"If it's just a robbery, sir, I'll send young Collins along on his own," said Jack. "It'll be good practice for him to handle the initial inquiries."
"That won't do in this case, I'm afraid."
"Oh? Not just a robbery, I take it."
"No." Chief Inspector Gambol shifted in his chair. The leather groaned gently. "I asked you up to Russell Street for a reason, Jack. It appears that the Bowerbird has decided to make, ah, a real habit of things."
Jack held his jaw steady against a groan of his own. "I don't think we should encourage the press, sir."
"The public are using that name already."
"Still," Jack said. "Constable Collins should be capable of securing the scene, even if the--if that particular thief is allegedly responsible."
"It's not just that. This one needs to be handled...delicately." Gambol shifted again, burying the creases of an embarrassed expression in his moustache. "Lady Harrison is a friend of Lady Prudence Stanley. Who is a friend of Ethel's."
"Your wife's friends can be assured that we will act professionally, sir."
"Professional isn't enough for Lady Stanley," Gambol said glumly. "Prim, disapproving lemon of a woman, if you ask me, but her name pulls as much weight as the Goldfields Express. Ethel dragged me to some garden party or other last month when the woman's niece--the Honourable Miss Fisher--returned from Europe. Tons of money, of course, but by all accounts the niece is one of those brash, shameless spinsters. A feminist, you know."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Jack.
Sir and Lady Harrison lived in a white, over-balconied house in Balaclava. Collins parked the car a few houses up, as there were at least three polished motor cars crowding the road and the driveway outside the Harrisons', turning the leafy street into something like a film set. Jack tried to shove down the urge to inspect his shoes for scuffmarks as he jogged up the steps.
"Quite a place, isn't it, sir?" Collins said.
"Yes, quite a place."
Jack flashed his badge to the butler who opened the door, and nudged Collins in the side when the constable paused in the doorway to gawk at the furnishings. Jack had never felt comfortable in these grand houses, but if years of working his way up through the constabulary had taught him anything, it was that rich people had the same basic motivations and same grubby dealings as anyone else. They just tended to be better at looking you in the eye and pretending that the world owed them something.
Jack halted in the entrance hall as a tall elderly woman approached, moving with a kind of stalking stride that made her skirt rustle furiously.
"I must say, you took your time about it. When one telephones for the police, one expects prompt attention. I'm quite sure I told the operator it was an emergency. But then I suppose I can't hold everyone to my own standards without experiencing the occasional disappointment."
"Lady Harrison?" Jack said. "Inspector Jack Robinson. Why don't you tell us what's happened?"
It turned out that Lady Adelaide Harrison's idea of an emergency had less to do with the scale of the theft--a single necklace, the absence of which was discovered when she went upstairs to fetch it to show her luncheon guests--and more to do with being the victim of an up-and-coming criminal celebrity.
"And no other pieces are missing?" Jack asked.
"Not from my own jewellery box. And I had Stirling check his lordship's dresser immediately; he has a very valuable fob-watch, an heirloom. It was right where it should be. No, it was just my necklace."
Her eyes roamed the room in skittish bursts, never meeting Jack's directly. This one certainly was going to take some delicacy, though not the kind that Gambol had meant.
"Collins, why don't you go and start interviewing Lady Harrison's guests?"
"They're all in the sitting room," said Lady Harrison. "Of course, I insisted that everyone remain in the house."
"Do you suspect someone from among your friends, Lady Harrison?"
She sniffed through her long nose. "Don't be absurd, Inspector. I have no idea when the necklace disappeared, and obviously the Bowerbird is the culprit. But this is a crime scene." The look she gave Jack seemed to imply that she doubted his ability to carry out basic police work without her supervision.
"Constable Collins," Jack said.
"Right. Yes." Collins cast a nervous look at Jack and left the room.
"Now," Jack said. "Why don't you tell me what else is missing?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
The woman directed a look of flat dislike at Jack, who gave her the same blankly expectant expression that he used to quell shrill drunks and pugnacious rioters. Lady Harrison clutched a convulsive double handful of her skirts, whitening her knuckles, and then released her fingers as though this break in her composure had never occurred.
"Very well," she said. "There was a suitcase, under my bed."
"A suitcase?" Jack prompted.
Twenty excruciating minutes later he'd managed to wrangle the truth from the woman, or at least as much of it as he expected to get. The suitcase full of used banknotes ("A gift from a friend, Inspector.") had something to do, Jack suspected, with Lady Harrison having the ear of her husband, a gentleman who despite being reportedly well under the lady's draconian thumb was also an influential figure in the higher echelons of the City Planning office.
More interesting than the bribe itself--oh, he'd look into it, but it was going to be almost impossible to prove illegal intent--was the fact that the thief had known about the suitcase in the first place. Not for the first time, the thought stuck in Jack's mind that the problem with having a thief's tastes and calling card splashed all over the papers was that it made things easy for a mimic.
When they joined Collins in the sitting room, there was an almost festive air to the group of well-dressed women, as though the house being robbed was an exciting finishing touch to a fashionable luncheon party. Only one of the group was fiddling with a handkerchief, though her eyes were both dry and shrewd.
"Really, Prudence," said Lady Harrison. "I know I can't hold everyone to my own standards, but may I remind you that I was the one who was robbed."
"The reminder is appreciated, Adelaide. As it was the first three times."
That would be Lady Prudence Stanley, then: a short, grey-haired lady who did indeed have a citrus-like cast to her mouth and who was having her hand patted by an elegant beauty, who in turn seemed more interested in her glass of champagne. The only person standing apart from the knot of gossips, sipping coffee near the window, was a handsome woman in trousers and a mannish blazer, with red hair tucked back in a plain knot. Jack remembered Gambol's description, and wandered up to her.
The woman coughed into her coffee before setting it hastily down on a table.
"Dear God," she said. "I think the world would revolt. No, Inspector. Doctor Elizabeth Macmillan."
She stretched out a hand with a vertical tilt that suggested shaking it would be a better idea than pressing or bowing over it, and her grip was firm. Her skin had the much-washed roughness that invariably came with her profession.
"My apologies, Doctor Macmillan," Jack said. "Mistaken identity."
"If you want to speak to her, Miss Phryne Fisher is comforting her aunt," said Doctor Macmillan. "Over there, in the red dress."
The woman in the red dress, her champagne glass still perched between white-gloved fingers, no longer seemed to be doing much in the way of comforting. She had moved on from patting Lady Stanley's hand and was watching with wide, interested eyes as Collins stammered his way through an interview with a languid blonde wearing more velvet than Jack had ever seen on anything but a chaise lounge.
Jack wasn't sure that he did want to speak with her, but it'd look ridiculous to refuse on the basis that she looked less spinsterish than he'd imagined, so he went to stand in her line of sight.
"Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Might I have a word?"
"Goodness, another policeman. And even more handsome than the last." The red shape of her mouth took on a coy angle. "Your charming young constable already took my statement, Inspector, but you're certainly welcome to take it again. Especially if you think I can be of any assistance to you. This Bowerbird! I hear we aren't safe in our beds!"
That name really wasn't going anywhere. Jack bowed to the inevitable. "Miss Fisher, the Bowerbird's tastes seem to run to jewellery. Not violence."
"Is it true, then, that the Bird only steals things that are blue?"
Jack folded his hands in his coat pockets and prayed for patience. "So far, madam, this thief has stolen one sapphire bracelet, one antique brooch shaped like a peacock, and now one triple-strand necklace of grey pearls. But apparently that's all the Melbourne press needs to give them a silly name."
Miss Fisher blinked up at him with thick-lashed, impertinent eyes. "You must be quite the expert."
