Jack stepped into the crowded bank lobby, his police-trained eyes automatically scouring the room for anything out of the ordinary. It was a Friday afternoon, at the precise hour when all the heat of the long summer day had been collected, apparently, into one stuffy, surprisingly-dim room. Jack, along with half of Melbourne, was there to deposit his pay cheque.
Typically, Jack could afford to wait for a comparatively deserted Tuesday or Wednesday morning to take care of such business, but he happened to find himself particularly strapped this week. First, there had been the rather substantial loan to Rosie, given gladly to help her cope with the fallout from her fiance’s and father’s arrests. Her assets were, unfortunately, mostly tied up in one or the other of their now-frozen accounts, and she had needed to get away. He had withdrawn enough to cover travel and living expenses for several months before putting her on a train to her sister’s, while the gravity of the situation had been almost enough to overwrite the melancholy echoes of the last time he had seen her to the station. Almost.
The second reason for his cash shortage, in contrast, brought an involuntary smile to his lips. Against the advice of his usually-cautious inner accountant, he had bought himself a new suit. It wasn’t that he needed it, exactly, though (he was quick to remind himself) it had been over two years since he had last gone to the trouble and expense. Rather, he admitted, it was that he wanted something special to wear to supper. At Miss Fisher’s.
Supper at Miss Fisher’s, a fast-approaching prospect that he hadn’t yet allowed himself dwell on. Not that he had had much of an opportunity, anyway; the days after they had arrived at their new, mutual understanding had been filled with paperwork and Rosie and the stress of bureaucratic upheavals within the Victorian constabulary. After several days of silence, Miss Fisher had called, her voice over the line a reminder that there were still good things in the world, inviting him to supper -- after she returned from a prearranged trip to the mountains with Prudence Stanley. And then, just as things at City South were settling into new patterns of normal, he and Constable Collins had been required -- yes, required -- to assist with the chalet murders.
Jack’s examination of faces paused as his focus shifted to the memory of the holiday party that had followed, only two nights ago. A unique brand of euphoria had reigned throughout the evening, no doubt the result of the recent near-death experiences of most of the guests. Somehow the party, not originally planned, had been necessary. No one who had been at the chalet had been quite ready to part and move on; having been so close to death, they had inadvertently glimpsed the fragile, terrible, beautiful barbarism of life, and they had been brought closer together by the shared experience, clinging to each other to process the resulting mix of delight, lust, and despair in mutual exultation. It had been evident in Mrs. Stanley’s uncharacteristic frivolity, in the way normally-restrained Collins could not keep his hands from skimming over Miss Williams’ shoulders, over and over. And it had been apparent in the way Miss Fisher had been unable to leave his side for more than two minutes at a time, and the way she had fitted herself within the space of his outstretched arm, as if compelled by an invisible force. How she had rotated within the almost-embrace to speak with him, how the intimacy of their proximity had suddenly become overt when the room’s attention, drawn by a sprig of mistletoe, had fixed upon them. How, despite the contrivance, they had almost managed --
Jack’s attention snapped back to the present with a jolt. Miss Fisher stood before him, twenty feet away and slightly obscured by potted greenery, her body angled away from him so that his eyes were free to trace the length of her long, flowing jacket. The perfection of her appearance assured him that she was not a mere conjuration of his desire. He watched as her elegantly-gloved hand reached up to absently adjust and smooth her hat, while the slight shuffle of her feet betrayed her natural impatience.
His heart instantly began to beat faster, and his afternoon’s prospects, which had until this moment seemed drab and tedious, were suddenly suffused with possibility. She was in the queue for a teller three rows over, and only the nondeferrable nature of his own business stopped Jack from walking over to her immediately. Instead, he took a moment to mentally check his own appearance, the less to impress than to anticipate the way she would certainly take his suit in hand once she saw him. He couldn’t suppress his delight, nor a private smile, at the thought. Shoving restless fingers into his pockets, he absently took a step forward in line and willed her to turn and notice him.
“Oi! This here’s a robbery!” The brassy tone and near-comical delivery momentarily distracted Jack from the message, and then time seemed to slow down as the devastating import struck and he desperately sought to locate the speaker. Not that he, unarmed, was in much of a position to do much about it. Unsurprisingly, he thought of Miss Fisher, who was almost certainly carrying at least one pistol. What did surprise him, however, was that of all the thoughts and emotions that passed through him at the sudden threat, not least among them was a sharp pang of regret over yet another thwarted opportunity.
After an interminable pause that must have lasted only a second in reality, a high-pitched scream, coming not far from where Phryne was standing, pierced the silence, and the room erupted in a panicked spike of voices. As if in answer, several shots fired. He counted, with dismay, five men with firearms prominently positioned near the exits. Each one wore a kerchief over his face that obscured his features.
“Quiet now!” The spokesman of the group, apparently, but not the shooter. Jack glanced around the room, trying to ascertain if anyone had been hit. The thirty-or-so inhabitants of the lobby remained more or less where they had been when the robbers had made their presence known, but it appeared as if one man had tried to rush a gunman and paid the price. His eyes shifted to Phryne, who was, thankfully, uninjured and not yet drawing attention to herself. That she intended to assert herself was an unfortunate certainty.
“This man needs a doctor.” Her voice was clear, calm, as lovely as ever. Dammit, Phryne.
