"They're making me a damned babysitter, Phryne," Mac said, regarding her whiskey as if it was personally responsible for her predicament.
"Oh, tosh," Phryne replied. "They're both well past the age of needing a babysitter. They're making you a chaperone." She wrinkled her lovely nose.
Mac sighed. "Whatever you call it, it's a week I could have spent doing something productive. Like caring for my patients."
"You're saying you wouldn't have gone to the conference anyway?"
"If I were in Sydney anyway, I might have dropped by. But research isn't my strong suit, you know that." Mac took a sip. Whatever else anyone might say about Phryne Fisher - and certain people had a great deal to say about her, not that they had any business saying it - she dared anyone to question the quality of her refreshments. "I'm an anatomist if I'm anything - although there's supposed to be a fascinating talk on viral reproduction - the point is, I wouldn't have hauled two students along with me. And chaperoning - that's tosh for you. Beatrice isn't exactly a debutante."
"She doesn't strike me as the type to cut a swathe through Australia's finest - what did you say? Cell biologists, no," Phryne allowed. "But, what was his name, that nice young lad - Charlie. Someone must protect his virtue, surely."
Mac came within a hair of snorting her drink, which wouldn't have been any less painful for the quality of the liquor. "I somehow doubt that's how the rest of the faculty see it."
Phryne raised an elegant eyebrow. "Then if you don't want to, what are they blackmailing you with?"
"The august faculty of the College of Medicine doesn't blackmail anyone, Phryne."
"Call it what you will."
"Less blackmail, and more bribery, actually," Mac admitted. It might have been amusing to keep Phryne guessing a while longer, but it wouldn't have ended until she'd left or Phryne had dug it out of her, and it was a little too late for her to stand up to Phryne's persistence. Late - hah, it was eleven, and not even a weeknight! She was getting old. "An old friend from London has moved out to Sydney - I've been meaning to look her up since she got out here last year, but I haven't been able to get away, between my practice and teaching. The university at least has the grace to pay for the whole thing - you can't say fairer than that."
"An old friend, or...?" Phryne inquired.
"Both; you might remember her, in point of fact. Betsy Arminger. She ran that bar, the one in Soho -"
"Oh, I do remember!" Phryne sounded delighted. "It was so sweet, both of you being Elizabeth -"
Mac scowled. There were a number of reasons she didn't go by her first name. "You would think that. Well, it went down in flames, and you should remember, seeing as you were the one who helped me get drunk when it did - but Betsy's a good sort, we've been writing each other for years. It'll be good to catch up in person. I didn't expect that with most of my London crowd, when I shipped myself back out to the colonies." She put a twist on the last word, the way she and Phryne had heard it in England; as if the colonies were the back of beyond.
"I know what you mean." Phryne leant back in her chair, tapping a finger thoughtfully on her own glass. "I never thought I'd stay, when I came back...but Melbourne has proved so unexpectedly fascinating."
Mac rather thought that Phryne brought the fascination with her - or the trouble, one of the two. "In any case, I can put up with a week of pretending to chaperone two medical students to see an old friend. And who knows? I might even learn something."
"It'll do you some good, I think," Phryne pronounced. "You haven't been getting out as much as you used to, ever since -"
That sobered Mac up quickly, not that she'd been much past tipsy to start with. She didn't even need to open her mouth; Phryne must have seen it on her face. "Oh, Mac, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring that up."
Mac shook her head. "Don't - it's all right, Phryne. I'm not crying myself to sleep every night. It's been long enough."
She still had the nightmares occasionally, not that she'd admit it to Phryne. Daisy's body on the factory floor, or worse - dreams when she was falling backwards into the machinery, and Mac couldn't do anything. But that was the way of memories like that; Phryne must have her own, from the War, like anyone did who'd been to the Front. Mac had been a medical student at the time, not in any more danger than anyone else in London, but she'd seen the bodies brought in from the Zeppelin bombings. Sometimes it merged together, all of it, once or twice in the dark of winter. Those nights she didn't sleep at all. But it wasn't every night, or even every week. That was true enough.
Phryne put a gentle hand on her free one. "I'm sorry, Mac. I'm not very good at - dwelling. Or remembering."
Mac eyed her. "That's not true."
Phryne withdrew with a graceful shrug. "Well - I try not to be."
"That, I'll allow." Mac put down her glass. "I'd best be off."
"So soon? You're getting old, Mac."
"I'm trying to do it gracefully."
It was unseasonably chilly for September, winter making a slow and reluctant exit, and Mac armoured herself with scarf and coat before she ventured out Phryne's front door. There was an extra hat on the stand; she thought she recognised it. "Your inspector seems to have left something behind, Phryne."
"Oh, did he?" Phryne looked at it thoughtfully. "Then I suppose he'll have to come and retrieve it. What a pity."
"I don't remember you having a case anytime recently. Not since that godawful business at your aunt's chalet." She wasn't going to have a scar, quite, but it was a near thing, and it was only a week or so since the headaches had stopped. Concussions were a damnable business, although she supposed they were preferable to being murdered.
"It was a social visit," Phryne said, not smugly, as Mac might have expected, but as if she were trying to let it pass lightly. Mac thought about prodding, then thought better of it; it was late, and whatever was going on with Phryne and Inspector Robinson, she wasn't sure even the pair of them could explain properly. Not that it wasn't vastly entertaining to observe, but they were rather dragging it out. Mac supposed she might have to have a conversation about it at some point; after all, Phryne wasn't going to settle down to being Mrs. Robinson, and she was almost sure the Inspector was intelligent enough to figure that out. Whether he was flexible enough to entertain any other arrangement...was not really Mac's business, but she might be frustrated into making it hers if they didn't hurry up.
"I'm sure it was," she said, in lieu of anything else. "Are we still on for Thursday, by the way?"
Phryne grinned. "Oh, we certainly are. I've just got the Hispano back from the shop, and she's positively purring. I expect we might be able to break forty miles an hour."
Mac grinned back. That was the Phryne Fisher she knew. "I look forward to trying."
Mac's profession meant that she was used to being called out at all hours of the day and night, but that didn't mean she had to like it - especially not when it was for such a mundane reason as catching a train. Give her something to do and she'd be "irksomely chirpy", as Phryne had once described it, but the prospect of standing around in the cold only to sit down on a poorly-padded seat for hours wasn't enough excitement to keep her awake.
The station was as crowded as ever on a Monday morning, the grand architecture lost in the noise and bustle. And in the steam and smoke of the early morning. The local trains were nearly all electrified these days, the last line due to be completed early in the new year - not that Mac expected that to happen on time - but if you were bound outside of Melbourne and its outlying suburbs, you were bound by steam train, with all the smoke and mess that went along with it. Phryne thought steam trains were terribly romantic, an oddly conservative notion for a woman who otherwise launched herself headfirst into modernity. Dot, if Mac recalled correctly, still wasn't convinced electric trains wouldn't electrocute her someday. She wondered what Charlie and Beatrice thought of them.
No way to tell from their faces, when she finally spotted them under the clocks; they looked about as awake as she did, bundled up against the chill of the morning. Charlie spotted her and waved; Beatrice was frowning at a notebook and muttering to herself, and barely looked up enough to say hello.
