Chapter 1: Prologue
So, this is my first attempt at a proper casefic. Aiming for episode-esque, so at least I can forgive myself for any holes in the plot. ;-) It's also, I suspect, the first of five casefics in an arc. I could say a LOT, but it would all just be slightly odd rambling right now.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“We that are true lovers run into strange capers.”
― William Shakespeare, As You Like It
September 15th, 1929
This flight has not been quite the smooth sailing (if you’ll pardon the expression) we had envisioned. I had dared to hope we could meet father’s ship in a port along the way and allow for an earlier return; I am thankful now that I did not mention such a possibility to all of you, as it was in vain. There is very little chance we could recover the distance, and attempting to do so now is the longer and more dangerous flight path. It is all the way to England after all; a British autumn instead of an Australian summer. How positively delightful.
My only hope now is that you will have found some mad way to take me up on my offer. I am not seeing half as much of this journey as I would like, between minding my father and minding the plane, and I’d rather enjoy a companion on the journey back.
With any luck we will be back in old Blighty by the end of the month, even with the delays, and I hope to have news of you by then.
September 15th, 1929
It has been nearly two weeks since you set off for England, and we’ve not had so much as a telegraph. Though she will deny it adamantly, I believe the new Mrs. Collins stops by the station just as much to ask us for news as she does to bring Collins his lunch. I struggle to believe that it has not occurred to her that he could bring it with him, and so that is the most likely explanation.
Your family are all well, Phryne. Jane’s fully settled into boarding at Warleigh Grammar for the term; she too stops by the station for news, as if it is more likely to arrive here than to the school. She’s a far cry from the wayward child you dragged home for a delousing and interrogation a year ago; she misses you, I think, though I’ll deny it if you ever say as much.
Most importantly, I have had a particular exchange in my mind all this time. It seems almost too dream-like to believe. But if you were sincere in your offer, telegraph me. Nothing like weeks in a cramped cabin to spend my time and money, I think.
Fly safely, Miss Fisher.
OCT 5 1929
UTTERLY SINCERE -(STOP)- DO NOT COME -(STOP)- WILL EXPLAIN SOON
October 6th, 1929
I must make this perfectly clear: I was utterly sincere in my offer. I have thought of little else, as that letter I wrote (the same date as yours, I believe; a small detail that made me smile.) indicated. But as you’ve no doubt heard by now, the American stock market has crashed and so has the sky. It turns out that father cannot even sell an estate properly. My own finances are secure, and I do so hope that things in Australia never become so dire as is predicted here, but not only do I have to untangle a snarled web of deceptions and poor investments (and a large portion of them American! I cannot imagine what my father was thinking), I have everyone who works for the property relying on it. There’s a good thirty families, Jack, between the farm and the businesses; I am afraid that I would make a poor hostess indeed.
I will write to you when I know more, but I may be in England for some time. Hopefully not so long that you are able to afford to upgrade your accommodations, because I am rather eager to continue where we left off.
P.S. If the parcel I am also sending does not arrive in time, happy birthday Jack.
Phryne looked at the stack of papers before her and sighed. Three months she’d been in England, and every day brought bad news from a new quarter. It seemed every week was some new date she had missed in Australia—she’d hoped to be back for Aunt Prudence’s birthday in November, her first without Arthur, then the anniversary of Janey’s disappearance, then her birthday or Christmas. New Years was out, and with the information that had arrived today Jane’s February birthday was likely to be a write-off. She’d have to arrange a gift to be delivered to her ward on the day.
Jack’s letters were the one positive to the situation; she loved hearing from Jane about what she was learning in school (and, she thought, her burgeoning attraction to a schoolmate, if she read between the lines), and how Dot was finding married life—she’d offered the newlyweds Wardlow until her return, and the latest news from Mac and occasionally Mr. Butler. But it was always news, and it reminded her of all she was missing for no greater adventure than a London winter and dire financial repercussions. The letters from Jack brought her the most joy; she supposed it was because they were the most like their discussions at home, interesting tidbits she had not witnessed and books he had read, and just for a moment she did not feel as if she were thousands of miles away from those she loved.
February 17th, 1930
I had a visitor arrive today—I almost did not recognise the young lady from behind. Jane’s cut her hair into a bob that has scandalised her teachers and suits her wonderfully. She has also, it seems, inherited your powers of persuasion. I’m to escort her and two friends to a Gilbert and Sullivan production as a birthday treat. Why she believed me to be the likeliest target I do not know, but I have hope that we will at least not find murder this time. Though murder might be preferable, if I had a charming investigative partner by my side instead of giggling teenaged girls. I’ve asked Doctor MacMillan to accompany us, but based on her horrified expression and muttering about urgent bowel operations, I suspect she’ll decline.
March 3rd, 1930
I have heard from a little birdy that you not only accompanied my ward to the theatre, you took her for dinner beforehand! And there was much said about the figure you cut in your dinner suit. It seems she’s now quite the talk of the school, and several girls are hoping you will make a reappearance. I’m just disappointed to have missed it.
I went to the theatre myself, on the arm of the youngest and most charming son of a Duke, a production of As You Like It that I think you would have enjoyed. “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.” Time seems to stretch relentlessly before me, my return to Australia always further away. I feel as if I am on a sinking ship, plugging small holes and ignoring the enormous waves crashing over the rails. I thought of escaping, just to the continent for a few weeks, but even that seems impossible at the moment.
(Thank you, Jack, for being there for Jane when I could not be. It is not easy to worry for her from afar—her tour of the continent notwithstanding—and it is a comfort to know that she has the constabulary on her side if needed.)
Jack sat in his study, rereading Phryne’s latest letter. Her words lacked her usual irreverent joy; he wished there was something he could do. He found he could no longer place the exact tone of her voice, the precise shade of her lipstick. But he could not forget how she looked when she was feeling vulnerable, or the sheer joy of heading on an adventure when she’d left. Life had no business weighing on her, in his opinion. Which was worth exactly nothing, in the grand scheme of things. He sighed, opening his childhood copy of As You Like It; it was an old habit, to retreat to another man’s words, but one that served him well. His own words would do neither of them any good, an offer to shoulder some of her burden.
He could, perhaps, offer a distraction at least.
April 9th, 1930
I insist, as an officer of the law, that you take yourself to the continent immediately for some pressing investigation. And if you really cannot manage that, a long flight in your airplane might give you a sense of perspective. I am puzzling over a case of my own; it is an old one, a burglary that led to a death, and the same method has been deployed on a recent break-in. I have included the particulars on a separate sheet, along with summaries of the suspects. If you are free to consult at this distance, it would be greatly appreciated.
APR 27 1930
INTERVIEW BROTHER AGAIN -(STOP)- LOOK UNDER FLOORBOARDS IN STUDY -(STOP)- MISS MELBOURNE -(STOP)- GIVE MAC JANE MY LOVE
APR 29 1930
YOU MORE COMP THAN CONST FROM ENG -(STOP)- HOW DO YOU DO IT -(QUERY)- MELBOURNE SENDS THEIR LOVE
Phryne traced the telegram message, smiling slightly. She could so clearly see Jack’s exasperated pride when her hunch had proven itself—really, from his notes it was clear he already suspected the man—and she missed seeing it up close. There was nothing for it though; they’d just discovered that the foreman at the mill had been skimming money from the coffers, and now the estate’s only completely reliable source of income was in trouble. She’d have to borrow from her own funds to shore it up.
She wanted to go home. She wanted to stomp her feet and shout and be on the next boat to Melbourne. But she could not leave innocent families to suffer in poverty because of her father’s incompetence. She’d go over the books, meet with the solicitor. And when she was done, she would curl up with the telegram and write her reply.
May 2 1930
Really, the case was so very simple with the evidence you had gathered. I almost—almost—suspect that you had no need of my services at all. I will not check the Melbourne newspaper for the date of arrest; I fear if I did I would either be disappointed in your investigative skills or my ability to help.
Things are much the same here as they have been all along. Honestly, I did not think it possible to make such a mess of one’s finances. And it’s not just my father. There is nothing to dull the spirits quite like seeing people who have never had to worry a day in their lives suddenly scrambling. At least my mother knows how to economise. She does not like doing so, and some of her so-called necessities are absurd, but she’s in better position than most if we can keep my father out of it. But that is not the sort of news that interests you, I’m sure.
I am in London for business at the moment. I took a walk along the Thames today, and found myself in front of Scotland Yard. No murders or gallant detective-inspectors to be seen, more’s the pity. I miss City South. I miss Hugh on the desk looking blindsided the minute I step through the door, I miss the slightly musty smell in the ladies’ lavatory, and the telephone numbers scrawled on the wall in reception. I even miss that swill you call tea.
(I miss perching on your desk most of all, with the sunlight coming through the window and illuminating your profile as you read an autopsy report. I miss stealing your biscuits—now that you know I’ve found them, I’m sure you’ll find somewhere else to hide them. I miss… I miss Melbourne very much, Jack.)
Do write again soon.
June 11, 1930
The desk, the constable, the must, and the telephone numbers are all awaiting your return. I’m afraid the station tea has improved, but I presume you will do your best to bear up under the disappointment. We haven’t gotten much sunlight as of late—it is a particularly grey winter, I think—but perhaps you will be back to see the summer.
Doctor MacMillan stopped by the station today. She, vexingly, seems to be under the impression that I am incapable of feeding myself—I blame Mrs. Collins for that, personally—but makes an excellent drinking companion, even if she did manage to drink three men under the table last night. I don’t envy her her headache this morning. I thought she’d throw Collins out of the morgue.
Jack stared at his half-written letter and sighed.The letters were getting harder to write, and further apart. There were only so many ways that they could repeat themselves. Even the unusual cases seemed to have flown the continent at the same time as Phryne, for the most part. Any news—the Collins expecting, Jane’s schooling, her cabbies purchasing a new taxi after an incident Jack tried very hard to know nothing about lest he need to arrest them—no doubt came from other sources. And it seemed that anything he wrote was filled with longing. Because he longed for her; he missed her as an investigative partner, as a friend, as the lover that never quite was. And her own responses were… tired. Even when she wrote of parties and interesting meetings, it was balanced out by some new crisis she alluded to but could not outright share. If he was nearer he could listen, truly listen, and offer her what comfort he could. But she was alone. Well, not alone, but… he sighed again. Without the people who loved her.
He put the pen to paper and told her the story of his first arrest of Elsie Tizzard. She had teased him many times about the details he kept carefully guarded. But it was all he could offer, at this distance.
September 4, 1930
Your trip to Bath sounds wonderful. I am surprised that the tale was not accompanied by you and a gentleman friend slipping into the baths at midnight, but perhaps you thought best to leave that off any paper record. A wise choice. I hear that the botanical gardens by the Royal Crescent have some truly fascinating specimens, a statement that will no doubt make you glad that I was not your companion for that particular journey. I am glad that you enjoyed yourself, even if it was not far afield.
September 21 1930
I am, it seems, rather more drunk than I first thought. I should not send this; I likely will not. But it is Janey’s birthday—I was flying last year, and almost forgot until that night. But not this year. There are no distractions to be found—I’ve just discovered that my father has spent five thousand pounds of money I had set aside to leave the estate and my parents self-sufficient, and not all of it recoverable—and all I want is to be home. I want to drive my Hispano so shockingly fast you scold me, and be greeted at the door by Mr. Butler and an aperitif, and to listen to Aunt P drone on and on about some benefit I care nothing for, and be interrupted by “The inspector, Miss”—have you ever noticed that you are just The Inspector to him?—and turn just as you hang your own hat and coat by my door and greet you with a whiskey. The best whiskey I own, I think. And you would take up residence at my mantelpiece and we would talk about nothing much at all, and at the end of the evening you would look at me. Just look. And I would kiss you, because I can’t think of a single reason why I shouldn’t. And then in the morning you would leave obscenely early, and I’d stay in bed. Then I’d meet Mac for lunch, I think, and while I hope we’d have a wonderful time I fully expect somebody would drop dead over the soup and we’d all end up investigating.
Mac likes you, you know. She told me that you’ve just closed a difficult case, one you are unlikely to tell me about before the trial. But I would listen. I would.
Wishing I was home,
October 14, 1930
I wish I could scold you that your penmanship is worse than mine. I wish I could write about the case Mac mentioned. I wish… I wish you would come home. Hang your father and his utter lack of scruples. But I know that you cannot. Take care of yourself though, Phryne. Please. And I know that this is overstepping the bounds of propriety—a fact you no doubt appreciate—and we need never speak of it again. My next letter will treat it as if nothing has changed. Jane’s roped me into yet attending yet another theatre production, so no doubt there will be some entertaining tale to come from that. And if not, there is always the story of the time Will and I were almost arrested… But know, for now, that you are missed, desperately.
It was a rainy afternoon in late November—as if there was any other type in England—when the letter arrived, mixed in with a dozen invitations for holiday events. She read it, twice, and cried. She was tired. And no doubt she would regain her usual insouciance soon enough, but for now she was tired. She was surrounded by so many people, and none of them knew her with as much intimacy as one paragraph in a familiar scrawl. But she had a business dinner to attend, and so she folded the letter with great care and returned it to the envelope. She could not bear to reply today, and she placed it with the others. And there it sat, closed but not forgotten, for nearly a year.
Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.
--As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2
or as No Fear Shakespeare put it, and is a "translation" that seems to often appear on quote websites:
Time travels at different speeds for different people. I can tell you who time strolls for, who it trots for, who it gallops for, and who it stops cold for.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
Okay, this story is actually based on a real case, which I TONED DOWN for the sake of believability. I want you to remember this when the plot gets nonsensical, okay lovelies?
Jack parked the police motorcar along the side of the road and glanced at Collins. His senior constable was looking rather pale, all things considered, but Jack could hardly blame the man. It wasn’t every day that Dot Collins telephoned to report a dead body. Or, at least it wasn’t now that Miss Fisher was living in England.
“Collins!” he barked. “Mind on the case. Your wife and daughter are both absolutely fine, as Mrs. Collins was quick to point out.”
“Uh, yes, sir,” Hugh said. “It’s just, it’s Winnie’s birthday tomorrow—”
“She’s a year old. She not going to remember that a shark… expelled an arm in the middle of a show. And if some of the children I’ve known are any indication, she’d probably enjoy the gruesomeness if she did.”
“Oh no, she’s only a little girl…”
As fond as he was of Collins, there were days that Jack wondered exactly how it was possible that the man persisted in his naivety.
“Need I remind you, your wife spent a year investigating homicides and still occasionally stops by the station to lend her particular brand of expertise?”
“Yes, sir, but that’s not—”
Jack opened the door of the car and stepped out.
“Keep up, Collins,” he ordered, heading towards the temporary exhibit erected in Catani Gardens.
As they approached the exhibit, Jack caught a glimpse of Dot Collins corralling witnesses with pure authority, her daughter still safely on her hip.
“Please wait for the police to arrive—excuse me, please don’t leave,” she called out in tones that, while sweet, made it very clear that defying her would have serious consequences.
Jack felt rather than saw Hugh’s relief when he caught sight of his wife, and Jack sighed and motioned him towards her.
“See to your ladies, Collins, then begin taking witness statements.”
It was unlikely to be of any assistance in their case. According to Mrs. Collins when she’d telephoned, the audience was enjoying a talk about sharks with one on display when said shark had suddenly vomited up a human arm in front of approximately fifty people. Jack honestly had no idea what he was even supposed to say to such a situation; it had been some time since he’d had a case of such… unusual circumstances. Jack decided to seek out the shark and the arm himself, and continued towards the exhibit. There was some bunting and a variety of tanks to mark it. As he drew closer to the largest tank, he saw a smaller group of people—two were standing, and likely associated with the show, and a third was crouched down and examining the arm where it laid on the ground. At this distance, he could just see the fingers from around the the hem of her long duster coat. The floppy white hat and black bob almost made him think—
“Miss Fisher?” Hugh asked from behind him—so much for taking witness statements—and the figure stood and turned.
She was here.
She was, somehow, back in Melbourne and standing over his partial corpse as if she’d never flown away two years before. There was, for the briefest moment, the tiniest flicker of doubt in her posture—even now he could read her so easily. It didn’t last, she quickly grinned at him with her usual ebullience.
“Not quite how I planned to mark my return to Melbourne, Inspector, but it does seem apt.”
Jack swallowed hard and stepped forward.
“Miss Fisher,” he acknowledged with a tip of his head, then bent down to examine the arm.
From the hair on the knuckles and the size, it was likely a man’s. Jack reached into his pockets for a pair of gloves and came up empty. He muttered a curse, and beside him Phryne exhaled what he thought might be a laugh. She reached out herself, moving the arm so he could see it better without so much as glancing at him.
“Thank you,” he said gruffly, catching a hint of colour on the edge of the skin. He gestured towards it. “Could you…”
She moved it again, and he caught a whiff of her perfume. It was the same one she’d worn before her trip, and a flood of memories—late night whiskeys and perches on his desk and moments it had taken all his power not to kiss her, and knowing that if he did before they were both ready it would all go horribly wrong. And in the end they’d run out of time instead.
He refocused on the arm—the colour was part of a tattoo, one that Jack recognised. Shit.
“Is it a woman’s name?” Phryne asked, looking. “Esmee, I presume, or Esmeralda?”
Esme Pierson. What the hell had Johnny gotten himself into?
“Possibly,” Jack said, then pointed to where the arm had been separated from the body. “That doesn’t look like a shark bite.”
“No,” Phryne agreed. “It’s possible that the arm was removed before the shark was anywhere near it.”
“The question is, how did a captive shark get a hold of a dead man’s arm?”
“Ahh, that I might know,” Phryne said, nodding towards one of the show workers. “I was talking to George over there before you arrived. It was that or spend more time with Winifred—that’s a story for another time, Jack—and a man overly enthused about sharks really was the preferable option. The shark is a Great White and was caught specifically for this show a week ago, just off the coast. He’s provided a map with the location marked. Given the state of it he’d guess the arm was consumed before then.”
Jack nodded. “We’ll still have to question anyone who works for the show, determine if any more body parts were consumed, confirm the digestion rates with an independent expert—”
“I know one,” Phryne offered.
“Of course you do, Miss Fisher.”
It was intended to be a joke, but her eyes narrowed.
“Sally’s an old friend of Mac’s, Jack, not mine,” Phryne said sharply, “and I’m not certain I appreciate that tone.”
He wasn’t sure what tone she meant, but he shook his head.
“Your old friends are none of my business, regardless,” Jack said, wishing his voice wasn’t so quite bitter in response. He grimaced and tried again. “How long have you been in town? Collins didn’t mention you’d returned.”
“He didn’t know. I landed this morning, and he’d left for work before I arrived home.”
Trust Phryne Fisher to blow in from nowhere without warning. He could already feel the headache building behind his eyes.
“Don’t pull that face, Jack. I didn’t know I would be arriving today. Mother and I were coming home via boat and stopping to visit friends along the way, and we had no real landing date but not for a few more weeks at least. Then when I was in Jakarta I realised that with fair weather I could make it back in time for Winifred’s birthday, and infant or not she is Dot’s daughter. So I bought a plane and here I am, with a day to spare.”
She smiled brightly at him; he’d forgotten how intense it could be.
“Ahh, perfectly logical,” Jack said, giving a shake of his head. Focus on the job, Robinson. “We’ll know more about the arm once we get it back to Mac.”
“Mac, is it?” Phryne asked lightly. “You are close friends.”
“It’s been two years, Miss Fisher,” he said quietly. “We’ve worked a lot of cases.”
More than Jack and Phryne had worked together, in reality. The fact hung between them, until Jack cleared his throat and stood. He extended his hand to help her stand as well, and the lace and warmth against his skin made him breathe sharply.
“Do you need a ride to the morgue?” he asked, pulling his hand away.
She looked at him, a feline smirk on her face. “Are you inviting me, inspector?”
Shrugging, Jack turned to nod towards the men who had come to collect what constituted their corpse. Then he turned back to her, rolling his lips to keep from saying all the thoughts that crossed his mind.
“If you’re coming, I’ll be leaving in five minutes,” he said instead, turning on his heel and striding towards Collins.
Well, his life had gotten a lot more complicated than it had been when he’d rolled out of bed that morning. He just wasn’t certain if it was a good development or a bad one.
Phryne was lounging against the police motorcar when Jack made his way towards her. This really was the worst possible return. Her father had died six months ago, and it had taken this long to sort out the mess her father had left the estate despite Phryne’s best efforts and pass it to the cousin who had inherited the title, then convince her mother to come back to Australia. Margaret Fisher was a terrible traveller, and it had made the journey both longer—they seemed to change ships multiple times because she “needed” to stay in port—and more stressful. In Jakarta Phryne had bought the plane as much to escape her mother as to show up for the birthday of a toddler she’d never met. But she’d arrived, and promptly been whisked to the exhibition with Dot.
“It will be good for Winnie,” Dot had said, pulling a face to make the girl giggle.
Well, a murder investigation was one sort of education. Phryne wasn’t entirely sure she’d have her right hand woman for this one though. But at least there was Jack, if she ignored… well, if she ignored the fact that—barring a strained Christmas card that had taken her the better part of a day to write—she had ignored his last two letters and not spoken to him in over a year. She was not ready for him to show up, wearing that same damned hat, not today.
She also wasn’t going to let him go.
As Jack rounded the motorcar to climb behind the wheel, he nodded to her.
“I believe the vehicle works best if you are inside it when it moves,” he said dryly, and Phryne laughed as she opened the door.
He started the car and headed towards the morgue, and Phryne watched his profile. She wasn’t sure what changes, subtle but there, were the result of the time apart and what were things she’d just forgotten. England had… not been the adventure she expected. There’d been galas and men and a few very interesting experiences, but most of her time had been spent treading water. Her father wouldn’t take responsibility for running the estate—not that he could be trusted to if he would—or allow Phryne to pass the responsibility to a business manager, even if paying for one would come from her own funds, and so she’d spent the vast majority of the past two years in the middle of Somerset juggling various business interests in the midst of a global financial crisis. She was, quite frankly, tired, and her letters to Jack—once the highlight of her time away—had become one burden too many.
“You didn’t say why you’ve returned?” Jack said, breaking the silence in the car; the only sign it was not as casual a conversational gambit as he made it sound was the whiteness of his knuckles where he gripped the steering wheel.
“I always intended to return, Jack,” she said quietly, “and I never expected to be gone this long. Father died at the beginning of the summer—the European one, I mean—and I finally had a chance. At least this time it’s a double summer instead of winter.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jack said. “Your father’s death, I mean, not the chance to return.”
Phryne felt the smile in her chest more than her face, a tugging ache that was happiness and pain in equal measure.
“I imagine that Melbourne is not quite how I left it,” she said.
“And yet you managed to find a body within hours of arrival,” was Jack’s dry reply.
“I think you might be my good luck charm on that front. I just spent two years where my most interesting mystery was what happened with Giles Weatherly's prized ewe. Turns out he’d left a gate open and she’d wandered into a neighbouring farm.”
She hadn’t meant to sound so pitiful. England had done a number on her sense of humour, it seemed.
“I imagine he felt utterly sheepish at the discovery,” Jack deadpanned.
