"It is much more important to be oneself than anything else."
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
There is no earthly way to recreate the canals of Venice in the halls of a sprawling outer-London manor house, no matter how many decorators one flutters one's eyelashes at. But, Phryne reflects--stepping up and leaning out over the balcony to laugh her champagne delight at the movement and riotous colour filling the ballroom--one can have a damn good crack at it.
She catches sight of Edith, standing near the punchbowl in her gown of pale pink and cream, her face hidden but the mask upturned, and waves. Edith waves back, but is swiftly distracted by a bowing figure dressed in doublet and pantaloons of green satin, inviting her into the dance. Phryne laughs and turns around. She adjusts her own costume in the mirror behind her, and checks the line of her lipstick.
"Perfect," she tells her reflection. She blows it a kiss before she descends the stairs into the ballroom again.
"Miss Fisher," says a voice from behind a plague doctor's mask, meeting Phryne halfway down the staircase and coming in the other direction. The voice is familiar, male; one of her father's friends, but she can't pick the name. "I hope the Baroness is not too unwell?"
"Thank you, I'm sure it's just a headache. She's more annoyed to be missing all the fun," Phryne says brightly, patting the padded sleeve before moving on again.
She has just come from providing her mother with a sympathetic ear about the heat of all the lights and these turbans and masks, and the woman will no doubt recover much more quickly when not given the opportunity to expand worriedly and at length on her own symptoms. Phryne loves her mother dearly, but as Mac once pointed out over a few too many drinks, Mary Fisher's company is a potent medicine best prescribed in small doses. In general the entire span of the globe serves nicely to limit Phryne's exposure, but she has been in England for nearly two months now, and she's feeling a great need to exist in a space not owned by her parents. The whole thing makes her feel childish, petulantly chafing. Perhaps in a few days' time she'll pay a visit to Dickie up in Edinburgh.
For tonight, however, the Honourable Miss Fisher has a party to oversee, and she's content to remain every bit as Honourable as society expects her to be.
And perhaps it's for the best that Baroness Fisher stay in her room. After all, Phryne is hoping to catch a murderer tonight, and her mother is likely to find that kind of thing upsetting.
Before she can take more than a few steps into the ballroom, someone taps Phryne's shoulder. She turns around to see a man in the process of sweeping a bow: a little awkward, but still a fair attempt at the courtly action that suits their costumes. When he straightens his hand is held out to her in clear invitation. His mask is a plain white with two green stars at one temple, sweeping back far enough to obscure his jaw and hairline, and his outfit is a simple set of trousers and tunic made up of green diamonds, yellow diamonds, red ones and black. It's much less ostentatious than some of the confections of lace and construction that other guests are wearing, but Phryne can appreciate someone who sticks to the classics.
"Signor Arlecchino." She drops a curtsey in return, flicking a glance up through the dense black filigree of her Colombina-style mask. "You aren't going to give me any clues as to your identity?"
The man lifts a finger to the lips of his mask and gives a small shake of his head, then extends the hand again.
"Hm," Phryne says, balancing a smile like a gem on her lower lip. "And do you know who I am?"
Slowly, the mask tilts up and down in a nod.
Wariness and excitement begin to drum their tiny fingertips on the sides of Phryne's ribs. She makes a show of arranging the uppermost layer of her crimson skirts, turning slightly aside as she does so. It's a matter of seconds for her hand to slide deep into the invisible pocket and reassure her that the slit in its base is still there, the pistol strapped to her thigh still accessible as swiftly as she would like.
"Well, that doesn't seem entirely fair, but it does make you a mystery," she says, placing her hand in the man's white-gloved one. "And I can never resist one of those."
He pulls her into a clear space among the dancing couples and they arrange themselves, his free hand unhesitatingly falling to her waist. Phryne keeps her smile in place and puts her own hand on his shoulder. The standard of dancing around them ranges from the awkward bob-and-sway of a couple nearby, in matching costumes of an unfortunate shade of mustard yellow, to the elegant proficiency of a man in gorgeous blue, the back of whose head appears in flashes of blond as he whirls his laughing partner through a series of masterful near-misses.
The nervy energy in Phryne wouldn't mind taking such an energetic turn, but she needs to keep both her wits about her and head from spinning. Her Arlecchino is a tad stiff, but at least he has a definite feel for the music.
"I will have to invent an identity for you, my silent friend," she says. "And I have to warn you, you might not like it."
He gives a so-so shake of his head; rueful, threatening, resigned?
"We are playing at Venice," she says. "Perhaps your tongue was cut out by pirates. Perhaps you're a singer, and a single word from your lips would bring my entire party grinding to a halt. Or perhaps you just like the idea of being deliciously anonymous for a night."
They pause, momentarily worked into a corner, to allow a pair of young gigglers--Phryne would have her money on Lady Alice Harcourt and Adam Frewisher, neither much older than sixteen--to dance their way towards a drinks table.
"You're right, of course," Phryne goes on, as though returning a conversational volley. "The anonymity is most of the point of a masquerade."
The song comes to an end. The man is gripping her fingers tightly, as if unwilling to let her go; Phryne pulls them clear with a sharp tug, but turns her best smile towards him at the same time.
"Have you seen the gardens?" she asks. "There's a good view from one of the balconies. I'll show you, before all the light goes."
A reputation for impetuousness can come in handy when one requires it. Phryne runs ahead, playing at being more keen than she feels for the freshness of the night air. When she reaches the railing she turns, keeping the solidity of it at her back, her feet planted on the ground. Her pistol is in her hand. She points it at her dancing partner--who halts abruptly, six feet away from her--and is pleased that her arm doesn't shake.
"All right," she says. "Take the mask off. Now."
The pause is like electricity lapping at the air. The man lifts both his hands, palms outwards--safe, slow--and pulls the mask free of his face. His eyes, once thus unshielded, are focused on the pistol in a manner more exasperated than wary.
"Do I even want to ask where you had that stowed?" he says.
At least five emotions erupt and combine in Phryne's chest before she can name them, like fireworks mingling and glittering and fading in the same moment, and her arm drops bonelessly to her side.
"Jack," she says, "Jack!" on a laugh that's partly relief and mostly joy, and dashes forward to throw her arms around his neck, a scrambling rush of loud taffeta against tulle, crushing weeks of beading work and a miracle of carefully arranged organza around the bodice of her dress. There's a strange bobbing-back as the volume of fabric pushes against the force of her embrace; "Oh, damn these skirts," she says, still laughing. Jack's arms are tight around her waist and her back and he exhales against her hair, long and slow, like he's been holding on to it for an ocean's worth of time.
"Phryne," Jack says. His voice is low and runs under her skin, finding the place there that's reserved for just the sound of it and nothing else. God, God, Jack Robinson. She's missed him so much. "Phryne. Maybe you could move the gun away from my neck."
"Oh, yes, of course!"
She pulls back just far enough to return the pistol to its previous position, tucked into a band at her thigh. Jack sets his mask down on the balcony ledge. This whole situation raises many questions, and Jack's--which will probably relate to why Phryne should be pulling pistols on her dancing partners in the first place--are no doubt valid, but Phryne's are important too. And she's quicker.
"How long have you been in London? In England?"
"I only arrived a few days ago."
"You should have come by at once!"
"I did." A very Jack Robinson half-smile curls up in his cheek. "You were out, but they said I could wait. And then your father stuck his head into the room and told me to come and have a drink."
"My father," Phryne says, more resigned than irritated. "I see."
"Yes," Jack agrees. The smile is growing. "He told me you were shopping for this party. He also said it'd serve you right to be on the other end of a surprise for once."
"I don't know how I feel about the two of you in conspiracy," Phryne laughs. "He does know how to keep a secret, I'll give him that."
"I thought you'd guessed it was me," Jack says. "When we were dancing."
"Jack Robinson, here in London, and dressed up in the full splendour of Carnivale? Even my imagination wouldn't credit it! I never did manage to get you into that Mark Antony gear, you know. No, my experience of you is all suits."
Jack draws her close again, his hands casually possessive at her hips, to the extent that they can be given the size of the dress. It's intoxicating to slip so easily into this contact, to snatch up their deepened flirtation from exactly where it was tossed down like a glove between them. For months Phryne has been burning restlessly with the memory of a single kiss, as though she were twenty years old and an impressionable girl again. It's absurd.
"You, on the other hand, look quite at home in this," Jack says. "But then, you always do."
Phryne makes a face. "I'd have been useless in the previous century, Jack. The dresses are delightful to look at, and can hide all manner of sins, but imagine trying to wear one while scaling a building, or behind the wheel of a motorcar! The clutch would get quite lost in all these layers."
"You've never let unsuitable attire prevent you from breaking and entering before," says Jack. "I don't believe you'd let it slow you down."
Phryne's face will start to ache if this smile doesn't dim, and it certainly doesn't feel like it wants to.
"You came after me," she murmurs.
"Did you really think I wouldn't?" Jack returns, just as low and twice as rough. There is light pouring out onto the balcony and it's hung with lanterns as well, but his eyes are very dark.
Phryne puts her hands at either side of his neck and tilts her face up, issuing an invitation so blatant that a man with a quarter of Jack Robinson's intelligence couldn't miss it. They are close enough that she can feel his breath stop, can see the considered and hungry way he looks at her. That look has always made a pincushion of her patience.
"Oh, I hadn't given up on you yet," she breathes.
Jack leans down--his nose nudges against the delicate mask that covers her own--and his lips are close enough to hers that the slim space between them could be made of gunpowder and hydrogen gas.
From inside the ballroom comes the loud and piercing sound of a startled woman's scream.
Jack's hands tighten on her sides. His mouth hovers, a bare half-inch above hers.
Then he releases her with a sigh.
"I don't know why I expected anything different," he said.
Phryne sighs as well. "Sometimes," she says, "I wish I wasn't right all the time."
When they re-enter the ballroom, there is a small cluster of people talking excitedly at once, and the rest of the party has paused to crane their necks in curiosity. Phryne employs her most bustling elbows and her most impermeable smile to get herself and Jack to the centre of things. This turns out to be Edith, standing white-faced and with a crook in her spine as she pulls her skirts around, trying to tug a dark patch into view. At her side, George glares around the room as though in search of someone to punch.
"Edith!" Phryne says, reaching out her hands. "My dear girl, what happened? Let's get you out of this crush of people."
"Phryne, shouldn't we--" George starts.
"Good idea, George, you come too. Why don't you find Edith a glass of water? We'll just be in the room through here."
Jack meets her eyes, eyebrows raised in inquiry, and Phryne indicates with her head the doorway she's aiming for. She links her arm through Edith's and Jack clears a path for them, moving with his brusque and ingrained policeman's self-assurance.
"I'm taking Miss Pargeter to sit down," Phryne tosses over her shoulder, with another smile. "Please, do keep on dancing! Millie," she adds to one of the maids, who's stickybeaking with more decorum than most of the guests, "arrange for us to open some more champagne, would you? And get the musicians going again, that should do the trick. Then have a dig through my wardrobe and find something else for Edith to wear. Maybe the purple silk, with the sequins."
Millie, a thoroughly unflappable Geordie, nods and slips away.
"You don't need to do that, Miss Fisher." Edith has composed her face, but she's clinging to Phryne's arm as they exit. Phryne directs them across the hall to one of the parlours her mother likes to spend the mornings in. It's well equipped with couches and there's a brandy decanter on the sideboard, in case some liquid fortitude should prove necessary.
"Nonsense, of course you need a new dress. I won't have my wonderful party ruined for you just yet. You've still got your mask, haven't you?"
Edith touches her fingers to it in a way that suggests she'd almost forgotten it was on her face.
"Of course," she says, some of her natural humour peeking above the surface. "Maybe I can convince everyone I'm another mysterious girl who just happened to buy the same one. Two of the women here did, you know. The gold butterfly mask. They're avoiding one another. And I saw two men with not only the same crow mask, but nearly the same outfit as well; I think they were arguing about it, of all the silly things."
