R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 35: Murder on the Darwin Express

Not a game card for the Alice Springs-Darwin Line

"Whoa there!" called Drew. The rancher reigned the horse to a stop, reached for the lever, and set the brake. "I'll take care o' that," he added as Fleming began to untie the load. "You might wanta find the stationmaster an' see 'bout arranging fer yer cargo."

It wasn't much of a station -- just a tin-roofed shack next to the line -- but the stationmaster, impressed by Fleming's Royal Navy uniform, seemed only to happy to be of service. He listened as the youth outlined his requirements and promised to find a space for his glider atop one of the flatcars. "She'll be here in a few more minutes," he concluded, pointing up the tracks, where a plume of smoke was coming into view. "Y'might wanta bid goodbye t'yer sheila."

"She's not exactly my..." Fleming began, but then Abigail had leaned forward to give him a kiss.

"You'll come back, someday?" she asked wistfully. "I never had a chance to tell you how we treat our cattle for inflammations of the lower intestinal tract. Sometimes we have to reach right in and..."

"I'll return if I possibly can," he said hurriedly. "Now here's the train I must be going be sure to thank your father for his hospitality."

A short time later, the train was pulling away from the station. Fleming waved out the window, then sank back in his seat with a sigh of relief. The worst was over, and in a few more hours, he'd be back at the ship.

The youth soon discovered that his optimism was misplaced. The line from Alice Springs to Darwin was a single narrow-gauge track that ran, with the occasional bend, through terrain that was notable for its monotony. The train itself was anything but swift, and its schedule was not improved by numerous stops to pick up or discharge trivial amounts of cargo, solitary passengers, sometimes individual items of mail.

"Is it always like this?" he asked the conductor.

"No," the man replied. "We're makin' unusually good time this week."

Week? thought Fleming in dismay. "When will we arrive?"

"Hard t'be sure," said the man. "But we should be fine s'long's we don't 'ave any trouble like before."

The youth's ears perked up. "What happened?"

The conductor glanced around to make sure they couldn't be overheard, then lowered his voice. "I shouldn't be tellin' y' this," he said, with the gleeful expression of someone about to impart a secret, "but we lost a passenger."


"Vanished! From a moving train! Y' never seen the like."

"Could he have jumped off?"

"Not a chance, mate. Happened near Prospect Creek, fastest part of the line, where we get up t' fifteen, maybe even twenty miles 'n hour."

This didn't sound like much of a challenge to Fleming.

"It's also a big swamp filled with salt-water crocodiles."

This did.

"Who was the passenger?" he asked.

"Russian. Nervous fellow. Kept glancing over his shoulder like 'e was worried 'bout somethin'."

Somehow Fleming wasn't surprised. "Could someone have kidnapped him?"

"Don't see 'ow. 'E was inside a locked compartment, with th' windows sealed shut from inside. Besides, th' head whalloper in Darwin examined th' scene 'imself n' found no sign of foul play."

"That would be George Channel?"

"Aye," the conductor scowled, "that's th' one."

"What happened to the man's luggage?"

"Channel took it... as `evidence'. Must've been some mighty fine swag there. But there was some as 'e missed, back in the baggage car." The trainman seemed thrilled that something might have escaped the police chief's avarice.

"Where would it be now?" Fleming asked casually.

"They'll keep it at the depot fer a year, then auction it off as unclaimed property."

Fleming pondered the conductor's story after the man was gone. At last he got up to examine the latch to his compartment. He'd never believed in locked-room mysteries, and he wasn't about to start now.

Locked rooms were not among Jenkin's concerns. These involved finding a way to approach the freight forwarder without being noticed by the agent Channel had stationed to see who visited his office. Another man might have missed the watcher, but Jenkins was a signalman, trained to spot anything out of the ordinary. He considered several options, then he made his way to the fish-packing plant up the street.

"Excuse me," he said to one of the workers. "Would those buckets happen to contain fish offal?"

"Aye, mate. Can't ye can tell by the smell?"

"If I offered you a pound note, would you be willing to dump them over the Russian fellow over there?"

"Glad ta."

After the uproar had died down, Jenkins made his way back to the office. The freight forwarder proved to be a stout middle-aged man with a wooden leg. He looked up as the signalman entered.

"G'day mate. John Decker's the name. What can I do ferya?"

"I'm trying to find information about a cargo. I'm prepared to pay for this, and I'm prepared to pay more to keep word of this inquiry secret."

"Ya don't get far in my trade without learnin' to keep mum," said the man. "What was this cargo?"

"A load of ore from a place called," Jenkins consulted his memory, "Enterprise Creek."

"Ah, that'd be that Russian fellow. Strange bird. Came here to make arrangements, sent a cable that the cargo would be arriving, but never showed up to claim it. I asked around the Russian community here, but no one had ever heard of him, and they started showing too much interest, if you catch my meaning, so I told 'em ta rack off. Ended up selling it to a Swedish lady. You might have heard of her, the one with the..." he made a chopping gesture.

Jenkins nodded in understanding.

"Funny thing though," added the man. "She'd only just left when a pair of Boche showed up asking about those same rocks.

"Germans? Are you sure?"

"Served in Belgium," said the man, gesturing at his leg. "Got this at Second Ypres. So I know 'em when I see 'em, an' wasn't about to tell those bastards a thing."

"Where'd they come from?"

"Never found out. And they disappeared without a trace, like they'd vanished into thin air."

Jenkins wondered about this. It had been a German aircrew that attacked Helga's freighter. "Thank you," he said, slipping the man a few pound notes. "You've been quite helpful. I'd appreciate it if Channel never found out about..."

"That chap?" the forwarder spat. "I wouldn't tell 'im which way was down if 'e fell off a cliff."

Next week: From Russia, With Fish...

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