“And what’s it to you?” This voice did not belong to the original speaker, though it intoned a similar crass contempt. It was the man who had fired, and the muzzle of his weapon now arced toward Phyne, stopping to rest when it pointed at her body from fifteen feet away. Jack wrestled a wave of blackness that almost knocked him off his feet.
Her response telegraphed quiet solicitude and fellowship. “I was a nurse, in the war. I’ve seen enough pain and death.”
The shooter’s eyes roughly swept down Phryne’s body, and if things hadn’t been so dire, Jack would have felt irrationally territorial. But the shooter, having taken in her expensive fabrics and stylish accoutrement, was clearly unwilling to be drawn in. “I’m sure you have, miss.” His sarcasm and disbelief were unmistakable.
“Oi!” The leader, held up but not diverted by Miss Fisher’s distraction, had clearly prepared for complications. Even as the shooting had occurred, two of his men had approached the tellers and begun the business of securing entry into the vault, while the other finished locking all the doors. Jack waited, too afraid to be angry, to see how Phryne’s interference would influence the planned course of the robbery.
The shooter, evidently acting upon an unspoken order from his boss, advanced toward her, stepping over the wounded man, using his free hand to wave the loose groupings of bystanders back, herding them behind her and toward the far wall. He stopped barely five feet from her. “Down on your knees!”
Jack clenched his hands into fists, channeling his helpless rage to prevent himself from rushing to position himself between Phryne and the gun. He had plenty of experience with this scenario, and yet somehow he never seemed to believe that this would not be the time he would lose her. To his right, he noticed that behind the counter the tellers’ hands had been tied up, and all but one of them were being rounded into a corner. Good. At least the robbers didn’t seem keen on murder. Still, they had struck the bank at a particularly populated time, which seemed to suggest they were interested in more than a quick vault-grab, and they had already willingly shot a man.
Phryne was slowly lowering herself to her hands and knees, maintaining eye contact with the shooter as she did. Jack feared for her safety, and the selfish part of him that knew she was essential to his happiness wished that she would simply get down and keep her mouth closed, allowing events to unfold according to the robbers’ plans. And yet, he simultaneously felt a different wish, from the part of him that had witnessed her ingenuity and capability and loved her for it, that she would once again find a way to make this right.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said lowly. “You don’t have to let this man die.”
“Quiet!” the leader yelled loudly into the otherwise-silent room. “Brinkley, do your job!”
The fifth man, having secured the exits, advanced toward Jack’s general position. He felt his neighbors shift in terror. “That’s right, all of you. Back yourselves up, in a line, like.” With his gun, he waved them back against the wall. “No bunching, hands where I can see ‘em! And now, down on your knees.”
Jack allowed himself to be directed, his trained gaze the only weapon at his disposal. The man, Brinkley, briefly met his eyes. “Down on the floor, you!”
Once he had complied, Jack was unable to see what was happening with Phryne on the other side of the lobby. Scanning the room covertly without turning his head, he strained to pick up any relevant sounds. The emptying of the vault appeared to be transpiring according to plan, and now it seemed the bank employees, along with the patrons lined up on either side of the lobby, were being asked to surrender their valuables.
As Jack waited his turn, he heard a familiar, hushed voice once again interrupt the anxious buzz. “Please. Let someone take him to a hospital. It’s not too late!”
“-- I -- I have a safety deposit box here. Containing valuables, jewels, equal to the value of cash in the vault, I’m sure! Look, if you’ll just let him go, I will open it for you.” Phryne, what are you doing? Do you think you can bargain with this man?
It was a noble offer, but a foolish one that put her at high risk in exchange for a doubtful gain. And yet, she seemed to have given the leader pause. “How about I just take your key and open the box myself, nevermind this man?”
“You could, perhaps, but that will cost you valuable time. My key is not marked, so you will have to try every box, and there are hundreds. Meanwhile, the police are no doubt already on their way, as the report of gunshots fired from the bank will surely not have gone unnoticed. And what do you benefit from this man’s death? Instead, you should consider what you risk should he die.”
As far as plans go, it was far from ideal, but it seemed the boss’ greed outweighed his sense. “Smith! Take this man, and...you...unlock the door, let them out. Just those two!” There was a pause and the sound of movement, dragging, grunting. “The rest of you, don’t. Don’t move. And you better be telling the truth. I think you know, don’t you?”
Jack wished he could see what was happening. Brinkley had paused his efforts momentarily, dividing his attention between his corner of hostages and the activity at the door, ensuring that things went smoothly.
Just then, there was a commotion from behind the counter, and more shots rang out. Smith’s running footsteps pounded from the front of the lobby and the man came into Jack’s line of sight. Brinkley whirled around so his back was to Jack and took two steps toward the center of the room. Not wanting to waste what might be his only opportunity, Jack sprang from his kneeling position and rushed at the man, attempting to wrestle his gun away. The struggle lasted several seconds, but Jack’s advantage proved sufficient. Cocking the pistol, he used it to wave Brinkley into a standing position. Sparing a glance toward the center of the lobby, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. Even as a stream of hostages used the confusion to rush out of the still-unlocked exit, his eyes fixed upon one sight: the leader, in the center of the lobby, one arm holding Phryne in a headlock, the other aiming a pistol directly under her chin.
