‘Do you believe in clubs for women, Uncle?’
‘Yes, but only after every other method of quieting them has failed.’
Punch cartoon, 1890
The attack came suddenly. Out of the hot darkness in the notorious Little Lon came three thugs armed with bicycle chains. The tallest lashed his against the crumbling side of a building. It hit a metal sign advertising Dr. Parkinson’s Pink Pills for Pale People, which rang like a drum.
‘An ominous noise,’ commented Dr. Elizabeth MacMillan. ‘The natives are restless,’ agreed her companion. She was the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher, five-feet-two with eyes of green and black hair cut into a cap. They were not the target of this assault. They were blamelessly approaching the Adventuresses Club bent on nothing more controversial than a White Lady (Phryne) and a dram of good single malt (Dr. MacMillan) and an evening’s exchange of views on weather, politics and medicine. But Little Lonsdale Street was always liable to provide unexpected experiences.
However, the person who was fated for a good shellacking appeared to be lone, female and unprotected, which could not be allowed. Phryne turned abruptly on her Louis heel and, putting both fingers in her mouth, whistled shrilly.
‘Look out, boys!’ she yelled. ‘Cops!’
Usually, this was a sound strategy. As police always entered Little Lonsdale Street in parties of four, the thugs would be outnumbered. It was just their bad luck, this evening, that they were led by a foolhardy tough with no sense of self-preservation. News like Phryne got around. He should have recognised her. But instead of a tactical withdrawal, he swung the chain again and struck a sign advertising Castlemaine Bacon (none finer). He advanced on Phryne and the doctor. She looked at her companion.
‘You can’t say I didn’t give them a chance to get away,’ said Phryne apologetically.
Dr. MacMillan waved a Scottish hand. ‘You did,’ she admitted.
Phryne raised an arm and made a circling movement. Men dressed in blue cotton appeared out of the darkness. They fell on the chain wielder and his satellites. To the noise of crunching bone and flesh hitting walls and pavement, Phryne and the doctor walked through the lesson (do not attack the concubine of our master Lin Chung unless you have a tank and a Lewis Gun and probably not then) and spoke to the intended victim, who was still cowering against a dustbin with her arms protecting her face.
‘Hello,’ said Phryne. ‘Did they hurt you?’
‘Didn’t get started,’ said the victim in a cultured voice. Not a working girl, then. ‘What did you do with them?’
‘Over there.’ Phryne directed her attention to the melee, which had almost resolved into three untouched Chinese men and a heap of damaged thugs, groaning for burial or at least a stiff drink and a few bandages. The young woman boggled at the sight.
‘Who are the Chinks?’
Phryne winced. ‘The Chinese,’ she said coldly. ‘They follow me when I wander around this bit of the city. Their master is concerned for my safety. Not that I cannot look after myself. What have you done to attract this kind of attention, I wonder?’
‘Asking too many questions,’ replied the girl. She was small and plump. Her hair was shingled as short as the doctor’s and her clothes were expensive. And not what they had been, sartorially. ‘Always unwise in Little Lon. Can we offer you a drink and a new pair of stockings? I’m Phryne Fisher, and this is Doctor MacMillan of the Queen Victoria hospital, and our club is just over there.’
‘Oh, Miss Fisher!’ the young woman gasped. She pinkened. ‘Of course. Thank you! I am a bit of a wreck.’
Phryne caught the eye of the blue-clad warriors. She bowed with both hands pressed together in front of her breast and indicated the stone entrance of the Adventuresses Club. They nodded and bowed deeply in turn.
‘Of course, having a bodyguard does endow one with a certain insouciance in dealing with the denizens of Little Lon,’ Phryne told the girl. ‘Might we know your name?’
‘Oh, sorry. Kettle,’ said the young woman. ‘Margaret Kettle— but everyone calls me Polly. I’m a reporter.’
‘You are not, I understand, hoping to write any stories about this club?’ demanded Dr. MacMillan.
‘No!’ protested Polly. ‘No, certainly not, that was not what brought me to Little Lon.’
‘Lips sealed?’ asked Phryne.
