Authors: Annie Seaton
In the ancient lands of Kakadu, it’s not just the crocodiles you should be afraid of . . .
Helicopter pilot Ellie Porter loves her job. Soaring above the glorious Kakadu National Park, she feels freed from the heavy losses of her beloved family farm and the questions around her father’s suicide. But when a search-and-rescue mission on the boundary of the older property reveals unusual excavation works, Ellie vows to investigate.
The last thing she needs is her bad-tempered co-pilot, Kane McLaren, interfering. The son of the current owners of the farm, her attraction to him is a distraction she can’t afford, especially when someone threatens to put a stop to her inquiries - by any means necessary.
Ellie will have to trust Kane if she is to have any hope of uncovering the truth of what is really going on. Between Ellie’s damage and Kane’s secrets, can they find a way to open up to each other before the shadowy forces shut her up . . . for good?
To my husband, Ian . . . and to the
beautiful family we created together.
I am blessed.
Arnhem Highway, Northern Territory
The three oversized trucks in front of Ellie Porter’s small red sedan were loaded with pipes and earthmoving equipment, and they’d slowed her trip home along the Arnhem Highway from Darwin airport. After spending two weeks with her mother and sister in Queensland, she was itching to get back to her job at Makowa Lodge, the five-star tourist resort on the South Alligator River, but the construction vehicles had been hogging the road for the last twenty kilometres.
She let out a sigh of relief when the truck in front slowed and indicated it was turning. But a tinge of concern tugged at her when she realised where they were; the truck and the two ahead of it had turned in at the eastern gate of the old mango farm.
Ellie hadn’t been back there for years – not since Mum sold it – and would normally have just driven straight past. But today curiosity won out. She drove another three kilometres until she reached the front gate of the property, then pulled off the highway, parking on the rutted road that led up to the old house.
From here the place looked abandoned; the grass was long and the curtains were drawn. The old timber sign proclaiming it was the ‘Porter Farm’ still hung crookedly from the eaves above the front step. She and Dru had made it the first winter after Emma left for medical school. They’d almost caught the packing shed on fire while trying to give the sign a charred edge with Dad’s blowtorch. She remembered how the wood had glowed orange and one of the mango cartons on the bench where they’d been working had burst into flame. Dru had laughed as she’d run for a bucket of water from the dam and then doused the small fire. Ellie hadn’t heard Dru’s husky laugh for a long time. Too long.
She got out of the car, walked over to the fence and rested her arms on the weathered rail. Across the dam was the graceful old homestead where she’d grown up. Once graceful, anyway – ‘old’ was the operative word these days. From this distance, the posts on the wide front porch were crooked and yellow and the verandah was sagging. It was a wonder the whole place hadn’t toppled down the hill. At least the front fence was still standing. The tropical weather took a toll on anything man-made, but the fence looked remarkably good after – how long was it – eight years?
One hot summer afternoon she and her sisters had arrived home to find her dad repairing the wire in this fence, working with his friend Bill Jarragah. Emma and Dru had run straight from the school bus, brandishing the latest
magazine to show Mum, but Ellie turned her nose up at such girlish pursuits; she was the tomboy of the family, and preferred to spend her afternoons helping Dad and Bill on the farm.
‘Our people come from the land and it nurtures us on our journey until we return to it.’ Bill had leaned against the fence post, the half-stub of a roll-your-own hanging from his mouth as he strained the wire. ‘We must respect it.’ He’d looked sharply at Peter, and Ellie’s father had dropped his eyes before he picked up a lump of dirt and then let the dry soil run through his calloused fingers.
‘Sometimes we have to compromise, Bill. Respect is a fine thing, but a man has to provide for his family.’
‘Peter, good seasons and bad.’ He’d paused and Ellie had waited for the rolling cadence of his words to continue. ‘The creation ancestors taught us how to live with the land. You whitefellas have to learn patience. The land will renew, but while we wait, we have to care for it. What scars the land scars our spirits too. You remember that.’
Dad had grunted and reached for the wire strainer. ‘I’m still thinking.’
The noise of a car door slamming at the top of the hill pulled her from her thoughts. An engine roared to life, and as Ellie watched, a black Jeep backed out from the far side of the homestead and accelerated down the hill, a cloud of red dust billowing behind it. She caught a glimpse of a man in a baseball cap as the vehicle roared past her, kicking up a spray of gravel.
