In the evenings, as the last fingers of light brush along the balcony railings, Ursula Zandt listens to Marlene Dietrich's smoky voice singing "Wenn die Beste Freundin". She's fallen in love with that oboe-rich voice again and again in the chill of dusk, as the city smog rises to smother the first faint traces of stars. Sometimes the record player sticks and she has to put down her glass of bourbon and reset the needle. Sometimes she has to reach up and wipe tears from the corners of her eyes.
Ursula enjoys this mellow time just before sunset, before the city opens its yellow eyes and pounces. She can hear Tanya scrounging around in the kitchen, preparing something to eat before she goes off to work at the club. Ursula used to go to work at this time too, as darkness fell upon the city, her body enveloped in the skintight leather costume that earned her the name 'The Silhouette'. In Europe, the war is over, but in New York City, battles still happen on the sly, in narrow alleys, in basement apartments, out along the wharf in the wee hours. Wherever criminals gather, costumed vigilantes are lurking, ready to thwart them. Ursula used to be one of them, but those days are over now. Nowadays, she spends most of her time in a haze of bourbon and cigarette smoke, luxuriating in the slow caress of Marlene's voice as she tries to summon the sights and smells of old Berlin back again.
Back in Berlin, Ursula and Tanya were poor as piss, making meals out of cabbage soup, rye bread and rotten turnips, wearing tattered stockings or none at all. The deutschmark was worth less than the paper it was printed on; people used the stuff for fuel, to patch holes in the roof, even to make kites for their children. Yet, in spite of the hunger pangs, the cramped apartments and bad addresses, the two women had still managed to scratch out a frantic sort of happiness. Ursula worked as a secretary and practiced her fencing in hopes of vying for the Olympic team, while Tanya danced in the local cabaret. When the nosy neighbors inquired if they were sisters, they said that they were roommates, bowed their heads together and laughed.
Everything was topsy-turvy and it seemed that the old sexual proprieties had ceased to matter: man-woman, man-man, woman-woman, master and servant and slave, everything was suddenly possible and even permissible once the sun went down. There was both decadence and innocence in the seedy clubs where the revelers wore their ragged finery, where there was drinking and singing and dancing and uproarious, mad-house laughter 'til dawn. Ursula cropped her black hair short and paraded through the streets in a slim tailored suit with a horsewhip clasped in her gloved hands. Tanya let her wild red curls fall free around her shoulders and wore moth-bitten silver fox furs over her frayed nightgowns. They thought that, at last, they had found the true Bohemia - in Germany of all places!
They saw it as an age of anarchic, apocalyptic delight, but that era ended when the brownshirts came marching through the streets, proclaiming the rise of a terrible new reich to last a thousand years. The Reichstag burned and people began to hurl rocks through store windows in the dead of night. Words appeared on the brick walls of townhouses: "Juden Raus!", "Blut und Boden", words that at first seemed meaningless, but gathered weight with each passing day. Ursula saw a newsreel depicting the stocky, brown-haired man, the one with the silly little dash of a moustache and the stony, sleepless eyes. In the films, the politician seemed friendly, almost avuncular, escorting ladies through Munich gardens, tipping his hat to passers-by, receiving bouquets of edelweiss from bashful schoolchildren. It was only when he stood atop a podium and gave his speeches that Ursula realized she was frightened. The man's delivery was hard-edged and guttural, his harangues full of undisguised spite for anyone who dared to contradict him or his party. She felt as if he was screaming at her in those speeches, bludgeoning her skull with his ranting.
They did not leave right away. Instead, Tanya and Ursula lingered in Berlin, hoping that this new political movement was only a phase, a brief stumble before the country righted itself. Neither of them came from Jewish lineage and so they believed that they might escape the worst of the persecution by lying low, by dressing in more feminine clothes and avoiding the underground clubs that had once been their secret havens. Surely if they were careful, no one would question their relationship, no one would think twice to see a pair of young women living together in apparent chastity – just affectionate friends, that's all the uninitiated would perceive.