"Your tickets," Mac informed the pair of them, handing the papers over. "You've got your bags loaded already? Good. Don't forget we're going to be -" she covered her mouth as another yawn escaped - "sorry, going to be changing trains at Albury."
"We'll stick right with you, Dr. Macmillan," Charlie assured her. He was twitchy, with excitement or nervousness or more likely both; from what Mac knew this was probably his first time leaving Melbourne, and he'd said he'd never been to Sydney.
"Good. Alright, then - let's get a compartment before they fill up." Mac shooed her two unwanted ducklings onto the train.
They secured a second-class compartment to themselves (the university wasn't going to pay for first-class tickets, of course, and Mac had travelled in worse) and Charlie immediately dashed off to check out the rest of the train. Mac yelled after him "Just be on it when we leave!", but he was already halfway down the corridor. Oh well; if the lad was stupid enough to get left behind, Beatrice could present the paper just as well on her own. Mac was of the firm opinion that whether you meant to go into research or practice, medicine should have a basic requirement for common sense before they gave you the degree. She could name several colleagues who demonstrated by their very existence that this wasn't a universal opinion.
"He won't miss it. He's very excited about this. He hasn't stopped talking about it all week," Beatrice informed her, settling her plain dark skirts around her as she sat down.
"Well, and aren't you excited?" Mac asked. "This is a big opportunity for both of you, you know."
"I know that." Beatrice thumbed her notebook, glancing at her handbag. "But what if no-one listens?"
People so often didn't listen to Beatrice, Mac knew, using her gender or her manner as an excuse to dismiss what she had to say. "You have to make them listen. That's part of science; you can't just make a finding, you have to persuade people of it."
"They should listen to the facts!"
Mac snorted. "And when have people ever done that?" She settled down in her seat; Beatrice was sitting across from her, and no-one else had yet tried to enter the compartment. "I'm going to catch up on the sleep I missed getting to the station that early. Save Charlie's seat for him."
Beatrice's shoulders relaxed fractionally; poor girl had probably been saving up all the small talk she had for this trip.
"I'll do that, Dr. Macmillan."
Mac wadded her scarf up so she didn't give herself a neck cramp, tipped her hat over her eyes, and tried her best to shut out the noise of the other boarding passengers and the station outside.
She drifted off deeply enough to miss the jolt of the train leaving the station, but any chance of a decent nap was thwarted when she was woken by a knock on the compartment door. A glance out the window told her they weren't even out of Melbourne yet.
"Excuse me?" said a polite, definitely female voice. "Is there a spare seat in here?" The speaker was a woman in a fashionably draped green blouse, her face dominated by a striking pair of dark eyebrows; not pretty, maybe, but undeniably attractive. It almost startled Mac; it had been a long time since someone had struck her like that. Beatrice opened her mouth and hesitated, doubtless weighing the need to save space for Charlie (still not back, Mac saw) with not wanting to crowd Dr. Macmillan; Mac jumped into the breach. "Certainly." Her acquiescence, she told herself, had absolutely nothing to do with the woman's appearance - well, not a lot.
"Thank you!" She was carrying a surprisingly large handbag, with a journal peeking out the top; she set it on the floor as she sat, in the corner next to Mac. "The train's a lot busier than I expected. Are you going all the way to Sydney?"
"Yes, we are," Mac told her. Beatrice, apparently satisfied her participation wasn't required, was reading again.
"Me, too. Well, I brought plenty of reading material, so I shan't bother you."
"Not at all," Mac said, but it was a relief; nothing worse than being stuck in a train compartment with someone who wanted to babble at you for the entire journey.
The view outside the window had changed, as they spoke, from suburb to the truck gardens and beginnings of farmland; the cloud was clearing, too, and sunlight speared into the compartment. There was no way Mac was going to sleep now, so she rummaged for her newspaper.
The front page proved to be of only cursory interest, and the financial pages frankly worrying, so she gave them both up for the crossword, only to find that wherever she'd packed a pencil it wasn't in her satchel.
"Blast. Either of you got a pencil I could borrow?"
"I have three," Beatrice said immediately. "But you mustn't lose it. Or chew on it."
"That isn't my bad habit," Mac assured her. "Thanks."
She very nearly broke her own promise not five minutes later, trying to remember whether camellia had one "l" or two, but snatched the pencil away from her mouth just in time; fortunately Beatrice hadn't noticed. She was very particular about that sort of thing, and Mac didn't like to upset her out of carelessness. Firstly, she'd be agitated for hours, and secondly, it was just cruel, when it was such a small thing.
"Got a thorny one?" the lady of the green blouse said quietly.
"Camellia - two "l"s or one?"
"Two," the woman said confidently.
"Ta." Mac glanced up as she said it, and was surprised into a longer look by the woman's reading material - not the Ladies' Home Journal she'd been expecting, but Proceedings of the Royal Society (B); the August issue, Mac thought.
She'd been caught looking; good thing she was too old to blush easily. "That looks like heavy going."
"Travelling for work, not pleasure," the woman said with a wry smile.
"You're not going to the biology conference?" Mac asked.
"Yes, as a matter of fact," said the woman, blinking in surprise. "You too? I hadn't thought anyone else was going from Melbourne - I'm the only one from the Biology department. I'm terribly sorry, should I know you?"
"Probably not - I give guest lectures in Medicine, I'm not faculty." Mac remembered her manners, a minute too late, as usual. "Dr. Elizabeth Macmillan. And you said you're in Biology?" She offered her hand.
The woman shook it; not the genteel brush you got from most women, but a solid, warm grip, with a callused palm. "Dr. Barbara Vickers. Not faculty either, if we're being technical about it. I work with Professor Sandler."
"Ah, yes, the, ah..." Mac found she had promptly forgotten everything she'd ever heard about the Biology department. "Plants?"
"Close! We study the effect of various plant extracts on bacteria."
"Killing them, I hope?"
"It's the idea. If you're in practice, I imagine you see the need for effective antimicrobials."
"The vaccination programs are improving things immensely, at least in childhood disease, but I work in the women's hospital - post-partum infections...it can become a very nasty business, very quickly."
Post-partum was the polite way to put it, to a woman she didn't know well - all the worst deaths by infection Mac had seen were from botched abortions, like that butcher Phryne and Dot had helped catch, the year before last. Back-street medicine, performed without the slightest bit of hygiene...even antimicrobial drugs couldn't stop that, when women had nowhere else to go. But she'd bet on miracle drugs before she bet on that law changing anytime soon.
They chatted most of the way to Albury. Charlie eventually made his way back, the lure of the viewing carriage palling, and Mac introduced him and Beatrice to Dr. Vickers. She had taught a lecture or two in their earlier years of study, it emerged; Beatrice apparently remembered every detail, though Charlie was much more vague. Vickers hadn't been that long in Australia, she explained when Mac asked about her accent - it was more English than anything, but she'd obviously not been born here. Apparently she'd moved from New Zealand two years back, after doctoral studies in Wellington, but her family had come out from the home country when she was a girl.
