‘Why do the upper classes need to use such ridiculous names for themselves?’ Asked Jack with mild incredulity. ‘I spent the whole of dinner last night making small talk with a woman who insisted I call her ‘Bunny’. It sounds like something an unimaginative child would call a stuffed rabbit.’
Phryne didn’t look up from her perch on his desk, where she sat, her nose deep in confidential police files with her cream coloured satin skirt just skimming the top of her knees.
‘Has dinner with Aunt Prudence finally stoked the flames of class war within you Jack? I must let Cec and Bert know, they’ll be delighted to have a new recruit for the cause.’
He countered her sarcasm with an immaculate deadpan.
‘I’m not planning the overthrow of the state just yet Miss Fisher, although if it helps me avoid another evening with your Aunt Prudence, I may change my mind.’
She looked up at him with a delighted smile.
‘Really how marvellous, I’m sure you would make a dashing revolutionary. Perhaps with a beard?’ She reached out and stroked an elegant finger along the line of his clean-shaven jaw as she spoke, before lowering her voice and adopting a serious expression designed to fool no-one. ‘Of course, an appropriate nom de guerre would be absolutely essential.’
He covered her hand gently with his own, pausing to stroke the back with his thumb before pushing it away. He still tried to discourage these outward displays of affection whilst they were working together but suspected that his attempts had rather the opposite effect, especially when – as now - he was unable to entirely suppress a smirk.
‘The point,’ he replied, in a vain attempt to shift her attention back to the case before she started on a list of potential revolutionary pseudonyms for him, ‘is that it would be a lot easier to trace our thief if half the people involved didn’t have to complicate matters by adopting faintly absurd and basically interchangeable nicknames. It’s made a total mess of the witness statements taken at the scene.’
‘Yes. How inconsiderate of them.’ She demurred. ‘I still think Bunny – he gave her a withering raise of his eyebrows – oh alright Mrs Elizabeth Chamberlain, is worth investigating further. You may not have thought much of her conversation Inspector but you must have noticed her gown, it was exquisite.’
‘Only that it left very little to the imagination.’
‘Yes, I must get the name of her couturier.’ Phryne continued unmoved. ‘That was beautiful work, Jack, and the beading on the bodice was sublime, it must have cost a fortune.’
‘Hardly unusual in your circles.’
‘Well no, but – she indicated the file she had been reading – it says here that one of the other guests claimed her husband was all but wiped out after the crash in ‘29. If it’s true, where is she getting the money from?’
Jack leant towards her, his hand brushing her arm as he tilted the page down to read where she was pointing.
‘Of course, poor ‘Bish’ has barely got two shillings to rub together these days. So tragic, I’m amazed they even came. He looked up at her quizzically ‘Bish’? That’s her husband?’
‘Short for Bishop. You know - Bishop-Chamberlain - I suppose it is a bit of a stretch to call it a pun.’ She explained, refusing to be drawn too much on the subject, she didn’t like to judge people on superficialities.
‘It is.’ Jack replied, he himself considered superficiality a totally reasonable basis for judging a person’s character but was usually far too courteous to let it show. It had however been a very tedious evening, producing very little in the way of useful information but leaving him slightly hungover. ‘It’s also not a lot to go on unless we can back it up, do you think it’s true?’
‘Well. I may have been invited for afternoon tea at the Chamberlain household later today, so I’ll see if I can find out.’
He rolled his eyes theatrically.
‘Really? Do pass on my regards to Bish and Bunny won’t you, and try not to break any laws whilst you’re there.’
‘Don’t be like that Jack. Didn’t you ever have a nickname?’ Phryne replied, blatantly ignoring the second part of the Inspector’s remark in a way which did not go unnoticed.
‘Lock picks.’ he thought. ‘She’s going to sneak off and break into a locked office or crack a safe and go routing through their paperwork.’ He let himself be momentarily derailed by her question whilst he pondered what do to about her impending spate of criminal activity. It was quite likely that what ever she chose to do would provide them with a vital clue, or at least cross off some possible avenues of investigation.
