Make my bed and light the light I’ll be home late tonight
Black bird, bye bye.
‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ Ray Henderson
It was eleven by the Green Mill’s clock when the cornet player went into a muted reprise in ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ and one of the marathon dancers plunged heavily and finally to the floor at Phryne Fisher’s feet. She stumbled over him. His partner dropped to her knees with a wail.
The cornet player stopped mid-note. The tall Amazon with the bass gave one final, mellow plunk. Tintagel Stone stood up. The three musicians came forward as Phryne turned the man over with her foot and recoiled, dragging her escort with her. The jazz players bent over the fallen man, and a high female voice, much affected by gin, screamed, ‘The manager! Call the manager!’
‘Come away, Charles,’ said Phryne calmly. ‘There is something seriously wrong with that man.’
‘Why, you don’t mean that he’s…?’ began Charles, and Phryne nodded.
It had been such a promising evening up until now, Phryne reflected, feeling Charles begin to tremble in her grasp. The monumental ceiling of the Green Mill glittered with electric stars. She herself glittered in a lobelia georgette dress with paillettes of Chinese white and diamantés. She had been dancing a foxtrot with Charles Freeman, sole scion of an extremely rich family, who was a tedious but socially acceptable escort. The two remaining contenders for the dance marathon prize (one baby Austin car, value £190) had been dragging themselves drearily around in ever-decreasing circles, requiring Phryne to dance carefully around them. She had been pleased with the dress, delighted with her dancing skill, and satisfied with her partner, who had been sufficiently snubbed to make him stop talking about his dead father’s wealth and his own importance. She had been a little elevated on Grand Marnier, a flask of which reposed in her garter. She had been warmed by the admiring regard of the eponymous banjo player of Tintagel Stone and the Jazz Makers. His acetylene-blue eyes had been on her all night; they had produced an agreeable frisson.
Now she was stone-cold sober, and unenchanted, as she always was in the presence of death.
The dance marathon’s surviving couple sank down, still wreathed in each other’s arms, crying with exhaustion and relief and possibly triumph. Dancers milled about in the half-dark. Faces lit and vanished as the stars glittered. The manager glided onto the dance floor. He was a tall, distinguished man in perfect evening costume, worn with an Italianate air, and he summed up the situation instantly.
Dragging the marathon couple to their feet he proclaimed, ‘The winners!’
They smiled sketchily as he hauled them bodily off the floor. After dancing for what seemed like years, they were so limp Phryne wondered that they did not sag out of Signor Antonio’s grasp and melt down into aching puddles of ruined muscle. Both their faces were white and drained and they trembled as they stood on agonized feet. Blood seeped slowly out of the girl’s shoes and stained the Green Mill’s celebrated sprung floor.
‘Percy McPhee and Violet King are the winners of the baby Austin car! They have danced for forty-seven hours and twenty-one minutes! Show your appreciation ladies and gentlemen, if you please!’
The patrons clapped appreciatively, Tintagel Stone’s drummer gave a roll and a sting, and two waiters assisted Miss King and Mr. McPhee off the floor and into an alcove, where they were at last allowed to collapse. Miss King had begun to cry uncontrollably and Mr. McPhee did not seem far off it. They were set down on a sofa and fell instantly asleep.
‘Signor, Signor Antonio, what about him?’ asked a nervous waiter, pointing at the man on the floor. The signor flapped a dismissive hand. He had no patience with losers.
‘Take him outside and revive him,’ he said. The fallen man’s partner, a girl in pale blue worn to a frazzle, ran her hand over his chest, made the discovery that Phryne knew she would make, and screamed.
‘He’s dead! There’s blood! He’s murdered!’ She fainted. And after that, of course, there was no more dancing.
The lights came up, revealing the Green Mill’s dainty Dutch murals, all milkmaids and trees. Pallid faces, over-rouged or under-coloured, blinked in the glare. Nothing looks worse, thought Phryne, than a brightly lit hall which should be dim. And by God, most of the patrons looked as if they had crawled out from under the Green Mill, rather than entered through the door with a two-shilling ticket.