"I was offered work at the new agricultural college in Palmerston North, but they're not admitting female students yet, even though the other colleges do, and I didn't feel like standing out like a sore thumb quite that much. Besides, Palmerston - this tiny town, the wind blows right through it, and it's flat, which is something of a feat where I'm from."
"Don't know why you moved here, then; there's tens of thousands of square miles of flat."
Vickers laughed. "Undoubtedly, but the job offer was considerably better, and I can restrict my maiden-aunt duties to presents and postcards, rather than babysitting."
Mac, who was an only child, had never felt that particular pressure, and said so.
"It's not that I don't like them, you understand, but not on a regular basis...twin girls and a boy. And as I've unaccountably failed to give them cousins, surely I must be falling over myself to spend time with them."
They didn’t talk about nothing serious, but it made for pleasant conversation. Mac felt, on the whole, that the journey was looking up.
She wasn't quite as optimistic by the time they made the hotel in Sydney, but travel took it out of you regardless of how little effort you put into it - and it'd been a long day. There was a cocktail event to open the conference, but Mac felt no compunction about avoiding it; there wasn't anyone she was desperate to see there. If Beatrice had been determined to go she might have felt otherwise, but it was obvious that the girl wanted nothing more than some time by herself. Mac abandoned the hotel room to her after a call to Betsy, who informed her that of course they should have dinner together.
Betsy looked very much as Mac remembered her; a small, sweetly round woman with piercing brown eyes and a wide smile. She didn’t look large enough to manage a bar, but she’d cultivated a voice that could cut through the loudest crowd, and Mac had seen her sweet-talk any number of drunks out of her bar and into a cab, or onto the street if nothing else could be managed. They’d lived together for months, but that had been the beginning of the end, and it had culminated in a screaming row, after which Mac had walked out and never even gone back for her things until three weeks later. The fact that her most important possessions had migrated to her office at the hospital, in retrospect, probably had something to do with the way things had ended, but she’d been too young and self-righteous to admit that at the time. They’d patched things up well before Mac had left London, and seeing her again now was a pure pleasure.
“Betsy!” she exclaimed, and exchanged a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Christ, it feels like forever – how are you liking things out here?”
“Very well indeed,” Betsy said promptly. “I keep meaning to visit Melbourne, but I haven’t found anyone I’d be happy leaving the bar with yet – you know how it is. How was the journey?”
They chatted amiably over dinner. No great news, since they’d been in correspondence often enough, but smaller things; the differences between England and Australia, news of old friends Mac hadn’t seen since she’d left England herself, what Mac was doing in Sydney.
"So,” Betsy said eventually, “I ask purely out of curiosity - are you seeing anyone?"
"I - I was, not so long ago. Not right now." That had never made it into her letters; it hadn’t lasted long enough, and then it had been too painful.
"She was murdered."
Most people she might tell that to, Mac knew, would look surprised, shocked, blank; Betsy just looked sad, and a little tired. It wasn't as thouh it happened a lot, but when you'd been around as long as the pair of them, you heard stories; women whose husbands, fathers, admirers - if you could call it admiration - decide the only way to control their behaviour was to end it permanently. There was always an excuse, when men killed women. Usually their damnable pride.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Betsy said gently.
"This woman she worked with, she..." Mac couldn't find the words to go on. "I got called in to examine the body. Phryne didn't know - it was pretty bad."
"God." Betsy hesitated, then said nothing else.
Mac shrugged, took a sip of her wine. "Like I said - she didn't know. She's asked me for help on plenty of other cases - when the coroner doesn't find out what she wants to know."
Betsy chuckled. "Oh, she would. So she's a detective now, is she?"
"Lady detective - business cards and everything. Mostly it's cheating husbands and stolen jewellery, that sort of thing, but she manages to trip over a corpse every month or two."
"Can't imagine the police are too happy about that. We've got a couple we pay under the table to keep an eye on this place, but not too close an eye, you know the sort of thing, but I wouldn't call them friendly. And Phryne being Phryne..."
"Oh, you'd be surprised - there's this Detective Inspector, he calls her for help on occasion. They've no policewomen there yet, you see, so for searching female suspects and so on...he's only arrested her once. It's a minor miracle, frankly."
"Phryne does have a habit of making those happen...let's just hope this newfound attraction for corpses hasn't followed you here."
Mac raised her glass. "I'll drink to that."
Beatrice and Charlie weren't due to give their papers until the fourth and final day, so on the first day of the conference Mac settled in for periods of mild boredom punctuated by intellectual interest and the occasional bout of eye-rolling. She managed to grab a seat at the back of the lecture theatre being used, the better to lurk with her newspaper crossword. It had been true, what she'd told Phryne; most of this stuff wasn't even in her neighbourhood, let alone up her alley, but it was good work nonetheless. She could appreciate that.
They'd taken over the biology building at this university for the period, and the talks were being given in a very modern lecture hall, with an incandescent bulb episcope for displaying pages of text or samples. There was talk of getting one for the college of medicine, to replace the horrific old limelight model, but Mac's classes were never large enough for it to be much use anyway. That said, it was certainly useful to be able to see a graph or specimen while the speaker talked about it, in this sort of large hall.
Once the crossword was completed to her satisfaction, she returned to her reading; she had a nice pile of articles to look at, and, if all else failed by the third day, a novel. This plan for passing her time was interrupted after the morning tea break when the scientist from the train, Barbara Vickers, sat down next to her.
"Bored?" Vickers murmured.
"Not really my line," returned Mac, who had given up on this particular talk as soon as pond mud had come up. Theoretically she was aware that soil bacteria caused a great many infections - tetanus, for one - but this was several steps removed from the treatment of patients. "How about you?"
"I do wish he'd get to the point." Vickers gave a minute shrug. "But at least there's some logic to it."
Being suddenly seated next to an acquaintance, if a new one, Mac couldn't bury herself in reading without open rudeness, and she did like to deploy that strategically. Vickers - Barbara - made up for it by keeping up an amusing commentary, and even answering one or two of Mac’s questions on the more esoteric aspects of one presentation – she rarely dealt with things at the cellular level. The conversation carried them out to lunch. Mac remembered suddenly that she was here to, ugh, chaperone, and looked frantically around for Beatrice and Charlie. Well, no-one really expected her to keep an eye on Charlie, but for her money he was the more likely of the two to get himself into trouble.
“Your students are over there,” said Barbara, pointing obligingly. “Shall we collect them?”
Mac eyed them; Beatrice appeared to be explaining something emphatically to a young man, with Charlie getting the occasional word in. With any luck the topic of conversation was their research project. “I hear the point of conferences is to meet your distant colleagues.”
“Oh – I didn’t realise. Do you want me to leave you to socialise with the Sydney crowd?” It was delivered with a smile, and Mac laughed. “No, if you don’t mind.”
Barbara did excuse herself after lunch to buttonhole someone she’d studied with in Wellington, and Mac returned to her reading. There was another cocktail hour that evening, which it did behoove Mac to attend, if only because she’d sat through enough terrible presentations to earn a drink. (How some academics were simultaneously required to teach and so damn bad at it, Mac wasn’t sure.)
