The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 73: Tragic Opera

An ominous turn in the road

"What shall we do next, sir?" asked MacKiernan. They'd gathered on the croquet pitch next to the Royal Air Station. Open to anyone's eye, with no cover where eavesdroppers could hide, it seemed a good place for a secret conversation. To the north, a cruiser had dropped its mooring and was rising toward the sky. Captain Everett gave it a brief professional appraisal as he replied.

"Michaelson will be trying to track down the foreign agents here in Cairns. We can't hope to match his resources, and I wouldn't want to risk running afoul of his men, so we'll leave this to him. But there are some things we can look into without attracting his attention. In particular, I wonder who ordered those power saws and how the Germans knew they were aboard the R-67. There is also the murder of this Russian, Yakov. The police report wasn't very informative, but the murder site may offer some clues."

"Who do you have in mind to conduct the investigations?" asked the Exec.

"I'll look into the saws myself," said Everett. "I'll want someone with me who knows tools, so I'll bring along Abercrombie and Davies. I believe Wallace, Rashid, and Pierre may be our best choice to examine the crime scene."

The Irishman nodded. The last three the captain named all had some acquaintance with the seamier side of human nature. "What about our younger associates?" he asked, gesturing toward Iverson and Sarah. The lieutenant seemed to be having difficulty explaining the principles of croquet to the island girl. As they watched, she whirled her mallet in a mighty swing that sent her ball sailing toward the harbor. Iverson looked pained.

"I'd prefer not to involve them in these investigations," said Everett. "We can't rule out the possibility of violence, and I'd be upset if anything happened to them."

The offices of the White Star Air Services were located in a well-kept commercial building near the harbor. The company representative was happy to assist representatives of the Royal Navy and produced copies of the bills of lading for the R-67.

"What can you tell me about this particular shipment?" asked Everett, indicating an entry labeled Misc Pwr Tools."

"That was an odd one," said the man. "Thirty high-speed carbide-tipped power saws from a manufacturer in Sydney for a consignee in Darwin called Caring Carpenters."

"Caring Carpenters?" asked Abercrombie. He seemed annoyed, as if this name represented some affront to the dignity of labor.

"They must have cared quite a lot to order thirty high-speed carbide-tipped power saws," muttered Davies.

"Do you have any idea who placed the order?" asked Everett.

"No," said the man. "It was Free Alongside Ship, so we wouldn't keep a record of the agent's name. But I do recall that the fellow drove a big foreign motorcar."

The murder site was a cramped lodging room in a neighborhood so unsavory that even the rats seemed to avoid it. "A dark place for a life to end," sighed Pierre.

"Death comes to every man, be it in a palace or a gutter," said Rashid somberly. His dark Persian eyes seemed to stare past these four walls toward the deserts of his homeland.

"'E didn't leave much behind," remarked Wallace. "Someone must `ave knicked 'is swag before the crushers showed."

"It weren't me!" protested the landlord, a seedy-looking character who'd been eyeing their naval uniforms with some trepidation.

"No was suggesting that it was," said Pierre smoothly, "but if you answer our questions, this might save you some trouble with the authorities. Has anyone besides ourselves inquired about the victim?"

The landlord shuffled his feet nervously. "There were those foreign toffs, in a big black motorcar. They sounded like Huns. Before them there was that Italian. His dunnage was flash, like he'd come from the stage."

"An Italian stage performer?" wondered Pierre. "What would such a man be doing here in Queensland?"

"According to the Captain, there was an Italian passenger aboard the R-67," observed Rashid. "Could this be the same man?"

They were strolling through Cairns's theatre district, such as it was, when Sarah pointed at a playbill. "Look at this, John," she said. "Isn't that the opera singer the Countess mentioned?" Iverson read over her shoulder.

Antonio Notariello will be performing selections from Pollarolo and Scarlatti at the Cairns Municipal Band on the evening of Saturday, August 15, 1926.

"He must have taken the mail ship from Jakarta and arrived here ahead of us," he mused. "It appears we just missed his performance."

"Do you think he's still in town?"

A few inquiries served to establish that the singer had departed Cairns two days previously to `take the waters' at a place called Port Douglas. Additional effort provided them with a set of directions and something that resembled a car -- an odd-looking box blazoned with the words `Holden Motor Body Builders Ltd.' perched atop an antiquated Ford chassis. Its engine seemed to feel that its duties had ended sometime before the War, but after many adjustments to the choke and spark advance and considerable effort with the crank, Iverson was able to get the thing running.

"That looks like fun!" said Sarah. "You must teach me how!"

"As soon as we have the opportunity," replied Iverson, concerned that the girl's understanding of motorcars might prove comparable to her understanding of croquet.

Following the directions, they made their way north along an unsealed single-lane road that bore the pretentious title, `The Captain Cook Highway'. This was a winding affair, with treacherous curves that might have been difficult to negotiate even if Iverson had not had trouble keeping his eyes off his companion.

"John!" laughed the girl. "Don't drive off the road!"

"I'll be more careful," he said, chastened.

"You do that," the girl said with a smile, "and I'll think of some suitable reward."

Iverson felt himself redden and concentrated on his driving.

The route followed the coast, veering inland to skirt some estuary, then swinging back to pass through villages with names like Aeroglen, Yorkey's Knob, and Palm Cove. Some stretches ran through cultivated terrain; others clung to hillsides overlooking the sea. They had just passed a settlement with the improbable name of Wangetti Beach and were ascending one of the latter when Sarah turned in her seat.

"I say," she observed. "That car looks much nicer than ours. Can we get one like that next time?"

Iverson looked over his shoulder and saw a large black sedan some distance behind them. Its make was impossible to determine, but it was clearly overtaking them. He began to search for a turnout.

"Down!" yelled Sarah.

A hail of bullets whistled over their heads. Iverson glanced back to see a gunman plugging a new magazine into the top of a stubby carbine.

"They're shooting at us!" said Sarah.

Iverson frowned. "That hardly seems called for. I would have pulled over to let them pass."

"They'd better not ruin my dress," pouted the girl. "I wish I'd brought my spear."

"We'll have to outrun them!" cried Iverson. "Hang on!"

He floored the accelerator, notched up the spark advance, and their car did its best to leap ahead. At first it seemed they might pull away. On this winding stretch of road, their lighter vehicle had an advantage in handling. But then the track straightened to run next to a river and their pursuer's more powerful engine began to tell.

A burst shattered their windshield. "That's a German submachine gun," said Iverson. "They must be nationalists, after the Italian. At the next turn, I'll slow down so you can jump out. Head back to that village we passed and call Port Douglas to warn them."

"Why can't I drive while you head back to the village?" said Sarah, unwilling to let her companion take the more dangerous job.

"You don't know how," he pointed out. "But don't worry, I'll abandon the car as soon I've led these fellows away. After all, you owe me that reward!"

His smile assured her he'd be safe. And now they were coming to the turn. She leapt off, ducked behind a rock, and brushed back her hair. The Germans roared past without noticing her.

With less weight aboard, Iverson's car was faster. His pursuers seemed to realize this and braked to a stop. The gunman steadied his weapon and fired a long carefully-aimed burst. The rounds struck a tire, blowing it apart.

"John!" screamed Sarah.

Iverson's car went off the road in a spray of gravel. As the girl watched in horror, it tumbled down the slope, shedding fragments each time it hit. It struck the river with a splash.

Next week: A Terrible Blow...

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