It was, quite possibly, the worst joke she’d ever heard. She laughed, rather too loudly, and leaned back in her seat. Looking out the window, she allowed herself to get lost in her own thoughts; Jack wouldn’t mind the silence. She’d always appreciated his quietness, especially on days where she did not feel like being the effervescent Miss Phryne Fisher. The opportunity to sit in a companionable silence was a luxury she indulged with very few people. The scenery seemed to crawl by; Phryne considered teasing him about his speeds, but in truth she was too tired. She closed her eyes.
Phryne groaned. That voice. She didn’t want to wake up; if she did the voice would morph and become Wilkins, the Fisher’s Very Proper and Precise butler. The Australian accents of home were only heard in her dreams, nowadays.
“Miss Fisher? Wake up, we’re at the morgue.”
Her eyes opened at that—not even in her dreams would Wilkins say such a thing—and blinked in the summer sunlight. Much too bright for England. She turned her head.
He looked a little flustered as he removed the hand on her arm he’d used to wake her, and it all came back. Clearly the flight had taken more out of her than she had realised—the weather had been less than ideal and there’d been a few close calls, though she’d laughed the whole thing off when relating the tale.
“I didn’t want to disturb you, Miss Fisher, but I suspect you’d be quite put out if I saw Doctor MacMillan without you.”
Phryne yawned, covering her mouth. How embarrassing.
“Quite right,” she said, flashing him a smile. “Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll join you in a moment?”
Jack nodded and got out of the car, then turned and looked at her. There was a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“I trust you’ll not attempt to drive away in the car?”
“I don’t know, Jack. The Hispano is still in storage, and a police motor car could be useful….”
His lips twisted in mock disapproval, then he shut the door and strode towards the hospital that doubled as City South’s morgue. Phryne pulled a compact mirror from her handbag, fixing her make-up and regaining her composure. Being thrust back into a murder case was not quite how she expected her arrival to go—in truth, she’d tried not to think about it much at all lest she grow too attached to any one possibility—but it would be good for her. Stifling another yawn, she exited the car and headed towards the morgue.
The hallway to the morgue had not changed, thankfully, and Phryne quickly found the right room. She paused outside the door, hearing Mac and Jack speaking from within. She couldn’t make out the words—the door was shut completely and quite thick—but she recognised Jack’s deep tones, then Mac’s teasing retort, a chuckle from Jack…. That was a new development; Phryne had known that the two had become friends, but there was an ease in their tones she had not expected.
She took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
“Elizabeth MacMillan, what sort of friend are you, starting without me?”
Mac looked up from the table where the arm lay, incredulous.
“No, it’s your mother,” Phryne said with a roll of her eyes. “Of course it’s me.”
Phryne didn’t miss the quick and curious glance that Mac shot Jack before coming from behind the table to give her a hug.
“What are you doing here?”
“I flew from Jakarta, in the end.”
“Of course. And I wanted to make it for Winifred’s first birthday, for Dot’s sake. I get the impression that her family is still…”
“Utterly insufferable,” Mac confirmed. “But a telephone call would have sufficed. Jack and I were just—”
Phryne put her hand up. “I know. I landed this morning and somehow agreed to go to the show instead of taking a nap in my own bed, and witnessed the whole thing. Jack was smart enough to accept the help I offered.”
“I just bet he did,” Mac muttered, shooting the man an inscrutable look. “Well then, you’re just in time.”
Moving back towards the arm, Mac didn’t glance back to see if Phryne followed her. She did, of course, coming to stand next to Jack.
“There’s not much I can say with only the arm,” Mac started. “Likely male, as you’ve no doubt concluded, and with a distinctive tattoo that may help with the identification. There’s a chance I can get fingerprints from it—the skin is in remarkably good condition, and I was reading just the other day about a new technique that might come in use.”
“The one that Dr. Bernard had proposed?” Jack asked, and Phryne wondered why she hadn’t kept up with her criminology reading while she was away.
(That was a lie. She knew why; it just served to remind her what she was missing.)
“Yes,” Mac nodded. “I’ve been looking for an opportunity to attempt it.”
“And the arm itself?” Phryne asked, pulling attention back to things she was comfortable discussing. “That doesn’t look like a shark bite.”
“No, definitely not,” Mac agreed. “Post-mortem removal, likely with some sort of saw. See, you can see the marks on the edge here,” she pointed to some striations on the bone. “But I can’t tell you much more than that without more of the corpse, I’m afraid.”
“If our investigation into the shark stomach contents comes up with anything more, we’ll let you know,” Jack said.
“And we have to investigate where the shark was captured,” added Phryne. “There’s always a chance that part of the body is still there.”
“It’s a long shot,” Jack argued.
“Well, yes,” Phryne said brightly. “But that’s half the fun, Jack.”
“And a murder investigation should always be entertaining,” he retorted.
She wasn’t completely certain whether he was annoyed or teasing—his dryness did occasionally make it difficult to tell—but she decided to treat it as both.
“A murder is not entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot enjoy it.”
“Heaven forfend,” he said bluntly. Definitely annoyed, and under the circumstances she really couldn't blame him.
“And what precisely is that supposed to mean, Jack Robinson?” she asked, crossing her arms. She’d expected his censure, and quite possibly deserved it, but she’d also expected to have a day or two at home to prepare.
“Absolutely nothing, Miss Fisher,” he said, and if he’d been teasing before he certainly wasn’t now. “I’ll be in the motor car if you wish to join me at the station or require a ride home.”
And with that, he swept from the room.
“Men,” muttered Phryne mutinously.
“Oh, he’s not winning any awards for good behaviour, but don’t go blaming Jack Robinson for your own foul mood,” Mac said. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Why didn’t you telegram your return date? I wasn’t expecting you until next month at the earliest!”
“I didn’t have time, to be honest,” confessed Phryne. “I thought I was going to murder my mother when we arrived in Jakarta and she started the ‘I need to rest’ nonsense again, and I thought about missing Winifred’s birthday—she’s a rather vile little thing, though I won’t say a word to Dot—and flying suddenly seemed like a marvelous idea. But I wasn’t at all certain if I’d arrive in time. Why didn’t you mention my return to Jack?”
Mac looked at her levelly.
“It took the better part of a bottle of my father’s best scotch to even get him to tell me you’d stopped writing, Phryne. From our letters I presumed you hadn’t discarded him for a thrill, but I didn’t know what you wanted and he deserved more than my speculation.”
Mac had always had a knack for honesty, Phryne would give her that.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
Alright, the Police Special Powers Unit/"Terrible Tenners" were mentioned in Dead Weight, but the exact nature of their job was unclear. So I made stuff up.
Outside the morgue, Jack ran his hand over his face. Damn it all. She was clearly exhausted—he didn’t think he’d seen her fall asleep like that after even the most stressful cases they’d worked together—and he’d gone and snapped at her because his head was pounding.
She was back. Infuriating and beautiful and whip smart, and he was still weak in the face of it. He didn’t know what to do about it either.
A few minutes later, she came out of the morgue and headed towards him. Her smile was bright, as if their sniping was forgotten, but as she drew nearer there was a look in her eyes…. He groaned.
“Jack!” she said, coming to stop directly in front of him. “I am sorry—”
“As am I, Miss Fisher. I know that you take your cases seriously, and I shouldn’t have—”
“Nonsense,” she said dismissively, “I was far too glib, unintentional though it was.”
“And I was far too short with you.”
“Well, now that we’ve both admitted to being utter arses, shall we head to the station?”
Jack snorted at the description despite himself. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather return home?”
“Absolutely not. I have a case,” she said.
Jack tilted his head to watch her; she was doing a good job at mimicking her usual joie de vivre, but he was suddenly certain that it was, indeed, mimicry. She shifted under his gaze and extracted a pair of sunglasses to hide her eyes.
“Come along then, Miss Fisher. Collins should be back with the witness statements by now.”
She slid into the passenger seat compliantly, and if he had any doubts that something was wrong that put paid to them. He drove them to City South silently, and when they arrived he wondered whether he should offer his arm; she was beyond him and heading towards the door before he could decide.
In his office she had stopped before his mantelpiece, looking at the new trophies. When she noticed him at the door she smiled widely and draped herself into her—one of the visitor’s chairs. Not hers. If he started thinking like that he wouldn’t stand a chance, and with this case he needed every chance he could get. He took his own chair.
Collins wasn’t back yet, and without having a confirmed identity on the body, there wasn’t much they could do. Jack certainly wasn’t providing a name under the circumstances, not if Mac could dig it up through official channels.
“You said the man provided a map of where the shark was captured?” Jack asked.
Phryne pulled a piece of paper from her décolletage—where else would it be?—and unfolded it.
“Here,” she said, pointing. “Right off the coast. There’s no guarantee it was the same place, but there’s a slight cove here, with road access, making it an ideal place to dump a body. And currents might not have washed it away.”
Jack nodded. “I’ll send some men out—”
“Not you?” she asked, surprised.
“There are people more experienced on the matter than I am, though I’ll likely go out with the boat. This will be a little more complex than diving at Queenscliff.”
“May I join you? I have this new swimming costume—”
“This is the part where you tell me about Eduardo who taught you to dive off the coast of Crete?” he guessed. Even to his ear it fell flat, but she tilted her head and gave a particularly predatory smile; the one she used against unwitting men but never him.
“Leonidas, actually, but yes. I’m quite the natural.”
He sighed; her deceptions had not improved during her absence, not that he could say so. He could only hope his own had. Of all the things for her to stumble across....
“I’m sure you are, Miss Fisher, but this is something that is entirely out of my control.”
She shrugged. “Oh well, there’s always something else to do. What about the contents of the shark’s stomach?”
“We’ll have to call in an expert, I think. Did you say you knew one?”
Phryne nodded. “Sally Henstridge. Do you mind if I use your telephone?”
“By all means, Miss Fisher,” Jack said, gesturing the device.
She stood and rounded his desk, coming to sit on the edge as she often had, and leant across to pick up the receiver and dial the number. It left her in close proximity, and he regretted his words immensely. She placed the call, chatting quite casually for some time before asking the woman on the other end of the line whether she would assist them. The woman clearly agreed, because Phryne suddenly lit up, leaning over to snatch Jack’s fountain pen from his breast pocket, and scrawled something on a scrap piece of paper.
“That’s absolutely marvelous, Sal. Say, tomorrow? The day after, then?” Phryne shot a glance at Jack, who nodded. “That will work. Half ten? Yes, excellent. I’ll see you then darling, and I’ll bring you some of Dot’s biscuits. Oh, and I might be bringing a very charming policeman with me. Love you too.”
Then she hung up the phone and gave Jack a victorious grin. “If you send the shark to this address by lunchtime tomorrow, she’ll perform the necropsy before we arrive.”
“We, Miss Fisher?”
“Don’t pretend that you’re surprised,” she said sassily, replacing his pen in his pocket and patting it. “She is my expert, after all. Now what else can we do while we wait for Hugh to arrive? Do you still have those books of arrest photographs? There might be a note of the tattoo on one of them.”
She was halfway out the room already, heading towards the cabinet where the booking shots were kept. Which was the speed she had always worked at before, but there was a frantic edge to it that Jack did not want to examine. Thankfully Collins came through the door at just that moment.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, giving Miss Fisher an aside glance. “I have the witness statements here now.”
“Bring them in, Collins,” Jack motioned, and his constable brought him two notebooks worth of notes. “Anything of interest we should look at first?”
“Uh, no sir. All the stories seem to be the same. They were listening to a speech from one of the men running the show, a George Burton, when the shark just… vomited the arm into the tank. Dottie and Miss Fisher were in the front of the group—”
“Yes, yes, Hugh. I believe I can relate that part of the story to the inspector myself,” Miss Fisher said, coming back into the room. “We were closest to the tank so that Winifred could have a good view, and when we saw what it was Dot very cleverly rounded people up while I… offered my assistance. We were very careful retrieving the arm, which took some time to ensure we didn’t contaminate it, but we didn’t want to risk the shark swallowing it a second time.”
“Wise choice,” Jack acknowledged, flipping through the first of Collins’ notebooks.
Miss Fisher picked up the second one and retook her seat, reading through it. Collins retreated to answer the telephone that had begun to ring, and they spent some time reading through the individual statements; it was remarkable, really, how easily they had fallen back into their investigative habits, but seemed so out of step on other matters.
After an hour, Jack sighed.
“There’s nothing in these,” he said in defeat. “And the arm was likely eaten before the shark was anywhere near the exhibition, so even if we did come across something—”
“It would be a red herring?” she suggested, smirking; the effect was undermined by the exhaustion in her eyes.
Jack tossed the notebook onto his desk, pinching the bridge of his nose before looking up.
“We may as well call it a night. Do you need a ride home, Miss Fisher?”
She snapped her own notebook shut and sighed in agreement.
“Would you mind terribly? I could catch a taxi, of course…”
“No, no, of course I don’t mind,” Jack said, then called out. “Collins?”
Hugh stuck his head into the office.
“Your shift is over?”
“I’ll drive you home, then. I was already taking Miss Fisher.”
Phryne stared dumbly at the motorcar, trying to decide which seat to take. She needed to get the Hispano out of storage first thing tomorrow; she was unaccustomed to being a passenger at all. Front or back? She would have taken the front without a second thought before, but…. She sighed; the flying and the overeager children and the day’s excitement had caught up with her. She wanted to go home, have a whiskey, and not think for the rest of the night. She’d been wrong-footed all day, and it was just getting worse the longer she stayed awake. Hugh came beside her and paused, equally uncertain. Jack solved it.
“Collins, you can drive,” he said, sliding into the back seat.
How very like him, to give up a preferable seat to save others discomfort. She smiled and climbed in beside him.
“I’m not certain I could resist the urge to scold Hugh’s driving,” she stage whispered, winking. “Much safer if I’m back here.”
“Agreed, Miss Fisher,” he said with a barely there smile.
Sharing the back seat was a poor decision, in the end, even with a perfectly respectable gap between them. Before she had returned to England, Jack had been—though she would deny that she needed such a thing—a steady presence that grounded her. An advantage she had been very much without in England. Sitting beside him now, with her entire world shifted, gave her a strange mix of confidence and utter terror. She wanted home.
Of course, at this particular moment in time her home contained people—including a shrieking toddler—that it had not before. Dot had hurried to inform her that they had been looking for a new place now that Winnie was walking, not wanting the girl to destroy Phryne’s beautiful property, and that Phryne’s early return saved Dot the guilt of having to make excuses as to why they were moving out. Until that actually happened, however, her home was not as it should be. Still, there were some constants.
“Nightcap?” she asked Jack when they arrived at Wardlow.
Jack hesitated, but nodded and joined her. At the door Mr. Butler greeted Jack and Phryne warmly—Hugh had chosen to enter through the kitchen—and asked for their drink preferences.
“Just whiskey tonight, Mr. Butler. We’ll serve ourselves, thank you,” Phryne said, shutting the parlour doors once they were inside.
Jack’s eyebrows nearly shot into his hairline. He didn’t think that she was going to…? And if he did, shock was not the response she was hoping to invoke.
“In case any tiny feet come looking to join,” she explained.”Dot’s besotted, but I must confess I don’t see the appeal.”
Jack smiled in response.
“I don’t either, I’m afraid. I’m not sure if it’s her age or mine.”
Pouring two tumblers of whiskey from the decanter, Phryne motioned the seats.
“I don’t bite, Jack. Not unless you ask me to.”
He took one of the armchairs—she’d hoped for the chaise—and thanked her for the whiskey. She watched his hands on the glass; she’d always been so fond of his hands. Long fingers, large palms, strength and honesty in every line. She’d dreamt, more than once, about exactly what those hands could be capable of. They were lover’s hands, Phryne thought, and was tired enough she didn’t even scold herself for the flight of fancy.
“Does Jane know you’ve returned?” he asked, clearly grasping for neutral ground.
“I’m going to see her tomorrow. Thankfully Sally couldn’t do the necropsy until late afternoon at the earliest. If you can find another expert, of course….”
Jack took a sip. “I don’t know a great deal about sharks, but I’m not certain it will make a difference. If there are more body parts we might be able to determine cause of death, but we’ll hardly be pulling a full corpse out. Friday morning will be fine. I doubt we could get another expert in that soon. And Jane will be pleased to see you.”
“Yes,” said Phryne quietly. “I did offer to bring her to England for as long as I was there, but she missed being near her mother. She worries.”
“Yes,” Jack agreed, and Phryne remembered Jane’s letters about his friendship. “She’s a very thoughtful girl. She’ll be pleased you’re home.”
They spoke for a few more minutes, sipping their whiskey. Just as they were finishing Phryne stifled a yawn, and he gave her a lopsided grin and stood.
“I’d best be going home,” he said.
“Not on my account?”
“No, no,” he hastened to assure her. Liar. “I had an early morning and really do need to get some sleep.”
“Especially now that you have to keep up with me,” Phryne quipped, letting his lie… well, lie. “You’ll telephone if you make any progress in identifying the body?”
“Of course, Miss Fisher,” he said, ducking his head in concession as he moved towards the door.
Mr. Butler, as ever, met him in the entranceway to hand Jack his hat and coat.
“I’m very pleased to see you again, inspector,” he said, his voice carrying—deliberately, she suspected—to where Phryne had curled into her chair. Another whiskey and then bed, she thought. Preferably without thoughts of Jack Robinson’s hands disturbing her dreams. “We’ve missed your presence.”
Well, Phryne couldn’t argue with that.
Jack looked up to find Collins standing in the door; the man’s habit of nervous deference was back in full force, it seemed. Jack wondered if it was the reappearance of Miss Fisher—after their nightcap Jack gone home and fallen asleep in an armchair, too stunned to do anything else—or something else entirely.
Hugh held up a folder.
“We’ve just had a report from the coroner’s office: they’ve identified the arm. It belongs to a,” Hugh glanced down, “Johnny Pierson, also known as… Wallaby? That’s…”
It was a childhood nickname—apparently the man had been small and had a vicious kick.
“Thank you, Collins,” Jack said, reaching for the folder.
He flicked it open, eyes skimming past Johnny’s picture and seeing what information had made it into the file. Thirty-two years old, minor criminal record mostly dealing in illegal goods. Wife, Esme of the much-speculated tattoo, and three young children. Nothing about the arrest 8 months earlier. Good.
Collins coughed and shifted, and Jack looked up once more with a coolly raised eyebrow. It was the most effective method of cutting through his constable’s nerves.
“It’s just, sir… I think I know him.”
That was not an ideal development.
Collins glanced around the office then moved towards the door to check the hall, before shutting it and returning.
“Do you remember, sir, when I was seconded to the Police Special Powers Unit over the summer?”
Jack nodded; there’d been an outbreak of gang warfare back in February—with the financial crisis very little had come to surprise Jack, but this had been particularly vicious—and Jack had been forced to send several constables, including Hugh, to the Special Powers Unit. The ten-man unit was responsible for large scale operations and situations, and were rather notoriously known as the Terrible Tenners.
Hugh’s voice dropped further and he leaned in. “I saw him there.”
“Did you now?” Jack asked calmly.
“Yes, sir, and I’m not sure—” there was a noise from outside the office door, and Hugh’s lips narrowed, then he raised his voice. “And so Mrs. Collins is having a party for little Winnie at home, on Saturday at 1. We would really like it if you would make an appearance.”
‘Home’ in this case meaning Wardlow, and therefore Miss Fisher. Jack covered his mouth with his hand, debating. Hugh might know something, or might need to be redirected. And Miss Fisher’s return was… complicated, but she clearly wasn’t casting him from her presence. The question was, did he want to get involved again? Could he afford to? And in this scenario, did he even have a choice? If Collins didn’t come to him, he would go elsewhere, and that was a dangerous proposition.
“I’ll see what I can do, Collins,” he said dismissively, giving the man a deliberate look before nodding slightly.
It would buy him time, at least. He’d need to make a few telephone calls, including Will—he should have done it last night, but that damned nightcap; he really couldn’t afford too many indulgences right now—and go from there. Perhaps they would even have solved the case by then—he tried not to give weight to the fact that ‘they’ had come to encompass Miss Fisher once more—and it would be a complete non-issue.
Hugh nodded a little too eagerly, then retreated. Jack read the file again, more thoroughly this time; he’d almost reached the end when there was a knock on his office door and a swish of fabrics as the knocker strolled in.
“Good afternoon, Miss Fisher. How was Jane?”
“You didn’t even look up, Jack!”
He did then; she was looking much more herself this afternoon, a genuine smirk behind her red lipstick.
“Most people, when they knock on a door, do so because they are seeking permission to enter.”
“I find it much easier to ask forgiveness,” she purred. “And lunch with Jane was lovely; she’s grown so much! What are you reading?”
Jack closed the file, debating whether to lie. She’d get the truth from Collins if he did though, so the truth was the only option.
“We’ve uncovered the name of the owner of our arm. Johnny Pierson, small time criminal,” Jack said, handing over the details.
“How delightful!” she gasped, taking the papers and perusing them quickly before frowning. “Hmm, looks quite thin on the details for someone arrested as often as he has been.”
Jack gave a noncommittal murmur of agreement. “We’ll need to speak with his wife in the morning—it’s rather late now—and any other names that come up. After we go see Sally Henstridge and our shark, of course—we can give Mrs. Pierson a more complete picture of what has been found, as the diving was unfortunately without success. We don’t even have a cause of death at the moment, though I think we can safely say that it was suspicious circumstances given the fact that the body was dismembered with a saw.”
“Quite,” said Phryne dryly. “But if that’s all tomorrow, I insist that you come for dinner tonight. Mr. Butler’s gone rather over the top over my return, and Jane would love to see you again.”
Jack shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t tonight.”
“Another time, then.” she said blithely, waving away the idea with the folder still in her hand. “I’ll see you in the morning, Jack. Just think—our very first animal autopsy.”
And with that she blew out of the room as quickly as she’d blown in; Jack watched her go, smiling slightly. It was good to see her back in high spirits; it had been a long time, even before she had stopped writing. He returned back to the investigations in front of him, hoping to finish them quickly.
Some time later, Jack glanced at his watch; his shift had ended half an hour earlier and he had plans. He finished off the report, grabbing his hat, coat, and briefcase, then left the station. Driving the motorcar to Richmond, Jack parked outside a small bungalow with a carefully kept front garden. The rose bushes needed some attention, and some of the perennials hadn’t come up. A good way to spend a Saturday, if he ever had one free; Hugh had rather hijacked this one. He climbed out of the car, adjusting his hat, then headed up the front path.
He’d just raised his hand to knock on the door when it swung open, and a familiar brunette greeted him with a broad smile and teasing eyes.
“You’re late, Jack,” said Rosie. “I almost started dinner without you.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
Jack approached the university, half expecting Miss Fisher to be around every corner and ready to pounce. Forty-eight hours earlier he would have sworn he’d never see her again; forty-eight hours earlier he had been fine with this knowledge. He had understood when she’d remained in England, and disappointed as he was to have missed their chance at whatever they might have been, they both had responsibilities to fulfill. Only now she was back and intoxicating and it was all just a little bit wrong. There were things to tell her, somehow, and things to adamantly not mention, and things he had no idea how to voice.
