"I was sure he'd be here, it all fit," Phryne said, sounding rather peeved at the miscalculation. "And after all, what is the use of a secluded, little-known miner's shack in a remote location if not for the purpose of hiding out to avoid capture when one has committed a murder?"
Jack sighed, and pulled the collar of his coat higher around his neck. As the sun had dropped below the hills the temperature had fallen with it - and here in the Dandenong Ranges in the middle of a damp, chilly August, the temperature had not been mild to begin with.
He and Phryne had searched the old shack and its surroundings for the past hour, trudging through wet bushland, being intermittently rained upon, only to result in no clue as to their prime suspect's whereabouts. They were now returning to the car. And Phryne was complaining.
"I do hate making a trip for nothing."
"The scenery?" he offered.
"Is no doubt charming at absolutely any other time of year."
They reached the car, which Jack was surprised to find had not bogged completely in the sucking stretch of mud-clay that passed for the track that had - barely - allowed them passage to this inhospitable place.
Phryne rounded the car to the driver's side, and they faced each other over the roof - which had been expanded of course, due to the rain.
Under the drooping brim of her damp hat, Phryne's breath misted in the air as she spoke. "We'll have to question the sister again. I'm getting the distinct impression we've been out here on a wild goose chase, Jack."
"It's a possibility. There were some signs of habitation in the shack, but if he was here, he's long gone by now. By all accounts he knows these parts well - if he's taken off into the hills we might never find him."
"Well if our quarry has taken to the hills, I'll jolly well take to the hills after him."
"But not tonight," he said. There might be frost or even a snowfall overnight, the temperatures in the area had been reaching below freezing lately, it had been in the papers.
Of course, so far all they had seen of precipitation had been rain. Which, appropriately, started up once again as they stood there in the early-evening light.
"No," Phryne agreed, opening her door. "I'm wearing entirely the wrong shoes for an off-road expedition."
He rolled his eyes and got in the car.
It was anything but a smooth ride - even Miss Fisher couldn't achieve a breakneck pace on such a rough track. Between the mud and water-filled ruts and potholes, it was a miracle they made any progress at all.
And then they reached the bridge.
Or rather, where the bridge had been when they had first passed this way two hours ago.
It hadn't been much of a bridge to start with - a few planks nailed together in rickety fashion just wide enough to hold a cart, or a motorcar if its driver was brave enough to chance it. Phryne, of course, had been.
But now the Suiza skidded to a stop and Jack and Phryne sat staring at the swollen creek in the beams of the headlights, and at the remnants of the washed-out bridge. Their mutual surprise bore no accompaniment but the cheerless rumble of the engine and the incessant rain on the roof.
"Well," Jack began, and didn't finish because Phryne threw the door open and got out in order to stomp down the road to where the water's edge crept ever higher up the tops of the remaining bridge supports.
Because he needed to be even more wet and cold than he already was, Jack opened his door and stuck his head out far enough to yell at her: "No!"
She turned to look back at him over her shoulder. "No, what?"
"We are not forging a flooded creek in the middle of a rainstorm!"
"But supper, a hot bath, and a stiff drink are all on the other side!"
Jack swore, and got fully out of the car to stomp over so they could shout at each other face to face.
"You might not be dressed for a trek into the wilds, but are you dressed for a funeral?"
She threw up her hands, the wide sleeves of her coat flapping wetly. "Oh, where's your sense of adventure?"
"I must have left it in my other suit. The dry one. Come on!" He tromped back through the mud and gladly shut the door on the increasingly hard rain.
After a few seconds more, Phryne joined him, settling back in her seat with a huff of displeasure. She knew as well as he that there was no crossing that creek - she just never liked admitting defeat.
After all, why bow to the vagaries of the world when you could make the world bow to you instead?
"Well," Phryne said finally, pulling a flask from inside her coat, "at least we can manage the stiff drink."
She tipped it up to her lips and took a deep swallow before passing it over. He drank, grateful for the heat running down his throat to his stomach.
"Let's just get back to the cabin before we catch our deaths," he said as he recapped the flask.
