Failed Shakespearean actor and would-be private detective William Power’s unique detective skills are, once again, in demand. The Japanese army is rampaging through the islands of the South Pacific, and Australia’s front line of defense is a top-secret, crack division of men embedded deep in the tropical wilderness of northern Australia. But something is threatening their vital, covert mission: one of this elite corps is a murderer, preying on his comrades, one by one. With a case too sensitive to be trusted to the police, military intelligence turn to the one man whose singular combination of abilities make him capable of infiltrating the clandestine military operation and rooting out the killer. Will Power goes into deep cover, posing as a cheap, vaudeville entertainer on tour to relieve the troops. Enlisting the help of his brother, whose latent skills for female impersonation rise to the occasion, Will soon finds himself in the far-northern outback trying to raise the morale of a group of desperate young soldiers lying in wait for the arrival of Tojo’s army—knowing all the while that one of them is the killer. Amongst the Dead is a comic pastiche of the classic ripping yarn that thrills and entertains as its self-absorbed hero faces his greatest challenge yet—an unforgiving country infested with crocodiles and mosquitoes, a series of inscrutable murders obscured by tropical intrigue, and an audience too uncouth to appreciate the genius of the Bard.
About the Author
Robert Gott is the author of the William Power series of crime novels, which includes Good Murder and A Thing of Blood. He is the author of several books for children and is the creator of the cartoon The Adventures of Naked Man.
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Amongst the Dead
A William Power Mystery
By Robert Gott, Margot Rosenbloom
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2007 Robert Gott
All rights reserved.
WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about the first time the Japanese dropped bombs on me — and, yes, I did take it personally — was not the shrapnel but the mosquitoes. I was lying face down in what was called a trench but which was, in truth, a drain. In my view, a trench is a piece of real estate distinguished from a drain by the absence of putrid, foetid, and greasy water. When the warning siren went off just after 2.00 a.m., my brother Brian and I were amongst those who hurried from the Sergeants' Mess at Larrakeyah Barracks and tumbled into this so-called trench.
I crouched, initially, rather than lay, reluctant to saturate my uniform in the evil-smelling water. The shocking explosion of the first bomb encouraged me to forget fastidiousness in favour of safety, or the illusion of it. By the time the second and third bombs had fallen, I was ready to start burrowing. I feel no shame whatsoever in declaring that the early morning of Wednesday, 28 October 1942, in the northern capital of Darwin, marks the precise time and place where I experienced, for the first time, a fear so intense that I thought I might die of it. Up to that point in my life, 'died of fright' was an expression I assumed belonged to melodramatic fiction.
I put my hands over my ears and tried very hard to believe that a drain offered an impregnable defence against a bomb dropped from above. We'd been told on our arrival in Darwin, just an hour earlier, that we could expect to be inconvenienced by raids at all hours. Since the initial, devastating attacks in February, the Japanese had punished the mostly evacuated town dozens of times.
'You get used to it,' we were told by a sergeant. 'They're nuisance raids, mostly — small, anti-personnel bombs rather than big bastards. They spray shrapnel close to the ground, so if you keep your head down you should be OK.'
'But what,' I asked reasonably, 'if one of them lands in a trench?'
'If that happens, you'll probably die, or wish you had.'
'And does it happen?'
'All the time,' he said. 'That's the thing about bombs. It's hit and miss. They hit, or they miss.' He'd implied in his tone that he thought I was a bit of a dill.
Every muscle in my body was tensed to aching point, and I sensed that Brian, lying close to me in the dark, was similarly rigid. There was a whining, vibrating hum that I took to be the air rushing around the cylindrical bombs as they plummeted to earth. However, the constancy and weird proximity of the sound turned out to be a cloud of mosquitoes; and they so harried me that, even through my life-threatening terror, they caused me unimaginable distress. I loathe mosquitoes, with their nasty, probing syringes and their ghastly, bloated abdomens, swollen with the blood of others. If I'd been capable of being objective, I suppose I should have been grateful to them. They were so vicious, and in such biblical numbers, that they offered a distraction from the whomp and crack of bombs, and drowned out the deadly zip and ping of shrapnel. I endured them, and thought how strange it was that just a few weeks previously Brian and I had been sitting in the offices of Army Intelligence in Melbourne, eagerly agreeing to an assignment that would put both our lives at risk.
