Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, now streaming on Netflix, starring Essie Davis as the honourable Phryne Fisher
"Greenwood's stories are brief, but she holds her own, writing well-thought-out plots starring the intelligent, sexy, liberated, and wealthy Phryne." Library Journal
When the 1920s' most glamorous lady detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, arranges to go to Ballarat for the week, she eschews the excitement of her red Hispano-Suiza racing car for the sedate safety of the train. The last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save the passengers' lives. As they sleep, they are poisoned with chloroform.
Phryne is left to piece together the clues after this restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares with a young girl who can't remember anything, rumors of white slavery and black magic, and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. Then there is the rowing team and the choristers, all deliciously engaging young men. At first they seem like a pleasant diversion...
About the Author
Kerry Greenwood was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray and after wandering far and wide, she returned to live there. She has degrees in English and Law from Melbourne University and was admitted to the legal profession on the 1st April 1982, a day which she finds both soothing and significant. Kerry has written three series, a number of plays, including The Troubadours with Stephen D'Arcy, is an award-winning children's writer and has edited and contributed to several anthologies. The Phryne Fisher series (pronounced Fry-knee, to rhyme with briny) began in 1989 with Cocaine Blues which was a great success. Kerry has written twenty books in this series with no sign yet of Miss Fisher hanging up her pearl-handled pistol. Kerry says that as long as people want to read them, she can keep writing them. In 2003 Kerry won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian Association.
Read an Excerpt
Murder on the Ballarat Train
A Phryne Fisher Mystery
By Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1991 Kerry Greenwood
All rights reserved.
There was a beetle sitting next to the goat: (it was a very queer carriage full of passengers altogether)
Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Fortunately, the Hon. Phryne Fisher was a light sleeper. She had dozed for most of the journey, but when the nauseating odour of chloroform impinged on her senses, she had sufficient presence of mind to realize that something was happening while she still had wits enough to react.
Reaching over the slumbering form of her maid and companion, Dot, she groped for and found her handbag. She dragged it open, moving as though she were five fathoms under water. The clasp of the handbag seemed impossibly complex, and finally, swearing under her breath and gasping for air, she tore it open with her teeth, extracted her Beretta .32 with which she always travelled, and waveringly took aim. She squeezed off a shot that broke the window.
It shattered into a thousand shards, spattering Phryne and Dot with glass, and admitting a great gush of cold air.
Phryne choked, coughed, and staggered to her feet. She hung out of the window until she was quite certain of her sobriety, then hauled the other window open. The train was still moving. Smoke blew back into her face. What was happening? Phryne reached into the picnic basket, found the bottle of cold tea, and took a refreshing swig. Dot was out to the world, slumped over her travelling bag, her long hair coming loose from its plait. Phryne listened carefully at her maid's mouth, with a cold fear in her heart. But Dot was breathing regularly and seemed only to be deeply asleep.
Phryne wet her handkerchief with the remains of the cold tea and opened the door of the compartment. A wave of chloroform struck her, and she had to duck back into her compartment, take a deep breath and hold it, before running into the corridor, tearing open a window and leaning through it. There was not a sound on the train; not a noise of human occupancy. She sucked in a breath and rushed to the next window, repeating the procedure until all the windows were as wide open as the railways allowed.
There were four compartments in this first-class carriage. She had noticed the occupants as she had sauntered along before supper; an elderly lady and her companion in the first, a harassed woman and three diabolical children in the second, and a young couple in the third. Phryne and Dot had occupied the fourth, and that probably explained their relative immunity, as the smell got thicker and harder to bear as Phryne neared the front of the train.
The engine halted; she heard the whistle, and an odd bumping noise at the front of the first-class carriage. There was a rush of steam, and the train began to move again, almost precipitating Phryne onto her knees, as she was still rather shaky. Still coughing and retching, she opened the window of the young couple, then the mother and the children. Finally she approached the first compartment, and the smell was strong enough to sting her eyes. She applied the wet handkerchief again, staining her face with tea, dived in and stood staring.
