Had an unsuspecting eavesdropper heard the conversation that took place between the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher and the equally honourable Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, they would very likely have wondered if they had, by some strange misfortune, stumbled into a rather modernized Shakespearean play (or an affair, but the sensibilities of the time meant that while the aforementioned eavesdropper would have assumed the latter, she would have only spoken of the former.
Well, in public.).
“Jack . . .”
“Unless you want me to take you on this lounge, we need to adjourn to a room. Now.”
“Why, Inspector, I would never have guessed that you might be an exhibitionist.”
(There was a long pause. An unknowing listener might (would) have taken it for shock.)
“Well, Miss Fisher, I distinctly recall telling you it would be foolish to assume you’d deduced everything about me.”
(There was another long pause. Said listener would have thought this one to be assessing (they would have been right.)).
“So you did. Well, then, as I’d like to avoid giving your constable a heart attack —“
“I’d feel better if I thought you were being facetious.”
“— did you have anything more specific in mind than ‘a room?’”
“Given you came with an entourage, yes. Mine.”
“Jack! I like the way you think.”
“The way I think. Yes, that’s what you like.”
“Well. One thing.”
(At this, the rather stunned eavesdropper (had there been one, which, of course, there wasn’t) would likely have keeled over in scandalized shock,)
“Phryne. I . . . I have wanted this – you – longer than I should admit, but if you don’t step back now, we will both be arrested for more indecency charges than can be counted. Please, love, have mercy on me for another five minutes. Then you may do with me as you will.”
“With every fiber of my being.”
“In that case, Inspector Robinson, lead the way.”
“I’d rather escort you. For some unfathomable reason, Miss Fisher, I don’t trust you.”
“A rarity with you.”
“And you love it.”
“God help me, I do. But – somewhere more private, if you please, Miss Fisher.”
“Oh, fine. But one day, Jack, I am going to make you crack.”
“Indeed. And what if I were to tell you, Phryne Fisher, that that day arrived the moment I came through that door?”
(and now the eavesdropper, had they recovered from their scandalized shock, would have been confused. Also, curious, especially as another long pause ensued.)
“In that case, Jack Robinson, I would say ‘why are we still a) outside and b) talking?’”
“As always, Miss Fisher, you ask very good questions. As for the answers, I can only say that I was trying to be a gentleman.”
“Jack – “
“Until I realized that I was only causing us both unnecessary grief. And, because the heavens would fall if you let me lead, you came to me first.”
(there was a beat of silence at this and the listener leaned closer, desperate not miss anything)
“Then we proceeded to have this rather ridiculous conversation.”
“Oh, come now, Jack. Haven’t you heard of foreplay?”
(the eavesdropper was so enthralled at this point that she forgot to be scandalized. Even (especially) when the man’s voice dropped to a husky growl.).
“My room. Now.”
(it was a shame that the eavesdropper who wasn’t would never know the truth about the couple she was inadvertently listening to: the year or so of courtship (so to speak); the simple case of a sister running from an arranged marriage; the horrifying truth behind her disappearance; the desperate love of a man, given full rein in its fury; the vulnerability of a woman who finally began to understand that love didn’t have to be a curse to be avoided at all costs; and the realization (in retrospect, and obvious to everyone but them) that feelings do not fade away simply because they’re inconvenient.)
* * * *
8 days earlier
Tobias Butler was unable to suppress the spike of hope in his chest when someone knocked on the door just after half-past nine that Thursday evening. Being Miss Fisher’s butler gave him an unprecedented amount of freedom with regards to the truly private goings-on in the house (which was something that very, very few people in her position would have even thought to contemplate, much less allow; the scandals of the upper class were as fiercely guarded as the privilege), so he was well aware of the fact that his mistress’s detective had made an understandable – though unwise, in all respects – decision regarding his relationship with her after the unfortunate incident regarding that poor racing car driver nearly two months prior.
Indeed, it was patently obvious to Tobias that Detective Robinson was somewhat out of his depth, if not well on his way to drowning. He was noticeably attracted to Miss Fisher, which, to all appearances, he had no issue with; in fact, to Tobias’ experienced eye, he had greatly enjoyed that aspect of things: flirting, matching wits, even going out (or staying in) on ‘dates’. The deepening of that initial attraction into genuine affection hadn’t seemed to bother him either . . . though that was where the trouble had begun. The good detective, being a product not only of his class, but also his profession and his personal circumstances (abandoned after the war, then divorced only when the woman he had loved found someone ‘better’), had honestly remained unaware of the depth of his feelings – until he had thought Miss Fisher dead in what had at first appeared to be a senseless accident. The revelation that he had gone and fallen in love with Phryne Fisher had shaken him to the core.