It was Monday, 5 October 1942, and Australia's most important Catholic leader, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, was comfortably ensconced at Raheen, his mansion in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, instead of lying sprawled and very dead on the altar steps at St Patrick's Cathedral — only because, I modestly assert, of my intervention. While my achievement had been worthy of accolades, I couldn't expect any — certainly not the kind of accolades I'd been used to receiving as an actor. I'd fallen, temporarily, out of acting, and into Army Intelligence; and in Army Intelligence, mum is definitely the word.
In a small room in Victoria Barracks, the man who'd recruited me, James Fowler, and his sister Nigella, floated the extraordinary idea that I and my younger brother Brian (still a little shell-shocked by the behaviour of his now estranged and catatonic wife, Darlene) should attempt to discover the truth about three suspicious deaths which had occurred somewhere near Darwin. Why, in a time of war and extravagant killing, these deaths should matter so much, was one of the questions I eventually asked. I say 'eventually' because my initial response was unalloyed excitement at the prospect of returning to the profession for which I was best suited — acting. We were, you see, to be sent north as entertainers, and not as dreary foot soldiers, trapped in the hideous daily round of soldiery, a role for which both Brian and I were manifestly unsuited, having been identified as flat-footed — not in any disfiguring or disabling way, I hasten to add. My feet felt quite at home treading the boards, but would have rebelled at the prospect of a forced march.
Nigella Fowler, a young woman of unexceptionable appearance for whom I had nevertheless formed a strong attachment — an attachment which had acquired the urgency of what I supposed was love, after she had saved my life and saved the day simultaneously in St Patrick's Cathedral — looked at me and repeated what James had already stressed.
'This is dangerous work, Will. Once you're up there, there's no way out.'
I thought I detected a small tremor in her voice that may have betrayed her feelings for me. Coolly professional, I understood that she couldn't express them at this critical time for fear that I might swerve from my patriotic duty in favour of pursuing her. Catching that momentary glimpse of attraction only made me more determined to solve whatever problem Army Intelligence needed solving in Darwin. A successful resolution would surely do more in the way of securing Nigella's affections than a month of mawkish wooing.
'We understand the dangers,' I said, 'and I'm sure I speak for Brian as well when I say that we're ready to face them.'
'I can speak for myself,' said Brian, with a characteristic little note of churlishness in his voice, 'and it so happens that Will is right. I'm ready for this. More than ready.'
James Fowler nodded his neatly groomed head and tapped his desk with the end of a fountain pen.
'Actually, neither of you is ready, although your willingness is admirable, and all we need to be going on with. There simply isn't time to train you properly, but we'll do the best we can in a short time.'
'Training?' I raised an eyebrow in imitation of my doppelganger, Tyrone Power. 'I'm a professional actor, James. I don't need training. Rehearsal time, yes, but not training. Brian, of course, will need ...'
James held up his hand to silence me, and Nigella interjected.
'Only yesterday, Will, you admitted that you knew nothing.'
Here I saw a startled look on Brian's face. James took over.
'I think you should start from that excellent premise, Will.'
Not wishing to jeopardise my return to performing, I held my tongue, and I felt my love for Nigella curdle just a little.
'Your real training will begin tomorrow,' James said. 'The details are being worked out even as we speak. For now, it's enough that you get some background on the unit we want you to infiltrate.' He paused, gauging our preparedness to listen.
'Go ahead,' Brian said.
'Earlier this year there was a bloke stationed here at Victoria Barracks — an anthropologist named Bill Stanner. He'd done a lot of work before the war with the natives up north, and he managed to convince the Minister for the Army that what we needed was a special unit that would provide surveillance in the north, in the most rugged and inaccessible parts of the country. We all knew that there were any number of places where the Japs could come ashore, and Stanner argued that the existing coast-watching set-up was woefully inadequate. We knew that, too, of course. Stanner's idea was to raise a unit of men with bush experience, and to provide them with horses rather than vehicles, because where these blokes would be going, vehicles would be next to useless. Stanner's plan got up, incredibly, and the North Australia Observer Unit started recruiting back in August. Your brother Fulton was one of those who signed up.'
'He wouldn't know one end of a horse from the other,' I said.