Jack swallowed down the truth, which was that nobody else wanted the case since it had turned so public, and he'd happened to be the bastard unlucky enough to turn up to the first crime scene.
"Just doing my job, Miss Fisher."
"Well. I, for one, am quite reassured. I would be happy to place my jewels in your hands, Inspector."
"I--believe Constable Collins and I should inspect the crime scene, if you'll excuse me."
Miss Phryne Fisher inclined her head; Jack coughed, nodded, and escaped. Even on the other side of the room he imagined he could still smell her perfume, and as he exited to the corridor he could hear her talking to her aunt and then breaking into laughter. His tastes didn't usually run to vapid socialites, but there was no denying the woman was attractive.
Clues at the crime scene were as sparse as Jack had expected. This thief was careful, smart, and practically ghostly. There were no marks of illicit entry into the building and no evidence that the safe had been forced open, and the equally-careful Lady Harrison hadn't had cause to check on the suitcase for over ten days, leaving a wide window of opportunity.
The thief's calling card was just as unhelpful: magpie feathers weren't exactly easy to dust for prints, and it wasn't as though there were official stockists through which purchases or orders could be traced. You could pick them up on the street, or in any park in the city. Jack remembered collecting them with his sister when they were children, comparing the black and white patterns, the straightness of the quill, the way you could split the fibres easily and then smooth them perfectly whole again with the oil in your fingertips.
The suitcase full of money, though, was a break in the pattern. Something new.
Jack took notes on every detail and identified two flimsy leads that he would get Collins to chase to ground the next day, but he wasn't entertaining much hope of swift justice. Back at the station he wrote a full and pessimistic report, added his notes to the file, and refused to speak to the press unless it was Archie Wanganeen from the Argus, who was in a snit over the fact that he'd originally bestowed the frankly more logical name of the Magpie upon the thief and it hadn't caught on, so he was refusing to dignify the case with his byline until Harry Canavan from the Age stopped looking so smug about it in the Press Club bar.
Journalists. They were almost as bad as cops, sometimes.
Dickie Mason had been left lying in the street. He was bleeding from his nose and ears and was barely conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance, but even with an hour's worth of door-knocking, they couldn't find a single person willing to state that they'd seen or heard a thing.
"Ma'am," said Collins, with an earnestness that Jack could already tell was wasted, "if you feel like you can't be forthcoming, if you've been threatened in any way…"
"I already told you," said the woman. Her mouth was an unassailable line. "I can't help you, gents. I didn't hear nothing."
"Ma'am--" Collins tried again.
"Thank you," Jack said. "We won't take up any more of your time."
"Well," said Collins, when the door had slammed behind them. "The Archer gang, then, d'you think, sir?"
Jack cast a sidelong look at his constable and kept his voice neutral.
"Why do you say that, Collins?"
Collins folded the cover neatly back over his notepad and stowed it in a pocket before he spoke. He had the air that Jack remembered from enlisted men sorting carefully through truth, expectation, and vocabulary, before speaking in front of an officer.
"It's common knowledge that their boys are all over this neighbourhood. We can't get even one person to speak. They're closing ranks, sir. They're scared."
"I think you're right," Jack said. "And I don't think they'll tell you anything at the pub, either, but we're going to do our duty. Focus on the staff," he added, "but be subtle about it. Let the locals talk or not talk, whatever's easiest, and see if you can get any of the servers to drop a hint about Mason's usual associates."
Collins nodded. "You're not coming, sir?"
"I'm going to the hospital," Jack said. "If Mason starts talking, I'm going to be there."
They'd taken Mason straight in to surgery, so Jack ended up cooling his heels for almost two hours. His body's usual response to repose kicked in and he was almost asleep in an anteroom, hands folded over his hat where it lay in his lap, by the time the doctor appeared.
Jack blinked away the last of the cobwebs at the sight of Elizabeth Macmillan. She had a grim expression on her face which told Jack most of what he needed to know, and that hair was even more vibrant against the white of her coat. When Jack looked closely there were spatters of fresh blood on the toes of her shoes.
"Doctor Macmillan," Jack said, standing. "I wish these were better circumstances."
"Well, Inspector Robinson," she said. "If you were hoping to question my patient, I'm afraid you're all out of luck. He's the coroner's responsibility now."
"Which is what his attackers were counting on." Jack sighed.
"Doctor," called a voice, and Doctor Macmillan glanced over her shoulder.
"I'd better go and write this one up," she said. "But that's the end of the day for me, thank Christ."
Jack glanced at his watch and was barely surprised to realise that it was past the end of his own shift as well.
"How about a drink?" said Doctor Macmillan.
She was smiling a little when he looked up. "A drink. Alcoholic."
Jack's hands tightened on the brim of his hat, and he paused for the length of time it took him to realise that he no longer had any reason to pause. Rosie was living at her sister's. The pause was for a task that Jack now knew, awkwardly, to be obsolete: the consideration of whether he should go home at a reasonable hour, or allow himself a solitary drink and risk the silent pressure of Rosie's disappointment later that night.
Long before he'd recognised the danger that his marriage was in, he'd recognised how important to him were those silent evenings over whiskey or beer, devoid of expectation. Nothing to live up to, and up to, and up to, and to catch himself failing at.
The doctor seemed to take his hesitation as something entirely different.
"You can relax, Inspector," she said. "Rest assured, I have no designs on your virtue."
Jack smiled at her and replaced his hat. He'd reached that conclusion already.
"If we're going to start drinking together, Doctor Macmillan, you might as well call me Jack."
"Jack," she said. Her own smile was dry and friendly, crinkling her eyes. "And Mac."
They ended up in the Royal, where Mac's trousers and cravat drew plenty of eyes but no outright comments. Jack bought the first round of beers, and neither of them were in a hurry to make conversation. Mac drank steadily, until the liquid level had halved, before setting her glass down with a sigh.
"I try to tell my patients that drowning their difficulties can cause even more problems in the long run," she said. "But there's no denying that sometimes it's exactly what you need."
Jack toasted the sentiment with a tilt of his own glass. A man beaten to death, and the bloody Archers to contend with. If Mac hadn't suggested this, he'd probably have gone back to the office to spend a headache of a night poring over his files.
"I have a question," he said, casting out for distraction. "Why were you at that party of Lady Harrison's in the first place?"
Mac raised two amused eyebrows. "Am I being interviewed?"
"You've got a career. You don't seem like the kind of woman with nothing to do in the middle of a weekday except attend luncheons."
Mac laughed. "Not my usual crowd, you're right, but Phryne bullied me along. Said it would be good for me to escape the wards for a few hours. Honestly, I think she wanted me there because she knew my presence would annoy Lady Harrison. I'm not considered respectable company among those rich biddies."
"She's a friend of yours, Miss Fisher?"
"One of my best," Mac said easily. She took a long gulp of her beer, watching Jack over the rim of it with shrewd eyes. "If you start asking me if she's walking out with anyone, this will feel suspiciously like fifth form at Methodist Ladies' all over again."
Jack made wet circles on the glass with his index finger while his pulse flicked at the skin of his neck and he felt suddenly wrong-footed. Mac was right, there was something about the feeling that rendered him seventeen again.
"MLC girl, were you?" he asked instead.
"For God and for Home," Mac intoned. "As you can see, I am failing to live up to the school motto. And it's my turn for questions, I think. Am I allowed to ask how the Bowerbird investigation is going?"
"Details of open cases are--"
"Come on, Inspector--"
"Jack. We've both had a long day. You don't have to tell me everything, but jewel thieves are a lot more fun than dead bodies. And I saw your picture in the papers; everyone knows you're the man on the job."
"The man failing at the job, you mean."
"I don't allow self-pity in my drinking acquaintances," Mac said firmly, swinging her legs as she stood up. "Finish that beer. Second round's on me."
