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The ranked books exhaled leather and dust, a comforting scent. The noise of the Eastern Market—the roar of traffic and voices and feet—was almost inaudible inside Lee's Books New and Secondhand, prop. Miss Sylvia Lee, a haven of peace and scholarship at the top of the city. Miss Lee's shop was always ordered, always quiet, and always scented with the gum leaves she bought from Miss Ireland on the upper floor: an arrangement of gum leaves and poppies was her favourite decoration, and when there were no poppies she made do with gum leaves alone. She specialized in abstruse works in Latin and Greek, though her concession to popular taste was the brightest point in the shop: a table of yellow-jacketed novels for railway reading. The space was small and closely packed with volumes in leather bindings. The shelves extended to the ceiling, which was white. The room was lit by a large electric light in the middle, and a working lamp over Miss Lee's desk. Miss Lee herself wore sub fusc garments, a skirt of a dark colour and a beige or white blouse and a cardigan under her neat working smock. Her mousebrown hair was cropped short. She lived across Exhibition Street in an apartment, a perfectly self-contained young woman, who required no masculine attentions, merely wishing to get on with her own neat life in peace.
Miss Lee was adding up a column of figures. Her pencil moved smoothly up the pence, then the shillings; and she was about to write down the total when it happened, and she was never afterwards able to forget the sum of eleven pounds, twelve shillings and eight-pence halfpenny.
The tall man in the long black coat, who had been examining Volume 9 of Hansard for 1911—for which Miss Lee had long abandoned hope that someone would acquire for their library—exclaimed in a foreign tongue and dropped the book.
She dashed from behind her counter quickly enough to support him as he sank to the floor. He held out one hand, palm upwards, as though inviting her to notice its emptiness—or was it the small wound on the forefinger?
His eyes opened wide for a moment, and he spoke again. Then he convulsed, limbs flung out like a starfish, so abrupt and horribly strong that Miss Lee was forced to release him. His head hit the floor and she heard his teeth gnash, a dreadful grating noise echoed by a rattling in his throat. As she grabbed her ruler to lay between his teeth, he convulsed again and lay still.
She stood with the ruler in her hand, gripped so tightly that the edge cut into her flesh. The young man was dead, that was plain. What to do next?
She walked steadily to the door of her bookshop in the Eastern Market and said to her neighbour the teashop lady, 'Mrs. Johnson, can you call a doctor? One of my customers....'
She was proud of herself. Not a quaver in the voice. And as Mrs. Johnson's scatty assistant was chivvied out of the shop to call for Dr. Stein, who had consulting rooms in the next building, she walked back into her shop and sat down rather abruptly behind the counter to wait for some help. She clasped her hands together on her shabby calf-bound ledger, to stop them from shaking.
For there was nothing she could do for her customer now, and one must not give way.
* * *
Phryne Fisher was dancing the foxtrot with a sleek and beautiful young man. She was happy. She was agreeably conscious that she was gorgeous, from the turn of her brocaded shoe with the Louis heel, through the smoky-grey stockings of the sheerest silk to the Poitou gown, tunic and skirt of heavy, draped, amethyst brocade threaded with a paisley pattern in silver. A silver fillet crowned her black hair, cut in a cap like a Dutch doll's. She had a huge amethyst in silver on her right hand, a wide band of engraved silver around one upper arm, and the same stones in her ears. She smelt bewitchingly of Floris honeysuckle and knew, without doubt, that her partner appreciated her. He would not, otherwise, have spent a small fortune on the purple orchid which decorated her shoulder. Another young man might have spent the money, but only a devoted and intelligent young man would have ascertained the colour of the dress on which it was to be worn.
His name was Simon Abrahams. Phryne's Chinese lover, Lin Chung, had been forced to go to Shanghai on a silk-buying trip, and Phryne found that she had rather lost her taste for plain ordinary young men. Searching for a diversion, she had collected Simon from a public dance hall. He was not conventionally good looking. His nose was high bridged, his eyes dark and set deeply into their sockets, and there were shadows under them which spoke of childhood illness. He was not tall, being a few inches above Phryne's five feet two, but he was beautifully made and stunningly dressed, and there was a flavour about him—his diamond tie pin a little too large, perhaps, his gestures emphatic beyond the usual Public School rule, his voice quick and emotional—which made him as exotic as a tiger lily in a bed of white daisies.
His skin was olive, his hands graceful, and he danced like an angel, which was how Phryne found herself competing in the Foxtrot Competition run by the Jewish Young People's Society at the Braille Hall, which was hung with a truly remarkable number of balloons and streamers.
Here, thought Phryne, relaxing into her partner's embrace, I am the exotic. I am the—what was the word? I am the shiksa, the foreigner, the non-Jew, and how nice they are being to me. I wonder how much trouble the poor boy is going to get into for taking me as a partner, and not one of the nice girls his mother wants him to marry? He really does dance like a dream.
They slid to a halt and the judges conferred. A stout lady in satin nodded vigorously, and the bald gentleman next to her waved a hand wearily, as though abandoning the dispute. 'Nu?' she heard him say. The dancers all stared at the judges. Balloons wavered in the hot air.
