She met the inspector at the door to the dining room. “Jack.” She offered him a friendly hand, and after a moment, he took it. “Good of you to come.”
Jack quirked his eyebrows in reply. “And what puzzle are we solving tonight?” he asked, a bit warily, brushing back the sides of his jacket to slip his hands into his trouser pockets.
Phryne shrugged. “No puzzle.”
Jack walked slowly to the head of the table, noting the place settings, while Phryne noted with interest the way he was fidgeting with something in his left-hand pocket. Now what could that be, Jack Robinson... “And no candlelight. No chopsticks, either.”
“There won’t be any chopsticks at this table for quite some time,” said Phryne, not without a faint pang of regret. She seated herself, and after a moment, Jack did the same.
“And how will Mr Lin feel about that?”
“Mr Lin would have quite enough to worry about with his Communist revolutionary fighter bride.”
“Really?” His face betrayed no surprise and only mild interest. Perhaps the doings of Chinatown were more common knowledge at City South Police Station than Phryne had heretofore been led to believe. Or perhaps Jack was simply being polite. “Pass on my congratulations,” he said, adjusting his soup plate delicately and daring Phryne with his eyes to ask him what he really thought about Lin’s marriage.
But Phryne was tired of worrying about Lin, and glad that it was now someone else’s job. She returned Jack’s look with one of deep consideration. “Perhaps we could allow ourselves just... one candle,” she suggested. “What do you think?”
The dining room clock ticked away the seconds while Jack mulled over the possibility. “I think I could cope with that,” he said at last.
Phryne took her lighter and carefully lit the center candle in the candelabra. Jack watched her with the same neutral expression he had displayed since he walked through the door.
And then, rather suddenly, his whole demeanor changed, and his angular face bloomed with a smile that was both admiring and amused. Phryne had only ever seen hints of that smile before, and she was pleasantly astonished at the change it made in him. It drew her attention even more sharply to the shape and mobility of his lips, and she was impressed with a vivid reminder of the unexpected kiss at Café Réplique.
It had been a startling and remarkable thing, that kiss. It had brought many things to Phryne’s notice, things that she had not been able to devote her time to until after the painting was safely back on the wall of her boudoir. Then, alone in her bed, bare and reveling in the feel of clean, soft sheets on her soap-scoured flesh, she had relived the feel and the taste of Jack’s lips and tongue (for nothing in that kiss had been done by halves), and grieved that there had been so many layers of fine black wool and silk between his hands and her body. His hands were mesmerizing things, never quite still, even when he was calm, and he had most definitely not been calm that evening. There had been strength in those hands, carefully controlled, and a surprising amount of care that almost amounted to tenderness. And she had wondered at the urgency behind it. Surely there had been more humming beneath that kiss than mere concern that she would blow their cover.
She smiled at her supper guest. “Hungry?”
Mr. Butler brought in the first course, a delicate cream of asparagus soup. Phryne found her attention caught by the movement of Jack’s hands as he brought the first spoonful to his mouth. He made an expression of appreciation over the soup and then cleared his throat. “There are just one or two lingering points about Miss Lavender’s murder that I’d like to touch on...”
“If you insist.” Phryne tasted her own plate of soup and let the velvety smooth liquid slide over her tongue. “But after that, I am banishing all talk of business from this table for the duration of the evening.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “In that case, I’m sure we can find other things to talk about.”
The few points of contention were examined and finished with the soup. Mr. Butler brought in the fish, proffered the sauce boat, poured the wine, and then withdrew. “I meant to ask you weeks ago, Jack,” said Phryne, changing the topic as promised, “what did you think of Gatsby?”
“Who?” Jack swallowed his mouthful quickly.
“The book I left in your office by accident. You were rather remiss about returning it, so I thought you must have taken the time to read it.”
“Oh, the American novel. Yes... yes, I read it. It was very... forthright. The prose was a bit more spare than I like, but the characters were well drawn.” He worked away thoughtfully at his last bite of fish; to Phryne’s amusement, he had already finished his portion. “I felt ghastly for everyone, but I can’t say that I liked anyone in that book.”
“In the case of Gatsby, I don’t think liking anyone is the point.” Phryne covered a smile and signaled for Mr. Butler to replenish the inspector’s plate. As at their last meal, and as every other instance where Jack and Phryne had broken bread together in one fashion or another, he ate like a man unsure of when his next meal would be, although his table manners were beyond reproach. “You really were famished. Did you forget to eat lunch again?”
“I must have. I honestly can’t recall.” Jack thanked Mr. Butler with all the fervency of a man who still remembered what it was like to subsist on army rations. “I’m just grateful you didn’t leave any D.H. Lawrence in my office.”
“I’d be happy to loan you my copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover,” Phryne said, with a smile. “You might learn something.”
