Rosie's sobs were heart-rending, and Jack mourned that her bravery had been so cruelly used. He had never thought much of Sidney Fletcher – perhaps that was natural, as no man cherished his replacement – but there was no denying that Rosie had seemed as effervescent as fine champagne at Fletcher's side, lit up in a way he'd never managed. That her heart had been battered mercilessly was evident from the way she flinched when he moved to fold her in his arms. How could he speak words of pity to her, when she had been a pillar of strength for him, or words of sympathy, when his love had never been betrayed?
All he could do was hold her while he raged with a blazing hatred for Sidney Fletcher and George Sanderson and was guiltily conscious that his shirtfront, to which her face was pressed, was still redolent of the water into which he'd shot her fiancé.
She was going into shock, he registered when her choked moans dropped into an unsettling silence, thankful that the upheaval of her world had not pushed her into a temporary madness. He carried her into his office and plied her gently with brandy to warm her cold form. "For what?" she kept murmuring brokenly.
"I don't know," he finally said. He could not fathom damning children to misery for the sake of a profit.
Her bloodshot eyes pierced him through. "You wouldn't."
He cupped her face in his hand, and she turned her frozen cheek into his rough palm. "You haven't," he swore. "You haven't turned a blind eye or knowingly profited from their crimes." She shook her head, denying his defence, but he refused to let her hurt herself further. "I know. Trust yourself, sweetheart."
"Right now, I only trust you," she said.
He wasn't about to take her to her father's mansion, built on a rotten foundation, or her sister's house, where she would be poked and prodded and never let alone to rest. His own small house wouldn't be safe for more than a few hours, if Fletcher's minions came looking for vengeance in the morning when the news broke. A hotel would be too impersonal.
His mind made up, he wrapped his arm around her and let her lean heavily against him; she hardly had the energy to lift her feet from the ground and shuffled unhappily along. Fresh air seemed to help her slightly, but when she sank into sleep in the passenger seat of his car, she slept like she'd been drugged.
She was still fast asleep when he stopped the car, and he alighted and knocked quietly but relentlessly at the master-bedroom window. A few words' whispered conference, and Mum had his old bedroom ready for Rosie.
He carried her, still slumbering, from the car to the bedroom, setting her down in the bed in which he'd lain years before, dreaming of her pretty mouth forming words of love shaped just for him and of giving her his name.
The whole night seemed like a fever dream, or several lifetimes collapsed into the blink of an eye, but his wristwatch showed the inexorable march of the darkness toward dawn. He stopped the car outside of Phryne's house, burningly aware that it was her bedroom in which the light still shone, wondering which Phryne would greet him if he dared to knock at her front door, shrouded by the night. Would it be the unflinching detective who had explained to one child the murder of another; the avenging angel who'd made it her mission to show George the way to hell; or the woman whose voice grew a touch huskier, her eyes a shade softer, when she was indulging in a large tumbler of her very good whisky?
Did it matter? They all answered to the name Phryne, and it was she whom he sought.
Rosie's pain was not his to discuss, even with Phryne, and he fumbled his words when she asked about her, going still when he heard her response, that he always did the right thing, the noble thing. The only right thing to do at that moment, never mind its nobility, was to surrender to that spark that had turned into a conflagration and devoured his heart.
At last he knew what Rosie had set them both free to seek, and he'd found it in Phryne. He stepped forward, intending to catch her mouth with his, but was foiled by Mrs. Stanley, who eyed him with what he could admit was, given the hour, a justified disdain.
There would be other moments. He'd seen Phryne's lips part to welcome his kiss.
Jack slept heavily for the few hours allotted him and rose with the sense of taking up an accustomed burden. He tied his tie and combed his hair in darkness, the movements automatic and not requiring vision. Dawn was lightening the sky as he packed a bag with a few days' necessities.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Collins at the thinly staffed station – the boy had the makings of a top investigator in addition to being finely sympathetic.
Collins looked better than Jack had expected, visibly exhausted but holding his head at a jauntier angle than he had since realising the girl he’d fished out of the river had been maliciously drowned. Miss Williams had evidently talked some sense into him, then, or perhaps just shown him her pretty face, blooming like a rose and brightening at the sight of him.
They worked steadily for hours, holed up in Jack's office, writing reports for which they did not yet know the audience. Taking down both the Chief Commissioner – the second in a matter of hours – and one of the wealthiest men in the city meant that everything had to be done by the book. Still, there were limits, and he left it to some other Detective Inspector to manage the lot trickling in for the morning shift.