She checked that Beatrice and Charlie were all right – Beatrice was actually holding a drink, which was simultaneously encouraging and alarming – before running into someone she actually knew; he’d been a student in London at the same time as her, though from the research side of things. They exchanged stories – Mac about her work in London and subsequent move to Melbourne, he about his marriage to an Australian woman and move to Sydney – when her attention was caught by someone quietly calling her name.
Mac turned, puzzled. Beatrice was in her line of sight, still having not taken more than a few sips of that drink, and there weren't that many -
It was Barbara Vickers. "Dr. Macmillan! Can I have a word?"
Her voice was urgent, her colour high; Mac knew something was wrong, but hadn't the first idea what it could be. "Of course. If you'll excuse me, Matthew..." She let Barbara escort her away, the light hand on her arm tense. "What's happened?" Barbara hustled her out of the room and down the corridor. "It's a medical emergency. In here."
"Here" turned out to be the common room where they'd had morning and afternoon tea; it was deserted, moonlight pouring in the windows. It was nearly full, and illuminated softly the couches and sagging armchairs, the low tables...the man lying prone on a couch. Mac quickened her pace.
"Did he collapse? What happened?"
"I just found him here," Barbara said fretfully, then regained control of her voice. "It’s Dr. Jamison – one of the Sydney crowd. He's not breathing."
Mac knelt, and felt for a pulse. There was none.
"Is he -"
Mac expected a gasp, or perhaps a scream; what she got was nothing. She turned to look at Barbara. The woman had a hand clapped to her mouth, her eyes wide, but lowered it almost as quickly as Mac looked. "Dead?"
"As a bloody doornail. But not long – he’s still warm." Mac turned the body gently, to get a look at the face; it was one of the conference attendees, but she couldn't place the name. His jacket was slung over the back of the couch, his shirt blue-grey in the moonlight. No blood that she could see... "Can you turn the lights on?"
"Certainly." Footsteps, and then a click; the electric lights flooded on, harsh and blinding.
Mac blinked until her vision cleared. “There’s no obvious cause of death...no, don’t!”
Barbara was leaning over; she jerked upright. “Sorry. Wait – you don’t want him touched?”
“We shouldn’t contaminate the body any more than I already have – fingerprints, you know.”
“Fingerprints? But…wait. You think he was murdered?”
“I – well. I don’t know.”
"But why on earth would you think he'd been murdered?" said Vickers, frowning down at the body. "A heart attack, surely? Or – I don't know. Why murder?"
Mac thought about this. "You know - you're right. I've got no reason to think that." Too much bloody time around Phryne, she thought, but didn't say. Too many coincidences and too much paranoia. Before an autopsy - there was no reason to think it was anything but a heart attack. "Still, under the circumstances - we've got to call the police."
The conference organiser, Dr. Macintosh, seemed to take it personally that one of the attendees had decided to expire on the very first day. His name was Andrew Jamison, Mac learned, an Englishman who'd moved over after the war and lectured in biochemistry.
"But he seemed perfectly fine!" Macintosh complained. "What on earth was he thinking?"
"In my experience," Mac interrupted him, "heart attacks or strokes don't usually let you do much thinking."
"Is that what happened?" He frowned over his round spectacles at her. "Are you a medical practitioner, my dear?"
"I lecture in anatomy at Melbourne, and practice at the Royal Women's Hospital," Mac said as neutrally as possible. His dear. Hah. "I can't say without an autopsy what killed him, but that'll be a matter for the police coroner. Those are the most likely possibilities." Jamison wasn't particularly old, perhaps in his forties judging by the grey at his temples and the lines around his eyes, but he didn't look so young it would be incredible - although death could be deceiving, that way.
"Someone has called the police, yes?"
"They're on their way," said Barbara, stepping back into the room around a crowd of onlookers - Mac frowned at them; they couldn't be allowed in here. "I called them myself."
"Well, I'm not sure that's necessary -" began the organiser.
"There's a man dead!" Mac snapped. "Until we know why, it's absolutely necessary. And you lot - you can't be in here until the police have arrived, you'll contaminate the - you'll be in their way. Out, the lot of you, and we can lock the door until they get here."
They muttered sullenly, but retreated, no-one willing to get too close. Barbara laid a hand on Macintosh's arm, and smilingly ushered him out as well, throwing a questioning look over her shoulder at Mac; Mac held up two fingers, to indicate she needed a minute, and knelt down again.
She couldn't do much without contaminating the, the scene, but by good fortune her gloves were in her pocket, and she pulled them on to examine the body a little more thoroughly. Her first instinct had been right; no obvious wounds, no bruising or defensive marks on the arms, nothing to indicate death by violence. The only thing out of place was a small red mark in the crook of one elbow - he'd had his sleeves rolled up, and it was visible without removing any clothing. It looked like nothing so much as an injection site, but...
Mac chewed her lip, reminded herself that this wasn't her city or her problem, and got up. Barbara Vickers was waiting for her at the door.
"And?" she prompted Mac, as they shut the door behind them; just in time - Macintosh was striding towards them holding a ring of keys, still scowling.
"Nothing - obvious," Mac said.
"How very reassuring."
"You don't want this to be a murder," Mac told her wearily. "They're nasty messy things, and there aren't any winners afterwards. Detective work isn't bloody romantic."
"Well, I believe you," said Barbara. "I was hoping for rather more reassurance that it wasn't."
"That'll be for the autopsy; I'm sure we'll know before the end of the conference. These things take more time than you’d think."
"Dr. Macmillan!" Charlie was calling, Beatrice and he moving towards her at a decent clip, almost a run. "We heard - has there been a murder?"
"A death," Mac said with emphasis. "Probably a heart attack."
Beatrice looked anxious, with reason, given the last murder she'd been involved with. "Is there anything we can help with?"
"The police are on their way," Mac told her. "This isn't our problem."
They wanted to talk to her, of course, and she sent Beatrice and Charlie back to the hotel - no call for them to be waiting up, and experience told her it might be some time. As it happened, the inspector in charge interviewed her second after Barbara Vickers, and even gave the appearance of listening when she gave her professional medical opinion of the body - dead an hour at most, the body not cold, and no obvious injuries. Except - she hesitated, but relayed the information about the possible needle jab.
"And what do you think that was?"
"Could be anything - a blood test, a drug habit...check his medical records and see what the toxicology report says."
This was taken neutrally; they didn't seem to consider her a likely suspect, at least. Hopefully they actually bothered to follow up on it. She'd seen Barbara ushered out politely after a very short conversation, so they didn’t seem to think her likely, either. Mac hoped like hell it was a heart attack - it would make the whole thing so much simpler.
When she got back to the hotel, the desk told her there'd been a call for her, from Melbourne; a Miss Phryne Fisher. Curious, she borrowed their phone to return it - she could run her suspicion past her, see what she thought. Or perhaps not; Phryne would assume it was a murder unless there was convincing evidence otherwise, and it wouldn't be at all past her to jaunt up to Sydney to check things out.
She was saved from her dilemma by Dot answering the phone almost immediately. "Dr. Macmillan! Are you returning Miss Fisher's call? I'm so sorry, she and the Inspector just left to take another look at the crime scene."
Mac sighed. "Dammit - sorry, Dot. Do you know what she wanted?"
"As a matter of fact, I do! She wanted to ask - how long does it take someone to die of radium poisoning? Could it be a couple of days?"
