Episode 356: Someone's Been Working On The Railroad
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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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