“That’s men for you,” said Mac. Looking at Dot’s huge shining eyes and wobbling lips, she was forced to acknowledge that it fell rather short of the mark, comfort-wise. She reached out and patted Dot’s shoulder through the thick flannel of her dressing gown. “There, there.”
“Have a little drink,” added Mr Butler, placing a full glass of cognac on the kitchen table in front of her. “It’ll do you good.”
“As a doctor, I concur,” said Mac. “And two will do you twice as much good.” This was not only logical, but demonstrably true. Mac was fairly sure the extrapolation ceased to be accurate further along the x-axis but calculating the exact point at which that became the case was unlikely to be necessary for Dot, and anyway Mac made it a rule to avoid complicated mathematics when she was drunk. Crosswords, fine. Calculus, no.
Dot looked round at all their faces before picking up the glass gingerly, as if it was about to explode in her hands. “Is this strong liquor?”
“No,” said Mac, in her most soothing bedside-manner voice.
“Just a little pick-me-up,” said Mr Butler.
“Yes,” said Bert.
“Take no notice of him, he’s drunk,” said Mac.
Bert blinked and attempted to sit upright. “I resent that,” he said, pointing a finger in Mac’s general direction and inscribing a figure-of-eight in the air. “That’s typical of the capitalist class, that is, oppressing the proletariat just because they’ve had a drink or two, and-”
“Oh, hush,” said Dot, slapping his hand down. She pressed her lips together, raised her chin and held the glass up high, where the tawny liquid shone a pretty golden-brown in the light. Then she sat up straight and knocked back half of it in one go.
“Hurrah!” said Mac, holding her own glass high in celebration.
“That’s the stuff, Dottie,” said Bert.
“Gah!” Dot’s face went through an amusing series of contortions and grimaces. “Oh, that’s horrible.”
“It is an acquired taste,” acknowledged Mr Butler.
“Well, I don’t intend to acquire it, thank you very much.” Dot put her glass down and pushed it away from her. “I really don’t know why people would go to so much trouble for something so nasty when there are perfectly nice drinks here at home.”
“Ours not to reason why,” said Mac, “ours to do as we’re told and help drink up this horribly expensive black-market booze that somehow fell into the hands of justice. Even if justice herself is off somewhere else making eyes at an officer of the law.”
Dot’s face crumpled and fell at that. “I used to flirt with an officer of the law, before he left me to go fishing. What do fish have that I haven’t?”
“Bastard,” mumbled Bert. “Cec would have stayed up drinking with us, before he left me for his wife. Where’s the justice in that?” He banged the table for emphasis.
“I’ve never seen the point in marriage,” Mac confessed. “Lot of trouble for not enough reward, if you ask me.”
Their little gathering fell quiet as Dot and Bert stared morosely at the table.
Mr Butler cleared his throat. “I’ll grant you that not every marriage is a happy one, and even the happiest has its ups and downs, but marrying my wife was far and away the best thing I ever did. A good marriage is a real blessing in life.”
“What was she like?” asked Dot, leaning forward like a child listening to a story.
Mr Butler beamed at her. “Mrs Butler was very wise and always cheerful, and she had a beautiful singing voice.”
“Was she good-looking?” asked Bert.
“She was to me,” said Mr Butler.
It seemed to Mac as if they all sighed at once, one big shared sigh redolent of wistfulness and romance and boozy, cognac-sodden breath.
“To Mrs Butler,” she said.
“To Mrs Butler,” they chorused before all draining their glasses.
“And on that note,” said Mac, rising to her feet, “I’m going to bed. Goodnight, lady and gentlemen.”
Mac staggered upstairs to the guest bedroom on the first floor, where she splashed some cold water on her face before undressing, hanging her clothes up neatly and finally unpinning her hair. It looked ridiculous as it always did, undulating down over her shoulders like some silly woman in a painting, but her scalp did appreciate being free at night.
“That’s better,” she said with a sigh of relief to the swaying image in the mirror, and with a herculean effort she managed to climb onto the bed and drag herself under the covers. It was a good bed, with a firm mattress and soft covers and, best of all, a dangling velvet rope right by the head of the bed so that she didn’t have to get out of bed to turn the light off. She grabbed it on her second attempt and plunged the room into sleepy, soothing darkness.
“Good bed,” Mac said to the bed as she wriggled further down under sheets that felt bloody spectacular - thank god Phryne was a sybarite as well as stinking rich, or she might have frittered it all away on charitable works and property investments. “You’re my favourite bed. Stay still while I go to sleep, there’s a good girl.”
Mac settled down on her side and waited for sleep to overcome her. After a while she became aware of a soft yellow light coming in under the doorway.
“Come in if you’re coming in,” she called, and the door opened to reveal Dot, candle in hand.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Not yet.” Mac recognised the signs - the late hour, the hesitancy. Dot wanted to talk about her feelings and had decided, based solely on her sex, that Mac would be a suitable recipient of confidences. Women tended to make that mistake, although not often twice; Mac was great with a scalpel, not so much with the squishy stuff.
Mac sighed and patted the bed beside her.
