Canberra, ACT, Australia
The aircraft bucked in the swirling heat. Flames shot up through the plumes of dense smoke, flaring and leaping as though trying to scorch the paint from the fuselage.
Kaitlyn’s five-point harness pressed into her, jabbing the sharp plastic edge of the Border Watch visitors pass into her chest. After a week in the air she still found the unpredictable movement of the Dash 8 alarming. The smoke had seeped through the air conditioning, biting at their throats and stinging their eyes. The two Border Watch crewmen, who sat at consoles that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a NASA space shuttle, appeared unconcerned.
This was just another day at the office for the surveillance crew. On the other side of the aisle the Australian Federal Police senior constable had just filled another sick bag. Trying to ignore the smell, Kaitlyn clutched her paper bag in one hand and leant over the Forward Looking Infrared screen.
For a disconnected moment she felt as though she was a child again, watching her parents’ black and white television and feeling ill after too many of her mother’s homemade sweets. If only it were that simple.
‘There he is again.’ The mission commander next to her stabbed his finger at the FLIR screen.
Swallowing, Kaitlyn forced her throat to relax. ‘It looks like the same man we were tracking before. Even without being able to see his face clearly.’ She felt way out of her depth, but they were depending on her to read this man and his intentions. She summoned her confidence. ‘The way he’s holding the cigarette and leaning against the car with his ankles crossed says he’s enjoying watching the havoc he’s created. He’s relaxed, at ease with what he’s done. Same stance, same baseball cap – same guy as earlier in the week.’
The resolution of the image on the surveillance equipment was crystal clear, but the man’s face was hidden by the square brim of his cap.
‘You’re absolutely sure?’ the mission commander asked, leaning closer to the screen.
She could smell sweat overpowering his sharp aftershave and she raised her hand to her nose, trying to breathe normally. ‘Yes, I’m positive.’ She looked up at the big man as he started punching buttons on the satellite phone.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We call it in. Do you think you can identify him?’
‘Not yet. With the sunglasses and cap…’ She hesitated. ‘He looks familiar.’
‘Okay, keep watching. I’ll zoom it up. Maybe he’ll remove them at some stage and we’ll get a better look at him. If not, no matter – the cops can pick him up anyway. We’ve got the registration and footage of his car. Fuckin’ arsonists. Capital punishment’s too good for them.’
Kait had been so focused on the car they’d been tracking since it left the embryonic fire that she hadn’t been paying attention to the landscape below. They were now flying over another fire front, further to the west of their original track. It was disorienting to see the country from above. The hills lost their shape and height. Roads twisted in unpredictable ways. The familiar roof and fence line of her neighbourhood’s primary school took shape out of the jumble below. She froze.
‘Wait! Where are we?’
‘That’s Narangba Drive, off the Monaro Highway,’ the mission commander replied tersely, before returning to his conversation on the phone.
‘No! ’ Kaitlyn stuffed her hand in her mouth. ‘It can’t be!’ The blood drained to her feet, leaving her cheeks cold. The paper bag crumpled in her fist.
The mission commander finally registered her distress as he ended his phone call. ‘You okay, love?’ he asked.
‘My house,’ she croaked. ‘I live on Narangba Road.’
‘Shit. You live down there?’
Kait’s fingers slid over the keyboard, taking the vision wider. She had no way of stopping the moan that started low in her chest. It couldn’t be. She didn’t want to believe the picture was real. As the aircraft flew on, she spotted her house. It was engulfed in flames, the corrugated iron roof curling in the heat like the blackened petals of a flower opening on a glowing red heart. Worse still, she saw two familiar cars in the driveway, with flames already consuming them. What was her father doing there? Why was her husband home from work? He should be out fighting the fires. The fear, the pain, squeezed her lungs.
‘Noooo!’ She didn’t realise the wail of grief was hers until a strong arm wrapped around her, taking her weight as she slumped forwards.
Five years later
Kaitlyn Scott’s skin felt hot, stretched tight across her cheekbones. After a complex, six-month operation involving the full gamut of Australian Border Protection agencies, the end was literally in sight. As the aircraft turned for another run over the dramatic scene below, she adjusted the range on her equipment with delicate touches that belied her tension. The FLIR was trained on four vessels.
Cocooned in the aircraft, adrenalin poured through Kait’s body. She knew the crew of the Australian Navy Patrol Boat, HMAS Childers, would be feeling the same heated rush as they powered along behind the large motor launch. Two rigid-hull inflatables, full of armed Navy personnel, flanked the cruiser. On their current track they would plow into one of the Ribbon reefs. That would be fatal, not to mention an environmental disaster.
With the nape of her neck prickling with nerves, she keyed her microphone. ‘Warship Childers, this is Border Watch one-five-three. Be aware there is a section of reef two miles ahead at twelve o’clock.’
Her voice was calm, but her words held urgency. She felt sure the crew of the patrol boat would be well aware of the danger, but she was compelled to double-check.
‘Border Watch one-five-three, roger that. Childers out.’
Almost instantly, the left-hand inflatable closed on the cruiser. The one to the right swerved towards the stern of the vessel. She relaxed an inch. Time to finish it. She and her crew had been part of a tag team of aircraft shadowing the motor cruiser since it reentered Australian waters in the Torres Strait four days ago. They now had camera footage that proved the vessel had been running guns into Papua New Guinea and drugs back into Australia.
Stray bullets hitting the water around the inflatables kicked up fountains of spray. She saw pieces of fibreglass fly off the side of the motorboat as the servicemen returned fire. She flinched. HMAS Childers bore down on the three smaller vessels as Navy personnel swarmed over the cruiser. The white water churning from the big twin diesels died to a simmering whirlpool.