“That is hardly the sort of book I would care to waste my brief moments of leisure with,” Jack replied, coughing and reaching for his wine glass.
Phryne thought about teasing him further, but decided not to. The subject of Jack’s failed marriage had been raised between them only once, with a pained nobility that had caused the inspector to rise several notches in her already considerable estimation and made Phryne decide that pursuing him would not be right... a conclusion she almost never came to, when she was attracted to a male. Besides, reciting particularly steamy passages from one of the more explicit books of the moment would not be appreciated by a man who (she suspected) had been largely celibate for years. But then, he had been behaving in a very... surprising manner towards her, of late. The recitation at the theater, his method of distracting her at the café (and his subsequent reaction to the painting of her en dishabille)... his otherwise uncharacteristic jealousy over Lin. So far, it seemed largely the result of unconscious reactions; Phryne knew men, and how they acted when they were trying to woo a lady, and she suspected that if Jack had been actively trying to attract her... well, she had always had a realistic view of her ability to resist temptation.
His fingers handling the delicate crystal glass recalled to her mind the dim feeling of his hands on her face and on the small of her back. She hadn't intended her invitation to Jack to extend to her bedroom tonight, and she doubted he would accept if she made the offer now... but it was certainly pleasant for Phryne to re-consider the possibility, at least in theory, and to wonder once more what sort of person Jack Robinson was, outside of the police station and the crime scene. “And what sort of books do you care for, Inspector? Besides Shakespeare, of course. And besides the ragged collection of books on toxicology and jurisprudence you keep propped on your office mantel. But I assume those aren't meant for light reading.”
He eyed her for a second or two before responding. “I’m partial to Zane Gray.”
“Really?” Phryne’s eyes began to sparkle. “Is there perchance a frustrated cowboy lurking beneath that proper policeman’s exterior?”
“No more than a few books on numismatics mean that I’m hiding a frustrated pirate under my fedora.”
“You collect coins?”
“I dabble. More in theory than in practice.”
“Do you also ‘dabble’ in theoretical chemistry? Or photography, perhaps?” Phryne waited until Mr. Butler had cleared the remains of the fish course and then leaned her elbows on the shining mahogany. She planted her chin in her hands impishly and grinned at her guest, not the least because she knew that the position would give Jack a fine view of her cleavage, should he choose to indulge in a peep. “You’ve shown a great deal of knowledge about chemical processes during more than one of our cases, and who but a photographer would know the compounds needed to make a cyanotype?”
She watched his eyes instinctively drop to her chest and then drag themselves back to her face, but his expression remained impassive. “My cousin keeps a portrait studio in Fitzroy. She’s more than happy to explain her processing techniques to anyone who asks. Mr. Butler,” he said to the old man, grateful both for the interruption and the fresh plates artfully arranged with medallions of lamb and potatoes à la hollandaise, “you’re a wonder. I don’t suppose I could induce you to leave Miss Fisher’s service and come work for me instead?”
“Some men will do anything for a hot meal,” Phryne quipped, knowing full well that there was no way Jack could afford her indispensable servant anyway. She looked her amusement and thanks at Mr. Butler over her wine glass, which had been refreshed with something expensive and red for the entrée course. “And if you try to steal away my staff, you won’t get any dessert.”
“I’m quite happy where I am, sir, thank you all the same,” said Mr. Butler, playing along genially. “But I’m sure you’re more than welcome to sit a spell with me in the kitchen, if Miss Fisher’s otherwise occupied.” And then Jack rose several notches in Mr. Butler’s esteem, as well, by gravely and politely thanking him and saying he’d be sure to stop by the next time he forgot to eat lunch. Quite a gentleman, Mr. Butler decided, in the best sense of the word. A person needn’t be born into the gentry to be quality, as he’d been in service long enough to know, and the way they treated folk in service was one of the best ways to see what sort of person they really were. He made a note to find out what sort of refreshments the inspector was most partial to, and withdrew from the dining room.
“So,” Phryne said, savoring the tenderness of the spring lamb while Jack attacked the food mercilessly, “your cousin is a photographer?”
“She is. She started out as the shop’s bookkeeper, but she took over the business during the war, after the original owner was killed at the Somme.”
“And her name?”
Jack shook his head. “Not telling.”
“Because if I tell you, the first thing you’ll do after I leave is look up the address, and the first thing you’ll do tomorrow is pay her a visit.”
“And is that such a bad thing? Unless you don’t want me to be known to your relations... Or,” Phryne continued, pushing the creamy potatoes about her plate with her fork, “unless your cousin has photographs of you in her shop that you’d rather I didn’t see?”
Jack’s face took on the confused, flustered expression that was one of Phryne’s favorites. “She... did some backstage work for the production of Penzance I was in.” Phryne almost cackled with delight. “I’ve begged, I’ve pleaded, I’ve offered to pay. The photos are still on her studio wall. She says it’s payback for the time I threw paint on her when I was seven.”