By the time she returned with the fresh drinks, Jack had managed to take any and all ill-advised questions he might have about the flirtatious and possibly unattached Phryne Fisher, and swallow them down like pills with the last of his beer. They'd drunk fast enough that the dregs were still cold.
"Right," Mac said, taking her seat. "Is it true what they wrote, about the charitable donation?"
Jack nodded. It was half luck and half someone with an uneasy conscience in the financial office of the women's shelter that had led the exact amount of the anonymous cash donation to cross his desk, and he'd matched it immediately to the amount that Lady Harrison had admitted was in the suitcase. The details of how the Bowerbird had gotten their hands on that many unmarked bills had thankfully stayed out of the press, but they were ecstatic about the charity thing. Jack was waiting fatalistically for someone to namedrop Robin Hood in gushing comparison.
"It's the last thing we need," he said bluntly. "We're going to end up stuck between rich victims of theft who are baying for an arrest, and a public fascinated by a criminal who's meting out some showy version of financial justice."
"Are you any closer?" Mac asked. "To an arrest, I mean."
"Now I'm being interviewed. Do you work for the Sun, by any chance?"
Mac snorted. "All right, we can drop it."
Jack should have taken the escape, moved the conversation to something else, but it was something he missed now that he was living alone again: talking over cases in this semi-obscured way, sorting out his thoughts as he spoke.
"I've only seen a few serial burglars like this," he said finally. "I don't think this is one who's going to be caught after the third robbery, and maybe not even after the tenth. We have to let them develop a pattern, a routine. Keep the press engaged, as irritating as that is. Eventually they'll slip up."
Mac looked down into her beer. She was fraying the corner of the cardboard coaster with one fingernail; it was slow work, Jack could see, as her nails were cut very short.
After a moment she gave a mustering shake of her head and looked up at him. "I think I'll wish you good luck, Inspector," she said. There was a note of irony in her voice that Jack didn't know how to interpret.
"Much appreciated," he murmured, and took another drink.
"Sir," said Collins, one hand over the phone. "They're calling in another Bowerbird robbery."
"Another robbery with a feather," Jack corrected him; a vain effort to discourage leaping to conclusions.
"Yes, sir. And, um. A note."
"A note?" Jack looked up. "At the crime scene?"
Collins nodded. Jack leaned back in his seat, pencil balanced between his fingers.
"Well, that's different."
"It's addressed to you," Collins said.
"The note, sir. Hold on." Collins tucked the phone back under his chin. "Can you tell me exactly--right. Yes. Really?"
"Where?" said Jack, already standing.
"Kensington," Collins told him.
Which wasn't their beat by a long shot, but Jack supposed that when criminals started leaving notes for you, you couldn't really complain about being called in.
The note, when Jack picked it up, was addressed to Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, City South branch, Victorian Police Force. Which was, Jack remembered with a familiar frisson of annoyance, exactly how he'd been captioned in the first Bowerbird newspaper article to feature his photograph. At least they knew that the thief was keeping an eye on their own press.
He unfolded it. The paper was unremarkable, not too heavy, and Jack wasn't any kind of forensics expert but he couldn't see anything striking about the handwriting either. It was dark ink, blue--of course--and legible but the careless side of neat, like something dashed off to a friend you saw often, or a note left for a spouse reminding them that the milk was running low.
Why had he thought that? Why that particular comparison?
Jack stroked a leather-gloved finger up and down the side of the paper, thoughtful, and on nothing more than instinct brought the note to his nose and tried to isolate a scent. Nothing in particular. But his gut had locked on to something, and a different frisson was making itself known in his spine now. This was far more than the Bowerbird had ever given them before. He didn't know what that meant yet, but he was going to work it out.
Now that we're moving in the same circles, so to speak, I feel like it's only polite that we get to know one another. And thanks to the fascinating newspaper stories--do you make that face all the time, or only when faced with journalists?--I know a little about you. So think of this as a way of leveling the field. I got into the habit of writing letters, last year, and I haven't fallen out of it yet. It's good to have a wide range of correspondents.
(Tell the nice policemen in forensics that the ink brand is Carter's. Hardly unique, I do apologise.)
This might turn out to be a bad idea. I have occasionally been accused of acting without thinking the consequences all the way through.
We, ignorant of ourselves,
Beg often our own harms, which the wise powers
Deny us for our good; so find we profit
By losing of our prayers.
What do you think, Inspector? Do any of us know what's truly best for ourselves?
Personally, I think we should give ourselves more credit than that. I think we do.
"Have you got something, sir?" Collins asked eagerly. "You look--"
Jack glanced up. "Sorry?"
Collins waved his pencil in a vague loop that encompassed Jack's face, then clearly thought better of it. "I mean, what does it say?"
"Antony and Cleopatra," said Jack.
After that, there was always a note. Jack read each of them once, had the text copied out, and then put them into evidence.
(folded in three with the magpie feather tucked through it, in the jewellery case that once held Agatha Derwent's black pearls)
Another few inches in the Age! Harry Canavan doesn't think much of either of us, does he?
Despite what you may think, it makes me feel quite safe and pleased to know that the Melbourne police force is made up of such dedicated pursuers of justice as yourself.
He was stoical, serious, austere: a dreamer of stern dreams; humble and haughty, like all fanatics. His stare was cold and piercing as a gimlet. His whole life was contained in two words: waking, watching. . . Woe to any who fell into his hands! He would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue.
(Don't be offended, Inspector. I mean it fondly, and besides, it took me almost an hour to find the book so that I could copy this down. Serving as a block to stop the kitchen door from swinging shut, it turned out. Don't be offended. Laugh and imagine me turning the house upside down.)
Jack did want to laugh. He could feel it itching at his cheeks, an almost unfamiliar sensation these last few months. He also wanted to turn the note over and write impossibly back, perhaps something about Victor Hugo's ideas of redemption, and how thousands of pounds' worth of jewels were on quite a different scale to a loaf of bread, and how he was quite capable of seeing the humour in the quote. She'd only take that as encouragement, though.
Oh, yes. She.
He was sure about that, right down in his gut.
(inside Sir Ashley Parson's safe, from which a large South African diamond and an even larger stack of money had been removed)
This week I'm feeling very grateful for Dorothy Parker. She's a poet writing in America at the moment; you might not have heard of her, but I have her books shipped to me as soon as they come out. It's amazing, wouldn't you agree? The idea that an object can be ordered from halfway around the globe and end up in my hands? I remember one Christmas we were given a mango, grown somewhere near Brisbane, and that seemed like such an impossibly vast distance. Almost another world.
It does annoy me that other people are reading her new poems before they can make their way to the Antipodes, but at least nobody can spoil them for me. They sail towards me at their own pace and they aren't like fruit, they can't go rotten on the voyage. Words will always be fresh.
Dorothy Parker seems a kindred spirit. I think I'd like her, if we met. I'd like to put my arm through hers and have her take me shopping on the streets of New York. She seems to know exactly which parts of life are worth taking seriously, and which should be thoroughly and affectionately laughed off.
If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I may blazon my mark;
And what if I don't, and what if I do?
As with every other time, Jack tried to explain to Collins why he was smiling--why the Bowerbird's chatty communiqués and blatant attempts to engage his interest were funny or appropriate or downright charming--but Collins looked sheepish.
"I can't say I've ever seen the point in poetry, sir."
"Give it time, Collins."
That night Jack sat at his kitchen table, set for one, and found himself mouthing the words of the poem where they remained in his mind, imprinted as though in soft wax. Their rhythm had slid through some gap that was created when he was a schoolboy, when memorisation was essential for Latin verbs and long swathes of Keats, Shelley, and Shakespeare.