He drove Collins home and said a few words to the formidable Mrs. Collins, already clucking disapprovingly at her son, to give her some sense of what Hugh had accomplished. He could tell the lad barely heard him, swaying on his feet like he'd been struck by a knockout punch and hadn't yet understood his part was to fall, but Mrs. Collins's face softened a bit, and Jack drove off, certain that she'd have Hugh's favourite breakfast ready when he woke.
Mum and Dad had never got round to having a telephone installed in their house, which was just as well, because Rosie needed as much peace as she could get. He fished the key out of his bag and let himself into the kitchen. He found his father in the parlour with a newspaper, which, Jack was relieved to see, had yet to trumpet the only news he cared about. "Your mother's upstairs," Dad said without lifting his eyes, so Jack kept moving, trudging up the stairs and feeling his weariness grow with each step.
He found Mum with her sketchpad and pressed a kiss to her weathered cheek. She nodded toward his bedroom, the door of which was closed. "I thought I heard her up and about early, but nothing for hours now," Mum said in an undertone. "What happened to her, Jack?" She interrupted herself before he could gather his thoughts. "No, see how she's doing first."
He knocked gently, knuckles just brushing against the door, and turned the knob to see Rosie sitting on the bed, tucked into a small ball and wearing his spare pyjamas. She lifted her wet-eyed face from her knees and smiled at him, and his heart clutched tightly at her courage. "Was it very awful?" she asked.
He dropped his bag and sat at the foot of the bed. "Collins was the only one there," he said, "so no. You?" He could see the rings like bruises around her eyes and knew she'd slept no longer than he had.
"It just doesn't seem possible that it was Sidney doing all of this." Was she speaking only of Fletcher because even that devastating hurt was better than thinking of her father, or because she had not yet processed George's part in all of it? "It doesn't matter, does it, that I can't reconcile how he was with me with what he did to those girls? How many girls? It doesn't matter that I can tell myself he could never have loved me if he could do what he did, because, Jack, I haven't got over loving him."
The worst of it was that he understood. There must have been so many tender glances, so many thoughtful gifts, all the unthinking affection of a settled love; her heart had been set at war with her mind, and though the outcome was assured, the battles would be long and bloody. "What do you need?" he asked. "You know you could stay." Mum and Rosie had never had a cross word between them, and Dad had liked her well enough. "I'm staying too."
It looked like her throat was knotted, tearing open to sob out a laugh. "Only you, Jack." She reached for his hand. "I need to be alone." She turned his hand over, tracing the lines on his palm. He raised it to her cheek, blotting her tears with his thumb.
He took her at her word and nodded, trying to memorise her face (one autumnal face) before letting her go. "I can arrange that," he said, thinking of how they'd revelled in the utter solitude they'd found in Lorne in the off-season. He'd trust Cec and Bert to drive her there without harassment; they'd shown as much with their part in stopping the racket, their ungentle proddings of Sanderson and Fletcher once the girls had been rescued. "Let me do that much for you."
A few thugs had been rounded up as they lurked near his little house, Jack learned when he arrived at City South. Youngsters desperate to make their name, convinced that Fletcher would be sprung soon and that he'd reward their initiative in bumping off or at least damaging the nosy copper who'd arrested him in the first place. Hugh brought the report with a sunny smile and a "sorry, sir," and Jack groaned to think of the expense of hiring a good glazier on top of providing funds for Rosie's stay at Lorne. Several of the windows had been smashed, but there was not much additional damage.
The drive to his parents' house was not so taxing that he needed to devise an alternative arrangement, so he pushed the question of his living arrangements to the back of his mind and settled down to work on the reports waiting for his signature: burglaries, one kidnapping, and a spate of poisonings.
"Sir," Constable Hunter said, poking his head in like a curious child in a fairy tale, "there's a call for you."
Phryne, most likely, he thought, surprised when he heard a deep voice on the other end. The Acting Chief Commissioner needed to go through the case with him and Collins, and would come to City South, where all the evidence was being held under lock and key.