'It's decided,' said the bald gentleman. 'The best dancers are Simon Abrahams and his partner Miss Fisher, but the heat goes to Rose Weinberg and Chaim Wasserman, because they are both members of the Jewish Young People's Society.'
'Shame!' yelled Chaim Wasserman. 'If they're the best dancers, then you can't give the heat to us.'
'He's right,' said the young man to Phryne's left. The room then broke into at least three arguments, all of which had ferocious supporters. Phryne was fascinated. In an instant, everyone had an opinion and someone's ear into which to yell it. One faction was for awarding the prize to Simon and Phryne; after all, they were the best dancers and who were we to start discriminating against non-Jews, for goodness' sake? Another was to award it to Chaim and Rose, who danced well and were both members and good persons besides if you overlooked their uncle Marek, and anyway Marek was not anyone's fault except maybe God's and He presumably had a purpose in creating even such persons as Marek. A third was denouncing the chairman, not for making such a decision, but for having the bad manners to say that that was how he made it, the chairman having been a schlemiel since early childhood, it was well known. She was about to suggest to Simon that they find a chair, as she didn't want to miss any of the debate and it seemed likely to go on all night, when an old man in evening dress pulled at Simon's arm and led him out of the hall into the kitchen. Phryne followed.
'Simon, your father wants to talk....'
'Later, uncle,' said Simon, dragging against the urgent fingers, 'I will talk to my father later. In any case I told him, I dance with whoever I like and I like Miss Fisher.'
'No, no, he wants to meet the lady, he sent me to fetch him this Miss Fisher. If you would do us the honour, gracious lady,' said the old man, bowing from the waist. Phryne gave him her hand, and he kissed her fingers punctiliously. He had a heavy accent which turned all his w's into v's and vice versa, but it was not precisely a German accent. Phryne appreciated his politeness in continuing to speak English rather than his own language.
'My father wants to talk to Miss Fisher?' asked Simon, suddenly sounding like the crowd in the hall. 'My father wants to speak to Miss Fisher?'
'I told you, suddenly you haven't got ears? This way, if you please, lady.'
He led Phryne on his arm out into the night and opened the door of a very big car. Simon got in beside her, evidently puzzled and apprehensive.
Seated in the back seat was a stout elderly gentleman in the most beautiful cashmere coat Phryne had ever seen.
'So, Miss Fisher, I am Benjamin Abrahams and I am honoured,' he said, taking her hand and looking into her eyes. He had the same intense, brightly dark gaze as his son, and Phryne could not look away. 'You are the private detective, are you not, Madame?'
'I am,' she agreed.
'Then I have to ask you a favour. My son has spoken much of you. He says you are an honourable woman, a woman of courage. In many matters his head may be turned, but for such a young one his judgment is beyond his years.'
'Thank you,' said Phryne, 'but ...'
'Wait,' said Mr. Abrahams. 'Don't say anything yet. I don't offer you money, Miss Fisher, though I will pay you. But this is the situation, an awful thing. There is a bookshop in the Eastern Market. I am the landlord. My tenant is a lady called Miss Lee, a single lady. Today a man died in her shop.'
'Terrible,' murmured Phryne, conventionally.
'Death is not so terrible, always it is there. But this was particularly bad. It was a Jew. His name was Simon, a student from Salonika. He was poisoned. The police say that they do not know how the poison was delivered, and by the time they found out—the body was taken to the hospital, you see—the clues had all gone. Miss Lee you understand is a neat person, she had swept the floor, cleaned the shop—after such a happening it is a human thing to do, is it not? The man was certified dead by the good Doctor Stein, who is also a Jew, and the police....'
'Who have they arrested?' asked Phryne. 'The doctor?'
'No,' said Mr. Abrahams. 'They have arrested Miss Lee. The victim was often in her shop, and owed her money. Therefore they suggest that she gave him tea, as it might be, with strychnine in it. There is strychnine in the rat poison she used.'
'Miss Lee?' objected Simon. 'It is absurd.'
'So, it's absurd,' agreed his father. 'So we ask Miss Fisher to fix it.'
'But, wait, if it's that absurd, they'll release her,' said Phryne, vaguely uncomfortable under the dark eyes of both father and son.
'Such a high opinion of the justice system you have, hmm?' asked Mr. Abrahams.
Phryne did not reply. Such a high opinion of the justice system she didn't have.
'Indeed. But there is this, a more serious matter. The victim is a Jew. The doctor is a Jew. I am a Jew. Australia is not very anti-Semitic—the argument is rather between the two Christian sects, between Catholic and Protestant. But the possibility is always there. I do not think that we will have pogroms here—I hope it is foreign to the national character. But no one likes strangers and we are strangers, and in Europe the shtetls are burning again, the little towns inhabited by Jews. We are exiles, wanderers; we have no home. There is nowhere where we are safe, really safe. This murder, it is likely to raise all sorts of bad feeling between Christians and Jews.'