The companion lay flat on the floor with a spilt cup by her hand, but the window was already open and the old lady was gone.
Phryne then did something that she had always wanted to do. She pulled the communication cord as hard as she could.
The train screeched to a satisfying halt, and a porter came running, slapping open the door to the dining-car and immediately beginning to cough.
'Did you pull that cord, Miss?' he asked. 'For the love of Mike, what's been happening here?'
'Chloroform,' said Phryne. 'Help me get them out into the fresh air.'
The porter shouted, and several more liveried men crowded into the carriage, before they began to choke and tried to run out again.
'Idiots!' gasped Phryne. 'Put a wet hanky over your silly faces and come and help me.'
'I'll handle it, Miss,' said one rather tall and charming conductor. 'You'd better come out too, until it clears a little. Give me your hand, Miss, and down we go.' Phryne, who was feeling very unwell, allowed herself to be carried down the step and off the siding. She sat down unsteadily in cold wet grass and was delighted with the sensation. It seemed more real than the hot, thick darkness of the train.
The tall conductor laid Dot down beside Phryne, and the old woman's companion beside her. Dot turned over in deep sleep, her face against Phryne's neck, sniffed, croaked 'Nuit D'Amour', sneezed, and woke up.
'Lie still, Dot dear, we've had a strange experience. We are quite all right, and will be even better in a minute. Ah. Someone with sense.'
Phryne accepted a cup of hot, sugared tea from an intelligent steward and held it to Dot's lips.
'Here you are, old dear, take a few sips and you'll be as right as rain.'
'Oh, Miss, I feel that sick! Did I faint?' Dot supped some more tea, and recovered enough to sit up and take the cup.
'In a way, Dot, we all did. Someone, for some unknown reason, has chloroformed us. We were in the end carriage and thus we inhaled the slightest dose, though it was quite enough, as I'm sure you will agree. And when I get hold of the person who has done this,' continued Phryne, gulping her tea and getting to her feet, 'they will be sorry that they were ever born. All right now, Dot? I mean, all right to be left? I want to scout around a bit.'
'All right, Miss,' agreed Dot, and lay down in the dank grass, wishing that her head would stop swimming.
The train had come to a halt in utter darkness somewhere on the way to Ballarat. All around the pastures were flat, cold, and wet; it was the middle of winter. She regained the train as the guards were carrying out the last of the children, a limp and pitiful bundle.
'Well, this wasn't on the timetable!' she exclaimed to the nearest conductor. 'What happened? And who caused it to happen?'
'I thought that you might have seen something, Miss, since you were the only one awake. Though you seem to have caught a fair lungful of the stuff,' he added. 'You sure that you feel quite the thing, Miss?'
Phryne caught at the proffered arm thankfully.
'I'm quite all right, just a little wobbly in the under-pinnings. What are we going to do?'
'Well, Miss, the train-conductor thinks that we'd better put everyone on board as soon as they have recovered a bit and take the train on to the next town. There's a policeman there and they can send for a doctor. Some of them kids are in a bad way.'
'Yes, I expect that will be the best plan. I'll go and see if I can help. Give me an arm, will you? Do you know any artificial respiration?'
'Yes, Miss,' said the middle-aged man, glancing admiringly at the white face under the cloche hat. 'I learned it for lifesaving.'
'Come on, then, we've got lives to save. The children and the pregnant woman are the main risks.'
Phryne found, on examination, that the youngest child, a particularly devilish three year old on whom she had been wishing death all day was the worst affected. His face was flushed, and there seemed to be no breath in the little body. She caught the child up in her arms and squeezed him gently.
'Breathe, little monster,' she admonished him, 'and you shall dance on all my hats, and push Dot's shoes out the window. Breathe, pest, or I shall never forgive myself. Come on, child, breathe!'
