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Authors: Kerry Greenwood

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BOOK: Away With The Fairies
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‘There was a young hound … There was trouble of the usual kind, Miss Fisher. When her parents threw her out— threw her out, by God!—she came to me. She was sick and miserable. She’s always helped me with my specimens so I asked her if she wanted to help again. Just like when she was a child. See. She does lovely work.’

Phryne inspected a hortus siccus, a collection of dried plants. Each one was laid out in perfect order, seeds, fruits, flowers and leaves. It was labelled underneath in black marking ink—in easy capitals, using fine lines and the Greek E—with its botanical reference, its Linnaean name and its common name. She took a swig of whisky to cover her slight hesitation as she handed back the book.

‘Did Miss Lavender ask you about the plants? She was a very accurate botanical artist.’

‘Was she?’ grunted the professor, clearly regretting his hospitality.

‘Yes, have a look.’ Phryne produced the drawing from her satchel.

‘It’s not a bad waratah,’ he said grudgingly, pulling his spectacles up on their cord and inspecting the drawing. ‘In fact, it’s not bad at all. Quite good. Better than most of the rubbish they print. I found an illustration in a text the other day where the common daisy had two sepals. If you can believe that. Two! The old bat could have made a living in a museum. They use botanical artists. Pity about the fairy, though.’

‘Yes, she wasn’t good at fairies. Or rather, she was too fond of them. A strange lady. Are you writing a book?’

‘My life’s work,’ said Keith. ‘Indigenous dicotyledons of the Otway forest, and what I have to say will shake some dovecotes. My word it will.’

‘I’m sure,’ said Phryne, resolving to look up ‘dicotyledon’ when she got home. ‘Di’ meant two. Two cotyledons. Better than one, I suppose, she thought. Though that hadn’t been the case with the common daisy’s sepals.

The door opened and a plump young blonde woman bustled in, taking a hat off hair which had just been cooked to a crimped crisp.

‘Sorry I’m late, Unc, it took simply ages for my hair to dry. Who’s the lady? You been flirting again, Unc?’

‘Don’t call me “Unc”,’ grumbled Professor Keith comfortably. ‘Miss Fisher, my niece Margery. She’s asking about Miss Lavender on the QT.’

‘I know you didn’t like her, Unc, but she was murdered,’ said Miss Keith. ‘That’s awful.’

‘Yes, yes, m’dear, but nothing we can do about it now, is there? No use me saying that I loved the old bi—biddy like a mother when I couldn’t stand the sight of her. Neither could you,’ said the professor complacently.

‘Oh, uncle,’ said Margery Keith in the voice of all young persons oppressed by the embarrassing loquacity of the aged. Phryne now knew that these two were not, and never had been, lovers. There is a psychic fingerprint, an electric charge, when intimacy has been established. Miss Lavender must have had insufficient experience of the flesh to recognise this if such was her plan of attack for the Keiths.

But Phryne had seen the Greek E and the flowing capitals before.

‘Sit down, Miss Keith,’ she instructed. ‘Your uncle was kind enough to show me the hortus siccus you arranged for him. Very pretty work.’

‘Thank you,’ faltered Miss Keith. She was already afraid. Being taken in by a rotter and thrown out by one’s parents to miscarry, possibly illegally, did not build the confidence.

‘And I have seen that lettering before,’ said Phryne. She drew one of the threatening letters out of her satchel and laid it on the table. Miss Keith stared at it as though it was an unexpected cobra, and she without a mongoose to her name.

‘The police can get fingerprints off paper, sometimes,’ Phryne insinuated.

‘They can’t,’ said Miss Keith through frozen lips. ‘I always wore gloves.’

‘Margery!’ exclaimed the professor. Phryne put a hand on his arm.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘She didn’t kill Miss Lavender. Not unless you’ve got some cyanide in your botany supplies.’

‘No, that’s entomologists,’ said Keith distractedly. ‘Chaps who chase butterflies. Though you can distil cyanide from apple pips. Some idiot did it. Anyway, if she did kill the old bitch she was no loss. Though I’m sure she didn’t. Are you sure that Margery sent those letters?’

‘It’s her writing. There is also something wrong with someone who spells deserve, “disserv”. No illiterate would do that. What was Miss Lavender doing to you, Margery?’

‘I can’t tell you,’ sobbed Margery.

‘You really must, you know,’ said Phryne quietly. ‘Me or the cops and, really, believe me when I say that I would be better. Unless you want to end up as page one of the
Hawklet
, my girl, spit it out.’

‘I can’t,’ wailed Margery, and threw herself into her uncle’s arms.