'I think you're exaggerating,' said Phryne.
'My grandmother was murdered by a Cossack,' said Mr. Abrahams. 'My father and my aunt also. My mother and I fled here because our only remaining relative lived in Gatehouse Street, and when we landed we had one suitcase and forty pounds Australian or they would not have let us land. We came from a village which had lived and traded with the Russians and Poles for generations, and then they turned on us and slaughtered us in one night. There is a saying, Miss Fisher: "Do not love anything, or a Cossack will take it away." Anything can turn the opinion of the people, and then what would become of us?'
'I still think that you are exaggerating,' said Phryne. Mr. Abrahams took her hand and sighed.
'Beautiful lady, you can say whatever you like to me, if you will solve this murder.'
'If I take the case,' temporized Phryne, 'I can only tell you the truth. I mean, I can't fix the result. If it's a Jew murdering another Jew, then I can't cover it up.'
'I accept that,' said Mr. Abrahams.
'And I cost ten quid a day,' said Phryne.
'Oy,' said Mr. Abrahams, and grinned.
Detective Inspector John 'Call me Jack, everyone does' Robinson sighted the neat figure in a town suit and the two café curtains of black hair and sighed. The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher, as ever was, he thought, large as life and twice as natural, and about, by her stride, smile and general demeanour, to make his day uncomfortable. It looked like a nice clear case. Frustrated spinster falls in love with attractive tall dark stranger. Tall dark stranger does not return the favour, or perhaps seduces and betrays her, and she gives him a friendly cup of strychnine tea. Easy, clear cut and simple, and here came Miss Fisher to complicate things.
Wishing he was at home in the undemanding company of his cattleya orchids, Jack Robinson intercepted the visitor at the door.
'Well, well, Miss Fisher,' he began, 'nothing to tax your well-known skills in this case.'
'Oh, no?' Phryne smiled guilelessly into the policeman's face. He winced. Miss Fisher was at her most dangerous when she was smiling guilelessly. It was a sign that someone, somewhere, was about to be shaken down until their teeth rattled and the Detective Inspector was uneasily aware that he was the closest available target.
'Yes. Open and shut,' he continued. 'Frustrated unmarried woman falls in love with a customer, he doesn't notice or perhaps he takes advantage of the situation, and Bob's your uncle, she up and poisons him. Picture the scene. He comes into her shop, she never expected to see him again after the way he treated her. But there he is. She puts the rat killer into a cup of tea. He drinks it, drops the cup—splash!—and falls dead. Curtain.'
'Oh, very good,' purred Phryne, peering around the bulk of the Detective Inspector to look into the shop. 'Keep on in that vein and you'll have a script for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Call it "Starved of Passion"—starring, oh, I don't know, Theda Bara?—and you'll be able to retire on the proceeds.'
'Miss Fisher, have you any evidence to the contrary?' said the policeman, a little stiffly. Phryne fixed him with a green gaze.
'I won't know, will I, unless you let me have a look at the scene of the crime.'
'That's quite against the rules,' he began, and Phryne waved a dismissive hand.
'Absolutely, can we take that as read? Come on, Jack dear, you're a just man. What can you lose, except an official reprimand for leaping to the wrong conclusions?'
'Come in,' said Jack Robinson, as he had known he would from the first sight of that extravagant purple feather in the small black hat, and Miss Fisher ducked under his arm and stood still at the door, surveying the small shop.
'It's in apple pie order for a scene of the crime,' she commented, looking at the ordered shelves and sniffing the smell of lysol, gum leaves and leather.
'The prisoner cleaned it carefully. Not a fingermark, and of course she washed the cup.'
'The tea or whatever the poison was in.'
'Oh, that cup. The one which was dropped so dramatically in your script. You know—Dot will advise us on this—but I'd swear that this floor has been swept and polished recently, but not washed. Eh, Dorothy?'
'Yes, Miss.' Miss Fisher's personal maid and companion sniffed, then crouched and ran a finger along the American cloth. 'This floor was waxed with Shi-noleum, recently, and since then it has been swept and then buffed with a soft cloth around a broom. Waxed floors spot if you spill anything wet on them, and they pit if you spill hot water on them—melts the surface, you see. Then you have to put on more wax. When I was a maid, I remember, the missus once went crook because of a dropped cup of tea. I had to re-do the whole floor.' Dot folded her arms in her dark brown cardigan and sniffed again. 'And I can't smell wax, Sir. Disinfectant and gum leaves, but no wax. Shi-noleum's got carbolic in it, and that's a real noticeable smell. Miss Fisher's right. Nothing wet's been spilled on this floor, not for weeks.'
'Hmm.' Phryne made a slow circuit of the little shop, touching nothing. The books were ranked by subject and were largely in unknown languages, although one shelf appeared to be devoted to Hansard, Collected Sermons and novels by Walter Scott—all, Phryne imagined, unsaleable except to the insomniac or those customers who possessed a piano with one leg half an inch short.
Excerpted from Raisins and Almonds by Kerry Greenwood Copyright © 1997 by Kerry Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 19, 2012
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