They could not go back to who they were before. It was a certainty that weighed in his gut, spoke in his ear as he looked at every passing person for her furs or feathers. He had no idea whether either of them was even interested in resuming their slow, oscillating dance. Or, indeed, what it would look like if they did.
He turned around, seeing the brassy red hair of Doctor MacMillan even at a distance. He raised a hand and moved towards her.
“Mac,” he greeted. “What are you doing here?”
“Sally’s found some remains in the shark that she thinks might be human. As coroner, my presence is required.”
“Ah, yes. Miss Fisher said that Dr. Henstridge is an old friend of yours? That won’t—”
“Honestly, Jack. You of all people should know that old friends doesn’t have to mean animosity. You and Rosie—”
“Are not under discussion at the moment, Doctor.”
Mac huffed. “It was an observation. Sal and I are fine. But none of that territorial bravado from you today, alright?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
The doctor’s blue eyes narrowed.
“It is remarkable how very much you sounded like Phryne there,” she said bluntly. “I know that she’s gone and upended your orderly little life once again, but that sniping and dismissiveness are not going to fly.”
The doctor raised her hand. “My lack of interest in what you are about to say is staggering. I am here to retrieve body parts and do my job, and so are you.”
“And Miss Fisher?”
“Has gotten the same warning,” Mac said. “Honestly, how you two seem to veer between friendly and bitter in the blink of an eye—”
“I’m not bitter.”
“No, of course not. But you’re face to face for the first time in years, and somehow you’ve both landed on prickly.”
“Do you really believe I can’t be professional?” Jack asked, surprised to realise how much the insinuation stung. He liked Mac, considered her a friend, and it was a damning indictment of his character.
“I ‘really believe’ that the line between professional and personal has always been blurred between you two. Now can we get this over with? I have plans for lunch.”
Jack nodded almost instinctively, following Mac down a corridor to a lab. They hadn’t been that… difficult at the morgue, so presumably Phr—Miss Fisher had said something to her friend, and now her friend was relaying the message? That didn’t seem quite Miss Fisher’s speed, but after two years and complications he couldn’t say for certain. Well, regardless, this was his job. Professional detachment was advisable.
He ignored the stomach flip when he caught sight of Miss Fisher inside the lab, dressed a cloche and blouse both in a shade of purple he’d always found particularly flattering, though he’d never said as much, and white trousers. He did a double take and smiled before he could stop himself; nobody else would be mad enough to wear white to an autopsy, barring removable lab coats, but doubtless she would emerge without so much as a hint of dirt. Professional. Right.
“Miss Fisher,” he acknowledged, then turned to the other woman in the room. She was approximately fifty, her ash-blonde hair streaked with grey drawn back from a smiling face. “And you must be Dr. Henstridge. Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”
He held out his hand to shake hers, then stepped back with a gesture to begin speaking.The woman’s accent was northern England—Yorkshire at a guess, though he was working from very old memories—and her attitude blunt as she talked them through her findings. She concurred with the man at the exhibition that the arm had likely been consumed seven to ten days earlier, and that some small and unidentified tissue was found in the shark’s stomach—Mac looked it over and agreed that some of it was likely human—but there was nothing to illuminate cause of death.
“So we’re no further ahead?” Phryne asked, bordering on petulant.
Mac and Dr. Henstridge both gave her a surprised look.
“I cannot fabricate evidence from mid-air, Phryne,” Dr. Henstridge said. “It’s likely that your dead man was, as Mac said, dismembered and then dumped in the water where the pieces were eaten. I cannot even be certain this shark was the initial eater—there’s evidence that this shark ate a smaller one, and it’s possible that that shark is the one that ate the your victim.”
“Wonderful,” Miss Fisher muttered. “Another chance to sit and wait.”
She shook her head and looked at Jack.
“I’m…I’m going to take a walk.”
And with that she spun on her heel and strode from the room.
Phryne resisted the urge to run from the lab, her heels clacking loudly against the tile floor as she moved away. She just wanted one thing to go as expected; go to England and come home after a few months of globe-trotting. Return to Melbourne easily when she finally had a chance instead of minding her mother’s nerves. Meet Jack Robinson somewhere other than over a corpse. Have a case on her terms, have her lead pan out. Have a bloody dinner party celebrating her return without spending half the meal noticing who was absent.
“Argh!” she shouted in frustration, pacing up and down the hall.
She needed… she needed to start this whole thing over. Move to Sydney, maybe. Solve this case and go elsewhere. Try again in a month, if she still felt the need to involve herself at all. Just go.
She spun around, facing Mac. Her friend’s expression was far too sympathetic. Phryne folded her arms defensively.
“The inspector said that he’ll be heading to the victim's last known address.”
“Oh, is he the inspector again then?”
“Well, that’s what you were calling him after your little soiree last night.”
Phryne groaned at the memory. She’d invited several friends around for dinner and it had been lovely to be amongst her nearest and dearest—she’d spent too much time as The Baron’s Daughter in England. And it had gone well indeed, until most of the guests had gone home and only Mac was left; they’d curled up in the parlour with drinks and laughed for some time. Then Mac had started telling her the story of a corpse she was set to autopsy that had suddenly sat up.
“And I swear,” she said, tears of laughter in her eyes, “Jack jumped back, muttering some Scots curses I haven’t heard since my grandmother died! The Man of Reason brought undone by a particularly deep-sleeping drunk.”
Phryne had laughed half-heartedly and asked if Mac worked with the inspector often.
“Often enough. And we usually have a drink Wednesday nights, if neither of us is working.”
“And how is he?” Phryne had asked quietly, thinking of how calmly he’d handled their meeting. She’d expected hurt, not disinterest. Then, feeling she had played her cards too freely, added, “As a colleague, I mean. Is he still hideously fastidious?”
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t misread people before. Frequently, as of late. She’d just convinced herself that Jack wasn’t one of them.
“Much the same as he ever was. What has he done?”
“I notice he wasn’t at dinner.”
“No,” Phryne had said, standing up to pour some more whiskey. “No, he had other commitments.”
“Ahh, yes,” replied Mac, a hint of evasiveness in her tone that piqued Phryne’s curiosity and twinged in her chest. “I’m sure you’ll bring him back into the fold soon enough.”
“I’m not sure he wants to be brought back,” Phryne had said plaintively, then realised how pathetic that sounded. “And perhaps I wouldn’t want him if he did.”
“Well, he’s useful professionally, unless you intend to give up the detection business.”
Phryne had stared into her whiskey at that, not trusting her voice. A drink too many, clearly.
“Well, I’m not here to talk about recalcitrant inspectors,” she said when the moment had passed, returning to the chaise and smiling brightly at her friend. “What mischief have you been up to that couldn’t make its way into your letters?”
No, she had not handled last night particularly well. She gave herself a shake a reminded herself where she was.
“Did he leave the address?” she asked Mac.
“I suspect he’s waiting for you outside,” was her reply.
Phryne sighed. She had no intention of jumping to his call, but it was a case. If she wanted to gain lost ground—professionally, of course—she need to make herself essential to this investigation. Right, she could do that. Be bright, be charming, be Phryne damn Fisher instead of some simpering fool.
“Wish me luck, Mac,” she said.
“You make your own luck,” retorted her friend.
Phryne just shook her head and waved goodbye, heading towards the road where she suspected Jack had parked. Stepping into the sunlight she winced, hand coming up to shield her eyes; he was leaning against the hood of his car, casual and delectable and far more confident than she felt. She needed a long soak in a tub and either some solitude or a mildly diverting lover. She couldn’t truly have either until she solved the case.
“Hello Jack!” she called, crossing the distance. “Time to interview the wife, I hear. A womanly touch might be required.”
“You wouldn’t know anybody who would fit the bill?” he teased, a half-smile on his face. Phryne winced involuntarily and the smile dropped; his eyes, usually so expressive even when his face was still, grew guarded. “That is, Miss Fisher—”
“Let’s just get this interview done,” she said irritably, loathing the brief twinge of familiarity his appearance had provoked. He shouldn’t have that much influence over her. “Do you want to drive or shall I meet you there?”
He opened the passenger door and Phryne climbed inside, then he rounded the car to sit behind the wheel. On the drive to Pierson’s last known address, they discussed their approach; they’d never needed to before—by the time they were working together they had an innate sense of how to work together—but it was probably a wise choice. Especially as there were likely to be children in the house, and the widow had not yet been informed of her husband’s death.
“Does she have a criminal history?” Phryne asked.
“Mm, public drunkenness, that sort of thing. Nothing in the past few years and nothing violent.”
“Any domestic spats?”
“Not that I can find a record of.”
Phryne mulled it over. “I can talk to the neighbours, see if the Piersons were fighters.”
“After the interview,” Jack agreed. “She’s more likely to speak with you than a copper, so thank you for coming.”
Phryne opened her mouth to make a quip about useful women, but sighed instead. For all their banter, they had worked well together for a reason; if they could regain that, then perhaps… she gave herself a mental reprimand. Not the road to go down. Soon enough it was a moot point; they had arrived at a greengrocer’s that had several small flats above. The entire building looked like it would crumble if you tried to wipe the dirt off. It was not a happy home, an impression made stronger as Jack and Phryne mounted the steps, passing through a corridor full of rubbish.
Jack knocked on the door, a quick and firm rap that made it nearly impossible to ignore. The woman inside didn’t bother to try; she hauled open the door, a child wearing nothing but a stained nappy on her hip and a cigarette in her mouth.
“Didja find Johnny? Sleeping off a for’night of sly grog in your cells, issee?”
“Nah, I’mma Queen of Sheba,” the woman said, squinting. “Cantcha see me jools? Whaddya want?”
“Inspector Jack Robinson, and this is Miss Fisher. May we come in?”
“This ‘bout Johnny? I tol’ that other copper, he’s been missin’ a coupla weeks now.”
“Mrs. Pierson, what other police officer?” Phryne asked, casting a glance at Jack. He looked as perplexed as she was—the latest note in Pierson’s file had been from three months earlier.
Mrs. Pierson moved aside and gestured them in.
“The one I talked to when he di’n’t come home aftah an arvo at the pub,” she said. “You wanna cuppa?”
“No, thank you,” Jack said, removing his hat.
“Suit yaself,” the woman shrugged, moving to put the kettle on.
The flat had one room with a small stove in the corner, and a door Phryne presumed led to a bedroom. It was clean but in poor repair—one of the windows was missing the glass, a hole in the wall… it was so much like her own childhood home that Phryne had to catch her breath. Jack shifted closer to her without crowding, and she was both profoundly grateful and bitter she would even need such support. If, indeed, it was even intentional; she may very well be giving him more credit than he was due out of some old whimsy. Phryne forced herself to smile, hoping it would leave Mrs. Pierson amenable to her questions.
“You said that Johnny’s—”
“He ain’t been home and that ain’t like ‘im. I talked to a copper ten days ago, made a missing person report and ever’fing right proper. Ain’t ‘eard a word. So if you ain’t here ‘bout that, whaddya here for?”
Phryne glanced at Jack; strictly speaking he needed to break the news. He nodded subtly, and Phryne moved towards Mrs. Pierson, touching her forearm.
“Please, sit down. I’m afraid that we are here about Johnny, but we didn’t know that he was missing. When did you last see him?”
“A week Tuesday,” the woman said, shifting the child to the floor as she sat at the kitchen table.
That aligned within a day or two of when the shark would have eaten the body parts. Phryne looked at the widow—short but sturdy, ruddy complexion, dull brown hair. One of a thousand women living in poverty, and now facing an even more difficult time. When this was over, Phryne would have to find a way to help. She observed carefully as Jack broke the news of Johnny’s death, and the strange circumstances; Phryne couldn’t help but admire the way he gave the situation—nearly comical in some respects—the gravitas that every death deserved. The widow’s shock and grief both seemed sincere, and while some of her answers to Jack’s questions were evasive—Phryne would have been more suspicious if they hadn’t been—Phryne was left with the impression that she was not involved. It would be difficult for a woman of her means to dismember the body and transport it far enough to end up in the water as well.
“Is there anybody you can think of who would want to hurt your husband, Mrs. Pierson?” Jack asked.
The woman flinched and looked away, then her resolve stiffened.
“Charlie Greene next door,” she said decisively. “Him and Johnny was in bus’ness together. He’s outta town visiting his sick mum, but he’ll be back on Monday. Those two was always shouting about one thing or another, practically brothers until Charlie went and… I dunno what, in truth. All I know is they had a terrible row a coupla weeks ago.”
“That’s very helpful,” Jack said gently. He finished the conversation with information of how to claim the body and expressing sorrow at her loss. Then he stood and caught Phryne’s eye; a tiny head tilt to-and-fro and she knew what he was thinking—Esme Pierson had been honest, but not entirely forthcoming. Phryne quickly dropped a glove, then said her goodbyes to Mrs. Pierson and left the flat with Jack. Halfway down the stairs she paused deliberately.
“Oh Jack!” she said, loudly enough that her voice would echo for anyone attempting to listen in, “I believe I forgot my glove. I’ll be just a moment.”
Then she headed back to the Piersons’ flat and knocked on the door.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you again, Mrs. Pierson,” she said, stepping inside before the woman could object. “I’m afraid I left my glove—oh, there it is! How fortunate.” Then she dropped her voice and extracted a pound note from her handbag. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it can get you something.”
“Nonsense. Times are tough everywhere.”
“I really can’t—”
Phryne hadn’t expected it to work, but it would have been nice.
“You can consider it payment for telling me what you failed to tell the inspector.”
When Phryne joined Jack in the car several minutes later, she smiled openly.
“Harold Williams,” she said. “Apparently Johnny owed him a large amount of money.”
It was Saturday, which meant that Phryne’s garden was overrun by screeching toddlers she had to fake a vague interest in after being roused from her bed at an ungodly hour. She loved Dot, immensely, but she could not wait until the Collins family moved out. It was her own fault, insisting they stay at Wardlow and then showing up without so much as a by-your-leave. She’d retreated to her boudoir, claiming that she really must unpack the last of her bags from the trip. She’d only had two, the rest coming with her mother by ship; Mr. Butler had dealt with one immediately. She’d asked him to leave the other for her to unpack herself, and so it sat at the foot of her bed waiting for a moment she was desperate enough to avoid some unpleasant prospect—cue a one-year-old’s birthday party—that she’d tackle it.
She placed the bag on her bed and opened it. The vast majority was taken up with all the correspondence from Melbourne while she was away, kept in a wooden box. She traced the ivy leaves that decorated the top, debating whether or not to open it. No, best not. It was the past; she couldn’t let it hold sway over her.
Jack, she reasoned, was not the past. He might be the present, if… well, regardless. She was back, they were investigating, he still smelt of that mix of pomade and barely-there soap and something Jack in essence that she’d sought in other lovers while she was away. Because it pleased her, not because she needed it. She’d found it in pieces, but never the whole; quite vexing, but then she was in another country and therefore men’s grooming products were different.
Janey’s ribbon had come with her, of course; there was no way she could leave it behind. The police sketch that had been in Janey’s case file and mysteriously found its way into her house after she mentioned having no photographs of her sister as well. They had stopped being a duty to fulfill and could be appreciated for what they were; complex and conflicting memories of happy days and dark times, but part of the Janey she loved so very much.
The last item was wrapped carefully in velvet; she took the bundle out, noting how light it was and wondering how it could feel so much like gravity. She unwrapped it, revealing the tin badge beneath. She stroked her finger across it, imagining a ten-year-old Jack’s earnestness. The swallow pin had been lovely, and she had worn it often, but it was the badge that had taken pride of place in her jewelry box, even after she’d stopped writing.
No, no. I think you’ve earnt the badge.
She blinked back tears. She was being ridiculous. She was home and they were… not quite as in step as they had been, but really doing quite well. And she wasn’t back for him anyway. They would resume their professional partnership and close friendship, naturally, and if it rekindled their budding romantic inclinations? Well, she certainly wasn’t opposed to the idea. He was far and away the best man she’d ever known—a fact driven home by her time abroad and the men she'd been surrounded by—and she hadn’t known him nearly well enough.
Smiling, Phryne tucked the badge on her vanity, behind some perfume bottles. She remembered Hugh saying that Jack was stopping by the party, and as if summoned by her thoughts she heard a familiar knock on the door. Right, time to rejoin the party then; it might even be tolerable with an ally to provide commentary. She quickly checked her appearance in the mirror—the tears hadn’t fallen, so her cosmetics were still in place—and headed down the stairs.
Just before she came into sight she paused. Jack and Hugh were in the entryway, voices low and strained.
“Sir, Johnny Pierson—”
What did their victim have to do with anything?
“Collins, I’ve said drop it.”
“But sir, I saw him when I was with the Tenners. He was a fizgig, and not a very popular one. Spent a lot of time in Inspector Wildt’s office. Doesn’t that—”
“Leave it. That’s an order.”
Johnny was a police informant? Why was Jack dismissing it out of hand?
“Inspector, I really think—”
“No,” Jack interjected, his voice harsh. “You will not investigate the Police Special Powers Unit or anything that could possibly be related to Johnny Pierson as a confidential informant. That is an order. If I see you put one toe over that line I will have you dismissed, is that clear?”
Phryne wished she could see the men, hoping their body language would clarify matters. Jack couldn’t really be rejecting a lead just because it suggested police involvement. Could he? That wasn’t the man she knew. Thought she knew. A sudden memory hit her, the investigation into the death of the boxer. He’d warned Hugh off the police retaliation line of inquiry then too. She felt sick. Maybe this was who he had been all along and she’d let a good pair of cheekbones and some noble words distract her.
Well, there was no tolerating that. She couldn’t ask Hugh to risk his position, but if she happened to press him for some small details she could follow it up herself. Just to be thorough. It was almost certainly nothing, she thought, and tried to forget the unyielding tone in Jack’s voice. Definitely nothing. But just in case.
She trod heavily on the the last few steps before coming into view, and gave the men a sunny smile when she reached the landing.
“Jack! You’ve made it. I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“Oh, no, Miss Fisher,” Hugh said with false brightness. Both men still looked furious. “The inspector was just telling me about his dinner with Miss Sanderson Thursday night.”
Rosie Sanderson? Ex-wife Rosie Sanderson? Daughter-of-a-disgraced-commissioner-and-still-likely-to-be-involved-in-police-politics Rosie Sanderson? What a truly implausible excuse—but no. Jack’s jaw had clenched and he’d shot Hugh a reprimanding look. That was… an interesting development. It was not boosting her confidence in Jack’s choices.
“Hmm, how interesting,” she said with as much disinterest as she could muster. “Do you dine together often?”
“Often enough,” Jack said tersely. “Collins, did you say the party was in the garden?”
Hugh nodded almost on instinct, and Jack quickly strode towards the kitchen to head outside.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
After the guests had left Winnie’s birthday party, Phryne found herself sitting in her parlour as the girl had a screaming meltdown in the kitchen. It was perfectly normal, but it was also utterly disruptive. She was still mulling the overheard conversation; there would be some other explanation, of course, but…. She couldn’t focus like this—she was tired and irritable and could not concentrate long enough to find the alternative she knew had to exist. As Winnie shrieked once more, Phryne snapped.
“Mr. Butler!” she called.
The man arrived almost immediately. Good heavens she’d missed him.
“Please pack me enough for two evenings at the Windsor.”
“Of course, miss. Will you be dining out?”
“No, thank you Mr. Butler. I’ll have my meals delivered to the suite.”
Then she stood, placed a telephone call to arrange matters, and told Dot that she would be spending the weekend at the hotel. Dot looked horrified.
“But, miss! This is your home. We couldn’t—”
“Nonsense, Dot,” Phryne said, waving her hand dismissively. “This has absolutely nothing to do with you; I just find that I’m not up for company, not even the inestimable Mr. Butler. All that travelling, especially with my mother before I bought the plane, has left me in need of solitude.”
“Still, miss, it doesn’t feel right. Hugh and I are looking at some houses on Monday—”
“And when you find the right one, I will be delighted for you. But rest easy that my absence this weekend is entirely unrelated,” smiled Phryne easily. Then she kissed her dear friend’s forehead, gathered her bag, and headed to the opulent hotel.
After checking in, she pulled a bottle of whiskey from her bag—bless Mr. B—and a novel she’d been intending to read for ages. She stayed up far too late, curled onto a chaise and reading, setting aside the book at a particularly descriptive passage to settle the relentless pulsing between her thighs. And if she imagined blue eyes when the hero in the novel had brown, well, those things happened. It didn't have to mean anything.
She slept in until mid-afternoon Sunday, eating a late lunch before settling down to continue her novel. She found that she could not concentrate, tendrils of thoughts about police informants and disappointments furling around the words on the page. Disgusted with herself, she took a long soak in the enormous bathtub, allowing the hot water to wash away all thoughts of real life. She could deal with it later; for the first time in two years, the world would not end if she put it off. When she rose she ordered dinner, finishing the book as she ate, and lounged until she took an early night. Aside from glancing out the window at one point, she did not think of the world beyond her suite again until Monday morning.
She woke early, feeling far more like herself than she had in… months, really. Clearly the experience was the restorative situation she needed; she placed a telephone call to Wardlow, asking Mr. Butler to deliver clothing for the rest of the week. Then, after ordering breakfast up to her room, she decided that a careful examination of facts was in order. Wrapped in her black cockfighting robe around her and tucking her feet beneath her, she absent-mindedly began to chew a piece of toast.
They had one murdered police informant, a fact that Jack had either not known or not told her. The conversation between him and Hugh suggested the latter, and the threats directed at Hugh’s position did not bode well for why. The idea of Jack Robinson being in any way corrupt seemed almost laughable, but even the best of people could be compromised. She knew that, deep in her bones. And the fact of the matter was, it was tough times indeed to be a police officer; crime was up, finances were bleak, pay raises were suspended indefinitely.
More damningly, however, was the simple fact that the police force had been Jack’s family for many years, a constant when the world around him moved too quickly. He’d never said as much, but she knew people; when Jack couldn’t forge a family with people, he had forged it in ideals. And looking back, those ideals were not always unbiased—there’d been the incident with the boxer and the police officer where Jack had warned Hugh off investigating; his refusal to believe that Sergeant Grossmith was as bad as Samson had said, which could have easily cost Phryne her life; the fact that he had never questioned Sanderson’s shooting of Murray Burke or why, when asking for backup, the older man had come alone. The last was not entirely fair—Phryne herself hadn’t noted the oddity until after he was arrested during the Pandarus investigation, with the benefit of hindsight—but still, it did not speak well of Jack’s judgment.
Phryne sipped her tea, ignoring the roiling in her gut. It wasn’t a pleasant contemplation, but she had to consider it a valid one. Valid enough that she unfurled from her chair and retrieved a notebook and pen; retaking her seat, she began to commit everything she remembered about Jack and Hugh’s argument to paper.
Johnny Pierson had been connected to the Terrible Tenners during Hugh’s time there—Phryne would have to speak with Hugh or Dot and find out when the secondment had occurred, though she had a vague recollection of Dot mentioning it in a letter earlier in the year. Around Jane’s birthday, she thought, so February or March. There’d been a name Hugh had tossed out. Willis? Williams? No, Wildt. Inspector Wildt. Hugh believed Pierson to be a frequent visitor and known, at least to the officers, as an informant.