Mac tried not to boggle aloud at this question. "Tell her that radium poisoning takes a lot longer than that, even if her victim found somewhere to get his hands on radium, which is pretty difficult if you don't own a watch factory."
"It's a she, I think." The faint sounds of Dot writing down this advice could be heard. "I think the other question probably isn't important, then."
"Out with it," Mac said.
"Is there anywhere you know of that someone could buy radium? Miss Fisher said the university uses it for some things?"
"Tell Phryne I'm a doctor, not a physicist," Mac replied dryly. "I haven't the faintest idea."
"Of course, Dr. Macmillan. How's everything going in Sydney? Are you enjoying the conference?"
She hesitated. "Everything's...fine. Pretty boring, to be honest."
"Are you sure?" Dot said, doubtfully.
"I'm sure," Mac said, more firmly this time. No, the last thing she needed was Phryne deciding to jaunt up to Sydney and be helpful; she'd solve the case, of course, if there was even a case to be solved, but Mac really didn't have the energy for the three-ring circus that would go along with it. "Lots of academics, arguing about things no-one else cares about and trying to drink each other under the table. Boring. I'll be glad to be back in Melbourne."
"I'll tell her you said so," Dot said. "Take care of yourself up there."
"You too. Try not to let her break into any watch factories."
"I'll do my best. But no promises."
The next morning the common room was still locked, a uniformed constable guarding it, and Mac saw detectives moving about, though the conference was continuing after an announcement about Dr. Jamison’s “sad death” before the first talks began. So the police thought it might be a murder, if nothing else.
The tone was, naturally, sombre; Mac had even more trouble paying attention to the talks than she’d had the day before. Barbara hurried in late, and whispered that she’d been with the police – they’d wanted to go over exactly how she’d found him, what she’d been doing, when it had been.
“What were you doing?” Mac couldn’t help whispering back.
“On my way back from the ladies’ – he was quite visible through the door, and I thought I’d wake him up. He might have crept in for a nap and been missing things. Then he wouldn’t wake up, and I thought I should get a doctor – you were the closest one I knew of.”
This sounded perfectly reasonable to Mac, even if it horrified her slightly that she’d wanted an explanation. Certainly too much time around Phryne.
She decided during morning tea – hastily moved to a classroom cleared of chairs and tables, and so packed she could barely see where the coffee and tea were – that she couldn’t stand another minute in there, and headed out for a fresh breeze. Barbara followed her.
“It’s so stuffy in there,” she said by way of explanation. “And if one more person asks me how I found him and what he looked like -”
“Of course,” Mac said, but her motives were a little more selfish than that, it had to be said – she liked Barbara.
They ended up sitting on the front steps of the lecture hall, in the sun and freshening breeze.
"The thing is, I can't see why anyone would want to kill him," Barbara said, tapping the conference program she was holding thoughtfully against her lips. Mac re-directed her gaze firmly to her own, as if it might hold answers. "Let's face it, murder isn't the first port of call for academics; humiliating your intellectual opponents is so much more satisfying."
"You make me happier and happier I went into the restful field of practicing medicine," Mac told her. "And who says it was someone else at the conference? It could have been anyone. Probably his wife. It's usually the wife."
"He wasn't married, as far as I know."
"Former wife? Girlfriend. Old friend. People don't kill strangers, they kill their friends and family. Or they kill for their friends and family."
"How often do you consult for the police? You seem awfully well-versed in murder."
Mac rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's not the police - that's my friend Phryne. Decided to be a detective a couple of years ago, and ever since she can't so much as go shopping without tripping over a corpse. It's a bit disturbing, honestly."
"Oh! I think I’ve heard of her. Is that the lady detective who helped solve Professor Katz' murder, at the medical school? I hear she's terribly glamorous."
"Phryne is terribly many things. I met her just after the war, during the influenza - I needed to get out to some tiny Scottish island, and she was the only one who was willing to fly me. Stayed and nursed, too. She throws herself at life and it...bends around her. We only lost one of the patients."
“It was a bad time to be in the medical profession, that’s for certain,” said Mac. She wasn’t sure exactly how old Barbara was, but she must have been nearly grown at the least in 1919, and certainly old enough to remember how many had succumbed to the ‘flu that year, hard on the heels of the Great War. “But enough about Phryne – I still can’t figure out why someone would want to kill this Dr. Jamison. And at an academic conference! It doesn’t really seem the place. There’s no obvious suspects. Now that’s something else everyone forgets about murders – nine times out of ten it was the husband or the business partner or whoever else has an obvious motive. The problem is usually getting enough evidence for a conviction, not laying the finger on people.”
"And that’s the trouble, isn’t it? He didn’t seem interesting enough for a murder," Barbara said, leaning forward on her elbows. "You know how it goes; so many people at these things, and most of them so similar, they fade into the background unless you know them, or need to speak with them…hard to imagine anyone being bothered to kill him."
"But you knew who he was," Mac remembered suddenly, sitting up straight. "When you found him - you knew who he was. Had you met before?"
"We'd not been introduced. Someone pointed him out, at the reception the first evening...you were on the other side of the room." Barbara frowned. "If I could just remember who. Let me see; I was talking with Maggie Anders from Adelaide, and Jeremy Sutton from Canterbury College. We were at Victoria together, when we were undergraduates. It was…oh, that’s right; one of Maggie’s colleagues was asking about him, and she knew him enough to point him out, he’d been at Sydney by the time she was doing her doctoral work.”
“Someone was asking about him?”
Barbara nodded. “From Adelaide, John Bartholomew. Viruses. He’s like you, I think – more medicine than research. He wanted to know if that was Andrew Jamison, and Maggie told him yes…said he’d known him before the War, in England. But, that’s right, he didn’t want to be introduced – I mean, he didn’t say that, he said something about having seen someone he needed to talk to, but he got out of there as fast as he could. It was a bit odd.”
Mac thought about this. “But not murderously so?”
“Not notably. He looked – worried, if anything.” Barbara frowned. “But I wasn’t paying that much attention; I can’t be sure how much I’m remembering and how much I’m making up as I go along.”
“Well, that puts you ahead of most people,” said Mac, who encountered that almost more often in her medical practice than she did in anything she’d done helping Phryne – people could convince themselves they remembered, or didn’t remember, anything. Especially when those people had daughters in what they usually termed ‘difficult situations’, the kind who’d swear up and down it was the Second Coming before they admitted they’d missed signs the girls were being abused, or just meeting young men behind their backs. The girls themselves were rarely so out of touch with reality. “But is it evidence worth taking to the police? If we were in Melbourne, I'd just look up Phryne and get her to put the hard word - or the gentle one, whatever works - on her Inspector Robinson, or his constable; we'd know Dr. Bartholomew’s story by the end of the day. Makes it easy. Here, I don’t know."
Barbara shot her a dry look. "In my experience the police only occasionally make things easier."