"You sound just like Aunt Prudence when you say things like that," Phryne said with a hint of her usual amused grin. Then she threw the car into reverse, performed a perfectly precise 3-point turn - hampered only slightly by the state of the road - and started back the way they had just come.
It was a very cold, slow, miserable trip, and it was full dark by the time they reached the small miner's shack with its one window, rusting tin roof, and broken front step. But Jack was glad to see it all the same. Anything to be out of this weather.
It was only once they had pulled up as close to the small structure as possible, dashed inside and pulled the door firmly shut behind them, that he realised the full gravity of his current situation.
He was about to spend the night with Miss Fisher in a remote, secluded cabin. Alone.
Fortunately the Suiza was stocked with a few essential items in case of emergency - adventuring supplies, as Phryne called them. They were therefore well equipped inside the sparse, rickety cabin with not just Phryne's trusty flashlight, but also a lantern, a picnic blanket, and a tin of Dot's jam fancies.
"Poor Dot," Phryne said, as she lit the lantern with visibly shaking hands. Their shelter was somewhat drier than being out in the elements, but no less frigid. "She'll be fretting when we don't make it back to town."
"If Collins manages to muster a search party from amongst the local officers, they'll discover the bridge is down just as we did, and they'll be sensible enough to wait till morning to launch a proper rescue."
To be honest, he didn't have much faith in the local constabulary - something of a recurring theme in his life of late - in which case it would more likely be Hugh and Dot attempting to drive out here themselves in these conditions. He trusted they would retreat to dry ground just as he and Phryne - eventually - had done.
Jack set about getting the small iron stove in the corner lit, braving a mouldering, spider-infested wood box in the process. Besides the stove, the single-room shack boasted a single table, a single three-legged stool, and a single cot bed stretched along one wall. Their earlier search of the place had turned up an accumulation of ancient rubbish and a few odds and ends, none of which pertinent to their investigation or particularly useful.
"It would almost be cosy," Phryne spoke behind him as he struggled with the stove's stiff door hinges, "if not for the dust, the dirt, the very large spider population, the freezing temperature, and the way the walls shake at every gust of wind. Very homey. It's a wonder we didn't find our murderer up here enjoying the facilities."
He didn't respond, too busy trying to get a flame to catch. Although thankfully the matchbook in his pocket wasn't too damp, he was already several matches down thanks to the poor state of the wood.
"Don't mind me. I'm just talking to give my teeth something to do besides chatter. Here," she said, and a hand appeared over his shoulder. "Would kindling help? It seems a shame, but paper is in short supply around here."
She had handed him a book of French postcards. He blinked, then looked over his shoulder at her.
"It was just lying here on the table," she professed innocence with a shrug. "The evidence of a solitary man. Obviously the previous occupant wasn't up here for the scenery. At least, not the kind outdoors."
The postcards burned well enough. In a few minutes, with careful tending, there was a decent fire going in the stove and at least freezing to death in the night was now slightly less likely.
Jack stood and turned to find Miss Fisher undressing.
He turned back around quickly.
"Uh," he said.
"You should get out of your wet things, too, Jack," she said.
"That's," he cleared his throat, "sensible."
"I'm afraid there's only one blanket, though." There was far too much amusement in her voice for his liking - or sanity.
He slowly began to remove his coat and said, "The room's warming up already."
It wasn't, in fact, outside the small circle of heat just beginning to accumulate no more than a foot or so from the stove.
He chanced a glance behind him and this time found her wrapped in the blanket, covering all but bare knees, legs and feet. She was draping her wet things over the end of the bed, in the hope they might dry by morning. He found a nail on the wall and hung up his coat, then divested himself of his jacket, vest, and shirt, leaving himself in his short sleeves. After a moment, he removed his shoes and socks as well - feet that were bare, but dry, were preferable to wet and frozen.
He focused then on arranging his socks on the hot stove where they would be sure to dry quickly, rather than on the woman moving around the small space behind him. Of course he had seen her in less than this - the memory of pink feathers and stage lights and her saucy expression wasn't about to leave him any time soon - but they were far from a crowded brothel here, without audience or chaperone.
