For those who would like to follow the action on a map, here's a link to google maps, centered on Geraldton, which can also be moved and zoomed to show other areas mentioned. Also, a helpful hint; if you try to find Ayers Rock, it's not near Alice Springs (a common misconception) it's about 200 miles southwest of Alice Springs.
A hot wind gusted through Ayers Rock Airport, where Basingstoke was tending to his Debonair.
His mood had been dark and apprehensive before the ‘good news’ call from Bridget. In a way, he was relieved – it meant that he could leave Ayers Rock, where there was a serious risk that any Debonair might draw the unwanted attention of the authorities. He had correctly guessed that Ayers Rock Airport would not be one of the watched airports, due to being, on the face of it, an unlikely route – an unmodified Debonair did not have the range to reach a refueling stop in Western Australia from there.‘Now comes the tricky part,’ he mused, as he carefully applied two new letters over old ones on his tail number, returning it to what it had been when he’d last visited Western Australia. He pre-flighted, and then taxied to the fuel pumps.
After having his plane filled, Basingstoke presented a credit card, and while the attendant walked away with it, Basingstoke absently brushed the gun hidden beneath his loose shirt, reassuring himself of its presence.
The attendant returned with a concerned look on his face. “I’m sorry, sir, but your card was declined. I’m afraid it’s been reported stolen.”
“Uh, it’s not bloody nicked, it’s mine, I swear!” Basingstoke roared.
“Would you care to try a different card, or pay cash? I’m afraid we can’t take a check,” the unperturbed attendant replied.
The price was just over two dollars a liter, so the fuel-up tab came to nearly six hundred dollars. “I don’t carry that kind of cash,” Basingstoke hedged, glancing furtively around. “Do me a favor and go try the card again; I’m sure it’s just a glitch. While you do, I’ll make a call and see if I can sort this out.”
The attendant, already suspicious, just nodded. “Yes sir, I’ll be right back.”He glanced at the tail number, making certain that he’d written it down correctly.
The attendant returned to the little office, where he had no sooner picked up the phone than he heard the Debonair’s engine roar to life. “Shit,” the attendant grumbled, glancing out his window. He continued his call, only to a different number: the police. This wasn’t the first time a pilot had attempted to leave without paying.
Basingstoke, eager to make his escape and well aware that they might try to block him with a car, raced for the runway, entering it mid-field and, contrary to the rules, roared aloft, heading west.
In Carnarvon, Fowler took the call from the Federal Police. In a way, it was disquieting, and when he hung up, he told Grundig, Ned, and the assigned federal officer, “Somebody tried to use a pilfered credit card to refuel at Ayers Rock Airport. They ran for it, but the attendant got the make and tail number; it’s a Beechcraft Debonair, the same registration as we had here in Carnarvon. He took off, and was last seen westbound. The Federal cops are calling the Jindalee ops center for help; he’ll be in Jindalee’s range, if he’s not already too close to the transmitter.” Fowler paused, his brow wrinkling. “Wait a bloody minute; we were watching Forrest Airport and a couple of others around the Nullarbor Plain for a reason; it’s the direct route, and he has limited range. I don’t think he could make it from Ayers Rock to an airport with fuel if he heads west.” Fowler rifled through his paperwork, trying to find some reference data the Federal Police had sent at his request. “I’m right; a Beechcraft Debonair has a range of about nine hundred and twenty klicks, maximum. Get the maps out,” he ordered.
None of them were pilots, so they had to consult a list of airports with fuel. While they were doing so, news came in from the Jindalee Radar; they’d had a solid paint on a target matching the expected position of a westbound takeoff from Ayers Rock Airport, and the airspeed had been consistent with a cruising Debonair. The aircraft had since passed within Jindalee’s minimum range. Fowler called to confirm, and took the opportunity to get advice from the Air Force officer.