Mac shrugged, an acknowledgement; she liked Jack Robinson well enough, but he did go out of his way to overlook things he wasn't interested in arresting you for, which helped. A sterner man would have had Phryne up on burglary a dozen times, for a start, and Mac broke a laundry list of laws every week in her practice. Importing contraceptives was the least of it. It had given her a more lenient view of the police than she'd had once. But this wasn't Melbourne, and she didn't have a convenient inspector to lean on. "Nor in mine, in general, but there's one or two I can live with. They still have to sneak me past their coroner - the man thinks women shouldn't be within ten feet of a dead body. Idiot."
“Well,” drawled Barbara, “I have observed how bewildered and upset the sight of dead bodies makes you, Mac. I’m sure he’s only trying to avoid you cluttering up his mortuary by fainting.”
Mac had to laugh at that. “Oh, I’m sure.”
“I have been wondering, though,” Barbara went on. “Why Mac?”
“No great secret. I just never much liked the name Elizabeth. Besides, it lets me know who my friends are – no-one I like ever calls me that.” Mac smiled over at her. “Apart from my mother, when she’s terribly angry with me.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” murmured Barbara, and there was a pleasant silence, for a few moments, that made Mac wonder for the first time what the hell she thought she was doing.
“We should, ah,” she said. “We should probably be getting back in. I am supposed to lay eyes on my trembling debutante scientists occasionally.”
“Yes. Yes, of course, shall we, then?” Barbara rose, dusting off her trousers. “I do wonder, though, what on earth the faculty thought they were going to do – well, Miss Mason was going to do – without you here.”
“Much the same things they’re doing with me here. Just be grateful – if they’d got wind you were attending anyway, I’m sure they would have saved themselves the expense and prevailed upon the biology department to lumber you with them.”
“Which would have been one of several downsides to your absence from this conference, I do agree.”
Mac was the tiniest bit suspicious, but asked, regardless, “And what would those other downsides have been?”
“A great deal more boredom, for one,” said Barbara.
“I aim to entertain, of course,” Mac said, and held the door open for her; Barbara sashayed through it with a smile.
Mac had the sudden and terrible feeling she was in more trouble than she’d realised, and couldn’t find it within herself to care.
In lieu of the planned entertainment that evening, or part of it, Macintosh and the other conference organisers had arranged a sort of wake for Jamison, who, after all, had been a member of the faculty here at the University of Sydney. It was attended by a wide number of people, many of whom weren’t at the conference at all; he’d been a reasonably popular man, apparently.
In Mac’s opinion, there were very few things duller than the funeral, or wake, or what-have-you, of a man you didn't know. Beatrice had elected to return to the hotel, an example Mac wished she could follow, and Charlie appeared to be getting on with some other postgraduate students; she dropped by to remind him that any shenanigans needed to end up with him awake at the conference the next day, because she wasn’t coming to find him, but it was a half-hearted warning. He was enjoying himself and besides, didn’t seem the type to party until dawn, as well as certainly not having the funds to do so.
Instead, she mingled a little, even probing gently for what people knew about Jamison; the general attitude, and certainly the story circulated by Macintosh and the organisers, was that he’d died of natural causes, and no-one had a bad word to say about him – not in the suspicious way, either, just in the normal sort of speak-no-ill way.
There weren’t even any police there, as far as Mac could tell, which was simply appalling; you’d have had to literally bar the doors to stop Jack Robinson attending this sort of event, with all its potential murderers. And if you had barred the doors, if it was in Melbourne, he’d simply have got Phryne to wangle an invitation through her mind-bogglingly extensive social network. It was if they didn’t care about solving this. Pathetic, really.
She met up with Barbara half an hour or so into things. “Any juicy gossip?”
Barbara pursed her lips. “Sadly, not a thing. He seems to have been practically blameless.”
“What about your Dr. Bartholomew?”
“He doesn’t appear to be here. I haven’t managed to find out why, though.”
“That being said, this certainly isn’t everyone at the conference.” Mac looked around the room. “And I don’t blame them. Maybe he just doesn’t like funerals, or whatever this is.”
“A memorial, I believe they said.”
There was a small display, over on one of the side-tables; at least the police hadn’t had the common room cleared yet, or Mac wouldn’t have put it past the organisers to hold this in there, as truly tasteless as it would have been. They’d gathered a few things, some photographs, probably from his office, even a book or two. It made a sad display, against a life; but Mac had always been of the opinion that what you did was best measured by people, not things, and you could hardly corral the man’s students or colleagues into a display.
Mac wandered over to take a look, Barbara excusing herself to make more small talk, and perhaps ask more questions, although Mac was beginning to wonder why they were bothering; in all likelihood the autopsy report would come back saying it had been a heart attack after all. Bad timing. It was just, in Mac’s experience, bad timing was rarely so obvious, or so – lonely.
One photograph was of an army unit, taken during the War, or more likely before they’d shipped out for the mud of the trenches, when the words home by Christmas were still being spoken. They all looked so damn young. They always did, in these pictures. Someone, perhaps Jamison, had labelled it in precise handwriting, so small Mac had to strain to make it out. A. Jamison, third from right, second row, and next to him, she noted with interest, was J. Bartholomew. Funny how a decade could change people. Jamison'd put on considerable weight since those days, it looked like, and Bartholomew beside him barely looked like -
Mac looked harder. That wasn't Bartholomew, or not the Bartholomew she'd met. Perhaps a casual glance wouldn’t have noticed it, but Mac was a doctor and a trained observer and judging by the average height of the rest of the group, unless they were unusually small, this man was several inches taller than the John Bartholomew who was at this conference. It was impossible to tell from a photograph, of course, especially an old one, but she fancied his hair might be several shades lighter, too, and certainly the nose was all wrong.
“Something of interest?” asked Barbara, appearing at her elbow. Mac realised she’d picked the photo up, frame and all, and was squinting at it; hastily she replaced it, then picked it up again. “Here. Fourth from the right, second row. Recognise him?”
“Can’t say I do, though that’s poor Jamison next to him, right enough.”
Mac pointed, silently, at the caption. Barbara’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s not Bartholomew. Unless it’s someone else of the same name…”
Mac replaced the photo. “Well. Identity is certainly a motive, if we were looking for such a thing.”
They shared an uncertain glance.
“Well,” said Barbara, “what do we do now?”
“I hate to say it,” Mac said, “but if they’re still around tomorrow – and even if they’re not – we really should try taking it to the police. If nothing else, we can’t exactly arrest the man on our own recognisance.”
“They announced,” Barbara repeated patiently over morning tea, “that they don’t consider the death suspicious and are happy to tell us they’re closing the inquiry. Which you would have heard yourself if you hadn’t been in the ladies’.”
“Damn it.” Mac sprang up, unable to sit still, and tamed herself into merely leaning on the back of the chair. Around them, the conversations tended mostly to the scientific; they were the only ones still talking about Jamison. “I don’t believe that.”
“But what could have killed him? They said there was nothing in his blood, no evidence of anything – I asked, mind you.”
“Ah, no, I thought of that,” Mac interrupted. “I mean, it’s stupid, we’re talking detective-novel stuff, but it’s plausible if you know what you’re doing. And Bartholomew trained as a doctor, like me – he got the PhD later on.”
“So what is it, then?”
“Have you ever wondered why the nurse or doctor taps a syringe, before they inject you?”
Barbara gave this actual thought, pursing her lips. “You know – I can’t say I have. The last time I got an injection was…I can’t even remember, some immunisation or other. But it’s to get the bubbles out, isn’t it?”