"Biscuit?" he heard her say, and turned. She put the open tin in his hands and then went back to the bed, taking up the thin, decrepit mattress and giving it a shake before dragging it to the floor. "We may as well make a proper picnic of it. Though it's a shame to disturb the mice."
"Better than the bare floor," he agreed, giving no thought at all to making use of the bed as it was. He helped her arrange the mattress as close to the stove as possible, and they sat down, both huddled near the heat source, to share biscuits and whiskey, passing the flask back and forth between them.
She was still shivering, though trying not to show it. So often she appeared larger than life, the indefatigable Miss Fisher; it was easy to forget she was human, as likely to succumb to cold or hunger or illness as anybody.
Acting on instinct he drew near and tucked the blanket more firmly around her, his hands brushing hers where they held onto the scratchy wool. He took one of her hands and pressed it between his.
"God, Phryne, you're like ice."
"Well then, I must be in dire straits. You only call me Phryne when you're really worried."
"I wish you'd spend less time cataloguing my habits, and a little more on important matters, like remembering your umbrella."
"You didn't have one, either. Really, you fuss like an old hen sometimes."
"Say that without your teeth chattering, and I'll stop fussing."
"I'd do better if you joined me under here," she said, holding out one side of the blanket. At his suddenly very-wide eyes she rolled her own. "It's not a proposition - not that kind, anyway. Body heat, Jack. It's in short supply, and it's only logical to share."
"Right. I - of course."
Still, he hesitated.
"You're cold too, don't deny it. You're still wearing your wet trousers, and you've no blanket besides." She sighed. "It's just me, Jack, I don't bite. Well, hardly ever."
Phryne was never 'just' anything. That was entirely the problem, he thought, his lips quirking up as he shifted close enough to pull the edge of the blanket around his shoulders. "Good thing I had all my shots in the army."
"I've definitely bitten men for less than that."
"You're probably not that contagious," he conceded.
She laughed, bumping her shoulder into his hard enough to rock them both sideways, and he smiled down at her, until she looked up and their eyes met.
"We should probably try to get some sleep," he said, looking away.
"Oh, probably. Certainly nothing else to keep ourselves occupied. We burned the naughty postcards, after all."
He opened his mouth to reply to that, and immediately thought better of it.
She caught him glancing at the now-empty cot frame and said, "I think it might be too tight a squeeze, although we can try if you like."
It was, he noted, a very small bed. The mattress was small, too, of course, but sitting here upon it on the floor, the particular dimensions seemed less pertinent somehow.
"Right, then," he said with a nod, and the two of them arranged themselves lying down side-by-side with the blanket covering them. "Good night."
"Uh-hm," was Phryne's non-committal reply.
Because it was impossible not to notice, he merely tried not to dwell on the curves of her body that were pressed along his side, soft satin underthings brushing his bare arm.
As if they had rehearsed it, he and Phryne drew deep breaths and sighed in unison.
"Do remind me to laugh about this later," Phryne said after a moment.
He stared past her shoulder at his socks, steaming on the stove-top, and said, "What about this amuses you, exactly?"
"Everything. You and I, Jack, are miles from civilisation, trapped alone in a shack in a storm, huddled half-naked under a blanket, sharing body heat. You can't tell me whatever God is up there doesn't have a shocking sense of humour."
"You're right. I'm sure I'll laugh, too." He then added under his breath: "If I survive this."
"I can freeze to death and talk at the same time, why should I hush?"
He sighed again, and she fell silent.
Some things did not require conversation.
After possibly the longest ten minutes of his life, during which time Phryne fidgeted beside him far too much to have fallen asleep, Jack cleared his throat. "Do you think it's helping? I'm feeling a little warmer."
"And I'm not shivering."
"And I can feel all my toes." She let him feel them, too, wriggling a foot up under his trouser leg to find his calf with her toes.
He sucked in a breath. "Good. That's good. There's an old billy can, over there, perhaps there's tea to go with it, somewhere. A hot drink would do you good. Would do us both good, I think. It might help us sleep."
"I don't want tea."
