It became quickly apparent that “come after me” was going to be a lot harder to put into action than he thought it would be when he stood in a field watching Phryne Fisher disappear into the sky.
Reality hit hard about a half hour after Jack Robinson gone home and pulled out his bank book. He stared hard at the numbers, then at the newspaper he’d picked up along the way, scanning the travel section for prices. His trip home after the war had been paid for by the government. This one would come out of his pocket, and in more ways than one. It wasn’t just the cost of taking a steamer around the world, but it was almost certain he would be walking away from his job. Unlike when Hugh Collins had gone fishing, it wouldn’t be waiting for him when he came back.
Jack wasn’t sure how he was going to find a way around this one.
Two days later, he found himself standing outside the Wardlow out of habit. For months, he’d taken his dinners here, and muscle memory carried him there now. He stood on the sidewalk, hands shoved in his coat pockets as he studied the structure and carefully turned Phryne’s words over and over in his mind.
He startled, gaze flitting around before landing on Mr. Butler, who had come out the front door with a glass in his hand. “Mr. Butler. I’m sorry.”
“No, quite all right. Is everything well?”
“Yes. Quite well. I was just -” He faltered, not quite sure how to explain his sudden infatuation with the house. That maybe if he stared at it long enough, Miss Fisher - no, Phryne - would come waltzing out with her lips curved in a smirk, wondering why it took him so long to catch on.
Mr. Butler smiled kindly at him and held the glass out. “I’m surprised you didn’t stop by sooner. Some lemonade?”
“You were expecting me?” Jack took the glass because it was there, but he didn’t drink.
“Oh, yes. Miss Fisher’s guest said you’d come around after you worked things out in your mind.”
His brow furrowed. “Guest?”
“She arrived not an hour after Miss Fisher left. It’s almost as if she knew the right time to come.” Mr. Butler led the way into the house. “She’s been a delight to have around, especially since Dot and Hugh are on their honeymoon. Quite the fascinating women, which is not surprising. She reminds me a lot of Miss Fisher.”
Jack fervently hoped in a roundabout way that this was Mr. Butler trying to tell him that Phryne was back. But just that morning, he’d gotten a telegram from her, checking in to reassure them all that the plane hadn’t crashed in the ocean — despite her urge to dump her father in said body of water. His hand closed over the telegram, shoved deep in his pocket, and he clung to it like a lifeline as Mr. Butler showed him into the parlor.
“Detective Inspector Jack Robinson,” Mr. Butler said by way of introduction as Jack saw Phryne’s latest guest. The woman looked a good ten years older than Phryne, but still radiated a youthfulness that made her beautiful. Honey-colored curls tumbled over her shoulders, and she held a cocktail in one hand. Her eyes were green and shrewd, and there was something in them that made her seem much older than her years. “This is Professor River Song, an archaeologist.”
“A pleasure,” Professor Song said, holding out her hand. Jack took it and felt the callouses. She looked like she had stepped out of Phryne’s fashionable closet, but he held the hand of a working woman. “You came a day sooner than I gave you credit for.”
“And why were you waiting for me, Professor?” Jack asked.
She smiled and took a sip from her cocktail. “I’m here, Detective Inspector, to pay back a debt to you and Miss Fisher. Though I suppose really you were paying off a debt to me, but those are semantics for you. My husband would be ever so cross if he knew that I was doing this, but this is what’s meant to be.”
Jack didn’t think that there was anyone out there who could talk in circles more than Phryne. He wasn’t sure how he felt to know he’d been proven wrong.
“Now then,” Professor Song said, “put your lemonade down and follow me. I nicked my old man’s ride for this trip. I may have abandoned him with a bunch of otters, and I really should pick him up at some point.”
“Professor,” Jack said as Professor Song started for the kitchen, fishing about in her reticule as she did. He sighed, put the lemonade down as he was told, and followed her as she pulled out an object, concealing it in her hand. “You’ll understand that I’m very reluctant to follow a strange woman when she’s being unclear about her motives.”
Professor Song lingered in the kitchen, where Mr. Butler had laid out a length of cloth on the table. She picked it up and turned to Jack. “It’s a romantic overture.”
He scowled at her, not appreciating the come-on. He braced himself on the back of one of the chairs and glared at Professor Song.
The corner of her mouth turned in an amused half-smile, she opened her hand to reveal a familiar swallow pin. “Come after me, Jack Robinson.”
Jack was very grateful he was holding onto the chair, because he was quite sure that his knees were perilously close to giving way. This professor, this strange friend of Phryne’s, knew the conversation they had two days earlier. She had the pin that he gave Phryne. The only way River Song would know about any of it was if he or Phryne had told her themselves. But when? How? He’d never met her. Had Phryne run into her at one of her stops? No, no, that was impossible, Mr. Butler said she’d arrived an hour after Phyrne left.
Who was she?
“You need to trust me for this,” Professor Song was saying, and Jack forced himself to pay attention. “I need you to remember our meeting, otherwise this isn’t going to work. How open is your mind, Jack Robinson?”
“Considerably more open than when I first met Miss Fisher,” he admitted.
Professor Song tilted her head, those green eyes considering him. She placed the cloth back on the table. “Then, I’m going to trust that you’ll handle the next few minutes well. I was thinking I would need to blindfold you, but I’m glad to know I was just being overly cautious. Now, please follow me?”