In, out, the chest rose and fell. The child gulped air, choked, fell silent again, as Phryne jogged his chest and he dragged in another breath, with nerve-racking intervals in which she heard the other passengers groaning awake. The pregnant woman was retching violently, and abjuring her comatose husband to awake. A small hand clutched Phryne painfully by the nose and the child's strong legs flexed and kicked. The whole child seemed to gather himself for some final effort. Phryne held her breath. Was this a death tremor? Johnnie took his first independent breath.
'Waaaah!' he screamed, and Phryne began to laugh.
'Here, you take him,' she said to the nearest guard. 'But be careful, he'll be sick in a moment.'
The guard was a family man, and took the resultant mess philosophically. They were all awake now; the woman and the children, the pregnant lady and her husband, and Dot. All except the companion to the elderly lady, and she was burned about the nose and mouth and very deeply drugged, though her heart pounded strongly under Phryne's hand.
'All back on the train,' ordered the conductor. 'This way, ladies and gentlemen, and we'll soon have you comfortable. This is some sort of silly joke, and the Railways will be responsible for any damages. Might I offer you a hand, Miss er ...'
'Fisher. The Hon. Phryne Fisher,' said Phryne, allowing herself to lean on the arm. 'I really am not feeling at all well. How long to Ballan?'
'About ten minutes, Miss, if you'll excuse the guard's van, there being no room in the rest of the train.'
Phryne and Dot sat side by side on the floor, next to a chained dog and a cage full of sleepy chickens. The lady-companion was laid beside them, and the rest of the first-class passengers sat around the walls, surveying each other with discomfort.
'I say, old girl, you look as if you'd been pulled through the hedge backwards,' opined the young husband in a feeble attempt at humour, and his pregnant lady rocketed into hysteria.
It took Phryne the ten minutes to Ballan to induce in the lady a reasonable frame of mind, and at the end of it Phryne was a rag.
'If you have anything else to say that you think is funny, I'll thank you to keep it to yourself,' she snarled at the husband, catching him a nasty accidental-on-purpose crack on the shins.
'I've got other things to do than calm the heeby-jeebies. Now we are at Ballan, Dot, I hope that we can get to the overnight things, for we really must have a hot bath and a change of clothes, or we shall catch our death.'
'There's a hotel in Ballan,' said the mother, catching little Johnnie as, much recovered, he poked his fingers in among the chickens, 'Come away, Johnnie, do!'
'The Railways can pay for it, then,' suggested the young man, with a wary eye on Phryne. 'I haven't got the cash for an overnight stay.'
'I can advance you enough,' said Phryne. 'Not to worry. Here comes our nice conductor to release us from durance fairly vile.'
The conductor had clearly done wonders in a very short time.
'If the ladies and gentlemen would care to break their journey for awhile, they may like to bathe and change at the hotel,' he suggested. 'The guards will bring your baggage. The hotel is about a hundred yards down the street, and we will carry the sick lady.'
Phryne took one child, Dot another, and they trailed wearily down the road to the Ballan Hotel, a guesthouse of some pretension. They were met at the door by a plump and distressed landlady who exclaimed over their condition and took charge of the children.
'Room two, ladies, there's a bath all ready for you. I'll send the man with the baggage when he arrives. I shall have tea ready directly, and I've sent for the doctor, he should be here soon.'
Dot and Phryne gained their room and Phryne began to strip off her wet garments. Dot located the bath, and gestured to it.
'You first — you were worse affected,' insisted Phryne, and Dot recognized inflexibility when she saw it. She took off her clothes in the bathroom and sank into the tub, feeling the aching cold ease out of her bones. She heard the door open and close as she lay back and shut her eyes, and presently there was Phryne's voice.
'Come on, old dear, you don't want to fall asleep again! I've got the clothes and I've got some tea.'
'In a minute,' promised Dot, and exchanged places with her mistress.