“Smith, Glaston, you know what to do.” The leader, seemingly unconcerned over the fleeing bank patrons, locked eyes with Jack. “Now, sir. I’m sure you don’t want this Sheba here to choke on lead, so I’m sure you’ll be handing over that pistol straight away.”
Lowering his arm to drop the weapon, Jack looked directly into Phryne’s eyes. Even held at gunpoint as she was, he could read shock, mixed relief, and something else undefinable in her face as she recognized him. It was a naked look that went straight to his heart, and for the space of a breath she seemed the only person in the room.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Phryne had been craning her head to look straight into the leader’s eyes from her kneeling position. Her heart was beating fast and her mind, usually active in times of duress, could not seem to get past the idea of the bank patron who was fast bleeding out, even as he was dragged toward the door and his best hope of salvation. Dimly, she knew her plan was lacking any means of overcoming the robbers, and as she processed the leader’s direct threat to her own well-being, she admitted to herself that she might have slightly exaggerated the worth of the jewels in her safety deposit box.
As this dismaying fact settled on her uncharacteristically-shaken consciousness, she became aware of the sounds of yelling voices from behind the teller’s counter, followed swiftly by more gunshots. A long moment preceded a simultaneous uproar, as the hostage bank patrons seemed to decide collectively to take advantage of the robbers’ distractions. Phryne, still not recovered from her mild daze, was slow to react. As she struggled to her feet, torn between a desire to depart and a feeling of responsibility toward the remaining bank patrons, she was tackled and held fast by the lead robber. At once, her instincts took over, and she would have managed to wrestle herself free, had it not been for the unmistakable pressure of a cold muzzle pressing ungently under her jugular.
She continued to put up a mild struggle, because her pride would not allow her to simply submit, but eventually she quieted and and signalled her surrender with a huff, turning slightly to focus on the receiver of her captor’s warning: “Now, sir. I’m sure you don’t want this Sheba here to choke on lead, so I’m sure you’ll be lowering that pistol straight away.”
And as her gaze alighted on the object of the criminal’s attention, Phryne found herself looking directly into Jack Robinson’s impassioned eyes. The usually imperturbable Inspector stood before her heaving deep breaths, a curl of hair fallen on his forehead, and if the man who held her hadn’t already been supporting most of her weight, she would have collapsed as her knees gave way in shock. Jack! Even without his characteristic composure, his steady gaze supplied the ballast she hadn’t known she needed. How did he get here so fast? How did he always manage to be on the spot at the exact moment her own ingenuity failed her? Offering his assistance as soon as she required it, but not a second before? It was uncanny, mildly infuriating, and habit-forming.
In a instant, Phryne processed Jack’s awareness that she recognized him, and read relief in his gaze and steel in his jaw, even as he unhesitatingly surrendered his gun to the robber called Brinkley. It struck Phryne suddenly that there was no way he could have rushed to the scene, and he must have been in the bank all along. Distantly, she was aware of how pleasant it would have been to run into him unexpectedly, and she felt a vague sorrow over what could have been.
Brinkley seemed to have reclaimed an extra dose of surliness along with his gun; Phryne inwardly winced as she watched him use its brutal jab to the base of Jack’s skull to nudge him toward the center of the room.
“Brinkley, go check on the back. I don’t think our hero here is going to try anything, is he?” Phryne gasped as the leader emphasized his meaning by tightening his vise-like grip around her upper body and forcing her head higher with the muzzle of the gun.
Jack’s eyes swept back to hers, seeking assurance that, despite the rough handling, she remained unharmed. Phryne blinked slowly, knowing he would decipher the action for the covert nod that it represented. A wave of giddiness washed over her as she was suddenly struck by an absurd yet forceful belief that everything was going to work out, despite the circumstances.
The leader resumed speaking to Jack. “Get down on the ground. Hands on the floor.” Phryne wondered whether there was any way he could get to her handbag, which was lying innocuously on the ground about ten feet away. If he could get his hands on her pistol, they might be able to coordinate a surprise attack. As if of their own volition, her eyes came to rest on the graceful stretch of Jack’s neck, bared to all as he bent his head to comply with the boss’s orders. The sight abruptly reminded her of another time, only a few weeks ago, when he had willingly bowed to her gentle administration, and she was suddenly struck with awareness of the unconscious but profound offer that had been contained in the gesture. She felt an unfamiliar constriction in her throat.
Brinkley called out from the back, “Christ Almighty! Biggs, it’s no good. Our guy unlocked the door, but coppers got the alleyway filled. And Perkins’ in a bad way. Some old broad got shot, too.”
Phryne’s heart sank as she digested that information. Another life at risk, and the pressure of the police presence, while not surprising, would undoubtedly make the criminals desperate. Feeling the leader, Biggs, slightly slacken his grip, she took the opportunity to scour the room. Aside from herself and Jack and the wounded woman who remained hidden behind the bank counter, there was one other hostage, held roughly at gunpoint by Glaston. She figured Perkins was the name of the fifth robber who had apparently gotten shot during a hostage’s risky escape attempt. It seemed unlikely that a woman had attempted to rush a bank robber, so Phryne wondered if the other hostage, held now by Glaston, was the instigator. She doubted they would have permitted whoever it was run out with the rest of the hostages.