Her voice has gone a little thin and anxious by the end. Phryne squeezes her arm and turns the girl around in the centre of the parlour. Jack makes to close the door behind them, then steps back apologetically as George scrambles through, a glass of water in one hand and his mask in the other.
Edith's pink skirts have a dark stain on them in a drooping, spattered pattern like spilled wine. Phryne touches her fingers to it, frowning, and brings them to her nose.
"Well, it's not fake," she says.
"That's blood," Jack says. "Miss--"
"Pargeter," Edith says, removing her own mask and wrinkling her nose as the air touches her skin once more. She accepts the glass from George, but doesn't drink.
"How rude of me," Phryne intrudes shamelessly. "This is Miss Edith Pargeter, and her cousin, George. And this is Inspector Jack Robinson, of the Victorian Police Force. A close friend of mine, back home. Aren't we lucky he's decided to pay me a visit?"
Jack shoots her one of his familiar sidelong looks, then turns back to Edith. Phryne manages not to laugh at the way his posture relaxes into automatic questioning mode. Even in the gaudy costume, he'd look right at home if you stuck a notepad and pen in his hand.
"Miss Pargeter. What happened in there?"
"I don't know," Edith says. "I didn't see anything, I didn't feel anything. I just heard someone shriek, and when I turned around people were pointing at me. George got the note off quickly, but I suppose there's not much to be done about the stain."
"The note?" Jack says sharply.
It was pinned to her dress, near the--blood," George says, voice stumbling. He's a very nice chap, George, and a lot of fun in bed, but for an ex-soldier he can be rather disappointingly squeamish. He ignores Jack's outstretched palm and holds out a small, folded piece of paper to Phryne. There are flecks of blood on it too.
Jack comes and peers over her shoulder as Phryne unfolds the note. The handwriting is uneven: either a poorly educated hand, or one that has taken pains to appear so.
Tonite it is YOUR life that will be torn apart Phyrione Fisher. Be ware.
"And they haven't even bothered to spell my name correctly," Phryne says. "Isn't that rude?"
"But they have bothered to carry fresh blood--well, nearly fresh--into your house, toss it over one of your guests, and make a threat against you in the process. They may still be at this party, Phryne." Jack's mouth is a firm line. "Is there any particular reason you haven't sent for the police?"
"Why, Jack." She quirks her own mouth at him. "Here I thought you were the police."
"Phryne Fisher," Jack says, closing his hand around her arm. It's a gentle motion, but stern as well. Phryne allows it. "I think it's about time you told me what's going on."
Phryne debates for a second taking him aside--there's no point in hiding anything, if she can't trust Jack to handle this with her then she can't trust anyone--but it'd be unfair to poor Edith to leave her out of it now that she's been so horribly involved, and George isn't going to cause a fuss without Phryne's say-so.
She surrenders the note to Jack, then sits in an armchair and arranges her own, rather more uniformly and deliberately blood-coloured skirts around herself. It's not as though she needs to consult a notebook; she's had enough angry sleepless nights turning the details over in her mind.
"Two women have died," she says. "Been killed, rather. Marion Greenthwaite was a friend of mine. Her maid found her hanging from a ceiling beam the morning before a gala and auction she was holding to raise funds for Newnham College; it's the women's college, you know, at Cambridge. Scotland Yard found out she'd been seeing her doctor about nightmares, bad memories of the war--she was a nurse, at Ypres--and decided it was suicide. Not enough evidence to the contrary, they said."
"I take it you disagree," Jack says.
"Marion didn't kill herself, Jack," Phryne says. "I managed to get the medical examiner to talk to me, and he admitted there were discrepancies. The rope could have been covering up for marks of strangulation. And if they'd just let me see the crime scene, I'm sure--"
"Tell me about the second death."
Phryne glances at Edith, who's listening with eyes wide like a child at the theatre. "Sarah Grey. She was a union representative for female factory workers. She gave speeches at meetings about how work conditions could be improved all over the city."
"Another admirable woman," Jack says. His voice is neutral enough that Phryne's hands uncurl from their fists.
"She was pulled from the river a month ago. The medical examiner told me she was stabbed first; definitely murder, they can't deny that, but the case has barely moved an inch."
"There was a minor commotion at the Yard office when I was there, and I did manage to get a glance at the files," Phryne says, injecting her voice with all the innocence she can muster, mostly for the fun of it; Jack won't buy it for a second. "Neither woman was married. They talked to a maid Marion had dismissed, Eliza Gunn, and one of the Trinity dons, too--Horton? Morton, Archibald Morton--as though a bit of a tiff over a translation of Virgil were grounds for murder."
"We've seen stranger," Jack points out.
"And they did question a man who'd shouted threats at Sarah once as she was leaving a meeting. Donald Hayes. But he had a solid alibi for her probable time of death: he was in Manchester."
"But you think the two deaths are linked."
Phryne nods. "They both wrote columns for a magazine called the Trident, whose editor had a narrow escape when she was walking home two weeks ago. It was dark, but someone bumped into her and she saw what she says was a knife--she thought she was being robbed--but her attacker ran off quickly when another group of people turned into the lane. A great coincidence," Phryne says, heavy with sarcasm. "Or so one assumes, because I can't get the damned men on the cases to talk to me. Scotland Yard's detectives aren't nearly as sensible and accommodating as you are, Jack."
"I like to think I've just been worn down through long exposure," Jack says dryly, but his hand gives her shoulder a brief press. "You think that a single person killed those women, and now he's here? That he's heard about your own brand of poking around, and is trying to warn you off?"
"That's dreadful, Phryne," says George, finally stirring. "Let me telephone for the police. I'll go at once."
"No you won't, George," Phryne says. "I have every faith in Inspector Robinson. And I don't think anyone else is in any real danger."
Jack frowns. "No matter the culprit's motives, the fact that they knew to target you is significant, Miss Pargeter. I know Miss Fisher: she collects bright young women like some people collect stamps."
"I hope I'm a Penny Black," says Edith.
Phryne laughs. "You're priceless, Edith."
"I'm serious," Jack says. "It could mean they're someone you know, Phryne, or someone who's been watching you for some time."
"Well, I should hope so," Phryne says brightly.
There is a short silence.
"Phryne," Jack says.
"Phryne," says George, sounding only half as dangerous as Jack but twice as appalled. "You didn't."
Edith has a hand pressed to her mouth, eyes sparking in either dismay or excitement or some interesting mixture of the two. Phryne spares her an approving smile.
"Not on purpose," Phryne says. "Well. Not at first. I announced that we were going to endow a series of scholarships at a girls' academy in the city; I read a lot of Marion's papers, about all the fuss being made and how hard she was fighting to get anyone to take her College seriously, and they got me fired up about it. And then I realised, if someone out there was angry enough about the subject, I'd just painted a lovely great target on my back." She shrugs. "I decided there were worse ways to lure the killer out of hiding."
"Worse ways?" says Jack. "Do tell us what they were."
Phryne ignores that. "Marion's family wanted the whole affair kept quiet. They wouldn't hire me to investigate officially, so I had to do the thing unofficially. I had to get close to it somehow. So I gave the Trident an interview. And whomever we're looking for clearly paid attention."
"To the message, if not the spelling," says Jack. He doesn't look pleased.
"A Venetian masquerade ball is not a fashionable kind of event to be holding. We're all supposed to be modernists at the moment; or, failing that, French."
"I'm sure nobody cares about that, Miss Fisher," says Edith loyally.
"And I'm sure you bulldozed society into submission," says Jack. "This was bait, I take it."
"I was bait," Phryne says. "This was my float and feathers and sinker. A noisy and crowded house, plenty of people, a built-in opportunity for the killer to hide their face. I was fairly sure they wouldn't be able to resist."
"Thus your not at all anonymous mask," Jack says. He reaches out and touches the side of it.
"Phryne, this scheme of yours is unbelievably dangerous. Is this what happens, when you're left to your own devices?"
"Oh, for--confound it, Jack, I didn't want anyone else to get hurt!" she bursts out. "If there's a killer on the loose, surely it's better they go after someone expecting it than someone entirely unsuspecting. Strangulation, stabbings--this is anger, it's up close and personal, they're not going to shoot me from a distance. But I've just shown you how willing I am to use my own gun. And I've got some handcuffs as well."
"You have handcuffs?" Jack asks. "What am I saying. Of course you have handcuffs."
Phryne stands and smooths her hand over the second of her pockets in demonstration. It's amazing what little extras one can have included in a dress, if one is friendly and exacting with the seamstress, and these skirts do hide all manner of sins.
"Any other surprises for me, Miss Fisher?"
"Jack." She leans close, walking her fingers up the colourful diamonds of his chest. "If I told you, that would take all the fun out of it."
"Not to intrude, Phryne," says George, "but you've got a room full of guests out there and a good half-dozen of them saw Edith's skirt. If you and the Inspector are going to play sleuth and hunt down the culprit, bully for you, I say. But if you don't want rumours to turn into panic, you're going to have to think of something to tell them."
"Part of the Carnivale fun," Phryne extemporises.
”Blood?" says Jack, dry as a Hunter Valley semillon.
"Feminine accident," says Edith, as though it were obvious.
"Feminine--" says George.
"Edith, you're a marvel!"
Jack coughs and looks uncomfortable. "Do you think--well. If you. Ah."
"Oh," says George in tones of even deeper discomfort.
"Horribly embarrassing," Edith says, rubbing ruefully at her chin. "But I'm going home soon anyway. I can put up with being a scandalous story, if it's in the name of catching a murderer."
"Of course you can," Phryne says warmly. She goes to drop a kiss on Edith's hair.
"Edith loves mysteries," George says to Jack, as though in apology.
"You're in good hands, Miss Pargeter," Jack says. "Miss Fisher is walking proof that all one needs to solve them is a lively mind, esoteric interests, and a broad life experience. No matter what Scotland Yard thinks."
"Stop it, Jack! Nobody appreciates that much sarcasm at an evening party."
"Sarcasm?" Jack's gaze dances at hers.
"Oh, I don't want to solve mysteries," Edith says. "I want to tease people by writing them. But I'll take your advice for my own benefit anyway, Inspector Robinson."
"That reminds me--I should introduce you to my friend Cynthia, Edith," Phryne says. "Although ghost stories are more her line."
"And Mrs Christie, I suppose," Jack says, now with the sarcasm laid on so gently that Phryne understands what he's saying: perhaps this isn't the best time?
"I would absolutely die," Edith declares; the sarcasm was in fact gentle enough that she missed it altogether. "Have you read Murder on the Orient Express, Inspector? It came out only a few months ago, and I swear I've already read it a dozen times."
Before Phryne can explain that the incomparable Mrs Christie is not actually among her acquaintances in London, the door opens and Millie steps in with an arm full of dress. She's also managed to rescue Jack's mask from where he left it out on the balcony.
"Miss," Millie says, sober. "Something else has happened."
"Excellent!" Phryne says. "You see, he's made bold with success. Or she," she adds; given the nature of the crimes a good argument could be made for either sex, and she won't leap to a conclusion yet. Phryne has met both men and women whose minds and spirits dwell so firmly in the tiresome social mores of the previous century that they've soured with it, like milk left out too long.
"Tom was taking some food upstairs to the Baroness, and he heard a noise in the library. He went to look, and someone's thrown a great rock through the window, Miss. I told Tom I'd come right to you, but should I tell the Baron--?"
"The Baron is playing cards with some of his closest friends and several excellent bottles of wine," Phryne says. "I gave him my word he wouldn't have to lift a finger tonight. No, Inspector Robinson and I will deal with it. Millie, why don't you stay here and help Miss Pargeter change?"
"What should I do?" George demands.
Phryne beams at him. Perhaps it isn't entirely kind of her, but there's something so satisfying about putting this task into George's fastidious male hands.
"Feminine accident," she says. "Oh, don't look like that--just whisper it into Lady Marchmont's ear, and look just as uncomfortable about it as you do now, and she'll do all the work for you. And she's a sweet-spirited enough gossip that Edith won't come off too badly."
