The extremely active existence we lead does not leave us leisure to devote the necessary care to the upkeep of our bodies.
The sun glared off the shop windows, the wind blew fine sand which stung the eyes. It was both chilly and sunny, a thoroughly uncomfortable combination only found in the less successful ski slopes and in Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda on this particular day in 1928.
The Hon. Phryne Fisher blinked, wiped her eyes, wished she had brought sun goggles and wrapped her sables more closely about her thin frame. With her fur coat, fur hat and Russian leather boots she looked like one of the smaller members of the Tsar’s guard who was about to lose his temper with a serf and resort to knouts.
She was cold, cross, half-blinded by the wind and just about to decide that she had chosen the wrong day or possibly planet for trying to understand St. Kilda’s street numbering system when she simultaneously found Café Anatole and a well-dressed male body left it, mainly through the window.
Phryne stood back courteously to allow the man to complete his swallow dive. He hit the pavement with a thud and lay still. Phryne was mentally balancing (1) the duty of every human to go to another’s aid when they have been thrown through windows and (2) the danger of getting blood on her sinfully lavish and exceptionally expensive sables when the prostrate one rolled over, groaned a fair bit, then scrambled to his feet and stumbled away. This solved her problem.
And Café Anatole might easily prove more interesting than she had been led to believe. Bits of lettered glass crunched under her stacked leather heels as she opened the door and went in.
The letter had arrived the day before. Written in flawless, formal French, it had invited her to a special lunch at Café Anatole. It had been sent by Anatole Bertrand himself. Phryne had heard that his cuisine was remarkable and since the distance was not great, she had walked from her own house on the Esplanade.
A moment before, she had been regretting the journey. Now, as a heavenly aroma stole over her senses, she would have walked twice as far, over a lot more than broken glass.
The scent took her straight back to Paris in 1918. Onion soup. Real French onion soup, made with cognac, with real gruyère cheese melted onto real baguette. As the slim, good-looking person in an apron tripped forward to greet her, she gave him a blissful smile which knocked him back on his heels.
‘Miss Fisher,’ she said.
‘Mam’selle does us great honour,’ said the waiter, taking her hat and coat. He saw a small woman with black hair cut in a cap, pale skin, bright green eyes and the most beautiful smile. He sagged slightly under the weight of the coat, hung it carefully behind the bar, and conducted Phryne to a table set for one at the back of the café.
‘The chef will be very sorry that such a scene greeted such a charming lady,’ he said. Phryne waved a hand.
‘Bring me a pastis,’ she said, ‘and we will say no more about it. Are other guests expected?’
‘No, mam’selle, just yourself,’ the waiter told her, beckoning to the girl behind the bar. Two men were already outside, fixing a tarpaulin over the broken window. In the kitchen, someone was roaring. Phryne recognised the voice of the bull chef in rut and nodded to the waiter that he could go. He grinned at her and fled.
The drink came in a moment and Phryne sat sipping and considering Café Anatole. It was as though some gourmet whirlwind had picked up a Parisian bistro and, tired by the journey to the Antipodes, dropped it carelessly in St. Kilda, just before it ran out of land. There was the zinc counter with a saucy girl leaning on it. There was the row of stools for the passing trade. There was the mirror and in front of it an array of bottles, from Chartreuse to Armagnac. There were the little tables, each covered with a white cloth and over it white butcher’s paper. There were the wrought iron chairs. There was the group of artists drawing on the paper and arguing about Modernism. There was a group of respectable bourgeois, a little affronted by the brouhaha, settling back to their lunch; a meal, it is well known, which must be eaten with a knife and fork. Everyone in the café was speaking French. She might be back in Montparnasse at Au Chien Qui Fume, talking to the trousered girls from the Latin Quarter, drinking pastis and smoking Gauloises.
She sniffed. Someone was smoking Gauloises. And someone else was shortly about to provide her with soupe à l’oignon, or something else concocted by a master chef. Bliss. Phryne settled down to enjoy herself.
She wasn’t even beginning to be bored when the waiter brought her quenelles of pheasant in a delicate broth and poured her a glass of fragrant white wine.
‘Is the chef not dining with me?’ she asked in surprise.
‘Desolated, mam’selle,’ said the waiter. ‘An emergency in the kitchen. He will join you for coffee.’
Phryne shrugged. The quenelles, little spoon shaped rissoles poached in broth, were superb. Presently, the waiter brought her poulet royale with French beans and poured her a glass of white wine. She ate slowly. Each mouthful burst upon the taste-buds with fresh savour—tarragon, perhaps, or was it parsley?
She heard a shout of despair from the kitchen, and a cry of ‘Plus de crème!’ Sauce must have curdled, she thought. The remedy for anything short of an outbreak of cholera in a French kitchen was ‘Add more cream!’
Finally the waiter brought Phryne a tiny vanilla soufflé, a glass of cognac, a cup of coffee and M’sieur Anatole.