Dot closed the door, tip-toed into the room, set her candle down on the bedside table and, to Mac’s surprise, dropped her dressing gown to the floor and climbed under the covers.
“Oh!” said Dot, wide-eyed. “You’re naked.”
“Yes,” said Mac. Clearly all that detective training was paying off.
“I could find you a nightgown if-”
Mac yawned. “Don’t bother.”
Dot laid her head down on the pillow and regarded Mac. She had a pretty face, all soft and delicate in the dimness. The candlelight behind her head made the curls around her face shine, like a frizzy halo.
“You’ve got beautiful hair,” said Dot.
Mac blinked. “Thank you.”
Dot bit her lip. “Is it true that you - Miss Fisher said-”
Mac waited, stifling another yawn, and was startled when Dot suddenly darted forward and pressed a quick, off-centre kiss to Mac’s lips.
“Oh!” said Mac. “That, I can do.” She kissed Dot back, slow and open-mouthed, and was reminded anew what a lovely thing kissing was. Dot’s lips were so full, like soft little pillows; Mac got lost in them, and it took her a minute to notice that Dot was trembling.
“Steady,” she said, leaving off the kissing and wrapping an arm round Dot’s shoulders. Dot wriggled round so that her back was against Mac’s front, the starched cotton of her nightdress scratchy against Mac’s skin, her long hair tickling Mac’s nose. Mac ran her hand down Dot’s side in long, firm strokes, which was a technique she’d first learned for calming horses but seemed to work well on people too. Dot smelled of flour and cinnamon with a faint trace of carbolic soap underneath, as if she’d spent all day in the kitchen.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mac when Dot had relaxed.
“I was just ... curious,” said Dot.
“Nothing wrong with curiosity,” said Mac. “Sign of a healthy enquiring mind.”
Dot sighed and pressed herself back against Mac, her lovely, plump bottom nestling into Mac’s lap. “This is nice. Is it very different with men?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I’ve seen diagrams. As far as I can tell the mechanics are pretty similar.”
“But didn’t you ever want-“
“I did not.” Mac cupped Dot’s right breast for emphasis. It was a generous handful, even ignoring the tucks and ruffles. Idly, Mac rubbed Dot’s nipple through the fabric until it rose up and Dot shivered against her.
“I’m really cross with Hugh.”
Mac hmmed and stroked her stomach.
“And I think I might be intoxicated.”
“So am I,” said Mac. “It’s fun, isn’t it?”
“Will you show me,” said Dot, pushing Mac’s hand south.
“Oh, go on then.”
Mac snuck her hand between Dot’s legs and rubbed her gently through her white cotton nightgown. It was the oddest, chastest, most delicate sex Mac had ever had, and the most one-sided she’d had in a long time. It made her feel generous, and randy, and old, and young again at the same time, as long-forgotten memories from her adolescent years re-surfaced.
Eventually Dot shook and made a quiet, surprised little sound, and Mac rolled onto her back with the warm glow of a job well done.
“Goodnight,” Dot said as she climbed out of bed.
Mac mumbled something in response, and the last thing she was aware of before falling asleep was a shy kiss being pressed to her forehead.
When Mac woke up, the curtains had been flung wide open, the sun was streaming in, and Phryne was perched on the edge of bed in blue silk pyjamas and beaming at her.
“You look disgustingly smug,” said Mac. “Did your inspector finally hold your hand?”
“You know I don’t hold hands and tell. Budge up, I brought toast and coffee.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked you.” Mac sat up, pulled the sheet up in a vague semblance of propriety, and made room on the bed beside her.
Phryne climbed up next to Mac and settled in before passing across a cup of coffee from the bedside table and settling the tray of toast on her lap. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” The coffee was hot, black and horrifyingly strong; the effect was roughly the same as being kicked in the ribs by a particularly ornery mule.
“Now,” said Phryne, buttering a slice of toast, “would you care to tell me why Dot dashed out of the house at the crack of dawn this morning to go to confession?” She took a bite and looked at Mac with wide, inquisitive eyes.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” said Mac, stealing the rest of the slice.
“I can’t help noticing that you’re nude.”
“That must be why you’re a detective,” said Mac with her mouth full.
Phryne narrowed her eyes. “I’ll get the story out of one of you eventually.”
“Did your aunt never tell you that it’s rude to ask about people’s private lives?”
“My aunt tells me a lot of things. I never listen.”
“That must be why you’ve turned out the way you have.” Mac grinned at Phryne’s frown and took another slice. Eating hot buttered toast and drinking strong black coffee in the sunshine with only the faintest trace of a hangover – being disapproved of by Phryne was just the cherry on top of a perfect morning’s sundae.
“Changing the subject completely,” said Mac, “what’s the story with Hugh Collins?”
“Off having a personal crisis,” said Phryne, her frown smoothing out. “Jack thinks he’ll be back when he’s finished thinking. He’s not the world’s speediest thinker.”
“When he’s back, and assuming the romance of the century gets back on track, you might want to give him a few tips.”
“I gave him a book,” said Phryne with a wink that would have done a pantomime dame proud.
“Of course you did.”