"The voice of authority," Jack says, amused, as the two of them are taking a slightly convoluted route to the library. Phryne's guest list was strategically planned such that the party should have no problems in running itself quite smoothly in her absence. "Even in your parents' house."
"You should put your mask back on, Jack. This is still a masquerade."
"Do all the servants come to you instead of your mother or father?"
"I find it's all about the way you talk," Phryne says. She has to throw her smile sidelong and back over her shoulder. The corridor is slightly too narrow for them to walk abreast; or rather, it's difficult for Phryne's skirts to walk abreast with anyone. "When I was a driver in the war, I was in a French town that was being evacuated. Had been evacuated, but for a few of us. Somehow the senior medic had climbed into one of the cars that had already left, and the lieutenant who was meant to be overseeing the final stage had died in an ambush that morning and nobody had updated the plans. So it was me and a group of junior nurses, and half a church hall's worth of civilians, and a terrified corporal whose stripes still had the last chap's blood on them."
"Let me guess," Jack says. "You took charge."
"I was terrified too," she says. It slips out easily, more easily than she'd imagined it ever could. If she closed her eyes, she thinks, she could smell the dust of broken-open stones, and wild lavender. She could hear the fluid and frightened French that at the time she was almost too stressed to understand. "But someone had to do it. Like I said: authority's all in the voice."
"Someone had to do it. Shall we carve that on your tombstone, Miss Fisher?"
She makes a face and pushes the library door open. "Good God, I hope not. Give me something frivolous and grand."
The curtains are hardly ever drawn in the library, which is not as stately a room as the word implies, but a comfortable one nonetheless. Tom has left the lights on. Beyond the window panes, one of which has an eerie jagged starburst in it at shoulder height, the night stretches out dense and impenetrable, hidden behind their reflections and the reflections of the room in its own glass. If Phryne stares hard she can possibly make out some borders, some darkish lumps against a dark background, but it could be a yearning trick of her eyes.
"Thrown in from the outside," she says, looking down at the rock where it lies on the tasselled edge of a rug. A hint of a chill climbs her neck. "Unless someone was very painstaking and very quick about moving a hundred shards of glass."
"I suppose Tom and Millie are too well trained to have touched anything," Jack says beside her.
"I never dabbled in murders until I arrived back in Melbourne, you know. I haven't got any sort of reputation as a Lady Detective over here, except for the fact that my mother insists on lamenting me, and my father on listing off my exploits as some kind of evidence that I'm a chip off the old adventuring block."
Jack crouches by the rock, careful amongst the broken glass.
"That silence is very diplomatic of you, Jack."
He smiles, briefly. "Too rough to dust for prints, even if you are hiding a case of nose powder in those impressive skirts. It looks like building shale. Could he have picked it up outside? What's on the other side of these windows?"
"Garden path, perhaps two feet of flower bed on each side," Phryne says. "We're not rebuilding any of the walls, if that's what you mean, but there's construction two houses down. I don't think we can read anything into the rock."
"Just the fact that it was thrown through your window."
"The message seems fairly clear."
There's a short pause before Jack speaks again. "We have a cup of blood and a broken window, and someone who's moving in and out of the house at will, unless they can pass through walls." He stands. She's almost stopped seeing the Harlequin costume, now; the incongruity of the colours and the fitted tunic has stopped striking her anew. It's just Jack. "What's the plan, Miss Fisher? Let me rephrase: do you even have a plan? Keep reacting? Let him escalate?"
"He's building up his nerve," Phryne says.
"I don't think he has to build it too far," Jack says, densely ironic in a way that tells her he's still getting over his anger. "If you're right, he's killed two people already. If anything, this is him getting bolder. Was there any of this kind of teasing, with the other women?"
"Not in the files," Phryne admits. "But Marion and Sarah might not have reported something like a stone through a window. Or they might have been brushed off by the police when they tried," she adds, not bothering to hide her disgust.
The tall and geometric lines of the bookcases are like picture frames, like gilding, in the reflection in the windows. Past them, there is indistinct movement in the shadows. Or is there?
Phryne runs an absent finger across a line of books and lets her eyes drift, shifting focus from darkness to reflection and back again. She feels strange, mixed and jittery and not quite as in control as she she would like; she wants to dance for hours or take a man to bed and ride him to exhaustion. When she was a little girl with messy plaits and fire behind her teeth, she would use this energy to throw herself into a fight, and come home triumphantly grubby with bruises on her hands and knees. For any other member of the animal kingdom, this is the feeling that would draw claws out of paws or end with a snarling ruckus, a chance to prove dominion.
"Little boys were always allowed to fight," she says aloud.
She looks at her own self in the window. She's a crimson vision, with her coy mask and these skirts that would definitely hamper breaking and entering, no matter Jack's touching faith in her skill. She loves who she is, and she'll argue to breathlessness the value of femininity, but part of her is still six years old and truly fearless, the self she was before she learned that you're not allowed to be the tiger as well as the preening bird. Before she learned that there are men out there who will see a woman's breadth and only want to diminish it.
"I was just thinking," she says. "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses, possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Virginia Woolf wrote that, and Marion quoted it in her article."
"It's an ugly emotion, what's driving this killer," Jack says. "But I can't say it's not a common one. You know there are men who will do whatever it takes to keep women where they think women should stay. This isn't even the first time I've seen that kind of spite taken as far as murder."
"That's why women have to be their own reflections, Jack. I made up my mind a long time ago that I want to be a mirror for girls to see themselves in. And not even a normal mirror. A carnival mirror, making everything larger than life. I want them to see that they can be loud and brilliant."
"And argumentative," Jack says, with no malice.
"And argumentative! And I'm allowed to be all those things," she says, feeling a smile tug at her mouth, "because I had a pile of money land on my head. Because some people died. It was just luck. What I want is a world in which even girls like Edith, all those poor country cousins with hardly any money, can have the training their minds deserve. Think what a writer she'll make, Jack!"
"I like your Miss Pargeter."
"You know, Edith's twenty, and this is the first time she's seen London? I'd love to take her to Europe, show her some of the wonders of the rest of the world."
"Ah. Dorothy gets married and you move on to the next wide-eyed young woman."
"Don't be silly, Jack, you know nobody could replace Dot. But I--" She stops. She says simply, "I will never stop being astounded at the strengths and lovelinesses of women."
"I'm sure the good Doctor Mac would agree with you," Jack says. When she glances at him, wary for no more than a brief moment, a laugh is hovering visibly behind his lips.
"By all accounts, I would be perfectly happy if I could love women in all the ways that Mac does. She does keep telling me so." Phryne sighs. "But here I am, stuck on men, despite all the grief they cause."
"Surely," Jack says, "we have our redeeming qualities."
His reflection is very close to hers, in the shattered window. Phryne turns around so that the spines of the books are against her own, and she's looking at Jack himself, handsome and hot-eyed and beloved.
"Now we're a picture," she murmurs. "Maybe the cover of a lurid novel. Scandal in the Library."
"Temptation at Carnevale."
She reaches up and cups his face in her hand, running her thumb back and forth against the evening scratch of his jaw. Thank goodness he ignored her and left his mask off. Jack's mouth opens just a crack, a black thread of promise.
"You missed the obvious," she says. "Death in Ven--"
Jack's mouth is exactly as good as she remembers it. He buries a hand in her hair and kisses her, deep and confident, a kiss that sends the dancing fighting fire back through Phryne's veins, heedless of danger, or maybe because of it. She feels like she will lose her balance, even though the bookcase is solid behind her and Jack is equally immovable where he's pressed close against her front. Phryne buries a sound halfway between oh and a moan in the next greedy tug of his teeth on her lip. His hand moves down the back of her neck, spanning and sliding and never breaking contact; over the top of her shoulder, down the side of her breast, which begins to ache; God, his hands. She wants to rip her costume open--his too, come to that--and shove him down onto the rug, rub her skin against his like a knife against flint until something sparks and ignites.
"Phryne Fisher," Jack says, hoarse and honest, right against her mouth. "You will ruin me."
I would, she bites down on. I would; I would make you scream. You're mine to ruin.
She laughs, instead, and kisses him again. Not starting anything, this time. Just as punctuation.
"As redeeming qualities go," she says, breathless, "that's certainly a compelling demonstration."
Jack laughs too. It's the rueful and startled-out-of-him laugh that she's never heard him give for anyone else.
"I know I say this frequently," he says. "But believe me, I have never before wished so fervently that you would stop attracting violent deaths."
Phryne gives a shiver at the suggestive heat in his voice. Right at this moment, she can't muster enough annoyance at the patronising sentiment to disagree. If this were a normal sort of party, she wouldn't think twice about abandoning it to the tender mercies of Lady Marchmont or calling it to an early and triumphant close, bidding her guests an enthusiastic farewell, and then dragging Jack upstairs to her room and not letting him up from the bed until the sun had set and risen at least twice.
"In my defense, Jack, I don't usually go around inviting them. This is a unique occurrence. I don't make a habit of waving red rags in front of bulls."
"No," Jack says. "You're a walking provocation."
Phryne sucks in her breath, feeling skewered and ravenous and hot, and Jack kisses the very corner of her mouth. It's a different kind of kiss, but just as breathtaking: an easy hello kind of kiss. It's been a long time since Phryne was in the sort of relationship that that kiss belongs to.
The thought throws a cup of cool water on the fire still trying to strike itself into existence beneath Phryne's palm, where it has slipped down to lie on Jack's chest, and she pushes gently until Jack steps away.
"It's all flagstones outside, but we should probably check for footprints anyway, in case they were silly enough to veer into the flowerbeds. I can find us a torch. But first I want to check on my mother," she says.
Jack blinks exactly five times in an irregular pattern. Morse code for the letter L, part of Phryne's brain supplies.
"I haven't met your mother," he says.
He sounds so incongruous, so hesitant and somehow young, that Phryne feels a grin break out on her face.
"No," she says. "You haven't."
Jack moves his head a few degrees to the side, so that he's gazing at her consideringly and from an angle. "Should I be hunting out a suit of armour? Or some cricket pads, perhaps?"
"On a good day, that might be wise." Phryne brushes down her skirts and casts another look at both window pane and rock before heading towards the door. "She's not feeling well tonight."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"No! A headache. Or rather, an intolerance of any social gathering loud and large enough that she might be expected to enjoy herself. A longstanding complaint, but not fatal."
"Ouch," Jack says.
Phryne smiles. "Ouch indeed. Come on."
More chatter than music spills out from the rest of the house, now. The party involves several smaller rooms, where food has been set out on buffet tables, as well as the ballroom. Phryne manages to flit her way through the aborted beginnings of three conversations before escaping with Jack to the back stairs--"The servants' stairs," she explains, when the traffic there proves to be just as busy. They stand against the wall, Phryne's skirts invading the landing space like the spears of a Roman phalanx, as Tom and Henry descend with buckets of ice and reproving glances which, Phryne thinks, they should have realised by now she's unlikely to learn from. She's comfortable with Mister Butler's paternal domestic authority in her Melbourne home, but she's been blurring the lines of service with Dot from the first day they met, and she didn't grow up in a house with this odd, benignly policed division between the downstairs and the up. Most of the conventions seem silly. She'll never be used to it.
"Who's with my mother?" Phryne calls down after the men.
"Nobody just now, Miss," Tom says. "Carol left her alone so she could get some sleep."
"Poor Carol," Phryne says in an undertone. "I believe the woman's a saint."
They ascend the stairs and Phryne knocks briskly on her mother's bedroom door, awaiting the faint, "Who is it?" before opening the door and walking inside.
Very aware of Jack standing behind her, Phryne tries, out of curiosity, to see her mother as if for the first time. Baroness Mary Fisher has the same black hair as her daughter, longer and piled up on her head like a dark nest scattered liberally with white, and crease-flecked eyes. She looks disgustingly sharp and hearty for a woman whose favorite hobby is convincing the doctor to tell her all the latest diagnoses so that she can excitedly dissect them with her friends and decide which of them she wants to add to her collection. She was only fretful when Phryne was a child, but broke into outright melancholy after Jane's death, and has never quite scraped together her mental resilience again.