Tapping her pen against the paper, Phryne tried to think of anything else. There’d been Jack’s dinner with Rosie, another possible tie between him and police politics and poor perspectives, but that wasn’t worth writing down without more information. She sighed. The next step would be to talk to Inspector Wildt without tipping her hand, but first she and Jack had an interview with Johnny Pierson’s neighbour and business partner. She rose and dressed quickly, pausing to shove her notebook into a drawer with her lingerie and then deciding it was better in her handbag, and made her way out the door and towards the police station. She’d deal with Wildt later.
Jack heard Miss Fisher arrive from his office, her confident voice greeting Hugh. He quickly tucked the folder in front of him into his desk drawer, locking it; by the time she sashayed into the room, he was nonchalantly reviewing notes he had made after a day at the pub with friends of Johnny Pierson; they weren’t the sort to talk to a copper, and he needed answer. He’d nearly been caught out when Tony, a local delivery bloke a constable had put in his cells a week before, walked in; Jack had ducked into the lavatory and then made a hasty exit. There was very little new information in the papers, but it was documentable progress. He’d been surprised that Miss Fisher hadn’t shown up as he skulked around the pub, but Collins had said she was spending the weekend at a hotel. No doubt hoping to avoid her lovers crossing paths with a poorly sleeping toddler. Which was, really, fair enough. But he’d looked for her.
“Ooh, is that about our case?” she asked coming to stand beside him.
“I asked around Johnny’s local pub,” he said, passing over the folder. “There’s no promising leads, but perhaps talking to Charlie Greene will illuminate matters further.”
Miss Fisher had flipped open the file and turned, coming to rest on the edge of his desk.
“Is that what you were doing?” she asked, rather too pointedly.
He regarded her carefully; she clearly thought that he’d been up to—oh, yes. He had almost forgotten Collins slipping the detail of his dinner with Rosie; if he thought the man capable of duplicity at all, Jack would have thought it deliberate. He couldn’t quite put his finger on her reaction though; curiosity, he thought, and concern. The former was unsurprising, but the latter…
“Rosie visits her sister on Sundays,” he said.
“And you’ve not been accepted back into the fold?” Phryne asked, glancing up to pin him with merciless eyes.
“I imagine ‘I arrested your grandfather, but he deserved it’ wouldn’t go down well with the children,” Jack said dryly. “And there aren’t enough hours in the week to do my job as it is; time with my former in-laws would hardly help matters.”
“Hmm,” Phryne said, turning back to the documents. After a minute she sighed, closing the file and pushing off the desk. “Nothing we didn’t already know. When is Charlie Greene due in?”
“As soon as a constable retrieves him,” Jack said.
“And what about the bloke Johnny owed money to?”
“Harold Williams? He’s been in gaol for the past three weeks.”
“So he’s not our murderer, but he may have arranged it?”
“It’s possible,” Jack agreed. “I’ve asked for visitor logs to be pulled since he arrived, just waiting to hear back. But it was only a few quid, according to witness statements. Hardly worth murdering over, and murder and dismemberment? That’s extreme. And personal.”
“Agreed,” Miss Fisher said. “Or somebody wanted to send a message. He’s in a rough area and a rough line of work; could he have seen something?”
Jack forced a nonchalant shrug; her instincts were still sharp, and the less he said the less he had to deny. “Anything is possible.”
He was saved from any more prevaricating by a knock on the door and a constable peeking around the corner.
“Charlie Greene is here, sir.”
Miss Fisher’s eyes lit up at the announcement and she stood, openly feeling the thrill of the chase.
“Thank you, constable,” Jack said before she could say something ill-advised. “Bring him through to the interview room and offer him a cup of tea. Miss Fisher and I will join him in a moment.”
“And a cup for me as well please, constable.”
The young man nodded, and Jack looked at his companion. She looked back, amused.
“Tea?” she asked. “Next thing you know you’ll offer him a biscuit. Which reminds me, did you move your stash in the end?”
His lips rolled tight, resisting the urge to laugh. She teased him about his voracious appetite, but her own was equally limitless.
“I’m not entirely certain you ever really knew where the stash was,” he said with a smile. “It might have been a clever ruse.”
“Oh please, Jack. Give me more credit than that,” she said, resting her hand on her hip; he presumed that she was going for firm, but really it was endearing.
“Find it then,” he said, leaning back in his chair and motioning the room. “I’ve even tried something new; Will finally gave up his mother’s honey cookie recipe. If you’ll be back to haranguing me weekly, it’s best you pass verdict on it.”
She immediately extracted a lockpick from between her breasts, ignoring his chastising look, and turned to pick the lock on the drawer where he’d recently hidden a file. He’d completely forgotten. His hand shot out to stop her from reaching the lock, then gave her a wry smile.
“Excellent work, Miss Fisher,” he said as casually as he could manage. “They’ve been moved to the filing cabinet.”
He handed her the appropriate key, and she looked at him quizzically before smiling brightly and extracting the tin.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed, sniffing the biscuit she selected. “I do adore a good honey biscuit; there was a bakery when I was in Germany in 1926 that made some utterly divine ones.”
She took a bite and gave a murmur of appreciation; Jack swallowed hard at the sound. He’d forgotten how… provocative she could sound over the most innocuous of matters. Bad idea. Footy scores. The station cells after a night of drunks. The bloody criminal they had waiting in the interview room.
“When you’re quite finished, Miss Fisher, Constable Reynolds no doubt has your tea waiting.”
She quickly took another biscuit and replaced the lid on the tin. “As much use as it is to leave a man stewing in his own juices from time to time, staying here sounds like a waste of good tea.”
Smiling wryly, Jack shook his head. “Station tea has improved, but it’s still a far, far cry from good.”
“I’ve suffered through worse,” she laughed. “Reminds me of the time and Janey and I bought ‘tea leaves’ from a man off the street. It was Mother’s birthday and Aunt P had given us some pennies to buy her something small…” she drifted off slightly, and Jack suspected that her aunt had insisted they buy something small because anything big would have been hocked by Henry Fisher. “You know, it’s Mother’s birthday next month, and I’m not sure whether she’ll have landed in Melbourne by then. Anyway, we were promised that these leaves were of the highest quality, and even I wasn’t cynical enough to doubt him at the age of six. They must have been floor sweepings from a tea shipment or something, because it was single-handedly the worst thing I’ve ever tasted, and I once drank a whiskey with a mummified toe floating in it.”
Jack barked a laugh at the unexpected comment, then attempted to look apologetic when she shot him a reprimanding look.
“You’re not nearly as cynical as you claim to be, Miss Fisher, but I’ll mind the quality of your tea next time I’m invited to stay for a meal.”
“My whiskey’s better,” she said. “And utterly without human appendages. I am staying at the Windsor for the moment though—I’ll be home by the weekend, I’m sure, but I found it preferable to disturbing the Collinses and their sleep patterns.”
“Wise choice,” he said. “Shall we go and speak with Mr. Greene?”
Charlie Greene was waiting in the interview room, teacup cradled in his large and surprisingly elegant hands. Phryne gave him an assessing look—he appeared to be in his early thirties, medium brown hair of a non-descript shade shorn short. Not overly remarkable, but when he met Phryne’s eye and began to speak… the man nearly oozed charisma. She smiled in victory and moved towards him lithely.
“Mr. Greene,” she said, voice smooth, extending her hand for him to kiss; it kept him in her thrall and offered the chance for more.
His lips against her skin sent a thrill through her, and Phryne realised how long it had been since she’d taken a lover; she’d been too caught up in handling her father’s estate to make it a priority these last few months, and in the two months since she’d left England with her mother there had been none at all. Charlie was proving an intriguing possibility indeed.
“The Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, enchanted to make your acquaintance,” she said. “You seem like a man of the world.” She could practically hear Jack’s eyeroll from behind her. “And this is Detective Inspector Robinson. We have a few questions for you about the disappearance and death of Johnny Pierson.”
Phryne slid into the chair opposite Charlie, picking up her own tea and taking a delicate sip. His eyes—blue, she noted, with a hint of grey in the light—followed her face. She had him; hopefully Jack would notice and let her take the lead. He had moved to lean against the window sill, at least, and Phryne began the interrogation.
She was out of practice, and her questioning lacked the usual subtlety; thankfully Charlie appeared too dim to notice when Jack covered her fumbles. It was embarrassing, but it got the job done. They learnt quite a bit about Charlie and Johnny’s relationship; they’d known each other since they were children, grown up side-by-side. Charlie was also sleeping with Esme Pierson.
“Is that what your argument with Johnny was just before he disappeared?” Phryne asked.
“What? Naw! We wou’n’t let a bit on the side—”
“You mean his wife.”
“Yes. But we wouldn’t let a woman like her get between us,” Charlie argued. He really was proving far less appealing than she had first thought. Unfortunately he was also their best lead.
“Of course,” Phryne purred, reaching out to lay a sympathetic hand against his arm. Her fingers resting against his pulse point, hoping to catch hints of deception, she continued. “I’m sure there’s been many women, over the years, but friendship is constant.”
He looked away, evasive; Phryne curled her fingers slightly tighter and waited. When he didn’t reply, she went in for the kill.
“So what could lead to your argument?”
Charlie pulled back angrily; Phryne dropped her hand to her lap to reach her garter knife, and behind her she heard Jack shift forward, ready to intervene.
“He was bloody blackmailing me!” Charlie shouted. “Me best mate since we were nippers and he was wringing me out every quid he could!”
“Business opportunity,” said Charlie. “Said he could make more without me and was tryin' to force me out.”
“What was he holding over you?” Phryne asked, her hand still on dagger.
Charlie crossed his arms, and when he spoke again his voice had lost the charismatic edge; she’d rattled him, then.
“Nuffink for a pretty lady like you to worry about, luv.”
“I’m not sure I believe that,” Phryne replied.
“Believe it or not, it’s no skin off my nose,” shrugged Charlie.
She was losing his cooperation; she simpered and looked at him with as much adoration as she could. She hated this part, but it was the only route she could see at the moment. Her improvisation skills were clearly off as well.
“Inspector Robinson?” she asked, turning in her seat to look at Jack imploringly. “Could I get another cup of tea, please?”
He looked unimpressed, so Phryne widened her eyes slightly and glanced towards Charlie. He wasn’t going to speak with Jack in the room, that was for certain; Jack would wait outside the door, within earshot, or he would have before. Phryne hoped he would understand.
“This isn’t a restaurant service,” he said dryly, but he moved from the window and collected her cup before leaving the room.
Phryne turned her attentions back to Charlie Greene as the door clicked shut.
“Of course I believe you, Charlie. I’m just so curious what a good man like you could have that was worth blackmail.”
She extended a hand softly, brushing a finger against his palm. She lowered her voice to a whisper and leant forward. “I know you don’t want to talk in front of the police. But perhaps we could…speak in private? I’m staying at the Windsor and I would love a companion for dinner tonight?”
Charlie’s charms snapped back immediately; an adept con artist then.
“It would be a shame for a lady such as yourself to dine alone.”
“The Windsor, eight pm. Don’t be late or I’ll be quite put out,” she said playfully.
A moment later Jack returned with a cup of tea, and Phryne pulled away and winked at Charlie.
“It’s no use, inspector. He’s not going to talk, and we have no reason to hold him.”
Jack growled what Phryne presumed was an acquiescence, and Charlie quickly left the room. When he was gone, Phryne turned to Jack; he was regarding her with a mixture of amusement and irritation.
“Really, Miss Fisher? Dinner?”
“He wasn’t going to talk, Jack. At least now we stand a fighting chance.”
“We, is it? I don’t think there will be space at your dinner table for three tonight.”
Phryne crossed her arms. “Since your dining companions are none of my business, I’ll claim the same right.”
Jack gave a defeated sigh, and Phryne felt a pang of regret.
“I’m sorry Jack—”
“Don’t apologise, Miss Fisher.”
“Fine. I’m not sorry. But I am, perhaps, a little rustier than I thought, and that was… not my best interview.”
“It was fine, Miss Fisher,” he conceded; she liked it better when he argued. “I was expecting an unfair amount from your powers of persuasion; I had half a thought you’d look at the man and he’d make a full confession.”
Phryne laughed softly. “I believe my powers of persuasion have become near mythical in your memory.”
“To match the woman,” he said with a small smile.
A tightness gripped her chest, but she forced herself to laugh. “I’m flesh and blood, Jack, just like you.”
He tilted his head slightly. “Well, we did get somewhere. It sounds like there might have been a business contact that was promising Johnny big money. A silent partner, perhaps? Or a new supplier for whatever their business is?”
“I’ll see if I can press it at dinner,” Phryne said. “I presume Charlie has an arrest record—are there any hints about the nature of his business there?”
“No,” Jack said, “not that I could see. A bit of breaking and entering, a drunken assault.”
“We can’t discard the possibility that it was his involvement with the victim’s wife, either,” Phryne said. “Jealousy is a powerful motivator.”
“Is it, Miss Fisher?” he said, nonplussed. “I must admit that’s never come up in all my years as a police officer.”
She laughed at the nearly playful tone from her—from Jack. Before she could respond in kind, there was a knock on the door.
“Sir?” said the constable. “That was the warden from the gaol. He says that Harold Williams hasn’t had any visitors since he’s arrived.”
“Thank you, constable,” Jack said dismissively, then looked at Phryne. “It looks like we can rule the debt angle out. Your dinner plans are looking more advantageous all the time.”
“Of course they are,” Phryne said lightly. “That’s why I made them.”
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
Apologies for the late update. But it's still Thursday some places, right?
Leaving the interview with Charlie Greene, Jack asked Phryne if she would care to get some lunch.
“Ah, no, thank you,” she said, glancing into her handbag to avoid meeting his eyes. “I’m afraid I have a meeting this afternoon.”
“Of course, Miss Fisher,” he said. “I have quite a bit of paperwork myself. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“No doubt with the lead that takes us straight to our murderer,” she replied, as lightly as she could manage.
“I don’t doubt you for a minute,” he said, smile crooked.
It sounded less of an assurance and more of a platitude, and her stomach clenched. They had felt, just for a moment, like they had before. But they weren’t. Her afternoon plans underscored that all too well. She gave herself a shake—she wasn’t some soppy fool, ignoring evidence in the face of sentiment.
“I’ll telephone you if anything pressing arises,” she said.
“And I’ll be here,” he said in resignation, gesturing to the nearly teetering pile of files on his desk.
Phryne stood and left with room with far more lightness in her step than she felt. There was nothing to be done; there was a trail to follow. She allowed herself to lay her head against the steering wheel of the Hispano outside the station, just for a minute, before turning it on and peeling away from City South.
The drive to Russell Street, location of the Police Special Powers Unit, went far too quickly for Phryne’s tastes. She parked the car, checked her lipstick in a compact mirror, and adjusted her hat slightly—the new angle framed her face in a way that men found irresistible, the tiniest bit off and therefore making her vulnerable and approachable. Some batted eyelashes and a charming moue of her mouth would complete the impression. It was a facade she had donned often in England; not many men appreciated a woman for her wits when it came to business.
She stepped out of the car and strode up the stairs and into the administrative centre of the Victoria Police Force. Moving with confidence, she found herself near the Tenners before anybody thought to stop her; her luck did not hold out when she met a receptionist at a typewriter.
“May I help you?” the woman said calmly.
Slight change of tactic.
“Hello,” Phryne smiled widely. “Fern Rob—” damn it all, he was bloody everywhere. She covered it with a cough. “Fern Roberts, reporter with Women’s Choice Magazine. I have an appointment with Inspector Wildt for a profile we’re doing—the men keeping our streets safe in these dire times, that sort of thing.”
The woman looked completely disinterested as she checked her calendar.
“I don’t have you scheduled.”
Phryne leant in, looking coy. “Perhaps the inspector wanted to keep it quiet. He did insist on anonymity,” she stood, pouting slightly. Petulant opened so many doors; at the very least, it stopped people from noticing as you blew past them. “I’ll just go through and see if he’s ready for me.”
She was gone, ignoring the woman’s objections; Phryne worried briefly that she would follow, but the secretary grumbled something about the inspector sorting her and retook her seat. Thank heavens the office door was labelled: Insp. A Wildt. She knocked and slipped inside before the inspector could respond.
“Hello,” she said. “Fern Roberts. I’m with Women’s Choice Magazine. I was told that you were the man to speak with about all the goings-on in Russell Street.”
The inspector looked up—he was a large man, hulking in stature but soft in posture. His blond hair was cropped short, presumably to hide the greys scattered throughout, and his face rather brought to mind an unfortunate barnyard animal of the porcine persuasion.
“And what would a women’s magazine want with police politics?” the man asked, leaning forward across his desk.
“We’re not all caught up in tales of fairies, Inspector Wildt,” she said coolly, then saw her angle. “After all that unpleasant gang warfare last summer, our readers are looking for reassurances that tempers won’t flare this summer.”
The man scoffed. “If you’re calling it unpleasant, you clearly aren’t equipped to be having this discussion. Please leave, Miss Roberts.”
Phryne moved towards the visitor’s chair instead, folding into it elegantly and leaning forward. She enunciated every word, knowing it would serve to draw his attention away from the content of her speech and onto the redness of her lips.
“Inspector Wildt,” she said, extending one delicately gloved hand to rest against his own hand. “Surely you can reassure us. There are so many rumours, as you can imagine.”
The man drew back slightly, but there was a relaxed bearing that told her she could push him a little further.
“Call me Alaric, Miss Roberts.”
“Oh, there’s no need for formalities, Alaric. Call me Fern.”
“Very well, Fern. I can say that there is very little reason for your readers to be concerned. Last summer was exceptional circumstances, and the Victorian Constabulary is better prepared in the unlikely event those events are repeated.”
“How reassuring,” Phryne purred. “And do you have… contacts within the gangs?”
The man’s beady eyes narrowed. “You cannot expect me to tell you about potential informants—you really do read too many fairy tales if you think that.”
“Oh no,” simpered Phryne. “It’s such a romantic notion, I mean, but of course fizgigs are a sensitive subject. I won’t write a word.”
She gave her head a small shake and allowed her mouth to fall open in a delicate ‘o’ of surprise.
“It’s not nearly as romantic as you’re imagining,” Inspector Wildt said, “or as common.”
“Hmm,” she said, tapping her finger against her lip in thought. “Perhaps there is another angle though; an anonymous exposé of all the hard work of Melbourne’s finest?”
He seemed almost amused by the suggestion. “And how would that benefit Melbourne’s finest?”
“Why, an army—or a police force—marches on its stomach. And everyone knows it’s the women doing the cooking.”
“I don’t think many people have the money to spare feeding anyone these days,” the inspector said.
Phryne tried not to huff. This man was nearly as impassable as Jack had been when they’d first met. She lowered her voice instead, standing to round the desk and perch next to him.
“Alaric,” she said. This would hopefully give her some clue as to how pliable he could be. “I suppose there could be… payment for an interview? With you, or even one of the inspectors at a city station?”
She placed one hand against his tie, straightening it; the man turned pink. It did not help the pig comparison.
“I really don’t think that is a good idea, Fern,” he choked out.
She gave her most disappointed expression, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Very well, Alaric. And there’s no other officer you could direct me to?”
It was a major gamble, pushing this. If she pulled this back to Jack in any capacity her cover would be blown and her hand tipped, a disaster on two fronts. But she needed to know; no wouldn’t mean much, but if he brought up Inspector Robinson himself it would confirm her fears that Jack was bribable.
“I’m afraid not, Miss Roberts.”
Phryne stood, glancing at the man’s files as she did so. She didn’t recognise any of the names she could see, but his hand was very distinctive. An almost Germanic look to his letters, she thought, which would match the name. Not even a trace of an accent though. A mildly interesting thought, but unlikely to be relevant to the current investigation. She brushed the files, knocking them to the ground.
“I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed, rushing to pick them off the floor and buy more time to browse them.
Nothing at first, then a name. There was no way she could sneak the whole file, not in the time she had, but she managed to hide a page from a report in her coat. She stood, handing back the files with an apologetic simper.
“If you think of anyone who could be of assistance—”
“No, Miss Roberts. I’m afraid not.”
His voice was friendly but firm.
“Thank you for your time then, inspector,” she said, ready to retreat. This was so much easier when she could be a freight train. It was even easier when she had Jack on her side, a rather treacherous thought. “It’s been a pleasure.”
As she was leaving the office, her eye caught a photograph on the wall and she stopped.
“My class from the police academy,” Inspector Wildt said from behind his desk. “I think about half of us didn’t make it back from the war.”
“Mmm,” Phryne murmured in agreement. “So many didn’t.”
She could see Alaric himself, dead centre in the back row with a smile on his face.
And standing beside him was Jack.
Jack worked late into the evening; by nine o’clock the station had grown quiet—there was a constable on the desk, but very little other activity. Even the cells were empty for the moment. He stood to close his office door, directing the constable not to disturb him unless it was an emergency as he did so. Then he sat back at his desk, pulling out the file that Miss Fisher had nearly discovered; flipping it open he gave it a final perusal, then placed a telephone call.
“Police Special Powers Unit, Inspector Wildt speaking.”
“It’s Jack,” Jack said quietly. “Is this a good time?”
“Just let me close the door.”
Jack heard his friend place the phone on his desk, then a shuffle as his chair was pushed back and he walked away. A minute later he returned.
“You got my report through?” Jack asked.
Even when he was sure they were alone, he preferred to speak obliquely.
“Johnny? Yes. It’s right…” the sound of rustling papers came down the line as the inspector searched. “Are you making any progress?”
“Hmm,” Wildt said quietly. “Roy hasn’t checked in either. I was expecting him yesterday.”
“Did you send someone around to his place?”
“I’m not green, Jack. There’s no sign of him, but no sign of a struggle either. Damn it, where is that file?”
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose; Roy disappearing was the last thing they needed. “What about the shipment?”
“On schedule, last I heard.”
“That’s something, at least,” Jack said. “I interviewed Johnny’s business partner. The one he was trying to force out? Blackmail, apparently, but I don’t know why. And it’s not getting us any closer to the name we need, regardless.”
He chose not to mention Miss Fisher’s involvement; the less she was connected with the situation, the better for everyone. He wasn’t fool enough to think he could keep her from a murder, but he had hopes for the rest of it. He needed to have hopes for the rest of it.
“Are we going to have to—”
“No. Not yet.”
Especially not with Phryne Fisher back in town.
“That’s your call, Jack.”
“But…?” Jack prompted, knowing there was more.
“But I don’t think this is going entirely unnoticed. I had a reporter nosing around here this afternoon.”
“Mm, claiming to be from some women’s magazine but the magazine had never heard of her when I enquired. Name of Fern Roberts.”
Jack groaned. Loudly.
“Black hair in a bob?” he asked, trying to remember what Miss Fisher had been wearing that morning. “Green coat?”
“You know her.”
“Mm. As do you, though you’ve never met her. She’s not a reporter, she’s a private detective.”
“Oh Jesus. Your old—”
This was just what they needed. Six months of work, and Phryne Fisher arriving to blow it all at the last minute. With panache, undoubtedly, but very little regard for the safety of herself or others. And how the hell had she even heard about it? In the privacy of his empty office, Jack allowed himself to drop his head to his desk. This could not possibly get worse, which meant, naturally, that it did. He heard his friend’s victorious murmur as he found the file he sought, then his sharp intake of breath.
