“Phryne.” Mac drops into the armchair, takes the brandy that Mr. Butler has so courteously provided, drinks deeply, sighs. “Phryne, you cannot possibly tell me that you intend to—to seduce a police mechanical.” She rests her head against her free hand, rubs gently at her forehead.
“Really, Mac,” Phryne says, tossing her hair, “I would hardly have expected you, of all people, to be so closed-minded.” She takes a sip of her own drink, something violently green and entirely delicious. Mr. Butler is a treasure. “Besides, it’s not as though I were proposing to make free with one of the ’bots down at the garage—he’s entirely rational, he’s capable of saying no if he wants to.”
“Does he even have—“ Mac trails off, frowning, and doesn't finish her question. That’s the beauty of a twenty-year friendship, though: Phryne doesn’t particularly need her to.
“Why, Mac,” she says, smiling, “If I already knew the answer to that question, this wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”
Truth be told, Phryne doesn’t initially intend to seduce a police mechanical. Really, she only means to find John Andrews’ killer and bring them to justice, set Lydia’s mind at ease, perhaps take a run at her own special brand of “consolation”—well, really, it’s not as though Lydia is hard on the eyes at all.
“Excuse me, Madam?” It’s the maid, all curls and earnestness. “That detective wants to speak with you again.”
It’s the work of a moment to slip past the young constable—men really are so tremendously uncomfortable with women’s bodies, it would be a shame if it weren’t so useful—and she’s digging into the cabinet in the powder room, when there’s a knock on the door. Another moment to freshen up, and then—
“You must be the…inspector?” There’s a hesitation in her voice that she hadn’t intended, but she really can’t be blamed for a moment’s surprise. When she’d left Melbourne, fully-articulated automatons had still been an engineer’s dream; the closest thing in the whole country had been the robotic butlers in Canberra, atrocious unwieldy things with more wheels than they knew what to do with, prone to overheating the instant they were faced with a query more taxing than, “Could I have a spot of tea, please?”
The ’bots fighting in the war had been rather more advanced, but Phryne hadn’t had much to do with them—they were fighting, or they weren’t, but either way they didn’t tend to need much in the way of tender care. In Europe, after, she’d seen a few, but never known one to talk to; why hire mechanical staff when the real thing was cheaper, and more entertaining besides?
But here he is, one of the most advanced ’bots she’s ever seen, wearing a police uniform and glaring at her in annoyance. It’s a shock, and a moment’s hesitation is only to be expected. Phryne flatters herself that it’s a shorter moment than any other woman would need.
“This is the scene of a crime,” he tells her, stepping into the bathroom. He’s an interesting model, really, from an aesthetic standpoint. None of the false skin that seems to be all the rage in Europe, which is all to the better; it never hangs right, and it gives Phryne the collywobbles. Instead, the ’bot has smooth metal cheekbones, a high, broad forehead, and narrow lips. His hair, such as it is, is of a piece with his head, with a faint crosshatching over his brow to suggest eyebrows.
And yet, for all that he’s a metal facsimile of a man, he seems more alive—more human—than any of the automatons Phryne has encountered before this. His mouth turns down at the corners, subtle adjustments to convey disapproval, frustration, and the glowing wires behind his eyes seem both annoyed and curious. He’s wearing a three-piece suit—conservative, but not unflattering—and his steps are steady, his gait easy.
“Miss Phryne Fisher,” she says, and his handshake is firm, but not punishing. When she slips under his arm, she catches a hint of motor oil, and the distinct impression that she’s outmaneuvering him, not because his mechanical limbs can’t keep up, but because he wants to see what she’ll do next.
It’s next to nothing to lay out her thoughts about the killing, which even the nervous young constable could have worked out on his own, if he stopped being petrified for twenty seconds. Instead, he takes notes, and the mechanical inspector watches her, electric eyes glowing.
It’s instinct, more than anything else, that leads her to flirt while she asks for his card. Men like pretty girls, and they like helpless girls, and the prettier and the more helpless a girl, the less a man will be inclined to wonder what she’s up to. No reason in particular to think it should apply to a robot, but Phryne still bats her eyelashes and pushes her hair behind her ear, stepping just that bit closer.
“I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher,” he says, and hands her a card.
“I do like a man with a plan,” she says, “Detective Inspector—“ She trails off, staring at the jumble of letters and numbers on the card. “J-A-C—“
“Robinson,” he says. “That’s my designation, Miss.”
“Detective Inspector Jack Robinson,” she says, and brushes past him. “Delighted.”
It does all get rather busy after that—one housemaid pregnant, the other fired under a cloud, a pair of anti-capitalist cabbies, the delectable Sasha, a Turkish bathhouse, a rogue abortionist, a drug lord—and she rather forgets about the fascinating detective inspector. And then the drug lord turns about to be a lady, turns out to be Lydia, although Phryne would be far more impressed at her financial acumen if she weren’t being roasted alive in the hammaam.
