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Staying Afloat in the Tunnel of Love

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Fairyland sparkled, but it was also dripping wet. Phryne sat on a giant plaster mushroom and wished for an umbrella. It might be sunny outside the ride, but inside the River Caves the ceiling dripped with condensation from the canal that ferried boats past each scenic tableau. Here in Fairyland, the paste jewels and the blinking coloured lights strung about the diorama at least made for a festively garish backdrop for her current predicament.

Jack, of course, would have nothing to do with the fanciful setting. He stood at the edge of the tableau and peered down the tunnel, gun in hand, watching for the thugs who had followed them into the Tunnel ride.

"I doubt you'll see anything yet," Phryne said, and swung her legs. "The boats are three minutes apart." She batted her eyelashes at him: there was nothing like danger to make flirtation truly fun. "It's to give the couples a little privacy."

Jack glanced back from the tunnel and shook his head. "If you're not going to search, can you at least keep cover? Stoker's goons are all armed, and I can't see a damn thing away from these lights. They could be on us in an instant."

Phryne laughed and patted the Bakelite head of the Fairy Queen beside her. "Don't worry, Jack, darling. The boats trigger the figurines into action. When dear old Titania starts shaking and spinning, we'll know there's a boat on the way. I've ridden the River Caves seven times since the Marks family contacted me." There had been no complaints from Jane, who was happy to visit Luna Park as many times as she could. Jane made wonderful cover as well as company. Nobody questioned a woman and her apparent daughter enjoying an amusement park.

"Wonderful," Jack said, shaking his head. "We'll join in the fairy ballet and blend right in when the Stoker mob show up to search for their loot."

Phryne slipped off the giant mushroom and twirled madly. Her skirt flared out and the glass beads twinkled in the electric light that shone faintly green off the water in the canal. "At least I'm dressed for the occasion."

As if awakened by all this gaiety, the figurines in the tableau creaked into action. Titania raised and lowered her arm, and the crystal glued to the Bakelite wand glowed eerie green.

Jack cursed and holstered his revolver. "Come on," he said, and held out his hand.

---

"We wouldn't be here if you had come to me. Just once, could you ask for help? We are the police, after all." There was a narrow walkway between tableaux, barely the width of one small foot. If Jack hadn't been holding on with both hands to a rickety iron railing as they edged along to the next opening, Phryne was sure that he would have taken her by the shoulders and give her a good shake.

She wedged a pointed toe between concrete moulded to resemble tumbled rocks and wriggled alongside him. "You know very well why I couldn't, Jack. Dan Marks couldn't ask for your help when someone stole his property, and as he's my client, neither could I. So I did my detective work, and I found out who has a grudge against him, and I followed them here."

"The diamond wasn't Marks' property to begin with," Jack said. "It wasn't Charlie Stoker's property either, but he chose to fence it through Marks. Somebody's got to tell the truth some time, or all I get to do is clean up bodies. And I don't want to be cleaning up yours one day."

Dear Jack. Phryne wished she could hug him, but then they'd both end up floating in the murky green waters of the canal that ran through the caves. "We both want to protect the people we're responsible for, Jack. We go about it in different ways."

"Yes, well, this is most certainly a different way," Jack swung himself into the next opening in the tunnel with relief, then turned to offer his hand.

Phryne stepped down with élan, as if it were a carriage she disembarked from, and not a concrete ridge slimy with algae. Behind them, she could hear the Stoker goons ripping Fairyland to pieces searching for their stolen diamond.

Jack stood with his hands on his hips, gazing up at Rapunzel's tower with a perplexed expression.

Phryne joined him, snaked an arm through his and peered up at the fair Rapunzel. "What a sweet face! She reminds me of Dot."

Jack couldn't conceal the twitch of his mouth. He threw his other arm around the Prince in a companionable embrace. "So that would make this fine young man in a purple cape the good Constable Collins, then?"

Phryne laughed and allowed herself to lean on Jack's shoulder for a moment. "They're good together, I think."

"Miss Williams must have the patience of a saint if she puts up with everything you bring home," said Jack. "And Collins is an exemplary police officer, when he stops gawping and puts his mind in gear. Yes, I think they could care for each other well."

They both considered the tower and the princess inside.

Jack spoke quietly. "I could have offered them protection. The Marks family. Even a fence has a right to see his children and wife safe from harm. You should have come to me when the diamond vanished from his safe."

"Not every policeman is as trustworthy as you, Jack. Once they're in the system, their protection is out of your hands. And Old Man Stoker has a lot of money to offer." Phryne watched his jaw set as she spoke. She hated to point out the flaws in the force that he loved so much, but there were reasons that people came to her and not the police for help. " I know you would do everything you could to protect them. But, Jack, darling, you're only one man. Well, two men, with the exemplary Constable Collins. Still, two men can't keep a family safe forever. Finding the diamond and returning it to the Stoker gang gives them a chance."

