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Ruddy GoreA Phryne Fisher Mystery
By Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1995 Kerry Greenwood
All right reserved.
Chapter One'How's Bloodygore?' 'It's Ruddigore.' 'Same thing, isn't it?' 'Does that mean when I say I admire your ruddy countenance, it means I like your bloody cheek?' Conversation with W. S. Gilbert (attrib.)
The hatchet flicked past, end over end, and struck a wooden shutter with a hollow thud. Light gleamed along the polished blade.
Phryne Fisher closed a leather-gloved hand on the handle and extracted it with one strong pull. She hefted it. An admirable weapon, wellbalanced, not too heavy, wickedly sharp.
'Were you trying to attract my attention?' she asked politely.
An Asian face turned to her out of the mass of struggling bodies. He saw the black hair and pale face, the body shining silver like a Taoist goddess, and screamed at her, 'Jau!'
This meant nothing to Phryne, who had seen an old woman go down without a cry under three attackers clad in dark blue. Little Bourke Street was chill, empty and dark. Sodium glare from the widely spaced street lights turned every puddle on the slick cobbles into a mirror and left black velvet pools of night in between.
In one of these some sort of street fight was occurring. Phryne was on her way to a gala performance of Ruddigore at His Majesty's in celebration of Ron Hinkler's triumphant flight. She was beginning to wonder whether taking a short cut had been such a good idea as it had seemed ten minutes before.
Bunji Ross gasped, 'There's an old lady in that crowd of Chink blighters!' She ran toward the fight and vanished into it like a fly in a frog's mouth. Something would have to be done.
Phryne stepped lightly to a corner, yelled, 'The cops!' and watched as two blue-clad toughs scrambled up and ran away. The other one stopped to kick the recumbent old woman again, and Phryne could not allow that. He had had his chance. She walked quickly up behind him, waited until his head was in the right position, and clipped him neatly with the hatchet, considerately using the back. She was clad in an outrageously expensive dress and did not want to get blood on it.
He collapsed with a satisfactory moan. A returning blue-clad person grabbed him and dragged him off. The soft scrabbling footsteps died away and Phryne hauled Bunji up by the arm. She was much disarrayed but seemed uninjured.
Phryne brushed Bunji down, found her hat, and said, 'I wish you weren't so hasty, Bunji dear. This looks like a private fight, you know. And that is—it was—a rather nice new dress.'
'Yes, yes, and I'm sorry about the dress old thing, but we can't allow old ladies to be attacked. It might start a fashion,' panted Bunji, rubbing her midsection. 'Ooh, drat, that hurts! One of those thugs punched me in the stomach. Don't they know you aren't supposed to hit a woman? I got him a good one, though. He'll know how I feel about this sort of thing.'
'Unchivalrous in the extreme,' agreed Phryne, sighing. Bunji Ross, who was good friend and a brave and determined flyer, was very hard on clothes. Since everything that Phryne had ever lent her had come back ruined, Phryne had paid for a new dress for her short plump companion. It had been a flowing but restrained dark plum velvet sacque with matching hat and shoes, but a roll in the gutters of Little Bourke Street had not improved it. Bunji was wet and muddy and had holed both her stockings.
The young man got to his feet, supporting the old woman. She straightened slowly, wiping a shaking hand over her bruised face, then fastened her eyes on Phryne.
She saw a small woman dressed in silver; a brocade dress which fitted close to her slim body, a cap of the same material with wings at each side, and on her small feet silver kid boots with wings at the ankle. Over the dress, she was draped in a flowing velvet coat with a yoke of brocade. She had a pale face and startling green eyes, and black hair barely longer than the cap. The hatchet swung loosely in her gloved hand. The old woman, creaking in all her joints, bowed. It was possible, she considered, that she had been rescued by a spirit, doubtless sent by the ancestors.
The young man, who knew that there were no spirits, saw through his one functioning eye a woman of surpassing otherness, immensely attractive, supremely alive and shining from head to heel.
