both of them reclined on elevated tables, and while Noelle Avril fought helplessly against her restraints, the other black-haired woman seemed to relish the experience.
Noelle did indeed try to free herself, but she could not. She watched helplessly as the machine channeled her blood through a complex series of tubes and irradiated funnels into the other woman. She remained calm as befitted her steely courage, and she remembered her first meeting with the evil Professor Cadavéreux. She would never forget those odd events, since they formed what could truly be called the secret origin of Fleur-De-Lis.