But then the police arrive in the nick of time, and the sight of the inspector is nearly as delightful as the rush of cool air that comes with him. Better still is the look on his face the next day, when Mac raises a toast to “The Honorable Phryne Fisher, Lady Detective.”
Mechanicals don’t drink, as a rule, but somehow Phryne doesn’t think that’s what’s causing the dear inspector to choke on his champagne.
Oh, this will be fun.
After two months’ acquaintance, then, this is what Phryne Fisher knows about the automaton designated JAC742GV-0014, more often known as Senior Detective Inspector Jack Robinson:
His skin is entirely metallic, so far as she’s seen, and she’s seen rather a lot, between cases. He can drink but not eat, and prefers to do the former only sparingly; his mental and physical functions are powered by an engine in his chest. He’s stronger than a human man, but prefers not to use his strength unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’s a crack shot. His mind works faster than a human’s, but very methodically; he likes for things to have a clear cause and effect. He smells like motor oil, and like the air before a storm hits, and when Phryne stands close enough to him, she can hear a low hum coming from his chest.
And of course he was in the war, but that’s—they don’t talk about that.
Dot gets used to him much more quickly than she did to the telephone, even though human-shaped mechanicals must be at least as much of a sin as the ’phone. When Phryne asks, Dot bites her lip, eyes wide.
“Father Grogan did say that automatons are a sin, but I can’t think he meant Inspector Robinson—he’s so nice, miss! And he’s helping people!” She shakes her head. “He’s made in man’s image, which means he’s made in the Lord’s image, and he’s doing good deeds—oh, I just don’t know, miss.”
“Well, I certainly don’t think he’s an abomination, Dot,” Phryne says, resting a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Or at least, not nearly as much of abomination as whatever was on Mrs. Lee’s hat yesterday.”
“Oh, miss,” Dot says, but she’s smiling.
A good part of Dot’s concern over Jack is also alleviated by Constable Hugh Collins, who proves to be a young man of almost supernatural earnestness. Hugh is absolutely devoted to Jack, craving his good opinion, practically hanging on his every word.
“Isn’t it odd, though,” Phryne asks him once, “working for a mechanical?” She’s chosen her moment well: they’ve been investigating a salamander-smuggling ring, and are currently hiding behind a twelve-foot terrarium, waiting for the smugglers to get tired of searching for whoever had triggered their very crude alarms.
(Hugh, of course. Phryne would never.)
“Inspector Robinson is the very best man I have ever known,” Hugh hisses. “He’s smarter than any of the DIs I worked for before him, and better-natured, too. I don’t care if he’s a human being, a robot, or a—a bleeding salamander!”
It’s an admirable sentiment, and one Phryne quite shares, but Hugh gets rather agitated, and consequently rather loud, which does bring the smugglers down on their heads. Fortunately, Dot and Jack have managed to join forces with Bert and Cec, and the four of them breaking through the warehouse door does make for a rather splendid distraction.
Bert and Cec, for their parts, start out rather aloof towards the good Detective Inspector, although their doubts seem to hinge chiefly on his profession, not his nature.
“What’s a robot, really, but a slave who don’t know he’s a slave?” Bert says, when she asks him. “The bots you see down at the docks—working all day and night, no breaks, no pay—don’t tell me they’d choose that, if they could choose.” He takes a sip of his tea, shrugging. “The inspector, though—he knows what he’s about, and what he’s about is supporting the state.”
“The robots rose up in Russia,” Cec adds, stirring his own tea. “Right alongside the rest of the reds.” He shakes his head. “Once they understand what they’re choosing, they make the smart choice.”
“The inspector seems to be more in the line of law and order than bloody rebellion,” Mr. Butler interjects, pouring them all a fresh cup of tea. “Which is not a bad line of work, to my mind.” Mr. Butler, for his part, is as entirely unperturbed by Jack’s robotic nature as he is by any of the other sundry commotions that Phryne’s household undergoes on a daily basis. He takes Jack’s hat and coat with no hesitation at all, pours him tea and whiskey as requested, and even managed to remove several very tricky oil stains from Jack’s shirtfront after a rather invigorating shootout.
“I suppose that if you have to seduce a man, you might as well pick a well-dressed one,” Mac says, which is about as highly as she ever thinks of Phryne’s paramours.
“I haven’t seduced him yet, actually,” Phryne says.
Mac sips her whiskey, one eyebrow delicately raised. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve seen the folly of your plans?”
“Oh, Mac, but how would you recognize me without my schemes?”
Mac chuckles. “Your hats would be a good start, I suspect.” She leans back into her chair, stretching her feet toward the grate—it’s been a long, chilly day, and the fire is delightful. “What’s the holdup, then?” Mac asks, after a moment. “It’s not like you to play the ingénue.”
