The Phantom Launch - Aidan de Brune - ebook

The Phantom Launch ebook

Aidan de Brune

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Opis

There is always a special thrill of excitement about a mystery story, especially when the main characters cover their tracks successfully. „The Phantom Launch” is an Australian story through and through, its main setting being Sydney and Melbourne, and the swiftness and sureness with which both the launch people and amateur sleuths act will keep the reader breathless. Wireless plays an important part in this story. We defy any reader to guess the perpetrators of the crimes and the secret of the launch until the colorful and prolific Australian writer Aidan de Brune? reveals them.

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Liczba stron: 357

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

CHAPTER XXXVI

CHAPTER I

“WHAT the devil! Say, Phelps, were you trying to put one over on me, or have you taken to writing fiction?”

“What’s the trouble, Sergeant?” The young officer looked up at the burly officer who had just entered the room.

“What’s the trouble?” Sergeant Miller made a gesture of mock despair. “Here’s one of the most promising members of the Force puts in a report that reads like a shilling shocker, and asks, ‘What’s the trouble?’ If you’re really serious in the pursuit of knowledge, me lad, I’ll tell you. I’ve got to sub-edit this fairy story of yours before it goes to Headquarters, and you haven’t given it a title. Any objection to. ‘A Constable’s Dream While On Duty’?”

“Better call it ‘The Phantom Launch,’ Sergeant.” Constable Phelps looked up at his superior officer, a broad grin on his face.

“Then it’s a leg-puller! You young devil! If I’d sent it to Headquarters–”

“Go easy, Sergeant.” There was a note of seriousness in the constable’s voice. “There’s precious little fiction about that report. It’s the first bit of adventure I’ve had since I started walking the lonely rounds out of Balmoral, and I made the best of it. But it’s true, every word of it.”

Sergeant Miller slumped into a chair and gazed at his subordinate officer in amazement.

“You mean to tell me you saw this–this–Yes, I’ll give it your name–this Phantom Launch. A boat without masts or sails, that goes up the harbour at top speed without crew–”

“Who’s the novelist, now?” Phelps rose slowly to his feet and stretched himself. “I said nothing about no crew. In fact, I saw three men on the launch, and I saw its wake when it went out of Myella Cove. It’s a goer, sure enough.”

Miller referred to the report in his hand. He was beginning to believe that it contained some truth. Constable Phelps was a promising youngster. A bare twelve months in the Force, he was already recognised for his coolness and bravery. The report was absurd; so absurd that it was impossible to send it to Headquarters. But there might be something in it; something that it was His duty to inquire into, and test.

“Let’s get this straight, boy.” Miller placed the report on the table and leaned forward, his hands on his knees. “Sit down. I can’t talk all the way up there. Now, I detailed you to go over to Obelisk Bay on the sly-grog report. Nothin’ doing, you state.”

“That’s right.” Phelps sat down again, and leaned his elbows on the table, “Old Manners was about in that puffin’-billy he sweeps the harbour with, but he hadn’t a bottle in sight. ‘Sides, most of the camps were deserted. Those that were occupied had mostly women and children in them. All asleep when I got there. More like a Sunday school picnic than the drinkin’ den you spoke of.”

“We’ll pass that.” The Sergeant again referred to the report. “The camp being quiet, you went on to Middle Head, taking the path over the cliffs. Rounding the head, you came to Myella Cove. There you sat down. Had a doze, I suppose, and dreamed the rest?”

“Look here–” Phelps got to his feet angrily.

“Aw! Sit down!” Miller thumped the table with a fist like a knuckle of ham. “We’ll leave it that you sat down and thought about girls, past, present, and future. That do? Now, let’s get on with the facts. You sat down and looked out over the harbour. S’pose South Head Lighthouse was working?”

“I’d have telephoned through if it hadn’t been.”

“Humph! Glad to see your brains are not all wool.” Miller laughed, drily. “Now comes the fairy story. Author’s title, ‘The Phantom Launch.’ Out from under the silvery sheen of the moon, glistening on the silent waters of the famous harbour beside the well-known city of Syd–”

“I never wrote that tosh!”

“You didn’t.” Miller spoke, emphatically. “If you had, I’d have placed you in a cell until the doctor came. Still, it’s near enough, so we’ll go on. You noticed a high-powered launch coming into the cove. You couldn’t hear any engine, although the boat travelling at a good speed. Correct?”

“Yep. She was absolutely silent.”

“Engine shut off, of course,” commented Miller. “Real truth of the matter is, you wore moon-struck, and didn’t see anything of her until she cut out her engines before charging the sands.”

