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The Rescuers Down Under

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July, 1928

The body, Fen insisted later, was absolutely not her fault.

True, the elderly gentleman had been bothering her. She'd had a bit of a reprieve during and immediately after the war, but now, in her comfortable middle age, the young gentlemen in search of rich wives had been replaced by elderly gentlemen in search of housekeepers—or, worse, attempting to rescue her from her extremely enjoyable spinsterhood. True, too, she had given the elderly gentleman a mighty wallop on the knuckles with the hard steel end of her umbrella—a trick she had learned from a rather remarkable Egyptologist—when he tried to put his hand on her knee. But none of that remotely accounted for the way he had fallen off the sofa and begun frothing at the mouth, and then met a rapid and untimely end on the plush red carpet of Melbourne's nicest hotel.

It was Pat's fault that they were in Australia in the first place. She'd had that appalling letter from Daniel da Silva, detailing his adventures across Australia with Archie Curtis the previous year, and Pat had got that martial gleam in her eye that always made Fen go a bit weak in the knees, and said, "We can do better than that, can't we?" So here they were, in a country where gentlemen apparently dropped dead when you so much as tapped them with an umbrella. Fen was not impressed.

"What have you gotten us into this time?" Pat said in an undertone, sitting down on the sofa next to Fen and taking her hand, which was permissible in light of Fen's ostensible distress over the dead body. Not that she was distressed, particularly, but it seemed important to maintain appearances. The earnest young police constable had been on the verge of fetching smelling salts before Pat had arrived, but he'd been conveniently distracted by the arrival of his superior officer at the same moment, and the two men were now busy examining the body.

"I didn't do anything," Fen protested. "Honestly, Pat, we're on holiday. I'm not looking for trouble."

"You say that every time," Pat said fondly, and gave her hand a little squeeze.

The constable turned away from the body, trailing his superior office, and came over to them. "Sir," said the constable, "this is Mrs—" he looked blank for a moment, and then scrambled for his notebook.

"Miss," Fen corrected. "Fenella Carruth, and this is my companion, Miss Patricia Merton."

"Detective Inspector Jack Robinson," said the constable's superior. He was a darkly handsome man, maybe ten years younger than Fen, and he looked very serious. Fen wondered if he ever smiled, or if the life of a Detective Inspector did not allow for laughter. "This is Constable Collins. Miss Carruth, Miss Merton, I'm afraid we may need to take you down to the station to answer a few questions."

"Now Jack," said a woman's voice, light and amused, "that hardly seems necessary before we even know if it's a murder."

Inspector Robinson's eyes closed for a moment in an expression so intimately familiar to Fen that she couldn't quite stop herself from staring. It was a look she knew from Pat's own beloved face, equal parts dread and delight, and she would not have expected to see anything like it on Inspector Robinson's too-serious countenance. The Inspector and Constable Collins both turned, and she followed their gaze to where a young woman in a superb hat was striding across the hotel lobby, arm-in-arm with another woman nearer Fen's own age and carrying a black doctor's bag.

Beside Fen, Pat went still. "Good Lord," she said, as the two women came up to them, "Mac?"

The older woman blinked at Pat, startled, and then began to grin. "Pat Merton, as I live and breathe. How's your aim these days?"

Pat got up from the sofa, and went to clasp hands with Mac—Doctor MacMillan, Fen realized suddenly, remembering Pat's stories from the war. "Still better than yours," she said, laughing a little, and turned back to Fen. "Fen, this is Doctor Elizabeth MacMillan, you remember she very nearly bested me in that shooting contest in the Lady's Auxiliary. Mac, my good friend Fenella Carruth."

"I remember," Fen said, and stood up to shake hands. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor MacMillan. What a lovely surprise."

Mac gave her a sharp, amused look—seeing right through Fen's mask, she would wager, and knowing exactly what Pat and Fen were to one another. Pat and Mac had hit it off immediately, Fen remembered, because Mac was like them: much more interested in the company of other women than in the company of men.

"That settles it," said the other woman, with the air of someone who expected her instructions to be followed without question. "We can't have friends of Mac's kicking their heels at the station, now can we? Miss Merton and Miss Carruth will come to my house for tea, and you can ask them your questions in comfort, Jack."