Smith, having gathered all the stolen loot and cash into a few bags, now returned from checking for escape routes. He fixed Biggs with a grim stare and gave a single sharp shake to his head. “‘S no good. Surrounded by the fuzz.” He nodded meaningfully in Jack’s direction. “New plan?”
Phryne caught her balance as Biggs, stepping back, released her roughly. “Tie these ones up.”
As the man moved toward Jack to comply, she again sought his eyes for evidence of a plan. With a covert glance, he shook his head almost imperceptibly. He had no ideas, but they were running out of time. If the robbers used them as leverage to secure their escape, their chances of survival were drastically reduced. Even supposing they managed to avoid being shot by over-keen police, once the criminals escaped, they would be eager to get rid of witnesses who had had the opportunity to become too intimately familiar with the identifying features that face kerchiefs could not obscure.
Belaying his own order, the boss spoke up again: “Oi, Brinkley! Take the dame back to collect her loot.”
Phryne looked down to hide her dismay. She had been hoping her ploy had been forgotten in the upheaval. But as the big man turned toward her purse, her dismay turned to panic. She wasn’t sure what would happen if they found her gun, but she was sure it would not be good. She spared a moment to consciously inject an exaggeratedly feminine, but underlyingly innocent coyness into her voice. “A moment, if you will.” She moved slightly toward her discarded purse.
Brinkley paused and turned to face her.
Phryne looked at the man directly, projecting equal parts hesitation and earnestness. She glanced down in false modesty before returning her eyes to his expectant, slightly suspicious, gaze. “There are, uhm, items,” her eyes again flicked away and returned, “of a delicate nature in there.” She paused to let her audience digest her words, and she quirked the corner of her mouth to signify her mortification at having been forced to make such an admission. “If you don’t mind, I would very much prefer to, to retrieve the key myself, please. If you don’t mind.” She pierced the robber’s eyes directly once more, allowing her apparent uncertainty to be replaced by a desperate challenge, as if daring him to add to her feminine distress by refusing to allow her this final scrap of dignity.
Brinkley nodded briefly in assent, and Phryne flashed him a brilliant smile of gratitude. As she turned toward her handbag, she suppressed a shudder of contempt; so typical, these men who would shrink from the idea of offending a woman’s delicate sensibilities, even while they would not hesitate to shoot her.
As she rummaged through her purse, Phryne sighed in annoyance at the barren opportunity she had been given. Here was her gun, at her fingertips, but the situation was too precarious. She felt the tension of watchful eyes, taking in her every movement, and yet even if she had had the benefit of surprise, she and Jack were outnumbered and outgunned. No, they’d have to win their freedom through strategy, rather than force. Still, that doesn’t exempt the tactical use of force, she thought to herself.
She extracted the bank key from an inner pocket and held it up with an air of accomplishment, meeting Brinkley’s eyes with a look of clandestine appreciation. Already, she could sense him rising to fulfill the role of her personal protector, and she was pleased. Affecting a conspiratorial air, she cradled her purse and glided toward a planter near where Jack had been placed against a wall. As she tucked the still-open purse between the tree and the wall, she turned to meet Brinkley’s watchful eyes, assuring him that she had intended for him to see what she did. It would absolutely not do for him to suspect she had an ulterior motive, and it rather worked in her favor if she appeared to be entrusting him with the safeguarding of her intimate items.
As she stepped back from the planter, she was keenly aware of Jack’s proximity. For the first time since becoming cognizant of his presence in the bank, she was within five feet of him. In other circumstances, she would think nothing of crossing that distance in order to brush a speck of dust from his coat, or straighten his tie, or maybe simply to peer closely into his face in order to capture his full attention as she spoke. Now, if she took a slightly different route, she could brush his outstretched legs. If she feigned a stumble, should could land in his arms. If she manufactured a cause for concern for him, she could kneel in front of him and put her hands on his face. And yet, even the most innocent of these would appear suspicious, and they had everything to lose if the criminals had cause to suspect any association between Phryne and Jack. Instead, she only spared him the briefest of glances, not bothering to hide her thoughts, and the rawness in his eyes as he returned her look was as intimate as a kiss and as painful as a punch to the gut.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From his weaponless position seated with his back against a wall, Jack stewed in impotent rage. He had no plan, no resources, and no bargaining power. For all his knowledge of the law, his facility with police procedure, his non-trivial talent for crime solving, and his professional rank, he felt remarkably inadequate. And yet, having nothing but his police training and experience at hand, he began with the basics, observing, categorizing, and scrutinizing every detail of the scene, looking for patterns and abnormalities, trusting that, even without the benefit of time and hindsight, a revelation would emerge.
While his eyes furtively catalogued the scene, his ears remained attuned to Phryne. Witnessing her obvious flirtation with the robber Brinkley, a small part of him could not suppress the bitter conjecture that a man like that, whose life was certainly more exciting than that of a staid civil servant, was possibly better suited to a woman like Phryne. The larger part of him, however, knew that this notion was based on an entirely unfair assessment of her character. Not only could he never really believe that she would compromise her moral standards for a momentary thrill, but he had to acknowledge that, as unlikely as it seemed, something inside her thrilled in response to something in him. Jack paused on that thought. It was not that he typically underestimated his allure; on the contrary, he was aware of the effect his looks had on women. Before the war, when he had been more carefree, more transparent in his passions, he had often been described as boyish and charming. And yet, that facile enthusiasm had not been him; it was a face he wore, because that face, eliciting acceptance and approval, had unlocked doors that had seemed worth opening. It had won him early promotions, and Rosie. And when, after the war, he had given up the facade as empty and pointless, she had left him. Since then, he had learned to expect that whatever it was women sought from him, he was unable, or unwilling, to furnish it. And yet, in defiance of all expectation, Phryne had proven herself to be the exception to that rule. Time and again, his refusal to make himself party to her schemes, to be cast in her grand theater, failed to dissuade her from coming back to him. Instead, she appeared to have altered her typical modus operandi to accommodate him.
