Surviving a missile strike on her aircraft suddenly seems like the easy part for Lauren Bennett. A year after being attacked mid flight, Lauren is sure she’s overcome her guilt at losing a friend in the ensuing crash. Her brittle, glossy veneer doesn’t fool Callam Granger, though. But the naval patrol boat captain knows he’s got no right to an opinion. He wasn’t there when she needed him most and she’s not going to let him forget it.
On a routine surveillance assignment Lauren uncovers an operation trafficking sex slaves. Pursuing the women – and their captors – will take her deep into the Australian outback and a reluctant Callam knows this time he can’t let her go alone. Is it possible for Lauren and Callam to put aside old enmities to outwit, outrun and ultimately out-fly the traffickers? Or will the frantic race to free the women simply ignite their emotions, endangering yet more lives?
‘Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is sailing vessel Silver Swan, Silver Swan, Silver Swan. Can anyone hear me?’ Claire pleaded.
The screech of the wind and the roar of the ocean, drowned out the answering crackle of static. Broken rigging beat its own rhythm of destruction against the boat’s hull.
She swallowed and keyed the call button again.
‘Mayday, mayday, mayday. Sailing vessel Silver Swan. We’ve lost our mast, we’re drifting. Our position . . .’ Abruptly, the deck tilted under her feet, sending her lurching into the navigation station. Terrified of pulling the damaged microphone out of the radio, she let it go and grabbed at the table, missing the bullet holes and splintered wood by millimeters.
‘Oh God,’ she sobbed. ‘Someone help us. Please, please.’
The vessel righted itself, tossing her back across the cabin. She grabbed the microphone to stop it swinging against the desk. Her fingers fumbled as she tried to adjust the volume knob. One last attempt to contact someone, anyone. One last try, then she’d have to launch the life raft. She’d have to risk moving Pete. She had no other option.
Her husband’s face was pale, too pale, the skin blotchy where he’d been hit. Lifting an unconscious, ninety-kilo man into an inflatable raft in these conditions was going to be difficult.
The whole situation seemed impossible, unreal. They had embarked on what was meant to be an easy sailing trip, enjoying the peace of Cape York and lending a hand with a bird survey.
So why would anyone attack them, damaging the radio and destroying the EPIRB?
It didn’t make sense.
She keyed the mic open again, fear and despair tightening her voice.
Towering clouds marked the eyewall of Cyclone Clementine; a ring of thunderstorms rearing up through the atmosphere, their tops roiling, rising inexorably upwards under the pressure.
Lauren checked the wind vector on the aircraft’s navigation display. ‘Wind’s turning south-easterly. Here comes the turbulence, guys and girls.’
The Border Watch aircraft was scheduled to commence a routine coastal patrol, but their flight path would keep them well clear of the category five cyclone. They’d be lucky to even log a contact with a vessel, let alone use the high-tech cameras on board the Dash 8. No one in their right mind stayed on the water when a severe weather warning of this magnitude had been issued. Even the illegal fishermen knew better. Not that Lauren expected to find anything except legitimate sea traffic up this side of Cape York. Recording vessels and delivering stern reminders to clear customs was a large part of their job on the east coast.
‘Look at the tops of those mothers go. ’ Rob, her first officer, had his nose pressed against the side window of the cockpit, craning to see the brilliant white storm clouds high above the aircraft.
‘Yeah, glad we’re not headed anywhere near them,’ she agreed, preoccupied by the display.
‘Oh? I’d have thought it would be a walk in the park for a hero like you who’s faced a stinger missile.’ The pointed comment needled her. It was meant to.
Lauren struggled to keep her temper in check. ‘Since you haven’t had that privilege, I reckon you’ve forfeited the right to an opinion. Of course, that’s never stopped you before, has it, darlin’?’
Rob smirked. ‘What’s your problem, Lauren? Lost your nerve? You’re the one with the awesome reputation. After all, you survived.’
‘And you may not if you keep that up.’ Gary, the mission observer, cut in from the rear of the surveillance aircraft. ‘I’ll slap a piece of gaffer tape over your smart mouth myself if Lauren doesn’t.’
‘Recalculate our latest divert time, thanks, Rob.’ Lauren’s voice was steady. She was proud of that, but it took some effort. Rob had been spoiling for an argument all day and his spiteful digs were taking their toll on her patience. He had no idea how she felt every time she took to the air.
‘But I only just –’ Rob began.