It was over. Six crewmembers lined the back deck, hands on their heads, with a line of guns trained on them. Almost an anticlimax. Kaitlyn took a couple of deep breaths, knowing the others would all be doing the same thing, and ran her hand down her throat. It wasn’t possible to remain detached.
‘We’re reaching our latest divert time,’ Morgan cautioned from the flight deck. Kaitlyn knew she could depend on the captain to keep them on task as long as was safely possible. If she said it was time to leave, then it was.
‘Okay, well done, guys. Let’s head home and relax. Customs is very happy with our work.’ She clicked her seat back on its track and stretched her cramped legs up the aisle. The adrenalin, the apprehension, would take a few minutes to ease. Waggling her toes in her black boots, she avoided knocking the two long-range fuel tanks positioned between her and the flight deck. Being tall had its disadvantages.
As the Border Watch mission commander, she sat halfway down the length of the Dash 8 aircraft, in front of her equipment. On the other side of the aisle her young observer, Matt, moved his chair back from a similar console. The Border Watch fleet circled the coastline of Australia like an airborne electronic eye, which gave them a unique office with very little room to move.
The high-wing aircraft rolled out of the turn and Kait allowed herself to be distracted by the view. Time to unwind and come back to earth, literally.
‘Spectacular. The colours are amazing,’ she said. The other three crewmembers murmured in agreement. At 1500 feet, the ocean stretched from horizon to horizon, the build up of thunderstorms ahead the only indication that the Australian coastline was just out of sight.
The outer Great Barrier Reef was like a series of giant fresh-water pearls, strung together in a rope and resting on French navy satin. In the late afternoon, with the sea breeze fading, the breaking waves of the Coral Sea added a white ruffle to the eastern side of the reefs.
‘Dan’ll be happy to see you, Kait.’ Morgan spoke from the flight deck.
‘And I’ll be happy so see him and his cheeky grin,’ Kait replied with a twinge of guilt. Being a single mum had major drawbacks, and leaving her seven-year-old son with her mother, Julia, was the most painful. The deep ache in her heart kept her awake long past midnight in her silent hotel room when she was away for work.
‘How’s Julia doing?’ her friend inquired.
‘She’s thriving. Finally. I think she’s decided to embrace the Tablelands’ country lifestyle instead of comparing it to a big city. Last week she took up clogging. The week before she signed up for a quilting course.’
‘Clogging? What on earth is that?’
‘Not quite sure. Irish dancing for the modern matron?’ Kaitlyn laughed. ‘She’s trying to convince me I need to go too. I think she’s decided to organise my social life as well. As if I’ve got time.’
‘You should make more time for you,’ Morgan insisted. ‘I have no idea how you juggle such a busy life and that huge drive home after work.’
‘Like you’re in a position to lecture,’ Kait replied with a smile, knowing Morgan had her own family pressures to deal with. ‘But you’re right, it does have its moments.’
Happy Jack Valley, just outside Atherton, offered safety in anonymity for her family. Having her mother living with them made the arrangement possible. Despite Julia’s low-level guerrilla tactics aimed at convincing her to find work closer to home, Kaitlyn knew she needed this job, needed to do something vital, something meaningful, to stay sane. It kept the guilt at bay. It let her love her little boy without having to remember his father. It helped to fill some of the void her father’s death had left.
Kaitlyn squashed that thought before it could grow. It was good to be part of a team, to feel responsible, to belong. It would be even better once she was home again with Dan and Julia.
The coastline was now in sight, with a line of ominous thunderstorms looming over the Great Dividing Range and Cairns Airport.
She sighed. It might take a little longer to get back on the ground and start driving up the winding road to her home, high on the hill.
Matt interrupted her thoughts. ‘Hell of a storm season. The lightening coming out of those cells is wicked.’
Kaitlyn nodded. ‘It’s such a shame it’s so dry. I’ve never seen so many storms fail to deliver. They build, they thunder, they die. No rain.’
‘Yeah, I’m not keen on getting up close and personal with one of them.’
‘You and me both.’
‘As if I’d fly through that lot,’ Morgan interjected. ‘But we will have to divert to the west and come in over the Tablelands.’
‘Great,’ Kait said. ‘What’s another ten minutes between friends?’
The others laughed, but Kait had to force her smile as she resettled her headset over her ears. It had been a long day and they felt like they were compressing her skull.
‘Border Watch one-five-three, due to traffic delays you’re cleared to hold at Biboohra, all turns to the right. Expect a set course time of zero-seven-two-zero. And you can expect the ILS runway one five.’
Kaitlyn heard Morgan sigh as Tim, the first officer, read the details back to the air traffic controller. An Instrument Landing System approach meant that visibility at the airfield was poor. It looked like the weather was going to persist right through to touchdown, adding more time to their flight.
‘Sorry, guys, there’s smoke haze at the airfield so we’re on instrument approaches as well as dodging storms,’ Morgan said. The aircraft slowed as she reconfigured it to give them maximum endurance. ‘Seems fires have started up on the range again while we’ve
Kaitlyn’s top lip beaded with sweat. The thought of fires always did that. She squeezed her eyes shut, fumbling for her sunglasses in her jacket pocket, and swallowed, trying to control the surge of fear. It didn’t quite work. The acrid burn of smoke had been sucked into the aircraft air conditioning and in an instant she was back in Canberra. For a split second the memories paralysed her before she wrestled them under control. Her nerves were at snapping point.