Tobias didn’t blame the man in the slightest for being taken aback. He didn’t even blame him for wanting to reassess his situation with Miss Fisher. What made her butler angry was the fact that instead of sharing any of these observations with her, Robinson had instead simply told her his feelings were serious, told her he didn’t want – would never ask – her to change . . . and then walked away, giving her no real chance to express herself in return. He hadn’t been to the house since.
Miss Fisher was, if not precisely devastated, extremely hurt, somewhat angry, and sublimating her own feelings (of love, though she would deny that to her dying day) into a rapidly increasing number of men. In addition, she had also become truly reckless when it came to the cases she took on and her personal safety, to the point that not only was her household concerned, but Doctor MacMillan as well. She had actually come by the house one day while Miss Fisher was out to talk about that very thing – and had to be forcibly restrained from marching straight to the police station and telling the inspector precisely what manner of fool he was . . . before exacting her revenge by way of a very creative use of a scalpel.
Unfortunately, though Miss Fisher was considerably less strict and formal with her house, she was still their mistress. The only thing any of them could do was keep a closer eye on her if possible. In fact, the presence of Mr Johnson and Mr Yates had been the only thing that had kept Miss Fisher from serious, lasting harm on four separate occasions – and to the best of their knowledge, she was unaware of this. Which was concerning in its own right, given how observant she was as a matter of course.
Even Dot was no help, because her beau was also the inspector’s constable and right-hand man. They hadn’t stopped seeing each other, but it had been a near thing, and the young man seldom came by the house anymore due to his own conflicting loyalties – not only did he have the inspector and young Dorothy, but he was also fond of Miss Fisher (and she of him), but his duty and allegiance to Inspector Robinson took first precedence with him. Tobias understood that, and so did Dot, but it did make things a damned sight more difficult for everyone.
So, when the door sounded far past an hour when ‘decent’ folk were out and about, Tobias entertained the serious hope that it was Miss Fisher’s inspector, come to his senses. The sight of a man with thinning brown hair, a broad frame that had once been muscular but was now running to fat, and a bespoke suit that had been well-tailored to him, trampled that hope under disappointment that he kept locked down. A case, then.
“Good evening, Sir,” he greeted the man neutrally, taking in the arrogance that people of nobility tended to exude as a matter of course. “May I help you?”
The other man nodded, holding out a black-embossed white card. “Bryce Hamilton. I’m here to see Miss Fisher.”
Tobias took the card and stepped back, letting the man into the foyer. “Please excuse me while I see if she’s available,” he murmured before walking into front parlour. She was curled up on the sofa, barefoot, wearing a black robe decorated with colorful exotic birds over a simple outfit of solid black, and nursing a martini. At the sound of his footsteps she looked up, and the lifeless expectation in her eyes made his anger at Robinson flash for a brief moment. It flared hotter when the hopeful, happy fire that chased the dullness away when he told her she had a visitor extinguished to ashes at the revelation of the man’s name. Her palpable disappointment made her usually imperturbable butler actually want to hit something (someone), but he again controlled his reaction. It would help no one, least of all her.
“Shall I send him in, then, Miss?” he asked gently, honestly not sure what he wanted her answer to be.
She contemplated this for a long moment before nodding, taking a long drink of her martini and setting it aside. “No tea, though, Mr Butler,” she answered. “I find I’m not in the mood to entertain this evening.”
Tobias strangled the relief he felt at her caveat; maybe she was ready to stop punishing herself for something she’d truly had no control over.
“Very well, Miss,” he said and stepped back to the door, gesturing Mr Hamilton into the parlour.
* * * *
The dull pain that accompanied Mr Butler’s announcement of a visitor who wasn’t Jack came as no surprise to Phryne; indeed, it had become a familiar ache over the past several weeks. Since he had walked away from her and that precious something they had started to build, Phryne found herself vacillating between hurt, anger, and an admittedly childish desire to thumb her nose at him. She knew full well that her house was worried but the loss cut deep, because she had lost not only someone she cared strongly about in a romantic sense, but also a good friend. As a result, she found herself feeling adrift and anchorless, and taking risks even she normally would have thought twice about. Part of her was irritated that a man had brought her to this state, but most of her was in mourning.
This was not a healthy combination.
Hearing her visitor’s footsteps coming toward her pulled her wandering thoughts back to the present and she schooled her features to impassivity before looking up at him.
He was only an inch or so taller than her, with a once-muscular frame softening all around. His hair was a rather muddy brown, and his face unremarkable, though she detected faint signs of what might have been long-ago good looks; his eyes were nearly the same colour as his hair, his nose had been broken at least twice, his jowls were heavy, and he had no chin to speak of (or several chins, depending on how you looked at it). Crafty intelligence was in his eyes, along with a thin veneer of concern. Phryne couldn’t begin to fathom what had brought him to her door and despite herself, she was curious.