‘Hey,’ interrupted Kaitlyn, the mission commander and the fourth member of the crew. ‘Turn up your marine radio. I’m picking something up.’
The voice was faint over the drone of the engines, but they all heard it. ‘Position is one forty-three, forty-four east, twelve-zero-two south. We are dismasted. Help . . .’
‘Vessel in distress, this is Border Watch aircraft. We copy your call. Over.’ Lauren kept her finger poised over the transmit button, ready to repeat herself.
‘Oh my god.’ There was a tangible relief in the woman’s voice. ‘Sailing vessel Silver Swan. We’ve lost our mast. My husband’s . . . Can you . . . Over.’ Her words were distorted.
‘Silver Swan, this is Border Watch. Copied your mayday priority. Can you change up to channel sixty-seven? Over.’ In weather like this it was important to leave channel sixteen, the emergency frequency, free in case any other vessel required assistance.
‘Negative, negative. The radio’s damaged . . . all I’ve got.’
The transmission was scratchy.
‘Standby, Silver Swan, standby.’
‘She’s east of us,’ said Kaitlyn, her finger finding the plot on her chart. ‘About fifty miles, nor’nor’east.’
‘Fantastic.’ Lauren said. ‘Let me guess, she’s right in the path of that screamer of a storm.’
‘Lovely.’ Without hesitation, Lauren reached for the heading bug, turning the aircraft in the direction of the vessel. ‘Australian Maritime Search and Rescue will know what options we’ve got. Best we can do is find her and hold station until help arrives.’
‘Got them on the satellite phone now,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘There’s a navy patrol boat, HMAS Atherton, heading south from Lockhart River to clear the cyclone. AMSAR’s contacting them. Otherwise can we try HF radio, see if we can find any fishing vessels still out on the water.’
Gary shook his head. ‘No response from anyone on HF so far. I’ll keep trying.’
‘Rob, you can look after the VHF, thanks.’ Lauren didn’t give him time to refuse. ‘I’ll get descent clearance from air traffic control. Strap in, folks, this is not going to be pretty. Rock-and-roll central.’ The eye of the cyclone was over one hundred nautical miles away, but the first light buffets of turbulence were already flicking the Dash 8. Silver Swan was halfway between the aircraft and the centre of the storm.
‘A course of about zero-two-zero will get you heading in the right direction,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘Wonder why they haven’t activated their beacon?’ She was referring to the EPIRB, mandatory safety equipment that broadcast location information to satellites above.
‘I’ll ask.’ Lauren keyed her microphone. The woman’s reply was garbled and Lauren thought she heard her say it was damaged, but she couldn’t be sure.
‘Don’t worry, Lauren,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘We’ve got her position. That’s more important.’
Lauren nodded, adjusting the heading bug. The flight deck was an artificially cosy cocoon, shielded from the ferocity of the storm by the skin of the aircraft. A burst of horizontal rain rattled harmlessly against the windows.
She fine-tuned the radar display. The jumbled colours and shapes on the screen showed the extent of the weather. The eye of the cyclone was well defined, an indication of an extremely destructive system. At the moment the aircraft was flying through bands of cloud thrown out ahead of Clementine.
Storm cells, with their violent turbulence, showed up as solid magenta blocks on her radar. Only specially equipped military teams voluntarily flew into one of those. Despite her outward composure, her fingers curled in an involuntary reflex, pressing her nails into her palm. She’d never been this close to a cyclone before. Guess you’re about to find out if a stinger missile really is the worst thing you’ll have to deal with, she told herself. A shudder rippled through her.
Almost a year ago she, along with Captain Morgan Pentland and Customs agent Rafe Daniels, had crash-landed their crippled aircraft after a terrorist’s missile shot out their starboard engine. Gavin Baker, their friend and the flight’s observer, had survived the crash only to be killed by the terrorists. The fear, the grief, the acidic guilt of that day were etched into her soul. It coloured the way she saw herself and coloured the way she saw the world. It coloured the way the world saw her.
‘The patrol boat’s in a position to help,’ Kaitlyn called, jotting down notes on a pad. ‘RO’s coming up on channel sixteen. You get him, Lauren.’
‘Will do.’ She adjusted her marine radio volume, so she could hear it over Rob’s attempts to contact fishing vessels.
‘Warship Atherton, Warship Atherton, Warship Atherton, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine.’
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, this is Warship Atherton, come up on frequency sixty-seven. Over.’ The radio operator came back loud and clear.