Fowler quickly checked the onscreen map, and turned to tell his onlookers, “With careful flying, a light load, and good conditions, he can stretch out his range a bit. Their thinking is that there are only a couple of possible airfields with fuel for him, and he’s heading right for one of ‘em; Wiluna, which is about seven hundred klicks southeast of us on the Goldfields Highway. Either that, or he’s made arrangements for fuel at one of the little private strips.” Fowler picked up his phone. There was only a tiny town at Wiluna, which existed only to serve an enormous open pit gold mine. No real town meant no nearby police, so Fowler called the police station in the closest town, Lienster, ninety miles to the south. Only one officer was on duty, so Fowler took his time working with the officer to come up with a plan. There was little hurry; they knew they had at least three hours before Basingstoke reached Wiluna. The plan was simple; the officer would shut off the power to the fuel pumps in case backup officers didn’t arrive before the plane did. A few more calls resulted in the news that any backup would have to come from Leonora, over three hours away.
“That’s cutting it bloody close,” Grundig said.
Fowler shrugged. “Without fuel, there’s nowhere he could go, and he’ll be bone dry when he gets there,” he said, with more conviction than he felt. He remembered the suspected rough-field landing Basingstoke had done near Perth, and knew he might take off, just for a few miles, and then land in the desert. “I think the Leonora officers will get there first, at least I hope so.” Fowler paused, and then smiled. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, picking up the phone again. He called the Wiluna mine, and after some cajoling, arranged for two of their enormous dump trucks to drive to the airport and block the runway as soon as the plane had landed. Fowler then called Mount Keith Airport – forty-seven miles south of Wiluna – to make sure that the lone attendant was alerted, and that no fuel would be available. Fowler had judged that Mount Keith’s large paved airstrip was just close enough to Wiluna to be a possible, though unlikely, alternative for the inbound plane.
Fowler’s agency, Customs and Border Patrol, had taken the threat seriously. They had expected their plan of interdicting Basingstoke at the watched airfields to work, but as a precaution, they’d deployed one of their Coastwatch aircraft, a Bombardier Dash 8 – a twin turboprop, radar-equipped patrol aircraft – to Forrest Airport, in the Nullarbor Plain. Forrest Airport, located on the transcontinental rail line that Bridget had traveled, was close to the South Australia border. It was over five hundred miles from Forrest to Wiluna, under half of the Bombardier’s range. Headquarters gave the order, and twenty minutes later, the Bombardier, with four men aboard, raced down the runway and climbed into the clear sky, turning gently onto a course of north-northwest. The Bombardier, a much larger aircraft than Basingstoke’s Debonair, had a cruising speed of two hundred seventy knots, almost a third faster than Basingstoke’s plane.
Due to his head start and shorter remaining distance, Basingstoke would be able to reach Wiluna almost an hour before the Bombardier. However, the Bombardier’s participation was something that Basingstoke had not anticipated.
Aboard Kookaburra, Trevor took the call, and spoke briefly with the Customs and Border Patrol operation commander. As soon as the call was over, he swallowed once, and spun the wheel hard over, setting Kookaburra on course for Geraldton. “It’s happening, he’s on his way. We’ve got a few hours, but they want us ashore, just in case.”
“Is your mum still meeting us in port?” Shane asked, pulling on a shirt and then peering at the approaching city, now six miles away, as Kookaburra accelerated to fourteen knots.
“Last I heard, yeah, she’ll be at the dock,” Trevor replied, glancing anxiously at the sky, even though he knew that the threat was still hundreds of miles away.
Kookaburra approached the dock as directed, at the commercial harbor, to tie up near some fishing boats. Rachel, along with two Geraldton officers and a customs officer, was waiting dockside, leaning on her oak cane, her face a mask of concern.
Three hundred yards away, near where Connell Road curved to the east on the harbor’s outer works, Bridget stood watching. As Kookaburra neared the dock, Bridget told Billy, “Go take the shot – make that several. Just be inconspicuous, as we discussed.” Bridget paused, and then pointed to a spot near Kookaburra. “You will be walking right past that trashcan. Please deposit this in it,” she said, handing him a bag that had come from a fast-food takeaway.
Billy took the bag, which he could tell had something inside it beside the empty wrappers. “What is it?” he asked.
Bridget did not wish to make Billy apprehensive, so she said, “Just be careful with it, for it may be a bit fragile; there are electronics in it. I shall explain when you get back, there is no time now.”
With the large fast-food bag in hand, Billy set out at a brisk walk. He was dressed for the part; loud board shorts and a t-shirt. He peeled off the shirt, hung the camera around his neck, and continued strolling along the road at the edge of the port, stopping every once in a while to snap a few pictures of the boats. He was trying his best to look like a tourist.