Phryne abandoned the attempt to make Bunji elegant and decided that she would be acceptable if most of the mud was removed. Someone spoke to her and she turned.
'Ngo zhang lei koh yan cheng,' said the old woman, speaking to Phryne's knees in a soft, cultured voice.
'My grandmother thanks you,' said the young man. 'She says that we are deeply in your debt, Madame.'
'Not at all,' said Phryne. 'Is your grandmother hurt?'
'She says it is nothing to signify,' the young man bowed in turn. 'I am Lin Chung; it is the Lin family you have rescued in so timely a fashion.'
His accent, to her astonishment, was pure Eton and Oxford. Phryne took the offered hand and looked appreciatively at him. She could not tell if he was handsome, as the recent altercation had split his lip and blackened his eye. However, he was not much taller than herself, beautifully compact and sleek, the hand in her own strong but gentle. She was intrigued.
'Mr Lin, I have an engagement at the theatre. I really must restore my friend to respectability—can you provide us with a wash and brush up?' He nodded and walked to a nearby door. It opened to his tap and the old woman hobbled inside.
'I say, Phryne, is this safe?' whispered Bunji. 'They aren't white slavers or something, are they?'
It was too dark for Phryne's withering glare to have any effect, so she settled for saying, 'Don't be so silly, Bunji. Besides, I've still got this hatchet.'
They were in an anteroom to a warehouse, piled with bundles which oozed such pungent and alien scents that Phryne sniffed with delight. Saffron, she was sure; but what was that strange antiseptic reek, and what on earth could anyone use those evil-looking dried eels for?
'In here, if you please, Madame,' said Lin Chung. 'I will send someone to attend you.'
He conducted Phryne and Bunji into a small room of such elegance that Bunji exclaimed, 'By Jove!' and Phryne gasped.
The walls were hung with red silk—bolts of it must have gone into the decoration. It was figured with small medallions of thread which, from the soft gleam, Phryne decided must be pure gold. Bunji stood on a priceless silk carpet carved with phoenixes and did not dare to move.
'I say,' she whispered, 'what have we got ourselves into?'
'I don't know, but it's very pretty.'
A door opened in the silk-clad wall and a young woman as distant and aloof as a porcelain doll entered. With her came a stout elderly woman in a print dress and apron.
Unspeaking, the woman and the girl laid a sheet on the floor, poured hot water into a huge T'ang bowl decorated with horses, and produced fluffy towels and soap. They divested Bunji of her dress, which was taken by an unseen person outside the door, and then dabbed gently at the mud stains and a small graze on Bunji's knuckles.
Bunji stood in exquisite embarrassment, not wishing to interrupt what appeared to be a ritual, as she was cleansed, dried, and provided with new stockings and wrapped in a padded silk gown. While the old woman took the washing things away, the girl produced a decanter and poured a stiff brandy for each woman, still mute. She looked about sixteen and had evidently been in bed, for her waist length hair was still in its nighttime plait. Phryne accepted the glass and said, 'Hello.'
The girl looked at her for the first time.
'Hello,' she replied sulkily. 'Is this the sort of thing you drink? Only Grandmother said to look after you because you rescued her and I'll get into trouble if it isn't right.'
'It's just what we wanted. Thank you. What's your name?'
'Here they call me Annie. I'll go and get the dress. Po Po's maid is cleaning it.'
'Annie, what did we interfere in?'
'I can't tell you.' The composure broke and Annie's black eyes flashed. 'I'm not going to tell you. Why did you have to come along just then?'
'Fate,' said Phryne, nettled. 'Can you find a safe place for this?' She handed over the hatchet. Annie took it.
'Grandmother wants her address,' she pointed to Bunji.
'Oh, why?' Bunji's thoughts had clearly turned to white slaving again.
'So that she can send you a present. To thank you for rescuing her.'
'Very well,' said Bunji, writing down her name and address in a silk-covered notebook which the girl held out. 'But it was my pleasure, really,' she said doubtfully. Closing the book, Annie reverted to her doll-like stillness, bowed to an exact degree and left.