He recognised Dorothy Parker's purloined words as a challenge, or at least intended as genuine food for thought.
The Bowerbird wasn't playing fair; Jack couldn't debate these pieces of paper. He couldn't tell pieces of paper and a growing pile of feathers that he, too, remembered the rare treat that was eating a single piece of tropical fruit in the heavy heat of a Christmas afternoon, stickying his best suit of clothes, which had been so clean and pressed for church that morning.
He wanted to catch her, he was going to catch her, if only because he had so much to say.
"I'm going to make the rounds," Rosie said. She squeezed his arm. "You don't have to come with me, I can see a piece of wall you could skulk in front of."
Jack took the escape gratefully. When they parted, he collected a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and wandered over to look at the large photograph of Alberto Zelman on the foyer wall.
Rosie had been the one to buy him the tickets, almost eight months ago, as a birthday present, and the one to drop by the station and remind him about the concert. She'd also tactfully mentioned the possibility that she could have another engagement that evening, if that would make him more comfortable, but who else was Jack going to take? And he was clinging to the fact that he still liked her, still knew how to enjoy her company, even as their marriage faded to little more than a shadow.
Jack sipped his drink. There was only so long one could stare at walls and wait for the bell to sound for the second half of the concert. He turned and scanned the crowd, and his hand tightened on the stem of his glass when he caught sight of the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, clad in a gauzy extravagance of purple that glittered when it caught the light. She was laughing into the back of her hand while her aunt frowned up at her with frank disapproval.
Miss Fisher's gaze danced across the room as well, and caught on Jack's. She lifted the hand from her mouth at once and waved with it.
Several heads turned as her voice cut through the noise of the crowd. Jack took a careful breath before heading across the foyer to greet her.
"Really, Phryne," Lady Stanley was saying, with a heavenward flick of her eyes. "If you absolutely insist upon--oh, good evening, Mr Stenz." She drifted sideways from them as her attention was seized by an elderly man with a German accent.
"Well," said Miss Fisher, sweeping her eyes over Jack in the blatantly appreciative way that only rich women ever tried. "That suit is doing wonders for you, Inspector Robinson."
Jack mustered a polite smile in response, taken aback at how his face had warmed. He reminded himself that he'd never had much patience for the kind of person who had as much money as leisure and no real idea what to do with either of them, though he suspected she wasn't as air-headed as she seemed.
"Are you a fan of Tchaikovsky, Miss Fisher?"
"My family sponsors the concertmaster's chair," she said. "Aunt Prudence thought we should make an appearance."
"Bertha Jorgensen?" said Jack, who had read his programme three times thoroughly, once for every time awkwardness descended on the pre-concert conversation between himself and his wife.
"Did you know she's the first woman to lead a professional orchestra in this country? But we've had an hour of music already, Inspector. I've got you cornered, I want to hear about your jewel thief! Stealing Lady Marshman's opals! They certainly have good taste, I've often admired that set myself."
A smile was trying to form on Jack's lips. "In that case, should I ask you to account for your whereabouts last Thursday night?"
She threw back her head and gave that rich laugh. "Inspector, I'm flattered! No, honestly, being a criminal suspect is the most interesting thing to happen to me all week. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I had dinner with a friend and then spent the night at home. We always make cocoa and listen to the wireless, on Thursdays. The serials are quite entertaining if you add enough brandy to your cocoa."
"Can anyone support this claim?" Jack asked, losing the battle with the smile.
Was he joking? Was he flirting? Did he actually suspect her? Normally, Jack trusted his gut when it came to cases, but he could see the gentle dip between Miss Fisher's collarbones under the unblemished white of her skin, and her perfume was the same as the day he first met her, deep with warm spices and totally unlike the flowery scents that Rosie favoured. His gut didn't know what to do with any of that. His instincts were all confusion, like Miss Phryne Fisher was a hunk of magnetized iron sending them spinning.
"Of course." Luckily for Jack, Miss Fisher still looked amused. "My butler and my companion were both there the whole time."
Before Jack could do anything stupid like demand further alibis or tell her that she'd look lovely in opals, the bell sounded, and he returned to his seat and his wife.
Two days later, more to prove a point to himself than anything else, Jack wrangled the woman's address out of a vastly amused Mac, and sent Collins around.
"Don't mention the Bowerbird, if nobody mentions them to you," Jack warned. "Just...corroboration, for the time of the theft. That's all."
Collins returned in starry-eyed raptures over how sweet and soft-spoken and sensible he'd found the companion, a Miss Williams, but he also reported that Miss Fisher herself had been absent, and both companion and butler had confirmed her story.
"And," said Collins, before Jack could make a comment about the reliability of loyal domestic staff, "I tracked down the cabbie who dropped her home from her dinner, just after eight. Even if her people were lying, she couldn't have had time to get across town again within the window you established, sir, not even if she drove herself. But I'm sure Miss Williams wouldn't have lied."
"I'm sure," Jack echoed. "That was good work, Collins, finding the cabbie."
Now stop being silly, he told himself. Move on.
"Glad you could drop by, Inspector," said Jerry Archer. "You know my dad's always happy to help out the boys in blue."
Jack replaced his hat and lingered in the doorway, glancing up the staircase to where Tobias Archer was gazing back down at him. There was almost no expression on the man's lined face, but Jack--smarting with shame and anger--thought he could read triumph in his stance.
Jack allowed himself a moment of held eye contact in which to think: I'm going to find where you're keeping everything. I know you've started trying to move in on the cocaine business. I know you orchestrated the bullion robbery in Ballarat, and I think you killed Dickie Mason before he could snitch about it.
"Apologies for the inconvenience," was all he said, before turning to leave.
The Archers remained the larger and more painful criminal thorn in Jack's side. There'd been two more beatings in the street, leaving one man unable to bring a spoon to his own mouth, let alone put sentences together, and the other doing a good impression of a tight-lipped clam beneath the brace that held his ribcage together. They were turning Jack's neighbourhood into tightly terrorised turf, and so far he'd only managed to scrape together enough evidence for the commissioner to approve this single search of Tobias Archer's house. His men had picked the place apart top to bottom, and turned up nothing, which meant either Jack's information was wrong or the Archers had been pre-warned. Perhaps they'd moved on from buying street silence and started buying policemen as well.
And just to round off the unpleasantness of the day, Jack had the Bowerbird's latest charitable donation to deal with. This had been to the Sisters of St Antony, whose food program fed barefoot children, homeless mothers, and alcoholic men who walked the streets with their military air in tatters and their haunted, there-but-for-the-grace-of eyes fixed on some internal horror.
Jack felt like a complete monster when he went to tell the nuns it was stolen money.
(in the bedroom cabinet of Ralph Cheshire, where the aging theatre star had been keeping an expensive gift meant for his mistress)
You couldn't have just let them keep it? I realise you are the servant of the law, but sometimes the law is an ass.
But that's enough of that. I try not to live in the past when the present is so much more exciting. Are you wondering how I got in, and how I got out? Are you wondering how I managed not to plunge down and impale myself upon the decorative iron spikes of the fence? Really, don't worry about me. I have the eyes of a fox!
And the lockpicks of a Houdini, as you've no doubt guessed.
No need to wonder why I chose this necklace. Rose quartz, diamond encrusted, designed by John Hardy himself. Simply divine. But you can tell Mr Cheshire that it wouldn't have suited Millie Grace at all, despite her youth and her other...attributes. The silly man should have given it to his wife. It would have set off her silver hair beautifully.
"How many's this make, d'you think?" said one of the local constables, his voce not as sotto as he probably imagined.
"I hear he's not even named a single suspect so far," said another.