Kookaburra was tied up to a dock just two hundred feet from the nearest public walkway, which would be close enough for Billy’s purposes. As he drew near, he snapped a shot of a fishing boat, then angled to his right to snap a few of Kookaburra, catching Trevor hugging Rachel on the dock, though Rachel’s back was to the camera. Billy kept going, snapping a few more photos of the port, and then deposited the bag in the indicated trashcan, and then carried on a few yards before doubling back. He pulled his shirt back on as he neared Bridget and, as he arrived, he smiled. “Got ‘em,” he said, handing her the camera.
Bridget examined the pictures on the camera’s LCD screen. “Well done, Billy, well done,” she announced, with a delighted smile on her face. “Now, a couple of extra shots, if you please, this time of me,” she said, handing him the camera.
Bridget opened the trunk of one of the cars she’d rented, and pulled out something she’d purchased from a hobby store in Perth: a two foot long model boat, which was exactly what it appeared to be; a remote controlled toy. She took a seat on one of the concrete blocks at the edge of the water, placed the boat on her lap, and flipped the latch to release the deck assembly and expose its interior. Inside were the batteries, the motor, and the radio receiver, along with ample empty space. Bridget angled the toy boat so that the interior was visible to the camera. There were no people close by, so Bridget had no reason to veil her words. “Billy, please take my picture, with the catamaran in the background. If Trevor appears, make certain that you get both of us in the frame.”
Billy followed his orders, taking several pictures of Bridget, who posed, smiling for the camera. Billy had finished when he noticed a motion on Kookaburra and swung his camera back up, catching Bridget in the awkward position of halfway standing up, and a blond head aboard Kookaburra in the background. It was actually Shane, making sure the forward access hatches were locked, but at that angle, there was no way to tell him apart from Trevor, who was still with Rachel, dockside.
“Got him,” Billy reported, with a smile.
Bridget turned to look, catching a glimpse of Shane’s head. “Perhaps, though more than good enough. Well done,” Bridget said, before glancing at the picture. “Hardly a good shot of me, I look quite ungainly, though for our purposes, this is gold.”
“Why do we need those?” Billy asked.
“In due time, Billy, in due time,” Bridget replied, giving him a wink and a smile.
Billy was growing used to Bridget’s mysterious ways, but there was another matter, and she’d promised, so he asked, “What about that fast-food bag?”
“When we’re in the car,” Bridget said, casually depositing the remote controlled boat in a nearby trashcan, along with its controller, before getting in the car.
Bridget had driven half a block before she turned to tell Billy, in a very offhand way, “The contents of the bag were some fast-food wrappers, along with a cell phone, modified to set off the stick of dynamite.”
“Dynamite?” Billy gasped, the color draining from his face.
“You worry too much, Billy,” Bridget replied, chuckling softly. “I have been carrying three sticks since Adelaide, it is quite safe.”
“Somebody is going to get one hell of a surprise,” Billy said, glancing back towards Kookaburra.
“Indeed, someone is,” Bridget replied, a bemused smile spreading across her face.
In Carnarvon, Fowler conferred with the operation’s commander in Fremantle; they both believed that Basingstoke was heading for Carnarvon, though they could not be certain. That uncertainty, coupled with the evident threat from the air, caused the commander to give the order, “I’m sending the protectees to the Geraldton police station. I want them off that boat, right now.”
Fowler had no objections.
As soon as he and Shane were in the police car’s back seat, Trevor gave his mother another hug. “It’s good to see you, Mom.”
“I wish it wasn’t under these circumstances,” Rachel replied, as she glanced back at Kookaburra.
Shane, with a weak smile, asked, “Is Mr. Blake here too?”
Rachel shook her head. “He had to mind the farm – there’s a delivery that one of us had to be there for – so I drove down alone. I’m parked near the police station, and the officers said I can stay with you while you’re there. I… I don’t know what to make of all this. I’m so sorry that you two are caught up in it.”
Trevor knew what his mother meant, and understood her unwillingness to say more in front of police officers, who might well take a dim view of her past. “It’s okay, mom. No one can see the future,” he said, taking her hand in his own.