They were dressed in clean clothes and thoroughly warmed when the conductor returned to advise them that the chloroform vapour was all gone and they could resume their journey, if they liked. Phryne was ready to go, and was called in to rouse the companion of the elderly lady.
The woman was much scorched or scalded about the nose and mouth, and the doctor seemed worried about her. She had not begun to rouse until the injection of camphor had been made.
Then she opened her eyes all of a sudden, and hearing Phryne's voice, asked, 'Where's Mother?'
And Mother was gone.
After that, there was no further chance of getting to Ballarat, and Phryne turned to the landlady.
'There was another lady on the train, and she has definitely gone. We must call the police — perhaps she fell out the window. Is there a police station in Ballan?'
'Yes, Miss, I'll send the boy around now. What a terrible thing! We'll have to rouse out some of the men to go searching.'
'Dot, are you better?' asked Phryne of her maid.
Dot replied, 'I'm still a bit woozy, Miss. What do you want me to do?'
'Go and make some tea.'
'I can manage that,' agreed Dot, and went out. The doctor was applying a soothing cream to the stricken woman's face.
'What burned her? Chloroform?' asked Phryne, as she took the jar out of the doctor's insecure hold and held it out for him to dip into. 'Does it burn like that?'
'Certainly. She has had a chloroform soaked cloth laid over her face, and if you hadn't woken them all up and got her out of the train, she would now be dead, and even so there may be permanent damage to her liver.'
'What about the rest of us? Would we have all been affected just by the chloroform in the first compartment?'
'No. The gas is heavy, much heavier than air, and very volatile. Someone must have poured it into the ventilation system. Someone wanted you all asleep, Miss Fisher, but I have no idea why. There now, you may stopper the jar. Poor woman, a nasty awakening, but she's slumped back into sleep again. Can you watch her for an hour? I should go and see how those children are getting along.'
'By all means,' agreed Phryne, her conscience still tender in the matter of little Johnnie. 'I'll stay here. If she wakes, can I give her tea?'
'If she wakes, Miss Fisher, you can give her anything you like,' said the doctor, and hefted his black bag in the direction of the children's room.
An hour later, at three in the morning, the woman awoke. Phryne saw her stir and mutter, and lifted her to moisten her lips with water.
'What happened? Where's Mother?' came the cracked voice, prevented only by bodily weakness from shrieking.
'Hush, hush now, you're safe, and they are out looking for your mother.'
'Who are you?' asked the woman dazedly. She saw Phryne's expensive dressing-gown, edged in fox fur, her Russian leather boots of rusty hue, and an aloof, pale, delicate face, framed in neat, short black hair and with penetrating green eyes. Next to this vision of modish loveliness was a plain young woman with plaits, dressed in a chenille gown like a bedspread.
'I'm Phryne Fisher and this is Dot Williams, my companion. Who are you?'
'Eunice Henderson,' murmured the woman. 'Pleased to meet you. Where is Mother? What is happening? And what's wrong with me? I can't have fainted. I never faint.'
'No, you didn't faint. We are in the Ballan hotel. Someone chloroformed us — the whole first-class carriage. I knew that I should have motored to Ballarat, but I do like trains, though I'm rapidly going off them at the moment. Luckily, I was in the last compartment, and I am a very light sleeper. I broke the window, and then opened all the others and dragged everyone out. You I found lying on the floor of the compartment, with a spilt glass near your hand, and there was no one else there, I can assure you. The window was open — could she have fallen out?'
'I suppose so — she is a thin little thing, Mother. I can't remember much. I was asleep, then I heard this thump, and I felt ever so ill, so I got up to get some water, and ... that's all I can recall.'
'Well, never mind for the moment. There's nothing we can do until the searchers come back. They have roused the railway-men and they've all gone walking back along the track. They'll find her if she is there. Why not go back to sleep? I'll wake you if anything happens.'
Excerpted from Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood. Copyright © 1991 Kerry Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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