‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’
Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’
The windscreen shattered. Only then did Phryne Fisher realize that the stinging hum which she had heard above the roar of the Hispano-Suiza’s engine was not the mosquito she had taken it for. The windscreen broke into a thousand shards and showered her with razor-sharp fragments. She jammed on the huge car’s brakes, and it rolled to a stop. She brushed glass from her driving goggles and pulled them off.
Someone was shooting at her. Even in this year of 1928, with its notable industrial unrest and mounting fears of economic disaster, this was too much. She leaned forward and punched out the remaining windscreen with a small, hard, leather-clad fist. A bitter night. Where was she?
The Victoria Dock gates loomed. She peered through the ruined glass but could see and hear little. Two dark figures were running across the road, barely fifty feet away. One fired at her again. The bullet pinged off the wing of the car, ricocheting into the wall of the docks. They had reached the Gas Works’ wall and were scaling it by the time Phryne found her Beretta and leapt from the car, sighting carefully over her arm.
She lowered her aim. Too far away and too late. The figures scrambled up over the red-brick barrier and were gone. Phryne swore, thrust the gun into her pocket and carefully removed her coat, shaking it. She then turned her attention to the car, picking out what glass she could see and sweeping with her gloved hands so it would be safe for her to continue her journey at least as far as the nearest police station. Gang wars in Melbourne? It seemed unlikely. Surely the watchman at the gate had seen something. He at least could call the cops.
It was as she turned toward the lighted gates that she realized that there had been a third actor in this drama, though he was not taking much interest in the proceedings. He was lying on the unforgiving tarmac of the dock approach road and was bleeding like a tap.
‘Hell’s bells!’ exclaimed Phryne, wondering if there were any more gunmen lurking. ‘And it was such a pleasant evening up till now. What a target I make in these lights.’
She was dressed in loose trousers, boots, cloche, a cream silk shirt and a red fox-fur coat, a distractingly fashionable figure to be falling to her knees beside a dying man under the flaring acetylene torch that lit the Victoria Dock apron.
She pulled off her coat, lest it be stained, and slid a silk-clad arm under the figure, whom she could now see was a very young man with a shock of uncut tow-coloured hair, muddied from the road. His head lolled on her shoulder; under her exploring hands his body felt broken. There was massive damage to his ribs. They were spongy under her fingers, and a hole in his neck the size of a crown piece was pumping blood.
She ripped off both gloves, rolled them, and stuffed them into the wound. A hand grasped at her arm, weakening even as it closed, and blue eyes flickered open.
‘Lie still,’ she urged. ‘You are hurt. Someone shot you, and damn near shot me, too. Who was it?’
The head shook, the lips moved. He was clad in a workman’s collarless blue shirt, and what had been a respectable grey serge suit before he had taken to dying in it. Phryne’s knees were wet and grated on gravel. She shifted a little. There was a gold ring in his ear and a blue tattoo on his collarbone. A capital A in a circle. ‘Do you speak English?’ He mumbled in a tongue which
Phryne could not even identify.
‘Tu jaspines ti Francais, mon pauv’e?’
The dying man gave a faint laugh at the bold milieu slang produced by this stylish woman. He replied with the Parisian for ‘too right.’
‘Comme de juste, Auguste.’
He blinked, winced and said, ‘J’dois clamecer.’ That was underworld for ‘kick the bucket.’ It was evident that he was going to die.
‘Tu parles, Charles,’ Phryne agreed.
It was a high-boned, Slavic face. The chin had never been shaved. He was paling to a tallow. His whole body was slackening into death. He drew dreadful, blood-filled breath and said quite clearly, ‘Ma mère est à Riga,’ retched, and died.
Phryne held him close as blood fountained from his lungs and flooded her shirt. Then she freed a hand, closed his eyes, and laid him gently down. A foolish courtesy, she thought, as she lowered his head, cradling it in her hand, for no roughness could hurt him now. He looked heart-breakingly young—no more than seventeen.
She creaked to her feet. Where was that watchman?
There was a guard at the dock gate. He had turned his chair to face the other way, as doubtless he had been all along. He was gazing down the river as though he was momentarily expecting the Sirius to dock.
‘Hey!’ shouted Phryne. ‘You there!’
He did not move. Phryne picked up her coat and went to the window. She reached in with a bloody hand and shook the guard by the shoulder.
‘Wake up, cretin! There’s been a murder, and the Trust won’t like a corpse in front of their nice clean gates.’
The guard turned and received what he later claimed to be the shock of his life. Facing him in the blue light was a thin woman in a black hat, green eyes blazing in a face of chalk. Her pale shirt was soaked in blood. Her hand, as she clutched him, left a bloody mark on his clean shirt. Her eyes were as cold as St. Elmo’s fire, and he was momentarily afraid that she was intending to bite him with those white teeth which were bared between colourless lips.
‘Yes, Miss?’ he faltered, drawing away from her touch. ‘Call the cops. There has been a murder. I suppose that you didn’t see anything?’