Basingstoke, flying with his engine at seventy-five percent throttle and the mixture leaned out as much as it would go, kept a nervous eye on his fuel gauges. He’d run his original fuel tanks almost dry, and now switched over to the extra tank he’d added years before. Even with it, he still needed to refuel in the Goldfields region.
As he approached Wiluna, Basingstoke descended to three hundred feet in order to make a centerline pass down the runway. During the pass, he looked for any sign of activity, especially police, but saw nothing; the officer had parked his car in a hangar.
Growing concerned, Basingstoke made a second pass, from the northwest. This time, he noticed the incongruous presence of the massive mine dump trucks, and breathed a sigh of relief as he climbed away, still heading southeast.
Five miles from Wiluna, Basingstoke yanked his Debonair into a ninety degree bank to starboard, rolling out southbound, on a heading for Mount Keith.
Half an hour earlier, Jindalee had passed the word to Fowler; the target was within their minimum range and off their scopes. They’d lost him. The officer at Wiluna, however, had seen him, and had been on the phone to Fowler during the passes.
It had taken Fowler a few minutes to get the word out, but his first call had been to Mount Keith airport.
Basingstoke however, had other plans. He flew south, passing Mount Keith five miles to the east, and then he checked his navigation one more time, bit his lip, and began his descent to his destination; a dirt strip, twenty-two miles south of Mount Keith Airport, and three miles east of the Goldfields Highway. He made his customary low-level pass to check the condition, and also to confirm that the man he’d been speaking to by phone was there, as he’d said. The rendezvous had been arranged days before; a large water tank on the back of a pickup truck, which now held avgas.
Two low passes revealed that the strip – Basingstoke had seen the name on his chart, but had considered it irrelevant – looked rougher than Basingstoke would have preferred, but he had little choice. There was no alternate field for him, so he lowered his gear, lined up on the centerline for a southbound approach, and did his best to achieve a gentle landing. This is never easy at an unfamiliar field, and Basingstoke winced as he touched down a bit hard, bounced twice, and then began to brake amidst a cloud of red dust and the sound of gravel pinging against his plane’s underside.
Basingstoke came to a halt at the end of the runway, near where the truck was parked. It pulled up beside him before the dust had settled, and its driver hopped out, greeting Basingstoke with an amiable wave. “I believe you’ve got something for me?” he asked.
Basingstoke climbed out on his wing and jumped down. “I do indeed,” he said, handing the man an envelope with five thousand in cash, which the man quickly counted.
“That’ll do,” the man, a ranch hand, said, reaching for the hose attached to the tank. The pickup truck had a raised body, so the tank’s hose was at roughly the height of Basingstoke’s wing-mounted filler caps. The tank held more fuel than Basingstoke needed, so gravity would be their pump.He’d worked out the details over a week before, and hoped he’d thought of everything.
The first thing that went wrong was that the dispenser nozzle of the hose, normally used for water, was slightly too large to fit the throats of the Debonair’s filler caps. The use of a sheet of plastic – a divider from one of Basingstoke’s ring-bound manuals – as an improvised funnel fixed that, and the fuel began to flow.
As they completed the fueling of the second wing tank, a distant cloud of dust to the west heralded the approach of a car at high speed. The police cruiser heading north towards Wiluna had run late, and had been monitoring the situation via radio. The officer in the driver’s seat had chanced to look to the east, and had seen Basingstoke’s plane, three miles away, parked on the skyline. It was pure bad luck for Basingstoke, a roll of the dice that had gone against him.
Basingstoke couldn’t be sure what kind of car was approaching – the distance was too great. However, no matter who it was, he did not wish to meet them.
In frantic haste, Basingstoke climbed onto his wing. “You’d best run for it,” he said, while scrambling into his cockpit.
Basingstoke fired up the engine, firewalled the throttle, and in a cloud of dust, spun his Debonair in a tight circle and raced down the runway, deploying twenty degrees of flaps as he began his takeoff roll.
After what seemed like forever, he wobbled into the air, northbound, climbing into the sky just as the police cruiser roared through the Bellevue Gold Mine, barely a mile from Bellevue Airfield. Distracted, and badly rattled, Basingstoke retracted his flaps instead of his landing gear just yards off the runway, reducing lift at a critical time. Frantic, he shoved the nose down and retracted his landing gear, flying low in ground effect as he built up enough speed to climb, swearing at himself for the mistake that had nearly cost him his life.