Leland Richards was an impressive man, Jack thought. He was built along the same massive lines as Dad – those were builder's shoulders – and had a pugnacious chin that looked like it had never done anything but jut belligerently out from his chest. But he'd listened with commendable patience as Jack outlined the case, casting back several months to set the stage with the murder by the Imperial Club's doorman, the frame-up of George Sanderson, and the prize – the box of illustrious gentlemen's calling-cards – that had been nowhere in evidence at the end of the case. Richards asked cogent questions, seeking answers sometimes from Jack and sometimes from Collins, nodding as each piece of the puzzle fell into place. "Despicable," Richards enunciated clearly once the recitation was over, and Hugh's sigh of honest relief might as well have come from Jack's lungs; it was good to know they would not have to start the fight again.
"What about O'Shaughnessy?" Jack thought to ask. George had appointed the man not only the lead investigator on the drowning case, but also his Deputy Commissioner. Jack was of the opinion that the man was foolish but not corrupt; George had most likely selected him knowing that O'Shaughnessy would follow blindly along without question wherever he and Fletcher led.
Richards smiled, a sharp, rather nasty smile. "Still a Detective Inspector, but no longer Deputy Commissioner. He wasn't happy about that. He'll be less happy still when I transfer him somewhere his incompetence can cause less mischief." He held a hand out to Collins, then to Jack. "You've made your case most persuasively, gentlemen. Russell Street will put its full weight behind you."
Richards clapped Hugh paternally on the shoulder and waited for the lad to take his leave. Once the door was shut, he turned back to Jack, who squared his shoulders and waited with all the patience he could muster. "The Fletcher situation's actually worse than the mess Sanderson created – you know it as well as I do, Robinson."
"Yes, sir," he agreed. Fletcher had controlled a great deal of the city's wealth, with all of his businesses, and removing him from his web would create a vacuum that countless men of ambition would rush to fill. "We'll be waiting."
"Good man, Jack."
He slept like the dead, finally, waking with early-afternoon sunlight, thick like honey, dragging across his face. He padded downstairs to the kitchen, needing a cup of tea before he could begin to think of facing the day, surprised to see Dad sitting at the kitchen table next to Mum, the two of them polishing all the silver in the house, which didn't amount to very much. Jack felt like a child again, his striped pyjamas, still faintly fragrant with Rosie's perfume, not adding to his confidence.
"Tea?" he asked, heading for the kettle. He filled it and set it to boil.
Mum was holding the sugar-tongs up to the light, as if examining them for any dull spots she might have missed, and Dad cleared his throat and said, "I thought you might want to come to the Town Hall, see what we've been doing there."
Muzzy-headed as he was, he wasn't slow-witted; the newspapers must have got onto the case, and Dad was worried about him. "That sounds good," he said, seeing Mum drop him a wink behind Dad's back.
The Richmond Town Hall was as impressive to him now as it had been when he'd been a child on his dad's big shoulders, looking up at what his dad was building. The main tower didn't soar the way the grand cathedrals he'd seen in France did, but it was imposing and solid and beautifully worked. This, he felt, letting the pleasing lines of the structure steady him, was a worthy legacy, surely enough to satisfy a man who'd been disappointed his only son had not followed in his footsteps.
He and Dad walked around the building and Jack thought amusedly of men circling a horse to assess its flesh. "The paper said that you arrested George Sanderson. Is that true?"
So he'd been identified by name by some enterprising reporter. Well, things could hardly worsen. "It is," he confirmed. "He was standing aside and letting his godson perpetrate all manner of crime."
"The godson Rosie was set to marry?"
"Yes," he acknowledged, this time with a note of warning in his voice. Dad had never said anything against Rosie, but he'd also never quite forgiven her for being George's daughter; George had done very little to endear himself to Jack's family, to whom he was always striving to assert his superiority.
Dad evidently heeded the warning. "Poor girl. She could have stayed with us. Your mum would've been glad of the company."
"So I told her."
"Sanderson, that ruddy little runt, trying to look down his nose at us – and now you've got him locked up. Didn't I tell you he was no good?" As far as Dad was concerned, George's outright dismissal of Tabby was enough to have him jailed for life. Every hard man of Richmond knew enough to respect Big John Robinson's sunny-faced girl, but George Sanderson had made no secret of his disdain for a girl who supported herself, and that too on the stage.
"You did," Jack said, feeling years of emotions in his father's hand clapping him exuberantly on the back.
They had murmured some nonsense about seeing each other at his next murder investigation, but Jack knew that Phryne lacked the patience to wait. He wasn't expecting the summons to come from Mr. Butler.