"Oh, no," said Fen, a little alarmed. "We couldn't put you out, Miss—"

"Fisher," said Inspector Robinson, Constable Collins, and Doctor MacMillan, all at once. Miss Fisher looked amused, and the other three looked remarkably resigned.

"Nonsense, Miss Carruth," said Miss Fisher, "I have plenty of room."

*

Miss Fisher drove a 1924 Hispano-Suiza at a speed which Fen found frankly delightful, and by the time they arrived at her house, they were all on first name terms.

"Fen's the motorist, really," Pat explained to Phryne as they went into the house, "but I drove an ambulance during the war, which is how I met Mac." Mac had stayed behind to assist the police, and Phryne seemed especially interested in Pat's war stories. Fen wondered how long—and how well—Phryne and Mac had known one another.

They were met at the door by a pretty young woman in a conservative brown suit; despite the suit, Fen rather thought there was more to her than met the eye. "Dot," Phryne said cheerfully, handing off her coat and hat, "Hugh and the Inspector will be around shortly, I expect; would you have Mr Butler rustle up some tea for all of us? My assistant, Miss Dorothy Williams," she added over her shoulder to Fen and Pat, and Fen took up the rest of the introductions as Miss Williams showed them into the drawing room.

Mr Butler was just pouring the tea when the doorbell rang, and Phryne laughed. "That will be them now," she said. "Mr Butler?"

"Of course, Miss," Mr Butler said, and went to answer the door. He was back a moment later, trailed by Mac and Inspector Robinson. Mac flung herself into an armchair, leaving the Inspector standing—a trifle awkwardly, Fen thought—in the doorway.

"Come and sit down, Jack," Phryne said, giving the Inspector a speaking look over the rim of her teacup. Fen nudged Pat, and Pat gave her a quelling glance; across from them, Mac rolled her eyes. "What did you do with Hugh?"

"He's in the kitchen with Miss Williams," Inspector Robinson said.

"When there's a murder to be solved?" Phryne demanded, mock-scandalized. "Shouldn't he be out hunting down suspects?"

"Well," said the Inspector, taking a chair and pouring himself a cup of tea, "as it turns out, it wasn't a murder."

"No?" Phryne sounded disappointed. "That's a shame."

Inspector Robinson looked tolerably amused, but Fen detected a hint of disappointment in his eyes, a perfect mirror to Phryne's. What were these two getting up to, here on the other side of the world? Perhaps Australia had something to recommend it, after all.

"Waste of my afternoon," Mac grumbled. "Especially with the way those people at the hotel were carrying on. Like nobody had ever head of a citrus allergy before."

"Is that what it was?" Fen asked, leaning forward in keen interest.

Mac nodded. "Nothing sinister, just a tragic mistake."

"You're sure it wasn't murder?" Phryne asked Inspector Robinson—Jack, Fen thought, given the way he and Phryne were still looking at each other like they couldn't bear to look away. Fen knew how that went, and glanced sideways at Pat. Pat was scowling the way she only did when she was trying very hard not to smile, and the edge of her hand brushed Fen's on the sofa between them.

"I'm afraid not," Jack said. "When Doctor MacMillan and I spoke with the kitchen staff and the hotel manager, they went all to pieces. It seems Mr Anderson had failed to inform anyone of his allergy in the first place, but that didn't stop the manager from blaming the cooks." He glanced over at Fen and Pat, and grimaced. "In fact, I'm sorry to say this, but Miss Carruth and Miss Merton may not want to return to the hotel; it was in quite an uproar by the time we left."

"Oh dear," said Pat. "We were booked for the rest of the fortnight."

Phryne set her teacup down. "That won't do at all," she said, and Fen's eyebrows shot up at her tone; it was exactly the same tone Fen used herself when she was set on managing something to the full extent of her own rather remarkable organizational powers. "You'll have to stay with me."

Fen looked at Pat and Pat looked back, head titled in a gesture that said, very clearly, Will we regret this? Fen lifted one shoulder, delicately, and smiled. I think it could be an adventure. She liked Phryne, and Pat knew Mac, and Mac and Phryne were clearly great friends. Besides, Fen felt a bit cheated of a proper mystery, and Phryne and Detective Inspector Robinson were utterly fascinating.