Mac nodded. “Injecting air into a vein can kill you, very quickly, if the bubble reaches the heart. It’s not detectable under most circumstances. Myself, I’d pick the jugular, but if our murderer were worried about Jamison waking up…”
“The injection site you found, in his elbow.”
They stared at each other for a minute – Barbara did have lovely eyes, Mac thought irrelevantly, and tried to set it aside for later.
“You could…go to the police with it?” Barbara suggested, her voice rising uncertainly. “You did say that was the best idea last night -”
“And what are the odds you think they’d listen now?”
“What we need,” Mac said, drumming her fingers on the table, “is proof about Bartholomew – that he isn’t who he says he is, that Jamison might have identified him as…whoever he really is, if that caption’s correct. If. If we could get information, from England…”
Barbara nodded thoughtfully, drawing her knees up and locking her arms around them. “Do you know anyone there who might have access to that type of records? You’re thinking about passports, or something like that – that man in the photo was so unlike our Dr. Bartholomew if you actually compared the two, the description would surely be different.”
“No-one there.” Mac grinned. “But I do know someone here. I just need to make a phone call.”
Of course, when she called the City South police station in Melbourne and asked for Inspector Robinson, he wasn’t there. Mac could have gone through Phryne, but under the circumstances she preferred to go straight to the source. She was fairly certain of her ability to persuade Jack Robinson – he wasn’t unreasonable, all things considered. What she got, however, was Hugh Collins.
“City South,” Hugh answered. “How can we help?”
“Hugh! It’s Dr. Macmillan.”
“Oh, Dr. Macmillan. I thought Dot said you were in Sydney for the week. Is something wrong?”
“Actually…” Mac drew it out. “I need some help.”
“What’s the problem?”
She explained, doing her best not to impugn the fine officers of the Sydney police force. (Not more than they deserved, anyhow.) But Hugh – darling, law-abiding Hugh – was somewhat unconvinced.
"Dr. Macmillan, I'm not sure I can really help you. If the Sydney police are closing the inquiry -"
"Oh, come on, Hugh," Mac said. "I just need you to get in touch with England and get a description of John Bartholomew, before he moved out here. It’s not anything secret, I just don’t know who to ask.”
“I understand, but -”
“I’d really appreciate it, Hugh.”
“I…have to run this past Inspector Robinson, and I’m not sure when he’ll be back-“
Mac sighed. “Just ring me as soon as you can, all right? Dot has my number here.”
It wasn’t Hugh who called back, but Phryne, later that evening.
“Mac, what on earth have you got yourself into?”
“Nothing,” Mac said pointedly, then glanced around the hotel lobby and lowered her voice. “I just feel responsible for following up on this, all right? I found the man dead, after all. Well – I was the first medical professional on the scene.”
“I know, I know, Hugh told me everything. Now listen up, here’s the fascinating part: your Doctor John Bartholomew? He’s dead.”
“Oh, not the one you’re dealing with, obviously, but the man from England – according to his family he died in the war. It’s always difficult to tell with telegrams, but there appears to be some surprise expressed at the idea that he’s alive and living in Adelaide.”
“So he was running away from something?”
Phryne tsked. “Mac, darling, you must let me finish. There was some surprise expressed because there was a body. He died in a field hospital, not in the trenches. They buried him. But – and I think this is the solution to your mystery – there was a mix-up with another soldier in his unit, for a few days after the actual death. They only identified the body correctly just before the burial. Someone had changed his identification.”
“You got all this from a telegram?”
“I’m extrapolating slightly. It’s not as if I can telephone England to badger them about it. The point is, I think the man you’re dealing with stole his identity – for whatever reason – and ran away. He would have been quite young at the time.”
“But what sort of secret would he want to kill to hide, all this time later?”
“Oh, who knows – desertion? Murder? Treason? There’s a dozen possibilities. The important thing is that whatever it is, you have a motive for murder, a method, and a dead body – you do know whether he had the opportunity to commit the murder, don’t you?”
Mac had, in fact, considered this. “Any time that afternoon. No-one saw Jamison after three o’clock, there was no reason to go back to the common room….people were going in and out. But they’re closing the inquiry, Phryne.”
“Well, then. You’ll just have to get a confession out of him. Murderers like to talk, you know. They like someone to know how clever they’ve been. It’s easier than you might expect.”
Mac didn’t think it was going to be easy at all.
It was the second to last day of the conference, and Mac’s nerves were on every available edge. If one more person came up behind her, or called her darling, or, worst of all, asked whose assistant she was, she was going to give someone a right smack.
“Is everything all right, Dr. Macmillan?” Charlie asked her anxiously. “You seem a bit – um. Tense?”
“Everything’s fine,” Mac told him. “Stop hovering around me and go talk science with someone.”
“Right then,” said Charlie, and made himself obligingly absent.
“Any bright ideas?” asked Barbara when Mac found her. “Did Miss Fisher have any suggestions?”
“Oh, the usual sort of Phryne thing. Boldly confront the man and terrify him into a confession.”
“Do we have any other options?”
Mac was unexpectedly touched by we. “Leave the whole thing be and get on a train to Melbourne Saturday morning? It’s not as if we have anything in the way of actual proof.”
Barbara looked genuinely distressed by this. “But, Mac. Someone is dead.”
“People die,” Mac said. “They die untimely and they die unfairly and sometimes there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, murder or no. There aren’t any second chances. You can’t bring anyone back.” She tried not to think of the bloody ruin of Daisy’s body, but she did, of course. She was old enough to know these things faded with time. Time was working too slowly. “So, no. I don’t think we have any other options.”
It would be different in Melbourne, of course; Jack and Hugh would never have closed the case, and Phryne wouldn’t have let it rest, and there’d be Cec and Burt for backup, but Mac wasn’t in Melbourne and she didn’t have any of her friends to rely on and she was, how to put it best, concerned. Maybe Bartholomew just laughed at them, and maybe he pretended to know nothing, and maybe…the other thing that happened when you confronted murderers was that they tried to add you to the list of their sins.
“I – suppose you’re right,” Barbara said. She sighed. “It just seems – so damned unfair.”
And Mac supposed that maybe she was as contrary as Phryne accused her of being, because –
“Well, then. Where do you want to corner him?”
Barbara raised an eyebrow at her. “I thought you were just saying we shouldn’t –“
“Changed my mind,” Mac said, standing up. “Might as well do it here – there’s plenty of people if anything goes wrong. I doubt he’ll be armed in any case.”
Barbara looked a little green at that – it clashed terribly with her blouse, but nodded firmly nonetheless. “Now?”
“What the hell,” Mac said. “Now.”
Of course, Bartholomew had gone from the room by the time she made that resolution, but Beatrice had seen him going outside – to use the facilities, she thought – so Mac and Barbara slipped out and headed for the corridor where the men’s rooms were located. (The women had, all week, got to use a re-labelled one on the second floor, eight minutes’ walk from the main hall and complete with urinals.)
“Good morning, ladies,” he said when he saw them. He looked so unassuming, Mac thought, but if she’d learned one thing hanging around Phryne it was that murderers didn’t look like anything in particular. “Er – are you lost?”