“Good evening, Miss Fisher,” her visitor greeted her, offering his hand as he approached. She took note of the rather rough tone of his voice, falling somewhere between a low tenor and a light baritone. Interesting. He seemed to be unremarkable in every way, despite the fine tailoring of his suit, and something about that realization made her instincts chime a soft warning.
“Good evening, Mr Hamilton,” she replied, accepting his proffered hand and observing both the weak handshake and the slightly clammy feel of his skin. So. He was nervous. This was becoming more intriguing by the moment. “How may I help you?”
He looked slightly taken aback at not being offered a seat but rallied quickly.
“It’s a fairly straight-forward matter, Miss Fisher,” he told her. “My sister Iris is due to be married Saturday next, and she’s done a runner.”
Phryne blinked. That hadn’t been what she expected. Still, it was a diversion and if he spoke the truth, it would be an easy, welcome distraction. She needed more information.
“Why do you assume she’s done a runner?” she inquired, gesturing him to a chair. He seated himself before speaking again.
“Well, for one, nothing’s missing, destroyed, disheveled, or otherwise disturbed. Two, we’ve received no ransom demand of any sort and she’s been gone over a day. And three, Iris isn’t exactly . . . fond . . . of her fiancé. She’s not happy that I’m insisting on the marriage.”
About to speak, Phryne caught herself before opening her mouth. This . . . there was something off here, but she was dashed if she could hang her hat on what it was. Maybe this wouldn’t be as easy a diversion as she was expecting (though no less welcome).
“Insisting?” she asked, keeping her disdain at his expected reply out of her voice.
For the first time, Hamilton looked uncomfortable. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“Mmm. It was a match our parents arranged several years ago, and though they’ve passed away, I’ve decided against dissolving the betrothal.”
“So . . . it’s an arranged marriage,” Phryne stated flatly, some of her disapproval leaking through despite her best effort and causing Hamilton to flush.
“Yes,” he said after clearing his throat in an awkward silence.
Phryne let it stretch out until the man actually started to perspire before asking her next question.
“And if I do find your sister and bring her back, what will become of her betrothal, Mr Hamilton?” she coolly inquired, arching an eyebrow at him.
To her surprise, his nervousness faded and he straightened in the chair. Resolve she hadn’t yet seen filled his eyes as he steadily met her gaze.
“That, Miss Fisher, will depend on her reason for leaving. You may not approve of arranged marriages, but there are good reasons for this one – reasons that you do not need to know. But if marrying Harold Fenton will truly make her miserable, then of course the betrothal will be dissolved.
“Now,” he continued, holding her eyes with a surprising intensity. “Will you take the case? I’m prepared to pay £75 per day if you find her by next Friday.”
Phryne took a few moments to consider everything she’d seen and heard, weighing her nameless suspicion against the persistent absence of Jack, and comparing her slow realization that haring off on every trail someone offered her wasn’t conducive to remaining in good health against the welcome respite from an ever-deepening depression and a not-inconsiderable fee.
It was the depression that tipped the scales.
“Of course, Mr Hamilton,” she said confidently, holding out her hand. “I will find your sister.”
(maybe then, Janey’s spirit would stop whispering in her ear)
* * * *
Dot couldn’t suppress her sigh when Miss Fisher strolled into the breakfast room the next morning. She was dressed to kill, in a glorious blue-and-rose ensemble that made Dot wish yet again that she had the confidence to wear clothes like that. Her sigh, though, was for the gleam in the other woman’s eyes. Once upon a time (two months ago), that gleam had been slightly wicked with a healthy dose of excitement, and bubbling over with anticipation. Now, it was comprised almost entirely of glee, only it was a manic sort of glee, underpinned with a desperate desire to prove that she needed no assistance. Or a partner.
Dot experienced yet another urge to smack Inspector Robinson (each one got more overwhelming, to the point that she truly feared attempting to harm the man if she saw him again).
Still, Mr Butler had shared that Miss Fisher had shown both restraint and consideration before accepting this case, so it was possible (please, God, let it be possible) that the mistress they all adored was making her way back to them. And for that, Dot would do anything.
“Good morning, Miss,” she said with a sunny smile, pouring Miss Fisher a cup of tea and adding her usual accoutrements.
“Good morning, Dot!” Miss Fisher chirped back with a return smile, seating herself with an effortless grace that Dot also couldn’t help but envy. “Did you have any plans for today?” she inquired as she buttered a piece of toast and took a small bite.
Dot shook her head and took a piece for herself, spreading a rich blackberry jam on it. “No, Miss, other than your laundry, and I can do that anytime.”
“Good,” her mistress said with satisfaction, finishing her toast and taking a long sip of tea. “Then go change once you’re done eating; we’re going to the Hamilton estate and they tend toward – well, remember Aunt Prudence’s home?”