The girl in the pale blue dress was carried by the band to a couch, where a waitress attempted to revive her. Three bandsmen remained staring down at the corpse, the cornet player still holding his instrument out in front of him as if he had never seen it before. Phryne’s escort was not proving to be of that sterling mettle which is expected of a Gentleman in a Crisis. Normally cold and aloof, he had cracked. Knuckles between teeth, he backed away from the dead man until he stumbled on the lower step of the bandstand, dislodged a cymbal, and sat down with a thump.
‘I’ve never, I’ve never seen…’ he whimpered. ‘I’ve never seen a corpse before! I’ve never…’
‘Well, well, pet, don’t take on. Corpses can happen to anyone, you know,’ soothed Phryne. ‘You sit there quietly and have a little tot of this, and you’ll feel better.’
She produced the flask of liqueur and unscrewed the top, pouring a liberal measure into it. This Charles took, trembling so much that Phryne had to hold both his hands and tip the spirit into his mouth. He choked, his eyes bulging like a fish, and Phryne patted him impatiently. Corpses, per se, did not discompose her. The evening looked like being more interesting than she had expected when she had accepted Charles Freeman’s invitation to dance at the Green Mill, and she was not minded to be distracted by her escort developing the vapours.
‘Bear up, man, it is not the dead you have to be afraid of.
The living are much more dangerous.’ This produced another sob.
The blue eyes which had been observing her so closely all night were fixed on her now, and she turned from Charles to face Tintagel Stone’s intense gaze. A pretty man, she thought, smoothing down her decorative dress, very pretty. Midnight- black hair and pale skin and lapis-lazuli eyes. She smiled and held out the flask.
‘Have some?’ she offered, and Tintagel accepted gratefully. He poured out a drink, gulped it down, and went back to the bandstand, putting his banjo carefully on its stand before holding out a hand to the bass player, who looked shocked. Phryne nodded, and Grand Marnier was served all round. The band retreated to their dais and looked around helplessly at the hysterical throng. The patrons, primed with gin brought into the Green Mill in defiance of all the licensing laws, were shrieking like an aviary full of bad-tempered tropical birds.
‘What happened, Miss?’ asked Tintagel Stone gravely, returning the depleted flask. ‘Is that chap dead?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Phryne evenly, suppressing Charles’ next whimper with a firm hand on his shoulder. ‘And he has been murdered. Therefore we shall have to stay here until the police come, all very inconvenient.’
She heard a gasp behind her, and wondered which member of the band found this surprising.
‘My name is Phryne Fisher,’ she added, surveying Tintagel Stone with appreciation. ‘Are you Mr. Stone? We may as well get comfortable. It is going to be a long night. Not, may I add, the sort of long night I envisaged, but a long night nevertheless.’ Charles gave another, more pathetic, choke, and shoved Phryne aside as he leapt up and ran. She was minded to be offended until she saw that his destination was the gentlemen’s cloakroom, and was pleased that he still retained sufficient social grace not to be sick in company.
Tintagel Stone caught and steadied her. His forearms were very strong. A consequence of being a banjo player, perhaps? She rested both palms lightly against a beautifully muscled chest. Close to, his eyes were not lapis but sky-blue, and the wide mouth curved humorously. He smelt of wilting starched collar and orange liqueur, a combination new to Phryne.
‘I can stand up by myself, you know,’ she commented. ‘And here come the cops. Oh, super!’
‘Super? What’s super about the cops?’ snarled the cornet player, voice rising in mockery. ‘What’s good about the cops?’
‘It’s a nice cop,’ said Phryne. ‘It’s Detective Inspector Robinson.’
Detective Inspector John ‘Call me Jack, Miss Fisher, everyone does’ Robinson entered the Green Mill with three attendant constables and was struck deaf by the noise. Voices ranging from lowest bass to shrillest soprano were clashing in a discordant symphony worse than Schoenberg. The huge hall was blindingly bright with every possible jazz colour. His entry caused a brief silence, then the din broke out again, voices exclaiming and crying and babbling on the edge of hysteria.
