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Blackmail By The Dashboard Light

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The sad tale had been discussed during a casual Fisher family dinner. The Willoughby’s 13-year-old daughter, Edith, and their chauffer’s 15-year-old son, Daniel Hess were both in the hospital after a Romeo/Juliet attempt at suicide. The two had grown up together and, as often happened, had fallen into puppy love. Using the excuse of taking some goods over to a church event, the two used one of her father’s cars for a tryst behind an abandoned shed off a service road in the Royal Botanic Gardens. It would have ended there with some hand-holding and a few innocent kisses except that a week later a blackmail letter and pictures of them sitting in the backseat of the Willoughby family Package Roadster. Horrified that they had damaged their families’ reputations and possibly cost the boy’s father his job, the distraught pair drank laudanum. Luckily, both were found quickly. Phryne was gratified to know that both sets of parents, instead of blaming the teens for their mutual affection, were hell-bent on finding the blackmailer.

Mr. B. played cards with Daniel’s father on Friday nights, Mrs. Willoughby was active in charity work, and Edith went to school with Jane. By the time the dishes were being washed, plans had been made to take food over to the Hess’s, a discreet call had been made assuring that any and all assistance necessary would be given, and Phryne planned for a trip to Jack’s office the next day after meeting with Mrs. Willoughby.

                                                                                                                    ***

“Miss Fisher, who would do something so vile? To turn a first kiss into something so sordid? We found the blackmail letter and a picture with the letters the children wrote. Dear Daniel just kept repeating that Edith had done nothing dishonorable and that he would never do anything to sully her reputation, I guess because the blackmailer suggested he would make it sound far worse than it actually was.”

Phryne examined the evidence. Mrs. Willoughby was right that the attempted suicide letters reflected two youngsters who were desperate to protect each other and their families in the midst of shame and guilt. Ironically, the photograph showed that the pair had merely been affectionate, not indecent. Phryne surmised that she could have shown the photo to Hugh and would have barely raised a blush. It was the threatening letter that she felt had been what sent the pair into a spiral.

“We put out the story that the children have food poisoning. Miss Fisher, please, we’ll pay whatever it takes…”

Phryne stopped her. “Mrs. Willoughby, Deborah, you, your husband, and Daniel’s parents just take care of Edith and Daniel and each other. My adopted daughter, Jane, goes to school with Edith. Catching the low-life who hurt the children will be my pleasure.”

                                                                                                                     ***

As was her norm, Phryne sailed into Central South carrying a large basket of food, biscuits, and tea. “Hugh, Dot mentioned that your mother wasn’t well, so we brought enough for lunch, and then you can take the rest home and fix her dinner.” The young constable’s face broke into a grin. “Thank you, Miss! I’ll call and let my sisters know they can come over and pick it up!”

“I’ll take the Inspector’s portion in. I have a favor to ask anyway.” She said over her shoulder as she made her way into the Inspector’s office. Jack looked up from his work smiling and announced, “Just the person I needed to talk to!”

“I bet you say that to all the women who walk in here with lemon chicken and peas with mint.”

“Actually, I need to ask a rather delicate favor.”

Phryne perched on his desk and smirked. “Is it too much to hope it might entail me wearing my new purchase from Madame Fleury? She and her sister have a new line of dresses based on Chinese qipao. They’re very form-fitting.”

Jack’s cheeks reddened slightly but he attempted to focus on his newly acquired meal.

“As it so happens, I also need a favor concerning a new blackmail case.”

Jack’s eyes darted up. “Compromising photographs?”

Phryne responded, “Royal Botanic Garden?”

“Once again, it appears we are working the same case.”

“Or at least looking for the same culprit. I didn’t think the parents in my case had involved the police.”

Jack shook his head. “Our victims are all adults. You have an underage victim?”

“Victims, a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy who parked behind a shed for their first kiss. They are both in the hospital after taking laudanum out of shame after getting the blackmail letter and picture.” Phryne placed both on his desk.

Jack shook his head in disgust as he then presented the five photographs he had from his evidence folder. These pictures of adults of varying ages were a bit more explicit. Phryne adjusted her position to stand next to Jack’s chair to look at the evidence, one hand resting on the back of his chair and the other on his desk.

“All taken from roughly the same spot and distance and all taken in the late afternoon or early evening. If we have a total of six sets of victims that we know of, there’s little doubt that there are others who have simply paid. Any thoughts, Miss Fisher?”

Phryne had turned her head sideways to better examine a rather provocative photo.

“Several.” She purred. “But for now, I would suggest we check out this spot before the blackmailer goes back to work.”