'Yes, well,' said Nigella, 'it was optimistic of Bill to think that he'd get exactly the men he wanted. In the end it was decided that the most critical skill was signalling. If you were adept at Morse, you were in, and you could learn to ride a horse later. The whole point of these Nackeroos, as they call themselves, is that they're mobile in difficult terrain, and in constant radio contact over great distances. If the Japs land, the Nackeroos' job is to follow them and report their movements — not engage with them in combat.'
'This is all new stuff for us,' said James. 'The unit's only just sorting itself out in the field.'
'How many men are we talking about?' Brian asked.
'All up, maybe four hundred and fifty all ranks, maybe seventy-or-so Aboriginal guides, and a few others.'
'Are you saying that the entire north coast of Australia is being watched by four hundred and fifty men?' I asked
James Fowler smiled.
'That's four hundred and fifty more than before the NAOU was formed. I can't even begin to imagine the conditions under which these blokes are operating, Will. They work mostly in groups of five or six, sometimes fewer, and go out on patrol for weeks at a time. I'm sure most of them thought this would be an adventure. The reports we're getting, even at this early stage, suggest that life up there is a mixture of privation, terror, and boredom. The thing is this, though: very few people know that the NAOU even exists, and it's important that it stays this way. We don't want Jap intelligence knowing that there's a guerrilla waiting to track their every move once they land. These deaths we want you to investigate — they happened in A Company, which is the company your brother is attached to.'
A quizzical expression must have crossed my face.
'The unit is divided into three companies, A, B and C, and each company has responsibility for a different territory. A Company patrols terrain around the Roper River and up towards Darwin. We're talking tens of thousands of square miles of mostly unexplored and unmapped territory. The distances are mind-boggling. All the companies are coordinated from Unit HQ in Katherine. I know all this sounds terribly complicated. It'll become clearer when you get up there.'
'So you think these deaths are suspicious?'
'Ah, we know they're suspicious. What we want to know is whether our suspicions should lean towards fifth-column sabotage or simple psychopathy. That's what you and Brian will need to find out.'
'In between singing and dancing,' Brian said.
James Fowler laughed.
'It sounds absurd, doesn't it? But, believe me, there are little troubadour groups out and about all over the place. When you get out there you'll be appreciated, don't worry about that. But that's the endgame. You've both got a lot to get through before Darwin.'
'Which brings us, neatly,' said Nigella, 'to Corporal Pyers.'
James Fowler picked up the telephone on his desk, waited a moment, and asked for Corporal Pyers to be sent in. The man who entered didn't immediately inspire confidence. He was unhealthily thin; his uniform was clearly designed to dress a more robust example of the adult male. He looked, frankly, ill. I couldn't imagine, from the look of him, that he had anything useful to impart. His face glistened with feverish sweat, and his dark eyes were dull with fatigue. I placed him closer to the end of his tether than to its beginning.
'Corporal Pyers,' said James Fowler, 'has recently returned from New Guinea, and is something of a specialist in remote troubadouring. His job is to teach you as much as he can in as short a time as possible.'
It seemed to me that it took all of Corporal Pyers' skills to ensure continuous inhalation and exhalation, but I refrained from showing even the mildest dubiousness as to his abilities.
'These are the blokes, are they?' he asked, and his voice was thin and bland, entirely lacking the depth and sonorousness one would expect from an experienced actor. He shook my hand weakly, one might almost say limply, and then shook Brian's.
'I think we should get started immediately,' Corporal Pyers said, and it didn't escape my notice that his tone implied that he thought not a moment was to be lost if we were to be brought up to scratch. The sooner I demonstrated the power of one or two speeches from Timon of Athens the better.
Both James and Nigella stood up to indicate that the Victoria Barracks part of the proceedings was now at an end, and we were informed that we were to accompany Corporal Pyers into town, to the workshops behind the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street.
'We'll talk as we walk,' the good corporal said, although I didn't see how his health could accommodate both simultaneously.
I shook James' hand and turned to speak with Nigella; but perhaps fearing that emotion might get the better of her, she'd already reached the door and offered no more than a nod, and a quiet 'Good luck,' directed at the room generally rather than at me specifically.
'You're to report here at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. Sharp. Bring nothing. Your kit will be here, including uniforms, and you'll have left Melbourne by midday. I hope this isn't happening too quickly for you.'