At Dot’s wary nod and pained expression, Miss Fisher grinned. “Exactly. Only worse, because it’s headed by a rather stuffy male. So, appropriate dress; I’ve made arrangements to meet him at 11:30.”
“Very well, Miss,” Dot said, mentally ticking through her wardrobe.
“And Dot? Make sure it’s something you can wear and still get information out of the household staff. Something about this situation is off, but if the family knows they certainly aren’t telling.”
“Of course, Miss,” Dot replied. Well, that certainly helped narrow down her available options. She gave Miss Fisher’s clothes another look and decided on her rose and brown suit; it would be a good complement to the blue and rose.
At 10:15 they were on the road, and Dot irrationally found herself concerned when Miss Fisher’s driving was almost . . . calm. She didn’t want her mistress subdued, just not as insanely reckless as she had been (and there was another urge to shake the inspector; maybe she should be keeping score). Still, she said nothing, determined to at least enjoy not being ill when the car stopped. Heaven only knew how long this would last.
They arrived at the door a few minutes early and were greeted by a sneering, haughty butler who gave Miss Fisher one cold look before deigning to usher her in. Knowing what was required of her, Dot bit down on the desire to take the man to task and hunched down a bit, recalling her life with the Andrews in order to look downtrodden. For a moment she thought it hadn’t worked, as the butler’s expression didn’t change, but then Miss Fisher shoved coat, hat, and purse at her without so much as a word, and icy condescension softened to commiserating sympathy.
“Tell Mr Hamilton that Miss Phryne Fisher has arrived,” she said authoritatively, sweeping into the parlour.
The contempt came back but the man did as he was instructed, giving a short bow before heading off to find his master. It was a measure of how upset he was (though whether it was Miss Fisher herself, women in general, or the upper class at large, Dot had no clue; that was definitely one of the things she would need to find out) that he didn’t try to offer refreshments. The moment he was out of earshot, Miss Fisher turned to her companion and smiled triumphantly.
“Well played, Dot!” she exclaimed softly, stepping close. “That attitude didn’t spring up overnight, so be careful – and say what you need to. I won’t be hurt or offended, I assure you.”
The thought of speaking ill of Miss Fisher didn’t sit well, but Dot supposed she could simply pretend that she still worked for Lydia Andrews. As long as she remembered the right name, that would likely work, particularly if the butler’s reaction was any indication.
“I’ll do my best, Miss,” she quietly replied. “How do you want me to proceed?”
Miss Fisher tapped a finger against her lips and gave it a few seconds’ thought before nodding decisively. “Once I get into Iris’ room, head to the servant’s area and tell them I want tea – or, if there’s a pot ready, something else. Keep them busy and play on their resentment. It should prove enlightening.”
It took considerable effort not to shake her head at the enthusiasm in her mistress’ voice, but Dot managed. “And how long will you need?”
“Oh, fifteen minutes at least,” Miss Fisher replied. “And if it takes too much longer than that, you can always take the tray back.”
That was true enough, so Dot nodded before stepping back at the sound of footsteps, doing her best to become one with the wall. It seemed to work, as Mr Hamilton took no notice of her when he strode through the door.
“Miss Fisher,” he said jovially enough, bringing her hand to his lips. Unnoticed, Dot frowned slightly; something about the act seemed wrong, though it could simply be that she had become accustomed to Miss Fisher’s usual class of gentleman, who were genuinely glad to see her. Still, it was something else to inquire about.
In short order, she and Miss Fisher were being led into the private suite of one Iris Hamilton. It was a surprisingly – well, girlish, set of rooms, given that she was the elder sibling and thus, at least 35 years old. It seemed her list of inquiries was getting longer by the minute.
Once Mr Hamilton had left them to their own devices, Dot waited only a few minutes before slipping out the door and heading for the servants’ stairs (like most estates, this one was laid out with a ‘proper’ front and an ‘employee’ back). She was met with suspicion by the two maids who were currently in the kitchen, but by keeping her memory of Lydia Andrews firmly in her mind, she managed to gain a few inklings of sympathy surprisingly quickly.
By the time fifteen minutes had passed, she’d been accepted into the Servants’ Club (she wondered briefly whether they had yearly dues and meetings). Having been trained by Miss Fisher in the art of observation by word and deed, the amount of information she managed to amass was both startling and unsettling. Among other things, she learned that all but one of the current servants had been inherited from the parents; Bryce Hamilton was cordially and thoroughly loathed by all of them, following in his mother’s footsteps; the upper class in general was disliked and distrusted (see: the Hamiltons’ parents); Iris was pitied (though not particularly liked); she was also in love with Harold Fenton’s younger brother Donald; and her disappearance was surprising, as she had a rather placid personality. On the other hand, both maids – and the butler, when he popped in for a quick drink – agreed that Bryce was such a tyrant, it was possible she’d simply snapped – and no, she didn’t have any friends that they knew of who would house her . . . though it was possible she might have sought refuge with Donald.