“I saw her before she began to turn towards the Cove.” interposed Phelps, impatient. “Say, Sergeant, what are you getting at? I put the thing straight in my report, you’re just hashing it up.”

“Well,” the Sergeant’s broad face broke into a wide grin; “just tryin’ to put in a few fancy strokes. Would you like it to go to the Star or the Evening Moon? I’d advise the latter. They like it a bit tall. Sure you can’t add a fair captive, strapped to the mast?”

“There wasn’t a ma–. Funny, I don’t think.” Phelps turned away disgustedly.

Sergeant Miller rose from his seat, and walked towards his private office, carrying the report with him. He was puzzled. When he first read it, he thought the constable had dreamed the details, around some simple happenings to a motor-boat returning up harbour late at night. The indignation, the certainty, displayed by the constable altered his views. There must be something worth examining. At his desk, Miller went over the report again, scanning each word thoughtfully.

Constable Phelps had reported for duty at seven o’clock the previous evening. He had been detailed to proceed to Obelisk Bay, and inquire into a report of sly grog-selling at the summer camps in the vicinity.

The constable had remained among the camps until late at night. He had seen the suspected bootlegger, and had searched his boat without results. Satisfied that nothing illegal was going on that night, Phelps left the sleeping camps, and walked over the paths to Middle Head. Almost immediately around the Head, he came to Myella Cove, a small bay, containing a patch of fine sands. The cove was almost inaccessible from the land side, by reason of the steep cliffs, and on the water side was guarded by partly submerged reefs, jutting out from the headlands, leaving only a narrow and dangerous passage to the cove.

Phelps had had a long spell of duty, and a fair walk. He stated in his report that he was tired, and sat down for a few minutes rest. Just as he was about to resume his journey, he noticed a high-powered launch, speeding towards the Heads, turn sharply and make for the cove. The constable was curious. There were no houses on the shores thereabouts, and the cliffs were so steep that they were difficult to climb. The only reason for the visit of the speed-boat could be that something had happened, making it necessary to beach her immediately.

The boat did not appear to be in difficulties. Completing the quarter-turn, the engines were shut off, and she came to rest on the edge of the sands. Two men got out. One held the boat afloat while the other waded ashore, disappearing from the constable’s view for some minutes.

Phelps acknowledged to some curiosity. The boat did not appear to be in distress. Had he seen signs of distress, he would have climbed down the cliffs, and offered what help he could give. The actions of the men were mysterious. The constable dropped to his hands and knees, and crawled to the edge of the cliff. The man was kneeling on the sands, at the foot of the cliff. The moon shadows covered him, and Phelps could only see that he was working earnestly–at something.

A quarter of an hour, and the man got to his feet, and went to the water’s edge. Another man came from the launch to the sands. The two men walked to the foot of the cliff and knelt down. Five minutes later they returned to the launch, and the little vessel backed out into the Cove. Very silently, the boat turned, and swept out into the harbour, travelling at incredible speed.

The boat swept out into the harbour, travelling at incredible speed.

For some minutes, Constable Phelps lay on the edge of the cliff, watching the disappearing boat. At length, satisfied that it was not likely to return, Phelps scrambled down the cliffs to the sands. He had a pocket torch with him, and by its light he was able to trace the footsteps of the men from the waters’ edge to the face of the cliff.

The sands had been disturbed and roughly swept into place again. A few minutes burrowing, and Phelps found his fingers grating on the rough surface of a wooden box. He bad some trouble in uncovering it, for the sand filtered into the hole almost as quickly as he pulled it out, but he persisted. At length, he uncovered the box. It was about four feet long, by two feet-wide, made of very thick, common wood. There was a rope handle at each end.

Phelps lugged the box to the surface. It was fastened by a heavy lock, covered by a close-fitting slide-plate. He tried to force the lock, but it was too strong. It was impossible to carry the box up the face of the cliff. Phelps decided to re-bury the box, and report his find at the police station.

Sergeant Miller pondered, deeply. There might be something in this matter. Almost he reproached himself for allowing the box to remain hidden during the time Constable Phelps had been off duty. He should have sent at once to Myella Cove, and found the box. He rose to his feet, and strode to the door.

“Constable Phelps.”

“Sergeant.”

“You can find that box again? Yes. Take Fellowes, and go over the cliffs tonight, and get that box.”

“Might do better from the sea,” suggested Phelps thoughtfully.

“Very well. Tell–”

The insistent ring of the telephone bell cut short the Sergeant’s words. He crossed to the instrument, and lifted the receiver.