‘Jack is a nickname Miss Fisher. Although, not even my mother ever called me Johnathon.’
‘I suppose technically. But you were never a Jackie or a Robbo or anything?’
He shook his head. ‘And you Miss Fisher?’
‘I have had many names Inspector.’ She dropped her voice to a seductive whisper. ‘And some of the things you have seen fit to call me, should definitely not be repeated aloud in a police station.’ She crowed momentarily at the faint pink blush which suffused her lover’s ears, it wasn’t often she could rattle him these days. Then she stopped. That little titbit of innuendo wasn’t enough to make Jack blush, which meant…
‘You do have a nickname.’ She scrutinised him carefully as he pretended to immerse himself in the case file she had placed on the desk beside her. ‘And you don’t want me to know what it is. Which means, it’s either embarrassing or it’s got something to do with me.’ She leant in and met his eye. ‘Possibly both?’
Damn! How did she always work these things out?
‘Something traumatic from childhood perhaps? She was fishing, looking for clues. The subtleties of his face were a joy to read. ‘No? A recent acquisition then?’
Jack gave her a stern look, one which had cowed hardened criminals and commanded coppers and soldiers alike since it had first become part of his repertoire. It had never achieved more than conditional acquiescence from Phryne Fisher in all the time he had known her.
She smiled fondly at him. ‘Come on Jack. Spill the beans.’
Jack ignored her and rose from his desk, exciting to the bullpen where Constable Collins was on duty.
‘Find out which of the party guests were staying at The Winsor the night of the theft for me Collins, and I’d like to know if Mr and Mrs Chamberlain paid for their own suite.’
As he returned he closed the door behind him and rather than returning to his chair he leant against the file cabinet opposite Phryne who was still sitting primly on his desk watching him closely.
He’d shut the door. That meant whatever he was hiding was something he didn’t want overheard at the station. Or possibly it was something which had started at the station and he did not want a repeat performance.
‘What have your constables been calling you Jack?’
Damn! Oh well, she would find out eventually now whatever he did, once her curiosity was piqued there was no stopping her. On the whole it was probably better she found out through him than started badgering poor Hugh which would inevitably be her next port of call. Still, he wasn’t going to make it too easy for her.
‘Inspector, or Sir. Unless they want to end up on night shifts for a month again.’
‘My goodness. Was it that bad?’
‘I am sure your detective skills would be better directed towards the case Miss Fisher.’ He admonished, knowing full well she would ignore the suggestion.
‘Oh, but this is much more fun! Besides, if you tell me I will immediately refocus my considerable talents towards the task in hand, so really it’s you that’s delaying proceedings Inspector.’
He raised his eyebrows at her but said nothing.
‘Will you at least tell me when this scurrilous incident occurred?’
He let another clue slip out, hoping that the entertainment of working out the mystery might bypass the explosion. She could get somewhat volatile where her family was concerned.
‘It would have been before you left for England, whilst we were investigating the case at The Grand.’
‘Ah, our first waltz.’ She smiled at the memory. ‘You do know how to make a murder investigation romantic Jack.’
‘I shall try to take that as a compliment.’
‘Still I could have done without my father’s surprise appearance.’ She cringed inwardly at the thought. That appalling, ridiculous man, the trouble he caused for everyone around him whether he intended to or not. The gall of him on that case as well, sauntering into City South as if he owned the place, introducing himself at the desk as ‘Henry George Fisher, Baron of Richmond’ as if he wasn’t just a two-bit con artist with the luck of the devil. She stopped. He had introduced himself by his full title, to men who knew Jack and at least some of whom would have known where Jack grew up. How had she never made that connection before? And yes, there was a faint cast of concern around Jack’s eyes, he knew she was on the right track, uncertain how she would respond.
‘Oh Jack!’ She fought down a laugh, the dear man really did put up with a great deal on her account. ‘Did they really start calling you the Baron of…’
He nodded a little sheepishly and pinched the bridge of his nose. As Phryne let out a loud ‘ha’ of laughter he looked up at her, relived that she had not, for example, announced her intention to fly directly to England and strangle the Baron with her bare hands. It was something he had needed to talk her out of doing on more than one previous occasion.