‘Buttoned,’ promised Polly earnestly. She could see her drinks and her stockings vanishing just as she thought that they were hers. And she really needed a drink. Gently brought-up girls seldom met thugs in noisome alleys, and she was shaken.
‘All right, then. My guest, Molly,’ Phryne told the female giant sitting in the porter’s chair. ‘Bung over the book and I’ll sign her in. Quiet night?’
‘Until you got here,’ grinned Molly. ‘I expect cops’ll be along to scrape up the remains soon. Better get inside before anyone starts asking questions.’
They ascended the stairs. Outside, a ragged boy settled down under the verandah. He attracted no attention whatsoever, except from Molly, who gave him a pie left over from her dinner. It was a good pie, though he did not eat it with the galloping ferocity of the truly starved. But he ate it. It was a good pie.
# # #
Phryne watched Dr. MacMillan settle Miss Kettle into a padded chair while she ordered drinks and a brief lease on the Withdrawing Room. This was kept supplied with first-aid equipment and the means for repairing or replacing clothes, plus emergency brandy and a young woman who could be summoned for comforting the bereaved or supplying new garments, whichever was required. Her name tonight was Annie. She thought this the best job she had ever had, as emergencies were not common in the club. Annie spent most of her time in the kitchen, being fed tidbits by the cooks and drinking as much tea as she could hold. Summoned, she conducted Miss Kettle into the Withdrawing Room. There she sat the reporter down, sponged the mud of Little Lon off her knees and palms, provided her with new hosiery and allowed her to wash her face and comb her hair while Annie attended to her clothes.
Polly Kettle had not been so tended since she was six and had fallen out of a tree which she had been expressly forbidden to climb. She drank her sal volatile, her hot sugared tea and then her brandy obediently. Annie smiled at her.
‘There you are, Miss, no harm done,’ she told the patient. ‘I just caught up the split seam and put back the hem.’ She surveyed Polly critically. ‘You’ll do.’
‘Thank you,’ murmured Polly, in a medicated haze. ‘Are you a ladies’ maid?’
‘No, Miss, they call me an attendant,’ said Annie. Polly saw that she was a meagre underfed creature, perhaps eighteen years old, with a scarred face. No one else, perhaps, would employ her. There were plenty of unemployed girls. Annie noticed her look. ‘Burns,’ she explained. ‘I fell into the fire when I was a child.’ ‘Do you like working here?’ asked Polly, her reporter’s instinct asserting itself.
Annie broke into a pleased smile, strangely distorted by the scars.
‘Oh, yes, Miss, the ladies are very kind, the pay is good, and no one objects to the way I look.’ She opened the door to admit Polly again to the Sitting Room. Polly went where directed, still bemused.
Dr. MacMillan and Phryne Fisher were ensconced by an open window. Phryne was sipping from a frosted glass. Polly licked her lips.
‘Come and have a drink,’ invited Phryne. ‘And if you sit there you will share our cooling breeze. What would you like?’ ‘Gin and tonic, please,’ said Polly. ‘Thank you so much for
looking after me.’
‘Not at all.’ Phryne waved her unoccupied hand. ‘We are expecting you to enthrall us. Serena, a G and T for Miss Kettle, if you please.’
Serena obliged, and minutes later Polly was clutching a frosted glass of her own.
‘Now,’ said Phryne cozily, as she drew Polly down to sit next to her, ‘do tell!’
‘Girls are going missing from the Magdalen Laundry at the Abbotsford convent,’ said Polly. Her hearers failed to gasp or exclaim. Polly, a little disappointed, took a deep gulp of her drink. It was strong and shocked a little pink into her pale cheeks.
‘Yes?’ prompted Phryne.
‘Three of them so far. Mary O’Hara, Jane Reilly, Ann Prospect. Sent out to stay with a pious widow in Footscray and vanished.’ ‘Not just run away? I would, if I was sent to a pious widow,’
‘Pregnant,’ said Polly baldly, disdaining euphemism. ‘Very pregnant. Within a month of delivery. The pious widow runs a nursing home in Footscray. My newspaper’s Mr. Bates interviewed her and she was unable to tell him what had happened to the girls, or why they should run away when they were so close to their time. Ann Prospect has relatives. They have not heard from her. The same for the others. No one has heard from them. The police are not interested.’