“Headquarters, Criminal investigation Branch, speaking, Superintendent Hanson’s compliments to sergeant Miller. Will he be so good as to release a man to watch the Harbour from Middle Head this night, starting at midnight. Very important. Report immediately any sign of a long, narrow, high powered speed-launch, low in the water, half-decked, painted silver-grey, no mast, no funnel, driven electrically, or has a very competent silencer; said to be absolutely noiseless. Please repeat message.”

Mechanically, Miller repeated the words he had scribbled on the pad lying on the telephone desk. As he turned from the instrument, he faced Constable Phelps, his face ablaze with excitement.

“Sergeant. That boat–”

“Well?”

“That’s the description of the boat I saw in Myella Cove last night, or, rather, early this morning.”

“Certain?”

“Absolutely–I’d swear to her anywhere.”

“Which way was she heading when she left the Cove?”

“Up-river.”

“You’re certain you’d recognise her again?”

“Not a doubt of it.” Phelps spoke confidently.

“Then you’re for Middle Head.” A broad grin came to the Sergeant’s face. “We’ll defer the question of a title for your fairy story, Phelps. Seems like you’ve elected your own punishment. A night on Middle Head, looking for the ‘Phantom Launch,’ may make a complete cure. You heard what was said?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Then get to it–and if you don’t bring in that Phantom Launch I’ll send that damn fool report you wished on me to the Commissioner.”

CHAPTER II

CONSTABLE PHELPS climbed the long, rough path from Balmoral to Middle Head about half-past eleven that night. The long, silent watch over the waters of the harbour did not appeal to him, although, from what he had overheard of the message from Headquarters, there appeared to be a prospect of again seeing the mysterious speed-boat.

A walk along the rough track around the head, and Phelps looked about him for a place where he could make his long watch with some comfort. He found a narrow slab of rock forming a comfortable seat and which would prove a good couch, if he dared to trust himself to lie down. Here, he determined to establish his headquarters for the night. Directly before him rose the towering heights of the twin North and South Heads, guarding the entrance to the triple harbours.

Almost due south from where sat, outlined the inner South Head that, with middle head, forms the entrance to Port Jackson. Between those heads streamed the commerce of the State, almost continuously during the 24 hours of the day. Away north was shining the light of Grotto Point. Beyond that lay the queerly hand-shaped Middle Harbour, across the bottom of which stretched the long point of land known as The Spit.

Far to the north-east twinkled the lights of the pleasure town of Manly. About half-way, and almost hiding the town from Middle Head, jutted Dobroyd Point forming, with the North Head, the entrance to North Harbour. Due east, on the long slope of North Head, the buildings of the Quarantine Station showed indistinctly beneath the waning light of the three-quarter moon.

Phelps lighted a cigarette and sat down on the ledge of rock. A late ferry-boat was hurrying across the waters in the direction of Manly, its brightly-lit decks throwing quaint shadows over the silent waters. A few minutes later, another ferry slid into view, close in shore, its decks almost deserted. It was the last boat from Balmoral to Circular Quay. So close did it skirt the Head that the constable could have thrown a stone on its decks.

There were no signs of the Phantom Launch in the silent waters. If the boat came at all it would probably be at later hour of the night. Phelps did not feel at all certain that the boat would return to Myella Cove. The men on the launch had appeared to be satisfied with their work on the mysterious box. Had it not been for the message from Detective Headquarters, he would have raced round to the cove and dug up the box. It might possibly contain some clue to the Phantom Launch. Perhaps the next night, after–

Why had Superintendent Hanson requested Sergeant Miller to place a watch on Middle Harbour for the Phantom Launch? What did Headquarters know of the boat? He had made his report of the queer happenings at Myella Cove the previous night, but that report had remained in the hands of Sergeant Miller.

Detective Headquarters were interested in the Phantom Launch. For what reason? Were they interested in the box the men from the mystery boat had buried in the sands at Myella Cove? Phelps almost wished the Sergeant had forwarded his report to Phillip Street, instead of retaining it under the plea that it was exaggerated or untrue. The constable had some slight satisfaction that Sergeant Miller must now be feeling uncomfortable. The story of the entry of the Phantom Launch–the same boat Superintendent Hanson was seeking–into Myella Cove would certainly attract attention, and Miller would be asked to account for the delay.

“Duty or pleasure. Constable Phelps?” A quiet, grave voice spoke from behind the seated constable.

“Jove! Mr. Lister. You gave me quite a start.”

