Phryne was babbling, she knew that; two years of composure and a week of constantly being wrong-footed, one step behind, realising everything she had sacrificed and doubting things she’d considered certainties… it took its toll, and now the words were spewing forth.
“Jack, Jack, darling Jack,” she whispered, desperate to touch him, convince herself that he was real.
She froze, withdrew; his tone was regretful and… oh. She’d assumed…
“Maybe it’s better I didn’t—”
“—in the end. It would have just prolonged the inevitable, and we never would—” she wasn’t sure what she was saying, desperate to give them both an out. It was too late, too much, too—
“Miss Fisher!” Jack said firmly; it cut through the haze in her brain. “Movement.”
She slid from his lap quickly, turning to where he indicated. A figure was making its way around the back of the cottage.
“We need to wait—”
Phryne quietly opened the door, slipping out of the vehicle.
“Miss Fisher!” Jack whispered harshly.
She ignored him, moving smoothly to the head of the alleyway. The figure was around the back of the building now, so Phryne strode down the street with a confidence that would leave anyone watching from a window presume that she belonged there. Less than a minute later Phryne was around the side of the cottage herself; the figure was attempting to jimmy open the kitchen window Phryne had gone through the night before.
From the far side of the cottage, closer to the window and figure, Phryne saw Jack come into view. It was too dark to make out his face, but his body language was enough. She nodded to indicate that she understood, then coughed.
The figure spun, and Jack moved in and caught them, then pulled them away from the house to avoid being noticed by any occupants. Phryne followed, flipping on her torch, and raised it to the person’s face.
“Mrs. Pierson?” Phryne whispered.
Esme Pierson spat at her.
“You an’ your fine fancies and charities! What do you know about anything?”
“You can come down to the station,” Jack said. “Explain why we just found you breaking and entering.”
Mrs. Pierson sneered, and Jack forcefully escorted her around the cottage and along the street to the police car. He cuffed the woman before seating her in the back; Phryne climbed into the passenger seat and they drove to the station. When they arrived, Phryne shared a look with Jack and he handed her the keys to his office; she had so missed this.
Inside his office she retrieved the biscuit tin and made three cups of tea to be brought into the interview room. Nourishment and equal footing would be an in with Mrs. Pierson, and Phryne producing both was in their best interest; under other circumstances Dot would have been better suited to the job, but they had to work with what they had. Jack met her by the door, taking back his keys from the tray and thanking her quietly.
“We won’t tell her who baked them,” Phryne smiled, then looked at him demurely through her eyelashes. “If she asks, what’s the secret ingredient?”
Jack snagged a biscuit from the tin and narrowed his eyes in playful disapproval.
“Are you asking me to betray the trust of a dear friend and a secret family recipe simply for your pleasure, Miss Fisher?”
“Guilty,” Phryne replied. “I know Mr. B would love to get his hands on it. Shall we go through?”
Inside, Mrs. Pierson was sitting at the table.
“I don’t want no charity from the likes of you,” she said derisively. “What do a fancy thing know about me struggles?”
Phryne placed the tea tray in the middle of the table, took a seat, and met Mrs. Pierson’s eyes firmly.
“I grew up in Collingwood,” she said, her accent reverting to her childhood tones slightly. “I know those streets like the back of my hand. And if I can help one person there, I will. But I won’t play your games. What were you doing at the cottage this evening, Esme?”
The woman took a long sip of tea, evaluating Phryne; Phryne kept her gaze level in return. From behind her she heard Jack’s voice, quiet and confident.
The woman replaced her teacup on the saucer, the china rattling as she did so. She was scared, regardless of bravado. It was understandable; her husband and lover had both been murdered—Phryne had confirmed Charlie’s death before heading out for the evening’s observations—and she clearly knew more than she let on. Phryne laid a hand over Mrs. Pierson’s, giving her a small smile.
“We can help you, Esme. But not if you hide the truth,” Phryne said with conviction; she glanced towards Jack at her words, just for a split second, and he nodded. “We want to help you. I know it’s hard to trust the police—”
Mrs. Pierson snorted. “Dirty, the lot of ya.”
“Inspector Robinson is a good man, Esme—”
“So was me Johnny. No good, wassit?”
“No, it wasn’t,” Phryne said; a small part of her mind hoped that Jack wasn’t taking his death too hard. He likely was, she knew; his sense of duty would demand it. “Sometimes bad things happen, despite the best intentions or wishes of the people involved.”
“And wha'?” Mrs. Pierson scoffed. “That s’posed to make me feel better?”
“No. But being angry won’t bring Johnny back, or Charlie. It won’t keep you safe. It won’t keep your children safe.”
“Whatta you know about safe?”
Softness was not getting through. Phryne met the widow’s eyes.
“I know gnawing hunger. I know fear. I know far more than you can imagine, Mrs. Pierson. And I know that you want to tell me what you know.”
The woman sighed.
“Johnny and Charlie was fighting ‘bout a business deal, ‘bout something Johnny had over Charlie and the big boss,” she said. “I have three children without a father, Miss Fisher. I had to make my money somehow. There’s nuffin’ in the flats, I searched ‘em both, but I knew about the cottage. Me and Charlie had romantic liaisons there, you see.”