Lauren switched channels. ‘Border Watch one-zero-nine on channel sixty-seven, over.’
‘This is Warship Atherton. We’ve been instructed to render you assistance. Over.’
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, we have a vessel in distress, last reported position is . . .’ Lauren paused as she glanced down at the pad on her control column then rattled off the latitude and longitude. ‘We’re heading there now. Over.’
‘Warship Atherton, roger, we’re setting course, but be advised we’re only making twelve knots. That will improve when we clear the Great Barrier Reef. Over.’
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, copy. Standby for our ETA. Over.’
While she’d been talking, Lauren had loaded the sailing boat’s position into the flight management system. ‘We should be there in fifteen minutes,’ she said on the interphone.
‘Endurance when we get there?’ Kaitlyn asked.
‘I’m just checking that,’ Lauren said, punching numbers into the system. ‘About three and a half hours, probably a little more. That’s not good. If the patrol boat’s south of Lockhart, they won’t get there in time.’
‘Warship Atherton, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine, our ETA is one-five minutes from now. Our endurance is two hundred and ten minutes. Over.’
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, this is Warship Atherton. Copy. Our ETA is zero-three-thirty UTC. Over.’ UTC was the terminology for Greenwich Mean Time. This part of Australia ran at UTC +10, so zero-three-thirty was one thirty in the afternoon.
‘Damn it to hell. Why do we have to use such convoluted time and radio procedures,’ Lauren muttered as she worked out the time intervals. It was now just after nine-thirty in the morning. The aircraft would be with Silver Swan by nine fortyfive.
They’d have to break off contact by one pm. That left a gap of half an hour before the warship would get there.
Anything could happen in this weather.
The radio crackled into life again. ‘This is Warship Atherton. That’s four hours to target. Over.’ The new, gravelly voice on the ship’s radio made Lauren’s look up in recognition. She didn’t miss the quick grin from her first officer. Great. Just what she needed now. ‘Warship Atherton, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine. Copy. We’ll be in touch when we locate the vessel. Changing back to channel sixteen. Out.’ She turned the dial to the new frequency, cutting off any response from the patrol boat.
‘Who’s tetchy today?’ Rob had another dig at her, a slight smile on his fleshy face.
‘Any luck with the fishing fleet yet?’ Lauren ignored both his remark and the heat that flamed her cheeks.
‘Nada, nothing, no one. Smart bastards have all run for cover with this little baby bearing down on us.’
‘Thanks, Rob. Keep trying.’
‘She’s calling us, Lauren.’ Gary was hunched over his radar. ‘And I’ve got a weak contact bearing zero-three-five. Thirty-five miles. Should get better as we get closer and lower.’
The aircraft made a gentle turn to the right as Lauren re-established communication with the stricken vessel. She guessed that the woman on board was fighting to keep control of herself as much as the yacht. Lauren felt for her. She knew that fear could be paralysing. She’d do what she could to reassure the woman, to let her know she wasn’t alone.
‘Silver Swan, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine. I’m Lauren, Lauren Bennett. Where are you guys from? Over.’
The woman’s voice came back fairly clear, but the words were still breaking up. ‘From Sydney. I’m Claire . . . husband’s Peter . . .’
Lauren kept the conversation going, persevering even when she wasn’t sure her words were getting through. Through the fractured layers of clouds below, she caught glimpses of an angry, grey ocean, whitecaps blown flat across the water by gale force winds. With the cyclone to the north of them, there was much worse to come. Lauren made her decision.
‘Sea state is four to five, Gary?’ she asked, referring to the method of grading open water during a storm.
‘Probably bordering on five to six, I reckon,’ he replied.
‘Right. We’ll start a shallow descent and shoot for fifteen hundred feet then.’
‘But we’ll burn too much fuel,’ Rob objected.
‘She needs to see us. Once we’ve got contact, we’ll climb back up to ten thousand feet.’
‘But you’ll compromise our endurance.’ The contempt in Rob’s voice riled her.
‘Sounds to me like she’s close to abandoning ship and needs to see we’re here for her,’ Lauren insisted. ‘And with this sea state we’ll need to be very low to visually acquire her.’
‘So she can see us fly away and leave her to sink out here when we run low on fuel?’
‘Lauren’s right,’ Kaitlyn interjected. ‘This lady is much more likely to stay with her vessel if she sees we’re here. I make our optimum altitude for searching fifteen hundred feet. Do it, Lauren.’