“Oh, I like the sound of your photographer cousin,” Phryne laughed.
Jack rolled his eyes melodramatically, but he chuckled.
Mr. Butler reappeared. “Shall I serve dessert, Miss Fisher?”
“Yes, the inspector’s relinquished all his designs upon you, Mr. B.”
“Very good,” he smiled, and placed before Jack and Phryne long-stemmed crystal glasses.
“Venetian ice cream,” Phryne told Jack. “I do hope it satisfies your sweet tooth.”
From the reverent expression on his face after the first mouthful, it apparently very much did.
“That,” said Jack, when his bowl was empty, “was the best meal I’ve had in months, and you, Mr. Butler, are a genius. Why you’re working here and not in some four-star restaurant, I will never understand.”
“But for which I am entirely grateful.” Phryne raised her wine glass with a little smile. “Here’s to you, Mr. Butler.”
Mr. Butler smiled serenely. “Thank you, Miss, Inspector. Shall I serve tea in the parlour?”
“Uh, that’s all right,” Jack said, glancing at his wrist watch and standing quickly. “It’s getting late—“
“Nonsense, Jack. After a meal like that, you’ll just give yourself indigestion if you rush right home.” Phryne rose and playfully draped herself on Jack’s left shoulder. “And we were having such a delightful conversation. Surely you can stay for a little while longer, at least.” She trailed a finger down the buttons of his waistcoat. Flustered, Jack looked down, just as Phryne had intended; she took her chance and dipped her free hand quickly into his left trouser pocket. Normally she loathed the trend of pleated men’s trousers, but at that moment she sent up thanks to all the sartorial gods for the width of hip and volume of fabric that made picking a man’s pocket so easy, provided one was swift.
Her fingers closed around a coin. So that’s what you were fiddling with. She withdrew her hand in triumph. “Why don’t you come into the parlour and make yourself a little more comfortable?”
The wariness was back. “How comfortable?”
“I wasn’t implying anything improper, Detective Inspector,” Phryne said, with overdone false demureness.
“...Ah.” Jack twitched his shoulder to free himself and looked at his watch again. “Well, I, uh... I suppose I could stay a bit longer.”
Phryne smiled. “Wonderful! Why don’t you go in and sit down? I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
He gave her an odd sideways glance, then shrugged and walked across the hall to the parlour, his hands clasped behind his back.
She examined the coin she had plucked from his pocket. It was a British gold sovereign, emblazoned with the king’s head and stamped with the date and place of minting: Melbourne, nineteen-fourteen. It had the polished, much-handled air of a prized good luck charm. How interesting... a wartime souvenir? Being without pockets in her own trousers, she fell back on a woman’s always-available holding apparatus, and slipped the coin into her brassiere.
When she entered the parlour, she paused for a moment with her hand on the archway. Jack had removed the jacket of his blue suit and was sitting on the chaise lounge in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, flipping through the latest edition of “Women’s Choice”. Again, Phryne damned the fashion of the day, that decreed that men’s shirts should have sleeves with so much fabric in them that she couldn’t see a hint of the shape of Jack’s arms. She had felt them round her and knew there was a surprising amount of muscle there, but she would have liked to see a bit of them as well.
But the waistcoat proved to be much more to her tastes. Neatly tailored and just the tiniest bit snug, it showed off a trim chest and waist and accented a set of surprisingly broad shoulders. Phryne stood in the doorway quite happily for some minutes, content for the moment to simply admire.
“Excuse me, Miss,” said an apologetic Mr. Butler, coming up behind her with the tea tray and spoiling her reverie.
Jack looked up at the intrusion and stood quickly, setting the magazine down with a little harrumph. “Pity about ‘Miss Greenthumbs,’” he said, referring to the traitor Giovanni Campana’s persona as a writer of gardening tips. “’Her’ advice seems to be quite sound.”
“So you garden as well, Inspector?” Phryne strode over to the sideboard and poured two whiskeys to go along with their tea. She returned and handed Jack a tumbler, and beamed upon her guest. “You really are full of surprises.”
She noted his admiring eyes with pleasure, how they dropped unselfconsciously over the amber liquid, to skim up and down her slender form. “That is a very… interesting jacket,” he said, his eyes lingering over the garment. “If I might take a liberty?”
“Please do,” said Phryne evenly, raising an anticipatory eyebrow. Perhaps the evening was going to go even better than she’d planned.
He accepted her permission and set his whiskey down, then raised very polite hands to examine the ostentatiously fluffy collar of her little satin jacket. "Ostrich? And such a sensual combination of colours, Miss Fisher." His hands descended down the collar, still with perfect propriety, to examine the little jeweled pendants dangling from the feathers. Whether by accident or design, the edges of his palms just managed to graze the skin of her upper chest.
Her breath snagged in her lungs. Jack appeared perfectly calm.