‘If I handle this wrong,’ thought Robinson, preserving his calm with an effort unperceived by his constables, ‘there will be a riot, and the chief will have my guts for garters.’ He walked into the middle of the hall and raised his hands.
‘Quiet!’ he bellowed in a great voice, and silence fell. He swallowed to regain his hearing and continued.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, would you all sit down. There’s no danger. I won’t keep you long. But we’ll all get home earlier if I have your full cooperation and some quiet. Thank you.’
There was a brief flurry as the dancers left the floor and conversation began again, more softly, and without the presage of panic. The crowd had drawn away from the figure lying quite still on the floor in front of the bandstand, as though fearing contamination.
‘They needn’t worry,’ Detective Inspector Robinson remarked as he approached the corpse, regulation boots thudding like hammers on the sprung floor. ‘Diphtheria’s catching, but death ain’t. Now, Sir, are you the manager? What’s happened here?’
Signor Antonio, shocked out of his Italian accent, was wringing his hands and almost weeping with chagrin.
‘In my establishment!’ he whispered. ‘It is too much!’ His voice rose to a shout. ‘You must find out who did it at once!’
‘Oh, woe, alas,’ quoted Phryne, perched on the bandstand. ‘What, in our house?’
‘Put on thy gown, look not so pale,’ capped Tintagel Stone unexpectedly. ‘I tell thee, Duncan’s dead, and cannot come out of ’s grave.’
Phryne looked her surprise, and he smiled a devastating smile, showing white teeth. Tintagel Stone, Phryne thought, would bear watching.
Detective Inspector Robinson sighted Phryne, sighed, and beckoned to her.
He was an unmemorable policeman, with mid-brown hair and mid-brown eyes, and he looked worried.
‘Well, well, Miss Fisher, I ought to run you in for complicity; corpses bloom like daisies wherever you go, don’t they? Did you see this?’
‘Hello Jack, nice to see you, too. Yes, I saw it. Well, I was next to him, but I didn’t see anyone stab him. Unless you think that it was really me, in which case you’d better put the cuffs on, guv’nor.’
Jack Robinson did not smile. He did not like mysteries. He was not wild about sudden deaths either.
‘Police surgeon is on his way,’ he commented. ‘Why?’
‘To pronounce life extinct.’
‘I can pronounce to you now, Jack, that life is as extinct as it can possibly get. Poor man.’
The dead man was comely, youngish, with dark wavy hair on a round, childish head; a high-bridged Roman nose; full, rather sensual lips, and a bluish chin. Phryne had noticed him sagging into his partner’s embrace, his face a mask of exhaustion and pain. Now he lay on his back with his feet to the band, his hands open and lax, his face calm and empty like the faces of all human husks in which the enlivening light has been doused. The only sign of injury was the round red spot on his left shirt-front where some long blade, expertly wielded, had pierced his heart. Phryne bit her lip. He looked different from the first time she had seen him dead, but she could not bring to the surface of her mind what fact told her this.
‘Dead as a doornail,’ agreed Jack Robinson. ‘But it’s the procedure. What killed him?’
‘A thin knife, I think, unless he just died of exhaustion. These dance marathons are a scandal. More like the good old days of the Colosseum than anything worthy of the twentieth century. I wonder that Signor Antonio hasn’t brought in the lions.’
‘He was in the marathon?’
‘Yes, Jack, there were only two couples left. They had been dancing for two days, two days and nights. Criminal, isn’t it? They were next to each other, blundering round in a circle, poor things, and then he fell. I tripped over him, the other two realized that they had won and slumped to the floor, and the manager came and proclaimed them the winners. I saw that this one was dead; he had that look, Jack, but before I could do anything sensible the partner discovered he was dead and screamed the place down. And there was something…’
‘Something different about him, but I can’t recall what. The band came down to see what was happening, and the girl collapsed and was borne off to a sofa. She’s over there, in pale blue. Then we all stood about and waited for you to arrive.’
‘Who could have stabbed him?’
‘Anyone, really. They had the lights down for the foxtrot and we were all moving.’