She wondered who the driver was. Mum had sold the farm to a man named Panos Sordina after Dad died, but as far as she knew he’d never actually lived there. Sordina was another friend of her dad’s, and they all figured he’d bought the place as a favour, or out of pity. Last she’d heard, he’d moved back to Darwin and got elected to parliament. Maybe he’d sold the place. Maybe another dreamer like her father had bought it; a man determined to make his fortune from an orchard that could be neglected most of the year. After all, trees grew by themselves while a man was drinking with his mates in the local watering hole, didn’t they?
With a final throaty roar, the Jeep disappeared around a bend and Ellie walked back to her car, taking a last look at the paddocks. The half-dead mango trees at the edge of the dam cast wavering shadows across the water, as insubstantial as her father’s dreams. The late afternoon breeze kicked up small waves on the water, making blue plastic drums slap against the rotten wood of the short piers at the end of the jetty where she and her teenage sisters had once lain in the hot tropical sun working on their tans.
She could almost smell the coconut oil they had plastered on their bodies as they lay dreaming of lives far away from the withered trees and the ramshackle house. After Dad’s death, Dru and Emma couldn’t wait to get away, but the Territory was in Ellie’s blood, and she’d made her life here.
The locals loved to complain about the arid heat of the dry season and the pressing humidity of the long wet each year, but Ellie wouldn’t have it any other way. When she was away, she felt incomplete, as though part of her had been left behind. It was more than being away from the childhood memories. Her connection with the land was spiritual; she’d shared her father’s love for the land and their farm.
But in the end, it was the land that had taken his life. Patience was not enough. The three girls had grown up eating mango pie, frozen mango, mango chutney . . . the products of a crop not good enough to go to market. For a couple of summers, Emma and Dru had even manned a fruit stall on the highway with the spotted fruit. But there had never been enough money. In the last six months of Dad’s life, Ellie had watched her father’s joy in the farm evaporate like the morning mists that hung over the river at the back of the farm. Even all these years later, she remembered the exhaustion in his face, the leaden despair that had eventually driven him to the pub night after night.
Five searing dry seasons had passed since Mum had found Dad’s body hanging in the packing shed. His suicide had come as such a shock – a fundamental line between the
of their lives. And now the farm was someone else’s responsibility. Funny how she’d forgiven Dad for dying before she’d forgiven Mum for selling up so soon after.
If Ellie could ever afford it, she would buy the farm back and establish the best damn mango plantation in the Territory in her father’s memory.
She shrugged and kicked at the fine red dirt with the toe of her boot before she turned back to her car. Time to grow up, maybe.
But the trucks she’d followed up the highway left an uneasy niggle sitting in her stomach. She let out a little sigh as she opened the car door. She could never afford to buy the place back, but at least she had a great job, even if helicopter pilots here in Kakadu didn’t earn enough to invest in old dreams.
The hot leather burned the back of her legs as she slid onto the seat. She had just pulled back onto the road when the theme song from
Black Hawk Down
filled the small car. She grinned at the custom ringtone.
flashed on the screen. She reached for her phone and tapped hands-free.
‘Hey boss. Long time no speak.’
‘Ellie? Where are you?’ He was barking, a sure sign of stress.
‘Just heading back to base.’
‘How far out? I need a pilot.’
Ellie glanced down at her watch. For a fleeting second, she thought about reminding him she was still on leave, but the anticipation of going up made her change her mind. ‘I’m just down the highway from Jabiru. I could be at Makowa in an hour or so.’
she drove at the same speed as the new owner of a hundred dead mango trees. ‘What’s up?’
‘We’ve got a group of tourists missing. Stupid fools set out on a walk just on dark last night and they haven’t come back.’
‘No park choppers available?’ Ellie frowned. The lodge choppers weren’t usually called in to help this early in the tourist season.
‘The national park choppers are all down at the southern end of the park so they’ve asked us if we can get our bird up before dark. They expected the ground rangers would pick them up quickly because they’re not in one of the remote areas and they haven’t been missing for long.’
‘And the ground rangers didn’t find them?’
‘Not a sign.’
Ellie thought of the wide expanses of the park. When she did her tourist commentary on the scenic flights for the lodge, visitors often found it hard to believe that the park was almost half the size of Switzerland.
‘It’s not like
can see into a croc’s belly from the air,’ she pointed out with a little shiver. ‘But you never can tell in this place.’
‘We’re hoping they stayed up in the rocks away from the river. Three adults and a child.’ Her boss didn’t sound very hopeful. ‘The rangers have been out since noon, and now they want our chopper up before dark. Can you make it? You’re my only pilot today.’
Ellie was speeding along the road now, heading for the Kakadu Highway turn-off. Purpose filled her; she was back doing what she loved. ‘Where’s Mike?’