Oh, and despite the house being fully staffed (one butler, two stablehands, a cook, and three maids), Bryce had gone and acquired a new girl. Officially, she was a maid, but disliked by the rest of the household because her only ‘responsibilities’ were his personal rooms: bedroom, office, and library. Dot found it somewhat odd that they resented her more for her attitude about being mistress to the master of the house than because she did virtually no work (though that did rankle, judging by the fulminating looks they all got when she asked) until she remembered John Andrews.
A quick glance at the clock by the door told Dot she’d been gone almost a half hour and she grabbed the plate of scones before leaping to her feet, a rushed apology tumbling from her lips. The head maid, Helena, tsked in sympathy and shooed her off.
“Go take care of your mistress, Dot, and don’t worry about getting the plate back. Just leave it on the dressing table,” she said as Dot hurried out the door.
Miss Fisher was just finishing up when Dot entered the room, and she turned with an expectant look.
“Well?” she demanded eagerly, absently grabbing a scone and taking a bite. “Did it work?”
After a quick, furtive look around, Dot nodded. “But – it should wait until we’re back in the car, Miss.”
This earned her two arched eyebrows, but Miss Fisher said nothing; she merely finished her scone as she took a last look around. Once she was satisfied she’d gleaned everything of interest, she nodded to Dot and stepped into the hall, heading for the front stairs. Dot hurried after her, before going back to set the plate of scones on the table. By the time she caught up, Miss Fisher was farewelling Mr Hamilton.
“ –d to come back?” she was asking as Dot came within earshot.
“Of course,” Mr Hamilton replied. “Just let me know when.”
Miss Fisher smiled, but there was no warmth behind it – though Dot didn’t think Mr Hamilton realized that.
“Superb,” she murmured. “Then we shall be off and I’ll be in touch. Dot!”
Having had a few minutes of preparation, Dot had the requisite hat, coat, and purse waiting, and with a minimum of fuss, they were out the door and into the car. No sooner had they left the Hamilton property itself than Miss Fisher looked at her, an eager expression on her face.
“Well?” she demanded, her eyes alight with interest.
Dot’s stomach growled before she could answer and her mistress smiled. “Hold that thought; we’ll stop for lunch and you can tell me then.”
As Miss Fisher had superb taste in eating establishments, Dot had no quarrel with this and settled back in her seat for the ride.
* * * *
Once she and Dot arrived back home, Phryne sent the younger woman off on her own pursuits before settling down in her study and beginning her case file (it was something she’d picked up from Jack, building a file for each investigation, and it had proven irritatingly useful). It took her about twenty minutes to write down everything she’d learned from Bryce Hamilton, her inspection of Iris’ suite, and the information Dot had gathered from the servants. That done, Phryne left the desk for the chaise by the window, kicking off her shoes and settling herself sideways on the plush cushion, drawing her knees to her chest with her arms wrapped around them. Her gaze went distant as she let the data she had accumulated simmer in her mind, hoping a pattern would coalesce or the next step become obvious.
When she finally had an inkling of what to do next, Phryne was startled to see that more than an hour had passed. She went back to her desk to make a few notes before realizing that she had no idea whether or not Donald Fenton had any accommodations separate from the family dwelling. Absently, she dialed the operator and was waiting for the call to City South to be picked up before she remembered that she no longer had Jack as a
partner resource. With a muttered curse, she put the receiver down with more force than was strictly warranted. Jack had made his choice. It was time she accepted that.
(and if a small part of her whispered that she could go to him and try to reconcile, she ignored it; if he couldn’t handle her as she was, then clearly he wasn’t right for her)
((an even smaller part of her breathed that for any relationship to work, compromises must be made; she refused to acknowledge it, full stop))
Well, there was nothing for it: she would simply have to visit the Fentons sooner than expected. As it was unlikely she would encounter trouble, Phryne didn’t bother summoning Dot; she simply slipped back into her shoes, pulled on her coat and hat, and, after leaving word with Mr Butler where she was going, headed to the Fenton property, located about fifteen miles away from the Hamilton estate.
During the uneventful drive, Phryne continued to mull over what she knew about Iris Hamilton and her situation. The state of her room had been extremely surprising . . . until one considered that Bryce Hamilton was, according to the servants and her own observations, a man who did not tolerate not being in complete control of anything. And, given that his sister was the elder child, his refusal to provide the money for her to change or decorate her own personal surroundings could likely be viewed in the light of putting her in her place. Or, possibly, by keeping her so thoroughly under his thumb, Hamilton believed that she would be grateful at the chance to escape him, even in the form of a marriage she didn’t want. Doubtless this betrothal involved money, influence, or a debt (or all three, with her luck) and Iris would have been at least peripherally aware of this.