‘But you’re only going to –’
Lauren swung around to glare at Rob. ‘Your concerns are noted. I’ll wear any repercussions if this goes wrong. Thanks.’
Her words were clipped. She couldn’t miss the angry flush rising up Rob’s neck. Too bad. She wasn’t running away from this one. Never again would she leave someone else to face danger alone.
The radar painted magenta clusters just ahead. She hoped the Silver Swan wasn’t in the middle of one of them. Her weather radar couldn’t pick up a sailing vessel, but the hightech FLIR Gary operated could. The forward looking infrared could distinguish the number of people on a vessel from the aircraft’s maximum cruising altitude of twenty-five thousand feet. In the current ocean it would be crucial in keeping track of the drifting vessel.
‘Number on board confirmed yet, Gary?’
‘Two heat returns, so the husband’s still breathing. No sign of heat from an engine. Did she say it was damaged as well?’
‘She said the rigging was over the side of the boat. She didn’t want to turn the motors on in case something got wrapped around them. It’s a catamaran.’
‘Yeah, of course. I’ll get a reading on the surface wind when we fly over. It’ll help us predict where they’ll drift.’
‘You know boats?’ Lauren asked.
‘Learnt to sail almost before I walked.’
‘Lucky they aren’t any closer to the reef or she’d be in danger of running aground.’ Gary shook his head. ‘Poor woman. Must be distressing wondering if her husband’s going to make it as well.’
Lauren looked out the window as she replied. ‘Doesn’t sound like she’s going anywhere without him.’
She didn’t need to see Gary’s face to know what his expression would be. He was aware of the demons she faced every time she went flying. He knew how the burden of guilt weighed her down; survivor guilt, they called it. And that bitter burn of anguish would stay with her forever. She’d hidden as the terrorists dragged Gavin screaming down the beach to his death. Dear sweet Gavin, who’d been her anchor, whom she’d loved without ever understanding how much until it was too late. She’d failed him.
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, this is Australian Warship Atherton on Channel sixteen.’
A familiar raspy voice cut through her thoughts. It sounded like its owner smoked a packet a day, but she doubted Callam Granger had any vices, let alone smoking. A swift image of his craggy face and broken nose made her blink. Damn it, when did he move to the patrol boats? He was too young for that sort of command wasn’t he?
‘Warship Atherton, this is Border Watch changing up to channel sixty-seven.’ She kept her voice level, despite her stomach knotting with angst. Around ten months ago, Callam Granger, had found her drunk and disorderly – his words, not hers – after a night on the town with her crew.
Yep, she had been drunk and missing her shoes at one in the morning. Sure, she had her arm draped around one of his sailors, who happened to be married, but that was because she couldn’t stand, not because she was chasing sex, although that may have been where the night would have finished up.
More importantly, she knew full well what she was doing. She was using alcohol to forget. She was using laughter to hide her tears. She was pretending life was still good. Callam, of all people, should have understood that, understood why she was cutting loose. Gavin had been his friend too.
But clearly Callam hadn’t understood.
His smoky words were crystal clear in her memory. ‘You might look like an angel, Lauren, with your long blonde hair and blue eyes, but you’ve got the morals of a Tasmanian devil. You played Gavin for a sucker.’ The slow shake of his head made his disgust plain to see. ‘Take a long hard look in the mirror, babe. That beauty’s only skin deep.’ Then he’d turned on his scuffed RM heels and walked away, his tread heavy on the wooden dance floor.
He’d left her red-faced and speechless. A Tasmanian devil? For god’s sake, the man was a moron. Lauren went from humiliated to angry in an instant. How dare he judge her? How dare he be so sanctimonious?
But the encounter had rattled her. The girl who had flirted and partied as though her life depended on it did take a long look in the mirror. She didn’t like the brittle woman who stared back through red-rimmed eyes. So she retired her dancing shoes, put a stopper in the champagne bottle, and hid her grief, her shame, behind a polished facade of controlled beauty.
Callam had left messages on her phone, but she never returned his calls. Why would she? He’d already made his point.
Then, just over a month ago, she’d run into him again at an art exhibition. Her winced at the memory. That evening had been an unmitigated disaster as well. How had she misread him and his intentions so badly? Why was she supposed to behave like a nun while he could play the field? The attractive brunette who’d claimed him had marked her ownership very clearly.
‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, on channel sixty-seven. This is Warship Atherton. Over.’ He was calling her. She shoved the memory aside. She had work to do.
‘Warship Atherton, go ahead. Over.’
‘We’ll be at Silver Swan’s position in three hours forty. We only have intermittent radar contact. Do you have her yet? Over.’
‘No, the boat’s drifting with the wind. We should have visual contact shortly. Over.’ Lauren hoped like hell she was right and they would see the boat soon.
‘The seas here are four to five metres on top of a three metre swell and that’s inside the reef. I’m not happy about Cyclone Clementine bearing down on us. Over.’
Lauren almost snorted. Like he owned the monopoly on being concerned? ‘You’re not the only one worried. Silver Swan is likely to be enveloped before you can reach her. Either way, you’ll have a hard time getting them off. Her husband is still unconscious. Over.’
‘Roger. Stay in touch and let me know when you’ve got her. Standing by on channel sixteen. Out.’
Lauren rubbed her eyebrow, feeling the tension in her skull. ‘Everyone in their seats, strapped in tight?’
‘Yep, and hanging on,’ Gary answered. ‘She should be dead ahead at about ten miles. What colour is it?’
Kaitlyn read the description off the computer in front of her. ‘According to AMSAR she’s a forty-two-foot cat, white with blue stripes up the side, dark blue underside of her hulls, single-masted with twin inboard diesels. Impossible to see in this ocean.’
The speed of the aircraft reduced as Lauren brought the power back. No point in blasting over the yacht at a hundred and ninety knots. Then, in the seething cauldron ahead, Lauren caught a flash of metal.
‘There!’ she called, stabbing at the glass in front of her. ‘The yacht’s all over the place.’ Her fingers raced to key her microphone.
‘Silver Swan, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine.’
She swung the aircraft into a gentle left-hand turn, keeping the yacht in sight. ‘Can anyone see Claire? Is she on deck? Silver Swan, Border Watch one-zero-nine, do you copy? Over.’
‘I’ve got someone waving from the aft deck, or what’s left of it. Bringing up the footage now,’ Gary said. The images would be clearer than anything the naked eye could see.
‘Looks like a woman to me.’ Kaitlyn adjusted the focus on her binoculars.
‘Still got two warm bodies on the FLIR and she has the engines running now.’
‘Great,’ Lauren said, ‘I’ll try her again. Your controls, Rob. Bring us round the other way so you keep her in sight.’
Rob transferred the autopilot across to his side and adjusted his heading.
It took Lauren three more attempts before the static broke into a garbled voice. ‘Thank god you’re here. Thank you, thank you.’ The stress in Claire’s voice was palpable.
‘The patrol boat is on its way, Claire.’ Lauren kept her own voice low, calm. ‘You need to hang on for a couple more hours. We won’t leave until they get here.’ It was obvious from the breaking waves and huge swell that conditions on the stricken vessel were treacherous. The woman’s response was barely audible.
‘Ask her if the engines are working properly,’ Gary prompted.
Lauren was able to ascertain that Peter was now conscious and he’d persuaded Claire to start the engines to provide electrical power to the radios.
‘How badly hurt is he?’ Lauren asked.
‘His lower back mainly. We’re sure . . .’ Lauren strained to catch the words. Had Claire stopped talking or had the radio had cut out? ‘. . . his spine. It’s too . . . easy to do more . . .’
‘We were getting better reception at altitude,’ Rob growled as he leant forwards to rotate the autopilot selection round to the right for another turn. ‘Pissing about at low level is doing nothing but burning fuel.’
‘We’ve found her now so time for us to climb anyway,’ Lauren said. ‘Head up to ten thousand feet, Rob. I’ll let her know what we’re doing.’
She had to repeat herself to Claire several times. Her words seemed so inadequate, so useless in the mayhem of the storm. As the aircraft flew into a wall of cloud, her last glimpse was of a tiny figure standing behind the stump of the mast.
A large thunderstorm reared up ahead, its billowing walls black, its rolling top blindingly white. ‘How long before that one hits them?’ she asked Gary.
‘She’ll be feeling the first blasts soon. Wind was south-easterly at forty knots at one thousand feet. A little less where she is probably.’ He shook his head. ‘Cell that size could double that speed. It’s going to blow them ahead of it. Might just flatten the waves a bit.’
‘Do you think I should warn her?’
‘Yeah. There’s not a lot she can do, but at least she’ll know what’s coming. If she’s still got any steerage she’ll be able to turn the cat into wind.’