Jack stepped abruptly away from her. "I can't hear this. I won't be party to returning stolen goods to the criminals that lifted them in the first place. The diamond's not here. We'd better move quickly if we're going to find it before the Stokers catch us up."

He left the tower and stepped out into the darkness of the tunnel again. Phryne sighed, and hurried after him.

---

The Stoker boys caught up with them in Aladdin's cave. The prow of the brightly painted boat appeared, and the puppets automatically sprang into life. Then bullets sang, throwing puffs of plaster where they embedded in the genie's green body while the mechanical puppet gestured and shook. Phryne reached for her thigh holster, but before she could draw, Jack barrelled her to the ground. She struggled to get her hand and her gun free, but he pressed flat on top of her behind an oversized treasure chest. Piles of gilt plaster coins pressed into the small of her back as she struggled for breath. Jack was surprisingly solid, for a man so trim in his coat.

"Stop wriggling," he hissed at her, then propped his own gun against the lid of the chest. He looked, then sharply looked away, as Phryne extracted her pearl-handled revolver from the mass of bead tassels that formed the skirt of her dress.

"Now, we don't want no trouble." The solid, red-nosed man with cauliflower ears was Spud Stoker, chief bruiser and nephew to Old Man Stoker. He held a snub-nosed revolver loosely in his right hand, the other in his pocket. Behind him, two goons propped shotguns over their shoulders like the Tin Soldier from a few tableaux back. "There's nowhere to run. We've got Joe Riccardi, he blabbed it all to us: how he cracked the safe, how he hid the diamond somewhere here. We only want our property, is all."

Phryne slipped her revolver back into the holster, and rummaged in her tiny purse. Her compact was round, and the facets of frosted glass gleamed in the uneven electric light of the cave. It would do.

"What are you doing?" said Jack, barely moving his lips.

"When things go mad, run for the boat." Phyrne stood before he could talk her out of it, holding her compact in her hand. "Hello, boys."

The goons swung their shotguns off their shoulders and raised them. "Spud," said one, distinguishable only by his shorter stature, "It's that detective bird; Marks had her card."

"Yeah, we've heard of her." Spud gestured with his gun. "He got you ferreting for the rock, too, then?"

"He did," said Phryne. "I hope nothing unfortunate has happened to Mr Marks while I was hunting for it."

Spud shrugged. "Nothing that weren't promised him if he were careless. You trust a man to watch your property. Man doesn't take proper care, he's got to expect some bruises."

The taller thug behind him sniggered, and Phryne's blood boiled, thinking of Daniel Marks' tiny but immaculate house and the children who knew little of their father's profession. "Mr Marks did everything in his power to secure that gem, when too many people knew about it. He's not responsible for the fact that your uncle can't keep his stupid mouth shut."

"Phryne!" Jack whispered, urgently. "For God's sake, be careful."

"Now, see here, girlie," Spud stepped towards her, hand outstretched. They always underestimated her, these men with so much vested in their masculinity. Phryne was nothing like as harmless as they thought, but she wasn't above using their preconceptions against them.

Behind the men, a new boat appeared at the mouth of the cave. Phryne waited a heartbeat for it to pause in front of the display, then she held up the frosted glass compact, catching the light and playing it across Spud's face so he blinked and squinted in confusion. "Here's your diamond," she said. "I've got no argument with Old Man Stoker. For hurting my client, though, you can do your own legwork." She hurled the compact behind her, and it skimmed over the top of the plaster genie's head, landing somewhere behind in the piled masses of paste gems and fake gold coins.

"Find that bloody diamond!" Spud and his boys surged towards the genie, and Phryne did not impede them. Instead, she gracefully stepped into the new boat as it moved past them. Behind her, Jack took three long strides and a flying leap. The boat rocked and swayed on its track and water splashed, but they remained upright and the boat moved smoothly down the canal.

---

Jack kept low in the boat while he fumed. "You could have been shot!"

"Spud Stoker is smarter than he lets on. Nobody wants a shoot-out on the River Caves ride, not even the Stoker boys. I protect myself, Jack. I'm pretty damn good at it, too."

Sitting in the bottom of the boat, Phryne was more shaken than she cared to admit. She opened her purse, found her lipstick, then eyed the tremor in her hands and put it away. After all, she didn't have her compact any more. Instead, she wrapped her arms around herself, and wondered which of these coloured boats she'd left her shawl in.

"There's a difference between independence and bloody-minded foolhardy decision-making." Jack shrugged out of his coat and draped it over her shoulders without comment, he simply continued his argument as though nothing had happened. "Now, independence, I can respect."