But with no money of her own, or means to get any, where on earth would she have gone?
Thus occupied with her thoughts, Phryne nearly drove past the gated driveway leading to the Fenton family home, and had to brake rather hard to keep from shooting by. Though she managed to avoid missing the gate, the subsequent turn was somewhat rocky and the car let her know, loudly and with great emphasis, that it did not appreciate such rough handling. As she made her way down (and down) the gravel drive – good Lord, it must have been two miles long! – she found herself curious about the man who had purportedly captured Iris Hamilton’s heart (she would bet every last pound in her purse that her betrothed shared several characteristics with her brother) . . . and, perhaps more importantly, how they had met.
Her arrival at the door caused a mild stir, but she was quickly escorted into the front parlour and provided a cup of moderately-decent tea (Dot’s tea was, Phryne had discovered, rather difficult to outdo) before Higgins – the butler – fetched Mr Harold Fenton. While she was waiting, Phryne decided that a quick look about wouldn’t be amiss and ambled around the room, taking in the carefully-chosen (and, to her mind, overly-ostentatious) artwork, designed only to impress. There were no personal touches that she could see, not even a crocheted pillow or family blanket (which even she had, though it was kept for the sole use of Aunt Prudence). The overall picture presented came within a very small hair of being offensively gaudy and Phryne wondered, not for the first time, what it was about people who grew up with money having such horrendous taste. Lord knows her family had been the same on the titled side.
The sound of footsteps caught her attention, so she quickly went back to an enormous winged armchair covered in dark green velvet and settled herself as elegantly as possible (which wasn’t very, but it was still better than what looked to be the world’s most uncomfortable sofa) just as Higgins stepped through the door and bowed before moving aside and letting his employer enter.
Harold Fenton was an imposing man a few inches taller than Jack, bald, with a decent amount of muscle, grey eyes, a long jaw, and a protuberant nose. His lips were full, his greying red mustache verging on ridiculous, and his chin firm. Phryne felt a small surge of satisfaction at being right in her earlier guess; poor Iris’ brother and fiancé were markedly similar. Fenton nodded to her as he cleared the door and Phryne gracefully rose, offering him her hand.
“Good afternoon, Miss Fisher,” he rumbled, his voice a surprisingly pleasant bass, as he gave her hand a quick squeeze.
“And you, Mr Fenton,” she returned with a nod of her own. This close to him, she was able to see the intelligence in his eyes . . . and the cunning. What she didn’t see was curiosity, which made hers spike.
“I’m sorry to stop in unannounced, but I’ve been commissioned by Bryce Hamilton to find his sister Iris and as you’re her fiancé, I was hoping you might have some insight as to where she would have gone.”
Wariness came to his face at this announcement, but no surprise or concern, and Phryne felt herself tense. Whatever was going on, it was definitely more than a woman trying to escape an unwanted marriage. Long practice enabled her to keep her composure, however, and she maintained eye contact with ease.
Harold Fenton was studying her just as intently, but after a few moments, his wariness faded into smug satisfaction. It was subtle, and like as not, most people wouldn’t have noticed it, but Phryne wasn’t most people. Her instincts were giving her an insistent warning, but for the time being she ignored them; there was information she had to have, and she had come to the conclusion that acquiring said information was rapidly becoming urgent.
“I’m afraid not, Miss Fisher,” he replied, making a faux attempt at looking sorrowful. She had to concede that the man was good; had she not seen the complete lack of – well, anything, in his expression at the news of Iris’ disappearance, Phryne would have thought his emotions genuine. Yes, this was indeed a dangerous man.
“We aren’t particularly close, you see,” he continued, watching her shrewdly, though without any malice that she could detect. “I’ve been away for several years and our personal interaction has never been . . . truthfully, it’s never been anything.”
“I see,” Phryne murmured. “So . . . you don’t have a residence elsewhere that she might have gone to?”
He shrugged, the carelessness at odds with the watchfulness in his eyes.
“Possibly to my brothers’ flat on Eddington Street, but I wouldn’t get too excited. I haven’t lived there in some time.”
She gave him a fake smile before pulling out a small notepad and pen. “If I could get that address, Mr Fenton, I’ll definitely take a look, just in case. I’d hate to miss something in my search.”
Phryne was surprised to see that she had caught him off-guard, though his only visible reaction was a blink and a slightly subdued, “Certainly. It’s 173 Eddington Street, in Melbourne proper.”
She graciously inclined her head as she tucked pen and pad back into her clutch, before flashing a winsome smile. “Thank you, Mr Fenton. I have every hope it will help me find Iris.”