‘Now, now, May,’ he soothed. ‘Now, my little May, it doesn’t matter what it is.’

‘Yes, it does,’ said Margery, stopping on a sob and wiping her face. ‘I’ve been so happy here with you, Unc, it’s been so nice, so quiet, and I love working on the book.’

‘And it will continue,’ he said. ‘We haven’t finished yet. I still need you.’ She tugged at his beard.

‘Not when you find out. You won’t want me anywhere near.’

‘Find out what?’ asked Professor Keith.

Margery wailed again. Phryne sat down close to the young woman’s ear.

‘The last time you fell in love, you were thrown out of your house and lost your baby,’ she said. ‘So you’re afraid that this will happen again. Now it’s really unlikely to have been Mr Hewland, so who was it, Margery? Mr Bell? Mr Opie? Mr Carroll?’

At the name Hewland Margery managed a shocked gasp. She repeated it with every name but the last. Phryne nodded.

‘Mr Carroll, who likes late nights, dancing, drinking, and flirting. Not surprising that a young woman would like some fun.’

‘Stuck here all day with an old man,’ said Professor Keith heavily, ‘who falls asleep at nine o’clock every night.’

‘Thus releasing your niece for a night of relatively harmless pleasure,’ said Phryne.

Margery clung to her uncle, burying her face in his tweed waistcoat.

‘Unc, that’s what I didn’t want you to find out because I knew that’s how you’d feel! I really love you and you’ve been so kind to me and I really want to stay here and she said … she said …’

‘That she’d tell your uncle that you were having an affair with Mr Carroll unless you did as she bid,’ said Phryne.

‘And she would have made it sound awful, as though I was a tart,’ wailed Margery. ‘I thought I might scare her off so I wrote her letters. It didn’t work,’ she said sadly.

‘Were you having an affair with Mr Carroll?’ asked Phryne.

‘No, of course not! He goes to all the shows, and he usually has two tickets, and he’s funny and he isn’t in love with me and it was harmless, Unc, like she said. Anyway, he’s got a mistress. One of the Green Mill girls.’

‘What did Miss Lavender want from you?’

Margery blushed like a Rosacea Gallica. ‘She wanted me to spy on the others. Not you, Unc. She wanted me to find out about Miss Gallagher and Miss Grigg, and especially about Mr Bell. She even told me to go and visit him in his room,’ said Margery, blushing harder.

‘What did you say?’ asked Phryne.

‘That I wouldn’t do it. Then she said she’d tell Unc, and I’d had enough so I told her to tell him and be damned.’

‘What did she want with Mr Bell?’

‘Don’t know,’ said Margery.

‘So the morning that Miss Lavender was found dead, you came home with Mr Carroll, went to bed for a couple of hours, then rose at your usual time to make the coffee,’ said Phryne, marvelling at the stamina of the young.

‘Yes,’ said Margery.

‘Did you see anyone in the garden when you came in?’

‘No one,’ said Margery. ‘I didn’t see anyone, and I was looking carefully, because sometimes the tenants sit in the garden when they can’t sleep. I had to hide in the bushes for almost an hour one night when Mrs Opie couldn’t get Wendy to sleep and Mr Opie sat there next to the fountain like a statue.’

‘Oh, Margery,’ said Professor Keith with infinite affection.

‘Uncle, can I stay another month? I have to find somewhere to go. I’ll need a job, too.’

‘You’ve got one,’ he said. ‘You don’t think I want to leave my work unfinished, do you? You can go out to the dance with Carroll one night a week,’ he said severely. ‘But don’t expect me to wait up for you.’

‘Oh, Unc!’ Margery threw herself into his arms again. He kissed her on the top of the head as she burrowed beneath his second waistcoat button.

‘Well, that seems to have solved that,’ he said to Phryne over his niece’s metallic coiffure. ‘Is there any need to tell the police about this?’

‘No, but we might need Margery to testify that there was no one in the garden when she came in.’

‘She can do that,’ said Professor Keith. Margery, in a flood of happy tears, agreed.

Which was all very nice, Phryne thought, crossing the anonymous letters off her list. Margery hadn’t seen either Opie or Bell, though she could not have seen Miss Grigg from the direct path between the front door and the Keith apartment. That meant that at seven the garden was empty.

Someone was lying. Possibly everyone.

Phryne hurried home. She had an appointment with a pirate.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The second line, undivided, shows the subject
exercising forbearance with the ignorant, in
which there will be good fortune; and admitting
even the goodliness of women, which will also be
fortunate.

Hexagram 4: Mang
The I Ching Book of Changes

Phryne dead-heated Dot at the door and said, as they were admitted to the house, ‘Well, fellow sleuth? How did it go?’