As the enigmatic woman in question drew toward him clutching her purse, Jack paused in his assessment of Biggs, the leader, and allowed his awareness to focus entirely on Phryne. She was playing her part with exquisite care, and it occurred to him that she was relying on him once again to uphold his customary end of their partnership by applying methodical analysis to the facts of the case. He couldn’t suppress the momentary thrill it gave him to realize that, unbeknownst to Brinkley, and everyone else in the room for that matter, he knew the true identity of the person underneath the act. And as that thought struck him, he couldn’t deny the consequent realization that, even among all the people that Phryne cared deeply about, he was among the few that she truly showed herself to, that she allowed herself to be vulnerable with. He wondered if that solace was what she sought and found in him, or if it was only the manifestation of something else. He felt, in that moment, that if he could have reached out to her with that question on his fingertips, she would have answered truthfully. Instead, circumstances being what they were, he could only look fleetingly in her eyes, and the look she returned sent his heart racing.
After a long instant, Phryne was moving off with her mark, and Jack watched as she drew close to him, pitching her voice to an intimate whisper. Unable to hear her words, Jack resumed his assessment of the room. Smith was evidently being sent to negotiate their escape with the police at the back door, so he turned his attention to Glaston, whose position approximately fifteen feet away presented a complete left profile. The man was exceptional primarily in height, standing at least six feet, five inches tall. His hair was a dull brown, and he was neither fat nor thin, muscular nor lean. The kerchief over his face, like that over the faces of all the robbers, obscured his features, and he had not gotten close enough for Jack to learn his eye color. His clothes, like those of the others, were unexceptional cheap cotton workmen’s clothes. His shoes stood out, though, as being rather nicer and better cared-for than those of a labourer. The only other arresting detail that Jack could observe was a singular tattoo, black and thick and in some sort of pattern around the man’s left wrist. Pleased with this information, Jack observed the man idly for another moment, intending to turn his attention to the layout of the room and the relative positions of the occupants. After all, there was no need to memorize the details of the man in Glaston’s charge, a hapless hostage and victim. And yet, the pair of them presented an uncanny tableau to his unfocused gaze. Perhaps it was because they were of a similar height, or maybe because the eyes of the hostage, peering from above a bearded countenance that faced Jack straight on, were not unlike those he had earlier observed looking out from Glaston’s masked face. But now that he observed the two of them through a veil of hazy suspicion, he became acutely aware that their minute interactions were incongruous with the normal posturing and positioning that he had come to expect between hostage and captor. After another thirty seconds of covert scrutiny, Jack was sure: these two men knew each other, and their apparent strangeness to each other was a ruse. Now, Jack just had to learn who they were fooling.
Quickly putting the pieces together, Jack guessed that the fraudulent hostage had likely been the man that shot Perkins. And since the man originated from the employees-only area of the bank, he also began to suspect that here was their “inside man” whom Brinkley had passingly referenced. Given that some treachery was at play, it seemed likely that the inside man would be taking part in the scheme, provided that his identity was known to only a few. It was a theory, anyway.
Meanwhile, even a cursory assessment of the leader told Jack that the man had no awareness of the collusion between the Glaston and his hostage. There was no spark of recognition or familiarity whenever his gaze alit on the hostage, and it was obvious, in the straightforward and cutthroat manner in which he orchestrated the movements of his subordinates, that this was a man who brooked no subterfuge, who had no use for loopholes and technicalities. He was clearly a man who expected allegiance, who would react to betrayal not with shock or outrage, but with a simple knife to the heart.
Several minutes later, Smith returned from his errand, and Jack observed that his prolonged look, unaccompanied by explanation, communicated something meaningful to Biggs. Jack considered this, along with his earlier assessment of the henchman. There appeared to be a close association between the two men, and Jack guessed that Smith was second-in-command. He seemed entirely devoted to his leader, and none of his actions toward Glaston or his hostage betrayed an awareness of their hidden association.
As a result of his conference with Smith, Biggs motioned to Glaston, clearly indicating that he should stow his hostage. Jack watched as the robber made a show of driving his prisoner toward the wall where Jack sat affecting inattention but in truth scrutinizing every detail he could observe. As the men drew close, Jack almost gasped aloud. Glaston’s tattoo, revealed upon closer inspection to be the image of a thick sailor’s rope wrapped around his left wrist, had an analogue. On the wrist of the hostage, visible under the bindings only because Jack was specifically looking for it, the man wore an identical tattoo. It was clear, then, that the bond between these two men ran deep. Upon this realization, Jack suspected that the deception had not yet run its course. When he observed Glaston furtively slip something heavy and metallic into the hostage’s waiting hands, his suspicions were ominously confirmed. And he knew then how much he needed to unravel the conspiracy, if he did not want himself and Phryne to become casualties in the crossfire.