Jack looked fixedly at the note, smoothing away his urge to turn around and remind them that his clearance rate was still well above the average for the city constabulary, and he'd just that morning put a shiny pair of bracelets on Clarence Whitaker for the murder by poisoning of his daughter as well as two other girls.
Rosie would have told him to speak up. She would have been holding her father's arm, giving him her little-girl smile, and saying clever things about Jack's brilliance and potential.
But Jack wore ambition uneasily, like a smart shoe tightly laced and smarting over the bony parts of his feet, and it had been a relief to put it back in its tissue paper when Rosie gave up on him and moved out. He'd made it a respectable distance in his profession. He'd risen as high as he could in the ranks where they still let you leave the station and crouch beside bodies in the mud, or take crime scenes apart with your own two hands. Any further, and he'd find himself so loftily high that it'd be nothing but meetings and budgets and thin air.
Besides, he was beginning to realise that his life was going to be a lot less fun once he caught the Bowerbird. After staring into a man's face while he broke down and sobbed like his throat was full of glass, while Jack thought about the blue lips and gently curling golden hair of his ten-year-old daughter's corpse...well, it was a relief to hear the telephone ring and Collins call, "Another one, sir." Jack's spirits always lifted when the call came in, despite the prick of rueful annoyance. He always thought about the note that would be waiting for him, and he always smiled.
(propped on top of Mrs Georgina Daley's dresser, in place of her sapphire earrings)
My dear Inspector,
Sapphires, yes, I know! Twinkling and blue. I've decided to embrace and enjoy the name assigned to me by our friends in the press.
However, according to my modest knowledge of birds--and my much more extensive knowledge of the male sex--the satin bowerbird steals and prettily arranges its blue trinkets in order to attract a mate.
I can assure you, Inspector, my motivations are much less romantic.
One of Jack's major problems was that he had no idea what those motivations were, and you tended to assume that you'd seen every motive under the sun after a certain number of years in policing. He had no idea why she gave away the money, when money was involved; nothing in the notes spoke to a troubled conscience. And if it weren't for the notes, he'd have assumed she had enough money of her own that she didn't need more, but the few stories she told about her childhood fit more with the everyday criminals that Jack came across, people who grew up scraping by and making do and knowing the value of every penny, stoking their small fires of resentment against the soft-handed upper classes. The Bowerbird sounded expensively educated, but she didn't sound rich. If Jack was honest, the paradox there was part of the attraction.
If he was absolutely honest, another part of it was the thief's sheer audacity.
In the dangerous, late, alone hours, he was building a mental picture of her in his head, but the features wouldn't cohere. When he closed his eyes he imagined a low, humorous voice reading the letters aloud, but no face at all to go with it.
The sky was grey when Jack entered the Magistrate's Court and, like a prompter from the universe standing in the wings and hissing emotional cues--so to speak--it had taken advantage of the mercurial Melbourne summer to turn clear and peachy with early-evening sun by the time he emerged, no longer a married man.
He turned down the street and strode quickly in order to banish the itchy, suspicious feeling that always came over him in the presence of lawyers. Even his own lawyer.
What he felt was mostly relief, like he'd cut a rope holding a sandbag to his ankle, and that wasn't at all a complimentary image so he wasn't going to share it with anyone. The small part of him that would probably always love Rosie had wanted to hurtle out of his chest and chew the pen into inky splinters, and tell her that it would be all right, they would try again, they would try something else.
But there was nothing left to try. Both of them knew it. Nothing to try and nothing to blame, really, because the war was so big and so total that blaming it seemed like a cheat. There were so many marriages actually ruined by the war, so many telegrams and black ribbons and lists in newspapers. Jack's marriage wasn't destroyed in one fell stroke. It was just--crippled, and allowed to hobble uselessly on for a while.
He collided with the group of women before he could bring his thoughts back from across the ocean.
"Oof," said one of them, sharply, actually speaking it as a word rather than making the noise it implied. Then: "Jack!"
"I'm sorry, my--Mac?"
Jack took two good steps backwards and focused. Mac was steadying the arm of Miss Phryne Fisher, who seemed nevertheless to be balancing perfectly well on her elegant shoes, while a pretty girl in drab colours frowned over the damage that their collision might have bestowed upon a staggering number of shopping bags. Mac's hair was bright as blood in the sunshine.
"Oh, the famous Jack Robinson," said Miss Fisher. "How delightful to run into you again. Quite literally, in this case."
Jack resented the existence of newspapers. He resented the Bowerbird for turning him into a well-publicised failure. He resented the inventor of lipstick, and he resented Rosie--well, why not--and he resented the fact that under Phryne Fisher's amused gaze he was wishing he'd worn a better shirt and a smarter tie.
"Doctor Macmillan, Miss Fisher," he greeted them, boarding the safe train of formality. "And...?"
Miss Fisher smiled. "My companion, Miss Dorothy Williams."
"Pleased to meet you, Inspector," said Miss Williams, doing a sort of nervous curtsey-nod with her head.
"You too, Miss Williams." Mischief prompted Jack to add: "Constable Collins sends his best regards."
"Oh," said Miss Williams, and went pink.
"What brings you to this part of town, Inspector?" asked Miss Fisher.
"Finalising my divorce, as a matter of fact," said Jack.
He couldn't find a reason for such uncharacteristic openness except for a surge of strange discomfort, like a river was trying to rush him past them, like he wanted to punish her for asking the question with such flippancy and ease. It didn't seem right that he should be here having the company of women foisted upon him today. Surely he should be alone with a bottle, or in a pub somewhere being bought beers and clapped heartily on the back.
"Jack," Mac said. She didn't reach to put a hand on his arm, or start to flutter with sympathy. She turned to her companions. "Ladies, as you can see, this is an emergency."
"By all means, Doctor, triage away," said Miss Fisher. She dropped a kiss on Mac's cheek, flicked an impish expression at Jack, and hoisted her bags. "Come on, Dot, we should deliver our purchases to the car. Mister Butler is making salade Niçoise for dinner, and I'd hate to be late for that. Lovely to see you again, Inspector."
"A pleasure, Miss Fisher."
Jack watched the swirl of her beaded blouse and the smart movement of her shoes as she made her way down the street, a whirlwind of colour, with Miss Williams trotting in her wake.
"Be honest with me," said Mac. "How much lipstick do I have on my face?"
Jack dug his handkerchief out of a pocket and offered it to her. She swiped firmly at the proof of Miss Fisher's affection and then raised her eyebrows at Jack, who nodded to indicate that she'd cleared it off. Mac folded the handkerchief and handed it back.
"Right," she said. "I know just the place."
Jack had walked past the grand building on Collins St far more times than he could count, but he'd never been inside the Alexandra Club.
"I didn't think men were allowed in here," he said, craning his neck to admire the curve of the walnut staircase.
"You're not," said Mac, who was signing them in with a flourish. The grey-eyed girl behind the reception desk regarded Jack with an air of vague suspicion. "At least, not the main areas of the club. All gentlemen guests are entertained strictly in the visitor's lounge."
This lounge was a room like those in any other club that Jack had been to, except that the décor was rather neater, the curtains pulled further back to admit the last of the evening sun, and the fog of cigarette smoke much less dense.
Mac strode straight to the corner bar and winked at the woman behind it, who grinned back at her with the unmistakable edge of flirtation that all bartenders seemed to cultivate.
"What'll it be, Mac?"
"Special occasion, Flo," Mac said. "What do you have in the way of ridiculously expensive Scotch?"
Mac bought the entire bottle, and hooked two fingers through some crystal tumblers-- "Doctor's orders," she said firmly, when Jack tried to protest.
"I'm in the wrong profession," said Jack, inspecting the label. "Either that, or you really are trying to seduce me. In which case, you've been going at it in a very odd way."