‘But you are?’ asked the doctor.
‘I am,’ said Polly. ‘Why?’
‘I’m a reporter,’ said Polly defiantly. ‘I work for the Daily Truth. They only want female reporters to write about fashion and food and babies and turn in reports of flower shows (getting all the names correct). I want a scoop.’
‘In order to prove to your proprietor that you are a real reporter?’ asked Phryne.
‘Yes!’ said Polly.
‘A laudable ambition,’ said Phryne.
‘No one cares about bad girls!’ Polly burst out indignantly. ‘They make one mistake and they are shut up in the laundry doing hard work. Their babies are adopted out. They are ruined. We ought to have got beyond that. What use is freedom—they told us that we fought that war for freedom—when the women are still punished and the men go on to seduce another girl?’
‘Indeed,’ said the doctor gravely.
‘The cops told me that they had just run away to go on the street,’ said Polly. ‘Who is going to buy your body when you are eight months pregnant? It’s ridiculous.’
‘Certainly,’ said Phryne. ‘Have you enquired at the morgue?’ ‘The morgue?’ Polly took another gulp of her drink.
‘Well, the three girls are either dead or somewhere else, alive. That is the first thing you need to ascertain. I believe that there is a register of unclaimed bodies. Then, if they are not there, you need to ask at various hospitals. You keep a proper account of your patients, Elizabeth, do you not?’
‘Of course,’ said Dr. MacMillan. ‘Come to the front desk and I will arrange for you to search the records. Of course, some of our patients do not use their real names. We discourage this but we understand it.’
‘That is…very kind of you,’ faltered Polly. Life was becoming extremely real at present, she thought.
‘And I will ask about who sent your assailants,’ said Phryne. She finished her drink and sauntered out. Polly looked at Dr. MacMillan, who seemed reassuringly normal.
‘Does she mean to go and…’
‘She does,’ said the doctor comfortably. ‘Is she always like that?’ asked Polly.
‘When she was sixteen she was an ambulance driver on the Western Front. I don’t think she’s been daunted by anything since then,’ the doctor told her. ‘She flew me into Hebridean crofts during the flu epidemic when she had to land on shingle and strand with sea on one side and cliff on the other and never turned a hair. Miss Fisher is a force of nature and there is never anything you can do about her. Have another drink and appreciate the show. That’s what I do. I wonder, now, could any of your girls be at the Queen Vic? Do you have a description of each of them—or, better yet, a photo?’
‘They were photographed when they entered the care of the convent,’ said Miss Kettle, still bemused. ‘I have them here.’
‘Show me,’ said Dr. MacMillan. ‘There will be a reasonable explanation, I’m sure enough of that.’
‘And if there isn’t?’ asked Polly.
‘Then we will hand the matter over to Miss Fisher,’ said the doctor, sipping her whisky. ‘She’s very good at the irrational.’
‘Oh,’ said Polly.
‘But none of this is for publication without our permission,’ added Dr. MacMillan severely. ‘Death may be a public matter, but birth is a female mystery. What was your last line of enquiry, m’dear?’
‘Brothels,’ said Polly, eschewing euphemism again. The doctor seemed unmoved.
‘Few brothels would employ women in their last trimester of pregnancy.’
‘Yes, that’s why I wondered if…They say there are brothels that have special interests. You know, boys, small children, women with one leg, that sort of thing.’
‘The depth of male depravity is indeed bottomless,’ said Dr. MacMillan. ‘And after thirty years in the medical profession noth- ing now astounds me about evil and the temptations of the devil. But I suspect that I would have heard of such a place. And I haven’t.’
Polly had never met anyone like the doctor—or Phryne. Among women of her nice respectable middle class she herself was considered unacceptably bold and even immoral for insisting on a career which did not include reporting on garden parties. Next to her was a group of ladies discussing strange tribal rites in New Guinea. And others were talking about a durbar where the elephants had got drunk and fallen over while curtseying to the governor. And a further group, rather elevated by cocktails, wondered aloud whether taking a lover is permissible only after one’s husband has acquired a mistress, or if one could venture on a suitable man before, if the occasion seemed to warrant it. She took refuge in her drink.