Turning his sight inward, Jack replayed the events of the previous twenty minutes, searching for aberrations that might contribute valuable pieces to the puzzle. Mentally, he sorted the criminals into two columns: robbers and conspirators. Biggs, Smith, and Perkins were clearly in the former list, while Glaston and the “hostage” were clearly in the latter. Leaving Brinkley…. He dismissed the surge of protective anxiety that rushed over him at the suggestion that Phryne might have engaged in a more complicated game than either of them had supposed. She would be okay. She was Phryne.
Brinkley was an unknown. He had to hope that Phryne would be able to glean more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As Phryne had moved off toward the vault with Brinkley, leaving her pistol, as well as some essential part of herself, in Jack’s care, she resumed her pretense with the robber. She moved subtly into his personal space as they walked, slowing her pace to lean in with an air of confidentiality. “The truth is, sir, these jewels were to be my last hope.” She pierced him with a stricken look. “My fiance, Mr. Carlson, is a tiresome, insipid man!” She widened her eyes in desperation. “I only agreed to marry him because it was what father wanted, and I thought I could learn to love him. But no one with an ounce of feeling could ever love that man, believe me! He has no ardor, no spirit, no appreciation for any of life’s pleasures!”
As they reached the threshold of the employees-only area of the bank, Phryne caught her first sight of the man and woman, robber and bank teller, who had been shot. She couldn’t tell by looking whether they still lived, but there was no small amount of blood. She struggled to hide her horror, even as she manufactured a reaction that would seem plausibly in-character. Allowing a small gasp to escape, she raised gloved fingers to her lips and clutched his arm with her other hand. “How tragic! Only think, just this morning they had no idea the hand fate would deal them!” Fervently, she hoped that Brinkley hadn’t listened too carefully to her impassioned plea for the first victim’s life, that he would credit this romanticized attitude toward death despite its incongruence with her earlier stance.
Thankfully, Brinkley seemed unaware of the contradiction, and he stepped into the role she had carved out for him with remarkable willingness. He patted her fingers and ushered her around the bodies. “Life’s fragile, that’s for sure. You gotta grab it while you can.” He emphasized his unambiguous meaning with a proprietary squeeze.
They stepped into the vault, and Phryne knew her moment had come. “I’ve known for quite some time that I need to get away, to escape the dreary tedium that awaits me should I follow through on my committment to Mr. Carlson. I’ve kept these jewels aside to furnish my new life, only...only I am a woman alone, in a world filled with excitement but also danger, and I confess I have been waiting for the right sort of man to...show me the way.” She had begun her speech with her head angled away, but as she confided, she slowly and artfully lifted her eyes so that she finished by gazing meaningfully into his face.
Brinkley turned toward her, pulling his kerchief down to expose his face for the first time, and Phryne observed the plain lust that dominated the man’s expression. She recognized, dispassionately, that he very well might believe himself in love. “If you want, miss --”
“Caroline, please,” she supplied breathlessly.
“Caroline.” He lifted a rough palm to her jaw. “I don’t have much in the way of property, but I got plenty o’ passion. And I would never let it go to waste on a woman like you.” His eyes swept down her body, and he swallowed heavily. “What say you come along with me from here on out?”
It was clear that Brinkley thought his offer to be a romantic and irresistible proposal. Feigning surprise and elation, she lifted her hands to her face and communicated assent with her eyes.
“You will?” The man was clearly delighted with his luck.
“Yes, yes! Mr. --?”
“Bernard!” She whispered his name reverently and peered at him through slightly lowered eyelashes. She allowed the moment to stretch an appropriate length, then pretended to remember their circumstances. “I guess we better get on with it, then,” she sighed, waving the safety deposit box key. She stepped directly toward her box and unlocked it with alacrity.
The diamond necklace, pearl earrings, and emerald brooch, among other dazzling jewels, seemed to take Bernard’s breath away in a manner that even Phryne’s suggestive display hadn’t managed. Caressing her fingers over the gems, she sighed a small sigh of resignation. “It was meant to be enough for me and one other, of course. I suppose we’ll have to share it out, now.” She patted an opal in regretful farewell, then turned a small smile upon Bernard. “It will be enough.”
The robber, his face suddenly serious, stilled her hand over the jewels. He gave a nod of reassurance, and continued, “It may not have to be. I can’t explain it all right now, but trust me. Here.” He slid the contents of the box into his wide coat pocket, and drew a thin cord from the pocket of his trousers. Phryne gasped, in character, as she saw it. “It’s aw’right. Caroline.” He looked into her eyes as he wrapped the rope tightly around her wrists, but, instead of securing the binding with a knot, he merely twisted the ends together and stuffed them into her hands. “Just don’t go waving that around, and no one will know the difference.”
Phryne stared at the man in evident confusion, though her keen mind was working quickly to unravel the puzzle. “You want me to deceive your partners?”
“It’s not like that, love. You see, we already had a scheme, me ‘n some of the others. And it’s not just about the money; Biggs and his jobbies have it coming. So don’t you worry. Just watch for my signal, and don’t let them know you’re free. Don’t want to alert them something’s up, but can’t have you bound, neither.” He looked down with an affected air of regret. “The plan’s to shoot the hostages as soon as they help our escape, see.” He looked at her again, and smiled reassuringly. “But I’ll protect you.”