“What do you think?” Phryne asked.
A little smile tugged at his lips. “‘I was always a lover of soft-winged things.’”
It sounded like a quotation. “I don’t think I know that one.”
“Your taste in reading material grows more varied by the minute.” She dropped onto the end of the chaise lounge and eyed him even more appreciatively. “Do I detect a classical university man in my midst?”
“I’d hoped to be so, as a boy,” said Jack, resuming his seat, “but circumstances conspired against me. I became a student at the University of Life – I left school at sixteen, to help support the family after my father died. But I kept my hand in, buying books with the little pocket money I had and reading and rereading them until they were in tatters. I read at meals and when I was supposed to be sleeping, even copied out pages and pasted them up where I could read them while I worked.”
“Is that how you managed to memorize ‘Antony and Cleopatra’?”
“Amongst other things. ‘My tastes are aristocratic; my actions democratic.’ Hugo again. Picked him up when I was posted in France, to help me learn the language. And reading the same things over and over again gave me a good memory for printed material, which came in very handy after I turned eighteen and could qualify for police examinations.”
He didn’t mention what sort of work he had done as a boy, and the omission was almost painfully obvious. Phryne tucked her feet beneath her and took a sip of her drink. “I won’t ask, you know,” she said, quietly, all traces of play gone.
“It was honest work. I’m not ashamed of it.”
“I’ve no doubt of that, Jack. But whatever it was, it was clearly the sort of work a man devoted to self-improvement wouldn’t care to reminisce about.”
“Well... that’s true enough.” Jack’s mouth made a peculiar set of movements that was rather like he was rolling about a smile on his tongue and tasting it before he let it emerge onto his face. “Enough of my study habits. Let’s talk about yours. Where did you study stage magic, Miss Fisher?”
Phryne was astonished, and it showed. She hoped how impressed she was with his detecting skills wasn’t as obvious. “How did you know?”
“Your conversation. You’ve been drawing me, getting me to answer leading questions so you can ferret out information about me. It’s a trick that stage magicians use to make their audiences think they can read minds.”
“Perhaps I merely wanted to hear you talk,” Phryne replied, truthfully enough. “Your little performance at the theatre a few weeks ago made rather an impression on me. You have a very lovely voice, Jack, did you know that?” A smug little smile played about his lips. Oh, Phryne thought, he knows. “Do you sing?”
“You’re the mind reader, Miss Fisher,” he replied, with exaggerated courtesy. “You tell me.”
He probably did, Phryne decided, reading far more into his amusement than he intended. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing... “To be honest, my ‘mind reading’ skills aren’t that much more impressive than those of a common charlatan.”
“And you are anything but common.”
“Besides, I’ve always found it vaguely unsatisfying crossing swords with an opponent who can’t defend themselves.” And opponents who can defend themselves, she said to herself, rising from her chair and crossing the small distance between them to sit beside Jack on the low divan, well, I don’t conduct those fights in my parlor, Inspector Jack Robinson. “But I’m sure I have some other innocent little tricks to amuse you with.” She pressed her thigh lightly to his to distract his attention and passed her hand over her breast to palm the coin she had purloined from his trouser pocket and secreted in her brassiere. Oh, damn, it’s fallen out somewhere… but how...?
“If you were planning to produce a coin out of my ear, Miss Fisher,” Jack coughed, tearing his eyes away from her slim, black-clad leg so cozy against his, “I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you.” He dipped his fingers into his waistcoat pocket and produced the missing gold piece, with a cheeky little flourish that left Phryne rather pleasantly speechless. “Your lock-picking skills are first-rate, but your pick-pocketing skills are a trifle rusty.”
“Damn,” she said, with wide-eyed admiration. “How did you know?”
“Your little... diversionary tactics.” Jack’s voice dropped down into a curious husky octave, to the point where Phryne couldn’t tell if she was being lusted over or laughed at. “Painfully obvious, Miss Fisher.”
“May I inquire as to the significance of this coin?” she asked, biting her lip contritely.
“It was a gift from a boyhood friend. We left Melbourne to go to war together, and thank God, we came back to Melbourne together. We exchanged these coins on the troop ship, on our way out, and I’ve carried it everywhere with me since.” Jack’s long fingers turned the coin over and over, as they had when he had walked in the front door, as they had in the trenches in France. “You’re certainly not the first person to try and lift it from me. But,” he continued, slipping the coin safely back into his waistcoat pocket, “you’re the first person I’ve ever had to be quite so... delicate... about retrieving it from.”
It was on the tip of Phryne’s tongue to tell him to feel free to be less delicate, next time. To please be less delicate, even. Instead, she tipped the rest of her whiskey into her tea and raised the cup in toast. “Well then... by way of apology, I’d be happy to break into your cousin’s photography studio and retrieve those embarrassing photographs.”