Rob chimed in. ‘If you’re interested, our endurance is down to two hours forty-five after our heroic little flypast. We should run out of fuel fifty miles north of Cairns.’
She rounded on him her voice icy. ‘And that is why you’re in the right-hand seat and I’m in the left. Even with a known position to track to we would have had problems picking up that fibreglass yacht from ten thousand feet. We burnt less fuel making an immediate identification. Try thinking outside the square for once.’
Anger bloomed across the first officer’s face before he reined it in, his jaw rigid.
She turned away. Fantastic. She’d just provoked him even further. At least he was busy flying the aircraft for the moment. She’d deal with the fallout from her outburst later.
‘Search and rescue’s on the phone again. They’ve plotted a new course for the patrol boat based on predicted tides. If the Atherton’s CO agrees with them, it’ll cut their ETA by a good thirty minutes, forty at the outside.’ Kaitlyn had rolled her seat across on its track to look over Gary’s shoulder. ‘They’ve also dispatched the rescue chopper from Cairns. If it can get to Lockhart River and refuel it’ll be able to medivac them off the patrol boat or maybe even the yacht in a pinch.’
‘I’ll change the range and have a look-see.’ The turbulence was buffeting the aircraft and Gary braced against the roll. ‘Yeah, they’ve changed direction, heading up between those long sections of reef. That’ll be an ugly gap with the tide running
as well as the storm surge.’
‘Hope they know what they’re doing.’ Kaitlyn slid her chair back to her own bank of equipment. ‘You know the CO of the Atherton, Lauren?’
‘Used to be an older man; I can’t remember his name. But that was Callam Granger’s voice on the radio, so maybe he’s the CO now. The other guy was talking retirement.’
‘Wonder what that is?’ Gary asked, frowning at his screen. ‘I’m picking up some heat from engines over on the coast due west of Silver Swan. Rob, you sure no fishing boats responded?’
‘Of course I’m sure,’ Rob retorted.
‘Funny. I’d put money on them being a couple of twenty to thirty-foot vessels with twin outboards.’
‘Really?’ Kaitlyn leant over to look. ‘You’re right.’
‘Then why the hell didn’t they respond to her mayday?’ Lauren said, incensed. ‘Or our calls for that matter.’
‘Running for cover to save themselves?’ Rob suggested, an edge of malice in his voice.
‘You don’t run for cover when someone’s in trouble,’ Lauren snapped. ‘Really? Not even to save your own sorry skin?’
‘Enough, Rob. Enough.’ Kaitlyn’s soft voice held a warning that couldn’t be ignored. ‘Lauren, why don’t you check on the patrol boat’s intentions? See if they’ve got comms with any other vessels in the area. Rob, how about you try to find a way round the back of this cell and come in from the north.’
Rob didn’t bother to answer, but he did change direction, as the aircraft shuddered under another blast of turbulence.
Lauren keyed her microphone, determined her voice would not betray her distress at Rob’s words. ‘Warship Atherton, this is Border Watch one-zero-nine on channel sixteen. Over.’
It was the radio operator who responded this time. As the aircraft threaded its way north and west around the storm cell, the patrol boat confirmed that they were now less than three hours away from the stricken yacht.The RO also confirmed they hadn’t been able to raise any other vessels in the area. She was just about to sign off when Callam came on the radio. ‘Border Watch one-zero-nine, has your estimated time of departure changed at all? Over.’
‘Warship Atherton, that’s negative, negative. We are down to two hours twenty, though . . .’ Lauren glanced at her altimeter as it clicked through eight thousand feet. ‘We’re still climbing so that may improve by a few minutes when we get to ten thousand feet. Over.’
‘You’re climbing? Over.’
‘That is correct. We’ll get better endurance up high. Over.’
‘You were low level? Over.’ There was censure in his voice.
The question rankled. ‘Yes. In these conditions it was our best chance of locating the vessel. I also believed the female on board the vessel needed to see rescue was close otherwise she was going to risk getting into the life raft. Over.’ She knew her words sounded stilted, defensive.
‘Understood. We’ll get her on our radio soon. Keep you posted. Out.’
And that was that. End of conversation. She’d have appreciated being able to have the last word.
Staring out the window did nothing to improve her mood. She’d been a captain for exactly three months. In that time, nothing out of the ordinary had come her way. Now she was in the middle of a crisis and, as if that wasn’t enough to deal with, her judgement was being questioned, and not just by her own crew. Damn it.