Late in the fall of 1936, Tanya was sitting on the stoop of their rented apartment, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the night air. As daylight waned, she saw some men troop into a notorious residence on the street, what was euphemistically called "a house of ill-repute", although it actually enjoyed a very good reputation among the university students and businessmen who frequented it. A few minutes later, the men came out again, but they came with company, dragging a few young women down the veranda and into the street. Tanya huddled into the corner of the stoop, watching the men push the girls down onto the cobblestones, ordering them to kneel. A man in a black jacket shouted insults at the girls while two of his cronies tore at their dresses, reducing them to rags. The girl tried to cover themselves with their hands but their attackers forced their arms away from their chests. The man in the black jacket said that harlots shouldn't pretend to be modest, that it was an insult to German maidenhood. He hocked a gob of spit at the line-up of prostitutes and marched away. His friends pushed the girls down on the street and followed him.
When Ursula returned home, she found Tanya in the bedroom packing their bags. They left for Zurich two days later.
Ursula found Switzerland's landscape picturesque but its people tiresome. The locals were as methodical as their famous clocks, a nation of bankers and bureaucrats. If the decision had been Tanya's alone, they would have stayed in the Neutral Zone, rowing over crystalline lakes that mirrored empty skies and taking secretarial work when they could find it. Ursula became restless.
"This place, it is like slipping into a coma dream. I need speed, change, color if I am to feel alive, Tanya. And your dancing – how will you dance in this city? They will make you into a wind-up toy in a cuckoo clock! No, we cannot stay here or we will grow old before our time."
They moved to New York City in 1938 and Ursula was happy again to be in the midst of a metropolis where the possibilities seemed endless, even for two illegal immigrants renting rooms by the night in a shoddy boardinghouse in Hell's Kitchen. When they first came to the city, they knew several phrases in English: "Hello, it is good to meet you", "Yes, please," "No, thank you" and "Good evening". After several weeks in New York, they had learned how to say "where can I find work?", "how much does this cost?" and "fuck you too, asshole", although they still preferred to swear in German.
Ursula found work as assistant to Samuel Smythe, a local photographer, and made money as a model, when the job required a woman who looked as if she was in control of the situation. The photos attracted some attention from customers, so she began to pose as a dominatrix both in photos and in sessions with paying clients, accumulating a dungeon's worth of whips, chains, leather and other kinky accoutrements. She enjoyed her work, particularly because it was one of the few jobs where her hard-edged German accent was seen as an advantage rather than a handicap. Fraulein Zandt was popular with her American customers and happily led them around on leashes, ground her stilettos into their backs, whipped them with belts, whatever their submissive hearts desired, so long as they didn't touch her and paid at the end of the session. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement and Ursula had trouble understanding why it was so shocking to bourgeois sensibilities.
She would probably have continued to work as a dominatrix if she hadn't discovered her boss Sam's sideline business. Walking into Sam's developing room one morning, she found some pictures hanging up to dry. The photographs shocked even the unflappable Fraulein Zandt, shocked her so deeply that she spent weeks investigating not only Samuel Smythe, but also his customers and the agents who provided his 'models'. In the end, she'd cracked open a city-wide child pornography ring, leading to the arrest of more than 20 conspirators. The article in the New York Sun detailing the bust featured a picture of Ursula in black leather and stilettos, posing with several criminals she'd brought to justice with her gloved fists. They referred to her as "a sultry black Silhouette, the scourge of corruption" and linked her with the recent rise of costumed vigilantes, a phenomenon revolutionizing urban crime-fighting. Ursula never bothered to tell them that she wasn't wearing a costume. The leather bustier and thigh-high boots were just her working clothes. From that day onward, the world knew her as 'The Silhouette'.
Ursula goes back into the apartment to change the record over. The songs on the B-side are more upbeat and they make her forgetful of all the things that have gone wrong.