Phryne, who built her own resilience in muddy field hospitals and on the streets of Paris, and then polished it to a shine on the voyage back to Australia, still feels a keen ache, a sad and swamping sort of love, when she looks at her mother. Sometimes she even feels it when she sees her mother's cheekbones in her own mirror. Women and their reflections truly are funny things.
"Phryne, you didn't have to leave the party for me!"
"Are you feeling any better?"
"Oh, not at all, I'm afraid," her mother says. "My head's still pounding like the very dickens. But dear little Alice Harcourt came up to see how I was, and Sir Harold, too. And one of your other young man friends, Phryne. Though he wouldn't take his mask off, he said it would ruin the fun of the whole thing. Hello, there," she adds, leaning forward in the bed so she can crane around Phryne's shoulder. "Has my daughter dragged you away from all the food and the dancing just to drop in on a poor invalid? I know she's something of a hurricane when she puts her mind to it, but you should stand firm. It's not good for her to think she can tromp merrily over the whole world."
"A pleasure to meet you, Baroness," Jack says. "Inspector Jack Robinson."
"Oh," she says, voice heavy with meaning. "Phryne, why didn't you tell us your Melbourne beau was coming to England?"
"I wish," Phryne says, on the off chance that anyone cares about her contribution to this conversation, "that Dad would stop throwing that word around like a pair of aces--"
"This was something of a surprise visit," Jack says. He closes the distance and squeezes her mother's outstretched hand. "I didn't tell Miss Fisher I would be coming."
"Now, what a romantic!"
"Your--I mean. You have a beautiful house. And this is a lovely party."
"So lovely you waltzed in without an invitation."
It's so seldom that Phryne sees Jack anything other than calm and assured in company, with either his shock or his humour kept simmering invisibly under the policeman's lid, that she bursts into laughter.
"If you tease him, Mother dear, he'll jump straight on a boat back to the Antipodes"
"Nonsense," says the Baroness, twinkling aggressively. "He's obviously made of sterner stuff than that. Phryne, where are my eye drops? Carol will insist on moving my medicine tray out of my reach, as though I weren't just as capable as she is of listening to Doctor Brown's instructions."
"I think I see it," says Jack, in a masterful mingling of escape and chivalry. "That black tray, on the dresser? Allow me."
Phryne has a hand in her pocket, running one finger inside the cool ring of the handcuffs. Telling her mother about the possible danger is, on the face of it, a terrible idea. But the blood on Edith's skirts must have made a deeper impression than Phryne had thought, because it keeps popping back into her mind. She knew this was dangerous; she invited the danger. But she still hasn't been able to get her head around it properly.
This is what comes, Phryne tells herself with profound annoyance, of not being allowed to see a crime scene or a corpse for oneself. Everything stays in the abstract.
"Phryne," Jack says sharply. He gives a tiny jerk of his head and beckons her with his eyes to join him at the dresser. Tucked in amongst the bottles and pillboxes that fill the black medicine tray, with its gold lacquered design--a gift from a family friend attached to the Embassy in Beijing, Phryne remembers--is a small piece of paper scrawled with writing.
Jack pulls Edith's blood-flecked note from the small pocket of his tunic, and picks up the new note with his other hand.
Money is not enuf to keep your loved ones safe, this one proclaims, in the same handwriting.
"What is it?" her mother says.
"Mum." Phryne spins on the spot, heart thudding. "You haven't had anything from this tray, have you? Since I saw you last?"
"What on earth is the matter, Phryne?" A theatrical wince and a hand raised to the forehead accompanies her words. "I haven't had a thing except my aspirin, and I took that as soon as Carol put me to bed. Though I did think some of Doctor Brown's tincture might be just the thing. And my eye drops--bring that tray over here."
"You'll have to have the whole lot tested, of course," Jack says in an undertone. "Though it's an odd way to go about a poisoning, announcing your intention like that."
"No, you're right." Phryne can feel a headache of her own threatening to build, and she's never been prone to them. Usually she can banish them through force of will or with a good martini. "I doubt we'll find anything. It's like the blood. It's a taunt. It's--Mother, what did he look like--I mean, what was he wearing?" she asks. "You said there was a man, who came up here and didn't take his mask off."
"Am I to have my eye drops, or not?"
"No," Phryne snaps, then swallows her irritation with difficulty; snapping at her mother is about as useful as trying to carve a sculpture out of jelly. "I'm sorry. There's a chance someone might have been fiddling with these; I'll send someone around to Doctor Brown and the pharmacy first thing in the morning for more. But Inspector Robinson here might be on the trail of someone quite dangerous, and if you can remember anything, it could be very important."
"That's right," Jack says, picking up his cue in his smoothest policeman's voice.
"I don't know, dear, you know how these headaches play havoc with my attention. Besides, I haven't got my glasses with me."
"Lying in state on your bed, and you're too vain to put your glasses on," Phryne says. She goes and sits on the edge of the lacy quilt cover and presses her mother's hand. "You can't tell us anything?"
"Oh, it was something dark, the mask. Not one of those glittering contraptions like Alice was wearing. You think he was a criminal? In here?"
"You'd better ring for Carol, Jack," Phryne says hastily. "No--yes, that cord."
Carol, once summoned, is sworn to secrecy and then dispatched to fetch George Pargeter, who is charged with remaining in the invalid's room and playing bodyguard. No more of the domestic staff can be spared if the party is to continue uninterrupted by the increasing number of behind-the-scenes complications. Phryne is starting to feel like she's punishing poor George unduly for no offence in particular, but she's running this investigation with a skeleton staff compared to her usual, and he's what she's got to hand. She drops a lingering kiss on George's cheek, as part compensation, and drops her lashes at him until the frown clears from his brow.
"Much appreciated," she murmurs. She raises her voice. "You know you'll be safe with George, Mother. He's a boxing champion, you remember?”
"There's some aspirin in the medicine chest downstairs, Miss," says Carol, casting dark glances at the confiscated tray that Phryne has tucked firmly beneath her own arm. "I'll make sure she's comfortable."
"She'll be comfortable for weeks," Phryne says, as she marches Jack away from the scene. "This kind of anxiety is what she lives for."
"So," Jack says. "A boxing champion."
"County level," Phryne says. "Not quite nationally. Though when I met him in France, he was champion of his unit."
"I know how you appreciate a good physique, Miss Fisher."
"Believe me, I am very appreciative of George's body," she says. "Between you and me, there's not a lot else there to appreciate." Phryne catches herself, surprised and even a little guilty. She's never had any patience for jealousy; she won't pander to it, and she certainly won't accept an extended period of mad flirtation followed by a single kiss--and, very well, another excellent kiss in a library--as justification for any man staking an outright claim to her and insisting on patrolling his borders with a stick. Not even one she loves as much as she loves Jack Robinson.
And--look, damn Jack, anyway, for forcing her to discover this fissure in herself, the fact that she's not the vibrant whole she wants to be, but two warring halves like the self and the carnival reflection. There's the part of her that knows she's not the settling-down type, and it would be the worst kind of dishonesty to pretend to a man as honest as Jack that that's ever going to change.
But there's also the part that wants to take Jack Robinson apart, down to his skin, down to his atoms and his breath and his close-guarded heart, and then put him slowly back together so that her perfume and her fingerprints are all over him from the inside out.
"Where are you taking me?" Jack asks.
Phryne pauses outside her bedroom door, and offers him the tray. Ever the gentleman, Jack accepts it. So his hands are occupied when Phryne, still feeling restless with wanting him and needing to channel it into something, slides her hand around his waist and downwards over the silken and close-fitting trousers.
"My boudoir, of course," she says brightly.
The medicines on the tray give a disturbed rattle. Jack's narrow-eyed gaze is more suspicious than aroused; Phryne laughs and leans her forehead on his shoulder for a brief, fond moment before pulling away
"I like to think I know you, Miss Fisher," Jack says. "And I don't believe for a second that you would abandon a criminal investigation at such a critical moment in favour of bedroom pleasures."
"Any more than you would?"
"When it comes to our priorities, we are beyond help," says Jack.
Phryne hears a thin echo there, an awkwardness sliding into the conversation, but it'll be a cold day in hell before she makes Jack talk about his marriage when he doesn't want to. And very poor taste to go digging around in the deep and wide-ranging mine of his past. Phryne's friendships have always been what Aunt Prudence calls outrageously intimate, but there are intimacies and there are intimacies, and Phryne knows very well how to hide caution behind exuberance. Nobody gets all of her; hardly anyone even gets most of her. She and Jack Robinson have spent years offering one another secrets and emotional truths like small, carefully wrapped gifts, doled out in quiet moments and over late-night drinks. Maybe they'll never know everything. But they understand one another, and in a world of judgemental glances and the urge to stamp out anything that breaks a mould, Phryne will take that over full transparency every time.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," she says, lightly. "Would you?"
"No," says Jack.
Phryne leans against her door and smiles at him, sinking into the moment like a warm bath, letting herself enjoy it for a handful of heartbeats, criminal investigation or none.
She hates the moment of hesitation when her hand grasps the doorknob, the prickle of fear that dances over the backs of her fingers and finds her neck again.
"Phryne," Jack says. "Take the tray, and give me your pistol."
She does feel better, knowing he's standing behind her with the gun drawn. Her own fear annoys her enough that she grasps the knob firmly and sweeps the door open in a single bold motion; Jack ducks through immediately and has looked into every corner and also her wardrobe before his stern momentum subsides in the face of the room's emptiness. At this point he seems to realise anew exactly where he is. He drops his arm from where he's swept a portion of her satin slips aside on their hangers in order to inspect the back of the wardrobe, and clears his throat.
Phryne makes sure one of her eyebrows is raised in elegant suggestion when she meets his gaze. She sets the tray down on her dressing table, casting her eyes over it, looking for anything new or out of place. Then she does the same with her writing desk, and the mahogany chest of drawers.
"Nothing that I can see," she says, when she's done. She sits on the edge of the bed and exhales shakily.
"This is what they wanted," Jack says, nodding at her. "The blood, the note. I could have, but I didn't. They're taunting you."
"Well, I do appreciate your not saying that I invited it, because I am quite aware of that fact." Phryne says. She straightens her spine. "Of course I hate it, this--invasion. But it's as close as we're going to get, so we simply have to work with it."
"Work how?" Jack asks. "You're still letting him call the shots, Phryne. It sounds like you were expecting a direct attack. But that's not what's happening here."
"I know. It's time we got ahead." Phryne runs her fingers along the edging of her bedspread. "Time to make the bait more obvious. You're a complication, Jack. There's been no chance for me to present a tempting opportunity, by wandering somewhere on my own."
"I don't think you are the best bait."
"Phryne. Read the note again," Jack says. He unfolds it and holds it in front of her eyes.
"My life will be torn apart," she says slowly.
"Edith. Your mother. They want you to feel like nothing in your life is safe any more, that anything can be taken from you. Maybe they will try for you, but they want you to watch your loved ones being threatened first."
Guilt washes through her face and her chest. But it's not useful at this point, and so Phryne shoves it aside: this is the situation, she got them here. As she told Jack, she's just going to work with it.
"You're right," she says. "I'm not the best bait."
Jack shrugs. "Like you said. I'm a complication. You might as well use me."
"This isn't what you expected when you crashed my party, is it?"
"Granted, it's not the romantic surprise I'd envisaged. But if I'd thought about it for longer than five minutes," Jack says, tucking the note away again, "this is exactly what I would have expected."
Phryne calls up a small smile. "Deadly peril?"
"I can take care of myself," Jack says.
"I know you can, Jack," she says. "However."
"Do I need to point out the irony of this conversation?" Jack says.