“It’s not my favorite role, but it does have its charms,” Phryne says. “Oh, I don’t know,” she sighs, when Mac continues to stare at her. “He’s—he’s different from the others, somehow.” Mac snorts, and Phryne rolls her eyes. “Yes, of course, that too, but—” she shrugs. “I don’t quite know what I’m about here, Mac.”
“Well,” Mac says, after a long, companionable pause, “I suggest you figure that out, then.”
When they finally talk about the war, it’s over a glass of brandy, shared as a celebration of a nicely-concluded case. Phryne’s leaning back into the arm of the chaise longue, Jack unbending by degrees at the other end. His arm seems to be paining him, though: every time he relaxes enough for his shoulder to touch the fabric of the chaise, something goes rigid in his spine and he snaps back to attention.
“Are you feeling well, Jack?” she asks, after the fourth iteration of this cycle. “Your arm,” she clarifies, when he turns to her with blank, uncomprehending eyes. He’d taken a nasty spill off of a ladder, earlier, but had seemed no worse for the wear, at the time.
His eyes clear, and he shakes his head. “It’s nothing, really,” he says. “Old injury—a war wound, I suppose.”
“Really?” His shoulder had seemed fine, chrome gleaming dimly in the warehouse light, but perhaps she’d missed something, some scar from an old injury.
“Not like you’re thinking, no. Robot bodies,” he says, after a moment— “well, they’re not like yours.”
“In so many ways,” she chuckles, crossing her legs at the knee. He glances down, smiles.
“That, too.” He looks into his drink, turning the glass slowly, watching the amber liquid roll around the bottom of the glass. “What I meant, though, is—if you cut off a man’s head, a human man, what happens?”
“Well, he dies, I suppose,” she says, sipping her own drink. “Although there’s a very clever trick with mirrors and a fake guillotine—“
“I’ve seen it, yes,” he says. “For a man, the body and the head go together—take away one, and the other will cease to function.” He shrugs. “Not for me.”
“But—“ Phryne frowns. “I’ve seen robots die, in the war.”
“And what did they tell you, in the war?” He doesn’t quite smile. “When a ’bot goes dead, you bring back…”
“…the head,” she says, the old rhyme rushing back to her. “But I thought—they said that was for the recordings. For the intelligence effort.”
Jack makes a noise like the static at the end of a record—a sigh, maybe, or a voiceless laugh. “Intelligence, yes,” he says, “and memory, thoughts, personality—soul, if you believe we have those.” He taps the side of his head, just below his sculpted hairline. “Bring it back, plug it into a new body, and you’re back to work.”
“Jack, that’s—“ She takes a sip of her drink, then another. “How many times—“ The JAC- model units didn’t go into production until near the end of the war, but those were long, hard, bloody months.
“Six,” he says. “Seven, maybe—I can’t quite recall.” From a man who has never once forgotten anything in their entire acquaintance, this seems unlikely, but Phryne lets it lie. Jack shrugs, lets out another mechanical sigh. “It’s just a memory,” he says. “ ‘The ghost in the wires,’ they call it. It’s not—we don’t feel pain,” he says, “not like you lot do, as I understand it.”
“I don’t know how anyone could ever claim to know that,” she says, and rests her hand on his. “Jack—”
“I should go,” he says, standing. “Miss Fisher.” Mr Butler, the traitor, is there with Jack’s coat and hat; Jack dons both, then turns back to Phryne.
“Jack,” she says again, but can’t find the words to go on.
“Take care, Miss Fisher,” he says, and then he’s gone.
“How goes your dalliance, then?” Another evening with Mac, another round of drinks. “With the mechanical man, I mean.” Mac quirks an eyebrow at her. “Have you uncovered the secrets of the clockwork heart?”
And Phryne thinks: what does she know about Jack Robinson, Senior Detective Inspector of the Melbourne Police Department?
He runs a tight ship at the station, although not quite so tight that there isn’t room for Phryne. He can drink but not eat, and prefers to do the former only sparingly, but can usually be prevailed upon to take a glass of something with her at the end of a case. He’s stronger than a human man, but his hands are gentle against her skin. He dislikes employers who mistreat their workers, men who mistreat their women, and anyone who mistreats children; he likes seeing justice done, clever wordplay, and her second-newest black hat. He smells like motor oil, and like the air before a storm, and when Phryne stands next to him, her entire body hums with anticipation.
And when he holds her, when he kisses her—
“It’s going very well, thank you,” she says, and sips her drink. Her smile has maybe a touch too much of cat-with-the-canary glee, Phryne finds she doesn’t care: Mac knows her far too well to expect anything else at this point.
“All of your questions answered, then?”
“Hardly!” Every answered question spawns at least two more to answer, but Phryne wouldn’t have it any other way.
After all, where would be the fun in that?