Tanya lays a kiss on Ursula's powdered cheek and another on her throat before she hurries out the door for work. Her perfume lingers in Ursula's nostrils, a languid aroma heavy with spices. Their love has become quiet dedication, almost lonely because it is so still, although without Tanya, Ursula knows that she would be truly alone, a solitary traveler. When they were younger, they indulged in long midnight conversations, giggling and making shadows on the walls with their hands, waxing philosophical or going on tipsy poetic tangents after love-making. They don't speak as much now, but their silences are deep as river basins. If they stay together for another 20 years, Ursula wonders if they will be bereft of words entirely, communicating strictly via telepathy, sending each other mental memoranda:
'We're out of milk.'
'Stop using my lipstick and making the end round. I like it square.'
'Ich liebe dich, Schatz. Ich liebe dich tausend Jahre.'
When she goes to refill her bourbon, she sees that Tanya has taken out the portrait of her with the Minutemen and left it on the table. Ursula turns the portrait over, so that she doesn't have to see the row of smiling faces, and places it back in the desk drawer it came from. Silhouette, that's who she used to be, before Schexnader blabbed her secret to the scandal sheets, before the Minutemen expelled her due to the bad publicity. Silhouette lives on only that faded picture, the one Ursula can't bear to look at but isn't ready to throw out. She isn't that woman anymore.
"It was Jupeczyk, before 'Jupiter'. That is Polish, yes?"
Sally Jupiter, otherwise known as Silk Spectre, gave Silhouette a look of mingled displeasure and disdain.
"I really wouldn't know," she said. "It hardly matter anymore, I think. We're all Americans. Most of us, anyway."
With that final jab, the glamorous redhead turned on her (stiletto) heel and sashayed over to Hooded Justice, who was already deep in conversation with Captain Metropolis.
If one were to believe the rumors, Silk Spectre and Hooded Justice were over the moon in love, but Silhouette had never found the act terribly convincing. For one thing, it was difficult to believe that Sally was in love with anyone but herself. For another, when they weren't posing for photo ops, Hooded Justice virtually ignored his so-called lady love and spent most of his time debating politics with the buff, blonde Captain Met. Silhouette had an eye for these things, although as far as she could tell, all of the others were blissfully unaware of the melodrama playing out in their midst.
Silk Spectre leaned forward to whisper a few sweet-nothings in Hooded Justice's ear, but he swatted her away as if she were a fly. Silhouette stifled a laugh – poor thing! – and watched the bombshell strut over to the bar to flirt with the Comedian, who'd already spent half the night leering at her from behind his paste-on mask. If Hooded Justice was too busy, Ms. Jupiter would no doubt manage to find someone to appreciate her ample charms.
Mothman, Dollar Bill and Nite Owl were always fooling around as boys will do and that night was no exception. They were sitting at a table, conducting an arm-wrestling contest. Ursula walked over and perched on the tabletop, watching as Nite Owl defeated Mothman.
Mothman gave a nervous laugh. "I swear, he's cheating."
"You have to be kidding," Dollar Bill said. "Nite Owl cheat? The guy is a damn paragon of justice. He doesn't even jaywalk, for Pete's sake!"
Nite Owl shook his head and smiled. Even though he was obviously a young man, there was something folksy and sedate in his manner that made him seem prematurely middle-aged. "Now I'm sure I've committed my fair share of sins. If I'm in disguise, then I have to be hiding something."
"Perhaps your only sin is that you're too innocent," Silhouette said. "That can be crime too, on certain occasions."
Mothman switched seats with Dollar Bill so that the famed bank-sponsored crimefighter and Nite Owl could compete in a final match.
"So, what did you say to get Spectre's panties in a bunch?" Mothman whispered.
"Oh, I just go and make a little comment about her familial name. Her P.R. man runs around telling the whole world that I'm a lousy Nazi Kraut, but she doesn't want anybody knowing she's a Pole."
"That's business for you, huh? Heck, if I were a lady and looked good in a tight costume, Schexnader would be out telling everyone that I'm a pinko who'd like to tax them 'til they bled and then give their money to Stalin. He just doesn't want any women around competing with Spectre for press. It's nothing personal."