He doesn't. There's a fairy tale--Hans Christian Andersen, Phryne thinks. She read so many of those stories to Jane when they were small girls. There's a fairy tale about an icy mirror that shatters into a thousand pieces. One of them ends up in a small boy's heart and freezes it against emotion.
So very, very many months ago now, Jack told her that when faced with the prospect of losing her, he found it unbearable. At that point they had no claim on one another at all; they were colleagues, friends who stood too close, who smiled at one another in the comfortable knowledge that they were smiling too fondly and with too much heat. They walked carefully, side by side, in the dangerous region between dusk and midnight.
Jack saying that to her was a cold and awful mirror-shard in Phryne's heart, but not one that changed her capacity to feel. Just a sharp pain, niggling, leaking blood. That he would admit it so simply and with so little expectation. That he would have the gall to make that decision for himself: both cowardly and brave at once.
"After Jane," she says. "And after the war, after--I tried to become the kind of person who didn't get attached. I thought that would be easier."
"How long did you try that for?" Jack asks.
Phryne smiles. "Oh, all of a week. It didn't stick. I couldn't do it! I love people, Jack. I can't help it."
"I know," Jack says. "Your generous heart."
"Not generous, greedy," she says. "I've spent a lot of time around people who've just lost a loved one. It comes with our business, doesn't it? And I know I'm not immune. If I lost Mac, or Dot, or Janey. Or my parents, or Aunt Prudence. It would be dreadful. I'd survive, but I'd be wounded."
Jack's holding another of his diplomatic silences, in the face of his absence from that list. He's clever, he's so very clever, he knows people just as well as she does, and he knows her best of all. He reaches out and traces a half-moon under one of her eyes, where tears would be, if she were crying. She's not crying.
"If I lost you, Jack, I would bear it. I would survive. But I suspect that for a time, I would wish I hadn't."
Jack's mouth opens a little way and his throat moves as though he will speak. He pauses like an actor whose monologue has flown straight out of his head. He puts a hand at the back of her neck and pulls gently, puts the other around her waist when she stands up, and draws her into his arms, close and tight. Phryne buries her face in his shoulder and breathes.
She's not crying.
"Well then," Jack says, when she can bring herself to pull away. His voice has a texture like unsanded wood. "If you don't mind sharing your opinion with the world...would you care for another dance, Miss Fisher?"
"My dear Inspector," she says thickly, tucking her hand through his arm. "I would be delighted to show you off."
They find the musicians taking a break with champagne and Phryne informs them that her party is in desperate need of a waltz.
"Phryne. Wait." Jack stops her as she's about to steer them out onto the dancefloor. He lifts his hands to the back of her head and undoes the thin ribbon that holds her mask in place. "We might as well be as obvious as we possibly can," he says.
The skin across Phryne's nose and cheeks and forehead itches as though someone has been sprinkling her with dust, or freckles, or perfume. It has the odd rawness that one feels after a bath, when one has scrubbed hard to remove cosmetics and a whole new layer has been exposed to the air. Phryne feels as though this particular face of hers has never seen Jack Robinson before; has never been quite so exposed and so sensitive to the weight of his regard.
"As charming as you are as Columbine," Jack says, "or as Cleopatra, or any other woman whose name begins with a C--"
Phryne laughs. "Clytemnestra," she suggests. "Though she was hardly a safe object of affection."
"And you are, Phryne Fisher?"
"Ah, I've never pretended to be."
"No, you certainly have not. And was simply going to say," Jack says, "that I prefer you unmasked. Exactly as you are."
Phryne stands very still as the music begins. This is not the time to begin speaking. This is not a time when she thinks that words will be able to do any justice at all to the way she feels.
She rises onto her toes and kisses Jack's cheek, soft and lingering, and then tightens her hand in the crook of his arm and walks him out into the centre of the ballroom. After an evening of sneaking around, it's odd to be back here under the brightest of the lights, barefaced and attention-seeking and absolutely honest. This is bait, but the best bait is the truth; there is no lie in Jack's arm around her waist, in his fingers tangled through hers. And her face has always been unguarded where Jack is concerned. She's never bothered to hide how much she wants him. It's just always been perfectly deniable, for the both of them, while she waited for him to lift the gauntlet of her desire from the floor.
They dance, chest to chest, gazes held and steady. At one point, when the floor has begun to fill up with a slow trickle of other couples, someone taps Jack's shoulder in a polite gesture of cutting in; Jack says, "No," in his most officious tones, and sweeps them onwards. Phryne almost bursts out laughing.
When the waltz comes to a close, the last note of the violin shimmering across Phryne's collarbones and in the curve of her ears, Jack twirls them twice more, his motions extravagant in a very un-Jack Robinson-like way. Finally, they halt. Phryne lets her hand slide from his shoulder to the side of his neck, and smiles up at him.
"What do you think?" she says. "Did I look deep enough in love?"
Jack's hand tightens around hers, almost crushing her fingers with the angle. "Don't tease," he says, rough. "I could bear a lot from you, but not that."
"Jack," she says. Her eyes are almost stinging, and the way she feels must be glowing in her cheeks; it feels as though giddy light the colour of a sunset will spill out between her teeth if she opens her mouth too widely.
Jack's face does something like a kite struggling to rise in a sluggish beach wind. It crumples in the centre, looking for a moment to be heading for a crash to break your heart. Then the wind fills it, snatches it taut and brilliant. The look he gives her is soaring and incredulously bright.
For a relationship whose important moments have been conducted mostly in cosy corners and evening-lit rooms, Phryne thinks, this is a very public place to be exchanging this kind of confession. Even without words.
Jack releases her hand and waist and cups her jaw in a soft slide of white fabric. She wants to tell him to take his gloves off, but she doesn't want to break this contact, not even for a moment.
He darts his eyes to the side, an obvious query.
Phryne tries to smile in encouragement. She realises she's already smiling and can hardly do it any wider. "We might as well be as obvious as we possibly can," she says. She's aiming for dry; she hears herself miss it by miles.
"Will we scandalise your guests?"
"Oh," she says, "I do hope so."
Something inside Phryne goes up in smoke as Jack kisses her. His mouth is less desperate, this time. It's as though, having reassured himself that the first time back on the other side of the world was neither a mirage nor a one-off event, he can now afford to be leisurely. Phryne's not complaining; she asked for scandalous and scandalous is what she's getting. She's kissed a lot of men and meant a lot of different things by it, and she recognises this as a very bedroom kind of kiss, designed to explore someone's tastes. A drugging slide of tongue here, a soft noise of pleasure there. A restless kiss, or at least one that sends restlessness in a caramel rush through Phryne's body.
There's a new tune playing now, but hardly anyone is dancing in their vicinity when Phryne finally pulls away. Just beyond a prudent radius of empty dancefloor is half a party's worth of people torn between blatant staring and pretending like hell that they were never staring, no, not even a little. Somewhere in that crowd, Phryne hopes, is a murderer, now setting their spiteful sights on the man she loves.
She can't remember being this happy for a long, long time; and she's someone who would describe herself as happy more days than not.
"I'm so glad you're here, Jack," she says, very quietly.
"My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings, and thou shouldst tow me after."
Phryne's breath stops in her throat. "Now, that's not playing fair," she says, when it returns. "But I suppose I'll acknowledge a point scored. Fifteen-love in favour of the Victorian Police Force."
Jack opens his mouth to reply. Into the silence, Phryne's stomach gives a terrific growl; Phryne freezes for a second and then starts laughing.
"Ah, so it's not actually me making you lightheaded," Jack says. "That's a blow to the ego."
"I had a bite before everyone arrived, but you know how it is." She dances her eyebrows and gaze both to the ceiling. "You're organising the music, you're directing the kitchen staff, you're trying to talk to all of the guests at once."
"You're laying a trap for a killer."
"Exactly. And there have been...other distractions," she adds, moving her hand in a caress up Jack's side. "The plain fact of it is, I haven't thought about food once since you held out your hand and invited me to dance the first time."
"I'm not having you cover my back on an empty stomach," Jack says. "The trap can wait another five minutes. Let's find some provisions, shall we, Miss Fisher?"
Drinks and some of the food have been set up on tables around the edge of the ballroom, but most of the buffet is in the dining room, where the chairs have been pushed back around the walls. There's still a constant trickle of people in and out, and Phryne has overheard a variety of opinions on whether or not she should have arranged a formal seated dinner. Next time she holds a masquerade she will obscure her face and hair, and take Jack's example of not speaking a word; one can learn all sorts of things that way. Her filigree mask is still in her pocket, and quite a number of the guests have done the same, this late into the evening. It's still an even mix of masked and unmasked. No clues to be gained there.
It feels anticlimactic to be standing eating dainty rolled sandwiches and stuffed olives, but Phryne has to admit that the whirl of nerves in her stomach settles once it's been lined with food. She's two bites into a roll of cold roast beef with horseradish sauce spooned over it when she coughs and tears spring into her eyes. Jack turns to her at once, his face darkening with concern, and Phryne sees in her mind's eye the medicine tray with its note. She waves a hand in reassurance and splutters her way to the point where she can talk again.
"No poison, just an assault on my tongue." She picks up one of the little sauce pots, lifts the lid and holds it thoughtfully under her nose. "God, the strength of this! No wonder there's so much of it left."
"I would have thought you of all people could handle some heat," Jack says.
"Even I have my limits, Jack." Phryne bypasses the devilled eggs and salamis and munches thoughtfully on a cold asparagus spear, which soothes some of the fiery burn in her nose. "I think someone's told Mrs Harris, our cook, that the best cure for an invalid is to shock her out of it via her taste buds. She's devoted to my mother, and everything out of the kitchen's been practically steaming with spices these last few weeks."
"Did you see that," says someone, standing far enough from Phryne to have deniability, but hissing loudly enough that she means to be overheard. All Phryne can see is a roll of thick auburn hair emerging from a silver mask. "I'm sure it's not my place to care if a woman of her age chooses not to marry, but there's remaining single and then there's flaunting her affairs all over the place."
"I didn't recognise the man," says her companion.
"Oh, Philip heard them talking; Australian, my dear. Someone she picked up down there, I suppose. Handsome enough, but from what you hear, I thought she preferred them younger."
Phryne bites her lower lip and dares a glance at Jack, who is chewing mushroom on toast with an expression which suggests it was that or start coughing to hide laughter.
"That didn't look like a casual affair to me," says the other woman. Phryne does recognise that voice: Evelyn, Lady Carterhaugh, a friend of her mother's. Lady Evelyn is the kind of elderly woman that Phryne wouldn't mind evolving into, and she's famous for passing her conversational partners more than enough rope to loop around their own necks.
"Well, then, that's even worse. It speaks volumes about the nature of her charms, doesn't it, that she's ensnared someone so well they'd come all the way from the colonies to hang off her lips like a pair of tawdry lovers in a common theatrical."
That does it; Phryne has to take Jack's arm and lead him back into the ballroom for fear he's going to choke to death on a canapé before they can implement their plan.
"I was not aware," Jack says, once he's recovered, "that anyone still used phrases like the colonies in all earnestness. We are well into the twentieth century, aren't we?"
"Come on," Phryne says. "That proves we've baited the hook well enough. Now to dangle it."
"I hope that pistol of yours is at the ready."
"Cocked," Phryne says, "and loaded."
She leans closer, her hand on his chest; a pose for intimate whispers. "This is me excusing myself to the bathroom," she says. "And suggesting that I meet you outside momentarily."
"For some indecent rendezvous, no doubt."
"Of course! Now, find the paved area ringed with hedges, with two lemon trees in pots. There'll be just enough light to see by, but we've rigged electrical lights there as well. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"This is me," Jack says, his gaze steady. "Telling you I'll wait as long as it takes."
Phryne surges forward and kisses him one more time.
"Stay alive," she says fiercely. "Don't you dare do otherwise."
"Pot," Jack says against her mouth. "Kettle?"
Phryne bites his lip in punishment and then lets him go.
