The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 320: You've Seen One Pestilential Swamp, You've Seen 'em All

Crocodile Perkins

Miss Perkins tapped her foot impatiently while Clarice and Emily made the Drudge ready for departure. This was a daunting operation, for the ancient dragger had not been designed with an eye to efficiency, but the two young women had been raised in a fishing village and knew their way around boats. At last the engine was running, mooring lines has been cast off and coiled away, and the vessel was underway.

"Where will we go now?" asked Clarice.

"East, back the way we came," said the secretary. "It seems our friends on that freighter have a landing place somewhere near Lagrange Bay."

Emily raised her eyebrows. "How could we have missed something like that?"

"It's at the head of an estuary, which makes it difficult to spot from offshore, but I found the firm they hired to dredge the entrance, and the manager drew up a description of the place. Can you make any sense of this?" She handed Clarice and Emily a sketch accompanied by several rows of figures.

The two Aussies studied the diagram with interest. "Those must be soundings," Emily said cheerfully, "and these look like range markers to guide people up the channel. This should be fun!"

Miss Perkins glanced at her companions. She'd learned to mistrust the Australian definition of `fun'. "You're quite sure about this?" she asked suspiciously.

"Dinki di!" said Clarice. "If we don't hit a rock, sink, and get eaten by crocs!"

Lagrange Bay was a place of ill-repute -- scene of some particularly unfortunate encounters between European settlers and the aboriginal inhabitants. It was also a singularly unpromising stretch of coast. The gold rushes of the previous century had passed it by, and the only settlement of any significance was a small Catholic mission. The Drudge motored past a succession of estuaries, ranging from insignificant creeks to outflows that might almost have been the mouths of small rivers. At each one, Clarice and Emily slowed to compare the coast with the diagram Miss Perkins had obtained.

At last Emily pointed to two white blotches on a pair of hills to the south. "That must be the first range markers on that sketch," she announced. "If we line up those two spots and head in, that should take us through the bar."

"What happens after that?" asked Miss Perkins.

The brunette chuckled. "It gets more complicated."

Miss Perkins studied the blotches. From this distance they looked more like the work of avian metabolism than human hands. Should they risk the passage? `Eaten by crocs' might not be a promising career move. But she'd learned to trust her companions' boat-handling skills.

"Let's give it a go," she replied.

Sometime later they were threading their way up the channel, surrounded by an impenetrable maze of mangroves. Emily steered the Drudge up the channel while Clarice stood on the bow, calling out directions, ready to swing the lead if they lost their way, but the dredgers had done good work, and a passage substantial enough for a small island freighter posed little challenge to a fishing boat. At last they rounded a bend to see a substantial wharf. The site seemed deserted, but a large sign proclaimed it to be part of, 'Public Works Department of Western Australia: State Vermin Fence Number Four'.

"They're building a fourth rabbit-proof fence, here?" marveled Clarice. "Whatever for? This is miles east of the other three."

"Perhaps it's a clerical error," suggested Emily.

"Or it might be cover for something else," said Miss Perkins. "Let's have a look at this place."

On impulse, Clarice and Emily took the Drudge some distance upstream and hid the boat in an inlet where it wouldn't be visible from the main channel. Then they made their way back along the shore, scrambling over roots and fallen trees. By the time they'd scrambled up the ladder to the landing stage, Clarice and Emily were flecked with mud and smiling with glee. Miss Perkins, as always, was immaculate.

The facility was quite obviously new, surrounded by fresh stumps where builders had cleared away the brush. It was also more substantial than it had appeared from the water. At the near end of the dock, a small derrick had been lowered so it wouldn't be visible from offshore. A warehouse and a bunkhouse stood beside it -- the latter looked empty, with doors closed and windows shuttered. Beyond this, a set of railway tracks led inland.

Clarice and Emily crossed to the warehouse and examined the entrance. This was secured with a heavy padlock. Emily lifted the lock and let it fall. It struck the door with a clunk.

"It's a pity Jenkins isn't here," she observed. "He'd have this open in a flash."

"You sound like you miss him," Clarice chuckled.

"I reckon you miss someone too," Emily replied archly.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Miss Perkins sighed, brushed past the two women, and produced a pick and torque bar from her purse. Moments later she was heaving the door aside to reveal a neatly stacked row of oil drums. She cleaned her hands with a kerchief, inspected her manicure, then nodded toward the drums.

"That would be our diesel fuel, I believe," she said. "But this can hardly be its final destination. Let's have a look at those railway tracks."

The tracks climbed a shallow slope and disappeared into the brush. Emily noted that they were the same gauge as the line to Darwin -- this was food for thought. No rolling stock was in evidence, but when the three women peered south, they could see the smoke from an approaching train.

"Should we wait and see who those fellows are?" asked Emily.

Miss Perkins glanced around the deserted wharf. It seemed safe to conclude there was something suspicious about the place. "This might be premature," she observed dryly. "We have no idea who these people are working for or what they're up to. I believe we should head back to the boat before we're spotted."

"That might be a problem," Clarice said, pointing north.

They turned to see a modest-sized airship approaching from offshore. "That looks like a Wolesley," said Emily. "There's some writing on the side. Can you make it out?"

Clarice lifted the pair of binoculars she'd brought along. "It says 'Public Works Department of Western Australia: Office of Vermin Control'. I wonder what they're about."

The airship slowed -- apparently her crew had spotted the Drudge. As the three women watched, the vessel made a wide circle to the right, then straightened on a course that would take her directly over the dragger. Seconds later, a small object detached itself from the ship and fell. They heard a descending shriek, followed by the thud of an explosion. A fountain of debris rose from the place their boat had been.

"I say," Emily remarked. "these people seem to take vermin control quite seriously."

Miss Perkins studied the airship's lines, spotting subtle details in the shape of the fins and engine cars her companions had missed. "That isn't a Vickers product," she told them. "It's one of the copies the Americans built under license."

Clarice put two and two together. "Do you think it could be Lady Warfield on the Philadelphian?"

The ship was headed their way now. Lines dropped down from her hold and a landing party abseiled down to the wharf. Behind them, they heard the train come to a stop, the sound of men disembarking, and the rattle of rifles being cocked.

Miss Perkins sighed. "Yes," she said ruefully, "that would be Lady Warfield."

Next week: Called To Task...

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