Episode 59: The Results of His Inquiries
Lieutenant Dabney, Commonwealth Navy Reserve, commander of the Darwin Air
Station, met them at the foot of the mooring mast.
"Is there any new word of the Captain?" asked MacKiernan.
"Not a word," said Dabney. "The police chief‘s got his knickers in a
"Channel," said MacKiernan. It was not a question.
"Aye, that stickybeak." The Aussie glanced over his shoulder. MacKiernan
took the hint.
"We’ll be needin’ to requisition fuel and hydrogen," he said casually.
"D’ye have any RNR-6583 forms?"
The lieutenant pretended to think this over. "They’ll be in my office."
MacKiernan smiled. "Davies, you see to securing the ship. Mister Iverson,
Miss Sarah, if you’d come with me."
The Darwin Air Station was a minor outpost, with facilities that could best
be described as ‘rustic’. Dabney’s office was no exception. It appeared
to have begun life as a toolshed before entering what was evidently a
terminal decline. But it still had four walls and a roof, there was glass
in most of the windows, and the door could be opened and closed -- albeit
with some effort -- to offer a measure of privacy. The Aussie heaved it
shut and offered his guests a seat.
"You recall the trouble we had with the hydrogen plant last time you were
here?" he asked.
"Aye," said MacKiernan. This was not the sort of thing one could forget.
The gas had contained dangerous levels of oxygen. Had they used it aboard
ship, the results might have been catastrophic. "It’s good we ran those
"But it was fine when I tested it two days earlier," said Dabney, "so the
leak must have happened just before you arrived."
"I wondered about that," said Sarah. "How can oxygen leak into the system?
Isn’t the hydrogen stored under pressure?"
"Yes," said Dabney, "so in theory, gas can only flow out, not in. But in
practice, there are several places things can go wrong. We checked the
gasometer pumps, inlet nozzles, and shell drains, and those were all apples.
But when we checked the outlet manifold, we found it was all crooked. It
looked like accidental contamination, but I know the system was clean when
it went together because I did the work myself."
"By yourself?" said Iverson in surprise. "But you’re an officer!"
"I wanted the practice," said Dabney. "Northern Territory Plumbing
Championships is coming up! Winner gets a case of Swan’s Lager!"
MacKiernan nodded. He was familiar with the Australian habit of turning
every possible activity into a competition. "You think it was sabotage?"
"By someone who knew you were coming, knew what they were doing, and wanted
to destroy your ship."
The police station had once housed troops, stationed there in case any
aborigines should object to the settlers who’d stolen their land. It still
had the atmosphere of a fortress. MacKiernan and Davies were met by a
secretary -- a grim-faced functionary, entirely lacking in beauty, charm,
or traces of humanity -- who escorted them down bleak whitewashed corridors
to Channel's office. The police chief rose as they entered.
"I’m glad you could come," he said, in a voice that belied his words.
"It was our pleasure," replied MacKiernan in a tone that was little more
convincing. "Have you learned anything new?"
"No," said Channel. MacKiernan noted that the man seemed genuinely
concerned. This could hardly be because of the kidnapping itself. A man
they suspected of attempted hijacking would be unlikely to bat an eye at
lesser crimes. Perhaps it was because someone else had been responsible,
which meant that things were going on in town that had escaped his spies.
"What happened?" asked MacKiernan, giving no hint of these thoughts.
The police chief leaned back in his chair and picked up a folder. This
action seemed to restore his mask of self-assurance. "They left a reception
near the Turf Club on the evening of August 1 to attend the dedication of a
new lauter tun at the Old Ones Brewery. They never arrived."
"Were there any reports of violence?" asked Davies.
"We are making inquiries. There were two reports of a commotion that night,
from two separate locations, but my men investigated both and found no signs
of a scuffle."
"Two separate locations?" mused MacKiernan. "Is this normal for Darwin?"
"No," said the police chief darkly, as if this question reflected on his
Got you! thought MacKiernan. "Did anything else unusual happen
Channel scowled, realizing he’d been maneuvered into a position where he was
forced to give an answer. "Yes," he admitted. "A deliveryman claimed that
he saw three naked men running down Douglas Street."
"Naked men?" asked Davies, raising an eyebrow.
The police chief shrugged. "Someone must have gone troppo. It can’t have
had anything to do with the attacks. Assuming," he added sternly, "that
there were any attacks."
"Very well," said MacKiernan. "Please keep us informed if there are any new
"Where to now, sir?" asked Davies as they left the station.
"Back to the ship to pick up Pierre and Iverson, then I’d like a look at the
hotel where the Captain was staying."
The hotel was more substantial than they expected. Darwin might be a small
town, but its importance as a port and position at the end of the Overland
Telegraph Line gave it more visitors than might otherwise have been the
case. The staff ushered them to the Captain’s suite -- this seemed
luxurious after the cramped accommodations aboard the Flying Cloud
-- then left them to conduct their examination.
Pierre went through the room with practiced efficiency, checking hiding
places the others might never have found themselves. "Interesting," he
said when he was done, "there are no signs of a struggle and nothing is
"That doesn’t seem surprising," said Iverson. "We know they weren’t
abducted from here."
"Ah, but eet is," said the Frenchman. "For everything is here, including
all of their clothing."
"Their clothes?" asked MacKiernan in surprise. "You’re sure?"
"Of course," replied Pierre. "An entrepreneur such as myself must
learn to keep track of inventory."
"Then what are they wearing?" asked Davies.
"There were those reports of naked men..." observed Iverson.
"That could hardly have been the Captain!" chided MacKiernan. "They must
have bought new clothes and left the old ones here to let us know they were
all right. I wonder..." He took down a jacket and began to search through
"The Captain faked his own kidnapping?" said Iverson.
"Aye," said MacKiernan. "He’s done stranger things. What’s this?"
The Irishman pulled out a laundry slip, held it to the light, and sighed.
On its back was a message in Abercrombie’s hand.
"You owe me 1s! A"
Next week: Distractions...