Her first stop is the edge of the ballroom, where to her relief Edith is still hovering. She looks very fine indeed in Phryne's purple silk. Phryne will have to sneak the dress into the girl's suitcase before she leaves London, somehow; perhaps Millie knows one of the maids at the Pargeters' house.
"Might I borrow this mysterious young woman for a moment," Phryne says, looping her arm around Edith's waist and flashing her most dazzling smile around the small group of women without making eye contact with anyone in particular. "I do hope you're all enjoying yourselves!"
She doesn't stay long enough to hear more than a polite chorus of assent, and whisks Edith swiftly in the direction of the downstairs bathroom.
"What's happening, Miss Fisher?" asks Edith. "Have you caught him?"
"Not yet, Edith, but I'm going to need your assistance one more time," says Phryne. "Usually I'm quite capable of climbing out of windows, but I think this dress is going to make itself difficult."
This prediction proves entirely true. It takes a lot of very undignified huffing, along with Edith's determined assistance, before Phryne wriggles her way out of the bathroom window and into the chilly night air. There's an audible rrrrrrrp as some part of her skirts snags and gives way, and she has to catch herself on the moist dirt with her hands and then sprawl in it. Arid fear has begun to line her throat again, and she scrambles upright without a care for how she might look.
"Thank you, Edith," she says. "Now, you remember what I told you about the lights?"
"Yes, Miss." Edith's eyes sparkle through the holes in her mask. "You can repay me by telling me the whole story the next time you come by to visit. I want all the details."
Phryne swallows down a response that strays a little too close to gallows humour for someone as young and innocent as Edith--no matter how grisly her interests--and merely smiles.
"You have a deal," she says. "Wish me luck!"
The skirts insist on catching on various trees and thorns as she makes her way around to the paved area behind the house, and Phryne considers for a brief moment the idea of discarding the dress entirely. The pockets and their contents are still useful, however, and although it wouldn't be the first time Phryne has crept into danger wearing only her underthings, she has a suspicion that would be the final nail in the coffin of scandal. Displays of unseemly affection followed by a grand showdown with pistols and a murderer are one thing; semi-nudity committed in the back garden would give her mother an excuse to collapse with a week-long attack of the vapours. Besides, the weather's hardly suited to it.
The area between the lemon trees is visible from the balcony where Phryne first told Jack to unmask. The plan had been to make it available for the party, if only it hadn't rained quite so much the day before, rendering the lawns soggy and mud-tracked and less than ideal for a horde of people wearing Venetian finery. But Phryne planned for the possibility that she would need to light the garden like a film set, and so now, somewhere in the darkness, snaking electrical cables wind up into trees where floodlights have been set.
As she told Jack, there's enough light from the house and the lanterns that silhouettes are visible, though not much else. She softens her step and creeps, keeping behind bushes and trees as she approaches the paving. Her lovely shoes sink and squelch in the wet lawn, but she steps slowly enough that it's more sensation than sound. Her pistol will catch the light, so she keeps it in her pocket for now, but her arm is tensed and ready.
She recognises the figure of Jack, once again standing like he wishes he were armoured with his overcoat. He strikes a match to light a cigarette, and his eyes are closed as he does it. Jack doesn't smoke; he's begged or stolen a packet between her leaving him and his entering the garden. The quick, startling orange flare is enough to illuminate the planes of his face, confirming his identity to anyone watching, and the fact that he had enough steel to close his eyes makes him appear unsuspecting. And preserves the keenness of his eyes in the night, incidentally.
He's also planted himself square in the centre of the lemon trees, meaning that any attacker bent on close range combat will have to break away from their shadowy cover.
In that moment, as though her thoughts and eyes have sketched out reality and brought them to life, Phryne sees the asymmetry: one lemon tree's trunk is dull and thickened, and moving. In two more steps it will reach the tiny dot of light and the plume of pale smoke that are Jack Robinson, playing at casual waiting with all his soldier's nerve.
"Now, Edith!" Phryne shouts.
The dark figure of the man freezes and whirls around. Phryne counts a series of agonising, ageless seconds: one, two, three, four--and the lights hum, flicker, and come on.
Phryne has her eyes closed almost all the way, so the sudden flood of brightness doesn't blind her, but she sees both Jack and his attacker throw an arm over their eyes. The attacker is wearing a dark, pointed mask. He recovers first, adjusts his grip on the--
"Jack, he's got a knife!" Phryne says.
The attacker turns to Jack, who is lowering his arm but still squinting, and prepares to lunge. Phryne takes aim with the pistol, still looking only through her lashes, and fires.
There's a strangled cry of pain and the man's leg buckles like a house of cards knocked by a cat's tail. He falls awkwardly, dropping the knife so he can catch himself on both hands rather than strike his head on the paving stones; Jack has recovered his sight enough that he dashes in and kicks the knife out of the man's reach, then goes to retrieve it.
"Take the mask off," Phryne says, holding her pistol with both hands. The damp chill has laid itself over her bare shoulders like an unpleasant shawl, and it's creeping down into her fingers, but she holds the gun steady. "Take it off now."
The man rolls, painfully, supporting himself on one knee and one elbow. She can't see much blood, between his black costume and the darkness of the stones beneath him, but the way he's holding the injured leg means he's going to need medical attention. Good. He can have all the official attention he wants. Starting with the police.
"The mask," Phryne repeats. "Or do you want a matching hole in the other leg?"
He levers himself further upright and lifts both hands slowly to the black mask, which is feathered and beaked like a bird. Phryne remembers Jack lifting his hands to his own mask, on the balcony, in exactly the same fashion. She remembers--Edith, laughing about her change of clothes, being two different girls wearing the same mask--Edith, what did Edith say?
The man removes the mask, revealing a face curled in pain and contempt. He looks thirty at most, with heavy brows and pale brown hair in sweaty strands from being plastered against his forehead for so many hours. His eyes keep returning to Phryne's pistol but they're darting around as well, frantic and assessing, as though there could be any possible escape for him at this point. He throws the crow's mask to the ground.
Two men in the same mask, yes, even the same outfit, arguing. A killer that can pass through walls.
"Oh, why didn't I think," Phryne cries, furious with herself. She shifts the gun to a single hand and drops the other, letting it plunge into her pocket. "Jack--"
"Phryne!" Jack shouts, staring over her shoulder.
"Get ‘er, Donny!" snarls the man on the ground.
Phryne's knuckles whiten around the gun and she starts to turn, but there's a hand gripping her shoulder and it spins her faster than she'd expected, so that she stumbles as a torn and dangling piece of skirt tangles itself around the heel of one of her shoes. She comes to a halt face-to-face with another feathered mask, another man in head-to-toe black. Something even colder than the air is touching her throat.
Her breath is violent with shaking as it passes in and out of her parted lips. The man holding his own knife to her neck, his hand a strong fist around the hilt, is probably younger than the other by a few years, and darker. The brows and the shape of the jaw are the same, however.
"Donald Hayes, I presume," Phryne says.
"You shut your mouth," Hayes growls.
"Your alibi was watertight," she says. "Of course it was. It wasn't you who killed Sarah Grey at all. It was--what's your brother's name?"
"Drop the gun! Do it!"
"You killed Marion, though. Didn't you?" Phryne lets the pistol slip from her hand. It clatters to the ground and she raises her hand, palm outwards, empty. Then she moves her foot, kicking the pistol deliberately--if awkwardly--into the grass, just in case he gets any ideas about claiming it for his own use.
"Both hands up."
Phryne's other hand emerges slowly from the deep invisible pocket of her skirt. Palm outwards. Empty.
"There," she says. "I'm not holding anything. You can see for yourself."
"Donny," says the man on the ground.
Phryne slides her eyes sideways, not daring to turn her head. Jack is on his knees beside the injured man--no, he's got one of his knees resting on the man's wounded leg, which is almost enough to make Phryne wince in sympathy. Jack is holding the man's own knife, not at his throat, but to the side of his ribs. Almost over his heart.
The whole pose is absurd. Like a tragedy; like a scenario painted by the breathless voices of actors in a radio drama. Like a common theatrical, Phryne thinks, and bites her lip against what will most likely be a hysterical gush of laughter.
"Looks like we've got a stalemate," Jack says. Phryne meets his eyes. She can read a pure kind of fear in the way he stares at her, the way his gaze keeps dropping to the blade at her neck. She tries to open her face just as much in return: to convey, somehow, I'll be fine.
"You don't want to kill me, Donny," Phryne says. She tears her attention away from Jack and directs it at the young man in front of her.
"Yeah? Don't I?" Hayes sneers, but it cracks in the middle. His own attention's split. That's good. She can play on that.
Phryne says steadily, "You want to break my heart."
An awful and confusing mix of emotions wash over Hayes's face, and he's too inexperienced to hide them. She identifies fury, and grief, and a poisonous and twisted kind of hatred that sends chills racing down Phryne's spine entirely independent of the night air.
"You don't know nothing," Donald Hayes says. "You don't know nothing about what it is to lose all your life's got."
"Donny," says his brother from the ground, with a clear note of warning.
"Jimmy, she's gotta know." Donald glares. Phryne's attention narrows to the knife for a second, all her instinct holding her rock-steady until the flash of immediate danger passes. "Maybe you've got someone to walk to the market for you, maybe there ain't any desperate men in this neighbourhood, but walk half a mile into the city and you'll see them, up before dawn and standing in line for jobs that just ain't there. Why not? Because someone got it into their fool head to shove women out of their homes, put them in men's jobs, keep them there after the war even when it's men who've the duty to work, to bring in the coin. And now it's fancy schools for girls, and--"
"And the answer's killing the women responsible?" Phryne says, quiet.
"Better'n doing nothing," says the man on the ground. Jimmy.
Phryne looks down at the older Hayes in time to see the wreckage of pain on his face. Part of her wants to say, I understand, because part of her does; she knows about the desperation you find at the scraped-barrel-bottom of your soul when you've exhausted your ideas and your reserves, when you've been trapped and helpless for that one hour too long. Men in the trenches went catatonic or ate bullets in the face of that feeling.
Jack says, "And did you think what would happen to your families if you hanged for it? The both of you?"
Phryne almost winces at the calm brutality of that. Donald's expression comes close to cracking, but then it firms.
"Like it'd make a scrap of difference," he says. "No money's no money; at least it's less mouths to feed."
"What about Marion's family? Sarah's? There's no excuse for murdering two women in cold blood," Phryne says.
Jimmy snorts. "Leave off; we ain't fooled. You and your Mum and Dad can put on all the airs and fancy titles you like, Phryne Fisher. It's worse, you're worse than every other toff on this bloody street, ‘cause you ain't born to it. You should know better. You should remember how it feels to be needy, to always be scared there won't be a next meal."
"Jimmy," Phryne says. Something folds itself into place in her mind and she darts her eyes to the side again, trying to reconcile a distant memory with the face of the man on the ground. She was very young during the time her family spent in London, the poor colonial cousins of the then-Baron; just like Edith is to George, only with a lot more obligation and awkwardness and spite. It was a failed experiment. They were back in Australia within two years. "James Hayes. Jim. I--I knew you, once."
"Don't act like it means nothing," shoots back Jimmy. "Like you done anything but try to forget the kids you once played in the street muck with. And now there's people starving all around, our sister starving and never mind the bub she was trying to nurse--and here's you, The Honourable Miss, throwing a party that's worth a king's ransom."
Phryne has to steel herself to hold his gaze, and she doesn't spook easily. The disgust there is deep and grubby and fierce, and personal; this could go a way to explaining why she warranted the taunts, the oblique threats, instead of a simple attack.
"You make me fucking sick, you do," Jimmy finishes, all but spitting the words at her.
"Steady on," Jack says.
"And you, I shoulda cut your heart out, whoever you are. God knows it's unnatural for any true man to throw himself at a woman like--" Jimmy breaks off, and winces. When he lifts his head again, still glaring, the sheen of sweat and the paleness of his face is obvious.
"Jimmy," Donald says, pleading.
