Episode 73: Tragic Opera
"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
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?" 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
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,"
"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
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
"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
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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