"You've found me out," said Mac. "I want nothing more than to settle down as a copper's wife, procreate and keep house. Can't you see me in a nice apron, darning your socks?"
"I hear you've a neat hand for stitching things up," said Jack. "That doesn't sound like such a bad offer."
Mac snorted and grabbed the bottle from him. She led the way to a table with two plush armchairs, tucked away near a window, and had already poured them both a generous measure by the time Jack sat down.
"Come on then," she said. "This is the one day when you're allowed to get properly pissed and chew over the wreckage."
"There's not much of a wreck. It's all...depressingly civilized."
Mac smiled. "You can't be that bloody repressed."
Jack smelled the whiskey, which was rich and spiced and peaty, complex far beyond anything he was used to. He tilted the glass and looked down into the amber liquid with its near-invisible haze of strong spirits.
He thought, out of nowhere: consecrate, valorous, serious, true.
"I keep wondering if I'd have married her anyway," he said. "If I knew the war was coming. If any of us knew. We thought we were all done growing up, that any changing we'd do from that point on, we'd do together."
"Straight for the heavy topics, I see," said Mac, but she said it kindly.
Jack drank. The whiskey was excellent. He had to close his eyes to give it the attention it deserved, and behind his eyelids was a midnight in Germany, 1918. A deserted manor with a stocked cellar, good spirits poured into chipped glasses to the sound of laughter sodden with bravado and relief.
He told Mac that story, about how Sergeant Rogers had ended up standing on the table singing a Mozart aria in a startlingly lovely baritone, how Jack had played the piano, barely in tune from dust and damp, fumbling every chord and too drunk to care.
He poured another triple measure and told her about the piecemeal evacuation of Gallipolli, and vomiting over the side of the boat from Egypt to England, and how after the attack on Monquet Farm the air had felt still and hollow and tight as a bandage twisted with a stick. Trying to close eyelids that weren't there any more, leaving bloody smears on his numb fingertips. Crouching beside bodies in the mud.
After a while, Mac took up the thread and told her own stories. When war broke out she was fresh from the medical school she'd fought tooth and nail to be admitted to, the only woman doctor at the hospital, and she did a year-long stint in the rehabilitation ward, full of diggers who had been sent back home with terrible injuries.
"I was lucky," Jack said. "A few bad scratches, and three days in a field hospital with my ears ringing so loudly from shellfire that I could barely hear voices."
They'd thought he was shell-shocked, at first, which made no sense to Jack until later, when he heard about the number of people with what they dubbed hysterical blindness; hysterical deafness wasn't out of the realm of possibility. They'd asked him about his dreams. They'd written their questions down for him, and winced when he replied too loudly.
Jack knew just how lucky he'd been. There were policemen who'd enlisted and come back from Europe unable to hear gunshots without startling into a cold sweat, forced to retire to desk jobs at the age of twenty-four. Jack had his limbs, his lungs, and all of his faculties.
Nobody asked about his dreams any more.
The daylight was well and truly gone by then. Lamps had been lit in the lounge, and Jack's head spun when he sat more upright in the plush chair.
"I hope this place does dinner," he said, rueful.
"Best roast lamb in the city," said Mac.
Jack smiled. Neither version of himself, before or just after the war, would have recognised him as he was now, with a lady physician as his foremost drinking companion and a jewel thief having replaced his mother as his most regular correspondent. People, lives, never could stop changing.
(nailed right to the wall in place of a Margaret Preston painting, in the second parlour of Sir James Throsby, a politician once accused but eventually acquitted of illegal business practices)
My dear Jack,
I feel our friendship--oh, debate the word if you must--has gone on for long enough now that we should be on a first name basis.
My venture into art theft might be raising some eyebrows, but honestly, Throsby doesn't deserve a piece like this on his wall. He wasn't appreciating it.
The painting turned up two weeks later, hung on the wall of the NGV, in the midst of a curated exhibit on modern Australian masters.
Jack had to restrain himself from saying something unprofessional in his next interview, something directed right at the Bowerbird herself. He knew she enjoyed reading her own press; she'd definitely have gotten the message.
Which would have been: All right, very funny.
(in the office wall safe of Professor Peter Legge, a lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne and an outspoken critic of the education of women)
Not even you could find fault with me for thinking that Legge deserved to be pinched somewhere, and the wallet will do if one can't get at the flesh. Have you seen his wife? The one whose hands flinch whenever he raises his voice? She wears thick makeup, and high collared dresses even when it’s too hot for them.
I'm not my normal amusing self today, Jack, I'm sorry. I'm thinking about the people that we lose. I think we try to remember them in the times they would have wanted, the day times, when we're eating a food they loved or hearing a laugh that sounds like theirs.
But we don't always succeed. Despite our best efforts we end up remembering them mostly at night, when it's not about them at all, but about us, our sadness, our hands clenched with how unfair it all is, our minds bustling on in the darkness.
A lot of money was missing, that time. Jack sent Collins around to half the charities in the city, especially those dedicated to working with women, asking about recent anonymous donations. The thief had been careful lately not to give it all in one place, but often two or three of the sums put together would match up.
The Bowerbird's next victim was a man with a prosperous import business whom the City West branch suspected of helping to smuggle girls into the country from China, bound at best for dangerous factory work and at worst for the sex trade. The man clearly wasn't pleased about the fact that the police had an excuse to poke around his property, but his wife had insisted that the theft of her diamond collar be investigated.
Inspector Javert was a dreamer of stern dreams. (Yes, I had to track down the bloody tome again, to check the wording. It simply refuses to stay put on the shelf. This time it was on top of waxed paper, pressing some daisies. A good use for it.)
So what makes a dream stern? I've got plenty of teachers I could dream about, I suppose, some of them were frightfully stern, especially to a girl who was prone to squirming in her chair and passing notes. You see, my habit of writing unwise letters started early in life.
Last night my dreams were--well, I don't know what they were. The usual war nonsense. Sudden noises, that horrible feeling of dread, wounds gaping open. Creeping rot. An infection of the common sky. Do you ever have dreams like that, Jack?
An infection of the--oh, yes. Robert Graves.
Jack turned the letter over and over in his gloved hands. He wanted to retaliate. Graves for--Rilke, perhaps. From infinite longings finite deeds rise.
Instead he took the restless feeling home with him and that evening he brushed the cobwebs from his bicycle where it stood leaning against the wall of the shed. He didn't go far, or for long; those muscles were just as rusty as the bike. The air pulled in his lungs and he remembered the young man he was before the war: legs pumping like pistons, breathing hard, dreaming of donning the yellow jersey and of sweeping across the finish line in Paris. Blazoning his mark upon the world, indeed.
Dreams changed. The war changed them.
(on top of the grand piano in what Lady Archdale kept referring to, in frosty tones, as the 'conservatory')
Are you musical, Jack? I hardly dare hazard a guess.
No, you know me better than that by now. Of course I dare.
That was all there was to the letter, but it wasn't the only sheet of paper folded around the feather.
Like everything else about the Bowerbird case, this had become a bit of a running joke: the thief leaving love notes for the policeman. Leave Jack Robinson alone with his crime scene, mates. And Jack was, indeed, alone in the room.
He should have bagged it all as evidence immediately.
Jack smoothed out the sheet of music, which was hand-copied in the same blue ink, on painstakingly ruled staves, and sat down at the piano and played it: halting at first with the odd barrier of leather between his fingers and the keys, then more confidently. He played it, and smiled, and then sang it under his breath. Cole Porter. I get a kick though it's clear to see / You obviously don't adore me.
Jack played the chorus through one more time and held down the last chord until the sound faded. He was forty years old and recently divorced, he was too old to be feeling like this, to be falling slightly in love like this, tongue-tied and tipsy with fondness.