“What now?” Jack asked in resignation.
“I think your charming lady friend filched a page of the report.”
Of course she had.
“What are you going to do, Jack?”
“Damned if I know, mate. Damned if I know.”
Phryne was back at the hotel before she had a chance to look at the paper she’d secreted away from Inspector Wildt’s office. She ordered tea and scones to her room; when it was delivered she locked her door, sat in the suite’s parlour, and took out her notebook—really, she did miss Dot for this side of things, as well as her companionship, but her friend was preoccupied with her own family; she hoped Dot would return to work once she could arrange childcare, but that was in the future. Until then, she was rather alone. Only once she was settled did she extract the sheet of paper from her coat pocket. It was part of a report on the murder of Johnny Pierson. Not the file from the actual investigation—she knew that was still in Jack’s office—but what appeared to be a summary, written in Jack’s hand.
She placed two fingers to her temple, trying to be impartial.There’s was nothing of interest in the report itself, unless she read something into the fact that her role was left nameless—”a witness” had been the one to retrieve the arm from the tank. But the presence of the report in Inspector Wildt’s office suggested… what? It confirmed that Johnny had a connection to the Terrible Tenners, and that Jack was aware of it. It suggested that Johnny was an informant, as Hugh had said. The anonymising of her connection could be construed as Jack trying to keep her out of the official record; whether that was to protect her or to give fewer investigative angles for someone going over the files later… she sighed. Too much conjecture; what she needed was evidence. An explanation for why he was keeping secrets wouldn’t go amiss either.
She was, for the moment, out of leads. She didn’t know what line of ‘business’ Johnny had been involved in, or why he was used as an informant. His previous criminal history did little to illuminate the matter. With any luck she could extract the details from Charlie Greene at dinner, but for now there was nothing to follow. The next angle would be Wildt; Hugh had worked with the man, so Phryne could see what he had to say. And she could go through old newspapers, see if she could find references to his career. It was late enough in the afternoon that it would have to wait; Phryne decided to have a long soak in the tub and prepare for her dinner instead.
Several hours later, she was ready. She’d chosen a dinner dress of periwinkle blue silk shot through with silver with butterfly wing sleeves and some interesting details on the back; it was not overtly seductive, but evocative enough to serve her purposes without crossing the line. A diamond hairpiece and matching bangle, along with her usual makeup, finished the look. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror; not quite how she had imagined her first dinner with a man since her return, but she looked stunning at least. She headed down to the restaurant for a drink before Charlie arrived.
Her glass of wine was almost done when she felt a hand on her shoulder; she turned to see Charlie. His suit was too shabby for the establishment, but he wore it with such confidence that nobody would remark on it. Phryne gave him an appreciative once-over; his charm as he kissed her hand in greeting was tangible, and she had to remind herself that it was an act she had already seen through. But oh, his lips were tender against her skin; she shivered at the contact, then stood.
“I’m so pleased you could make it, Charlie,” she purred. “We really didn’t have an opportunity to speak properly this morning.”
“Most unfortunate, Miss Fisher,” he agreed.
Hearing the name come from him invoked a visceral reaction from her; she gritted her teeth. It was perfectly proper, and yet it invoked an intimacy she could not shake.
“Please, call me Phryne.”
She took his arm as they headed to their reserved table, smiling brightly and laughing when it was appropriate. He was very good at the game—other than revealing that Johnny had bigger debts than the one to Harold, he provided information without saying anything of substance; pushed the conversation back towards Phryne when she got too close; was charming and funny. And if his humour wasn’t quite dry enough, his smiles too easily given to be endearing… well, he had other features to recommend him. He also had information of use; she could sense it. As the meal concluded, he leant forward.
“How well do you know your colleague, Phryne?” he rumbled.
“Oh, not at all,” she replied, wishing she could shake the feeling it was more true than she wanted to admit. “He just happened to be the police officer assigned to the case, and you really can’t trust the coppers to do their job.”
Charlie nodded and moved in even closer.
“Wise choice,” he whispered against her ear. “Did he mention that he knew Johnny? I saw them talking. Last month, near the docks, before Johnny tried to betray me.”
The feeling of his breath and the information sent a chill through her, attraction and the promise of a mystery combining to cause her lustful desire to spike.
“Come upstairs,” she offered quietly.
Charlie pulled back, biting his lip suggestively.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
“Oh,” Phryne smiled enigmatically, “so many things.”
He nodded and extended his palms upwards, as if to indicate that she should lead the way. She stood—the meal would go on her account—and sashayed from the room, Charlie following behind. He wasn’t her first choice for an evening’s entertainment, but he would suffice. Especially if she could get him to talk.
Chapter 7: Chapter Six
It was nearly eleven o’clock when there was a knock at the hotel room door. Phryne poured a second glass of whiskey and stood to answer it. Mac was on the other side; she gave Phryne a quick glance, noting her dishevelled state, then pushed past her to enter the room
“No reward for guessing what you were up to,” she said, heading for an armchair in the suite’s parlour. “I’m presuming he’s left, at least; I don’t think even you would call me when you still had company.”
“He’s gone,” Phryne confirmed, sitting across from her friend. “And I got up to less than it looks; neither of us had condoms and even if I was willing to go without—and really, I’m not—” she insisted on condoms with her flings; she’d seen far too many venereal diseases during the war to risk it “—in my rush to leave the house on Saturday I didn’t think to grab my Dutch cap.”
Mac rolled her eyes and grabbed her whiskey. “And so you called me in the middle of the night—”
“This is hardly the middle of the night, Mac.”
“It is when you have to be at the hospital for 5 am, and then an afternoon at the morgue.”
Phryne sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Mac waved her hand dismissively. “If I didn’t want to come, I would have said so. You sounded like you needed an ear and another whiskey.”
“I did. I do.”
“Your lover du jour that disappointing?” Mac asked.
“Since when do you ask for details?” teased Phryne.
“Please, spare me the specifics. But it’s awfully early for you to have kicked him out, regardless of condom shortage.”
Phryne stared into her whiskey glass. The condoms had been a problem, certainly, but she was rich and in a hotel with accommodating staff; she could have worked around it. The truth was, when they’d gotten upstairs Charlie had proven to be… less than she had hoped. His hands had achieved some marvelous things—her thighs clenched just remembering the force of her climax—and his cock had been promising as she began to play with it, but it turned out that her personal limit was somewhere before “suspected of murder and dismemberment”; the condom had saved her from needing to create another excuse.
It had worked to her advantage; Charlie had given her an address—one near the docks, rather than his flat in Collingwood—and they’d rescheduled their evening plans for Friday night. When he’d invited her there for either Tuesday or Wednesday, Phryne had demurred, citing a recent return to Melbourne and family commitments, and Charlie had a job for Thursday. Which meant that the house would be empty Thursday evening, a detail she filed away as potentially advantageous.
“Phryne?” Mac asked, tone betraying her worry.
Phryne looked up and smiled. “The itch was scratched and the company dull, and I had a case.”
“A case for which you called me?”
Shrugging, Phryne glanced away. “You’re my best friend.”
“Damn right I am,” Mac said agreeably. “Which does not explain why I’m sitting here.”
“You’ve spent a lot of time with Jack, haven’t you? Since I left?” Phryne asked.
“Did you know that he… dines with his ex-wife?”
It seemed easier than voicing the rest of it.
“Rosie?” Mac asked. She took a sip of her whiskey. “Yes, I did. It began about 18 months ago.”
That was when they were still writing to each other; he’d never said a word. It took a moment for Phryne to place the sharp feeling in her breast: betrayal.
“Are you sure?”
Mac nodded. “Their paths crossed during her father’s trial and he took her for dinner. ”
And no doubt Jack would have offered her his support during that trying time. It seemed almost inevitable. Her chest was tight.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Mac?” Phryne hated how plaintive her voice sounded.
“Because it was none of my business.”
“You’re my best friend!”
“And you weren’t here, Phryne. You told him not to follow you, after dangling the offer in front of him—”
“That wasn’t intentional! I didn’t know that—”
“I know,” Mac said, then her voice softened. “But if he decided to take half of Melbourne to dinner, that was his choice.”
“No, Phryne," her friend said firmly. "I thought you asked me here to discuss the case, not Jack Robinson and his inability to live up to expectations that you never communicated and didn’t live up to yourself. If this is where it’s going, I have a bed calling me.”
Mac was halfway to the door when Phryne found her voice.
“I… I think... “ she paused. “There’s evidence he might be covering for another police officer, Mac. Or worse.”
Mac paused, then turned.
“Pour me another whiskey, Phryne,” she said. “This is going to be a hell of a story.”
Phryne topped up both tumblers while Mac retook her seat.
“That case with the arm?” Phryne began. “I overheard Hugh tell Jack that the victim was a police informant, and Jack brushed it off. It was odd, but there were simple enough explanations. But then the victim’s wife filed a missing persons report, and there is no record of it. So I… started looking into it behind Jack’s back. Just in case, you know?”
“And I found multiple connections between him, the victim, and an inspector with the Police Special Powers Unit. And he threatened Hugh’s job to keep him off the lead. And…” Phryne’s throat clenched and she couldn’t force the rest of the words out.
Mac rose from her seat and came to sit beside Phryne, placing an arm around her shoulder.
“I don’t know who he is, Mac,” she whispered, tears in her eyes. “I thought—”
She thought she had.
"Look, Phryne, I've been working with Jack for nearly three years. He's thorough and careful and a damned good man…”
The implication was clear.
“But?” Phryne prompted.
“But I'm not entirely sure I can agree with every call he's made, and I don't know what he did or did not know when he made those calls. He’s been… different, the last few months. It started around the time your father died, and at first I presumed that you’d told him and he was just…”
“Waiting?” Phryne suggested.
She’d spent so much time waiting, it seemed—waiting for the finances to settle, for her mother to agree to leave her father to his own devices, for the cousin who had inherited to arrive from Ballarat and take over the estate so she could just go home. And all the while life had gone on. There’d been children and cases and reconciliations with ex-wives….
“Oh god, Mac…”
Phryne began to sob, the weight of the last two years too much to bear alone any longer. Mac pulled her close, taking Phryne’s whiskey from her hand and placing it on the table.
“Come to bed, sweetheart,” Mac said gently, and it made Phryne cry harder.
She followed her friend obediently; the doctor remade the bed then laid on top of the sheets. Feeling utterly ridiculous, Phryne lay beside her and allowed her friend to caress her hair and murmur calming platitudes. When Phryne’s tears quieted, Mac shifted to look at her.
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “I have to.”
“Of course you do. Get some sleep then. We’ll meet up for dinner tomorrow night and we can go over the evidence. You’re not alone, Phryne Fisher. No matter what.”
When Phryne woke on Tuesday morning, Mac was already gone. She vaguely recalled someone leaving the bed in the early hours; she should have been annoyed that she’d needed the comfort, but she wasn’t. Giving voice to her suspicions had been a relief. She hadn’t had that freedom… since she’d gone to England, really. Now that it was out in the universe, she could tackle this properly. With allies. And if Jack would have, should have, been one of those allies… well, that was just being unnecessarily melancholy.
Phryne got out of bed. She’d go to City South at lunch, after she had stopped by Wardlow. She bathed and dressed quickly, settling on trousers and a blouse; she had no need to seduce anyone today, and yesterday’s ploys had… not been enjoyable. Too deliberate, not nearly pleasurable enough. She drove the Hispano to her home.
“Mr. Butler!” she exclaimed when he answered the door before she knocked. “I do not know how I survived in England without your assistance. I should have sent for you.”
In hindsight, she really should have. His calm, fatherly attentions would have been a balm. Still, it was over now. He was unchanged, at least.
“I had plenty to keep me occupied in Australia, miss, though I am exceptionally happy you have returned.”
“So am I, Mr. B! Now, is Dot in?”
“Yes, miss. She’s in the kitchen with Miss Winifred.”
“Ahh, a few other details first then. Have Cec and Bert dropped in by any chance?”
“Also in the kitchen, I believe. Doctor MacMillan told them they would be required.”
“Oh, Mac is an angel incarnate!” Phryne exclaimed. She pulled a list from her handbag. “If you could pack the following items, please. I believe I will prolong my stay at the Windsor indefinitely. And a packed lunch for two as well, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Then she swanned into the kitchen. Cec was just making tea for everyone when she arrived.
“Cec! And Bert!” she greeted them happily; she’d missed them both. “You’re both looking remarkably well. I have a job for you, if you’re interested.”
“Always, miss,” Cec said, and Bert muttered in agreement.
She quickly gave them Charlie’s secondary address and a description of all the known parties—Charlie, Johnny and Inspector Wildt, leaving Jack out of it simply because they would recognise the man—and set them on the task of uncovering any information they could. Then she turned to Dot, who was attempting to cajole her daughter into eating a sandwich.
The poor young woman looked absolutely flustered; Phryne could hardly blame her. “Miss, I would love to help. I miss working with you. But Hugh’s mother refuses to watch Winnie because we’re Catholic, and my mother—”
“Dot, I would never ask you to sacrifice your family for our investigation,” Phryne reassured her. “Your job will be here for you if and when you are ready to return. I was merely going to ask whether Hugh told you much about his secondment to the Tenners earlier this year?”
“Not much, miss. He was working for an Inspector Wildt, who was firm but fair, much like the inspector. Inspector Robinson, I mean. It was for a month or so? Winnie was sleeping something awful, worse than when she was a newborn. I’m afraid I don’t remember much at all.”
“Hmm, that’s still helpful, Dot. How went yesterday’s house search?”
“We found a place. First place we looked, even! It’s not very far away, so once we can arrange childcare I can continue working with you. And there’s the nicest little garden for Winnie, and three bedrooms! We’ll be arranging the purchase this afternoon; the inspector’s let Hugh leave early. If you hadn’t allowed us to live here while you were gone, we never would have been able to afford it. Thank you.”
“Don’t you dare thank me, Dot. Having you stay here was very much to my own advantage,” Phryne laughed.
“And now it’s not, not really,” Dot said. “But the cottage has been empty, so we should be able to move in right away.”
“How marvelous!” Phryne exclaimed. “I’ll miss you desperately, but it must be a relief to be able to create your own home instead of being subjected to my taste in decor and lack of embroidered toilet seats.”
Dot blushed rather endearingly. “Well, miss—”
“Say no more!” Phryne said lightly. “I’m not staying long, but you’ll have to tell me all about it later.”
Then she kissed her friend on the cheek, patted the toddler on the head in a manner she hoped was friendly, and headed up to her bedroom. There were a few small things that she did not wish for her butler to pack, so she quickly added them to the nearly full bag, then headed back downstairs. Mr. B met her by the door with a basket of food; Phryne opened the lid, taking a deep sniff.
“Perfection!” she exclaimed. “I’ll send the basket home with Hugh this afternoon.”
And then she was gone.
Driving to the station, Phryne paused only briefly before knocking on Jack’s office door. It would be more suspicious if she withdrew, and there was an investigation to run regardless of niggling concerns; she didn’t actually wait for his response for pushing the door open. He looked up from the papers in front of him, tired. She’d always hated that look.
“Afternoon, Jack,” she said. “I come bringing lunch.”
“And I never turn down a meal,” he replied; his tone was easy, but there was something flat in his delivery nonetheless. “How went dinner last night?”
“Investigative bust,” she sighed. How well do you know your colleague, Phryne? “Oh, but he did imply that Harold Williams wasn’t the only person Johnny owed money to. No names or even a reason—there’s a difference between gambling debts and loans and I don’t even know where to start with this—but a possibility?”
“No red-raggers leaping to the forefront with a cousin’s wife’s neighbour’s son?” he teased, opening the basket Phryne sat in front of him.
“Not a peep so far,” she sighed. It was a damned good reason for her cabbies to be sniffing around if they were caught out. “Anything in his friends’ statements you gathered that could mean something different with this?”
Jack shrugged and shook his head. “We can go over it again, but I don’t think so.”
They spent the next few hours doing exactly that. Without much of a body or a murder or disposal scene, they were barely treading water. Phryne tried not to think that it was because their only viable leads led back to the man sitting across from her; he was friendly, more easy-going than he had been since she’d arrived in truth, but there was something in his stillness when he thought her attention elsewhere that made the hairs on the nape of her neck stand up. The whole thing was wrong.
By mid-afternoon she had entrusted the return of the basket to Hugh and headed to The Argus in search of information on Inspector Alaric Wildt. It was only her first stop, but she hoped she could turn up something by the time she was supposed to meet Mac for dinner.
After the previous night’s revelation that Phryne had gotten wind of Alaric Wildt's involvement—the specifics of how she'd found him were still lost on Jack, but managing to draw any connection was less than ideal—he spent most of the night going around and around in circles. She was, even at her investigative best, a loose cannon. He had hoped to keep her away from it all, for everyone’s sake, but that was out the window. He could, in theory, bring her in and hope that he could focus her attention in harmless directions; it was unlikely to work, but it could. On the other hand, she was not—as much as it pained him to think—at her sharpest; too reactive, for starters, too frantic. Which made her a major liability; it also increased the odds they could keep a step ahead of her.
Any other case, he would have told her the truth and damn the consequences. She was maddening and impulsive at times, but he had utter faith in her abilities. This, however, was too big and too delicate a matter to leave to chance. She had her responsibilities, he had his. He fell into an uneasy sleep in the early hours of the morning and woke at dawn, the second missing informant weighing on his mind. He couldn’t tell her.
It was a conviction he challenged often. When she arrived in a whirl of activity Tuesday afternoon, he had half-expected her to cross that final distance and press a kiss to his lips as she dropped the picnic basket on his desk. In his distracted state, he forgot that such freedoms had never been more than idle daydreams in the interim between the airfield and the moment it became clear she was not returning from England any time soon. But she sat across from him and they looked over the case together, and it felt… right. And yet, with the secret hanging between them, so very, very wrong.
When she was gone again, he opened the file he’d hidden from Phryne the day before. The first sheet of paper was a list of names, far shorter than it should have been at this point: Johnny at the top, a few minor players and connections below. Nothing he could leverage. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, then stuck a notation next to Roy’s name. Returning the file to a locked drawer, he sighed again.
Less than a week and it would be over, for good or ill, and maybe they could find their footing—he wanted to, very much, for all his attempts to convince himself that too much time had passed. He just had to survive until then.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
Progress was slow on Tuesday, taken up in part by her unproductive meeting in Jack’s office. So little headway was made that, after a short debriefing before the meal, dinner with Mac ended up being a long and involved venting session about Phryne’s time in England in the sanctity of Phryne’s private rooms.
“I still don’t see why you didn’t tell your father to jump off a tall building,” Mac said bluntly as they worked on dessert, a flummery that would impress even Aunt P.
Phryne raised an eyebrow.
“Fine,” conceded Mac, settling back into her seat, “I know exactly why you didn’t. I might, in a pinch and under extreme duress, even admit that it was the right choice. But really, Phryne. This desperate need to ensure your mother’s happiness won’t continue when she gets here, will it? You can’t make her choices for her.”
Phryne shrugged, uncertain of her answer. “She’s recently widowed—”
“From the most selfish man to walk this bloody earth,” Mac scoffed. “You would think she’d be relieved.”
The thought had crossed Phryne’s mind, but hearing it voiced…She took a sip of her tea and tried not to let her face show it. She wasn’t entirely effective, because Mac put down her spoon.
“Oh hell, I’m sorry Phryne. That was crass.”
“A little, yes,” Phryne said quietly.
“I can’t be sorry that he’s gone,” said Mac. “He’s foisted far too much on your shoulders over the years for me to mourn him. But not even the worst of men are without…”
“Redemption?” Phryne supplied, the word bitter on her tongue.
“Oh, there’s no redeeming him. But I’m sure it’s far more complicated from your vantage point.”
Phryne shrugged, tears in her eyes for the second time in as many days. Why did he make her life so complicated, even from the grave? “It rather drove home the point that he was never going to change, that he never did. And I was cleaning up his messes to the end, instead of being free to… do whatever I decided to do.”
“’Do’ in this case being Jack Robinson?”
“Now who is asking for details?” Phryne teased, knowing the smile would not quite reach her eyes. “Not just Jack. I practically abandoned Jane to the mercies of boarding school, and my home, and my own sense of adventure. All for nothing, in the end.” Seeing Mac’s doubtful face, she smirked slightly. “And, yes, there was Jack. Before I left we… we were getting somewhere.”
“You should have let him come,” Mac said. “He was always a good influence.”
Phryne huffed, resenting the truth in the statement. “Oh yes, I did so need to be rescued.”
“Not a rescue, Phryne. But a voice of reason. A friend. Something.”
“Well, a fat lot of good it would have done,” Phryne said, remembering the reason for their meal. “He’s not who I thought he was. I was better off out of it entirely.”
“Do you believe that?”
Mac’s gaze was uncomfortably warm, and Phryne deliberately took another bite of flummery.
“I believed that my father could change his ways, Mac. What I believe is irrelevant. The evidence says that he’s crooked.”
“And evidence has never led to wrong conclusions before.”
“Are you defending him?” Phryne asked incredulously, brow furrowing.
“I’m saying that your perspective might be skewed.”
Phryne was uncertain which she hated more: her friend’s near betrayal or the way her own instincts were shouting in agreement.
“Mac, he’s either a murderer or covering for one.”
“No, he’s keeping a secret about a police informant. That’s all you’ve proven.”
Which was, strictly speaking, true. But she couldn’t afford to think like that, ignore the warning signs because she wanted to. She’d be no better than her mother if she did.
“That’s kind of you to say, Mac, but until you can come up with a good reason for his duplicity—and it’s not just this case!—I’ll continue to collect evidence and assess it impartially.”
Mac snorted derisively.
“Well, I’ve said my piece. Again. Do what you will with it,” she said, pushing away from the dining table. “Did I tell you about that medical conference I went to in January? One of the researchers I met there has just taken a position at Melbourne University.”
Trying to ignore the roiling uncertainty in her gut, so temporarily assuaged by having a plan of investigation, Phryne laughed.
“That’s a request to change the subject if I ever heard one!” she exclaimed, moving to the parlour to curl onto the chaise and patting the seat beside her. “But you didn’t say a word, so tell me all about it.”
After several more hours of discussion, adamantly avoiding the looming spectres of two very different (but, Phryne feared, more similar than she had realised) men, Mac rose to leave. Promising to meet Phryne for dinner again the following night, to go over what Phryne hoped was a lot more evidence—Phryne couldn’t remember an investigation with this few leads—Mac made her way to the door. Phryne went to bed early, determined to continue on in the morning.
Of course, when morning came she was far more interested in the silk sheets and she didn’t rise until nearly ten. As she waited for her breakfast she telephoned the station; Hugh answered.
“Hugh, darling, is the inspector in?”
“Ahh, no miss. He has a court case this morning.”
Phryne forced herself to sigh as if disappointed, though inside she was delighted—how serendipitous. “I had hoped to ask him about an inspector I met yesterday. An Inspector Wildt?”
“What do you need with him, Miss Fisher?” Hugh asked.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, I just wanted to ask Jack if he knew him, even by reputation.”
