The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 406: Crocodile Fenwick

Ensign Fenwick on a motorbike

Fenwick rapped cautiously on Michaelson's door. The senior captain hadn't been in a good mood recently. It would be well to tread carefully.

"You called for me, Sir?" he asked.

Michaelson glanced up from his paperwork. "Ah, there you are, Fenwick," he said cheerfully. "We have a job for you."

"Sir?" the signalman asked with some apprehension.

"I have been considering Miss Kim's story," Michaelson told him. "We will want to verify as much of it as we can. To this end, I have secured a motorcycle from the firm here in Cairns. You will use this to backtrack the route she took after she arrived in Australia and learn what you can of her movements."

Fenwick brightened. His Signal Corps training had included the operation of motorcycles. He'd enjoyed that particular part of the syllabus. "I believe I can manage, sir," he replied.

"See that you do," said Michaelson. "I'll send a gunboat to pick you up in Cooktown after you arrive. You're sufficiently insignificant that no one is likely to recognize you, but you will need a disguise."

"I could pose as... I believe they call it a `swagman'," Fenwick suggested.

Michaelson's smile was only slightly patronizing. "Mighty oaks do from lowly acorns grow, Fenwick," he observed. "I have in mind something easier for you to maintain."

The ride north from Cairns was uneventful. Fenwick took this opportunity to familiarize himself with the idiosyncrasies of his machine -- the knee-operated throttle and clutch posed a particular challenge during sweeping turns. When he reached Port Douglas, he learned that Miss Kim had attracted some notice as she passed through town. It seemed that young Asian women in tight leather riding outfits were not all that common in this part of the Cape York Peninsula. A few onlookers had also noticed a large black motorcar.

"Did it have any distinguishing features?" Fenwick asked one.

"No. Expect for that big silver bug on the radiator cap."

"A bug?" Fenwick asked in surprise

"Dinki di. Something like a worm with two big wings."

Fenwick thought this over. Given the notorious Australian irreverence toward symbols of prestige, this description was not particularly informative.

After Fenwick left Port Douglas, the road swung southwest through the Dividing Range, past fields of mangoes, sugar cane, and the occasional avocado, to the village of Mount Molloy. There, Fenwick discovered that the inhabitants had recovered the control car of the Windsong IV from where it had fallen in the jungle, dragged it to the center of town, and mounted it atop a plinth bearing the words `Flagship of the Mareeba Airship Service, God Bless it!'. The reason for this enterprise was not readily apparent, but it seemed to be the sort of thing Australians did.

"What brings you here, mate?" asked one of the locals.

"I'm a fisheries inspector," said Fenwick.

The Aussie glanced at the surrounding farmland and raised an eyebrow. "Not many fish here, mate," he observed.

"So I see," Fenwick admitted. "Perhaps I'll find some farther on. Did you happen to notice a young woman on a motorbike pass through the other day?"

"Dinki di! A bunch of toffs was chasing after her in a large black motor."

From Mount Molloy, the road wound north past the western foothills of the Dividing Range. As the miles passed, pastures and farms gave way to long stretches of brush that seemed to combine the most unfortunate qualities of jungle and wasteland. Fenwick tried to guess what had prompted people to settle here, but his imagination wasn't up to the task. Perhaps this was another one of those things Australians did.

Eventually the signalman reached Mount Carbine -- a hamlet that made Mount Molloy seem like a metropolis. In a settlement this minute, it seemed the inhabitants must have noticed strangers, and this assumption didn't prove unwarranted.

"A shiela on a bike?" said one of the villagers. "Bob's your uncle! Couldn't miss that one!"

"Did you also notice a large black motorcar with a hood ornament that resembled a bug?" asked Fenwick.

The Aussie laughed. "By the time it got here, it was covered with bugs!"

After Mount Carbine, the road dwindled to a succession of dirt tracks that bore little relationship to anything shown on the map. This was a novel experience for Fenwick, who'd grown up in England, where one could reasonably expect a road to remain where someone put it. At Lakeland Downs, this ill-defined trail split, one branch leading east toward the coast while the other led north into the wilderness -- quite possibly to another planet. The eastern track brought Fenwick to Helenvale. It wasn't clear who Helen was or how she'd felt about having this place named after her, but by now the signalman had learned to take these things in stride.

The villagers seemed amused by his cover identity. "A fisheries inspector?" said one. "No fish here mate, but we've got plenty of these crocs. You're welcome to inspect them."

"Thank you, but that won't be necessary," said Fenwick. "You wouldn't happen to have noticed some of my colleagues, driving a large black motor?"

"Oh aye. They passed through right after that grouse shiela on the bike."

At last Fenwick reached Cooktown, a small town on the mouth of the Endeavor River near the site of the great explorer's landing. Like many settlements on the Cape York Peninsula, it had begun life during the Palmer River gold rush, enjoyed its brief moment of prosperity, then entered a terminal decline. At its height, the town had boasted hotels, bakeries, a soft drink factory, a 150-acre botanical garden, and dozens of bars. The bars remained.

Fenwick chose one of these to begin his inquiries -- gathering intelligence in drinking establishments was part of a signalman's training. This one bore little resemblance to the pubs he'd known back in England. Stripped of non-essentials, such as atmosphere, character, and décor, it was a monument to efficiency -- little more than a facility to dispense alcohol. Its clientele seemed well on the way to being dispensed.

"What brings you to Cooktown?" asked one.

"I'm a fisheries inspector," said Fenwick. "Do you mind if I ask a few questions?"

"Fish drink water. I drink beer. And I could use another."

Fenwick signaled the bartender. "A round for me and this gentleman."

Soon Fenwick had acquired a substantial crowd of new friends, eager to offer stories in exchange for drinks. These tended to focus on one of the subjects of his inquiries to the exclusion of the other.

"Couldn't forget that one!"

"Aye, she was a beaut!"

"The best part was the leather."

"Dinki di! That was bonzer!"

"Did any of you happen to notice a large black motorcar?" Fenwick asked.

"Bob's your uncle," said one of his informants "They showed up on another boat a day later. It was a very crook-looking tub. Not much freeboard." The man paused and looked down at his mug, which... unaccountably... was empty. "It's your turn to shout a round," he suggested.

Fenwick examined his own mug. For some reason it seemed to be empty as well. "Bartender!" he called.

Fenwick woke with a groan and took stock of his surroundings. What, he wondered, was he doing lying in this gutter? As he was trying to reconstruct the events of the previous evening, a shoe prodded him in ribs. He looked up to see Lieutenant Peters, captain of the HMS Thumper, smiling down at him.

"Ah, there you are, Fenwick!" Peters said cheerfully. "Michaelson told me I might find you here."

Next week: The Manila Folder...

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