"Is everything alright?" he asked. There had been no mention of Miss Fisher or her team of vigilantes in the newspaper articles, but that did not mean that some of the brighter sparks among the city's criminal element had not figured out her involvement; George had to have been ranting about Phryne for quite some time, judging by Rosie's diminishing warmth toward her, and at the reminder, Jack found his anger flaring up again. Let anyone have tried anything against Phryne on George's or Fletcher's say-so, and Jack would personally lock him up and perhaps forget where he'd put the key.
"Yes, Inspector." Mr. Butler put a plate with a variety of homemade biscuits – almond, coconut, and ginger; he and Miss Williams had been busy – in front of him along with a cup of strong tea, then sat down across from him. Jack couldn't remember seeing Mr. Butler with his hands idle before, and felt anxiety dance down his spine. "I'd like to consult you on a personal matter."
"You live under the roof of a consulting detective," he pointed out, smiling to deflect his worry. "She's even got the house number right." He remembered how annoyed he'd been by the B she'd added to the gleaming 221 near her front door when he'd first seen it, when he thought she'd taken Jane home with her just to put a spoke in his wheel and keep him from arresting the grubby girl she called a "poor child."
"This is not a matter for Miss Phryne's attention," Mr. Butler said firmly, though he smiled too. "She pays me a salary I can't possibly spend, and I have no dependents to support. Mrs. Butler's relatives disapproved of our union, and I cannot say that I have forgotten some of the words that were spoken in anger. I don't plan to die any time soon, Inspector, but recent events have reminded me that danger is a frequent guest in our circle, and I would like to ensure that my money goes to Dot and Constable Collins."
"What do you need me to do?" he asked, because he knew exactly how much a constable made, and Collins, who was supporting his family, could do with some security in his future.
"I just wanted to make sure I wasn't stepping on any toes; you know young Hugh best of all of us, save Dot."
"It's a kind thought, Mr. Butler –" was as far as he got before Phryne burst into the room, Miss Williams in her wake.
"Jack!" she exclaimed, and oh, how he loved hearing his name in such pleased tones. "Have you – has everything been . . . alright?"
"Yes," he said, swallowing the last of the ginger biscuits.
"And you'll stay for dinner?" she pressed.
"As you wish, Miss Fisher," he said, not missing the small, secret smile that passed between Phryne and Dot at his acquiescence.
Phryne was never shy, at least not with him, about her intelligence. It was a quality he appreciated, not only because it made her quick and sharp, but also disinclined her to draw artificial lines in their relationship; she did not banish shop talk from her dinner table, and he put away Mr. Butler's sumptuous repast whilst laying out the specific charges to be laid against Sanderson and Fletcher.
He kept his voice level in speaking of the lost girls, the untold numbers that had been transported away before anyone had caught wind of the conspiracy, and the work to be done to find them, and she closed her hand over his. The candlelight made her eyes soft and dark as shadows in her gracious face. She led him by the hand to the parlour when the meal was over, pouring out generous measures of whisky unasked.
"To the found girls," she said, lifting her tumbler in a toast, "and to their champions."
"To us all," he agreed, and with that she kissed him.
He'd expected the smoky taste of her whisky, and the tang of bitter chocolate on her tongue surprised him. He managed to set his glass down on the mantelpiece and frame her face in his hands, tilting it up so he could kiss her again. "Phryne," he said against her smiling mouth (this woman with a ripe and smiling lip).
"Come," she said, turning away and giving him a sultry look over her shoulder. "We can have our nightcap upstairs."
She frowned when he didn't follow. "Not tonight," he said slowly. She stared disbelievingly at him. "We're shorthanded just now, and no less busy than ever." It was true, and he refused to consider how much of it was an excuse to delay his inevitable failure to measure up.
"Go, then," she said, sounding on the cusp of anger, pouring his drink into her glass as she ascended the stairs. He caught a glimpse of himself in the hallway mirror next to which his hat was hanging, and took a moment to scrub her lipstick off his mouth with his handkerchief. He saw her reflection, stilled on the steps, and turned back to her, glad that her expression had shifted from upset to wry. "You're such a Victorian, Jack," she said almost wonderingly.
"By geography or by temperament?" he asked, letting one corner of his mouth tick up into a smile.
She laughed and blew him a kiss.