‘Ah, dear, this is going to be one of those cases,’ said Detective Inspector Robinson resignedly. ‘They always are when you are involved, Miss Fisher. I’ll get my constable to take all the names and addresses of the patrons, and you rack your brains to remember who was near you, and we’ll ask them to stay.’
‘Only me and Charles, and the plump lady in puce with that stout gentleman, and the other marathon dancers. The band might have seen something.’
‘All right, I’ll speak to you later, Miss Fisher. Ladies and gentlemen!’ he announced in his big, confident voice. A sigh of relief went up from the apprehensive crowd. At last, someone who could Take Charge and tell them what to do. ‘I’m afraid that I’m going to have to cut short your evening’s dancing. If you would all proceed in an orderly manner to the foyer. There’s a policewoman to search the ladies. Then if you would leave your details with the constables, you can all go home. I would like a word, however, with anyone who saw this poor chap fall, or was near when he did.’
A swift sort and a scurry of footsteps, a flourish of robes and coats and furs—some chinking suggestively as though glass bottles might be concealed therein—and the throng in the Green Mill was reduced to a few witnesses, Phryne, some recumbent bodies, and Tintagel Stone and the Jazz Makers.
The foyer of the Green Mill was huge, as large as the great hall of the Exhibition Buildings. The patrons were recovering from their shock and beginning to speculate, gossip, go into hysterics, faint, laugh or feel quietly nauseous, according to temperament.
The constables wrote busily, and Signor Antonio stood at the door handing out apologies and tickets for next week’s dance with distracted generosity.
The main doors swung shut. The huge hollow space which was the inside of the mill made itself felt. Someone was stopping the sails, which turned when the hall was open, and their noise was also cut off.
Detective Constable North was suddenly and piercingly conscious of the squeak produced by his new boots every time he moved. He was an experienced and somewhat battle-scarred cop, recently transferred from Vice.
Phryne went back to sit with the band and for the first time remembered her escort.
‘Where’s Charles? He should have thrown up his heart and been back by now.’
‘Is he your husband?’ asked Mr. Stone, with every appearance of really wanting to know.
‘He does not have that honour,’ said Phryne absently. ‘No one does. I promised his mother that I’d look after him and he is a passable dancer. Damn it, where can he be? Oh, Constable,’ she called to Detective Constable North, whom she had met in one of her forays into Fitzroy brothels to search for lost girls. ‘There’s a gentleman in the…er…Gentlemen’s who was a witness. He might still be sick, he has never seen a corpse before. Can you hale him out? He’s been gone a long time.’
Detective Constable North flicked a glance at his superior, who waved a hand, and then padded off to the cloakroom, trying not to squeak.
‘I think we had better be properly introduced,’ said Tintagel Stone, impressed by her standing with the constabulary. ‘I’m Tintagel Stone and these are the Jazz Makers. Ben Rodgers, cornet and trumpet.’ A sullen young man with a fixed cigarette, dark eyes, and a lock of dark hair, Paderewski-like, over one eye. ‘Jim Hyde, trombone.’ A thin, wiry boy with pale hair and eyes who smiled like a slightly blue angel and must, Phryne thought, have lungs like bellows. ‘Iris Jordan on bass.’ A tall, slim, strong young woman who looked so formidably healthy that Phryne wondered what she was doing in jazz, a music redolent of late hours and smoky atmospheres. ‘Clarence Davies on drums.’ A muscular man with slicked-back brown hair, brown eyes, and a rather practised charming grin. ‘Me, on banjo and guitar.’ Tintagel bowed. ‘And Hugh Anderson, saxophone and clarinet.’ A wary smile from a terribly young man with longish brown curly hair who looked like he should not be out so late at night. ‘Didn’t you have a singer when I saw you last?’ asked Phryne idly, wondering what Detective Inspector Robinson was making of the information he was receiving from the lady in puce and her husband. Instantly she knew that she had said something important. The band froze. The only one to move was Iris, who glanced at Ben the trumpeter, and then quickly away. ‘Nerine,’ said Stone at last, with a patently false air of unconcern. ‘She isn’t here tonight.’