“I know him,” Hugh said, sounding both nervous and irritated. With sudden insight, Phryne realised that Hugh had listened to Jack’s admonishment not to investigate the Tenner lead—with a young family to worry about he had little choice—but he was not happy about it. “What do you need to know?”
“I would hate to trouble you while you’re on duty, Hugh. Perhaps we could meet for lunch at the park by the station?”
Hugh coughed, then whispered down the line. “Half past twelve, there’s a bench by the entrance. And can you bring Dottie’s Victoria sponge?”
“I would never let a man go hungry,” Phryne replied. “I’ll see you then.”
Her breakfast arrived just as she hung up the telephone, and Phryne ate quickly then bathed and dressed. Sticking her notebook in her handbag, she left the suite and ran through her plans for the day: stop by Wardlow to arrange lunch, see if the cabbies had turned up anything new, speak with Hugh, then keep digging.
Waving brightly to the concierge as she left the hotel, Phryne drove to her home and went straight to the kitchen door.
“Any messages left for me, Mr. B?” she asked as she stepped inside.
Her butler turned smoothly. “Morning, miss. I believe Cecil left a note by the housekeeping tin.”
She moved across the kitchen, seeing the envelope on the shelf, and took it down. Opening it carefully, she found a note in Cec’s tidy but imperfect hand. They’d spoken to someone down at the docks who knew Johnny by sight; the witness had seen him unloading shipments at strange hours from boats that had already been unloaded, and also talking to a tall man in a fedora and coat at a nearby pie cart—they’d noted the latter because it was an exceptionally warm spring day and it wasn’t the outfit of a dock worker. Phryne felt her lips grimace; there were no doubt many tall men in Melbourne who would meet the description, but only one that was known to be involved.
“Can I get a packed lunch for two?” she asked shakily.
“Of course, miss. Is this for the inspector?”
Phryne looked up sharply.
“No, Mr. Butler,” she said. “The inspector is elsewhere this morning. This is for… a contact. And could you include some Victoria sponge?”
Her butler inclined his head. “Straight away. Dorothy baked one fresh this morning before taking Miss Winifred to visit her mother. And I’ll draw up a cold plate of meats and cheeses.”
“Perfect!” she managed, the note from Cec still in her hands. She couldn’t let anyone else see it. “I’ll be in my study briefly, just want to check on some old paperwork. Five minutes, Mr. B.”
Heading into the study, she quickly extracted her notebook and pressed Cec’s letter in the back. Evidence she could weigh up, that’s what she needed; she was finally getting it, and she didn’t like what it said. She quickly rifled through some letters that had been left on her desk, as much to have a reason to be in the study as any real interest. She’d not been back in Melbourne long enough for anything truly interesting to arrive. When it was done—there were a few invitations she’d need to respond to but could wait until the weekend, and a letter from her mother informing Phryne when she intended to leave Jakarta and when she would arrive in Melbourne as a result; Phryne wasn’t holding her breath on the latter, aware her mother would likely change ships at least twice more for one reason or another—Phryne headed back to the kitchen, where a basket was made up as per usual.
“You, Mr. Butler, are a gift to all those who hunger!”
“I do my best, miss.”
“Your best is exceptional, as always.”
Taking the basket, Phryne headed back to her Hispano for a picnic lunch and a meeting. The sky was turning grey, threatening rain; she hoped it would hold off until after they had eaten. She planned to spend the rest of the afternoon going through more old newspapers to piece together a background on Alaric Wildt—with any luck, Hugh could set her in the right direction—so she wouldn’t mind rain then.
She had no such luck.
As she parked on the street, bench in sight, the skies opened. She quickly leapt out of the car, raising the roof, then settled back in to wait. Hopefully Hugh would still arrive and they could eat in the motorcar—not quite what she wanted to be doing with a policeman in her motorcar, but needs must—without raising suspicions. After a moment she spotted a black uniform, and she called Hugh’s name out the window. The man glanced around quickly before ducking into the car.
“Afternoon, Miss Fisher,” he said, grinning in a shockingly confident manner.
Phryne jerked her head towards the basket in the back seat. Hugh twisted to retrieve it, and they began to eat in silence as the rain pounded the roof above them. After eating a meat pie and two sandwiches, Hugh looked at her.
“Why are you asking after Inspector WIldt?”
Phryne attempted nonchalance as she shrugged and took another biscuit. “No reason, really. His name just came up.”
“With the Johnny Pierson case?”
“Yes,” she confirmed, then narrowed her eyes as if she was suddenly suspicious; Hugh shifted nervously. “Why, do you know something?”
“Just that Johnny Pierson visited Inspector Wildt several times while I was seconded to the Tenners.”
“Hmm, that is odd. And there’s nothing else I should know? No other visitors, perhaps, or things you overheard?”
Hugh’s loyalty was clearly torn between his mentor and his own sense of duty; he ate silently for several minutes.
“I don’t know what you know, miss,” he finally said, “but you should know that Inspector Robinson and Inspector Wildt know each other. Very well, I think. I heard him call the inspector ‘Jackie’ over the telephone once, at least.”
Phryne could not think of someone in her acquaintance less likely to be a Jackie. At least it wasn’t Robbo; the Australian need to nickname men by their surnames was always an oddity, in her mind. Still, it was better than the British aristocracy's habits—she’d known a Piffy, a Plonk and two different Plummies in London, and they had gotten off lightly.
“That is very helpful, Hugh,” she said. The rain ceased as suddenly as it began. “If you think of anything else, you’ll let me know?”
“Of course, miss,” he said, finishing off his cake. “I must get back to the station.”
“Naturally. And perhaps the inspector need not know of our little lunch?”
Hugh nodded. “He’d only be disappointed to miss my Dottie’s cake.”
He was almost out of the car when Phryne spoke again.
“Hugh, one more thing. What did you think of Wildt?”
Hugh sighed, but didn’t turn around.
“I liked him, miss. He seemed honest, and he was fairer than he needed to be. Even asked after Winnie when she took ill. But that doesn’t mean much, does it?”
“No,” Phryne said sadly. “I suppose it doesn’t.”
Once Hugh was down the street, she started her car and headed towards the library. She needed to know more about this inspector.
Four hours later, armed with a notebook half-full of likely useless information—Wildt’s appearances in newspaper articles were few and far between, especially after he’d taken over the Tenners six years earlier, and his reputation was suspicious only in its lack of suspiciousness—Phryne returned to the hotel for another dinner with Mac, nursing a newfound determination to get to the bottom of things the following day. Pushing the matter might tip Jack off, but it was a risk she had to take.
On Wednesday afternoon, after a long morning in court, Jack attempted to speak with Esme Pierson again. He telephoned Wardlow in the hopes that Miss Fisher would agree to come with him; the widow was understandably abrasive towards police officers, and Phryne did have a knack with people. She was unavailable though, with no indication when she would be free, and he drove to the small flat himself.
The conversation went about as well as he had anticipated; Esme folded her arms and glared when she answered the door, and only stepped aside to allow him through when he asked.
“I ain’t sure why yer making like you care ‘bout some dead crim,” she said, taking a deep drag of her fag. “It ain’t like we’re a priori’y while we’se living.”
Jack’s usual assurances that he took all of his cases seriously felt rather hollow, and it left Esme unmoved. Her answers to his few questions were curt, and told him nothing new. Returning to the station, he telephoned Doctor MacMillan.
“Drinks this evening?” he asked without preamble; it had become their habit shortly after Phryne had left for England.
“Afraid not, Jack,” Mac said, and there was something in her voice that told him it wasn’t because of her workload.
It was only natural, he supposed, that Miss Fisher’s return would mark the end of their Wednesday evening ritual. It was a loss that he felt keenly though; the doctor was witty and intelligent and understood some of the challenges that their job presented, and he enjoyed her company. As the boss and unpopular with much of the brass—his arrest of George Sanderson and refusal to play politics made them very, very nervous—it was a connection he could have with very few people, and he appreciated it very much.
He drove home and made himself some dinner instead. After eating and doing the washing up, he sat in his parlour and attempted to read a book; after an hour he gave up, unable to focus. A bicycle ride then; the physical exertion would do him good. He set off and found himself riding near his childhood house, long sold. He rode a street over, stopping in front of a two-bedroom bungalow. Leaving his bicycle leaning against the side of the house, he knocked on the door. Alaric Wildt answered.
“Jackie!” he boomed, smiling.
“Hello, Will. I was hoping you’d be in.”
The blonde man glanced around, looking for a reason for Jack’s unannounced arrival.
“Not business,” Jack said.
“Trouble with a certain lady?”
Will’s smile was sly; Jack wondered whether he could punch the man. The problem with knowing someone for most of your life was that you could rarely lie with any effectiveness.
“Not business,” Jack repeated, stepping into the house. “Probably not pleasure. Pour some damned whiskey.”
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
Thursday morning, mercifully hangover-free despite a late night with Will, Jack was at the station when Miss Fisher steamed in and flopped into her usual seat with such force that her cloche actually shifted to cover her eyes. She resecured it confidently, then levelled a cool gaze at him.
“It’s been a week and we haven’t made progress,” she declared, folding her arms and glaring at him as if he was to blame for the fact. She might blame him, really; he had not been at his most forthcoming, and she would no doubt have noticed—it was presumably the reason she was sniffing around Will’s office, investigating her own way, though he still couldn’t figure out how she’d gotten wind of it.
“It happens, on occasion,” he said.
Which was true, and the inquiries she was not privy to had turned up nothing of interest either. She scowled.
“Not to me.”
“Could it be that even the great Phryne Fisher has found a case she cannot solve?” he asked, regretting his words immediately. Under the right circumstances it would have been accepted for the light-hearted banter he meant it to be, but her eyes flashed.
“The lack of cooperation—from Johnny’s friends and family, of course—is a hindrance, but I’ll damn well solve this,” she said scathingly. “If you have no other leads, I won’t bother to stop by again. You know how to reach me.”
She stood; for just a second there was a pain in her eyes that made him want to spill the whole sordid affair out, but she turned sharply on her heel and was out the door before he could open his mouth. Sighing, Jack pulled out the file and looked it over again. There had to be something. A known associate without an alibi, a way to figure out who else Johnny owed money to. He almost wished he had Miss Fisher investigating by his side, rather than running parallel. But she was better off out of it. He was better off with her out of it.
Fed up with his office, he grabbed his hat and coat and headed back down to Johnny Pierson’s local pub. He could re-interview Johnny’s friends, try to suss out who his big debts were owed to. It was almost certainly an exercise in futility—he doubted Johnny had ever had enough money in his life to warrant “killed and hacked to pieces then dumped in the ocean”, and there was a much more obvious motivation for that—but it gave him something to do.
Two hours later, smelling of a witness’s ale and tobacco, Jack was no further ahead. He’d spoken with someone new and even had a name mentioned—a loan shark that operated in the area—but the lead was ruled out all of ten minutes later when the man in question entered the pub, took a swing at Jack, and proved he had very little motive and an alibi.
Well, at least he could be seen doing something. He spoke again with the land registry office on the unlikely chance they had a property under the name of Johnny Pierson or Charlie Greene—they had to have a separate property for their business, even a private residence—to no avail. With nothing else to follow, his mind turned back to the missing Roy. He could telephone hospitals, check for any reports of a man matching the description. Instructing Collins not to interrupt unless it was a pressing matter, Jack locked the door to his office and began to ring around. His voice was practically hoarse by the end of the afternoon, and he still had no leads.
The good news was that no bodies matching the description had been reported in Victoria, South Australia or New South Wales; he tried not to think that the chances of finding a body when the murderer was dumping them in a major body of water was unlikely, and even more so given the method of disposal. And with the doors and windows shut, the stench from his clothes after his pub visit made his office stifling and left him with a throbbing headache. He was just finishing for the day and preparing to head home and shower in time for his dinner with Rosie—he could and likely would come back to the station once it was done, but he didn’t have anything that could not be delayed for a hot meal, and with a window cracked his office might lose the stench—when he heard a noise from outside his office.
“Bleedin’ ‘ell!” shouted a familiar voice.
Jack stood up and opened the door.
“Albert,” he said coolly. “You’re beginning to make a habit out of this.”
Though he would deny it, he had a certain fondness for the man that went back even before their paths had crossed in Miss Fisher’s kitchen on a regular basis; he didn’t agree with Bert’s beliefs, but he respected him for standing by them. This was the second time in a month he’d been at the station and drunk, though, and it couldn’t go on. The red-ragger turned towards him, lurching forward slightly.
“Oi, Rob’son, you’re a—”
Jack cut him off with a raised hand.
“Constable,” Jack directed. “Please escort Mr. Johnson to the cells for the evening. And make sure you leave a bucket with him.”
His constable nodded, taking Bert’s arm.
“Bloody copper,” Bert muttered as he was escorted down the stairs. “Never getting nuffin’ done.”
Jack found he rather agreed with him.
Frustrated and with no other options, Phryne surveyed the wardrobe choices she had at the hotel. Black trousers, of course, and Mr. Butler had packed her beret—how he knew what she needed she would never know—and there was a navy blue blouse; the latter was a little looser in the arms than she would like, but that could be spun as an advantage. She couldn’t wear her dagger in a garter with trousers, but a literal weapon up her sleeve did have potential. She dressed quickly, telephoning Mac and telling her that there was no news and she could skip dinner. Satisfied everything was arranged, she forced herself to read a novel in order to pass the time.
When it was sufficiently dark, she changed into her laid-out clothes and drove to the address Charlie had given her, parking several streets over. It was a small house, run down but in generally good condition. There was a light on in one room—sneaking close, she peeked in the window, ascertaining that it was empty. The light came from a table lamp in what proved to be the parlour, and Phryne presumed that it had been left on by accident or as a light when Charlie returned from his late-night job. He would not be back until sometime after three in the morning, so she had several hours yet. Double-checking that she had her torch, she snuck around the back of the house and quietly opened a kitchen window to slip inside.
She flipped on her torch, keeping it pointed towards the floor as her eyes adjusted to the darkness in the house. There was a pile of dirty dishes by the sink, and papers were stacked high on the kitchen table. She moved closer; newspapers, mostly, and pamphlets for various causes. She shifted through them anyway, finally finding a sheet covered in numbers and some sort of code; the letters had a Germanic sort of shape to them, and she exhaled sharply, recognising the handwriting. Debating for a moment about whether to risk being caught out, she folded the paper and stuck it in a pocket. She could try to decode it later.
Finding nothing else of interest in the kitchen, she crept into the dark hallway. There were three doors; a parlour and two bedrooms, she presumed, or possibly one bedroom and a lavatory, though that would be unusual in a house in this location and condition. Determining which was the parlour and intending to leave it for last—the light and window facing the street increased her chances of being seen—she chose one of the remaining doors at random, which turned out to be a bedroom. It was, despite the home’s outside appearance, quite nice—not a patch on the Windsor, but when they’d made arrangements to meet again she had implied she wanted a more anonymous location and this fit the bill. A large bed dominated the room, and the bedding was dark green and plush. She trailed a hand across it, taking in the rest of the room—a chest of drawers, a full-length mirror, a small writing desk, and a rug on the floor that seemed slightly out of alignment. A generic landscape painting hung on the wall; she wouldn’t have thought Charlie the sort to go in for art, but no doubt it helped his pretense of civility.
She quickly checked the frame of both the picture and the standing mirror, running a gloved finger along them and looking for hints of hidden evidence. Nothing. The chest of drawers next: she looked in each drawer first, finding nothing but clothes. No hidden bottoms. She removed each one to check the frame, both with a visual inspection and by running her hand along the wood. On the bottom she discovered a white residue on her glove when she pulled away; touching it with her tongue, she confirmed her suspicions—cocaine. It fit with what little she knew, and there was a certain symmetry that her first and last cases with Jack Robinson—no, no melancholy self-pity. She replaced the drawer and stood to survey the room.
The bed was the next obvious choice. She moved towards it, searching through the pillows and sheets, then shifting the mattress far enough she could check beneath. Nothing. The frame was too heavy to move, but there was enough space between bed and wall to glance between; head against the wall and squinting to see, she heard a noise and froze.
The sound had been so quiet she couldn’t identify it, but she immediately sought out the window—closed and across the room, it wouldn’t be a great escape route. Beneath the bed, then. She lay down and rolled underneath, switching off her torch and trying not to cough at the dust that was kicked up. After several minutes with no following noise, she breathed deeply. It must have been outside, or some sort of rodent in the house. She flicked the torch back on, giving the room a once over from her new position. The rug. It had been moved, likely recently. Not by much—maybe a foot—but enough that the sunlight fading on the floor didn’t match up. She rolled from beneath the bed, carefully dusting herself off. Then she strode to the rug, rolling it back with a quiet grunt. Beneath it was a dark stain.
Blood. Only a small amount, but enough. She crouched down, examining it: not fresh, but not exceptionally old. About a hand a half span; not enough to account for Johnny Pierson’s dismemberment, but depending on cause of death he might have died in the bedroom and been moved. She replaced the rug, then slipped from the bedroom and moved to the next room. It was, somewhat surprisingly, a washroom. Indoor plumbing, flush toilet, sink and bathtub. Not likely to be much evidence of the cocaine ring here, but she carefully examined the room and focused on the tub, suspecting it would be the perfect place to take apart a body. It had been scrubbed at one point, based on the abrasions on the surface, but it was not particularly clean. Johnny Pierson’s death had been at least two weeks ago though, so it was not a surprising development; she trained her torch on the corners and looked carefully. After several minutes she found what she was looking for; a small, dark stain approximately the size of a sixpence. This nighttime visit was proving very productive indeed. Using the edge of the tub as leverage, she stood again.
There was only one room remaining. Back in the hall she flicked off her torch; the parlour door was opened, so she padded towards it. From the doorway she surveyed it, confirming her original impressions; white walls, more generic art. A sideboard. Neat, but with no personal touches. Two tall armchairs facing the fireplace on the opposite wall, a small table between them. And on the table, a nearly empty glass of whiskey. She watched in horror as a hand extended from the chair to pick up the tumbler.
She took a breath, running through her options. The front door was only a few feet to her left, but potentially locked. She’d left the kitchen window open behind her; if she could slip away, go out feet first so she could hit the ground running….
She’d hesitated too long; just as she shifted to retreat, a figure stood from the chair, now-empty glass in hand. He saw her only a second after she saw him; tall, almost comically lean, dark hair surprisingly long. When he silently snarled, she noticed a missing tooth. They stood, staring at each other for what felt like an eternity, then he launched himself across the room.
Phryne had her dagger, and raised it up enough to stop his momentum; he stopped moving forward but grabbed at it. She slashed. He ducked away then came back, so quickly she didn’t have a chance to counter. He twisted her hand, pulling the dagger out.
“Who are you?” he growled.
She kicked his leg, felt it connect hard enough to make him gasp, drove her foot into his instep. Reached for her dagger, a wrong move—the blade nearly hit her skin. He thrust, she ducked. An elbow to his stomach as she came back up, the dagger back in her hand. He grasped her arm from behind, pulled her in; her dagger couldn’t get close enough at this angle. She shifted her weight, enough to gain leverage to push him away, then spun, ending up in the hall.
He lunged again, shoving her into the wall. She pushed off the wall and swung, hitting his nose hard enough that he reeled into the opposite wall. Phryne ran into the kitchen; seeing the unwashed dishes, she tossed them at the man. It bought her the seconds she needed; she dove through the window and rolled to regain her feet.
She couldn’t go around the front, where the man no doubt was. She darted into the dark, vaulting over several fences as she made her way back to the Hispano through the tiny back gardens of all the cottages.
Back at the car, she moved her hand to the pocket. The paper she’d uncovered was still there and she was alive. Sore, but alive. She turned over the engine and drove back to the Windsor. She was going to have a long, hot bath before she figured out her next step.
After dinner and a very distracted game of chess that Rosie called off halfway through, Jack headed back to the station. He wasn’t naive enough to think that he’d have a breakthrough on Johnny’s murder, but it still seemed preferable. There were other cases that needed his attention, and paperwork. A few hours catching up on unrelated crimes would do him a world of good. He tried not to think too hard about the implications of that. He nodded to the constable on desk duty and headed into his office.
Almost an hour into signing off on reports, he came across an unsolved burglary on The Esplanade. He’d warned Collins when it came up, who no doubt had passed the information to Mr. Butler, but perhaps he should mention it to Miss Fisher as well. If nothing else, she was likely to offer her services to her neighbour, which would have the dual advantages of distracting her from their current murder and the potential to make progress on a case with no leads. The next case was a murder of an airplane mechanic. A car accident. The suspicious death of a party-going young flapper with a black bob. Every case brought her to mind. At the point he’d managed to draw a connection between her and a pub assault based on a single conversation early in their acquaintance, he had to admit that the problem might lie with him. He sighed, pushing the folder away and pressing his fingers against his eyes. A drink. A drink would be good.
Because there was no reason to associate Phryne Fisher with whiskey.
Right. Just work it through a final time and put it to bloody rest.
He cared for her. While the cessation of letters had hurt, it was not a surprise or a blow; he had rather understood, struggling to put his own words to paper when so much was unattainable. And he had been blindsided by her return; that might have been the part that had stung the most, the lack of interest that her neglect to notify him implied. Or perhaps it was seeing the shadows of the past two years every time he looked at her, in every bantered exchange that fell flat, in every moment he had been able to forget that what they’d almost had was no more than a memory.
And professionally she was… not at her best. Which still put her heads above half the Victorian Police Force, if he was honest. But better than half the constabulary was not, in itself, enough for a case of this delicacy. And there were layers upon layers of history that he would have to unravel. He sighed. He really could use her help. It was a gamble. A huge one, and the repercussions could destroy his career in addition to the case.
He took a sip of his whiskey, reaching into his desk drawer to pull out a photograph that he’d almost forgotten was there, from one of their early cases. He’d been amused by her then, and impressed by her imperturbable tolerance, but still assuming that she was a frivolous flapper looking for entertainment. She’d become so much more since then, had allowed him to see so much more since then. Even in her silences. After a moment, he replaced the photograph, aware of the small, warm smile on his face despite everything else.
Sod logic; he had to tell her. Tomorrow morning, first thing, and damn the risks.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
I can usually manage to reply to comments before posting the next chapter, but a new puppy has rather thrown a spanner into my free time. I will respond, probably later today, but I figured you'd rather have the chapter more. ;-)
A hot bath and a whiskey were enough to send Phryne to sleep, and when she woke up it was morning and somebody was knocking. She rolled out of bed, pulled her robe around her tightly and wiped the sleep from her eyes as she headed towards the door. Exhausted, it didn’t occur to her to peer through the peephole before opening it.
“Miss Fisher!” he exclaimed, desperately looking anywhere but at her.
Phryne sighed, remembering all the times he had seen her in robes before—all of them chaste yet somehow intimate, and never had she felt as undressed as she did at the moment. She moved aside, motioning him in.
“I’ll get changed,” she said, not yet ready to ask why he was there. Not yet ready to process everything she had uncovered the night before.
Shutting the door to the bedroom, she quickly changed, wincing a little from the fight. There were no bruises, thankfully, but she was tender. Then she brushed her hair and applied her powders, surveying herself in the mirror and deciding that she at least looked the part.