He was of the thin, stringy and miserable class of chef, weighing in at perhaps ten stone in a wet army-greatcoat. His hair, far too glossy and black to be natural, was slicked back from a forehead wrinkled with years of concocting sauces béchamel, royale, crème, and suprême. His eyes, of a pale grey, had been blasted by the heat from too many ovens and his hands had constructed far too many roux, garnitures, and hors d’oeuvres.
Phryne rather preferred the fat, red-cheeked and jolly form of chef, but her excellent lunch had given her an attack of goodwill to all men, even one who resembled a shabby vulture who had just missed out on the last beakful of dead wildebeest. She held out her hand and M’sieur Anatole kissed it.
‘Thank you for my delightful lunch,’ she said. ‘The quenelles were superb. The poulet royale could have been served to royalty, and your soufflé melted in the mouth.’
Phryne believed in the specific compliment. The vulture face softened.
‘It is my pleasure,’ he said, ‘to please such a beautiful lady. Jean-Paul,’ he ordered, ‘another cognac.’
The waiter, who had clearly graduated magna cum laude from Cheeky French Waiter School, made a face which suggested that a chef who had dinners to cook ought not to be glugging down cognac at lunch, but he slapped down another glass and the bottle of cognac. He then flounced away, turning an ostentatious back.
‘He is my sister’s son,’ said M’sieur Anatole. Phryne nodded. French cafés were usually family affairs. She wondered what had brought such an obvious Parisian so far from the centre of all civilisation and culture—Paris—and decided not to ask. Besides, she had still to ascertain why she had been invited to lunch.
‘We have an acquaintance in common, mam’selle,’ said the chef. ‘M’sieur le Comte d’Aguillon.’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Phryne. Count d’Aguillon was an aged, exceptionally respectable member of the Alliance Française. Phryne had met him when helping to find the Spanish Ambassador’s son’s kitten. She had beguiled an hour discussing…now what was it? Modern art? Matisse? Something artistic.
‘It was to him that I confided my problem, and he suggested that, for such a delicate matter…’
‘That a feminine touch might be useful?’ asked Phryne.
People were concluding their lunch and getting up. Jean-Paul rushed to the door to bow the clientele out. The chef leaned forward. Phryne could hardly hear him and she was unused to speaking this much French. She strained to hear.
‘I came here from Paris after the war. It was hard then for a cook, though we rose to the challenge. Nothing to cook! No ingredients! It is said that during the siege of Paris the great Escoffier cooked elephant and even sea-lion as the animals in the zoo were killed. I would have welcomed a sea-lion entrecôte! Grey, sad city, my Paris after the war, and a ruined countryside. And my only son, lost. So I came here, as far as I could get from war. A barbarous country, but strangely innocent. In time the rest of my family followed me. My sister Berthe and her sons and my cousins Louis and Henri.’
M’sieur Anatole swallowed his cognac in one gulp and poured another.
Phryne murmured encouragement. Close to the chef, she could smell such a cocktail of scents, spices, and herbs, which had obviously soaked into his very bones, that she was afraid she might sneeze.
‘All went well. My little café has been successful with the French people here and with such of the Australians who appreciate fine food. We live well. My cousins found themselves Australian wives—they work hard, those Australian girls! That is my cousin Henri’s wife behind the counter. A jolly girl, eh?’
‘Very jolly,’ agreed Phryne, wondering where this was leading and what, if any, connection this had to the gentleman who had exited so abruptly. The dark-haired young woman behind the counter caught Phryne’s eye, winked, and hitched up her considerable bosom. The chef sighed.
‘Such breasts! They are fortunate men.’
‘M’sieur Anatole,’ said Phryne gently, putting one hand on the white sleeve, ‘what is this delicate matter? You may confide in me.’
‘It began three months ago,’ said the chef, looking more like a dispirited vulture than ever. Even his moustache drooped. ‘Three men. They came to demand that I pay them, or some accident would happen to my café. Such things are common in the milieu, are they not? But this is not Paris. I was outraged and bade them begone.’
‘And then,’ Phryne guessed, trying to hurry the conversation along, ‘accidents began to happen.’
‘Yes. A fire was started in one of the rubbish bins. Jean-Paul found it and put it out before it spread. Then a brick through the window. Then—and this is where I became concerned—a whole block of butter was ruined with paint thinner. In my own kitchen! Someone must have come in to the kitchen when the door was open and…well. I called a council. We sat in here after the café was closed; Jean-Paul and Jean-Jacques, my sister’s sons, my sister Berthe, my cousins, and their wives. What were we to do? The criminals were not asking very much, we could afford to pay it, and that might preserve us from further sabotage. But they were all against this. So we bade them begone. There was peace for a week, then they came back today and we rejected their offer again.’
‘Rather forcefully?’ asked Phryne. ‘And through the window?’
‘Yes,’ said M’sieur Anatole, gulping another cognac. ‘Henri was enraged and he is very strong. Now there will be revenge.’
‘Why on earth don’t you go to the police?’ asked Phryne.
‘If we do that,’ said the chef, ‘they might kill us.’