‘I found two of them,’ said Dot. ‘The cops still haven’t got the post box address. Something about the sanctity of the mail.’

Phryne muttered something about the sanctity of the mail which could not have been written down and sent through it.

‘I found out who was sending the “you bitch” letters,’ she told Dot. ‘Not a lot of use, I admit, because she isn’t the murderer.’

‘Neither are Anne or the cleaning lady,’ said Dot. ‘But that takes them off the list.’

‘The rate people are being crossed off this list, we won’t have anyone left,’ said Phryne. ‘And we’ll have to put the death down to divine intervention. Never mind. Well done, Dot, dear. Did you have any trouble?’

‘No, Miss. I gave the five quid to the cleaning lady. She was in real trouble from taking Artemis’s advice. I got the first letter, but Anne had burned hers. And you were right, Miss. Artemis had told her how to seduce a man. Only it didn’t work.’

‘There are reasons for entering into a companionate marriage, Dot, dear, with which I will not sully your ears.’

‘You never worried about sullying them before,’ objected Dot, taking off her hat in front of the hall mirror. Behind her she saw Phryne’s narrow, cat-like face and the quick fingers removing hairpins. ‘Do you mean that the husband’s one of those men who don’t like women but like men instead?’

‘Neatly put,’ said Phryne. The reflected face looked worried. ‘Now, Dot, if Bert and Cec haven’t failed me, and they had better not have failed me, we should at any moment be visited by …

’ The door bell rang.

‘Shove him up that last step, mate,’ said Bert’s voice.‘That’s the ticket. Well, Miss,’ he announced as Phryne opened the door, ‘we’ve got your pirate. But he got away from us this arvo and got on the giggle-juice, so if you don’t mind, we’ll take him out the back and get him sobered up a bit.’

Cec hauled in a dishevelled man who had obviously been forcibly dressed in a coat and hat. The coat was askew and the hat was planted so far down on his forehead that he could not have seen out from under the brim.

‘Drunk?’ asked Phryne, scenting a medicinal smell which she could not quite identify.

‘Worse. He did a sneak on us and got on the Fitzroy cocktails. Mrs B in the kitchen? We’ll get some coffee. We should’a turned him over to the Salvos. But you said five pm and five pm it is.’

‘All right, Bert, dear, carry on,’ said Phryne.

The extinguished figure heard this and threw really quite a good salute, which almost tipped him over backwards.

‘He’s a sailor,’ said Dot. ‘My uncle says that as long as they can get up the gangplank and salute the bridge by themselves, they won’t be booked for drunkenness no matter how tipsy they are.’

‘That’s gone beyond tipsy, Dot,’ said Phryne. ‘What’s a Fitzroy cocktail?’

Dot shrugged. ‘Only cocktails I ever heard about were Mr Butler’s—onions, frankfurts and hats,’ she said.

‘Come along, I’ve got to get out of these shoes. I’ve walked altogether too far in them today. Tell me all about Anne and the cleaning lady, and I’ll tell you all about Professor Keith’s niece. By then, Bert and Cec ought to have emptied the grog out of their sailor and filled him up with strong coffee. I could do with some, too.’

Phryne and Dot were sitting in the parlour, discussing Miss Keith’s desire to see some bright lights, when Bert and Cec came back, escorting a shaking, damp, sailor’s ghost. They plumped him down in a chair and stood either side of him like cattle dogs that have brought in not only their target steer but three other strays.

‘Here he is,’ said Bert with some pride. ‘Clean as a baby and sober as a judge. Miserable as a bandicoot, too,’ he added. ‘This is Pirates,’ he introduced the evanescent figure. ‘Say hello to the nice sheila, Pirates.’

‘H’lo,’ muttered Pirates.

‘Hello. What’s a Fitzroy cocktail, Bert?’

‘Metho, ginger beer and boot polish,’ said Bert. ‘Puts hairs on your chest. While you still have a chest, o’ course. Trouble with metho is, it makes yer into a dingbat and he’s well on the way to being dingbatted. But we was talking to him last night and he knows what you wanted to know,’ said Bert righteously.

‘Then he will tell me,’ said Phryne.

Something in the tone of her voice penetrated Pirate’s alcoholic fog. He raised his head as though the weight of all those dead brain cells was biasing it like a bowling ball. Phryne looked into eyes which had seen too many horrors and had never been able to drink them away.

‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘about South China Sea, Pirates. I want to know about Bias Island, and about a woman pirate who runs it, and about how they take over a ship.’

BOOK: Away With The Fairies
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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