                                                                                                                  ***

The old gardener’s shed was situated in a lush area of the Royal Botanic Garden known as Fern Gully. It was beautiful and shady and private, perfect for a trysting place. The lock on the shed could only be described as decorative more than functional. The pair examined the interior with its shelves of old, rusted equipment sitting on shelves along the thin walls. Phryne spotted the two boxes which seemed rather new on the shelf which stood shoulder-level on the back wall.

“Jack, look at this. Hardly any dust and the boxes are covering holes in the siding.”

“Just the right height to take pictures into a car parked in back and maybe pick up some conversation. Remember when I mentioned needing to ask a delicate favor?”

Phryne smiled at him and said, “Once again, two minds, with a terribly salacious single thought.”

After rolling his eyes and shaking his head, he inquired, “Miss Fisher, may I have the honor of your company for an afternoon tryst?”

Looking from beneath her lashes, the answer came, “Inspector, I thought you would never ask.”

                                                                                                           ***

The plan seemed simple.

Phryne arranged to borrow her cousin Guy’s old Phantom that he had left with Aunt Prudence. Her reasoning was that the Hispano-Suiza was too well known to photographers in Melbourne and was likely to give them away. For the same reason, Jack would go without his usual pomade and Phryne would wear her long, black wig, thus giving the impression that they were just another couple out for an assignation. Bert, Cec, and Hugh would be strategically hidden in the forest across from the front of the shed to watch if anyone entered or left and would sound off a pre-arranged signal if someone was seen.

It all sounded like a perfectly reasonable undercover police operation to catch a blackmailer…except it wasn’t.

Jack caught himself worrying as he waited for Bert and Cec to bring the Stanley car to Wardlow and Phryne to come down in her disguise. In order to convince the blackmailer, he would have to spend at least one afternoon/evening in the back seat of a car necking with Phryne Fisher without going so far as to break any obscenity laws or embarrassing himself. It’s not as though he hadn’t dreamed of having the chance to once again have her in his arms but he cursed the gods that once again it would be a police matter, not a private matter.

Ironically, Phryne was upstairs in her walk-in closet worrying about much the same thing. After much consideration, she and Dot had decided on her periwinkle top, her white pleated accordion skirt, and her black Mary-Janes in case they had to chase the blackmailer in the garden. With her make-up toned down, her coral lipstick, and her long black wig released from its braid and creating waves across her shoulders, Dot assured her that the disguise was perfect. She looked like a slightly younger woman ready for a date with her beau.

As she dressed, she considered the situation presented by the undercover operation. She wasn’t kidding herself in the fact that she looked forward to having the excuse to get a bit more intimate with Jack Robinson but she was more than a little concerned. It had been several months since she had availed herself of any partners and the idea of being in Jack’s arms excited and terrified her. She knew that she had to let Jack set the pace but wondered if she would be able to when she herself had gone through a lengthy celibacy. What was called for was a little added heat and not a firestorm that could ruin everything. There was simply too much at stake.

                                                                                                                ***

After hearing the signal that someone was entering the shack, Phryne snuggled into Jack’s shoulder in the corner of the back seat and whispered, “Your lead, Inspector. Let’s see you put those acting chops to use.” With that, he gave her a small, tender smile, cupped her cheek in his hand, and leaned in to start a kiss that felt like forever.

It began as slow, adoring, and almost chaste. Kisses that tested the waters while acknowledging the thirst. Phryne’s hands hugged and pressed into his back, kneading him like a cat as she returned each kiss with the same intensity. These kisses were tender statements and promises, given and returned in kind.

Gradually, the kisses deepened, mouths opened, and Jack’s one hand moved to cradle her head while his other pressed her closer to him. Tiny kisses and nibbles moved from below her ear, down her neck, to her shoulder causing her to murmur in a languid tone. Deciding it was better to continue to follow his lead, she sent a trail of kisses up his jaw and around to his ear. The sounds he made sounded sultry like wood smoke and honey. While she so wanted to allow her hands to wander into as yet unchartered territory, she was determined to only go where he went first. It was tantalizing and frustrating and it was increased her need exponentially.

Jack was attempting to balance between the need to convince the blackmailer that they were indeed a couple on the cusp of making love for the first time and creating the reality of being a couple on said cusp. The feel of Phryne’s skin, the sight of her eyes dark with desire and something else he dared not yet claim, the taste of her mouth, the smell of her French perfume combined with what he now realized was her own heady scent, all were making that tightrope thinner and thinner.