And he did. He followed Professor Song out of the house and spotted a small, blue shed where one hadn’t been before. The professor approached it and laid her hand on the handle. She gave him another one of those assessing looks, and he wondered if this was how she conducted herself on a dig.
“Well, Detective Inspector,” Professor Song said and opened the door. “It’s time for you to go chase your woman.”
It was finished. River stared at the manuscript stacked neatly before her, bits of ink showing through from the proofreader’s marks from where she edited it. Carefully, she extracted a bank book and set it atop the stack, then another file with documents culled from various points in recent time. It contained the deed to an upscale townhouse in New York City, false identification and medical records, and everything else needed to establish an identity in the 1930s. Part of her wanted to lay her head on the table and cry, but instead she sipped her coffee and waited for her contact.
She flicked a glance up to the man standing next to her table. Early-to-mid 40s, she estimated, very handsome. All cop. It was in the eyes. “Yes?”
“Chief Inspector Jack Robinson,” he introduced himself. He lifted a hand, and River noticed another person moving toward them. A woman, late 30s, extremely beautiful.
River smiled. Now this one, she knew. “The Honourable Miss Fisher,” she said, extending her hand as Phryne approached the table. “I have read quite a bit about you.”
“Professor Song,” Phryne said with a warm smile. “It is good to see you again after all these years. Please, call me Phryne.”
River kept silent, but did raise an eyebrow. The adventures of Phryne Fisher were pretty legendary, and until fairly recently, the Doctor had been convinced that Phryne was a pseudonym for River herself. While River greatly admired the spirit of the woman, and owned all of the books that would later be written about Phryne's life, she knew that the Doctor had been completely wrong about Phryne's identity.
She was there in Melbourne after following a note she left for herself in her diary. The note had been vague, like all the notes to her past self from her future self. Coordinates, a time and date, and “bring the paperwork.” The words had appeared when River had finished writing her manuscript, and she marveled at the sheer intricacy of a time loop. There were ways to get this mission accomplished herself, but as she assessed Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson, she knew that their helping her out would make it a lot more interesting.
“We’re here to pay back a debt to you,” Phryne informed her, taking the seat across from River after Jack held out the chair for her. “Actually, you helped us first, but that’ll be further in your timeline.”
Jack skimmed a hand over Phryne’s sleek bob before settling in the chair next to her. “Nine years, and I’m still not quite sure what happened.”
Phryne reached for his hand and he gently took it. “It’s very simple to me. Professor Song assisted you in 1929, and now we are paying back that debt.” She squeezed his hand. “We wouldn’t be together without her help.”
“Yes, we would have,” Jack insisted, his gaze heated.
“Well, yes, of course. But not with the expediency that Professor Song lent to it. You have to admit, Jack, you had the easier route to London.”
“I didn’t have to fly around the world with your father,” he pointed out.
Phryne rolled her eyes. “I keep telling you not to remind me of that unless I’ve had a few cocktails.”
“You may have had the longer trip, but I had the stranger one.”
“Still, we all had fun there. Especially when your husband joined us.” Phryne turned her attention back to River with that last sentence, but follow it up with an explanation. “It will be all right, River,” she murmured. “That’s my message to you. Things will work out as they should, you and your sentimental idiot.”
Something unknotted deep in River’s gut. Sentimental idiot. Words she had thrown in the Doctor’s face in Manhattan. Only her mother had heard the exchange with the Doctor, when he had foolishly wasted his regeneration energy on her.
“An ageless God who insists on the face of a 12-year-old,” Phryne continued, confirming her foreknowledge. “That was an apt description of your husband. Now, then, considering we’re at your end of the timeline, we need to strike our bargain.”
“I already know part of it,” River replied. She tapped the stack before her. “You will deliver these to Amelia Williams in New York City?”
“Yes. I’ve been itching to get back there, and Jack has free time coming to him from work. I’ve very nearly convinced him to take an aeroplane,” Phryne said, giving Jack a wicked smile.
He sighed. “Very nearly, Phryne. I do not relish being bumped around the Pacific for a couple weeks.”
“It’s far more expedient than being on a boat for a couple of months.” Phryne opened her reticule and pulled out a small list. “We take Qantas from here to New Zealand, then Pan-Am to San Francisco. We can stop in Honolulu for a few days, and I can attest that it’s a lovely place to stay. A short hop to Los Angeles from San Francisco, and it’s just 17 hours from there to New York. We’ll have a marvelous time.”
“I’m quite sure I’ll be airsick,” Jack replied, resigned.
“It is your decision, Miss Fisher,” he said, lifting Phryne’s hand and kissing the back of it. “I am just at your beck and call.”
“Not hardly. Though, I can think of many places for you to be at my beck and call, Chief Inspector.”
“Not in public, Miss Fisher.”
“Not this time, at any rate.”
River sipped at her coffee, amused as the couple in front of her all but undressed each other with their eyes. The sadness that plagued her since losing her parents finally started to ease its tight grip. The love was obvious between them, and she knew her mother would get a huge kick out of Phryne Fisher. “And what is my end of the bargain?”
Phryne squeezed Jack’s hand once more as they both turned their attention to her. “You’ll need to write this down, so you know what you’ll say to Jack in the future. You see, River, nine years ago, I accompanied my father back to England to help him get out of a sticky situation with my family. You assisted me and Jack at the time and, we are greatly in your debt as a result. You’ll understand that you yourself cautioned me not to tell you too much about what will happen. What was that word you used? Oh, yes. Spoilers.”