“I pray so,” he said with complete insincerity – though his voice did have the appropriate gravitas. Phryne really had to give him credit: he was a superb actor. Feeling as though she gotten everything she could short of compromising her own safety – with no chance of additional information – she offered him her hand and tried to ignore the way his touch made her skin crawl.
Shortly thereafter she was on the road, basking in the clean air after both the stifling confines of the house and the overbearing coldness of its master. She harboured no hopes that she would find Iris at this flat, but with luck, she would divine a direction to follow.
Nearly an hour later, Phryne found herself dubiously eyeing a drab brownstone flat, 2-storey, with obvious signs of both occupation and neglect. This area of Melbourne wasn’t the best and she briefly regretted not changing into something less conspicuous. Still, there was nothing for it, so Phryne took a deep breath, steeled herself, and gingerly made her way up the cracked walkway, giving the knocker several strong strikes.
It took nearly five minutes for someone to answer; luckily, Phryne didn’t take offense easily. Also, it gave her the chance to observe the street environment. Unfortunately, it took only a short time for her to see that if there was information to be gotten from this area, it would take a delicate touch . . . and one that couldn’t come from her. Damn.
The sound of the door opening pulled her attention back to where it should have been and she looked up – straight into a near-carbon copy of Harold Fenton, only half his size, very thin auburn hair, and pale blue eyes. Based on the stubble shadowing his jaw and his red-rimmed eyes, Phryne surmised that this was Donald. Still, best to be sure.
“Donald Fenton?” she asked gently, pulling off her gloves and tucking them in her purse. He sniffled and nodded, pulling the door open further and standing back in obvious invitation. Making sure she had one hand on her revolver, Phryne accepted and slowly entered the flat.
It was clearly a bachelor pad, if the complete disarray was any indication: clothes everywhere, dishes scattered in random (and improbable) places, and beer containers on virtually every flat surface. She delicately wrinkled her nose and declined the young man’s offer of a chair.
“I’m sorry to intrude, Mr Fenton, but Bryce Hamilton has asked me to find Iris, and your brother Harold suggested she might have come here.”
This earned her a blank stare for several seconds before the man blinked and gave a quick shake of his head.
“Umm . . . no, Iris hasn’t – she’s never been here.”
It was such an obvious lie – and so poorly thought out – that Phryne actually felt sorry for him, and she gave him a gentle smile.
“It’s all right, Mr Fenton,” she said, catching his gaze. “I know you and Iris have a relationship and truthfully, it’s nothing to me beyond helping me find her. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”
The shocked relief in his eyes was sobering; apparently, tyrannical behaviour was something else that Harold and Bryce shared. He rubbed briefly at his eyes before shaking his head, distress coming off him in waves.
“No,” he whispered hoarsely. “Not a clue. She was supposed to come here that afternoon, but she never did, and Iris – she doesn’t really have friends and – well . . . “
Here he paused and looked away, swallowing hard.
“We only have each other, truthfully, Miss Fisher,” he told her brokenly, staring blindly out the window. “I mean, Ron and Arnold share this place with me, but we don’t have all that much in common, so . . .”
He had no need to finish that sentence and Phryne felt a pang of sympathy (though inwardly, she was wondering at the mindset that had named the Fentons: Harold, Donald, Ronald, and Arnold? That was just cruel. Her name might be mangled, mispronounced, and misconstrued, but rarely was it mistaken for another. How often had one of the boys been in trouble because their parents grabbed the wrong name?). Before she could ask a follow-up question, the door banged open and a man looking very similar to Donald stumbled in.
Well, at least the brothers had the same father, she wryly mused. That must have been a relief at some point in their lives (and, very likely, a detriment at several others). The new arrival didn’t see her until he came to a halt by his brother, one hand on his shoulder.
“Don, I sa – oh. Hello,” he said with surprise, blinking owlishly at her.
“How do you do?” Phryne asked politely, while mentally gritting her teeth in frustration at the interruption.
“Very well, thank you,” he answered, recovering his poise. “I’m Arnold Fenton, Don’s baby brother.”
“Pleased to meet you. Miss Phryne Fisher,” she riposted with cautious optimism. This might be more informative than she had thought, if only because this one wasn’t despondent. “Iris Hamilton has disappeared and I’ve been asked to find her.”
“Iris?” Arnold exclaimed, giving his brother a worried look. “When?”
“According to her brother, three days ago, and there’s been no ransom demand, so he feels that she was . . . attempting to avoid her forthcoming marriage.”
This garnered a bitter snort from Donald, though he said nothing and didn’t turn away from the rather dreary view outside the front window. His brother shot him another concerned look but nodded to Phryne. “That’s all our sentiments,” he told her. “This marriage nonsense has been a sham from the beginning, but whatever caused the engagement in the first place must be deuced important, because neither Harry nor Hamilton will entertain the notion of ending it.”