“Humph!” The newcomer, a tall, thin man, about 32 to 33 years of age, walked from the track to the ledge of rock and sat down beside the constable. “If I didn’t know better, I might believe you were suffering from a common complaint that requires solitude and moonlight as a palliative.”

“You know better, Mr. Lister.” Phelps laughed quietly.

“I’m guessing.” Sydney Lister drew from his pocket an evening paper. “I find Constable Phelps perched on a ledge of rock, gazing earnestly out towards the Heads. A few hours ago I read an intriguing paragraph in the Evening Moon. I may be mistaken, but I scent a connection.”

“A queer paragraph in the paper?” The constable swung round eagerly towards his companion. “What was it, Mr. Lister? I didn’t get a paper this evening.”

Lister managed, by the little light of the moon, to find two paragraphs on the front page and pointed them out to Phelps.

The constable produced his electric torch and threw a beam of light at the printing. He read the paragraphs twice; the second time slowly and thoughtfully.

MAN TAKEN FROM OVERSEAS BOAT

Captain Anstey, of the British mail-boat, which arrived at Sydney this morning, reports an uncommon incident on the voyage between Melbourne and Sydney. Three miles outside the heads, a fast motor-launch came alongside the mail boat, and hailed a passenger standing on the lower deck. A few sentences were exchanged and the passenger threw a suitcase down an the launch, following himself. The launch immediately darted away at an incredible speed.

The police are seeking information as to a long, narrow, high-powered speed-launch, no funnel nor mast, painted silver-grey, with absolutely silent engine.

“Not much of a description,” commented Phelps guardedly, returning the newspaper to Lister. “You’d have thought seamen could have provided a better one. If the launch was alongside the mail boat for any length of time, the officer on watch would surely read the name on the bows or stern.”

Lister did not reply. He was gazing out over the Harbour, towards the Heads. The constable waited, watching his companion curiously.

“Looking for the Phantom Launch, Mr. Lister?” Phelps asked the question with a slight laugh.

“So that is the name you have given it at the police station?” Lister turned towards the constable. “I guessed you were up here on watch for the strange launch, directly I saw you. Well, you’ll have your search for nothing, I’m afraid, constable. The launch is not likely to try that game on two succeeding nights, even if a mail boat was due tomorrow morning.”

“What do you know, Mr. Lister?” Phelps turned quickly.

“Know?” Lister’s lean face broke into a swift smile. “I know just what the newspaper states–and that Constable Phelps is watching at midnight on Middle Head. The two facts lie together, but I can’t make more than two of them. They’re independent units.”

“Walt a moment.” The constable sat thoughtful for a minute. “You’re a yachtsman Mr. Lister; do you know a boat in the Harbour, or the river, answering to that description?”

“Can’t say I do.” Lister stood beside the shelf of rock on which Phelps was seated. “Personally, I have no time for speed boats. They make too much commotion on the Harbour, They should be banished outside the Heads.”

“This boat is absolutely noiseless,” urged Phelps.

“Then what drives her?” Lister flashed the question back immediately. “There’s no silencer that can make an internal combustion engine nearly noiseless. Electricity might be the motive power, but I do not think there are accumulators that would give an electrically-driven boat any great radius.”

“I saw her last night,” Phelps answered. “I know you’ll say nothing, Mr. Lister. I saw her last night and I know she’s noiseless. There was not a sound.”

Very briefly, Phelps recounted his adventure with the Phantom Launch at Myella cove the previous evening. Lister sat thoughtful. When the constable described the wooden box he had dug from the sands, the man became alert.

“What did you do with the box, Phelps?”

“Buried it again. I was instructed to dig it up, and take it to the station, when orders for this watch on the Heads came through. Suppose I’ll go for it tomorrow.”

“Take my advice and leave it there.” Lister spoke carefully. “With that box under the sands at Myella Cove you have a lure for the Phantom Launch. Keep the box there, and keep someone watching it. Before long you will be able to catch the launch, and then the mystery of the box will be automatically solved. If you dig up that box, and the men on the launch go to Myella Cove, and do not find it, they will clear away, and you will have all your work to do over again.”

“There’s something in that.” Phelps mused for a moment. “I’ll have a talk to the Serg–”

“Let him forget it,” Lister interrupted. “Your report will be in the hands of the C.I.B. tomorrow morning, anyway, you will have to be approached before they can find the box. Perhaps you’ll have a chance to object to the removal of the box before further information regarding the Phantom Launch is obtained.”

“You think–”

“Which way did the Phantom Launch go after leaving Myella Cove?” interrupted Lister.

“Up-river.”

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