Dr. MacMillan was examining the three photographs. She put on her wire-framed glasses and stared.
‘No, can’t recall seeing any of them,’ she commented. ‘Plain girls, aren’t they? Not good prostitute material, though given those dreadful smocks and difficult situation I suppose they cannot look their best. The brothel market is rather overcrowded at present, you know. Employment is hard to get, even in the pickle factories and the dangerous trades, and so many young men didn’t come home from the Great War. Girls who would have expected to marry some respectable tradesman will find no candidates except amongst the damaged and ruined, and that really only exchanges one set of cares for another. They have to work, but female wages are still much lower than men’s, as though all of them were just finding a little piecework for pin money, not struggling for survival. So brothels are only accepting the young and pretty and winning. The poor drabs on the street are having a parlous time, I fear. They don’t last long.’
Polly was shocked. Fortunately Phryne returned before she had time to burst into tears at the cruelty of female fate.
Miss Fisher was giggling.
‘Miss Kettle, did you really ask about pregnant girls in the Blue Cat Club?’ she said, sitting down and crooking a finger at the bartender for another White Lady.
‘Yes, I heard they had strange tastes,’ explained Polly. Phryne patted her hand.
‘Yes, indeed, but exclusively male. You have been followed around town tonight by at least three fascinated observers, all watching, I fear, to see which of them was going to get you. The Blue Cat is far too soigné and careful of their manicures to inflict violence, luckily. But two others were dangerous. I should not go anywhere near Corsican Joe’s in the near future. The far future, either. Or Madame Paris. I shall talk to her. It was the Corsican’s men who tried to beat you. I am fairly confident that they will not attempt that again. And I will take to you meet Madame Paris in due course, if you like. But your enquiries need to go in another direction.’
‘Why?’ asked Polly. ‘And why are you helping me?’
‘Well, darling, one does not like to watch a nice little woolly baa-lamb go leaping and gambolling into a field full of large bitey wolves. It has a certain morbid interest, I agree,’ said Phryne, sipping deeply. ‘But it is basically a blood sport and I don’t even like fox-hunting.’ She gestured to the photos Dr. MacMillan was holding. ‘Have you seen the girls, Elizabeth?’
‘Not a one,’ said the doctor.
‘I thought as much. One of the Corsican’s little pals men- tioned that there is some sort of farm where pregnant whores have been sent. It sounds like it might be dire. Since even Lin Chung’s minions couldn’t get anything more out of him, I suspect that is the extent of his knowledge. Asking around,’ warned Phryne, ‘will be perilous.’
‘I don’t care,’ said Polly stoutly, buoyed by company and gin. ‘I’m a reporter with a name to make.’
‘Up to you,’ shrugged Phryne.
‘A little advice?’ suggested the doctor. ‘Yes, of course,’ said Polly.
‘Sew your name and address into your undergarments,’ said Dr. MacMillan. She observed Polly’s look of incomprehension and did not smile.
‘Makes it easier to identify your body,’ explained Phryne. ‘Assuming that they don’t strip you naked, of course. Perhaps a tattoo might be better,’ she added.
‘Yes, dear, but think of the trouble when you changed addresses,’ objected the doctor.
Suddenly it was all too much. Polly rose, straightened her new stockings, took her leave, and left. Phryne and Dr. MacMillan exchanged a speaking glance.
‘How long do you give her?’ asked the doctor in her soft, exact Edinburgh voice.
‘Maybe a week,’ said Phryne, signalling for another drink. ‘Perhaps two,’ agreed Elizabeth MacMillan. ‘Be generous.
Now, tell me about your new bathroom.’
‘I have a malachite bath,’ said Phryne. ‘And I have acquired another follower.’
‘Tinker,’ said Phryne. ‘Apprentice detective. Here for six months on trial. From Queenscliff. He appointed himself my acolyte. Wants to be a cop. Father’s a sailor, he’s from a big hungry fishing family. Eldest child. About fourteen, I think.’
‘A likely lad?’