‘Smooth enough I can risk making a cuppa for us all?’ Trust Gary to be practical.
‘Yeah, nothing ahead on the radar for another thirty miles or so.’
Lauren returned to her brooding. Flying had been her dream ever since, perched on her father’s shoulders, she’d watched an aircraft land on the beach. The wonder of the little six-seater Cessna drifting in for a landing, its motor silent, had been a moment of awakening. If she couldn’t be Wonder Woman – and her best friend Sarah from next door said she couldn’t – then she’d just have to fly some other way.
She was determined, despite the teasing of her six older brothers. Even the derision of a school counsellor, who considered nursing more appropriate, hadn’t swayed her. The obsession had driven her through school, through initial flying training, then university. It had sustained her through two years of hard graft mustering cattle and flying light aircraft in regional Australia, building hours in her logbook. At twenty-five her rapid promotion to captain should have been the icing on the cake, the culmination of everything she’d worked for, and yet . . .
And yet Gavin had died because of her.
That act of cowardice had shattered her confidence and her belief in her ability to make good judgements. Most people in Border Watch cut her some slack, gave her space, respected what she did, what she’d survived. Most.
Then there was Rob. Overlooked for promotion to captain, Rob resented her and did everything he could to undermine her authority, including dragging up every piece of dirt on her that he could find. And, she had to admit, in the months after Gavin’s death, she’d given him plenty of ammunition. She lifted her chin defiantly. She’d come too far and lost too much to back down now. She would find her courage again, would overcome the shame that haunted her. Maybe she would even learn to love again.
The scent of tea interrupted her thoughts just as the aircraft broke out of the clouds. Blinding sunlight poured into the flight deck and Gary winked at Lauren as he handed her a cup. ‘See how I light up your life?’
She managed a wry smile, grateful for his support. He’d tried to retire twice before, but the love of the job kept enticing him back. This time he swore it was his last stint.
He leant in between the seats to look down on the screen of the flight management system. ‘If it helps with the decision, on the way up I had the winds at twenty-two thousand feet a good eighty-knot tailwind for home. System won’t be able to compute that properly in a holding pattern and it’s different at this level. Worth keeping in mind if things get tight in the handover.’
‘Right, thanks.’ Lauren nodded, glad he’d confirmed her own calculations.
‘Come and stretch those long legs of yours. I’ve plotted the ship’s course through the reef.’ She joined him at the observer station and stayed for the twenty minutes it took the patrol boat to clear the reef. The unidentified vessels on the coast had vanished. Gary’s guess was that they’d beached and the heavy rain sweeping through the area was obscuring the heat in the engines. Lauren was still not convinced. What the hell were boats that small doing up in this remote area anyway?
They would have to have been brought on trailers towed by four-wheel drives; they were too small to have motored north from Cairns or even Cooktown.
‘Atherton’s picking up speed now,’ Gary said. ‘Must be hell on the ship.’
Kaitlyn steadied herself against the console. ‘And ten times worse on the yacht.’
‘What’s their estimate look like now they’re outside the reef?’ Lauren didn’t want to hear anything more than an hour and a half.
Flanked by the two women, Gary squinted at the screen, typing numbers into his keypad. ‘Seventy minutes, give or take a few. Nothing to stop them going flat chat now. No reefs anyway.’
She couldn’t quite stop her sigh of relief. ‘Better rejoin my favourite FO on the flight deck and check the patrol boat’s finally picking the yacht up on their radar. Thanks, Gary.’
The big amiable man tossed a quick grin at her. ‘You’re doing fine, Lauren. Take no notice of Rob. You know the little tosser hates women in positions of authority, let alone a good-looking blonde. It takes time to get over what you went through. No one who really knows will ever blame you for what went on up the Cape. You did the right thing. Go easy on yourself, hey?’
Kaitlyn nodded. ‘You’re doing more than fine, Lauren. We’re behind you. We trust you. You don’t have anything to prove to us and Rob’s only being a jerk because he failed his check to be a captain.’
Reassured, Lauren headed back to the flight deck. At the very least she could talk to Claire again and try to keep her calm.
Excerpt © Helene Young
Shattered Sky is published by Hachette Australia and is available through Australian and New Zealand bookstores, online in print and ebook from Booktopia, Angus & Robertson, Dymocks, Collins, and is also available on Kindle, iBooks and Kobo.