Once dressed, she took the time to consider her options and reread her notes—after last night she was certain Alaric Wildt was involved. She pulled the paper she’d secured from the pocket of last night’s trousers, smoothing it. She hadn’t had the time to attempt decoding, but it was definitely his handwriting.
Which left the question of how deep Jack’s involvement went.
Prevaricate and bluff her way through whatever conversation he had come to have, then keep investigating; it was really the only route available to her. She refolded the paper with Wildt’s writing, placing it into her notebook and then her notebook in the pocket of her long cardigan. She wanted to know where it was at all times. She glanced in the mirror again, donned her sunniest smile, and waltzed back into the parlour.
“Jack! I am so sorry to keep you waiting,” she trilled. “Whatever are you doing here this time of morning?”
“Miss Fisher,” he greeted, looking up from a cup of tea. “I’m afraid I took the liberty of ordering tea and breakfast. I will, of course, cover the expense.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she smiled. “Has there been some development in the case?”
“Ahh, no, not particularly,” he said, looking sheepish as he stood. “I thought a change of venue might help. I set up the files in the dining room.”
“You have been busy while I was dressing,” she purred. “Lead the way then.”
She watched his sure strides, trying to muster up the strength to lie to him. It was the right thing to do. Anyone could be bought, for the right price. He had lied, deceived, shut her out. Rooted in the spot, she reminded herself that the investigation, that justice, came first. She had to lie. Anybody could be bought.
“It’s cocaine,” she said.
Anybody but Jack Robinson.
He paused, but didn’t turn.
“How did you find out?” he asked, resigned.
She regained her movement, moved to meet him, to pass him and find her way to the case files in the next room. Glancing at them so she didn’t have to meet his eyes, she sighed.
“I broke into Charlie Greene’s second address last night.”
“What second address?” he asked in confusion.
“The one he gave me during our dinner. I didn’t tell you because…” Because you were lying to me and I didn’t know why. “I knew that there were facts I had not been made privy to.”
A frustrated sigh, a shifting of his weight to the heels of his feet.
“I’m sure you had your reasons, Jack—”
A terse nod, then he sighed again.
“You broke into….” His resignation gained a hard edge as his jaw clenched. “I cannot believe—no, that’s a lie, of course I can believe that you would do that, Miss Fisher.”
“Well, I hardly had a choice—”
“You had a choice!” he shouted, startling her. “You could have done literally anything but break into the property of a man suspected of hacking his best friend to pieces.”
“I had Bert with me,” she said defensively, wondering why she felt the need to lie.
“No you didn’t.”
“Of course I did,” she replied, folding her arms and turning to look him in the eye. He met her gaze.
“No, you didn’t. He was in the cells all night.”
“Alright, fine, I didn’t. But it was fine until I got caught.”
“Until you what?”
“Tiny little detail,” she said as lightly as she could. “Minor scuffle, made my escape.”
“Minor—escape—Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“I was doing what needed to be done!”
“No! If you were trying to do what needed to be done, you would have brought backup. You could have asked me—”
“No, I couldn’t. I had a mountain of evidence you were lying to me and no idea why.”
“Collins, then!” he spat, furious. “Hell, Mrs. Collins. You could have waited for Cec or Bert! You could have… I don’t know, hired a bodyguard. Told someone where you were going to be, so that when we fished you out of the Yarra I would have some idea where to start looking for your murderer.”
“I wasn’t aware you cared that much,” she said coolly, clinging onto the last shreds of anger at his deceptions.
“Of course I bloody care! All I can seem to do is care.”
If he’d punched her in the solar plexus, it would have been easier to breathe. But she never backed down from a fight; she leant forward, slamming a fist on the file before her.
“You cared so much you didn’t even tell me you were covering up the fact that Johnny Pierson was a police informant! That you were covering up for an old Academy buddy!” she spat. At his look of confusion, she refolded her arms. “I heard you talking to Hugh at Winnie’s birthday party.”
For a moment he looked stunned, then his lips narrowed.
“Miss Fisher, you waltzed onto my crime scene and threatened nearly a year’s worth of work. I think my caution was justified.”
“Oh really?” she challenged. “And how did I do that? Remind you that your first responsibility is to the law, not your fellow officers?”
“My first responsibility was to this case! A cocaine smuggling ring that made Lydia Andrews’ setup look like a children’s game in comparison, run by people so ruthless that it got a man I was responsible for killed. Brutally. And you were back and sparkling and ready to turn it into another damned chase—”
“That’s unfair, Jack. I always take my cases seriously.”
“Of course you do,” he retorted, waving his hand in frustration.“But you also do things like break into buildings without backup, or lie about evidence, or one of a dozen things that would have put yourself and my entire case in danger.”
“So instead of trusting me and letting me make my own choices, you let me go in blind?”
“You weren’t supposed to go in at all!”
“Right,” Phryne scoffed. “And when has that ever happened?”
“I could only hope you’d gained some sense while you were away.”
Of all the things he could have said, that was the one that stung. She blinked away furious tears.
“Yes, well, you wouldn’t know, now would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said quietly.
They fell silent for a minute, glaring and waiting for the other to make the next move. Finally, Phryne closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Arguing would get them nowhere; they still had a case to solve, and there was evidence burning a hole in her pocket.
“If it was your case, how was Inspector Wildt involved?”
“He was helping me,” Jack said curtly.
“I think he was helping himself.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“Are you sure though?” she pressed. “You do have a history of…assuming better of your fellow officers than they deserve.”
“Fairly certain, yes,” Jack said with a dryness that underscored his certainty.
She pulled her notebook out of her pocket, extracting the loose page and passing it towards him.
“I hate to tell you this,” she said gently, “but I found evidence at the house that he was involved—”
“Miss Fisher, I’ve known the man since we were seven. He was best man at my wedding, Rosie and I were godparents to his daughter—”
Her stomach dropped.
“Wait, this is Will? Almost-got-you-arrested-as-teenagers, honey-cookie-recipe-hiding Will?”
“Mmhm,” Jack said. “Alaric Wildt. Hated it as a child, and since there was an Al in our group already he became Will through the convoluted thought processes of young boys.”
Phryne sat in the dining room chair and lowered her head into her hands. Of all the accusations to make, going after closest thing Jack had left to family…
Damn it all. He shouldn’t have lied to her. But she wasn't entirely blameless either.
“What do we do now?” she whispered.
Jack was quiet for a moment, then he sighed.
“We investigate the way we should have done from the start.”
Before they could begin their investigations, there was a knock at the door. Jack watched Phryne welcome the staff bringing breakfast and a second pot of tea, utterly composed; inside he was reeling. The implication that she had thought him involved… it stung. Quite a bit. And would probably hurt more when he had time to actually contemplate the implications; there were other priorities. And yet, when faced with even more evidence of his involvement—he glanced at the paper she’d handed him and agreed with her assessment of the writer—she had defied it and told him. It felt like that mattered. She pressed a coin into the man’s hand, then motioned for Jack to sit at the table.
“Were you going to tell me?” she asked, spreading jam onto a slice of toast and passing it to him.
“Take a look at the files,” he replied.
She turned to look at him instead. “I want to hear it from you.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Against my better judgment, I came here today with the essentials. I couldn’t—no, I didn’t want to keep it from you any longer. Were you ever going to tell me?”
“Absolutely not,” she said, then gave him a small smile. Drawing her knees up to rest her feet on the chair, she looked at him openly. “I want to hear your version of events before I start wading through reports.”
“Pass the teapot,” he said. “This is going to take some time.”
He laid it out as simply as he could: eight months earlier, Johnny Pierson had been arrested by a constable at City South—“You’d like him, Miss Fisher, young and charming,” Jack said wryly, and she’d shrugged and pointed out that young ones were getting too young nowadays—on some minor charges. He had, in return, spun a story of a massive cocaine ring that had been overlooked by the constabulary through some very clever separations between each small operation, but Johnny had put it together. He was working his way up the chain rather quickly, and he was willing to become a confidential informant if it kept him out of gaol—he had children to worry about now, after all.
“Trying to do the right thing, in his own way,” Phryne mused. Jack raised an eyebrow and she shrugged. “Sometimes what we have to do to survive isn’t a source of pride, Jack.”
He rather agreed, but he could hardly say so; there was a difference between losing the occasional bit of evidence and turning a blind eye to a vast criminal operation.
Jack had been doubtful of Johnny’s claims—the operation he spoke of was so sprawling it almost beggared belief—but some careful inquiries to the right people and a long talk with Will, whose unit was better informed on the matter, convinced him. After some thorough arguments with the top brass, including the new commissioner, Jack had been placed in charge of a long-term investigation. Johnny would provide information. Will would, under the guise of Al Burns, be introduced to key people and potentially go deep undercover to gather intelligence; it was Jack’s last choice and ultimately his call, but a few meetings had been arranged so the groundwork was laid. "Hence the paper," Phryne extrapolated, and Jack nodded. The two police officers had spent most of their spare hours working on the case in one capacity or another, and it was kept between them and all of three people at Russell Street to minimise the risk of discovery. An operation that size was likely to have policemen in their pockets.
“And Charlie Greene?” she asked.
“Not part of our investigation. We knew he was an old friend of Johnny’s and they were business partners in other endeavors, but we couldn’t prove he was involved in this at all.”
He should have told her when she’d made dinner plans with the man while he lurked in the corridor. It was unconscionable, in hindsight, that he had not; it had put her in a dangerous position, all for the sake of the case.
“Right. Well, I think it’s safe to say with last night’s discoveries we can presume he is.”
She told him what her own investigation had turned up—evidence of cocaine, a probable location for Johnny’s death, a house that seemed to be used as a base of operations instead of the private residence Charlie had implied.
“We’ll get a warrant. And you’re alright?” Jack asked.
She grinned at him. “Takes more than that to get rid of me.”
“Can you come back to the station after breakfast? Look through the photographs we have of key players we’ve managed to identify—not that there's many—and see if you can recognise last night’s assailant?”
“You do make it sound so dramatic,” Phryne laughed. “I barely ripped my blouse.”
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose—there were some things he had not missed when she was in England. Her utter flippancy towards her own well-being was one of them.
She shoved another piece of toast into his hands and turned her eyes to the first folder on the pile. She read it as she ate, silent except for the occasional question.
“The missing persons report?” she asked when the meal was almost finished.
“Uhh, I genuinely have no idea,” Jack admitted. “I can’t find a record of it anywhere, and without the officer’s name or at least a station I can’t track it down. It might be a clerical error, or a cop who didn’t think a petty criminal from Collingwood deserved a report, or it could be something sinister. All I know is that I called every station that might have taken a call at the Pierson address and nobody remembers a call from weeks ago.”
“Fair enough, I suppose. It’s still damned convenient.”
She looked at him from the corner of her eye, smiling slightly.
“This is much more pleasant than investigating alone.”
“And really, neither one of us—”
“Agreed. And I’d prefer not to discuss it at this moment.”
She finished her tea instead of replying, then stood. “Very well then. You said there was more at the station?”
“Yes. The essentials are what you’ve looked over, but with your new information we might find something I’ve missed.”
She nodded. “I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.”
“It’s a twenty minute drive this time of morning,” Jack pointed out.
“Fine,” she huffed, smiling. “Fifteen.”
Jack found himself smiling back. “I’ll probably make it in twelve; don’t leave me waiting too long, Miss Fisher.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Jack,” she teased, a slight worry of her lips the only sign she was not as flippant as she appeared.
Jack gathered the files from the table and headed down to his own motorcar. Despite the head start he arrived at City South in near tandem with Miss Fisher’s Hispano, a detail she crowed about while never saying a word; it was all through her wicked smirk as she waved hello. They met at the stairs, his long, sure strides matched perfectly to her quick steps, and Jack swung open the door and motioned her through.
Once inside his office he pulled out more files, leaving Miss Fisher to read them as he retrieved the booking photographs from behind the reception desk. He marked each page with an involved party on it before handing it over. Miss Fisher flipped through the book quickly, eventually coming to stop on a page.
Jack looked, then nodded. “Tony Blake. Low level, delivering orders to individual buyers.”
“Well, that’s not much use,” she sighed. “And I’m not seeing any leads in here that you failed to follow up on. There’s just… not enough to be sure of anything, is there?”
Jack nodded. “Months of chasing my tail while trying to run the station and investigate a full caseload of other crimes.”
“We make a very sorry set of detectives,” Phryne said, rubbing her forehead.
Jack laughed with slight bitterness.
“We did manage to find out that there’s a major shipment coming in Wednesday before our second source—one of Will’s long-time informants who happened to be involved with one of the small operations—disappeared. At this point I think I’m going to have to send Will in and hope the cover wasn’t broken.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Jack retorted, then sighed again. “I just don’t think I have any other option.”
“We’ll find one,” Phryne said confidently. “Let me read the file again.”
Leaving her to read the report, Jack retreated to the station kitchenette to make two cups of tea. He’d just settled behind his desk and began watching her work—brow furrowed, lips pursed in a moue of concentration—when a constable knocked on the door.
“There’s a Mrs. Pierson on the telephone for you, sir. She says Charlie Greene has been shot.”
Chapter 11: Chapter Ten
RL continues to be... busy. Mostly for reasons far less fun than a puppy. I love and adore all your comments, and I will reply. Eventually.
At the constable’s words, Phryne was out of her seat and halfway to the door before realising she’d left sensitive files spread across Jack’s desk; she turned back to remedy the situation and found Jack already cleaning up behind her. A rather ridiculous amount of sentiment filled her at the sight, and she quickly tamped it down to examine later.
“Your vehicle or mine?” she asked instead.
“Police business, police motorcar,” he replied, shoving the files into a drawer and locking it. Then he rounded the desk, grabbing his hat and coat, and gave her a knowing look. “And civilian drivers are strictly forbidden.”
“All these rules, it’s a wonder you get anything done,” she tossed back lightly.
Confirming that Charlie Greene had been shot in his Collingwood flat, Jack instructed the constable to keep Mrs. Pierson calm and arrange for an ambulance before they both swept from the office and into his vehicle. The drive over was terse—really, for all his chastisement Jack drove quite fast himself when the situation called for it, and Phryne was determined not to distract him—and they were soon pulling up outside the greengrocer’s. Phryne sprung from the vehicle first, heels clicking over first the cobblestones then the stairs. There was more rubbish in the corridors than the week before, and in the heat of the day the stench was nearly overpowering.
Mrs. Pierson met her at the door to her flat, nearly naked child still at her waist.
“I heard a loud bang from Charlie’s flat,” she said, appearing to be in shock. “I opened the door to see, and…”
“It’s alright, Mrs. Pierson,” Phryne said calmly. “Is he alive?”
“I… I don’t know. I don’t see how…”
Phryne heard Jack’s arrival behind her; good.
“Tell the inspector everything you saw,” she said to Mrs. Pierson, heading to Charlie’s flat.
The door was still open, and the scent of blood clung to the air. Charlie was sprawled on the floor, a portion of his face missing, but he was moving. Phryne glanced around, finding some clean laundry drying on the side, including a towel. It would have to do. She grabbed it and moved forward; he was gasping now, a sickly gurgling sound. Phryne muttered soothing words, attempted to stop the blood—even with the ambulance Jack had called, it was unlikely he’d survive. But she could give him a chance.
Moments later the ambulance arrived, taking Charlie with them. Phryne stood in the newly empty apartment, blood on her hands, and tried to regain her composure. There was a sound at the door and she spun; it was Jack, holding a towel.
“Yes,” she said, flustered. “Yes, thank you.”
The towel was damp and quickly cleaned her hands; when they were free of blood, Phryne dropped the towel onto a nearby side table and took a deep breath.
“It wasn’t self-inflicted,” she said, casting her eyes anywhere but where Jack stood silently. “It was meant to look like it, I think—the gun was next to him—but… I saw self-inflicted wounds during the war and the angle was wrong. Not impossible, but…”
She could still feel the blood on her hands, and casting her eyes down she noticed some of the hem of her blouse. She needed it off. Away. She unbuttoned it quickly, ready to shove it anywhere but against her skin. Hands—Jack’s hands—came into view, taking the blouse and offering his suit jacket in return. Phryne looked up to meet his eyes; there was no judgment there. No, of course not. She looked away, her eyes coming to rest on a bouquet of flowers on Charlie’s sidetable. Intended, perhaps, for their meeting that night; her hand flew to her mouth.
“Do you need me to drive you home?”
She’d forgotten how steady Jack’s voice was, smooth and low and grounding.
“No,” she said. “No. I’ll just…” She shrugged on the offered jacket; it was too large, of course, but with careful buttoning and rolled sleeves it seemed almost deliberate. It covered her camisole, at least. “What did Mrs. Pierson say?”
Jack tilted his head but did not voice his doubts. “Not much, I’m afraid. She heard the gunshot, saw him, telephoned the station from the shop downstairs.”
“She didn’t see anyone else, or hear an argument?”
“Not that she said.”
Phryne nodded. She’d ask as well, in case Mrs. Pierson was simply avoiding cooperating with a police officer on principle. Spying the puddle of blood once more, Phryne closed her eyes and willed her body not to run.
“I’ll ask her,” she said, “if you’ll—”
“I’ll finish with the scene,” Jack said. “There will be constables here soon enough.”
Nodding again, she moved towards the doorway. Jack caught her arm as she walked past, turning her to look at him; his eyes were concerned, warm, too much for her precarious composure, and she looked away.
“Ask her if she’s ever met our friend from last night,” was all he said.
Phryne nodded in agreement—she was practically a puppet at this point, nod, nod, nod—and went next door. Mrs. Pierson was sitting at her kitchen table, staring into the distance. Phryne quietly made a pot of tea and brought over two cups.
“Is he…? I don’t even know what I’m asking,” Mrs. Pierson said, staring at her tea. “What do you even say to that?”
“It must have been a shock,” Phryne said soothingly. She could still hear his gurgle as he struggled to breathe, saw his mangled face when she closed her eyes.
The two women talked for some time, Phryne hinting around the information she was after. Mrs. Pierson—“Esme, I ain’t standing on cer’mony,” she said sometime into their second cuppa—admitted to her affair with Charlie Greene, but didn’t think it was the source of conflict between her husband and lover. She did not recognise the description of Phryne’s attacker the night before. As far as she knew, her husband did not use illegal substances of any sort—“‘cept a bit o’ sly grog, and there ain’t a man alive who don’t,” Mrs. Pierson said with a roll of her eyes. She had not seen or heard anything more than she had already told Inspector Robinson.
Eventually Jack and a constable knocked on the door, signalling to Phryne that the conversation was over for the moment. She said her goodbyes, heading downstairs to speak with the greengrocer—they would need to interview him, among other people, in the search for a witness; Phryne hoped to also arrange a food delivery to Mrs. Pierson and her children. She gave Jack a wan smile as she walked past him, a tiny shake of her head telling him she’d gotten no further than he had.
Downstairs, the shop owner, a pleasant man named Tom, answered Phryne’s questions. He hadn’t heard the shot himself—his hearing hadn’t been the same since the war—but he had noticed a man coming from the direction of the stairs to the flats just before Mrs. Pierson had come into the shop asking to use the telephone.
“It’s around the back, as you know,” he said. “Usually know whoever is coming and going, but I didn’t recognise him.”
“Can you describe the man?” Phryne asked.
“Tall. Very tall. Lanky.”
It sounded like Tony Blake; not conclusive, but it was possible that the man was an enforcer who’d gone after Charlie in addition to his delivery duties. But best not to leap to conclusions.
“Did you see anything else? Hair colour? Distinctive features?”
“Uhh, he wore a flatcap. Didn’t really see his face, but he limped a little. I’m sorry I can’t be more help.”
Remembering the kick she’d managed to get in during their scuffle the night before, Tony Blake seemed likely.
“You’ve been more than helpful, Tom,” Phryne said. From the door there was a cough and Phryne turned to see Jack; the rest of the witnesses had been a wash, she suspected. She pulled a pound out of her purse. “This is for Mrs. Pierson. To feed her and the children, please.”
Tom nodded. “I’ll get some bread from the bakery, milk for the littles, and some meat. I’ll throw in the vegetables myself.”
Phryne smiled. “You’re a good man, Tom. May we stop by if we have any other questions?”
The man agreed, and Phryne said farewell and headed towards Jack’s vehicle. He opened the passenger door for her and she slipped into the seat; he walked around to the other side and sat behind the wheel. He sat there, not driving away immediately.
“Nothing,” he said. “We’ve got nothing.”
“We still have the other address.”
“If we can get the warrant through,” he said in frustration.
Phryne laid her hand on his knee; her senses were so on edge that the roughness of the wool was almost unbearable. She gave his knee a squeeze and withdrew her hand.
“There’s plenty of evidence,” she said confidently. “But perhaps… a stake-out might be more productive than searching the scene?”
“Is that your way of saying that you’ll be staking it out and I’m welcome to join you?”
Phryne laughed lightly; it felt strange. “It wasn’t, but it can be.”
“Do you want me to take you back to the hotel?” he asked. “Give you the opportunity to change beforehand?”
Phryne was confused for a moment, then realised Jack was in his shirtsleeves and glanced down. Right. She was still wearing his jacket. Her powers of observation were shocking.
“Yes, please,” she said. She was going to need a hot bath, a whiskey, and a nap. In that order.
He drove her quietly, obviously distracted by the case, and escorted her to her hotel suite. Once inside, Phryne removed his jacket and handed it back.
“Thank you, Jack.”
He smiled, warm and genuine.
“Anytime, Miss Fisher. I’ll pick you up at eight.”
Then with a tilt of his head, he left.
Jack parked directly in front of the Windsor at five to eight, debating whether to wait outside or head to Miss Fisher’s room. The possibility of seeing her in a state of undress for the third time that day was too much for him; both had been in situations where her appearance was not a consideration, but seeing as how he was wearing a suit jacket that smelled of her perfume, he wasn’t certain he’d survive a third regardless of situation or emotional states.
A moment later the door swung open and Phryne slipped into the seat beside him.
“Are you sure this is subtle enough?” she asked. “Bert and Cec would lend us the taxi.”
Jack glanced at her; she was looking refreshed after the events of the afternoon, the edge in her eyes gone. She was dressed in a manner that was technically appropriate for a stakeout—dark trousers and blouse, nothing glinting or extraneous—and yet was so tailored to to her that there was no mistaking appropriate for mundane. There was some sort of knot arrangement at her neckline that he longed to run a finger against, to tug until it unraveled.
He was going to hell.
“Police motorcar, I know,” she finished. “Lay on, Macduff.”
The silence as they drove to the cottage near the docks was comfortable; they knew where they stood, professionally, and had a mutual goal. Everything else was temporarily set aside. Jack pulled into a small alley down the street the cottage; it was far enough and dark enough to be subtle, but close enough that they could see it well and cross the distance quickly if they needed to make a move.
“Back seat?” Phryne asked when Jack had turned the car off.
Jack nodded, intending to climb out of the car. Phryne had no such plans; with a slight giggle she hoisted herself over the front seats, flipping in such a way she ended up coming to sit in the back ones. She patted the spot beside her.
Jack removed his hat, tossing it onto her lap, and scrambled over the seats. His execution lacked the grace of hers, but he managed without kicking anybody in the face.