‘Many abilities, but he’s finding it hard to settle down in my house.’
‘Too big?’ asked the doctor.
‘Too female,’ said Phryne. ‘But he’s only been here a week.
We shall see.’
‘Indeed we shall,’ said the doctor, and sipped her single malt.
# # #
Phryne started the great Hispano-Suiza with a roar which would have startled Little Lon if it was liable to be startled, which it wasn’t. Alarums and excursions were commonplace and a large engine could not compete with the crowd exiting from Little Chow’s all-night cafe to settle a small difference of opinion with broken bottles and bricks. To the merry accompaniment of crunches, shrieks and thuds, Phryne drove decorously enough out of Little Lon and on to St. Kilda Road, heading for home in the two a.m. chill of a hot day. Not even a tram on the wide stretches of the highway. Presently she spoke aloud.
‘You can come out now,’ she said. She heard a muffled curse behind her and suppressed a smile.
‘How’d you smoke me, Guv’nor?’ complained Tinker. ‘I was real careful.’
‘Next time you are being real careful, do not stand entirely still. Entire stillness doesn’t happen in nature. Just practise melt- ing into the landscape, as though you are a tree. Besides, the porter told me about you. Why are you following me, Tink?’
‘Are you mad at me, Guv?’ he asked. ‘No, just curious.’
‘Can’t sleep inside,’ confessed the boy. ‘It’s too…’ He groped for a word which would not be insulting to his benefactor. ‘Too womany.’
‘I thought that might be the case.’
‘And it’s not as though they ain’t nice to me, but I don’t belong. There’s Miss Ruth and Mrs. Butler in the kitchen and Miss Jane in the library and Mr. Butler in the pantry and you and Miss Dot upstairs and me nowhere…’
‘I see,’ said Phryne.
There was a long silence as St. Kilda passed under the streetlights. Tinker ventured, ‘You gonna sack me, Guv’nor?’
‘No, I’m going to give you a little house of your own,’ said Phryne. ‘Now if you will be so kind as to get out and open the gate so that I can drive in, we will fix this right now.’
Tinker, mouth agape, did as ordered. Phryne entered her own bijou dwelling, picked up an electric torch and led the boy straight through the house, out of the back door, and into the garden. This had been laid out by Camellia, the wife of Phryne’s Chinese lover, Lin Chung. It had jasmine bowers and bamboo fences. It smelt, in the cool darkness, bewitching.
‘Shed,’ said Phryne, very quietly. Tinker looked.
It was a small stoutly constructed building in which a previous inhabitant had been wont to indulge a diseased passion for fretwork. It had carpenter’s tools hung on the wall, a stout bench and block for cutting wood, and a lot of sawdust on the floor. One window. One door, which could be shut. Tinker stood in the darkness and inhaled the scent of cut wood and realised that he could hear the sea. It was not the roar of the real ocean, to which he had been born and had heard all his life. It was the half-hearted lazy slopping ashore of the bay. But it was the sea and he released a breath which he had not known he had been holding. For about a week, it seemed to Tinker. He put a hand on the wall to steady himself.
Phryne said nothing. She played the light around the unlined walls and the dusty floor.
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Oh, yair,’ replied Tinker fervently.
‘Then it’s yours. Tomorrow you can sweep up a little and move in some furniture. Or you can sleep on the ground, if that suits. Now we are going inside for the sandwiches which Mrs. B always leaves for me and I seldom eat, and then you are going to bed in the house. All right?’
Tinker did not know what to say. This angel, this goddess, had broken open his prison doors and given him a priceless gift. His own place. No more listening to Miss Jane talking about mathematics, no more feeling like an awkward lump always in the way in the kitchen. No more sitting gingerly on the edge of the sofa hoping he wouldn’t break something. He did not know what to say and had never hugged anyone. He extended a grimy, calloused hand.
‘Thanks,’ he said, and Phryne shook, gravely.
# # #
Phryne woke to the noise of activity downstairs. Not the usual late-breakfast preparation-for-lunch buzz and occasional clank in the kitchen, but thuds of furniture being moved. Tinker had relayed her instructions and someone was trying to move some- thing heavy—a cast-iron bed frame, perhaps—without making any noise. This was not working. Phryne put out a hand and pulled a bell rope. Dot appeared as though summoned up on a breath of sea wind.