“Hmm,” Phryne breathed, adding this new information into her mental deck and reshuffling the cards. The obvious answer – that her brother or fiancé had gotten rid of her in order to renegotiate whatever business deal was behind this – didn’t sit right with her, though Jack would likely have disagreed.
Ignoring the pang of loss at the reminder, she started to ask if Harold could have done it (he was their brother, after all, and at this stage, their insight would likely be a little more accurate than hers), only to be interrupted yet again.
“’S odd, though,” Arnold mused, looking down for a moment. “My mate Sebastian said his girl’s cousin went missing a few weeks back; Emily and Sarah were supposed to meet for lunch at Ricardo’s, but Sarah never showed.”
“Ricardo’s? The one a few blocks up the street?” Phryne asked intently, her full attention brought to bear. This could be important.
“That’s the one,” he confirmed with a nod. “I wonder what happened,” he said as an afterthought, his attention drifting. Phryne got a good grip on her temper; she only had one more question, and then she could get the hell out of this . . . this . . . cesspit filled with irresponsible children.
“Arnold, do you happen to know Sarah’s last name?” she queried, giving him a winning smile. Predictable as time, he smiled back and gave her what she wanted without a second thought.
God, she missed Jack. He had quite happily flirted with her, but her wiles had never been enough to override his principles. If he told her something, it was because he chose to do so, not because she beguiled him. It was one of the things that attracted her the most.
Enough about Jack, Phryne told herself savagely, He was gone and apparently doing just fine, and she had far more important things to worry about.
“So, her name is Sarah Larssene?” she double-checked with the boy, determined to make sure this was right. With two suspicious disappearances so quickly – and in the same area – there was a good chance they were connected, which would definitely help her search for Iris.
Arnold nodded. “Yes,” he confirmed. “I remember because her name is spelled oddly but pronounced normally. Seb thought it was a riot that people were always calling her ‘Larceny.’
Forcibly restraining from rolling her eyes, Phryne turned her attention to Donald and crossed the room to his side, gently touching his upper arm. He started and turned, flustered at her nearness.
“Would you like me to keep you informed, Donald?” she asked softly. Looking absolutely flabbergasted, he opened and closed his mouth twice before shaking his head. “I – no, Miss Fisher. Not until you find her . . . or what happened to her,” he finished despondently. Phryne wrestled back her sympathy; the boy wouldn’t know what to do with it and besides, it wasn’t her place.
She started to step away and then had a final thought. Looking back to Iris’ lover, she felt a pang; he was obviously devastated and she hated to ask her next question, but it was rather a necessity.
“Donald,” she started gently, giving him a soft smile, “would you happen to have a photograph of Iris that I could borrow? It would be of immense help in my search.”
He stared blankly at her for a few seconds before slowly nodding and picking up a small brown book on the desk by the window. “Of course, Miss Fisher. Let me just . . .”
He trailed off as he flipped through the pages before giving a soft exclamation of triumph and turned, holding what looked to be a fairly recent picture, judging by the crispness and clarity of the image. Visibly hesitating before handing it to her, Donald swallowed hard as misery filled his eyes. It didn’t take someone of Phryne’s observational skills to know what he was afraid of and she immediately moved to assuage his fear.
“I promise you’ll get it back, Donald, safe and sound,” she said quietly, infusing her voice with resolve. “You have my word.”
He gave her a long look before abruptly shoving the photograph at her and retreating to his spot in front of the window. Arnold gave her an absent nod as he went to his brother and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. Phryne glanced at the picture as she started for the door, only to pause in surprise. Bryce Hamilton was hardly the definition of ‘pretty’ (in any way, shape, form, or fashion), but Iris was . . . striking. Not beautiful in a conventional sense, but definitely eye-catching.
It seemed that her failure to exit the flat caught both men’s attention, as they were staring at her with identical curious expressions. She bestowed a rueful smile on the pair of them and gestured to the photograph.
“My apologies, gentlemen,” she said. “I was just surprised; she bears no resemblance to her brother.”
Arnold laughed at that and nodded, giving Donald a gentle punch to his upper arm. “I know. Harry says that Bryce used to be quite the peacock in his teens and twenties, but that it died two weeks after his parents did.”
Phyrne flicked a glance to Donald and saw him nodding in agreement. “He was an arrogant, vain popinjay,” the elder of the brothers muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets.
She filed that away in her mental index and bade them both a polite farewell before escaping the sad, claustrophobic space. Still, it had been well worth the effort, as she had discovered a good deal more than she’d expected and now had a solid starting point. Things were looking up.
(and if she thought of Jack and how much he would have enjoyed this puzzle, well, she didn’t)
* * * *