‘And why isn’t she?’ asked Ben angrily, flinging down his cigarette and stamping on it, then grinding the ashes into the Green Mill’s expensive parquet. The question did not seem to have received an answer, so Phryne asked it again.
‘Well, why isn’t she?’
‘Arr!’ snarled Ben, and turned away. ‘I’m gonna walk around. They can’t ask a man to stay still this long!’ He put down the cornet with loving care and flung off to circle the great ballroom, stalking like a caged creature. Phryne reflected that if Signor Antonio ever required lions for a Colosseum show, Ben would make a good acquisition.
‘Don’t pay any attention,’ advised Iris, dragging a strong hand through her short blonde hair. ‘He’s not a bad old cuss but he’s a trumpeter, and you know what they are like.’
The others nodded, as though at some received wisdom. Phryne didn’t know what trumpeters were like, but she was willing to learn.
‘What are they like?’
‘They reckon that the brain gets starved of oxygen because they blow so hard.’ Tintagel smiled. ‘So they get bad-tempered and niggly. It’s a showy instrument,’ he added.
‘But that would apply to trombone players even more, wouldn’t it?’ asked Phryne, looking at Jim Hyde. ‘Aren’t you niggly too?’
‘No, Miss, but I think that’s just nature.’ Jim was certainly calm and gave the impression of being reliable, which is always an underrated commodity. ‘Some of us have the temperament to be a trumpeter and some of us haven’t, and that’s a fact. How long do you think this cop is going to keep us?’
‘He’s just going to see the other marathon dancers. Poor things, they must be dead. Oops, I mean, they must be worn out.’
Detective Inspector Robinson was having some difficulty waking Percy and Violet, and, once they were awake, getting any useful answers.
‘Did you see anyone near you when the chap collapsed?’ he asked again.
Violet rubbed her face hard and tried to compel her escort’s attention. He was sleeping quietly with his head pillowed on her shoulder and he appeared determined to stay that way. Jack Robinson was reminded of faces he had seen at some disaster: white, set, shocked by pain or grief into shapes which they would not resemble when thawed into life again. The girl was not pretty, but had nice eyes, now red with lack of sleep. The man was good-looking, with delicate bones in a face too thin from present exhaustion and past privation. He did not open his eyes when he murmured, ‘There were the other two and a pretty lady in blue and a stout lady in dark red and that’s all I can remember.’ Violet agreed. ‘We were in front of the band. I saw the stout lady in cherry-red, and a dark-haired lady in blue, and then he just dropped; we realized that we’d won and we fell down in a heap too, and that’s all we saw. Can we go home?’ she asked piteously. ‘We’re all in. We can come and see you tomorrow. Please?’
It would be sheer cruelty to keep them, Jack Robinson thought. He took their addresses and sent them under escort to be taken home in a taxi.
The police surgeon had arrived, solemnly announced that the corpse was indeed dead, and been summoned to attend the corpse’s partner, who still lay on the sofa, wailing at intervals.
‘Well, Robinson?’ snapped the little doctor, who did not like policemen much, and who had been called away from a fascinating rubber of bridge just as he was about to squeeze his opponents out of three tricks which they should not have had anyway. ‘The dead one is dead, and this one is almost dead. I’ve called an ambulance and I’ll take her to hospital right away, unless you have anything to say about that?’
His moustache bristled, indicating that Robinson better not have anything to say about it. Jack knew the signs.
‘If I might just ask one question…’
‘No questions. I’ve given her morphine. She has a broken bone in that foot, for a start, or I’m no judge, and she’s been dancing on it for two days. Later, Robinson, you can talk to her. Much later.’
Jack Robinson gave up, and went back into the hall in time to catch Detective Constable North returning to report.
‘I’ve searched the Gents’ and the rest of the place,’ he announced quietly. ‘That’s why I’ve been so long. I found one side door open, and a few attendants, but I ain’t found the missing gentleman. Miss Fisher’s partner, Sir, appears to have done a bunk.’