‘Going to be a nice day,’ she said, putting down the tray on which reposed Miss Fisher’s Greek coffee, roll and butter, and the little pot of Seville orange marmalade which she favoured. Phryne sat up in bed.
‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘I gather that Tinker is moving his furniture?’
‘Yes, Miss, he said you told him he could have the shed. I’ve given it a good sweep-out. But he won’t let us decorate it at all. He was real short with Jane offering him books and Ruth saying she could find him some paint. Just the hessian lining is good enough for him, he says, and we only just got him to accept a bed to sleep in. Not even curtains.’ Dot sounded mortified. ‘People will think we’re mistreating him.’
‘Two points,’ said Phryne, reaching for the coffee. ‘One, if the nice ladies from Children’s Protection come around, refer them to me. And two, it’s what Tinker needs. Everyone will be more comfortable with him sleeping in the shed, especially him. Make a note to buy another bed for the spare room. And ask him if he would like electric light or a hurricane lamp. He’ll be safe enough, he’s used to them. He’ll be wanting to read, I hope.’ She took another sip of the life-giving fluid. ‘It will be all right, Dot, I promise. Lovely day, you said?’
‘Yes, Miss,’ said Dot, accepting the orders with great relief. It would be nice to have someone guarding the back gate. It would also be nice—though she hated to admit it, it seemed so uncharitable—to have Tinker out of the house, where he was so awkward and uncomfortable that he disrupted the peaceful routine which Mr. and Mrs. Butler had imposed on Phryne’s rather chaotic life. Dot liked routine. It made her feel safe. It wasn’t as though Tinker wasn’t a good boy, Dot was sure, at bottom. He was respectful, cheerful, likely to be of great use to Miss Fisher. But he was so patently a boy. Not a man like Phryne’s friends or Mr. Butler. A boy, and he disturbed the girls. He didn’t know how to treat them, although he had sisters, he said. Also he hadn’t got used to the length of his arms and legs, so he knocked things off tables, tripped over rugs, and broke china, which upset Mrs. Butler. He was alternately cheeky and depressed. And that made Dot feel that she should do something to help him, having little brothers of her own. It was clear that the family were getting on Tinker’s nerves as much as he was getting on theirs. The whole house had been uneasy since his advent.
Much better, Dot considered, that he should have a refuge in the shed. When he felt like joining the family, he would probably be better company.
There was a loud crunch as the bed frame was squeezed though the back door, a cry of triumph from Tinker, and a grunt from Mr. Butler. Phryne smiled and ate her roll.
Dot handed her the hairbrush and Phryne got out of bed and stood herself before the big mirror, garlanded with art deco vines in green enamel and gilt. There was Miss Fisher, a pale oval face, red lips in a cupid’s bow, green eyes staring directly at her reflection, doll-like except for the decisiveness in the bone structure. Behind her stood Dot, mousy, in her favourite shade of brown with her hair in a long plait wound round her head; devout, delightful, and always a little worried about Phryne. Phryne blew a kiss to her own reflection and put down the brush. Her short black hair, snipped into a bobby-cut, was as shiny as a crow’s feather.
‘Bath,’ she said, and went into her new bathroom. It was magnificent. The bath was made of green malachite. The walls were scarlet. Dot thought the whole thing very garish. Bathrooms ought to be white, or at the most a very pale pink or blue. But, she had to admit, it suited Phryne’s flamboyant personality. Dot made sure that there were sufficient moss-green bath sheets and went downstairs to see what domestic disasters had occurred while she was away. Behind her, Phryne lifted up her voice in one of her favourite bath songs, ‘My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes’. ‘I’m afraid when he’s in the park, he leaves the straight and narrow…’ Dot smiled. It was pleasant to be home.