"You must have some theories at least, sir," said Collins.
"I have plenty of theories," said Jack. "They range from the ridiculous to the impossible."
"Do the targets have anything in common?"
Jack leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his face. Apart from being rich enough to own the kinds of trinkets or cash piles that made them worth robbing, the only thing that stood out in his investigation of the Bowerbird's victims was that he hadn't liked a single one of them. And increasingly, they were people with their own crimes, or at least the strong implication of them. They'd really have to keep a lid on the Robin Hood references now.
Working this case felt more and more like swimming against the tide. Jack felt stuck in a dream of a footy match where it slowly dawned on him that he was surrounded by people wearing the wrong colours, that he'd been barracking for a side he didn't support, and the scarf around his neck was the gaudy stripes of the opposition. He didn't care as much as he should if any of these people got their jewels back, he'd as lief leave all the money in the hands of the needy, and his neck itched at the thought of this brilliant, funny, fearless woman ending up behind bars. Of Jack being the one who put her there.
He should have taken himself off the case. It would have been the right thing to do.
He was working himself up to it, or at least struggling gloomily with the idea and how much like defeat it would look in the eyes of his superiors and the press--Jack wasn't ambitious, but it didn't mean he didn't have pride--on the early Wednesday morning that Miss Dorothy Williams burst into his office.
She'd clearly pushed her way past Collins, who was hovering outside Jack's office doorway, staring at her like he'd just discovered the point of poetry.
Miss Williams shot Collins an equally stricken look.
"I'm sorry, Constable Collins, I--" and she closed the office door in his face.
Jack flattened his hands to conceal the fact that he'd been sitting there fiddling with his handkerchief, one corner of which was scarlet where he'd used it to wipe lipstick from Mac's cheek. When Miss Williams had appeared, for a surreal moment it was as though she'd been sent to fetch it back, that small and waxy smudge, the only part of Phryne Fisher that Jack had ever been able to pin down and keep.
"What is it, Miss Williams?"
The girl looked honestly distressed. And not just that, Jack realised: scared.
"The Bowerbird--" she said, faltering.
"What about her?" Jack said sharply. Miss Fisher didn't seem to fit the unlikeable victim mould, but she was definitely rich enough, and probably in possession of plenty of jewels. "If it's a burglary, you could have telephoned--"
"She's in trouble," Miss Williams burst out. "She's never this late getting back, and I told her not to go after the Archer gang but she wouldn't listen, she never listens when she's made up her mind, and Bert and Cec are in Bendigo for Bert's sister's wedding and Mister Butler has his guns but he turned his ankle on Monday and besides he doesn't know where to go, so there's no one else, no one can help, and I didn't think she'd mind so much if it was you, you know, Inspector."
Faced with her panic Jack felt slow, cloud-headed, as though all the influenzas in the world were kicking behind his eyes.
"Miss Williams, I don't understand, why are you..."
He trailed off as Miss Williams gave him a look that was reminiscent of his own mother, and he had the sense that she was overcoming the urge to stamp her foot.
"Inspector," she said, "please."
In the Melbourne summer of Jack's mind, the clouds suddenly lifted.
"Jesus Christ," Jack said.
"Yes," Miss Williams said, in a tone of voice that meant, language.
"Jesus Christ," Jack said, bolting up from his chair. "The Archers have got her."
Collins was standing a few feet from the office door when Jack wrenched it open, and both of them jumped at once.
"I, ah," said Collins. "Sir?"
"Miss Williams has brought us a valuable lead on the Bowerbird's whereabouts," Jack said. Collins was smart enough to put it all together himself, but Jack had no idea how this situation was going to turn out, and the more plausible deniability the better at the moment.
Jack looked back over his shoulder. Miss Williams met his eyes and nodded, her lips pressed firmly together.
"That's good news, sir," said Collins, "I'll bring the car around, we can--"
"I am going to take the car and pay another visit to Tobias Archer," said Jack, already moving to get the keys.
"What--the property in Elwood? We don't have probable cause for a second search, sir, you said so yourself."
"I think reasonable suspicion of harbouring a notorious jewel thief should do it." If by harbouring he meant holding with certain intent to harm. "But I'm not planning to charge in after knocking, this time. Give me half an hour to assess the situation, quietly, before bringing backup."
"You can't take on the Archers by yourself!"
"Half an hour, Collins," said Jack, leaving no room for argument. "And then call down half the force, if you have to."
Collins swallowed. "Yes, sir."
Jack wove through the city traffic as fast as he dared with his attention span shot to pieces the way it was. His thoughts spun in furious circles with Phryne Fisher at their centre, and all the time he was hearing Mac's voice: jewel thieves are a lot more fun than dead bodies. If Jack's only chance to talk to the Bowerbird--properly, honestly, finally--was because he was pulling her corpse out of the ocean, he'd, well, he'd--
(And what if I don't? And what if I do?)
Jack slammed his hand against the steering wheel, once, and hard.
"Damn it," he growled.
He parked well up the street from the Archer house and walked boldly down the footpath and up to the building, figuring that if anyone was looking out the windows then he'd just have to bluff it out with badge and gun. The front door was unlocked, and gave only a soft creak as Jack stepped inside. The main staircase of the house began in a corner of the vast, wood-panelled entrance hall, and Jack could hear raised voices drifting down from upstairs. The sound wasn't getting any louder, and there were no footsteps to go with them. The speakers weren't moving around.
Gun in hand, Jack climbed the stairs, pressed against the shadowy side of the wall where he'd have the earliest view of anyone coming down. By the time he passed the first landing the voices were clear enough to recognise and comprehend, so he halted to listen.
"I still think you should have moved her somewhere else." That was Helen Archer, Jerry's wife.
"No, Nell. We needed to fill the cellar again anyway. This takes care of two birds with one stone," said Tobias Archer.
"Birds." Jerry Archer's ugly laugh sounded. "Good one, Dad."
Jack could feel his free hand forming a fist.
"Even if she was telling the truth and someone knows she came here last night, by the time they come sniffing, the water will have drained right down from the tank and it'll look exactly as it did last time. Just another flooded cellar. Then in two nights' time we set the pump going again, empty it out, and get the boys to move her corpse out to the beach. No gunshots, no knife wounds, autopsy'll say she drowned in seawater. Nothing to say we laid a finger on her."
"All right," Helen said, slowly. "That's--good. That works. But Tobias, if she came after the gold, we have to consider who else--"
Jack was already creeping down the stairs again, cursing inside his head at the underhanded cleverness of the setup. It had happened to a lot of older houses in these beachfront suburbs: cellars beneath ground level, dug in sandy soil, collapsing suddenly under the pressure of salty groundwater, their entrances bricked over and abandoned. He hadn't given it a second thought when they searched the house the first time. He'd never considered that someone might go to the trouble of installing a pump so that the space could be drained and refilled and re-drained at leisure.
More fool him.
It took Jack almost a minute of frantic, silent searching to remember where the cellar entrance was, in a boarded-up corner of the kitchen, and another minute to find the latch that made the boards, which had been nailed together to form a door, swing open on their hidden hinges.
In the small space this revealed, Jack could see the gasoline-powered bilge pump, and the pipe--thicker than his arm--that ran down into the man-sized hole in the floor, from which emerged the top of a wooden ladder. The other end of the tubing disappeared through a plastered gap in the wall, where he assumed it joined up with the water tank, disguised as a drainpipe and rainwater system on the outside of the house.
Jack knelt by the pump. He had his pistol ready as he yanked the ignition handle, prepared for the noise to bring the Archers hurrying, but to his surprise the pump pulled smoothly to life and emitted only a faint chugging noise, along with a soft slurp of water as the direction of flow reversed. Criminal stealth working to his advantage, for once.