Silhouette gave Mothman a pat on the back. "You're a good friend to me, you know that? Even if you stink at the arm wrestling."
Mothman grinned and even under his silly mask, Silhouette could see that he was blushing. She could tell that he was nursing a little crush on her and it flattered her even if she couldn't reciprocate it. Sometimes she considered confiding her secret to him because he seemed so sensitive, but something always made her stop short. After all, it was a big confidence to keep, one that didn't just affect her life but Tanya's as well.
Dollar Bill beat Nite Owl 2 matches out of 3 and was about to be declared arm wrestling champion of the group when Silhouette stepped in.
"Have I come too late to this game? Is there no room for me, gentlemen?"
Hollis offered up his chair. "You can go ahead. I wish you the best of luck. It would be nice to see someone take this fellow down a peg or two!"
Silhouette sat down and gave Dollar Bill an arch smile. "Are you ready to be punished, my friend?"
"My father used to say that pride goes before the fall," Dollar said, clutching her hand.
Dollar Bill's grip was indeed fierce, but Silhouette had a few tricks up her sleeve and wasn't afraid to use them. Nite Owl and Mothman didn't even bother to mask their astonishment when the lady won the match and claimed the title of champion.
Dollar Bill got up from the table, sweating bullets. "Uh, I'll be back. Gotta go use the john."
As soon as Dollar Bill had left the table, Mothman and Nite Owl started interrogating Silhouette.
"C'mon, tell us, how did you do it?" Mothman asked. "I mean, you're pretty tough and all, but there's no way you beat him fair and square."
"It does seem like an awful stretch," Nite Owl said.
"Maybe I am just very strong, much stronger and smarter than you big brawny men," Silhouette said. "Is that so hard to believe?"
"Actually, yes it is," Mothman teased, prompting Silhouette to take a playful swipe at his head.
"Very well, I will tell you how I did it," she said. "But you must promise not to hold it against me."
Nite Owl and Mothman gave her their solemn vow.
"When Dollar Bill grabbed my hand and started pulling on my arm, I took my boot and I pressed it into his balls. The more he squeeze my hand and tug at my arm, harder I press with my boot," Silhouette said. "Eventually, he just become smart and gives up! I think Dollar Bill was too embarrassed to admit what I did, so I win."
Mothman gave a sympathetic cringe. "Well, you're still arm-wrestling champion, if only because I don't ever plan to go up against you. How about you, Owl? You want to give Silhouette a run for her money?"
"I think I'm just fine where I stand, in a respectable third place," Nite Owl said. His eyes darted over the bar, where the Comedian and Silk Spectre were still loitering, drinks in hand. "'Though I wouldn't mind if you challenged the Comedian to a contest one of these days. Certain parts of his anatomy could use a good crushing."
Silhouette shot a glance at the Comedian, who was grinning at Spectre, his trademark cigar clenched between his teeth.
"One day he will get what he deserves," she whispered. "Tyrants always do."
"The problem is that good people are always getting what they don't deserve," Mothman said.
Hollis nodded. "That's why we got into this business: to set everything to rights. It's too bad that it's never that simple. The comic book adventurers always made it seem so easy."
They shared a toast, Mothman with his gin and tonic, Silhouette with her bourbon on the rocks and Nite Owl with his glass of soda water.
"To the funny papers!" Mothman said.
They clinked glasses.
"To the Minutemen!"
Ursula sprawls out on the white chaise longue and shields her face from the lamplight with the back of her arm. She's pleasantly drunk now, the bourbon stroking warm fingers along her throat and stomach. The room seems softer now, as if seen through a glazed window. The sofa, the bookshelves, the antique table, they have all become insubstantial, tricks of the mellow light that pools across the carpet like melted butter.
She hears someone padding across the carpet behind her and her mind boggles at how quickly the time has passed, for it seems as if Tanya left for work only a few hours ago and yet here she is, home from work already…
"Liebling, what time is it? I have quite lost track of the hour…"
Something cold and sharp presses against Ursula's throat. "It's the hour of reckoning."