His nightmares were fragments of twisted knowledge cobbled together – nothing so straightforward as the war, nothing so comprehensible as Fletcher staring down the barrel of a gun levelled at Phryne. What he saw was worse, Fletcher and Sanderson holding Tabby between them, dragging her frightened and weeping up to the boat to throw her in with the other stolen girls. Even in the dreams Jack recognised that it was impossible, but he could see her, nearly touch her, the golden, laughing child she'd been transfigured to this shaking girl with a voice raw from screaming.
He woke with the sheets twisted into a rope pinning him to his bed. His throat was clenched as tightly as his fists, keeping him from crying out.
He rose, unsteady on his feet, pacing just so he wouldn't feel caged. He fetched himself a glass of water and sank into the chair in his study, elbows on the polished wood of the desk. The smell of lemon oil gradually woke him and the last remnants of the nightmare vanished.
Whatever sleep he might snatch was not worth climbing back into sweat-soaked sheets. He did a brisk reconnaissance of his house instead, verifying that all of the repaired windows were still whole, before bathing and dressing for the day. His neighbours were used to his unusual hours, but it had been some time since he had surprised the milkman in the middle of his early deliveries.
Acting Commissioner Richards had asked him to turn the responsibility for the lost girls over to men from his home station of Melbourne East, men Jack did not know; George and Fletcher should not be able to argue that there was any kind of conspiracy behind their imprisonment. He had more than enough to be getting on with, as all sorts of toughs were trying to make their mark on City South's patch, but the lost girls, all with Tabby's face, kept crowding into his mind.
A cup of station-house coffee, nearly as wretched as the acorn coffee that had burnt its way down his throat in France, brought him back to his actual responsibilities. The topmost file on his desk was a case of murder, something that could, he thought when he read the dead man's name, escalate with very little provocation into a full-fledged gang war.
It wouldn't have been a hard decision, even if it had been his to make. "No, sir," he said to Chief Commissioner Richards, newly appointed. "I would decline."
Richards thumped an emphatic fist on Jack's desk. "Which was why I wanted you. That corrupt bastard Sanderson had the sense not to recruit you, which makes you my type. There should be a good man, and a good cop, in the Deputy Commissioner's chair, the delicacy of a particular case be damned."
"Yes, sir," he said. There was nothing to disagree with there, and he appreciated that Richards did not stay behind his desk at Russell Street but spent every third morning at one of the city's stations, working with the Senior Detectives; he hadn't given up being a cop to become a bureaucrat. "Who will you appoint?"
"Jack!" he heard, as the door to his office flew open, and there stood Phryne in a scarlet coat that would have been visible from several miles away and a close-fitting hat of the same colour with beads marking a hypnotic swirling pattern. "Oh, good morning," she said, apparently not in the least bothered by having interrupted his private meeting with the most important officer in Victoria. "Phryne Fisher," she continued, extending her hand.
Richards shook it once. "Leland Richards, the pleasure's mine." He betrayed no particular interest in meeting the woman whose name had recurred in the biggest scandal to hit the department in years, and Jack saw Phryne's eyes sharpen. "Detective Inspector Robinson and I are nearly done – could I trouble you to wait outside?"
"Of course," she murmured politely, turning on one delicate heel. Richards was canny enough to wait for her silhouette to vanish from the frosted glass before picking up the conversation.
Trust Phryne to be the cynosure of any environment, even when the new Chief Commissioner was walking out just as a particularly hirsute and large suspect was being brought in by two Constables and a Detective Sergeant, simply by standing near the gate to the offices. Jack beckoned her forward, keenly aware of all of the eyes that followed her into his office.
She settled herself with great aplomb, the tails of her coat fanning out so perfectly that he knew she'd practised the gesture. Lovesick fool that he was, he found the thought charming. "Who is Leland Richards?" she demanded.
It had not escaped his attention that both she and Richards had elided their titles in their introductions. "Someone with whom I had an appointment this morning," he answered. "Now, what brings you here today, Miss Fisher?"
"A case," she said, "with a most intriguing client. I was hoping to take a look at your files." He shook his head. "Closed cases only?"
"The answer must still be no," he said.
She sighed gustily. "I suspected as much," she said, rising.
He considered her for a moment, aware that she was being far too cheerful for having been denied. "No cozening any of my constables into fetching files for you," he stipulated. "Not even the youngest, most impressionable of the lot, and especially not Collins."