"That's no way to live," she said softly, serious all of a sudden. Her mouth was too close to his ear for comfort. "Not that there isn't a lot to be said for, well, a judicious nature. Self-restraint. Principles and... that sort of thing."
"For god's sake -"
"I know." Her hand stole from beneath the blanket and reached for his face, turning it so he couldn't help but look at her. "Believe me, Jack, I know. I'm not actually trying to seduce you."
"Aren't you?" His eyes took in her face, framed by still-damp hair, her expression free of humour.
"Have I yet? I could have. I've considered it often. You may have guessed I'm quite good at seducing men, and when I set my mind to something I almost always get it. And yet I haven't set my mind at you. Not yet."
"You keep saying 'yet'."
"Yes, I do. One should always keep one's options open - perhaps in case of signs from the universe. Because Jack, if there's one thing I know it's that life is short and for heaven's sake if you don't kiss me this second I'll -"
His lips were on hers before she finished her sentence.
He could see no need to hold back any longer, kissing her as he had always wished to kiss her. Rarely had an invitation been delivered so succinctly. Her hand slid into his hair as she kissed him back with enthusiasm, her mouth open and willing against his, the line of her body pressed tantalisingly close.
He could have kissed her forever like this, but finally he drew back and said, "You'll what?"
She blinked, seeming to take a few seconds to recall her undelivered threat. "Oh, I was going to say I would jolly well kiss you first. I wouldn't have minded either way, personally, but I thought you might like to make the first move, and look, you did so, admirably."
"I'm glad to meet with your approval," he said dryly.
"As am I, I did have such high hopes for you," she said with an impertinent smile, and at that he could only kiss her again. And again.
In their small cocoon of warmth beneath the blanket, they began to touch and explore each other. But while he was increasingly heated, he realised through the fog of desire that her hands and skin were still cool to touch.
He dragged his mouth from her skin. "You're still cold."
"You couldn't be more wrong. If you'd care to pay a little more attention you'd discover I'm positively inflamed." She took his hand and led it up under the hem of her slip.
"Oh," he said, her thigh under his palm quite warm indeed as his fingers encountered the edges of her knickers. "Good."
"Getting there, at least." Impatient, she grabbed his wandering hand and pressed it between her thighs. He had never minded taking directions from her, and didn't now, as he rubbed her slowly, firmly, through the thin, damp satin. She shuddered.
"I hope that's passion, not hypothermia," he said, only half-teasing.
"Dear Inspector, if you've never made a woman tremble before, allow me to enlighten you - in this particular context it's almost always a good thing."
"You're an infuriating woman."
"And yet I feel positively obliging just this instance." Her hips arched into his touch. "I'd probably do just about anything you asked of me. Try and see."
But he had nothing to ask of her but another kiss, which was readily given. From there his mouth moved over her chest, descending to the deep neckline of her slip, his lips finding the slope of her breast.
"Well, all right, but the next time I do something when you tell me not to I'm going to remind you of this moment and the opportunity you let pass you by."
His mouth halted its attentions to say: "Are you always this chatty during..."
"Love-making? I suppose it depends on who I'm chatting with. Are you always so well-dressed during such matters?" Her hands tugged at his undershirt, beginning to pull the hem from his trousers.
He rolled his eyes and sat up, immediately feeling the loss of the heat they had created between them beneath the blanket. She lay back and watched him undress, unabashed as he had not been earlier when she had first shed her clothes.
He returned to her naked, and together they removed her remaining garments.
"Just one thing," she forestalled him as he covered her body with his. "Don't spend inside me, if you can help it. I obviously didn't pack my pessary for this little jaunt."
He didn't reply, but lowered his head to rest against hers, his shoulders and back rigid with tension.
"Are you quite overcome?" she said softly in his ear.
His lips brushed her cheek and his eyes met hers from mere inches away. "Only in so far as I have been since I met you." His voice rough, he added, "So more or less entirely."
"Dear Jack. I believe I know just what you mean." Her arms surrounded him and she urged him closer, her hips rising to meet his. "Now, please."
