The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 106: The Case of the Missing Lieutenant

Footprints leading to the water

Jenkins walked along the boundary of the landslide, crouching here and there to inspect the surface. An Eastern Brown Snake (highly poisonous) raised its head to stare back at him, then slithered off into the rubble.

"I don't believe anyone's brought a vehicle through here," he announced. "There's no sign of wheel marks, though I did spot several sets of footprints."

"Could one of these have been Lieutenant Blacker?" asked Iverson.

"I suppose this is possible," mused the signalman, "but he would have had a long walk ahead of him, even if he knew the route, and there appear to be the same number of prints leading in both directions. I imagine this was a party of villagers who came to inspect the slide."

"How long ago do you think it fell?"

"There's a pattern of erosion gullies on the surface that must have taken some time to form. This suggests it happened well before we passed this way in the R-87."

Iverson nodded and made his way back to the motorcycle. He wrestled it around until it was pointed toward the slide, climbed aboard, and prepared to start the engine. "I don't imagine we can learn anything more here," he observed. "Shall we see what we can discover in town?"

"How will we get past this obstacle?" asked Jenkins.

"We'll drive over it."

Jenkins raised his eyebrows but said nothing. As a signalman in the Royal Naval Airship Service, he'd been taught to accept implausible suggestions with an open mind. Soon the two men were clinging to the bike as it bounced over rocks, gullies, and fallen branches. The machine seemed up to the task. The same could not be said for their kidneys.

"Remember!" shouted Iverson between jolts. "We're supposed to be traveling incognito! If we meet any townsfolk, we should pretend to be tourists!"

"What kind of tourists would take a route like this?"

"I'm not quite sure!"

Somehow they survived the passage. A final plunge down a gravel-strewn slope brought them back to the road. Iverson killed the engine, brought the bike to a stop, and smiled. That had been fun! Why, he wondered, was Jenkins clutching the frame of the sidecar so tightly? He glanced around to take stock of their surroundings and noticed they had an audience -- a dozen or so workmen who were leaning on their shovels and applauding.

"Good on ya!" said one. "You made a good first of that! I'm Osric. Welcome to Agnes Waters!"

"Thank you," said the lieutenant, assuming that this was, in fact, a compliment. "My name is Iverson and this is my companion Jenkins."

"Ah, you must be Royal Navy, here to ask about the parachutist."

"How can you tell," asked Iverson, doing his best to hide his consternation.

"It's obvious you're Poms. You're dressed too posh to be Aussies."

Iverson looked at his grease-stained, oil-soaked, and mud-splattered riding gear, glanced at Jenkins, and raised his eyebrow. "I imagine these things are relative," observed the signalman.

Iverson sighed and turned back to the villager. "Is the road into town open?"

"Aye. It's all clear except for this slide. Denby here found it on his way to Mount Tom. Couldn't get through on his neddy, so he came back and teed up some blokes to clear it. It's been hard yakker, so we're glad you came through and gave us excuse for a smoko."

"Are there any other trails in and out of town?" asked Jenkins while Iverson struggled to decipher this strange dialect.

"There's one that leads along the creek, but you'd have to be wobbly to walk it the wet."

"I think we can safely exclude that route," Jenkins observed to Iverson. The lieutenant nodded. Remembering the trail on Sarah's Island, he could imagine how difficult it would be to negotiate one five times longer and covered in mud.

"I believe there's an amateur radio enthusiast in your village," he said to Osric. "Could you provide us with directions to his abode?"

"Ah, that would be Nate. Keep on going, turn right at Springs Road, and look for the weatherboard with a yellow roof."

"How will we recognize this intersection?"

The villager seemed surprised by this question. "It's easy. It's the only one in town."

After all the trouble it had been to reach the place, Agnes Waters was something of a letdown. It was a tiny hamlet -- little more than a cluster of bungalows and fields next to a long empty stretch of beach. Compared to this, Darwin would have seemed like a city and Cairns a major metropolis. Like many small rural villages, there was nothing to indicate what the inhabitants did for a living. The fields did not seem adequate to support any significant amount of agriculture and there was no harbor to speak of. Perhaps they bottle water from some hidden spring and ship it out by wagon, thought Iverson. That might explain the peculiar name.

The radioman's house proved difficult to find. They'd expected it to be marked by some antennae tower, but the actual equipment was modest: a simple wire aerial strung between two eucalyptus trees. It occurred to Iverson that a casual visitor to this settlement might be entirely unaware that it had rapid communications with the outside world. He approached the door, knocked, and braced himself for another challenging assault on the English language.

"Good day," came an elderly voice. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm Lieutenant Iverson, Royal Naval Airship Service, and this is my companion, Ensign Jenkins, from the Signal Corps" said Iverson after he'd recovered from his surprise. "We understand you've been in communication with our station in Cairns."

"Ah yes, that would be Phelps. A good operator! I'm Commander Nathanial Welch, Royal Navy (retired). I imagine you'll want to hear about the parachutist."

"If you could be so kind."

"It would have been on the night of the 19th. I heard an airship passing overhead so I went outside to look. I've always loved the things. Quite beautiful really. This one sounded like an early Wolesely class -- I'd recognize the sound of the Maybach Md.IVa's anywhere. I couldn't see the vessel because she was hidden by clouds, but as I was looking, I saw a parachute open. It was a dark night, but there was just enough light to see him come down."

"Where did he land?"

"In the middle of Kendal's paddock. I can show you the place if you'd like. I gathered a party and we hurried over to see if the fellow needed help, but he was gone by the time we arrived. The grass was all trampled where he'd gathered up his equipment, and you could see a set of tracks where someone came out to help him."

"Could it have been someone from town?" asked Iverson.

Nathanial shook his head. "No, this is a very small village -- the kind of place where everyone knows each other's business. You're the first strangers we've seen here in months."

"Where did the tracks lead?" asked Jenkins.

"Back to the road, then down to the beach. We followed them with lanterns. It looks like they met a third fellow and accompanied him down to the water."

"Was there any sign of a landing?"

"No, but it's a hard place to bring in a boat. I imagine they anchored beyond the surf and swam a line in to shore to haul their men back out. Whatever they used, it was all gone by the time we arrived."

"Did you hear the sound of any more engines?" asked Iverson.

"No, but I'm not sure that means anything."

The lieutenant nodded. The Flying Cloud couldn't have a monopoly on auxiliary craft with good mufflers. "It sounds like these chaps were well-prepared, and knew exactly when and where Blacker was going to appear."

"Yes," said Jenkins. "I'm not sure how to interpret this, but the implications are disturbing. We'd best get back to the ship and see what the Captain can make of it."

Next week: Next Move...

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