Phryne pulled herself up onto the seat, rigidly upright despite the threat of the Stoker boys behind them. "That foolhardy decision kept you safe today. Do you think they'd be gentle with a police inspector as a hostage? Respect that, Inspector Robinson."

They sat in silence for a while, and the little boat moved on. Soon, it paused at Bluebeard's chamber.

Jack jumped out, and searched the scene. "It's like some compulsion with you," he said as he flung open papier-mâché chests and overturned tankards, searching for the missing diamond. "You won't ask for help, not ever, not even when you're drowning."

"I don't have to ask for help. I make sure I can swim. I make sure I can do everything," Phryne waited in the boat, hunched inside Jack's coat, but she stared each severed head evenly in the face, to prove she was not afraid. "I gave up asking for help a long, long time ago. You know, at first they said she had run away. Jane would never run away. I was the adventurous one, I was the sister that constantly strayed, and because of that, they didn't believe me when I said that something was wrong."

"I know," said Jack. He stepped back into the boat before it slid entirely past the tableau. "I've read the reports. I'm sorry they let you down."

Phryne gave a little shrug. "It wasn't your case, Jack. It was a long time ago. You can't save everyone."

"Still hurts when I can't. I want to be able to protect the Marks." Jack shook his head. "I hate dirty cops."

The little boat juddered to a halt beneath them, and the water swirled at the prow.

"Are we sinking?" said Phryne. She scuffed her feet against the bottom of the boat. A little brackish water had collected there – courtesy of a few bullet holes – but the trickle of water did not seem to be an immediate danger.

Jack peered over the edge. "I don't think we can sink, not far, anyway. The boats are on a track; they're towed by a motor."

Gears clattered somewhere inside the Caves, and the boat lurched in the opposite direction. Phryne and Jack gazed at each other in horror.

"They've got someone at the controls," said Phryne.

Jack checked his revolver and grimaced at the empty cylinder. "It could be my people. I've got reinforcements coming."

Bluebeard's chamber slid back into view. "Come on," said Phryne, and leapt out of the boat. "I don't think I want to come rocketing out of the tunnel into the hands of the Stoker boys."

Jack hopped neatly onto the wooden floorboards of the tableaux. "I'd feel a lot better if I had the diamond safe and sound."

"I'd feel a lot better if Mr Marks and his family were safe and sound." Phryne raised her eyebrows at him and pursed her lips. Negotiating was a lot like flirting, and that made things feel much more normal.

"The Chief Commissioner has reserved safe houses out past Shepparton, if I'm not mistaken," said Jack. "I think that this level of organised crime falls under the auspices of that purpose. Maybe there's an arrangement he can make with Mr Marks. I'm sure he has a lot of information that could be useful to ongoing cases, and I doubt the Stoker boys have much influence that far north."

Phryne smiled widely. "I'm told the countryside is a wonderful, wholesome place for young children. And reformed fences," she said. "Let's not search anymore, Jack. Let's find a way out of this madhouse."

Jack peered down the tunnel, and stepped out onto the narrow ridge again. "I think the madhouse is the next ride along from here."

"Darling Jack," said Phryne as she moved carefully beside him. "That's the Giggle Palace, and I'd be happy to take you through it any time."

---

The reinforcements had arrived. Constable Collins' face was a welcome sight at the disembarkment point of the River Caves. Jack jumped down onto the wooden platform, and graciously handed Phryne down. Then he jogged off to brief his troops before they plunged into the tunnel after the Stoker boys.

Phryne blinked in the bright sunlight, and patted Constable Collins on the cheek. "I think you'll make a lovely prince someday, Hugh," she said. "And Dot never need bob her hair."

Constable Collins blushed. "I would never expect her to do that, Miss Fisher." He took in Phryne's sleek cap of short dark hair, and his blush deepened. "That is, uh, not to say that it doesn't look attractive, of course…"

"What's so attractive, Collins?" Jack asked, pleasantly.

Constable Collins sputtered an incoherent answer and hurried about some important business.

Jack regarded Phryne, arms crossed. "Quite the adventure we've had today, Miss Fisher."

"Indeed. Very diverting, the amusement park," said Phryne. She plunged her hands deep into the pockets of Jack's coat, and felt the sharp facets of the diamond she had plucked from Titania's wand. She shrugged out of the coat, and held it with her finger caught in the collar. "I believe this is your property, Inspector." She passed it over, diamond still hidden in the pocket.

Jack patted it down and folded it over his arm with a smile. "Thank you for trusting me."

Phryne's smile felt less brittle, somehow. She caught his arm and held it tight. "Thank you for being worth it."