‘This is Australia,’ said Phryne. ‘We don’t do things like that here.’
The chef shrugged. Jean-Paul slammed a pointed cup of coffee down in front of the patron and removed the bottle. This time his flounce would have registered about six on the Richter scale.
‘Well, I suppose if you hire a few heavies and make sure that your café is always occupied, you might be all right,’ said Phryne. ‘But what has this got to do with me? Standover men are resistant to the feminine touch, patron.’
‘Oh, no, mam’selle, no, that is not the problem I am asking you to give your consideration to,’ said M’sieur Anatole, shocked. ‘No. It is a matter of a lady.’
‘A lady,’ said Phryne.
‘After my wife died, I did not wish to marry again. She was a saint, my Marie. But as the years go on, a man becomes lonely. I have a friend here, the first Australian friend I made. A man of taste and wealth, though no culture. His daughter seemed perfect. I discussed it with my family. They had objections. I overcame them. Then I discussed it with him. He was agreeable. Then…’
‘Did you think of discussing it with the lady? She must have reached the age of discretion,’ said Phryne.
‘But no, I did not have a chance. The family agreed. The father agreed. I agreed. But the young lady…’
‘The young lady?’
‘Has disappeared,’ said M’sieur Anatole, and burst into tears.
• • • • •
Phryne walked back to her own house in possession of all available information about Elizabeth Chambers and her father, company director and racing identity Hector Chambers, a slight headache incurred from drinking two glasses of wine and a glass of cognac at lunch, and considerable bemusement.
She could not forget the picture of poor M’sieur Anatole weeping into his moustache under the scornful gaze of Jean-Paul, who had taken him back into the kitchen to mop him up. It was all very sad. She wondered how Elizabeth Chambers, aged eighteen, had felt about being married off to an elderly Frenchman who dyed his hair. If the girl had fled to Cairns, it was explicable. And which collection of standover men was targeting Café Anatole? Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, her old friend, would know, but she did not feel she could approach him yet. Perhaps Anatole’s family could defend their own café without police help.
Phryne walked briskly up her own path and was admitted by her own housekeeper, Mrs. Butler. She seemed agitated.
‘Oh, Miss Phryne, I’m so glad you’re back. Mr. Bert and Mr. Cec have brought a friend of theirs to see you.’
‘Just what I need,’ muttered Phryne ungraciously. She shucked the coat and hat and went into the parlour.
There she saw a bright fire, the short dark Bert and the tall blond Cec, wharfies and taxi drivers for hire, and a sad man holding his hat in his hands. He seemed intent on tearing off the brim.
‘We got a problem,’ said Bert.
‘Too right,’ echoed Cec.
‘Then let’s sit down. Mrs. Butler will bring us some tea, and you can tell me all about it,’ said Phryne, as politely as she could manage. She could not take off her boots without her maid Dot and a shoehorn, and her feet were hurting.
Bert put the sad man into a chair. He had still not raised his eyes from his hat.
‘This is our old mate Johnnie Bedlow. Been with us through Gallipoli and then bloody Pozières,’ said Bert, not even apologising for swearing in a lady’s parlour. He was clearly upset. So, probably, was Cec, but it was always hard to tell with Cec, who preserved the imperturbability of a granite statue in his ordinary dealings with life. Johnnie Bedlow was still mauling his unfortunate hat.
‘Hello,’ said Phryne. ‘I’m Phryne Fisher.’
Johnnie Bedlow raised his eyes for a moment, murmured something, and looked away again.
‘There was five of ’em,’ said Bert. ‘Old mates. Old diggers. Seven with me and Cec. We get together every year about this time to have a yarn and a few drinks.’
‘Yes,’ said Phryne. What was making Bert so furious?
‘Two of ’em are dead,’ said Bert.
‘Yes,’ said Phryne, encouragingly.
‘And there’s something wrong with the way they died. Come on, Johnnie. You tell the lady.’
‘First there was Maccie. He’d gone out to one of them soldier settler schemes. Growing oranges up on the Murray. Found drowned in an irrigation ditch. Coroner said he was drunk. But what about them black bruises on his shoulder blades? What about them, eh? And Maccie never drank much.’
‘Too right,’ said Cec.
Johnnie Bedlow, once launched on his topic, was shaking with fury, red-faced. The hat tore under his fingers and his voice was loud and ragged.
‘Then there was Conger. Supposed to have been fixing his van and it fell on him. But there was nothing wrong with the jack. No one tested it for fingerprints. No one wondered why he ought to be fixing his van in the dark. Inquest said “accident”. Accident? Hah!’
‘You think that someone’s been killing your old mates?’ said Phryne. ‘Why would they do that?’
‘I’d think it might be a coincidence,’ said Bert, ‘but for the car which knocked old Johnnie right off the pavement and into your front fence. We got a murderer, all right—and you’re going to find out who it is. And then,’ he added through gritted teeth, ‘I’m gonna talk to him about it.’
‘Too right,’ said Cec.
‘Oh,’ said Phryne.