Esme Pierson looked proud at that; she may be poor and grubby and desperate, but she’d had been desired. Loved, possibly. Phryne remembered that mentality all too well, before she’d discovered the sheer pleasure of carnal pursuits.
“And you hoped to uncover whatever Johnny had over Charlie and the boss,” Phryne concluded.
“Gotta be worth a bob or two, ain’t it?”
Phryne nodded in understanding.
“But even if you found out what Johnny was using to blackmail the boss, how were you going to use it?”
“I knows where Johnny got the job, and where the boss is gonna be tomorrow night.”
This is exactly what they needed. Phryne leant forward, careful to keep her tone moderate as not to frighten her.
“We’ll need the address, Esme.”
Mrs. Pierson named a warehouse on the edge of the dock; Jack nodded slightly—it must support information they had already gathered in another capacity.
“Thank you very much, Esme,” Phryne said, opening her purse and extracting several large notes. “I want you to go home and retrieve your children—a constable will go with you, right Jack?—and book into a hotel until this is over.”
The woman stood and made her way from the room, not bothering to thank Phryne. Not that Phryne had expected her to; accepting the money had been thanks enough. Jack followed her out—Phryne heard him speaking with a constable—then returned to the interview room.
“I’ll have to telephone Will,” he said, sliding into a chair beside Phryne. “It’s not ideal, but we can send him in…”
The words were out of her mouth before she could think, but she could see the logic in it. She could go in under the guise of an interested investor—she might even be able to lay the groundwork before the meeting, set the cat amongst the pigeons now that she knew what the situation was—get what they needed, and then get out. Knowing what these people had done to Johnny and Charlie, she didn’t want a potentially compromised cop within a hundred miles of the exchange.
“It makes the most sense.”
She made her arguments, Jack countered every one without giving them due consideration. Phryne huffed in frustration and stood from the table.
“This needs to be done, and I’ll do it,” she said firmly; it was the right course of action.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Of course it’s dangerous,” she said, heading for the door. “But that’s never stopped me before, and it won’t start now.”
In the hallway outside the interview room, Jack caught her arm.
She didn’t want to have this argument, not when she knew she was going to do it regardless.
“This is ridiculous,” he said, glancing around and opening the door to his office. He stepped through, indicating she should follow him; when she did he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “You’re planning on meeting with a drug baron who may know who you are. Alone. When there is a police officer with a cover—”
“An incredibly precarious cover,” Phryne countered. “And a low-level underling saw me, briefly. That’s hardly the same level of risk.”
“No, it’s not. Because Will’s trained for this.”
“And no amount of training will stop bullets, Jack,” she said, remembering the feel of Charlie Greene’s blood against her skin.
He barked a harsh laugh, exasperated.
“And what makes you think that you stepping in front of a gun is more acceptable—”
“What makes you think you get any say in this?” she countered, placing a hand on her hip and meeting his gaze.
“This is my damn case.”
“And?” she challenged. “You made sure I wasn’t anywhere near it until it was convenient for you.”
“For good reason, Miss Fisher!”
“If you told me the truth this could have been resolved days ago and there wouldn’t be blood on my hands, Jack. I have to see this through.”
He was silent for a moment, weighing his options. When I fell in love with you, he had said in the back of that car; she hadn’t questioned it then, had known the truth behind it for so long it no longer frightened her. But now…
“Phryne, please…” he pleaded. “Please don’t go in there alone.”
The intensity of his words, in his eyes… she could feel them brand her skin. Whatever she chose to do would define them. She swallowed hard and looked away.
Phryne looked up at the warehouse, which appeared empty from the outside, and then at Bert and Cec.
“Are you both certain you are alright with this?”
“Course, miss,” said Cec.
Bert cracked his knuckles and glowered. Oh, how she had missed them both. She brushed a surreptitious hand against her jacket, feeling her pistol in the pocket.
“Right, in we go then,” she said, hoping her bravado covered the niggling worries. It was the best option.
The door to the warehouse was in much better shape than the rest of the building, the first sign that it was not as abandoned as it appeared. It creaked as Phryne eased it open; no doubt an intentional warning system. She held her head high, walking into the middle of the large open area. Most of the cartons and crates were on the far side of the room; she hadn’t been able to scope them out before the meeting, but with careful positioning none of them were behind her at least.
“Don’t like it, miss,” Bert said under his breath. “It’s too neat.”
“Agreed, but we’re well-armed.”
From behind the crates emerged two men; bodyguards, Phryne thought, and more thug than professional; good for a brawl but likely not concealing a gun or any good with one if they did. If this was the sloppiness that marked the operation, it was a miracle they had remained hidden this long.
“I’m here to see the boss,” Phryne said levelly. “I have a proposition for him.”
There was the sound of a throat clearing, and a third man stepped from behind a crate.
The boss was tall, thin, and familiar.
“Hello, Miss Fisher,” grinned Tony Blake, ostensible delivery boy. “I did so hope you’d join us this evening.”