The ranch hand, who knew the area well, sped away on a dirt track, knowing that it was far too rough for the cruiser, which he could now see well enough to identify, to be able to follow. He wasn’t overly worried; he’d done nothing that was actually illegal except for trespassing, though he was eager to avoid having to explain that his imprisoned cousin had made the initial arrangements.
The difficulties inherent with radio transmissions in the vast outback caused some delay. Ten minutes after Basingstoke’s hasty takeoff, the news was at last relayed to Fowler. The crew of the Bombardier, a hundred miles to the west, had already been told, and changed course in an attempt to intercept.
Fowler gaped when he heard the news. “Repeat that,” he ordered, and then blinked as he listened. He paused for a moment, thoughts awhirl, and then said, “Bellevue Airfield? At the Bellevue Gold Mine? You’re certain? Make sure somebody gets sent there to check it out; the surname of the woman we think is behind the attacks is Bellevue. I don’t believe in coincidences.”
Fowler set the phone down, and then told Ned and Grundig, “He’s probably working for Bridget Bellevue, and he eludes our net by landing at Bellevue Airport? What’s the connection? Is she trying to sign her name to this? Or does she own the place?”
Fowler’s suspicion, based on the seemingly incongruous name, was reasonable. It was also quite wrong. Basingstoke did not know Bridget’s name. The name of the airstrip was a coincidence, nothing more, but it would have ramifications.
When he reached ten thousand feet, a badly rattled Basingstoke turned west. He knew that he was within Jindalee’s minimum range, but he had no idea that the Bombardier was closing in.
Aboard the Bombardier, they flew by guesswork; the Debonair was beyond their radar’s range, and still within Jindalee’s minimum coverage blind spot.
The Bombardier’s pilot raced north, seeking his target based on its last reported course, but his scope remained blank. When it became obvious that they should have been within range, the pilot, after a discussion with headquarters, turned northwest, heading for Carnarvon, Basingstoke’s assumed destination, thinking that either they, or Jindalee, would detect him eventually.
Basingstoke flew on, westbound instead of northwest towards Carnarvon.His course, if extended, would have taken him to Kalbarri.
Years before, while a new pilot, Basingstoke had taken an aerobatics course. Anyone flying aerobatics had to wear a parachute – this rule was commonplace the world over. However, while it was a requirement to wear a parachute, there was no requirement to actually know how to use it. This too was commonplace, and many pilots, Basingstoke amongst them, found it unacceptable. Therefore he, as do many, had taken a few lessons in emergency parachute procedures, which primarily focused on teaching him how to stabilize himself after departing the aircraft, and how to land. A common result of an untrained parachute landing is shattered ankles – or worse.
Basingstoke had completed only three jumps, and hoped that he remembered enough. Carefully, he strapped on his parachute – a standard round canopy, but nearly thirty feet in diameter, larger than an emergency parachute’s twenty-four.
With his parachute secured, Basingstoke turned southwest, heading for Geraldton.
The Jindalee radar was at last able to detect the Debonair one hundred thirty miles from Geraldton. All they could discern was its course and speed. They could not determine its type. However, here the paucity in air traffic over Western Australia proved helpful; the speed was a match for a Debonair, and the timing was consistent with a Debonair taking off from Bellevue Airfield.
Basingstoke was not certain that Jindalee was tracking him, but he knew that Geraldton Airport had an air traffic radar. He didn’t know if it was an active or passive set – the type was not noted on his aeronautical chart – so he checked again to ensure that his transponder was on. He then dialed in a small amount of trim on the rudder.
He began to sweat, his nerves on edge, as he checked the programmed route in his simple autopilot, and engaged it. The Debonair altered course by two degrees, heading towards the first waypoint, smoothly compensating for the rudder’s trim adjustment. He then booted the laptop Gray had given him and loaded the software; he’d already entered the two longitudes in it.
After one more phone call, Basingstoke checked his GPS readout again, and gave his plane’s dashboard a fond caress. “Farewell,” he mumbled, as he reached across the empty passenger seat for the door.