Brian said that he couldn't leave Melbourne quickly enough at the moment, and added that whatever lay ahead had to be an improvement on what lay strewn behind.
Corporal Pyers, or Glen, as he volunteered as soon as we were outside Victoria Barracks and heading into town, observed that it was a measure of how desperate things were that the army was dragooning civilians into the entertainment corps, and that he knew something was wrong when he'd been recalled so quickly from what was supposed to have been a lengthy convalescence.
'Dengue fever,' he said. 'Picked it up in Milne Bay. Christ, what a shithole that is. Believe me, the only thing exotic about New Guinea is the range of diseases you can catch. Copped a fucking terminal dose of khaki dermatitis, too.'
Not wishing to appear completely ignorant of army life, I didn't inquire as to what exactly khaki dermatitis was. Its name seemed sufficiently self-explanatory to prompt the comment, 'I suppose it's a bugger to get rid of,' from Brian.
'It is up there, mate. It gets so your balls go mouldy.'
With the unpleasant image of what was lurking behind Glen Pyers' flies now lodged in my mind, we crossed Princes Bridge, and at his insistence paused for a drink in the bar of Young and Jackson's Hotel.
'You two look fit enough,' he said — a compliment perhaps provoked by Brian's paying for the beer. 'I was bloody fit as a Mallee bull before Milne Bay. That was back in August. We hardly got to perform at all up there. I've never worked so bloody hard in my life, or been so bloody scared. They had us stretcher bearing, digging, driving, shooting at the fucking Japs — you name it. Got to do a bit of magic here and there, and then this fever hit. Thought I was going to die. Hoped I was, at one stage.'
Before what began to look like a rapid descent into maudlin reflection could gather speed, I distracted Glen by asking him what he meant by 'magic.'
'I was a magician on the Tivoli circuit before the war. So that's what I do in the shows. Bit of mind reading, sleight-of-hand, that sort of thing. What's your act?'
'Shakespeare,' I said.
Glen Pyers laughed.
'Christ Almighty. You'll be shot by your own audience if you trot that stuff out.'
'I think you'd be surprised at how receptive audiences can be.'
'Well, yes. Yes, I would. And you, Brian? What does the army need you for?'
Brian has always had an alarming tendency to blurt out the truth. Given that we were now, strictly speaking, in the employ of Army Intelligence, and given that we'd been instructed to trust no one — and no one would surely include Corporal Glen Pyers — I experienced a moment of trepidation when I thought Brian was about to reveal that his acquaintance with the great craft of acting came no closer than having been a teacher — a profession notorious, it's true, for attracting those with the desire to act but without the talent to back it up. Brian looked over his beer at Corporal Pyers, furrowed his brow and, with intense seriousness — as if he were delivering very bad news indeed — said, 'I'm a comic.'
It took Corporal Pyers' fevered brain a moment to make sense of the dichotomy between what was said and how it was said, but when he got it he bestowed the acknowledgement of a broad smile.
'All right,' he said, 'let's see what we can scrounge in the way of dress-ups.'
He led us to the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street, an establishment I'd visited only twice before — both times against my will, and both times at the behest of my late father who, when I look back on it, seemed determined to expose me, in the guise of birthday treats, to experiences more calculated to appal and alarm than to reward or entertain.
I think I must have been fourteen when he first took me to the Tivoli, and I distinctly recall letting him know that I thought it common, vulgar, and dull — a formless concatenation of grotesquery. Quite apart from the dreary warbling and mirthless comedians, I have a strong memory of being repulsed by an acrobat of such horrifying spinal elasticity that, with very little effort, he could assume a position where the slightest nudge would result in his head disappearing up his own arse. After the show, I mentioned to my father that vaudeville seemed to be a place where unattractive people with unappealing skills played to undiscerning audiences.
Excerpted from Amongst the Dead by Robert Gott, Margot Rosenbloom. Copyright © 2007 Robert Gott. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMap of the Northern Territory,
One Signing On,
Two Setting Out,
Three In Concert,
Six Good Medicine,
Seven Roper Bar,
Eight Gulnare Bluff,
Nine From Bad to Worse,
Ten Brock Creek,
Eleven The Truth About Lies,