Phryne, for her part, was not reassured. Shoot the hostages? Of course, she had known it was a real possibility, but something about the offhand way Bernard delivered the news left her cold. Things were certainly more dire than even she had supposed. She needed to warn Jack. Fixing the robber with a trusting smile, she allowed him to lead her back toward the lobby.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jack scanned Phryne for signs of distress as Brinkley escorted her toward him. Her hands were bound, and he was certain he read a new tension in her bearing. Still, relief flooded him at the sight of her, and he felt inordinately pleased when the robber deposited her a mere five feet away from where he sat.
Conscious of her closeness, he endeavored to think of a plausible reason to turn toward her without rousing the suspicion of the faux hostage seated to his left. He watched as Brinkley joined Biggs, Smith, and Glaston in the center of the room. Upon an apparent suggestion from the newcomer, the four of them moved together toward the back of the bank. Jack noted that each of them cast assessing glances toward the ostensibly tied-up hostages as they moved away, and he did not fail to notice Glaston’s authorizing nod to his partner, nor Brinkley’s possessive glance at Phryne. As he assimilated the latter, the dispassionate policeman corner of Jack’s mind filed the information appropriately: clearly, Phryne had managed to ally herself secretly with the robber, which suggested that the man had something to hide, which, in these circumstances, strongly suggested that he was involved in the plot. Good to know, important, valuable information. Meanwhile, the decidedly unpoliceman part of Jack, the part that never failed to see the real woman beneath the fantastic facade, who loved her for the depth with which she felt pain as much as for the euphoria she inspired when she embraced pleasure, flared angrily in response to the criminal’s presumption. That he could so easily know her, that he could possess her. That he could love her. After a brief acquaintance, or after a lifetime of association, Jack knew it made no difference. The man was clearly not equipped, fit, or worthy to comprehend a woman like Phryne.
As the men moved out of earshot, Phryne, who was unaware that the other “hostage” was, in fact, a conspirator, made to speak openly to Jack. In his haste to prevent her, Jack faked a coughing fit. Though it was an unsophisticated maneuver, it seemed to do the trick, evidently arousing no suspicion, and allowing them to confer silently for the first time.
Phryne quickly perceived, from the timing of Jack’s outburst and the indication of his head and eyes, that the hostage seated to his left was not to be trusted. She determined that meant he was likely a player in Brinkley’s plot, and it told Phryne that Jack must be aware of the subtler game that was afoot. As Jack affected deep, gasping breaths punctuated by further coughing spasms, she opened her hands to his eyes, showing him that she remained unbound. His eyebrows raised slightly as he absorbed the advantage that her freedom afforded, and they locked eyes for a scant second, apparently coming to the same plan at the same time. To confirm that they were of a single mind, Phryne inclined her head toward where her gun lay waiting for her to claim it, while Jack moved his eyes meaningfully toward the man on his left. Before confirming the plan with a nod, Jack angled his head down toward his right hand, knowing Phryne would follow his gaze. He formed the shape of a pistol with his fingers and shook his head slightly to the left, then glanced at Phryne to ascertain whether she followed his meaning. Her widened eyes and serious expression confirmed that she did, indeed, understand that the other man had a gun. After a brief pause during which they both collected themselves, Jack gave a curt, slight nod, and then he rolled suddenly toward the other man, slamming him with his body, catching him off guard, and immediately grasping for the gun that lay stashed under his legs.
The man yelled out sharply, and he struggled to maintain a grip on his weapon.
“Drop your weapon, if you please.” Phryne, pressing her pistol directly against the man’s upper back, enunciated each word clearly and slowly.
The man stopped struggling immediately, but he took a moment longer to comply with her demand. She nudged him roughly with the muzzle. “Now.”
As he surrendered his grip, Phryne heard the exclamations and footsteps of the four healthy original robbers as they rushed back toward the lobby to investigate. Jack recovered the contested pistol and stood up, covering the false hostage, while Phryne trained her weapon on the as-yet empty doorway to the back, but before anyone charged through, the sharp report of a gun exploded startlingly. Biggs, preceded by a splatter of blood, fell across the threshold and landed heavily on his stomach.
After a long moment, Glaston stepped out and over the body, pausing to kick Biggs’ fallen pistol back into the tellers’ area. He continued into the lobby, and when he had fully taken in the scene before him, with Phryne’s gun pointed directly at him and Jack training a weapon on the faux hostage, a slow smile spread over his face. He stopped and lifted his hands out to his sides slightly. “I see we’ve managed to take some rather daring prisoners,” he drawled.
Smith, weaponless and held at gunpoint by Brinkley, lurched into the room, while the latter squinted toward Phryne in obvious confusion. He took a quick breath in order to voice the question that was clearly plastered on his face, but before he could speak, another gunshot rang through the air.
For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen, as five pairs of eyes frantically scoured the room to ascertain who had been shot, and who had done the shooting. And then Glaston toppled over, as if in slow motion, while Perkins, the first robber to have been shot, collapsed from his kneeling position at the threshold, where he had evidently dragged himself in order to get a clear shot at Glaston. It seemed that the man, presumed dying and still in imminent danger, had managed to take his revenge.