She pulled a face and then swooped forward to kiss him swiftly. "We'll talk tonight, then, at dinner," she said, rubbing his lips with her ungloved thumb. "Do you know, this shade rather suits you."
"Jack!" he heard as soon as Mr. Butler opened the door and he stepped inside; Phryne flew at him and launched herself into his arms so that Jack was tilted back into one long diagonal line, braced for her emphatic kiss.
"Good evening, Inspector," a dry voice drawled, and Jack squirmed inwardly at the thought of so many witnesses to such a private matter. He set Phryne back on her feet and turned to smile at Dr. MacMillan, who was sipping demurely from a tumbler of whisky.
"Good evening, Doctor," he said. "Have you come for the consultation on Miss Fisher's latest case as well?"
"My only consultation tonight is with Phryne's whisky," the doctor responded, leading the way into the parlour.
Phryne nodded graciously. "You both ought to know by now that you have standing invitations. At least Mac has learnt her lesson."
"I haven't as thick a skull as some," Mac said, indicating him by the tilt of her head.
It was pleasant, to be teased and accepted, and Jack felt happiness rising like a soap bubble inside him. "Not that long ago, Dr. MacMillan, you called me brilliant. Perhaps you recall?" It had shocked him at the time, as he'd never considered fathering anyone's children but Rosie's, but he'd understood the compliment nevertheless.
Phryne whooped with laughter, evidently catching his oblique allusion without difficulty, and Mac, her cheeks gone a fetching pink, raised her glass in silent toast to him.
"Jane's latest letter arrived this afternoon," Phryne said. "She sends her love."
"Convey my regards in return," he said, finding his accustomed place by the mantelpiece. "What is the case? With the intriguing client?"
"Oh, that," she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand, her painted lips curving into a smile. "Uncle Edward – Aunt Prudence's husband – had a half-brother considerably younger and better looking. Oliver Stanley. He came to me with a rather delicate problem."
"Utterly boring, Jack. As was Oliver himself, though a treat to look at."
"I see." He could hardly complain that he'd been lured to her house under false pretences – he'd got a crack at another of Mr. Butler's superb meals – but he had looked forward to working with her again.
"Can you not rouse yourself to display some jealousy?" Phryne asked, her hands stealing up to his lapels.
"Have I missed my cue?" he asked, smiling down at her bright eyes. He wasn't going to push too far or let her urge him into any rash action. But kissing her – that he could do, with a right good will. He bent his head and found her mouth, half-open and heated. Her hair spilled like cool silk over his fingers (he kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth) but her face was warm.
Her bare arms were snug around his neck when she drew back long enough to whisper, "Your stage awaits." This was the question she'd meant to ask him, and he knew his answer. He nodded and followed her up the stairs to her bedroom, soothed despite himself by the swishing of her hips, as steady as a metronome.
"Phryne," he said, catching her hands in his when she turned to him and tried to divest him of his jacket and waistcoat. "I –"
"I know it's been some time for you, Jack," she said, though he could see the curiosity in her gaze as to how long precisely it had been.
That was part of it. "Yes," he confirmed, trying to find the words to express himself. How could he tell her that his yearnings had already been fulfilled by holding her and knowing his kisses were welcomed, when her desires were yet unslaked?
A lifetime of being out of step with other men – the lack that had, he thought in his secret soul, cost him his wife – could not be resolved in one night, that much he knew, and his traitorous tongue still could not find the words.
"Please, Jack," she said, "kiss me." Their hands still fisted together between them, their kisses spun out for what seemed like hours. She had him in his shirtsleeves and on the bed by the time he realised her hands had slipped free of his. She'd stripped herself as well, perhaps in the name of equality, and he considered trying for her, even if that was all she ever wanted from him, wanting to express his love in the way she liked best. That spark – strange still, despite his recognition that he had long thought her beautiful – had relit inside him, urging him on.
Her skin was creamy, luscious, and he bent his head to kiss her small shoulders, her soft stomach. The hands playing in his hair tightened convulsively when he nudged the underside of one small but heavy breast with his nose, seeking a new home for his mouth. "Jack," she gasped, her legs coming up to circle his waist, her toes getting tangled in his dangling braces.
Small, breathless sounds escaped her lips, and there was a rush of moisture against his belly, permeating his layers of clothing to hit his skin; his cock stirred unwontedly at the sensation. She tried to roll them then, but he pinned her arms to the bed and kept kissing her radiant skin, the fragrance of her fluids sharply sweet in his nose. His hands were large enough that the sweep of his thumbs caught her breasts with each pass. She rocked urgently against him, mewled, and subsided, her legs splaying freely on either side of him.