Basingstoke scooted over – the pilot’s seat was on the left, while the cockpit’s sole door was on the right. He took great care not to disturb the contents of the passenger side footwell.
After a few quick breaths, sweating hard, Basingstoke looked three miles ahead, and saw a car parked on a dirt road; the appointed spot. He pulled back on the yoke, putting the Debonair into a climb. The airspeed bled off rapidly, and after a brief muttered prayer, the first he’d uttered in decades, Basingstoke shouldered the door open. He had to fight against the force of the air stream, which was considerably more than he’d assumed, even at seventy miles an hour.
Basingstoke struggled with the door, managing to leverage himself past it, but the delay had cost him; the Debonair’s autopilot, a simple model capable of flying waypoints at a set altitude via controlling the ailerons and elevators – though not the throttle – had commanded it to return to level flight, and the airspeed was already increasing as the aircraft’s nose dropped to level, and then continued into a shallow descent towards its preset altitude.
His plan had been to roll off the trailing edge of the wing, but the slipstream, now a raging hurricane of over one hundred miles per hour, tore Basingstoke from his precarious handhold, hurling him off the wing, directly towards the plane’s horizontal stabilizer, which Basingstoke’s shoulder struck with a glancing blow, sending him wheeling across the sky.
His world was an alternating, spinning scene of red and blue, punctuated by pain and fear. A high-rate spin while in freefall would be a danger to even an experienced skydiver, but to the poorly trained Basingstoke, the danger was grave. He had jumped at just over six thousand feet, and had quickly accelerated to over a hundred twenty miles per hour: impact was thirty seconds away.
Struggling, arms and legs flailing, Basingstoke managed to slow his tumbling. The sight of the ground rushing up to meet him evoked terror, and assuming that it was closer than it was, Basingstoke snatched at his rip cord. His body was vertical when the billowing parachute snatched at his harness with vicious power, the straps cutting into his crotch with brutal force, adding more pain to his ordeal.
When he recovered his wits enough to glance around and assess his situation, it took him a few moments to get his bearings. He was floating down under the billowing canopy, his eyes seeking the car. He found it; over a mile and a half behind him; he’d badly overshot. With an ache in his heart, Basingstoke scanned the sky and found his receding Debonair, now engaged in a gentle turn to the north, per its programmed course. He watched as it rolled out, its wings wobbling slightly, on a course of due north.
Basingstoke studied the approaching ground below, attempting to use his risers to spill air and maneuver his parachute, but his skill was not up to the task; he saw that he was going to overshoot the dirt track he’d tried to aim for. He spared a glance in the direction of the car, seeing it heading in his direction at high speed and raising a cloud of ochre dust.
Too late, he saw the fence; Basingstoke let out a muffled gasp as he recognized the barbed wire, and closed his eyes as he angled his legs to the left, attempting the classic five-point parachutist’s landing.
With a sharp thud and a moan of pain, Basingstoke crumpled to the ground, mere inches from the barbed wire. Before he could react, the breeze caught his parachute, and he felt a snatch at his harness as it began dragging him towards the waiting barbs. Desperate, he flipped over and clutched at a clump of dry grass, as his parachute at last settled to the ground.
Badly bruised at his shoulder from the collision with his plane, Basingstoke tried to stand, only to feel a jab from his ankle; he’d lightly sprained it during his landing. Cursing and wondering if his injuries would preclude his mission, he began releasing himself from his harness. He then reeled in his parachute, wadded it up, and stuffed it under a nearby bush, which only partially concealed it.
With only the fanny pack he’d worn for the jump, Basingstoke limped towards the onrushing car. Seconds later, Billy, accompanied by a cloud of cloying dust, crunched to a stop, and threw open the passenger door for Basingstoke.
“Go,” Basingstoke ordered, as he lurched into the passenger seat.
Billy sped away, heading for the Geraldton-Mount Magnet road, two miles to their south, which he pulled onto, ten miles east of Moonyoonooka, and raced west towards Geraldton, following the directions of his GPS.
“I hope you got the gear I asked for, we’ve no time now,” Basingstoke said, again hoping that the lessons he’d taken would prove sufficient.
Billy glanced at him, and then returned his attention to the road. “In the trunk, filled and ready. The propane tanks are in the other car’s trunk, and I made sure they’re full, too.”