“I had a question for you, Dr. Bartholomew,” Barbara said, smiling brightly.
He smiled back. “Well, I’ll do my best – what was it?”
“What’s your real name?”
The smile slipped. “Excuse me?”
“We know John Bartholomew died in a field hospital in 1918,” Mac said. “We know Andrew Jamison knew him in England, and would have recognised him – and not you. Or would he have, as someone else?”
“Ladies, I’m afraid you must be confused,” he said patiently. “If you’ll excuse me, the next talk is -”
He tried to push past, and Mac grabbed his arm; she had a good grip. “Do you want me to tell you how you killed him? Because I figured it out. You-“
She didn’t get to finish, because, with surprising strength, he twisted out of her grip and made a good attempt at a run. This would have been more successful if Barbara hadn’t valiantly thrown herself at him. He hit her, a solid punch that landed in her solar plexus; she fell back, winded, and Mac had just got a good start after him when she rounded the corner to the sight of Bartholomew flat on his face and Beatrice just withdrawing one dainty leg, rubbing it.
“That’s going to bruise,” said Charlie, next to her. “Dr. Mac! Were you looking for him?”
“Oh, yes,” Mac said. “Beatrice, go and get Macintosh. We’re going to need the police again.”
“For what?” spat Bartholomew, prevented from pushing himself up by Charlie’s foot thoughtfully placed between his shoulderblades.
“Assaulting Dr. Vickers?” Mac suggested. “Panicking and running when you were accused of a murder? I haven’t been that impressed by the police here so far but they’re not stupid.”
He sort of – sagged.
“You don’t understand. I had to, and Barty was dead, no-one cared over here if I used his name – and then Jamison showed up at this conference, I didn’t know he’d come to Sydney, and you have no idea what they’d -”
“You know?” Mac said, walking away. She needed to make sure Barbara was all right. “I can’t really say I care.”
After all that, it was deeply anticlimactic to have Beatrice and Charlie up at the front of the auditorium, explaining their research. It was, of course, the reason all of them were there, but with everything else that had happened over the last week it had nearly slipped Mac’s mind entirely. (Not theirs, of course; that morning Beatrice had confided to her that she was much more worried about the talk than she had been about helping catch a murderer the day before. “All he could do was try and kill me. If I get this wrong I’ll be humiliated.”)
If held at gunpoint, Mac would have been obliged to admit it hadn’t gone perfectly. They were both nervous, that was obvious. Then one of the Adelaide crowd asked a persnickety question, the kind that you always hoped no-one would ask and knew someone was going to – but under the circumstances, they pulled it off pretty bloody well. When they collapsed back into their seats afterwards, she leant over. “Good job, both of you. You should be happy with yourselves.”
“Yes, absolutely,” agreed Barbara. “Well done.”
The conference wound down slowly over the day, everyone’s minds turning to travel and home. There was a conspicuous lack of discussion about Jamison’s death, as if everyone had agreed to ignore it, but Mac noticed more than one whispered conversation among people looking in her general direction, which she paid as little attention as they deserved. She was so very ready to go home.
But not quite yet. After all this, she knew exactly what she wanted to do tonight, and it involved going out. Spending all that time this week, with Barbara – regardless of what it meant, if it meant anything, it had reminded her of something; she was ready to go out, have a drink, dance with a beautiful woman at the right kind of bar, find out if the night was going anywhere, or just enjoy it regardless. And she’d promised Betsy she’d drop by again before she left town, so.
“Back to the hotel?” Barbara asked her, as they all wandered out of the conference hall for the last time. Beatrice had actually accepted an invitation to go out with some of the other graduate students, but all the women were going together – all three graduate students and about half the faculty and staff scientists – so Mac didn’t feel obliged to tag along. Thank God.
“No,” Mac said, and thought, why the hell not? The worst she can do is say no. "I'm going out. To a...club. For...ladies."
"Just ladies?" Barbara asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Mostly," Mac said, her heartbeat thudding in her ears.
"Will there be dancing?"
"There will certainly be dancing."
"Well, then." Barbara stood up, slinging her handbag over her shoulder. "I don't know about you, but I think we deserve a night off, after all that. Is Miss Mason joining us, or going with the others?"
"I don't think it's really her scene." Mac considered this, then amended, "The dancing. Not the ladies. I have no idea what her scene is, in that regard, aside from her work."
Barbara smiled, a quirk upwards of the lips that had all of Mac's attention. "Oh, good. I get you all to myself."
"If that's what you want?" Mac wasn't sure if she'd meant to make that a question, but it emerged as one nonetheless.
The other woman held out her arm. "Take me dancing, Dr. Macmillan, and we'll see."
Mac found herself smiling back, beaming, even, a swell of happiness she hadn't felt in - a long time. She took the proffered arm, tucked it through her own. "By all means, Dr. Vickers. Let us see."
A few days later, Mac was back at Phryne’s, having managed to shepherd Beatrice and Charlie back to Melbourne, seen all the patients she’d been kept from on her week away, and then try to catch up on her sleep. That last part had been stymied by an invitation from Barbara to come to her flat and talk over their terribly exciting week some more – among other things – but how important was sleep, really?
“He was a deserter,” she explained. “That’s why he was so frantic to keep it quiet – I don’t know if they’re still shooting anybody ten years and more after the war’s done but he wasn’t interested in finding out. He didn’t know Jamison had gone into science, much less emigrated, and then when he showed up at the conference he panicked. Sort of.”
“Murdering someone with that sort of plausible deniability it was murder isn’t panic in my book,” said Jack Robinson, who had announced a professional interest in hearing the details, and also that Mac owed him for his constable’s help, which was probably fair. “Panic is when they bludgeon them to death with whatever’s handy.”
Mac spread her hands. “He also managed to desert and steal a false identity in the middle of a war – evidently he gets cunning under pressure.”
“One way or another, it’s not going to help him in court,” said Phryne. “It’ll be the rope.”
Mac grimaced. “Like as not it will.”
They were all silent for a moment.
"I tell you what, Phryne,” she went on eventually, “this detective business is exhausting. I'm not going to be going in for it full-time if I can help it."
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever decide to expand my agency." Phryne's eyes twinkled. "And is that all? For all the fuss, you seem remarkably refreshed. Perhaps solving murders does suit you after all."
Mac snorted in a very unladylike way. "Not at all. But I did manage to go out dancing, after. Been a long time since I did that."
"With Dr. Vickers?" Jack Robinson inquired, tone unusually mild - almost cautious. Phryne exchanged a glance with him that said she'd meant to ask that herself; those two were disgustingly in tune with each other these days.
"As it happens, yes."
"Dancing, or-" Phryne's eyes were dancing themselves.
"I don't kiss and tell, Phryne," Mac said, and was gratified - or maybe horrified - by the quickly-hidden look of alarm this put on the inspector's face.
"She works at the university?" he said hastily.
"Yes." Mac took a sip of her whisky, and added, "Her first degree was in botany, so if you ever need to identify plants again, you can bother her."
"You must introduce us," said Phryne. “She sounds absolutely fascinating.”
"You know," Mac said, "one of these days, soon - I think I will."