"If you're sure," Pat said. "We really wouldn't want to impose."

"Phryne enjoys impositions," Mac said dryly.

"It's Christmas in July tomorrow," Phryne said, ignoring Mac. "I'd hate to have an empty house."

Fen was not precisely certain what Christmas in July entailed—Australians, on the whole, being a bit of an odd bunch—but she was sure she could rise to the occasion. She smiled at Phryne. "In that case, we'd be pleased to accept your invitation, Miss Fisher."

Phryne stood up. "Excellent. I'll send Bert and Cec for your things." She shot Fen a conspiratorial glance, and added, "My household staff are extremely discreet." Fen swallowed a laugh, and watched as Phryne turned the full force of her sparkling eyes on Jack. "You'll stay for supper with us, won't you, Jack?"

Jack demurred, but in the end, none of them were a match for Phryne Fisher.

*

Jack went home after an excellent supper—somewhat to Fen's dismay, since she had been enjoying the circles he and Phryne seemed to be dancing around each other—but Fen and Pat and Mac and Phryne sat up late into the night, drinking Phryne's truly top-notch whisky and trading stories. Phryne was an actual lady detective, it turned out, which delighted Fen to no end; she and Pat could only really claim to be amateurs, though they had uncovered a few murders in their time, and stopped a few more. As the clock ticked past two, Fen found herself recounting one of their earliest adventures, when they'd discovered that horrible blackmail plot of the Armstrongs and met Archie and Daniel.

"You've stayed friends all this time?" Phryne asked. Her feet were tucked up under her on the sofa, shoes kicked off at least an hour before. They were all a little rumpled, relaxed from the food and the whisky and the company, the long day and the late night.

"Friendships formed under fire," Pat said, raising her glass in a toast to absent friends, and to present new and old ones. "They've got a way of lasting, as I imagine you know very well. Da Silva hasn't mellowed much over the years, but he and Curtis are good for each other. Still getting into trouble."

"Just like us," Fen agreed, and caught Pat's free hand in her own, brushing a kiss over her knuckles. Pat gave her a long look under her eyelashes, which would have been lovely if Fen hadn't—embarrassingly—yawned at the same moment.

Pat and Mac both laughed, and Phryne stretched, catlike, and said, "Oh dear, it's quite late. Bed for all of us, I think. Mac, I had Dot make up your usual room, and Pat and Fen are at the end of the hall."

Upstairs, Pat tugged Fen into the bedroom Phryne had put them in—one bedroom for the two of them and one large bed, like it wasn't even a question. "This is much nicer than that hotel," Fen said to Pat, sitting down at the dressing table to take off her stockings.

"I trust Miss Fisher's staff are as discreet as she says," Pat grumbled, but she was pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, her hair coming loose from its sensible chignon.

"I'm really quite glad that man dropped dead," Fen admitted, starting to unpin her own hair. Pat came up behind her to help, neatly piling the pins on the dressing table. "We might not have met Miss Fisher and the Inspector, otherwise, or come across Mac, and to be honest, they've improved my impression of Melbourne in the extreme."

Pat laughed and pressed a kiss to the nape of Fen's neck, before starting to undo the buttons on the back of her dress. "Too bad it wasn't a murder," Pat said, with that sly edge that she so rarely brought out in company. "Then we could have really had some fun."

Fen turned in the chair, looking up into Pat's beloved face, the smile lines curving around her mouth and the delicate crows' feet at the corners of her dark eyes; nearly thirty years they'd been together, and she couldn't imagine changing a thing. "Christmas in July sounds like fun, don't you think? Christmas is an excellent time for intrigue, and it does seem like Phryne and the Inspector have their hands full. We'll have to stay around for a bit and see how we can help."

"Well," Pat said slowly, her smile widening, "we do still have to show up Daniel and Archie."

Fen grinned, and stood up into the circle of Pat's arms. "And just think, my love, we've got this nice big bed, in this lovely house where no one will mind whatsoever what we do in it. Seems like a stroke of remarkable good fortune to me. Because really—"

Pat kissed her until she stopped talking; there were, after all, much better things to do.