Bruce’s tale made the hairs on the back of my neck crawl. After a carriage ride of about 20 minutes from the railway, he and his companion had disembarked. He had been staggering, with his hat over his eyes and propped up by his companion, so he had seen little of the general geography, though he recalled some Christmas carols being sung by a choir. This indicated that the location was somewhere near the city centre, for the carollers rarely strayed further afield. He must have passed out for a short time, for when he came to, he was in a room with a blindfold over his head.
Half pushing the blindfold up, he crawled out through a window onto some sort of balustraded roof. Then he realised he must be standing on hell’s threshold, for the deep moans of the wretched reached his ears from somewhere below. He looked up to see two savage-looking demon-fish with terrible teeth ready to devour him. A sulphurous smell made him nauseous and dizzy, and as hands reached through the window to pull him back inside, he collapsed. Next day he awoke naked on the Domain. He assumed God had given him another chance. He had missed his train that day, and when he appeared the next morning had been expecting to be sacked for his absence. But his failure to appear had gone unnoticed – seemingly someone else had taken his place on the train. Wearing a spare uniform, he simply took up his job where he had left off and had not touched a drop of alcohol since.
He could tell us little about the mystery man who stole his uniform, other than that he was pouring whisky from a silver flask engraved: “From Herbert on your 40th birthday, July 5, 1893”. I sighed with exasperation as the railway man blubbered about not wanting to lose his job: “Your job? Good God, man, we may be about to lose the country!” Now it was New Year’s Day 1901 and the whole of the city was preparing for a celebration that would not be topped this century. All except for we three. We had not slept, having first searched every inch of the Domain for a secret tunnel or vault and then having returned to the streets to accost every person with the sketch of the false inspector Tom Roberts had drawn. Many, like me, thought the face familiar but shook their heads as to specific identity. Many were drunk from New Year’s Eve revelry and one threw up on our picture. Of Henry Lawson there remained no sign.
There was nothing for it now but to go to the police and hope we struck an honest man, for surely the time of the assassination was nigh. As the Federation parade began through the city streets, I was gazing at a float containing a bevy of big-tailed mermaids when suddenly I had a flash of inspiration. I thought I knew the building to which the plotters had taken Bruce. If I was right, we should find the missing document there, and perhaps some way to decode it. Then we would know who was to be assassinated and who was behind the conspiracy. And perhaps we’d be in time to stop it.