She was as vigorous and vocal in sex as he had always expected - in those moments when he had allowed himself to consider such things - only the reality of Phryne moving beneath him far surpassed his pallid imaginings. She met him passion for passion and urged him ever on with her velvet voice in his ears, her deft hands leaving trails of fire on his skin, until he thought himself truly lost.
She shuddered and cried out as she reached her peak, one of her hands delving down to where their bodies met, touching herself to increase her own pleasure. She sought his mouth after in a heated kiss, her hips still lifting to meet his every thrust, and he soon approached his own climax. Remembering himself at the last possible moment, he withdrew to spill against her thigh.
The steady patter of rain on the tin roof was easing, the lantern burning low, as Phryne stretched lazily. Rather like a cat before the fire, Jack thought, as he watched her and wondered if she was always like this after making love - so languid and happy. He wondered if he would have the opportunity to learn.
For all his wonderings, he was feeling slightly more industrious than Phryne, content to don his smallclothes and potter around, feeding the fire, dashing outside to relieve himself and fill the billy can with water from a convenient spout running off a corner of the eaves.
Back inside he gasped at the rapid change in temperature - it truly was icy tonight - and he quickly approached the stove where Phryne knelt beside him and patted him dry with a corner of the blanket.
"I suppose I'll have to go outside at some point, too," she said, "but I mean to be smart enough to wait till the rain completely stops."
"It could go on like this all night."
"I have hope."
"That the world will order itself to your whims?"
"That I'll never become such a dreadful pessimist." She smiled and kissed his cheek fondly before leaving his side to claim a biscuit from the discarded tin and then lie back down with her head propped on her hand.
Jack set the billy on the stove-top to boil so they would have something to drink during the night other than a few sips of whisky. He traded the billy for his socks, which were good wool and had not burned, though he shook them out to a less scorching temperature.
He turned to Phryne's reclining form and reached under the blanket for her leg, lifting up her foot as she lay there, munching her biscuit and watching him with eyebrows raised.
He put one of the socks on her bare foot, then reached for the other leg, which she offered up readily to be dressed in the other toasty-warm sock.
"You know," he reflected, as he eased the sock on over her toes, "you never needed to try to seduce me. As if I needed any convincing."
"Too bad, Jack, I'm afraid I've decided to seduce you often from here on out. Especially now I know you're the kind of man who shares his socks."
"Any gentleman would."
"You'd be surprised. Now come here."
She held out her arms for him, and he returned to them gladly.
They reached the washed-out bridge not two hours past first light, to find their rescuers had already arrived at the scene. However, for all that Dot and Constable Collins, along with the band of workmen they had brought with them, most likely had good intentions, apparently no actual rescue had thus far been implemented.
There looked to be a lot more standing around assessing the situation than actual work being done.
When he and Phryne exited the car and approached the creek, they were quickly hailed from the opposite bank.
"I knew you'd be all right," Dot called, beaming at them from under her woollen hat. She held up the basket she carried. "I brought tea, and egg sandwiches."
"A-and don't worry, Sir," Hugh added, "the men will have the bridge sorted out soon enough."
"Soon enough for breakfast, do you think?" Phryne said, hands on her hips as she considered the creek dividing them from their first proper food since yesterday's lunch.
"The water level has certainly fallen since last night," Jack said.
Their eyes met.
"Have you found your sense of adventure?" Phryne said.
"I was never truly missing it," he replied.
She lifted her shoulder in a half-shrug. "Who needs a silly old bridge, anyhow?"
He grinned, and turned to shout to the young constable who was back in deliberation with the men. "Collins! We'll be needing a rope."
"A rope, sir?"
With one end tied to the back of the workmen's lorry, the other tossed across the creek and promptly fastened to the front fender of the Suiza - a safeguard against stalling in mid-stream - they were soon ready to go.
Back in the car, Jack and Phryne sat side by side, motor revving.
"Well, Miss Fisher?" he said with a quirk of his brows.
Her smile was gleeful as she gripped the wheel. "Well, Inspector, let's forge ahead."
Then Jack waved out the window to signal the others, and a moment later the Suiza lurched forward under Phryne's expert steering, and they entered the water.