The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 356: Someone's Been Working On The Railroad

Empty boxcar

They crossed the coast in the morning, some distance east of the supposed location of the depot. This stratagem, known to navigators as the `Principle of Deliberate Error', guaranteed that their destination would lie in a known direction. It also meant they could approach with the sun at their backs -- an important consideration if the place was held by an enemy.

This precaution proved unnecessary. When the depot came into view, it was quite obviously abandoned. Its buildings stood lifeless and empty beneath the trees.

"It appears that your erstwhile hosts have fled," Everett observed to MacKiernan. "I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. They did have almost a week to effect their escape. Do you anticipate any problems getting your party ashore?"

"No," said the Exec. "Those fellows did a good job of dredging a channel. Since we won't have to worry about adversaries, I believe I should take Pierre in place of Rashid. His forensic skills may prove useful."

Everett nodded. He'd reached the same conclusion himself. "A wise decision," he replied. "Please make your preparations."

Deploying the launch on a windless morning did not pose any particular challenges. The prodigious spring tide -- almost thirty feet -- was near the ebb, so they had to wait several hours until it seemed safe to cross the bar. By then, a swell had come up, raising a nasty chop where the incoming flood met the outflow from the river, but they managed to negotiate the breakers without shipping too much water or pitching anyone overboard.

After the surf passage, the trip up the river seemed anticlimactic. The air was still, and the water as flat as a mirror might have been had mirrors been muddy, brown, and home to the occasional crocodile. Jungle pressed in from the sides as they wound their way upstream, but the channel was clearly marked, and they had no problem finding their way.

At last they came to the wharf -- a substantial timber construction topped by a row of bollards and a small hoist. MacKiernan ran the launch alongside a ladder, made the craft fast, then glanced at Miss Perkins's attire. Royal Navy procedures made little provision for situations such as these.

"Don't worry," she said dryly. "I'll come up last."

A short time later, MacKiernan was leading his party down a narrow dirt lane. Parrots flitted through the jungle around them, accompanied by other creatures quite unlike anything in his native Ireland. One, glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, looked almost like winged frog with feelers trailing from its snout. He did his best to ignore it.

"We'll begin with the wireless installation," he told his companions. "Even if these people took away all their records, we might learn something from the settings of the equipment. Then we'll investigate the administration building, warehouses, and barracks in that order."

The radio shack proved uninformative. The operators had found time to strip the place before they left, and shelves that had been crammed with electrical apparatus during his earlier visit now stood bare and empty. All that remained were a few broken cables dangling from the walls.

The administration building was an entirely different matter.

"What the devil happened here?" exclaimed Abercrombie. The place seemed to have been swept by a storm. Doors had been forced, furniture overturned, and the floors were littered with paper and debris.

"This will have been Monsieur Marty and his garcons," said Pierre. "They have... I believe the phrase is `tossed the place' in search of valuables."

"Why'd they leave such a mess?" asked Abercrombie.

The Frenchman shrugged. "Why should they not? They had no reason to clean up after themselves."

While the airman reflected on this insight into the economics of burglary, Pierre made a circuit of the rooms, checking for footprints, examining cabinets and drawers, and rapping on walls to search for secret compartments. After several minutes he returned to where the others were standing.

"The keepers of this place left a week ago, taking only the most essential items, such as records, maps, and ready cash," he told them. "I imagine they didn't have room for anything more. The Americans arrived a day or two later to make off with everything they left behind."

"We were hardly in a position to stop them," MacKiernan observed philosophically. "Let's see what's they left in the warehouses."

The warehouses had been thoroughly looted. Aside from a few broken pallets and the remains of some crates, the buildings were empty. Even the handcarts were missing. Miss Perkins studied the bare floors and frowned.

"Who could have done this?" she asked. "There's no way the Americans could have carried so much cargo away on their airship."

"Some third party must have been involved," said Pierre. He stooped to pick up something from the brush by the door and held it out for the others to examine. "What do you think of this?"

MacKiernan studied the object. It was a short-necked beer bottle -- what Australians called 'stubby' -- bearing the label 'Victoria Brewery Bitter Ale, Melbourne Australia'. He sighed. They'd encountered this particular brand before.

"It will have been those fellows on that freighter: the Tranquility," he observed. "They seem to favor this brew. We know they frequent these waters, and this wouldn't be the first time, they've beaten us to the scene of an abandoned hideout."

"They got here awfully quickly," Miss Perkins said skeptically. "Even if they knew the depot was here, how could they have learned that its owners had fled?"

"That is food for thought," said MacKiernan. "Perhaps we'll find some clues in the barracks."

The barracks were much as one would expect for worker's dormitories: drab paint, cheap furniture, and rows of narrow bunks. The only decoration was the assortment of prints tacked to the walls. The subject matter suggested that three nationalities had been responsible.

The first group of posters featured tanned young ladies in bathing garb. One print, set on some island beach, showed a woman in a skimpy maillot posing above the legend, 'You'll Look Better In A Ujelang." It took little imagination to deduce that these had been left by Australians.

The second group of prints involved a similar demographic, but the clothing and settings were suggestive of a colder climate. Fur figured prominently, as did skiers, fireplaces, and slinky chiffon dresses. The writing was in a language MacKiernan didn't recognize.

"Finnish," said Miss Perkins. "These must have been left by Oskari's people. I wonder what became of them. They seemed like innocent dupes of the nationalists."

The final group of prints was somewhat more noteworthy than the others. The poses were qualitatively different, and many of the models had companions.

"Losh!" exclaimed Abercrombie. The Scotsman seemed visibly shaken.

"Riamh mé le feiceáil..." muttered MacKiernan. He glanced at Miss Perkins and saw that she was making a show of gazing out the window.

Only Pierre seemed unperturbed. He leaned forward to study the images. "These are Japanese," he observed. "I have seen such things before. Their culture has... different sensibilities from ours."

"I'll say!" marvelled MacKiernan. "Who could have drawn them?"

"There were any number of famous artists during the last century," said Pierre. "These seem to be cheap reproductions. I believe they all came from the same printer, which almost certainly was not in Japan."

MacKiernan risked another look at the prints and sighed. "It may not be in strict accordance with Royal Navy practice, but I suppose we'll have to take these with us. They may be the only clue we're going to get."

Next week: Out of the Broome Closet...

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