Ursula recognizes the voice. She opens her eyes and looks up into the eyes of her enemy. He is wearing a dark ski mask rather than his usual costume. He is like an executioner standing at the chopping block.
"So, it is that time already?" she says. "I have wondered when I would see you again. I should have known that I wouldn't have to wait long."
"All of your old friends have abandoned you, Silhouette. They don't care whether a dyke like you lives or dies. None of the Minutemen will avenge you."
Her mind reels through several methods of escape, all impractical. She is out of condition, ill-prepared and drunk, but against the odds, she will fight. For many months, she has felt unable to live, but she is not ready to die.
"Let's make it a fair fight," she says. "Like old times. Let me get up and we'll see what you can do."
The blade nips at her throat. "A most tempting offer but I can't take you up on it. I'm going to have to stage the scene and it won't do to have any signs of a struggle. When is your little girlfriend coming home?"
"Don't you touch her, you son-of-a-bitch!"
The blade draws across her throat like a bow over violin strings. She is drowning, swooning in the warmth of the blood then she is shivering as icicle fingers perform a glissando dance along her spine. She chokes and swoons under the fierce glare of the light that breaks into arrow shafts and streams into her open eyes.
On the record player, Marlene Dietrich is singing her heart out, her voice a deep, rich crimson like wine.
The newspaper told the story in six paragraphs under the headline, 'Ex-Vigilante and Companion Murdered in Midtown Apartment '. The investigators kept the gorier details of the crime scene out of the press and the editors chose to suppress the sensationalistic elements of the murders because, after all, they were writing for a family publication. They don't mention the words 'Nazi Whores' scrawled on the wall in blood. They never say outright that Ursula Zandt and Tanya Stoller were lovers, only mentioning that they had a 'questionable friendship' that had led to 'unsavory speculation' in the gossip rags.
The news article detailing the crime is buried in the back section of the Monday paper, beside a story on city maintenance vehicles and an editorial about anti-graffiti bylaws.
The reporter working the crime beat contacted Silk Spectre for a comment, but he was intercepted by her publicist, Mr. Schexnader, who duly informed him: 'Ms. Jupiter has no comment at this time'.The other Minutemen were equally unwilling to speak to the press. It wasn't until Mothman was called before the Congressional Committee Hearing on Un-American Activities that he had to field a question about the death of The Silhouette. He broke down and then mumbled something about "the funny papers", causing McCarthy and his cronies to deem him 'unresponsive'. Two more days of questioning ensued before the tribunal let him go but his freedom was short-lived. After a failed suicide attempt, Mothman was committed to an asylum in upstate New York, where he received regular electro-shock therapy treatments.
Nite Owl's tell-all book, 'Under the Hood', alludes to the murders but, true to form, offers little in the way of information when it comes to the group's reaction. In his promotional interviews promoting the best-seller, Hollis Mason (Nite Owl I) refused to discuss the murders other than to note that the life of a costumed vigilante was, by definition, a dangerous one. He went on to mention the demise of Dollar Bill, shot point-blank by a robber when his cape caught in a door, as an illustration of this.
The only figure from the Golden Age of Crimefighting to comment extensively on the murders was Edgar Jacobi, a.k.a. super-villain Moloch the Mystic, who sat for several interviews while in Sing Sing during the '70s. Jacobi was quoted in Playboy magazine as having said that he was fond of The Silhouette and was disturbed to learn of her murder.
"Being the son of German immigrants myself and of, suffice it to say, an exotic appearance, I sympathized with her circumstances," Jacobi told the interviewer. "We didn't meet on many occasions, but I can attest to the fact that she was an uncommonly good chess player and often quite witty, although her grasp of English grammar was shaky. Even when I was still running my criminal empire, I always felt sad to see a hero go. It may have been good for business to get rid of them, but it was good for the faculties of mind and the expansiveness of the soul to keep them around. I've never backed down from a challenge and the heroes of the Golden Age were fine challenges indeed. It was my privilege to fight them and it is a great sorrow to see them pass into history."