“Trunk?” Basingstoke asked, still somewhat rattled, only to quickly add, “Oh, you mean the boot. Good. You’ve got the motorboat too, right?”
Billy nodded. “Mrs. B has it ready for us, at the yacht marina. She’ll meet us there.”
“Mrs. B?” Basingstoke replied, arching an eyebrow in surprise at Billy’s slip. “I figured Ms. Margaret wasn’t her name, though I’d best keep calling her that.”
“So had I,” Billy replied, cringing slightly.
The motorboat Bridget had rented wasn’t, strictly speaking, needed if all went according to plan, but they could not be certain that Kookaburra would be in port. The powerboat was mainly – though not completely – insurance; there in case of need.
The Debonair continued north, until it reached the tiny hamlet of Nanson, its final waypoint. There, it banked gently to port, turning to a course of north-northwest, a precise heading of one hundred sixty five degrees, a direct course for Carnarvon. Two minutes later, Gray’s software on the laptop noted that the longitude was now less then the first preset, and triggered its first subroutine, which had one function; to shut off a relay. That relay had been spliced into the power wire for the transponder.
The course for Carnarvon, coupled with the sudden cessation of the transponder, left the authorities with only Jindalee as a means of tracking the Debonair – and routing the Bombardier on an intercept course. Carnarvon, two hundred and fifty miles ahead of the Debonair, was an hour and a half flying time away. A few hectic minutes later, the welcome news went out; the Bombardier would intercept the Debonair twenty minutes short of Carnarvon. The only fly in the ointment was that the Bombardier, a type most commonly used as a civilian commuter plane, carried no air to air weaponry. They could intercept and follow, but they could not stop the Debonair, even if they’d been ordered to.
There could be no order to shoot down the Debonair, even if a fighter had been available; all they really had were suspicions and an informant, and that was not enough to justify deadly force.
Fowler, with a Federal Police officer aboard Atlantis, advanced the throttles to the stops as he steered due west, trying to put a few more miles between Carnarvon and the presumed target. The federal officer, glancing nervously at the sky, asked, “How long will we stay with her?”
Fowler checked his watch, and glanced at the Zodiac. “We’ll be away in plenty of time; a quarter of an hour before the plane gets here. We’ll stand off a few kilometers in the Zodiac. My best guess is he’ll do some sort of a bombing run on Atlantis, which will give us the proof we need. The good news is that the Bombardier has the speed and fuel to stay with him until he has to land or ditch. We’ll get him, one way or another.”
The Debonair appeared on the Bombardier’s radar, allowing the pilot to make a slight adjustment to his course. The intercept angle was very shallow – almost a tail chase – but the faster Bombardier closed the gap. Soon, a flyspeck in the distance prompted a call, “Target in sight,” and the pilot steered to approach from below and behind – a blind spot for a low-wing aircraft. He was soon close enough to confirm the type. He slewed a few yards to starboard to allow his copilot to read the tail number with binoculars and then radio the confirmation to headquarters.
Aboard Atlantis, Fowler took the news with stoic determination. “It’s him, no doubt, and he doesn’t seem to care who knows it,” he said, pulling the throttles back and turning off the engines. “Let’s get out of here.”
Within two minutes, Fowler and the federal officer were speeding away in the Zodiac, leaving Atlantis adrift, with only her tracking device running.
The tracking device, nearly identical to the one Basingstoke had planted on Kookaburra and that was now switched off at Fleet Base West, differed in only one major respect; Ned was keeping the battery of the one on Atlantis fully charged. Had the one that had been on Kookaburra been left in operation, it would have long since exhausted its battery – a fact of which Basingstoke was aware.
There was no way for Fowler – or anyone else in Carnarvon – to communicate directly with the Bombardier; they didn’t have a radio capable of working on the same frequencies as the aircraft was using. Everything was being relayed via Customs and Border Patrol headquarters to Fowler’s office, where Grundig repeated it to Fowler via their radio. With Fowler ten miles offshore, the reception was spotty, but it was enough that Fowler received a running countdown of the Debonair’s distance.
As the twenty kilometer call went out, the Bombardier’s copilot checked their course. “Target is on a direct course for Carnarvon, not the boat,” he warned.