By the time Phryne descended to the main house, the move had been accomplished. Tinker had allowed that he had got used to sleeping in a bed, so he had his iron one, and bedding. The sawdust had been swept out of his little home, and he had nailed a flour sack across the window to provide privacy. All of the rest of his possessions reposed on the carpenter’s bench. Sexton Blake novels, string, stones, shells, fishhooks stuck in a cork, a magnifying glass, matches, a notebook, a pencil, useful bits of wire. His hurricane lamp was filled and trimmed. Phryne surveyed Tinker’s domain, smiled, and held out a heavy wrought-iron key. ‘No one will come in, Tink, but you have to put your sheets and dirty clothes into the laundry basket on Wednesday night, and remake the bed yourself. New shirt and underwear every day, remember. I shall have this checked. And a wash every night and a bath at least every week. You can use the Butlers’ bathroom.’ ‘Can’t I wash in the sea?’ asked Tinker, who was used to Queenscliff and its clean waters. He had gone for a swim every morning since he could walk.
‘Not in a St. Kilda sea,’ Phryne told him. ‘That would not make you cleaner. And walking naked into those waters might expose you to unpleasant things, the least of which is prosecution for public indecency. You can go swimming when we buy you a suitable costume. Sorry, Tinker, it’s indoors and fresh water for your ablutions. Agreed?’
‘Agreed, Guv,’ said Tinker, and received the key as though it were a medal. He had never known a space which was his own. He would have agreed to any conditions. Washing, though he was at a loss to understand why the guv’nor thought it was so important, was a minor concession.
‘But keep your raggedy clothes separate. They smell just right.
You may need them for my investigations.’ ‘Right you are, Guv,’ said Tinker.
‘And Mr. Butler will give you a key for the back door when he has another cut. Just in case you need to come in during the night.’
Phryne wondered how Tinker would like isolation, now that he had it, and was gracefully providing a refuge in case Tinker found himself subject to night terrors. He had lived in extremely cramped conditions all his life and might find privacy threatening, in the black night of a strange garden. He just said, ‘Thanks,’ and vanished into the shed. Phryne heard him testing the lock.
‘Good,’ she said to the door, and went inside for a cup of tea and a ginger biscuit and the accumulated mail, which overflowed the silver salver on which Mr. Butler presented it. Dot joined her in the sea-green parlour, bringing her embroidery. Phryne slit envelopes and discarded letters into a wastepaper basket.
‘Rubbish,’ she commented over the noise of crumpling. ‘Dross. Invitations to events long past. Appeals for charities.’
‘Nothing interesting?’ enquired Dot, stitching a boronia flower.
‘This one is from the Socialist Women,’ said Phryne. ‘And here is an art show which might be intriguing; proceeds to go to feeding the unemployed. Here is my copy of The Woman Worker. That is always worth reading. Invitation to a levee at the…damn. I wasn’t expecting any callers. I wonder who that can be?’
The doorbell had chimed. Mr. Butler paced to the door with magisterial speed. Phryne listened. She was not in the mood for entertaining visitors. However, this one was admitted without delay. Few people had automatic entrée to Phryne’s house. She stood up to shake hands with her favourite policeman.
‘Jack dear,’ she greeted him. ‘What brings you here on such a clement day?’
John ‘call me Jack, everyone does’ Robinson looked glum. This was his usual expression. He was a tallish man with an instantly forgettable face which had served him well in his career. Even people he had repeatedly arrested didn’t really remember what he looked like, that allowed him to arrest them again. He sat down heavily in the offered chair and accepted, unusually for him before lunch, Mr. Butler’s offer of a whisky and soda as well as tea. Phryne diagnosed a particularly difficult case, probably involving society people, which had compelled him, much against his inclination, to ask for Miss Fisher’s help.
‘You interfered in a fight in Little Lon last night,’ he said to Phryne.
‘Certainly. Some nasty people were about to beat a young woman reporter. An action in very bad taste. Why do you ask about it? Has someone had the nerve to complain?’
‘No, though two of them thugs are still in hospital. Said they were routed by some Chinks. Nothing to do with you, Miss Fisher,’ said Jack meaningly; he knew all about Miss Fisher’s bodyguard. ‘It’s the victim.’
‘Polly Kettle? What about her?’
‘She’s been kidnapped,’ said Jack, and gulped down the whisky and soda in one draught.