“Must you do everything the hard way?” he grumbled as he took back his hat.
“It is more fun,” she shushed him. “Not the best way to spend time in the back of a car, but it will do.”
Jack laughed despite himself, and she smiled in the way that meant she was both surprised and pleased. She wiggled down in the seat, to better obscure her shape from passers-by, and Jack followed suit. He could still make out the house Phryne had indicated upon their arrival. She took the chance to lean close and fill him in on the layout of the building, her breath tickling against his ear. It was dangerous for his self-control; thankfully she pulled away when she was done, and they watched the house for some time.
“Does Rosie know you’re here?” she asked eventually. It was well and truly dark, approaching midnight.
He wasn’t expecting her to speak at all. “Pardon?”
“Your wife, does she know that you’re on stakeout with me?”
“My ex-wife does not ask about police business, and I make it a point not to tell her.”
Phryne hummed a little at that. Mulling it over, if he knew her at all, never content to accept a statement at face value.
“Does she make you happy?”
What sort of question… oh.
“We’re not together, Miss Fisher.”
“Mac said you were.”
“We’re not, and I’m not sure what would give her the impression we were. I’ve always made it very clear that the topic was verboten—Rosie was concerned that it would reflect poorly on me, speaking with the disgraced commissioner’s daughter—but that it was a weekly dinner between friends and nothing more.”
“Yes. After the events with her father and fiance, most of her so-called friends turned their backs on her. Her sister married well and saw her father less, so most of the burden of guilt fell upon Rosie. After the trial, we started having dinner together. To talk. It was…” Jack struggled to find the word for the void in his life that dinners with Rosie and drinks with Mac—pleasant in their own right, he would never deny—had plastered over. “Companionship, perhaps. Not romance.”
“I see,” she said quietly.
“I’m not entirely certain you do, Miss Fisher.”
“And there’s been no…” her voice, tentative and unsure, trailed off.
“A few. Romantic pursuits were not a priority, but opportunities did arise. Dinner dates, a trip to the cinema, but… the problem with knowing a modern woman is that I was rather spoiled for others.”
She gave a sobbing laugh, her hand flying up to cover her mouth at the sound. Jack watched her in apprehension, seeing the relief and annoyance and some unreadable expression battle across her face; finally it abated.
“I hoped you would come,” she confessed quietly, “once it was clear I had to stay.”
“You asked me not to, Phryne.”
“I know. I’m not blaming you, I just… I wanted you there. I wanted one thing to go well, just one, so I could justify coming home,” she said, reaching up to dash a tear from her cheek with a sniff. “I wanted you there so badly, Jack, but I couldn’t ask, and I knew you would never disregard my wishes. I hoped though, every damned morning.”
“One word. One word and I would have gone.”
He had memorised the shipping schedules for 18 months.
Phyne sniffed again, then shook her head.
“Look at me, making an absolute…”
“It’s been a long two years,” said Jack gently. “You’re entitled.”
“I made such a hash of it. I should have explained at least—”
“I knew who you were when I fell in love with you, Phryne Fisher. A woman who does the right thing no matter the personal cost," he said; he could not take the past two years back, but he could give her this. "If not explaining was one less burden to bear—”
Without warning she was on his lap, murmuring his name apologetically as she touched him—a caress of his cheek, a tap on his shoulder, her lips brushed against his. Jack was moving his hand from his side to hold her, return her fervor, when motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention.
She pulled back, hurt.
“Maybe it’s better I didn’t—”
“—in the end. It would have just prolonged the inevitable, and we never would—” she babbled, covering for what she seemed to think was a misstep.
“Miss Fisher!” Jack said firmly, then tilted his head towards the house they were watching. “Movement.”
Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven
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.”
Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve
You guys are all amazing! I was terrified to write casefic, and the response has been overwhelming. I wish I could say that I held up my end of the bargain and had another fic almost ready to post, but between ficathon and recalcitrant characters determined to veer off in unnecessary directions, I am far, far behind. But hopefully th sequel is ready sooner rather than later.
“Hello, Miss Fisher,” grinned Tony Blake. “I did so hope you’d join us this evening.”
Phryne took a breath, trying to keep her hand from flying to her pistol; beside her Cec and Bert moved slightly, preparing for a fight.
“Uh-uh,” Tony scolded, pulling out a handgun. She should have known this was too easy. She had known this was too easy. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Oh, a monologuer. Exploitable, though obnoxious. She glanced around the room, looking for other men. There was nowhere for them to easily hide that would provide a good vantage point to shoot, and she’d see them coming if they leapt into the melee. It was likely only the three of them. A confession and a distraction then.
Phryne crossed her arms in front of her chest—it put her pistol in closer reach, though it merely looked defensive—and stared at him.
“I want in,” she said.
“What’s a pretty thing like you dirtying your hands for?”
She shrugged. “With the financial crash, I lost most of my money. I have a lifestyle to maintain, and this will do it.”
Scoffing, Tony moved closer. The cabbies shifted forward, and Phryne raised one hand to call them off.
“Enough, boys,” she declared, waving her hand slightly. “Mr. Blake and I are discussing business.”
Eyes narrowed, Tony stepped even closer. Not ideal, but manageable. She caught a hint of spice and alcohol from him; something cheap, from the burn in her nostrils.
“I’m supposed to believe you just stumbled upon my little import business?”
“You can believe anything you like. I’m not stupid, Mr. Blake; when I knew I was returning to Melbourne I made enquiries.”
He looked her up and down, circling around her; the cabbies bristled but stayed still.
“I’m not certain I believe you, Miss Fisher,” he said dryly when he’d completed his examination. “What about that policeman you keep in your pocket?”
“The inspector?” Phryne scoffed. “Not a concern. He led me to you, and now he’s served his purpose.”
“And what purpose was this?” Tony asked lecherously. “You certainly seemed friendly with him in the back of that police car last night.”
Shit. Phryne changed course and leant forward, looking at Tony flirtatiously. It was revolting, but the mention of Jack....
“Did you enjoy watching?” she purred. “I liked you watching, you know. It’s such a shame that Esme Pierson interrupted the show.”
“Perhaps a repeat performance?” replied Tony huskily.
“Oh, yes. But not with the inspector, I think. He was so dull,” Phryne pouted; she could almost reach her gun and aim it before Tony could react, just a bit closer.
She reached up, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and looking at Tony intently.
“I think we could reach an agreement for both business and pleasure.”
Tony leant forward as if to kiss her, then pulled back. Phryne heard his gun cock.
“You, Miss Fisher, are a lying—”
A crash from behind Phryne. The door.
“Police! Stay where you are!”
She was too close to Tony; the man grabbed her before she could move away, spun her around to use her as a shield. The bodyguards moved in but were waylaid by Bert and Cec. Phryne could see the men coming through the door, led by Jack; felt the gun against her throat. She struggled, couldn’t get the leverage to escape.
“Tony Blake, you’re under arrest!” Jack boomed, striding closer with his gun aimed steadily. He wouldn’t take the shot, even if he should have.
Around them the police swarmed the building, arresting the guards—there was a third lurking behind a crate after all—and securing the scene. There was a strange bubble around Tony, Phryne and Jack though, or that’s how it felt to Phryne as she watched it play out.
“Stop! Or she gets it,” Tony said desperately.
Jack continued forward, slow and steady, and Tony moved uncertainly, his gun wavering towards Jack then back at Phryne. It was enough.
The next time the gun moved away Phryne struck, hitting the same leg she’d injured two nights before, wrenched herself free, knocked the gun from his hand and got her own pistol trained straight at Tony’s chest as he collapsed to his knees.
“Don’t move,” Phryne warned him.
Jack tucked his gun away—the waistband of his trousers, again, the man was going to hurt himself one of these days—and pulled out his darbies instead. After securing Tony, he looked up at her.
“Miss Fisher,” he said with a nod of his head.
“Took you long enough,” Phryne replied, breathing heavily. “Though conveniently arriving just in time to be the hero of the day. I do so hope you appreciated my damsel in distress act.”
“Not particularly, no.”
It had, admittedly, been the most dangerous part of the plan, but utterly necessary.
“It worked,” she said.
“It did,” he agreed, hauling Tony Blake to his feet. “I presume you’ll meet me at the station?”
“Naturally. Is Will here?” Phryne asked, glancing around at the men. “I wanted to thank him for pushing through the warrants.”
“I believe his words were ‘I’m not going within a hundred yards of that woman when she’s wielding a gun’.”
Phryne laughed, mostly out of relief, and tucked said gun back into her coat pocket.
“I must admit that I’m liking him more and more.”
Jack stood in the interview room, talking with Tony Blake. It had been ingenious really, hiding in plain sight as a low-level crim; it kept suspicion off of him and gave him insight into business on the ground. It was also making this interview a headache. He jerked his head towards one of his constables to watch the man; he’d get a cup of tea and regroup. He had no idea where Phryne had disappeared to.
He found her in his office, sitting on his desk, eating a biscuit, and talking to Will.
“Jack!” she said brightly. “Food?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “Will, mate, what are you doing here?”
“Came to see how the raid went,” Will said with a smile. “Miss Fisher was just filling me in on all the daring feats.”
“I’m fairly certain any and all daring feats have been grossly exaggerated. It was a straightforward operation.”
“Well, we don’t usually allow civilians to call the shots, Jack. Quite daring in itself.”
Jack gave a strained smile, remembering the agonising wait for Phryne’s signal. When Tony Blake had come out of the shadows—Jack had to give him credit for style—he'd very nearly called the men in then, and damn the confession.
“Miss Fisher was in the best position,” he said. “Would either of you like a cup of tea?”
“Not for me, thank you,” Will said, standing. “I really do have to head back to Russell Street. And don’t worry about going after Tony for Roy’s death. I received a telephone call from Adelaide half an hour ago; when he heard Johnny had turned up dead he scarpered—fled the state.”
“That’s something, I suppose,” Jack said. “Miss Fisher?”
“No, thank you. I’ll join you in a moment?” she asked, giving him a small smile. “I need to speak with Hugh first—he and Dot have taken Winnie to stay with Dot’s mother this week, for reasons that sounds an awful lot like a convenient excuse, and they will be moving into their cottage next week. We need to arrange a time for them to collect their belongings. It will be nice to have my house back,” she confessed, “but never say a word to Dot about it.”
“My lips are sealed, Miss Fisher,” Jack said, smiling.
She tilted her head as she looked at him, then held out a biscuit.
“Go on then,” she coaxed. “You've got that look.”
Jack took it, ignoring Will’s look of amusement from the doorway as he did so. He made a hand gesture in WIll's direction, and Will laughed and shook his head as he left. Then Jack turned back to Phryne with a tiny smile.
“Five minutes, then the interview is continuing whether or not you’re there.”
She nodded and headed out to speak with Hugh; Jack made tea and returned to the interview room. Phryne was there dead-on five minutes, and together they extracted a confession from Tony Blake—names, dates, the police and customs officers bribed to look the other way, everything he could give up to save his own skin. It was a brilliant operation, but the man behind it was a coward. Three hours later and still discovering new charges to press, Jack decided to return Tony to the cells for a few hours while he completed other tasks. By the time he came back up the stairs, Phryne had gone, leaving a message with his constable that she had some matters to attend to at home and would not be back that evening.
He wasn’t entirely certain how to interpret this information, so he shook his head and moved into his office to start the raid report.
The rain was pounding so loudly that Phryne almost missed the knock at the door; before she could stand, Mr. Butler was opening it and moving aside. Phryne watched impatiently while the guest stepped into view, feeling a knot unravel in her chest when they did. The phrasing of her invitation had been so bungled that she wasn’t entirely certain he’d realise what it was.
“Jack,” she said, rising and heading towards the parlour door. “I wasn’t… I had hoped you would come for a nightcap. I thought the weather might deter you.”
“It would be a shame to let a little rain keep us from celebrating your first case since returning,” he said, passing his coat and hat to Mr. Butler with a quiet thanks and stepping into the room. “What kind of precedent would that set?”
“Not one I’d enjoy,” Phryne said with a smile, her eyes never leaving his.
“Excuse me, miss,” said her butler, “but would you and the inspector care for a hot toddy? With the weather what it is, it seems preferable.”
Phryne spared a brief glance at her butler, then turned back to Jack with the question in her eyes; they’d shared many drinks, but not that in particular. Something new. He nodded.
“That would be marvelous, Mr. B,” she said. “And Jack, take off your shoes. I can hear the sloshing from here.”
“It’s not as dire as all that,” he said, but he slipped them from his feet.
“Socks too,” she ordered. “Put them before the fire so they have a chance to dry.”
Jack complied, then came to sit beside her in front of the fireplace. In an instant the years and distance between them seemed smaller. They spoke in low tones, first about the case and then about things of little importance, until the fire began to go out. Jack stood when he noticed.
“Must you?” Phryne asked, standing up beside him.
“It is,” she said quietly, reaching out to stroke his lapel. “And it’s still pouring down rain, and my home is warm and dry.”
He smiled slightly at that. “So what do you propose?”
“Well…” she drawled out, “I cannot be held responsible for the drowning of Melbourne’s second best detective.”
“Who would you harangue if I did, after all?” smirked Jack in reply.
She moved even closer, the stroking hand coming to grasp his suit jacket firmly. She looked up at him, willing him to respond; there was a hitch in his breath, and in the dim lighting his eyes were dark with desire.
“And I do have a guest bedroom,” she purred, “so really it’s practically charity.”
His hand slid against her waist, the other coming up to cup her face.
“Phryne…” he began, but she pressed her lips to his before he could finish the thought.
It was a soft, questioning sort of kiss, the kind Phryne usually avoided. When he went to pull away—to regain his equilibrium, perhaps, but certainly not to leave—she twisted the fabric of his jacket tighter and dragged him back with a low, needy groan.
The noise emboldened him, the kiss shifting deeper, more confident; she responded in kind, slipped her tongue into his mouth to taste him properly. Her senses were filled with honey and whiskey and spices, a familiarity beneath it all. Eventually, she pulled away.
He didn’t hesitate before nodding.
“If you want me to,” he replied; his gaze was steady as he searched her face.
She pulled him towards her for another kiss in answer. It was languid, one of her hands reaching up to rest against the nape of his neck and caress the soft hair there. When it was over she laughed softly.
“Upstairs?” she whispered; with anyone else it wouldn’t have been in question.
“I do believe that is where the bedrooms are,” he said wryly, a tender smile on his face.
She stepped back, waiting for him to gather his socks and shoes from in front of the fireplace, then moved towards the door. He didn’t follow, so she tossed a coy look over her shoulder—he looked stunned, standing in her parlour with socks in one hand and still damp shoes in the other. His pomade had not withstood the long day and rain, and a stray lock of hair tumbled across his forehead.
“Come after me,” she said spontaneously.
It was a gamble, bringing up that past, but it seemed to jolt him from his reverie; the resulting smile caused sharp desire to spike and pulse through her. She sashayed from the room with deliberation, sensing him following her; the pulsing gained a delicious edge of anticipation.
Their ascent of the stairs was slow. Deliberate. She turned to watch him as she crossed the threshold of her boudoir, catching the way his breathing grew tighter at the mere idea; he expelled it quite suddenly when he followed suit.
“See?” she said with a light laugh. “It’s really quite simple.”
“Nothing about you is simple,” he replied, then gave a wry smile. “I have no idea how to unfasten your trousers, for example.”
She glanced down; wishing for but not expecting his presence, she was in trousers and a blouse and not even exceptionally divine undergarments. It was not an outfit intended to seduce, but from the look he gave her, he really didn’t mind.
“There are buttons,” she purred. “Which I am certain your clever fingers could find easily enough, if they looked.”
His hands snaked out to pull her close, one finger running along the waistband until he found the small buttons; he made short work of them, but didn’t attempt to remove the garment. Gliding his palm upward, against her side and avoiding her breasts—a fact that made her groan in disappointment—he hooked his finger beneath the cowl of her blouse, the digit calloused yet tender against her skin. Her head lolled back at the barely-there sensation and he lowered his mouth to her neck.
“Your necklines,” he murmured between kisses, “drive me mad. The scarves, the knots, the asymmetrical ones that look like you’ve been thoroughly ravished and remain disheveled, the little details that I can’t stop remembering. They haunt me, Miss Fisher.”
Phryne laughed, felt his own chuckle against her throat, pressed her body flush against him. Between them his cock twitched and the reality of the situation struck her; she was home, in her bedroom, with Jack Robinson ravishing her neck. But he was still wearing his suit; it was intolerable.
She slid her hands between their bodies, unbuttoning his waistcoat from the bottom up, then sliding his silk tie out of its knot. The shirt came undone next, hastily yanked from his trousers, and she pushed the whole thing—jacket, waistcoat, shirt, braces and tie—off in one motion. Before he could resume his hold she dropped to her knees, removing his trousers and smalls and giving his thighs a short and appreciative glance, and his cock a much more thorough one. Then she pressed a kiss against its smooth skin, relishing the quiet groan she’d never heard but often imagined. Then she stood to shed her own trousers with a teasing shimmy and moved to recline on the bed.
“You’re still dressed,” he rumbled; at his side his hands clenched and unclenched as if he was resisting the urge to touch.
“In which case, Jack, perhaps you ought to remove the offending items.”
He strode to the bed, slid his hands beneath the hem of her blouse, and lifted it up and off in one move. Her lingerie came next with barely a glance spared for the silk creation, then he paused and swallowed hard. For a terrifying moment she thought he might retreat, but he traced his fingers along her collarbone.
“Protection,” he said, as much to himself as to her, then looked up to meet her eyes. “I didn’t want to presume, but I brought—”
“Jack,” she said, smiling softly. “You don’t need to explain.”
“Ah, yes, I’ll just…”
“I presume you’re… healthy?”
It was a delicate conversation, and she regretted her phrasing immediately. Thankfully he merely looked at her with fond exasperation, as if to point out that he would have said if he wasn’t.
“Good,” she said. “Stay.”
She twisted, fumbling in her bedside table until she found a familiar Bakelite case and removed her diaphragm from it. She turned back, holding it up with a grin.
“This will do.”
“You don’t want to—”
“Double up on the family planning?” she finished. “This is really all we need on that front. Wonderfully effective. I want to feel you, Jack.”
He nodded, then watched as she quickly inserted the device. She laughed at his quiet groan as her fingers disappeared into herself, and the way he stroked his cock when she removed them. She trailed the hand up, planning to raise the fingers to her lips to tease him; he was on the bed and sucking them himself before they’d reached her breasts. Then he was kissing her, pressing her further against her pillows as he moved between her legs and rose over her.
“Alright?” he asked quietly, his hands braced either side of her head. “Not too heavy?”
“Not at all,” she said, appreciating the solid weight.
Her hands moved to hold onto him, one resting on his bicep and one against his back; as he slid into her she felt the muscles tense, flex. She canted her hips towards him, willing him deeper—he fit so well, and when he began to move… exquisite. Wrapping her legs above his waist, she rose to meet him; after a few false starts they found a rhythm, the thrusts countering with kisses against her skin wherever he could reach.
“Jack, darling,” she panted, her eyes closing to better luxuriate in the sensations. “Talk to me.”
He gave an inquisitive hum, too distracted by the hollow at the base of her neck.
“Talk, Jack,” she said again, running her fingers through his hair.
The man’s voice was sinful at the best of times, but hoarse with lust it was practically pornographic.
“Anything,” she said, shifting her legs slightly higher around him; the subtle change in angle made her gasp, her climax building rapidly now. He redoubled his efforts, and she moaned. “What you’re thinking right now. Crime statistics for Melbourne. The—oh—the price of tea in China. Just talk. I want to hear your voice. ”
He laughed, dipping his head to tongue her nipple until her fingernails scratched against his skin, then began a litany of endearments and commentary and sarcastic little asides that had her on the precipice of orgasm. He was everywhere; around her and inside her, every steady thrust, every word reassuring her that this was him.
So this was what it was like to make love to Jack Robinson, she thought as her climax hit her.
When they were both spent and had cleaned themselves, Jack lay in Phryne’s bed and waited. For what, he was not entirely certain. A sign how to progress perhaps. Eventually he could wait no longer.
“That went… well?” he asked, watching her.
Phryne laughed in response, rolling over to press a kiss to his cheek before softly tracing the line of his jaw with her lips. “I thought so.”
He reached up to smooth her bob into submission, trying to ignore the constriction of his heart as he did so; he might never be in a position to do so again. But if one night was all they would have, he intended to have no regrets.
“What are we now?” he asked.
“I don’t know," Phryne confessed. "At a beginning, I think, but….”
“It’s been a long time.”
“Yes. For better or worse, where we were before… I don’t think we can go back to that.”
“No,” Jack agreed.
“But we can move forward,” she offered tentatively. “We can solve cases together when they overlap, and be friends, and see what happens if we...”
“Court? Step out for dinner once a week, take a stroll along the foreshore?” he suggested, half joking, and she nodded slightly.
“If you’d like.”
“That’s not an enthusiastic yes, Miss Fisher,” he said dryly.
“I don’t usually court, Jack. I flirt, I fuck, I have a marvelous time. But the idea that I would leave this unattempted because of it..." she sighed, lacing her fingers through his; he didn't think she even noticed. “It feels like I’d be choosing my pride over my potential happiness, and I’ve done that once.”
Her pride had kept her from seeking help, but it wasn’t what had kept her away. That was her kindness, her loyalty, her sense of duty. She was the most remarkable woman he had ever known.
“Courting sounds perfect.”
She relaxed, coming to rest against him. “You’ll stay though? Tonight, I mean.”
“Unless you prefer I leave.”
“Stay,” she said firmly.
He ran his hand down her arm, appreciating the gooseflesh that rose in its wake. Pressed a kiss to her hair. Allowed himself to love being with her, to love her, just for the moment. The future was uncertain, but they were at a beginning. There was just one final detail…
“Does taking it slow include…”
“Oh, I plan to have you in my bed whenever the mood strikes,” she laughed. “But only if that works for both of us. If that means… abstaining while we figure it out, so be it. But I’ve wanted you for so long that I hope not. Patience is not my strong suit.”
“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Jack said, affection for this maddening woman making his voice tight.
“We always do,” she agreed, then gave a small laugh. “Eventually.”
Jack ducked his head towards her to brush a kiss against her lips.
“Eventually,” he agreed with a quiet smirk. “What time do you wake up in the morning?”
“Late. I have a lunch with Mac at one, but otherwise I don’t plan to stir from my bed.”
“I won’t be here when you wake up then,” he said, wishing desperately that he could be. “I have to be at the station by nine, to interview Tony Blake again.”
“Thank you. For telling me. I would hate to think I’d scared you off.”
“Never,” he said. “And say hello to Mac for me.”
“She likes you, you know,” Phryne said sleepily.
“Well, I must admit I had some idea. There’s not many other advantages to having a weekly drink with a copper for two years.”
Phryne laugh was quiet. “Maybe we’ll find a body at the restaurant. We’ll make sure to call you in if we do.”
“Please let me complete the paperwork from the first murder before discovering another. ”
“Spoilsport,” she huffed, nestling closer.
Jack hummed in acknowledgment, then caressed her arm again.
“Welcome home, Miss Fisher,” he said quietly.
Half asleep, she merely held him all the tighter.