Phryne looked at Bunji, who shrugged.
'They're Chinks, they're aliens, what did you expect?'
'Bunji, do stop calling them Chinks, it's not polite.'
'What else can I call them?' asked Bunji reasonably. 'That's what they are. This is a nice robe, though.' She smoothed the decorated material with a hard hand.
The elderly woman returned with the dress, invisibly mended and cleaned of stains, and Bunji pulled it on and shoved her hat back onto her head, hiding her short hair.
'Well, let's go, it has been an exciting evening but I don't want to miss seeing Ron again, though I don't know about this opera, Phryne, I've never been a culture shark like you. Is it all fat ladies bellowing at each other?'
'No, it's very funny and you'll like it,' said Phryne firmly. She finished the cognac and put down the glass, wondering if they should just walk out. Bunji settled this by striding through the antechamber and into Little Bourke Street and Phryne followed. She had reached the door when the young man appeared, touched her arm and said, 'Madame, we are in your debt. Can we know who you are?'
'Why do you want to know?' asked Phryne, pausing at the door. 'It was all my friend's idea, I just cleaned up after her. She's the valiant one.' He smiled at her, an action which must have hurt.
'I wish to come and express our family's gratitude in some tangible form.' The sensual suggestion was strong and Phryne was attracted. She found her card and held it up.
'What will you give me, then, Mr Lin, to express your gratitude?'
'I will sit at your feet and sing your praise all night, Silver Lady.' The voice was soft and Phryne felt an answering smile curving the corners of her mouth. 'Most beautiful lady,' said Lin Chung, 'I will do whatever would most please you.'
Phryne felt that this offer was agreeably unconditional. She allowed him to take the card, swept her velvet coat around her, and said, 'Come on Thursday night, Mr Lin. To dinner at eight o'clock. I will think of something that you can do for me by then.'
By then, she reflected as she walked quickly away behind Bunji, his face will have healed. And she calculated that she would at least get a length of that absolutely exquisite silk for the trouble of hitting an assailant over the head with a hatchet.
Lin Chung gazed after the twinkle of her winged heels as the Honourable Phryne Fisher receded into the night.
* * *
His Majesty's Theatre was ablaze with light as they walked up to the corner and turned into the main street. Expensive cars were stopping to allow expensive by- invitation-only patrons to alight. There was a scent of French perfume so strong as to be almost a stench, and a flurry of coats and cloaks and glossy top hats.
'There—' Bunji dragged Phryne through the ranks. 'There's Bill, and Captain Larkin—come on, Phryne.'
It was easy to find the flyers. They were gathered into a tight little group in one corner of the foyer, looking uncomfortable among the most shrill and glamorous of Melbourne Society.
'What ho, Cap'n,' Bunji hailed. 'Is Ron here yet?'
'No, he's being smuggled in through the back. I say, Miss Fisher, you look spiffing! Mercury, ain't you, like the Greek god? Remarkable, even down to the winged shoes.' Phryne, who had been keeping her ensemble for just such an occasion, smiled warmly at the captain. Bunji nudged him.
'Well, how's poor Ron bearing up? He must be a nervous wreck by now.'
'Oh, yes, the hero of the hour, poor chap,' observed Captain Larkin, smoothing his moustache complacently. 'Can't bear publicity. I bet he's wishing he was back up in the sky.'
'Oh, why?' asked Phryne, who had preserved her cloak uncrushed in her passage through the multitude by following exactly in the stouter Bunji's wake.
'Simple, it's all predictable up in the air.'
'Predictable?' Phryne could not think of a less predictable pastime than flying.
'Yes, only a certain number of things can go wrong, and only a few of those will kill you. Pity about Chubbie Miller and old Bill Lancaster breaking a wing, though. Otherwise they might have made it in before Hustlin' Hinkler.'
'Why is he called hustling?' Phryne was shoved against Captain Larkin, who smelt delightfully of Floris's stephanotis.