‘Nothing.’ He wound up the telephone. ‘I saw nothing at all, Miss. My eyes ain’t what they used to be. And it’s dark.’
‘On the contrary, it’s light.’
‘Well, I didn’t see anything, anyway. Russell Street? ’Sme, Tom, at the Vic. Dock. We got a murder. Send someone down, willya? No, I ain’t joking. If I was joking, you’d be laughing. Come quick.’
‘You come out of there,’ demanded Phryne, and he obeyed.
Phryne thrust the coat into his arms.
‘Hold that!’ she ordered, and he clutched at the fur.
Unable to bear the cold sogginess of clotting blood on her skin, Phryne tore the silk shirt bodily away from the seam in one swift, brutal movement. The astonished Tom saw revealed blood-blotched breasts as pale as good china. She wiped her hands on the remains of the shirt and then dabbed at her body, then she tied the silky remnants into a knot and threw them down, turning her back, so he could help her into the coat. She snuggled deep into the comforting fur.
‘You’ve got a drink, haven’t you? Always a bottle of something confiscated at a dock gate. Give it to me.’
He reached into his cubicle and handed her a bottle of Napoleon brandy, part of a recently exposed smuggling attempt. He boggled as she tore out the cork and took a deep swig.
‘Well now, that’s better,’ said Phryne. ‘Suppose I go and have a look at my poor car. You’d better stay here. There might be more things abroad in the night which you shouldn’t see.’
Phryne walked past the dead young man without looking at him, and climbed back into her car. It was cold and the wind was blowing straight through both Phryne and the upholstery. I wish I had my gloves, she thought. I’d be warmer in a snowdrift! She remembered where her gloves were and decided that she did not really want them.
‘Riga?’ she said aloud. ‘What about Riga? Centre of resistance to the Tsar, full of police informers and spies and Bolsheviks, that’s what they told me in Paris. Letts had something to do with the Siege of Sidney Street. There had been a shootout and they had all been killed. Before my time, of course. I was only nine when it happened, and in Australia, but I heard about it later, in Paris. Lots of Bolsheviks in Paris.’
She could not recall anything else about Riga, except that it was the capital of Latvia. At last there came the clang of a bell, and a police car slammed to a halt in front of the Hispano-Suiza.
Two officers leapt out and approached the guard, who pointed to Phryne. Phryne pointed to the corpse.
‘Blimey!’ exclaimed one. ‘He’s been shot! Did you do this, Miss?’ Phryne choked back a laugh.
‘Would I still be here if I had? Two men, running. They went over the Gas Works’ wall. I was passing and they shot out my windscreen, so I stopped. I tried to help the young man, but he died.’
‘Who are you, Miss?’
‘My card,’ said Phryne, and produced it. The policeman took it into the light to read.
‘The Hon. Phryne Fisher,’ he said, slowly. ‘221B The Esplanade, St. Kilda. Investigations. Were you investigating anything, Miss?’
‘No, I was just passing. I was coming back from taking Alice Moore, the artist, home to Williamstown. We had been to dinner at the Explorers’ Club. Someone shot at me and the windscreen shattered. I stopped and found this poor fellow dying.’
‘Well, Miss, there ain’t nothing you can do for him now. I ain’t seen anyone deader for years. Perhaps you’d like to go home. My sergeant will come and see you in the morning.’
‘Do you know the…dead man?’
The elder policeman looked down into the calm, white face.
‘No, Miss, I ain’t seen him before. Very young to have got himself into something that killed him. I suppose you didn’t see anything, Tom? No? I didn’t think you would have. Only man I know with one-way eyes. One day, Tom, your time will come, and then, my son, I’ll be delighted to take your statement. You ain’t seen him before, Miss?’
‘Well, that’s all we need tonight. These your gloves, Miss? Ah, and your, er, shirt? I see. You all right to get home?’
‘I think so,’ said Phryne, feeling cold and a little shaky.
‘I tell you what, Miss, I’ll lend you my constable here. He don’t like dead bodies above half. You go home with the young lady, Collins, and make sure that she gets there all right, then ask Johnson at St. Kilda to give you a ride back into the city and some breakfast. Bitter night to be standing round the dock gates, Miss. You’ll be fine with young Collins. I’ll clean up here and make my report.’
Phryne started the engine, thankful that she had a self starter for use in emergencies. The great engine caught and roared. She took off the brake and allowed the car to roll back so that she could steer around the police wagon, and headed for St Kilda. The young constable, seemingly shocked by what must have been his first corpse, sat stiffly beside her.
After a ride of unexampled legality by Phryne, who could not see very well with the wind in her face, Constable Collins helped her to alight from the car, and assisted her up the steps to the front door. There he knocked an official double knock.
Mr. Butler snatched the door open as if he had been hiding behind it.
‘Oh, Miss Fisher!’ he exclaimed. ‘An accident?’