Phryne moved quickly and deliberately to collect Perkins’ and Glaston’s discarded weapons, while she kept her own gun trained unerringly on Brinkley’s dumbfounded face. For the first time, Jack’s glorious voice sang into the room.
“Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. I believe you’ve met my partner, Miss Fisher? And now, if you’ll please put down your weapons.”
Brinkley looked around, digesting the fact that he, a double-crosser, had in fact been double-crossed. After a moment of consideration, during which he doubtless noted that the inside man, the counterfeit hostage who was his only conscious ally, was in no position to struggle, he placed both weapons on the ground.
“And now, if you’ll step back, both of you, thank you.”
Phryne, stepping over the fallen Glaston, retrieved the newly surrendered guns. As she stood up, she fixed Brinkley with a slightly pitying stare, then promptly turned her back on him and ran to collect her purse and Jack.
“Hello, Jack,” she said warmly, as their eyes met once again.
The corners of his mouth quirked slightly in his familiar private smile as he gave her a simmering look that set her heart racing. “Miss Fisher,” he inclined his head slightly. "Always a pleasure to run in to you."
She deliberately brushed against him with her shoulder as they moved toward the center exit at the front of the bank, and then stood back as he opened the door slightly and extended his credentials through the gap, calling out to identify himself and explain the situation.
Once it was clear that the police surrounding the building were aware of the essentials, Phryne followed Jack through the door and toward the officer in charge. She stood slightly to the side as he succinctly summarized the circumstances, and emphasized the immediate and dire need for medical aid for four people. As soon as he was sure the appropriate people had been briefed, that he had delegated all the necessary tasks, he turned, finally, to Phryne.
He gazed at her with a naked expression, opened his mouth to speak, and found that no words were forthcoming.
Phryne found that she also had too much, or too little, to say. Her gaze traveled slowly down his face, pausing for a long moment on his lips. Standing as close as they were to one another, she managed to sway slightly closer, the better to breathe in his clean, masculine scent. Her eyes drifted lower, taking in his collar, the knot of his tie, the buttons of his shirt, the lapels of his overcoat. Absently, she noted his hands, hanging calmly at his sides, and she wondered if he longed to touch her the way she needed to touch him at that moment, to know, with tactile certainty, that he was really there, safe and whole. She extended a hand toward his chest, but arrested her movement before making contact with fabric. She looked up and met his curious expression, knowing that, while lately there was rarely any pretense between them, it was in her touches, astonishingly, where she was most unguarded. Maintaining her gaze, she let her fingers whisper slightly over his lapel.
Jack, who by rights should not have been able to detect the feather-light pressure through so many layers of clothing, took a deep, slow, steadying breath. His hands twitched with their need to touch her, to slide up her back and trace down the curve of her silhouette, to smooth through her hair and lightly brush her neck, but he refrained. Even more, he wanted to allow her the freedom to touch him, to explore his body, as unreservedly as the situation allowed. It did not matter, it had never mattered, that they were fully clothed, that their caresses occurred outside the boudoir. The touches and looks they shared had never been the less intimate for it.
Phryne had paused, looking at her hand resting lightly on his overcoat, but she was ready for more. She needed more. In a single resolute motion, she slipped her hands under his suit jacket and slid her fingers, slowly and deliberately, up his crisp, white shirt. She felt Jack’s hitching breath under her fingertips even as she leaned forward to rest her elbows against his body, and she felt his arms close around her in a light embrace. It was a moment that could have easily evaporated into a bland hug of friendship, and a few months ago they would have allowed the tension to dissolve innocuously, but since then they had consciously moved their relationship beyond that safe charade, so instead Phryne continued the slow slide up his body. Her thumbs paused to brush the knot of his tie, a gentle reminder of the role it had played in their relationship so far, and perhaps a promise of things to come, but she did not halt her slow progress. When her fingertips grazed his neck, he gasped audibly, but she continued until her hands surrounded his nape. She pulled him down toward her then, and met his eyes as she caressed the exposed skin above his collar, and ran her hands into the short hair at the base of his skull.
Jack’s mouth opened wordlessly, and Phryne again bestowed a long, hungry look upon his lips. He licked them involuntarily, and Phryne wet her own lips in response.
“Phryne.” His voice was lower and more intoxicating than she had ever heard it.
She reached up to cradle his face with one hand, leaving the other buried in his hair. Still focused on his mouth, she reached her thumb toward his lips, brushing them lightly, parting them slightly. Her own lips parted in response. She felt his eyes on her, so hot she could feel the sweat rising, and she knew that if she looked at him at that moment, nothing would stop them from coming together. What she did not know was whether, if they did, anything might prevent them from coming apart, and it was that question that stopped her. She waited a second longer until she felt the moment of crisis pass, and then she met his intense gaze with one of her own. Stroking his lower lip once more with her thumb, she felt a small, wondrous smile creep over her face.
His answering smile, barely perceptible to anyone but Phryne, reflected a similar sense of wonder, along with no small amount of indulgent humor. He clearly understood, better than Phryne herself did, that while she was quick to offer her body to worthy men for mutual pleasure, she was far more grudging with her emotions. Her caution, far from hurting him, rather convinced him of the depth of her feelings. And if that meant delaying the physical realization of their relationship until she was ready, he could wait. He was a very patient man.