Jack waited long enough to be sure that nobody was coming down the stairs to investigate, before moving closer to the hole and peering down the ladder. The rungs looked damp and slippery and he could see his own wavering reflection in the dark water, what seemed like a reassuringly long distance down, though there was no way for him to judge the cellar's depth. At least he knew it hadn't had time to fill to the top.
The pump kept chugging. The water level would be falling, inch by inch, uncovering--whatever there was to be uncovered.
Don't be a coward, Jack told himself. Even if--even if, you've seen worse. You know you have.
He descended the ladder, pistol still held high and dry in one hand, and felt his mouth twitch in discomfort as cold water closed over his feet and seeped immediately through his socks and shoes. He was submerged to just above his knees when his feet touched solid ground.
There was more than enough light to see by, filtering down the ladder shaft, and Jack braced himself as he turned around.
His throat closed with a spasm of terrible gratitude when he saw Phryne Fisher at the far side of the small cellar, clad entirely in black clothes that clung and dripped, but upright and shaking and alive. Her hands were chained together in front of her and a second length of chain, only as long as she was tall, ran down and disappeared into the water, presumably attached to the floor. Her white face held a dangerous expression, an anger forged in the heat of real fear, before her eyes locked onto Jack's face and relief displaced everything else.
"Inspector!" she said, voice throbbing with thin bravado. "I don't suppose you have any lockpicks on you? I'm afraid I've misplaced mine."
"You," said Jack, miles beyond coherency.
"Now, don't be angry--"
Jack didn't even register the effortful strides that took him through the water and across the room, he just knew that he had to get his free hand behind her head, so when he pressed her into the wall it was his own skin against the rough stone and not the thready black silk of her hair.
Miss Fisher laughed.
"I'm not going to apologise," she whispered, into the small space between their faces. "Haven't you ever done the wrong thing, just to see what it would be like?"
"No," said Jack. "Yes," and kissed her scarlet lips, hungry and unable to think, still riding the feeling that had overcome him in his office: the heady, infuriating rush of knowing that the thief he was entranced with was also the woman whose perfume and laugh he couldn't get out of his head.
She made a throaty noise and kissed back at once, without a hint of hesitation or surprise. Her lips were cold and he could taste her lipstick, and of course she put lipstick on before she went to rob a dangerous criminal, and Jack never wanted to stop. A dam months in the building had been knocked to splinters in his gut. He wanted to yell at her, and undress her, and pour poetry into her mouth with his own.
The dig of the metal padlock against his chest, when she brought her chained hands up to pull him closer by his lapels, brought Jack back to himself. As he pulled away he felt dizzily drained of air, like he'd almost drowned right along with her.
"I thought I'd have to ask you to dinner to get you into my bed, Jack Robinson," she said breathlessly. "But I suppose this works just as well."
"And who exactly was going to ask me to dinner?" Jack asked, low. Her eyes were dark and fixed on his mouth. "The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, or the Bowerbird?"
"I hadn't decided that yet," she said, with impressive airiness for someone who was soaking wet and still chained to the floor.
Jack shook himself into awareness of the situation and held out his pistol. She took it from him. Her fingertips were wrinkled with water and some of them were rawly bleeding, too; Jack pushed aside the image of her scrabbling frantically at the chain and the floor, in chill darkness, as the water rose.
"Can you--that's it," he said, as she grasped the pistol awkwardly but competently and trained it on the base of the ladder. He pulled his own set of lockpicks--not official police issue, but sometimes very useful--from the inside pocket of his jacket, and started to work on the padlock.
"Don't you have any questions for me?" Miss Fisher asked, after a while.
"Oh, I certainly do. For instance: are you insane? What were you thinking?"
"You mean, going after the Archers?" Her voice hardened. "When I was a girl, it was the Forwood mob doing whatever they liked, because everyone had family members in harm's way, nobody trusted the police much, and nobody could afford to speak against the gang. I don't care for that kind of bully, Jack. I thought I'd give them a taste of their own gold-robbing medicine."
"I don't think you would have been able to carry much of it," said Jack. The cellar was almost fully drained now, and the falling water level had revealed piles and piles of metal strongboxes. Some of them had a waterproof seal, but several didn't; no need to worry that gold would rust.
"I'm stronger than I look," she said lightly.
"And you wouldn't have spent it, either." Jack glanced up from the lock and asked the question that had been plaguing him for months. "Why the Bowerbird at all, Miss Fisher?"
She shrugged. "I told you, the first time I just wanted to see what it would be like."
"And after that?"
"A lady has to have a hobby."
Jack raised an eyebrow at her, unimpressed.
Miss Fisher laughed, lifted her chin and hummed a few bars of the Cole Porter song. The notes sounded thin and jarring in the stone space, but Jack understood the point she was making. He'd always known that the Bowerbird wasn't in it for the money. The mind he'd glimpsed through the letters was the kind of mind that would never be content with purely idle leisure.
Jack glanced at his watch--Collins was overdue with his backup--and tried to work faster.
"I'm impressed that the oh-so-proper Miss Williams went along with it," he said. "A good alibi. And an accomplice as well?"
Miss Fisher gave a smile. The things that smile did with her cheekbones should have been as illegal as the rest of her activities, Jack thought. "I persuaded her it was all right to bend a few of the commandments in the name of justice, as long as nobody got hurt. And I let her choose most of the charities."
"Is this what you call nobody getting hurt?" Jack demanded.
"I was perfectly all right until they took my pistol and lockpicks. I do appreciate your riding to my rescue, though, Jack. Very dashing of you."
Their faces were still close, and her breath was warm. Jack fumbled his picks, gripped them again, and felt the last tumbler fall into place.
Miss Fisher rubbed at her freed wrists with a sigh of relief, but she didn't move away from him.
"About that dinner. How do you feel about Cafe Florentino? Friday, perhaps?"
"Do you think I'm going to let you escape?"
"Aren't you?" she said. She turned the pistol around and held it out to him, and Jack's heart stuttered helplessly. Her eyes were wide and the corner of her bold mouth was turned up.
To hell with it all. Jack was.
"I have conditions," he said sternly, taking his gun back.
"It doesn't have to be Cafe Florentino, if you'd prefer somewhere else, though their tortellini is simply divine--"
"Phryne, please, Jack." She blinked. "Or we could always...dine in."
There was a hollow, far-off pounding noise, followed by a raised voice that might have been Constable Collins. Somewhere in the house above them, frantic footsteps began to move.
"That'll be half the Victorian Police Force at the front door," said Jack. "Luckily for you, I should be able to distract them with this cellar full of evidence."
"I'll slip out the back," she said, eyes sparkling. "Keep an eye out for my pistol when you pat the Archers down, won't you? Pearl handle. Sentimental value."
Jack grabbed hold of her arm. "Listen to me. The Bowerbird is going to retire--no, don't argue with me, Phryne Fisher. It's even likely that the Bowerbird might have been killed by the Archers when she was foolish enough to try and rob them, though sadly, we will never recover the body."
"Weighted down and tossed out to sea, perhaps," she murmured.
"And the Honourable Miss Fisher is going to find herself a hobby that's...respectable."
"I'd settle for not illegal."
Miss Fisher put a hand to Jack's jaw and kissed him again, slow and teasing and intimate. She wiped the pad of her thumb across first his top lip and then his lower, and showed him the red smudge--cleaning up the trace evidence, Jack thought, with a simmering swell of desire low in his stomach, she'd always been good at that--and then she moved away. At the base of the ladder she gave him an amused look through those devastating lashes.
"Do you have any suggestions, Inspector?"
"She's a smart woman," Jack said. "I'm sure she'll think of something."