‘A murder,’ observed the young officer. Phryne grabbed the policeman’s arm.
‘Come in and get warm, at least,’ she urged. ‘You have been very kind and your sergeant told you to look after me, so don’t argue,’ she added, handing him over to Mrs. Butler. Mrs. Butler took him into the kitchen and planted him in front of the electric fire, where he began alternatively to shiver and to steam.
Mr. Butler drew Phryne into her own parlour, which was warm and scented with roses. She gave a sigh of relief when she heard the door shut out the surprising night.
‘Take the car to be fixed first thing, Mr. B.,’ Phryne said, and leaned on his arm. ‘Red upholstery. I want it done immediately.’
Dot came running as Phryne lowered herself into an armchair and tore off her hat.
‘Miss! What happened? Can I take your coat?’
‘No, not until you fetch me a clean blouse. Go and run me a very hot bath with pine salts, Dot, do.’
Dot ran upstairs and set the bath in order, poured in salts with a lavish hand, and ran down again with a velvet blouson top of Russian cut in Phryne’s favourite shade of moss green. She found her mistress staring into the fire and shivering in the fur coat.
Phryne stood up and shed the coat, revealing that she was naked to the waist underneath it, and pulled on the velvet blouse, relishing the silky feel against her skin.
‘Did someone attack you, Miss?’ asked Dot, feeling a gentle Christian pity for the poor assailant, but worried only by the extent of the bloodstain. She hoped that Phryne hadn’t killed him.
‘No, Dot, I was passing the docks and someone shot out my windscreen and shot at me, too. They presumably meant to kill the young man I found lying on the pavement. It was horrible, Dot. He was wrong under my hands; the bullets had smashed his ribs. He died. He was only a boy and a pretty boy at that. You know how I feel about pretty boys—there aren’t enough of them in the world as it is—we can’t have people wantonly removing them. And I need new upholstery in the car. Someone is going to pay for that.’
‘I think that Mr. Bert and Mr. Cec ought to know,’ said Dot. ‘Being the docks and all.’
‘Do you? I expect that you are right.’
Phryne stared into the fire, rubbed her hands together, and noted that they were stained to the wrist with rustyred. She shuddered.
‘First, a bath. I’m feeling soiled. Too much contact with cold reality, I think.’
‘Should be ready by now, Miss.’
Dot followed Phryne up the stairs with a glass of port. Dot’s father had sworn by port for shock.
Phryne drank the port with less respect than it deserved and threw off her clothes. Dot found that the knees of the silk trousers were wet and stained with blood and wondered what had become of Phryne’s shirt. Phryne soaked and scrubbed until her pale body was as red as flame and all of the blood had been scoured off her matchless person. She sat cleaning her fingernails and listening to Dot bewailing the ruin of her clothes.
‘You can’t wear these trousers again, Miss, but the coat can go to the furrier tomorrow and it should be all right. I can clean your boots, I think. Are you scratched at all?’
Dot had just found some small stains inside the coat. Phryne looked down at her body. She hadn’t noticed any pain.
‘Now you mention it, Dot, I have got a few small glass cuts. Nothing to bother about. Just find the sticking plaster. Another item on the account,’ she added, stepping out of the bath.
‘Account, Miss?’ Dot sounded puzzled.
‘Yes, an account. Someone is going to pay it in full. Get me a nightdress and my thick gown, Dot. I’m going downstairs again. That constable must have thawed by now.’
Phryne took her place at the fire and was confronted by Mrs. Butler bearing a steaming glass of whisky toddy on a tray.
‘Oh, no, Mrs. B., I really don’t like toddy.’
‘Try a taste, Miss. It’s my mother’s recipe and it’s defrosting that young constable real good. We were worried about you, Miss,’ said Mrs. Butler. Phryne took the glass and tried a sip. It was warm, and Phryne was still cold. Mrs. Butler beamed.
‘You drink that up, Miss. I’ve got some chicken broth heating at this very moment. You’ve had a shock—can’t have you catching the megrims.’
‘I don’t think that we have the megrims any more, Mrs. B.’
‘You watch a murder and then go to bed on an empty stomach and megrims you will have. Soup in ten minutes,’ said Mrs. Butler, and nodded to her husband, who hovered nervously at the door.
‘She’ll be fine,’ she said quietly. ‘Nerves of steel. Why don’t you have a sup of my toddy too? It’s been a long night.’
Dot, Mrs. Butler, Mr. Butler and the young policeman all had another glass of toddy on the strength of it. It began to rain again.
Phryne sat in her parlour and thought about the young man’s last words. ‘My mother is in Riga.’ Latvia. The Russian revolution and the Houndsditch massacre. When had that all happened? The year 9, or thereabouts.
The cuts on her body, inflicted by the flying glass, began to make themselves felt. There would certainly be a reckoning. For Phryne’s scratches, the ruin of her clothes, the damage to her car, and the theft of life from a beautiful young man with a gold ring in his ear and a blue tattoo on his neck.