"Your brother needs a doctor," Phryne says, as gently as she can.
Her hands are still raised. She reaches out slowly with one of them--still obviously and harmlessly empty--and although she can't help the fearful skitter of her breath when a shake of Donald's hand presses the edge of the knife more closely against her skin, he doesn't make any move to stop her from touching his face, compassionate, just beside one of his eyes.
"Don't," he says. He sounds younger, harsher, and more scared. Again Phryne feels the danger of his fear like a red-hot wire. "Don't touch me, you--aughhh!"
All of Phryne's attention is on the hand with the knife. Donald moves in an agonised jerk and she's already ducked to the side; in the next moment she moves closer again and twists his wrist until the knife falls to the ground. Donald is too busy grinding the heel of his other hand into his streaming, screwed-up eye to notice. Phryne crouches down and grabs the knife before he can stumble over it.
"Jesus Mary and Joseph, it's on fire," Donald howls.
"What'd you do to him, you bloody witch?" demands Jimmy from the ground.
"I'm about to ask the same question," says Jack. "Politely."
Phryne transfers the knife to the other hand and lifts the offending fingers, which she'd stroked firmly across Donald's eyeball. She'll have to wash it soon, or she's going to forget it's there and touch her own eye.
"Horseradish," she says, apologetic. "I pocketed one of the pots from the dining room."
"Why on earth--" says Jack.
"Something I read about," Phryne says, now fishing the handcuffs from her pocket. "Well, in the book I was reading it was chilli powder being tossed in the eyes of an evil sultan, but the principle seemed sound. I've always wanted to try it out."
"Horseradish." Jimmy sounds outraged.
"Would you have preferred I shoot him too?"
She stands up from cuffing Donald; hands in front of him, but better than nothing, and if she'd tried to get his hands behind his back then he'd have realised what she was doing even through the pain, and probably lashed out.
"There!" comes a shout from the balcony. It breaks into Phryne's concentration like a child's finger popping a soap bubble, and suddenly her awareness expands beyond the vivid reality of a blade against her throat. She's very cold, and one of her ankles is aching, though she can't remember turning it. There are voices rising and at least one person in the distance is sobbing; really, Phryne thinks with a twinge of annoyance, she can't imagine any need for that kind of reaction. Nobody's dead, and there's hardly that much blood. As plans go, this one has been executed almost perfectly.
Jimmy Hayes's pale face is sickly and furious. His eyes sharpen on Jack and on the knife in Jack's hand; the whole sentiment is impressive, given the state of his leg.
"I would think very hard about that," Jack says flatly, and Jimmy's shoulders finally sag.
"Nobody move!" is the next shout. "Police!"
"Ah, good," says Phryne. "That'll be Scotland Yard. Let's see if they can redeem themselves."
The good policemen of London make a poor start to their redemption by showing some confusion as to which of the people involved they should be arresting; Phryne supposes this is not entirely unreasonable given the gunshot wound of one Hayes brother and the streaming, reddened eyes of the other. Infuriatingly, things move very quickly once Jack puts on the Inspector Robinson voice--the one that makes Hugh's chin wobble when deployed properly--and starts throwing around words like apprehend. The ambulance arrives shortly afterwards, both brothers are cuffed (the Yard constable hands Phryne's pair of cuffs over to Jack with a deferential nod) and taken away, and by then a tired-looking detective is on the scene.
"It's you," the detective says, with narrowed eyes.
Phryne has passed through annoyance at being ignored and come out into one of her buoyant, contrary moods. She straightens from retrieving her pistol and gives the man a dimpled sort of look.
"Goodness," she says breathlessly, "however did we cope without you and your deductions, Detective?"
Jack wraps his hand around her wrist. From the outside it probably looks comforting, but his grip is tight: his thumbnail would be digging in punishingly hard if not for his glove.
"I assume you'd like to ask us some questions, Inspector Harris," Jack says. "Shall we go inside?"
They make their way back into the house, weaving through Phryne's guests, most of whom have tired of the gunshot portion of the evening and decided the polite thing to do is to continue drinking and gossiping until asked to stop. It would probably take a natural disaster to properly shake up the sort of old-money composure worn easily by half of her party guests.
The detective's narrowed eyes start to widen ten seconds into Phryne's interview, and by the time he's finished with both herself and Jack, he's gone through almost half a notebook and has the look of a man who is already planning the number of pints he'll be ordering at the pub after explaining this to his superintendent. Phryne sends another of the maids to find Edith--who turns out to be lurking close outside the room anyway--and then to fetch both the medicine tray and Edith's original, stained dress. Edith answers questions about having blood thrown over her with an air of keen curiosity, which the detective--now looking more tired than ever--accepts with no more than a sigh. Jack hands over both notes and manages to convince Harris that, given the late hour, it would be more comfortable all round for the two of them to drop by the station the next morning to sign their full witness statements and answer the inevitable second round of questions.
"This part is much more boring than I'd imagined," Phryne says, once Harris has huffed his long-suffering way out again
"The paperwork part," Jack says dryly. "Speak for yourself, Miss Fisher. I'm finding it refreshing. It's just dawned on me that I won't have to write a report about this."
"Phryne!" comes a shout from the first landing of the staircase.
Phryne closes her eyes briefly. The distance of his study from the back windows means he missed the gunshot, thank goodness, but it was probably too much to expect that he not notice something as significant as the party being broken up by a police investigation.
"Hello, Dad," she calls. "Are you having a good night? Have you fleeced Sir Gregory for half his property yet? You do know it's bad manners to cheat at poker."
"Phryne," her father says, "what the devil has been going on?"
Phryne widens her eyes in entreaty at Jack, who nods and heads over, brave man, to take her father aside and explain.
Meanwhile Phryne verbally scoops the rest of her guests together and showers them all with reassurances and farewells, including a renewed promise to Edith to visit and spin out the whole story for her. When the last cluster of agitated satin and chiffon has vanished into a motor car and sped away from the gates, Phryne leans against the doorframe. The nervy energy that has carried her through the danger is ebbing, leaving its tideline debris of doubt and fatigue. She keeps seeing Jimmy Hayes's flayed-raw desperation, and hearing Jack ask the brothers what will happen to their family if they're both hanged; what will happen, when they are?
She turns and closes the main door behind her. The house is very large and very empty, all of a sudden, though she can hear the quiet bustle of the staff beginning to clear everything away. Her father has disappeared again, for which she thanks God and, of course, Jack. Jack who is tugging his gloves off and loosening the collar of the diamond-patterned costume, revealing a white sliver of undershirt beneath.
"Signor Arlecchino," she says lightly.
"Columbine," Jack says. "Or should I call you a witch as well?"
"Don't you start."
"It was a bit like a magic trick. Misdirection, and invisible fire at the ends of your fingers."
"Oh, bother, I've got to wash that hand," Phryne says. She turns in the direction of the bathroom, and Jack falls into step beside her. Her dress has been deflated and weighed down by a layer of mud around the hem; it's a snug fit, but this time they can walk side by side. Jack gives of one of his gentlemanly gestures, bright with irony at the edges, and bows her into the bathroom with an extended hand.
"You were right about me, by the way, Jack," she says, as she's scrubbing at the horseradish-tainted hand with a cake of soap.
"Oh?" Jack says. "In what respect?"
"Not even a Carnevale's worth of skirts can stop me from breaking and entering. Or breaking and exiting, in this case. Edith helped." She nods towards the window, and Jack steps forward to inspect it with a professional eye.
After a moment, he heaves a sigh.
"What is it?" Phryne asks, turning off the tap.
"I'm just considering how--here."
Phryne dimples her thanks at him as he passes her a hand towel. It's one of a set that was originally a gift from Aunt Prudence, which means it has a cross-stitched panel with a design of delicate lavender and pansies, and also isn't really large enough to absorb water from one's hands.
"Considering?" she prompts.
"How I could persuade you to let me explain the night's events to Miss Williams--Mrs Collins, rather--so that she doesn't get it into her head that this kind of behaviour is entirely proper."
Phryne thinks of Edith, wide-eyed and eager for details, and laughs.
"Dot knows what's proper better than I do, Jack," she says. "She'll listen sensibly to the whole thing and then point out some fact that would have unfolded the whole case as neatly as Mr Butler's laundry, if she'd only been here to contribute."
Jack tilts his head at her, faintly smiling. "Homesick, Miss Fisher?"
"Like you wouldn't believe, Inspector Robinson," she says. "This is rather a small, grey little country, isn't it? It seems so grand in our minds."
"We are irredeemably tainted in our tastes," Jack says gravely, "down in the colonies."
A laugh bursts out of Phryne. "I'd settle for a nice afternoon on Queenscliff beach."
"Or a proper pint," says Jack, with an air that Phryne recognises as that of one whose palate has been fatally wounded by lukewarm beer.
"I can't offer you that," she says. "But I have hidden an excellent bottle of Glenfiddich behind the best tea service, where my father won't look for it."
"Always resourceful, Miss Fisher."
Millie and Henry are carrying the last of the dirtied dishes out of the room when Phryne and Jack enter.
"Cover me," Phryne says, dramatically, and crouches down to rummage in the lowest shelf of the glass-fronted cabinet. She emerges with a triumphant hand around the whiskey bottle and pulls out two crystal tumblers with the other.
"To yet another successful case," Jack says, when she's poured them each a generous measure. "Despite playing on another team's turf."
Phryne clinks her glass against his and they drink in the studied silence of two people realising how much they have been craving strong liquor.
"To my having managed to embroil you in a criminal trial, so that you have to stay in London," she says ruefully. "I'm sorry, Jack."
"I had no idea of how long I might stay," Jack says. "I took all the leave I had, paid and unpaid, which turned out to be--rather a lot."
Phryne takes a long swallow and glows at him over the rim of the glass. "How impetuous of you, Inspector."
She expects some sort of mild accusation of her own bad influence, but Jack doesn't say anything for a moment, just takes a sip of his drink and looks steadily right back at her. My heart was to thy rudder tied. Phryne's heart gives a tug of its own, like pursestrings drawn tight.
Jack says, "I haven't asked--are things better between your parents now?"
"Yes. And just for that, I'm glad I came to England," she says. "I was thinking of going to Scotland, maybe back to France for a few weeks, but...once this trial's wrapped up, I think I'd rather head home. I'm in the mood for a real summer, if nothing else, and the days are getting longer in Melbourne. We could be having cocktails under the trees every evening, Jack."
"And being eaten by mozzies," Jack says.
"You don't fool me," Phryne says. "I know you're a romantic at heart."
"Is that right," Jack says. He sets down his glass. He looks at his feet, then back at her. If he were wearing his overcoat with its flirt of a rust-red lining, Phryne thinks, his hands would be in his pockets. "Well, Miss Fisher."
"Well," Phryne says, smiling.
"Should I invite myself to stay the night? Or would I be asking you to miss a prior engagement?"
Phryne goes still. Her dress is torn and crushed and her neck still itches with the touch of a phantom blade; she's been keeping herself moving because when she stops she can feel herself trembling with a mixture of anger and alertness and relief. Tonight has been surprise after surprise.
This one might top them all.
"Not one man in a thousand would love me and still ask me that question," Phryne says quietly. She sets down her own glass. She feels like she is on the threshold of a crime scene, open and hungry for clues, trying to empty her mind so that possibilities might pour in.
"I told you once I would never ask you to change," Jack says.
"You told me that because you couldn't be--close--with the person that I was. That I am."
"Yes, and you'll recall that at the time I managed to keep that resolution for nearly a whole two months," he says, with the faintest hint of humour. "And I lasted that long only because I've got more pride than is good for me."
"I didn't exactly make it easy." she says, unsteady and striving for fairness. "I could have respected that you wanted to pull away. But I didn't. And--horseshit, too much pride, Jack. I wouldn't want you to be anything else."
"And now you're stealing my lines." Jack comes close and traces a tendon of her throat, rests his thumb in the hollow of it. "So I'm going to steal yours. Not one woman in a thousand would be worth it the way that you are."