'He leaves on time—every time. He arrives on time though Hell should bar the way. Most amazin' chap. And he made the flight from Croydon to Darwin across all those islands and countries in fifteen and a half days. Remarkable man. But he'll be deeply embarrassed by all this adulation. Not one for the populace, Hinkler.'
'No? Dislikes his fellow man?'
'Hates crowds and doesn't trust enthusiasm any more than a Presbyterian,' rejoined Bunji. 'Unsentimental, perhaps that's it. He really only likes a few people, his co-pilot and some flyers and his Mum. He hasn't even given his plane a name.'
'Now that is interesting,' Phryne said, 'I thought all planes had names.'
Bunji agreed. 'Yes, well, there's Red Rose, that's the Miller/Lancaster Avro, and your Rigel and my Tiger Cat and Bill's Moonraker and Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis and Kingsford Smith's Southern Cross. Yes. We all give the planes names—but he just calls his GE BOV, the call sign. Either he doesn't want it to develop a personality, or ...'
'He just doesn't think like that,' concluded Captain Larkin. 'By the way, Bunji old girl—someone took up a Tiger Moth and did some very pretty stuntin' to welcome Hinkler. You wouldn't happen to know who it was, would you?'
'No,' said Bunji, blushing the colour of her dress. 'No, really? I can't imagine how I missed it.'
'I can't imagine either,' said Captain Larkin drily.
Bunji, desperate for a distraction, asked, 'Phryne, who is that woman in the red dress? She's been staring at us.'
'Oh, that's Diana Ffoulkes,' said Phryne, returning the gaze of bright blue eyes with interest. 'Terribly rich, terribly bored, with a penchant for celebrities. Her last affair was with a flyer, I believe; her lovers never last. I wonder if she's prospecting for a new one?' She caught a glimpse of spun-silk hair and cupid's bow mouth as Miss Ffoulkes bent her regard elsewhere. Phryne caught Captain Larkin smoothing his moustache complacently, a movement just short of preening, and grinned at him. He coughed and said quickly, 'Come along, ladies, let's go inside. There's a surprise in the theatre.'
Phryne, who considered that she had had enough surprises for one night, took his arm and followed him up the steps into the dress circle.
Red plush was the dominant motif in His Majesty's Theatre. That and gilt equal to the output of the Ballarat goldfields for at least three months. Everything glittered and shone which wasn't draped and soft. Phryne sat down and looked at the stage.
Over the proscenium was a large map of Hinkler's epic journey, with the fuel stops picked out in red lamps. There were a lot of them, dotted across Europe and Asia.
'Look up,' invited Captain Larkin.
Phryne leaned back and stared up into the blue dome with gold stars which dominated the theatre and gasped.
There, circling on a hidden line, was a scale model of Hinkler's Avro Avian, its propeller revolving slowly in the hot air.
'I say!' said Phryne. 'That is impressive.'
'It's mine,' said the captain modestly, 'made it this winter. Luckily both the contending flyers were in Avros. Brought it into the theatre this morning and spent most of the day riggin' it up, to the groans of the stage hand chappies, by the way. Said it couldn't be done without ruining the sight-lines, whatever they are. Said it would cast shadows on the stage—apparently there are banks of lights on the dress circle, can't say I've ever noticed 'em. They insisted on hauling it up that high, don't know why. But it looks good, don't it?'
'It does indeed.' Phryne was impressed. 'Very nice work, Captain. And the map over the stage, that's Hinkler's journey?'
'Yes. Started at Croydon, see, then stopped for fuel all the way across. Through Lyons and Dijon to Rome and Naples, then Catania, Tripoli, Benghazi, Sollum, Cairo, then Baghdad, Ur, Bushire, Bandar Abbas, Char, Karachi, Jodhpur, across India to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Muntok—that's where Miller and Lancaster came to grief—then Surabaja, Bima, Atambua and Darwin. Amazin' journey. All on his own. Have to admire him.'
Excerpted from Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood Copyright © 1995 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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