He paid close attention as he made the trip again from behind the ear, down the neck, and across the shoulder and clavicle. He kissed and licked and sucked and tasted the skin that had tantalized him all this time, listening carefully for those areas that made her gasp or mew in enjoyment. He was determined to memorize these areas for potential use at a later date. When he nipped the juncture between her shoulder and neck just hard enough to border between pleasure and pain, Phryne let out a feverish whimper.

“Jack, uhhhhh, Jack, please….”

As her passion rose, she wasn’t even sure what she was begging for as she raked her fingers through his hair and stroked his leg with her own. She grazed his earlobe with her teeth which made him growl deep in his throat and caused her core to tighten. “Lord, I only hope even a fraction of this is for me and not just duty.” She thought as she gripped his shoulders.

Hearing the sound of Phryne Fisher moaning and begging for him shattered what little resilience he had left. He filled her mouth with his tongue just as he prayed he would fill her in other ways in the near future.  Her own tongue teased and caressed his in a way that caused his muscles to tighten and his pants to become increasingly uncomfortable. His hand moved its way up her waist and his thumb started to barely graze the cotton covering the swelling of her breast.

The sudden sound of a violent scuffle inside the hut broke the spell the two were under. Each mouthing a silent curse, they scrambled out of the car and around to the front of the building where Bert and Cec had subdued a loudly cursing man face down and Hugh had the blackmailer’s camera in hand. When the young officer saw the Inspector and Miss Fisher at the door he announced, “Got him, sir, and I caught the camera before it hit the ground!”

“Well done, all!” Phryne said, “Let’s see who we have.” Oddly, hearing Phryne’s voice, the suspect swore more vehemently which resulted in Bert slapping the back of his head saying, “Oi, mind your manners! There’s a lady present!” Upon seeing the man brought to his feet, Jack’s smile could have cracked his face.

“Why, Mr. Burn, you have no idea how please I am to see you. This truly does put the cherry on a truly lovely day.”

“Inspector, these men assaulted me! I demand that you arrest them!”

“Inspector, given that Mr. Burn was caught by a fine member of the Victoria constabulary and two upstanding citizens breaking and entering into a government-owned building and, as such, is a prime suspect in several criminal cases, would you consider his accusation valid?” Phryne asked quite formally in her Special Constable stern, proud, and mildly playful tone.

Jack shot her an amused sideways glance but said in a very serious tone, “Not in the least, Miss Fisher.”

It had not taken long once Burn was in the interrogation room to get the full story. He had offended too many powerful people with his stunts and had fallen back on blackmail to support himself. After being informed that he had blackmailed not the elder, adult sister but the younger minor sister and that said minor sister and her sweetheart had attempted suicide, he folded like a deck chair. Once Burn was comfortably ensconced in his cell, Jack announced that, for once, the paperwork could wait until the next day.

Hugh didn’t have to be told twice and was out the door to hopefully spend some time with Dottie.

Phryne leaned against her perch and asked, “So, Jack, how does coming home for dinner and a nightcap sound now that the case has come to a successful conclusion?” Jack had to wonder if she realized that she had, in essence, inferred that her home was their home. He also had to wonder when Wardlow had begun feeling like home; when Phryne had begun feeling like home.

He rose from his chair, and standing quite close, remarked, “While I quite look forward to that, there is one last question you brought up during the investigation that needs to be resolved.” Phryne brow creased as she tried to consider anything she had missed. Her concentration was so great, she was caught unaware when Jack placed his hand on her hip and the other behind her head and pulled her in to reclaim her lips. When breath finally became a necessity, he nuzzled her ear and in a tone that made her knees weak he whispered, “I hope that makes it quite clear that if you are in my arms, while the situation may be artificial, the affection and passion are very much real.”

Phryne wrapped her arms around his neck and raked her nails through his hair returning the kiss in full. “I am very, very glad that we clarified that. Now that we have, I really must insist that we go home so that this case gets the successful conclusion it deserves.” She purred.

Jack’s large hand caressed her back and bringing with it tingles that made her shiver. His lips moved down to massage the skin below her ear as he spoke. “I fully intend to discuss with you all the differences and nuances in being fully…thoroughly…and completely courted and seduced in the hopes that this professional partnership that we have created can… evolve into a more intimate personal union of our own design involving mind…”, he kissed her forehead, “spirit”, he kissed her lips, “and ultimately body.” Jack then laid a worshipful kiss above her ever-quickening heartbeat.

Running her thumb across his lips, swollen from their kisses, and smiling lovingly into his eyes she murmured, “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – I do love a man with a plan.