‘Well, I’m sorry you had to put up with that, but you have to admit it is at least a little witty.’
‘Glad to be a source of amusement. Although I’m not sure you’d have found it so funny if you’d heard them.’
Jack overheard the conversation in the break room as he went to replenish his tea and leant against the wall outside the open door to hear the worst, his expression growing colder as he did so. There were three officers in there, all younger men full of swagger and one-upmanship, a fact which explained but did not excuse their incivility.
The first man sniggered ‘So then he announces himself right ‘Henry George Fisher, Baron of Richmond’ like he’s here to meet the bloody King!’ The man’s voice had gone up an octave and effected a cartoonish parody of an English accent, closer to Phryne’s cousin Guy Stanley than the Baron himself.
‘Richmond? Like, south of Abbotsford, who’d want to be Baron of that shithole?’ Asked a second man, Jack rolled his eyes, how did a man graduate from the police academy and remain that ignorant? They must be letting anyone through these days.
‘Don’t be an idiot! He’s from England, s’just part of his title. Bloody toffs think they’re a cut above us here, no baronies on the Yara.’ Replied the first man.
‘He’s not from England.’ Contributed the third, younger and more uncertain than the others. ‘That’s Miss Fisher’s dad, they’re from Collingwood like me mum. She told me once when she came in looking for the DI.’
‘Oh yes ‘The Honourable Miss Fisher’.’ The second voice drawled, heavy with sarcasm and innuendo. ‘Not that honourable if you ask me, right lads?’
‘You should ask the Inspector, I bet he could tell ya!’ Replied the first.
All three men laughed and Jack’s expression took on a dangerous quality as he continued his covert surveillance outside the door.
‘Got his feet well under the table there he has.’ The second man snorted. ‘Hey, he is from Richmond, must be looking to go up in the world.’
‘Too right’, replied the first, once again effecting the ludicrous accent ‘Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Baron of Richmond.’
At that Jack swung around the corner into the doorway which instantly killed the renewed peals of laughter. He was greeted by three sets of faces which, to his satisfaction, went bright red on seeing him then drained to white on seeing his expression.
‘My office. All of you. Now.’ The quiet chill in his voice left all three men in no doubt about the world of trouble they had just walked into. There was a shuffling of chairs and a nervous examination of boots as Jack calmly refilled his mug with tea before following them.
It was the only time the incident was mentioned and as far as Jack knew it was not repeated. This meant that either the officers had been cowed sufficiently by his authority and learned to mind their manners, or they had become considerably better at subterfuge; either, he supposed, was good news for the quality of the station’s policework.
Phryne slipped gracefully from the table, the movement bringing Jack back to the present. The expression she wore was as close to contrite as she was likely to get over something this silly. She couldn’t and wouldn’t change who she was (and people, men especially, liked to make so many assumptions about exactly what she was), but she hated that society made his life harder because she refused to be constrained by its petty moralising. By way of apology, she offered up a little secret she knew he would enjoy.
‘My Father had a nickname for me, when I was growing up.’
She was standing close but not touching him. He marvelled at her restraint, expecting her hands to come up to his tie or his lapels as they had always been wont to do.
‘Oh, what was it?’
She smiled up at him, head on one side.
A half smile of genuine amusement sidled onto his face and with a quick glance over her shoulder towards the closed door, Jack came to a decision on the subject of her impending break and enter. Bending slowly towards her, his eyes holding her gaze and fixing her attention on his face, he slipped a gentle hand beneath her décolletage to retrieve an ivory handled lock pick from her brassiere and held it up out of her reach as she grabbed for it. Her gasp of surprise and the look of mingled astonishment and delight at his daring felt eminently worth the risk of discovery.
‘Really Miss Fisher?’ He murmured, their faces very close now. ‘I cannot imagine why.’
As he placed a soft kiss on her lips he slowly and deliberately folded the incriminating item into her open palm. She would never change. He would never want her to. And what was life without a little risk?