Phryne lays her hand over his, flattening his fingers against her skin. She has a brief moment of wanting to demand that he never wear gloves again, for any reason.
Jack says, "No, my resolution failed back then. And it failed to the extent that I'll cross three continents to come after you, now. That's a long way; I had time to do some thinking. I'm still not going to ask you to be anything that you're not. I didn't come here tonight--I didn't come all the way to England, to stake some kind of claim on you." He speaks carefully, each word exact, as though he's worried something will get lost in the small space between them. "I came to tell you that I'd rather have you in my life than lose you to my pride. So I'm not asking. I'm offering."
"Offering what, exactly?" Phryne says.
Jack pulls his fingers from under hers, and spreads his hands. His eyes are rueful and kind. "What will you have of me, Phryne Fisher?"
"Joy," she says, fearless. "That's all."
She leans up and kisses him, melts into him, feeling altogether scarlet from her dress to the headlong rivers of her blood in its veins. While she's always known that Jack desires her, now she knows, right down to her bones, that what he wants is the true and every-faceted Phryne Fisher: not just her clothes or her lips or her jokes or her eyes. Her happiness is glue down the fissure, letting her reconcile these two parts of herself: the part never built for monogamy, which will brush off the uglier forms of possession like crumbs from her lap, and the part of her that opens and glows and dances, yes, joy is the word, when Jack Robinson is there.
Both of these parts are true. Both of them are Phryne Fisher. She promised herself a long time ago that she'd be anything she wanted to be, and she wants to be--she's able to be--both.
In the same way, looking at Jack is like seeing both a man and his reflection: the splash of mischief and pleased attraction she felt back when she first set eyes on him, laid over what she sees now. Which is something, someone, altogether indispensable and necessary to her happiness.
Jack has one arm around her waist and another tangling and stroking at the nape of her neck, blunt pressure against the cords of muscle there, and the taste of him is hotter even than spirits. He kisses as seriously as he does anything, a deep and urgent exploration that breaks off into little lulls, little sips of her mouth, considered and almost chaste but no less searing along Phryne's nerves. The front of her body feels doused in hot water and she can feel her thighs clenching, trying to provide friction where it's needed most.
Jack pulls away and gets a small amount of distance, gazing at her with his eyes almost narrowed and his chin tucked down. It's a patient, predatory, pacing-himself expression that Phryne has never seen before, and which attacks the stability of her knees like a sledgehammer; she wants quite suddenly to press her face against his bare skin and to take him apart with her tongue.
"I was wondering," Jack says. "How did the local coppers know to arrive at such an opportune moment?"
"Edith, obviously. I don't collect these girls just at random, you know; I have excellent taste."
"Philatelist," Jack says, lingering silver-tongued on the L sounds.
Morse code, Phryne thinks ridiculously. She makes five taps on his elbow with one fingertip and gives him her most suggestive glance in return, displaying her eyelashes to best effect.
"Hmm." Jack looks down at her from almost no distance at all. The ruins of her skirts seem barely any barrier between the heat of his body and hers. "Say that ten times fast."
She grins. "Numismatist, numis--ah."
Jack's fingers are touching the bare skin of her leg, an inch above the lace band of her stockings, and just below the band which held her pistol. He's found the deep pocket with the slit in its base, and taken full advantage of it.
"Observant of you, Inspector," she murmurs.
"What did you say about these skirts?" Jack's fingertips slide under the lace and trace a tortuous path from the side of her thigh to the back, until all the fine hairs on Phryne's arms stand on end and she feels herself rise almost involuntarily onto her toes, both fleeing Jack's hand and pressing herself further against him. "All manner of sins."
"If we're speaking of the deadly variety, there's only one sin I'm really interested in at the moment."
"What a coincidence." He kisses her, hard and brief, his mouth leaving hers almost before she's registered it. His palm is resting on the curve of her hip, no longer moving. "There's one thing I've wanted to do to you, Miss Fisher, almost since the first time I saw you."
"Is this going to be romantic?" she teases.
Jack looks her right in the face. His wide mouth is held almost straight, with just the hint of a parenthesis on one side. His shadowed eyes are as devastatingly intent as ever.
"No," he says, low and absolutely filthy. "No, it isn't."
Phryne's breath stops halfway through an inhalation. A very fine shiver takes hold of her ribcage, cradling it like a pair of hands, and every inch of her skin goes tight like the day after a sunburn.
"Is it something that should be done standing up in a dining room?"
Not that she cares, but there's something delicious and wild hiding in the punctuation of Jack's mouth, and she's going to hook it into the light. She does know how to make bait of herself, after all.
"I don't give a damn," says Jack. All the silver on his tongue has gone tarnished and rough and honest. "I've got you pinned, Phryne Fisher. I'm not letting you fly away from me this time."
"Well then," she says. "You'd better show me."
Jack takes her mouth in a kiss so light and tantalising it almost succeeds in distracting her from the movement of his hand, but then she feels the first brush of his fingers beneath the silky material of her underthings, parting her and stroking her with no hesitation at all, and everything clenches deep within her in a shudder of anticipation.
"Oh," she says; it's barely a word, more like a purr.
She lets her head fall back and Jack drops a very serious kiss on the tip of her chin, which makes her laugh. She controls her neck again and meets his gaze as his other hand slips to the small of her back, holding her firm: pinned, indeed. All she has to do is shift her hips in little waves, encouraging, glorying in the blunt and sure strength of his fingers. The door to the room is still ajar. The possibility of discovery or interruption, the urgency of it, sends a wash of tense excitement through her body.
Jack watches her like he'll either devour or memorise her; there it is, that wildness she went fishing for, now spread from the corner of his mouth to cover his face from hairline to chin like the white mask with its green stars. Everyone knows that Phryne Fisher is the cyclone her mother likes to label her, but hardly anyone, Phryne thinks, has seen this particular weather pattern of Jack Robinson's. His eyes are like rain, and not the drab English rain but the proper thunderstorms of summer at home, when the air shakes hotly and the water pounds against everything.
The pressure is amazing, but the fire it builds is a slow one, and Phryne's already expended all of her patience when it comes to this man. She needs more.
"Harder," she says, right into his ear, "harder than that."
"You never were able to let me do my job without interference," Jack murmurs, brushing the words against her hairline.
"When I've got my hand on you, you can tell me exactly how you like it," she says, hearing herself gone half-cross and half-pleading.
"Is that a promise?"
His eyes tighten with concentration and a groan of relief like torn paper comes from her throat, unbidden, as his fingers slip right into her. To get the angle right he has to wrench her skirts around, but Phryne's already written this dress off gladly. Jack bites off a curse as his wrist catches in a painstakingly stitched seam of the pocket and Phryne manages to laugh again, between waves of urgency and the need to cling to his shoulders.
"Oh, damn the dress, Jack," she says, almost as hoarse as him by now. "You can tear it to pieces and fuck me in the ruins."
Jack's eyes fall closed at the obscenity and a low noise escapes him, pained, like someone's pressing on a tender bruise. Phryne has a flash of the image--the two of them, naked and entwined in the wreckage of crimson taffeta and gold organza--so vivid it's like they must be sharing it, building it between them.
"That had better be a promise, Phryne Fisher."
He sounds gutted and his voice is back in that place beneath her skin, where all her nerves cry out for it. He could take his fingers away and she might still be able to hurtle towards completion with just that sound in her ears: Jack Robinson, out of his mind with wanting her.
Phryne moves a hand to his head and uses it to tug him close in answer, kissing him with all her heart as he moves into a steady rhythm, finally where she needs him, his fingers gliding easily where's she's slick and needy, and just enough pressure from the rough pads at the top of his palm that yellow feverish sensations are knocked through Phryne's body, like she's metal on a forge and Jack's the rough thing beating sparks from her with every stroke. She's going to explode and she's going to implode, and the war between these two forces is all that's holding her together.
When she does explode, small and brilliant, it takes her by surprise, building in a sudden and devastating blow in the time it takes to inhale. Her breath leaves her in a stepwise series of sobs, catching on every wet edge of her throat.
"God," Jack says, vicious, and buries his face in the side of her neck as she clenches in diminishing waves around his hand.
Finally she realises her own hand is so tight in his hair that it probably hurts. She releases him, but he barely seems to notice. His lips are a gentle buzz over her pulse points, the spots where she dabbed perfume a few hours and half a lifetime ago. His fingers are back to moving in lazy, exploratory, purposeless strokes over the freshly wet and over-sensitive surfaces of her.
Phryne smooths her hand through his hair, over his cheek, and Jack finally straightens up. His hand takes a slow path out of the twisted skirts; he's wiping it as he goes. Next time Phryne will be quicker, quick as she knows she can be, and she'll suck his fingers clean just to hear him make that bruised sound again.
The last time Phryne thought herself in love, she was Edith's age, and learning a long hard lesson about the fact that passion, on its own, is not and should never be enough. This is better. It's better in so many ways that she would have to use all her fingers and toes to count them, and for the moment some of those body parts are still distant and blissfully numb. They should come back into the domain of sensation...any time now.
"We're going to climb aboard a ship," she says, breathless. "No aeroplanes, this time: a ship, back to Melbourne."
"Is that so," Jack says.
"Yes," she says. She lays her pleasure-clumsy hand along his jaw, her thumb in the very centre of his mouth. "And for the length of that journey I will have you, Jack Robinson. In all the ways I've wanted to have you. And you will have me."
She asks him with her gaze to accept her lead and her offer, to for once allow himself the luxury of seizing happiness while it's there to be seized instead of trying to mould the unmoldable future through sheer force of will.
Jack obeys. He doesn't ask, and what about when we're back in Melbourne? Jack doesn't ask anything at all.
He says, "I would like that very much," and his voice is almost too quiet to hear, but when he kisses her it's deep and rough like choppy waves.
Phryne told him once that his passions ran as deep as the Pacific Ocean; she might have been wrong in scale. On the day a man leaves the surface of the earth for whatever dark mysteries lie beyond it, the moon and the sun and everything else that the universe has to offer, they will probably have a metric for how much stirs deep down inside Jack Robinson and is hardly ever allowed to surface.
What layered you like this, Phryne wants to ask him--was it upbringing? Was it war or wife or police work, or some strange alchemy of the three?
But he doesn't owe her that answer, and she's not sure she needs it. She knows how to count her blessings, and she's grateful to have him, unmasked and exactly as he is. Grateful that three years ago she walked off the boat in Melbourne and straight into a murder mystery, and that Jack Robinson was there as though he'd simply been waiting for her; as though the universe had decided that she'd travelled enough, and suffered enough, and touched enough things lightly and carelessly. Time to start dirtying her hands with making a home, and with putting down roots.
And so she has.
"But right now, we're going upstairs," she says. "We're going immediately."
Jack is wearing a new mask, now: an expression of deep self-satisfaction that frays into urgency at the corners. She can feel the hardness of him against her leg, and part of her would be happy to free him right here and return the action, stroke him off ruthlessly and swallow the sounds of him falling apart. But she does have a very comfortable bed, behind a door that locks.
"Not enough joy for you, Miss Fisher?" he says, low and teasing.
"Not nearly," she says. "We're just getting started. But I like this version of you, Jack, the one who won't even wait for a bedroom."
"I'd waited long enough."
Something that's been just out of reach since the library finally comes into full view in Phryne's mind, as though all it needed was for everything else to be driven away by pleasure. "I laughed him out of patience; and that night I laughed him into patience."
"Fifteen-all," Jack says, his face folding around a smile. "Although perhaps we should look into claiming another play. Cleopatra, Clytemnestra--their stories were tragedies."
"Name me a classic that wasn't, in the end."
He smiles even more widely. "Was that a warning?"
"No." Phryne lifts his hand to her mouth. She kisses one of his fingertips and Jack's eyes darken like old blood. "You know me, Jack: I won't stand to be anyone else's story. I think ours shall be entirely original."