"I didn't give you enough credit for your iron control, Inspector," she said, looking up at him through her lashes, her eyes dreamily unfocused even as she reached out for his trouser fastenings. "You deserve a reward."
He disengaged himself gently, feeling his cock had subsided, and stood to strip off his braces, shirt, and singlet. She didn't bother to cover up her nudity when he rose, and he poured a sparkling arc of water from ewer to basin to clean himself up. The man in the mirror had dishevelled locks and tension in the set of his shoulders. He turned his back on his reflection and stepped out of his trousers but kept his shorts on.
Phryne was waiting for him, though she seemed about to topple over into sleep. When he got into the bed, she rolled closer, throwing her arm around his waist and laying her head on his chest; she said not a word about his body or his performance, and he let his eyes close, grateful for the reprieve. This (to bear her body's weight upon his breast) was all the reward he required.
Collins was doing his best not to betray his nerves, but the effort was a vain one. Mindful of the fact that the lad would be taking the examination for promotion to Senior Constable within one year, Jack refrained from drawing his conclusions about the dead body before them out loud.
"What do you think, Constable?" he asked briskly.
"Sir?" Hugh said. Of course, he hadn't been on the beat long enough to know all of the troublemakers by sight, and Roy Nicklaus was nearly unrecognisable in any case, his lips and protruding tongue a ghastly blue in sharp contrast to the red ring around his throat.
"First thoughts, Collins." He'd heard that Roy was one of the suitors of the barmaid at the Mermaid, but it was more likely that being a member of the gang running roughshod over Acland Street was what had painted a target on Roy's back.
Hugh took a deep breath to settle himself and turned his back on the crowd of onlookers, kept from surging forward by more junior constables. "Strangled, sir, with some sort of instrument. Something very thin, but strong."
"Fishing line, most likely. The waxed line leaves smooth edges to the wound."
"Yes, sir." Hugh dutifully made a note of it, then continued his assessment. "Victim is young, no more than twenty. Dressed for manual labour."
It was a fair description, even if Roy Nicklaus had never done an honest day's work; he wore the collarless shirt, loose trousers, and heavy boots that seemed to be the uniform for the gangs. Jack looked up when he heard the noise of the crowd rising, waving over the workers ready to bear the body to the City South Morgue. "I'll head to the Mermaid," he said. "You take statements from anyone who seems particularly eager to be helpful, and make note of anybody trying to slip off unnoticed."
"Yes, sir," Collins repeated.
The Mermaid was a diggers' pub, fairly clean and well-furnished; Roy and his gang were several notches below the usual clientele. The barmaid, industriously cleaning pint glasses, was remarkably pretty, with reddish-blonde hair and china-blue eyes, a fair lure for any likely lad. Jack felt a stab of recognition but could not put his finger on it, other than her vague resemblance to Rosie's sister Iris, who had batted her eyes at him whenever he'd come round, for no reason other than to keep her hand in.
She smiled a welcome at him but kept working. "We're not serving yet, sir," she said, trailing off when she saw his identification. "Let me – let me get Father."
He followed her instead of waiting, and while she shot him a surprised look over her shoulder, she didn't change course. "Dad," she called, directing her shout down the cellar steps. A tall, well-built man came up, a heavy crate in his hands.
"Jack Spratt!" the man said, and Jack knew where he'd seen the girl's eyes before.
"Jeremy Watson," he said in return. He'd hardly ever seen Watson either clean or without his helmet, and hadn't remembered that the man had a shock of red hair, but those eyes were certainly memorable, especially since they'd belonged to a St. Kilda boy.
"Sorry, sir, I've forgotten your proper name, it was 'Spratt' for so long," Watson said. "My daughter, Matilda."
"It's Robinson. Detective Inspector Jack Robinson," Jack said, nodding at the girl, pleased that neither betrayed any uneasiness upon hearing his profession.
"Tillie, fetch the man a drink –"
"No, thank you. All I need is information."
"For you, Spratt, anything," Watson said, and Jack wondered how in the world he'd earned this man's ready devotion when all he could remember of Watson was that the man had a hell of a poker face and had stood tall beside him when the enemy charged in a wall of walking fire.
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