A wave of concern swept through the chain of command: speculation that the town could be at risk. It was brief; there was insufficient time for more.
The Debonair’s autopilot was set for a waypoint above Ned’s boatyard. However, it would never reach it. Five miles southeast of Carnarvon, Gray’s software noted that the longitude reported by the laptop’s GPS card was now less than the final preset. This triggered the second, and quite final, subroutine. Two hexadecimal commands were sent in sequence to the parallel port’s base address, setting two of its pins to logic high, thus energizing the wires attached with five volts. This voltage was for the two remaining relays. One opened to interrupt the power wire to the plane’s autopilot, while the other closed a circuit, sending twelve volts surging down two wires. Those wires had only one thing between the relay and ground; the igniter for a model rocket motor. Each igniter nestled in the throat of a small model rocket motor – C class – purchased from a hobby shop and suitable for sending a small homebuilt rocket a few hundred feet into the air.
In this case, there was no rocket. There were only the drill bits that had once resided in the case Gray had used to house the relays. They were bundled around the rocket motors – themselves not greatly larger than AA batteries – parallel to them, and secured with duct tape. Each of these bundles was secured to the top of the passenger footwell, the rocket nozzles pointing down. Below each of them was a two liter plastic soda bottle filled with avgas. Clustered around them were half a dozen identical bottles.
The igniters are available from any hobby store, and are simple and reliable: two parallel wires, held by a strip of tape, angle to a point that is inserted into the motor. That point is coated with a pyrotechnic – often phosphorous-based. Inside the pyrotechnics the two wires are joined by a tiny strand of high resistance filament. When current is applied, the filament acts like the one in a light bulb, glowing white hot, which ignites the pyrotechnics, resulting in a brief gout of flame within the rocket motor’s combustion chamber. This did what it was designed to do, and ignited the motor’s ammonium perchlorate–based solid fuel.
The two tiny motors roared to life, blasting white hot flame – hot enough to partially melt their ceramic nozzles – at a forty-five degree angle at the flanks of the two soda bottles, two inches below. The drill bits acted as a flame guide, concentrating the flame but allowing pressure to escape between them. The white hot rocket exhaust lanced through the plastic, tearing a long burning gash in the sides of the bottles, while igniting and releasing the avgas.
The blast effect from the engines, though they fired for less then a second, caused a shock wave within the bottles, sending even more fuel gushing out through the burning opening. In less than a second, the passenger footwell was a raging inferno, as the flames began to eat at the remaining avgas bottles.
It was a simple means of starting a fire aboard. Gray, though his single test had been successful, had decided to use two motors for redundancy, a quality ever beloved of engineers.
Though the autopilot was dead and flames roiled in the cockpit, the Debonair flew on for a few moments, until the rudder trim that Basingstoke had dialed in began to have its slight effect, and the plane began a slow turn to starboard, thick black smoke beginning to belch from its open cockpit vents.
As the Debonair began its turn, the viewing angle from the Bombardier changed, allowing its copilot a brief glimpse of the cockpit before the smoke obscured his view. “Fire aboard, but I think the cockpit’s empty,” he shouted.
The Bombardier’s pilot, abandoning all pretense of subterfuge, banked into a turn to match the Debonair, pulling even with it. The smoke, now roiling out along with a few flickers of flame, obscured their view, but they had already alerted their base that the plane might be pilotless.
In the customs office, Ned and Grundig listened to the reports coming in on the speaker phone. “No pilot? It was a damn flying bomb, and now it’s out of control,” Grundig said, reaching for a phone to warn the fire department, which was already standing by.
“I hope it doesn’t hit town,” Ned said, dashing for the door to try to spot the burning aircraft.
The Debonair, like most small planes, was inherently stable by design; let go of the controls, and in most cases the plane would assume a wings-level and somewhat stable flight. The rudder trim merely caused the plane to fly in a wide, lazy circle, though this could not last; the raging fire was already spreading within the fuselage and eating at the plane’s fuel lines, which had been rerouted via rubber hoses to pass through the footwell. As the plane began its second circle, the fuel lines finally failed. Moments later, the engine coughed, sputtering before falling silent for the final time.
Deprived of thrust though still in level flight, the Debonair slowed rapidly, a slight shuddering signaling the onset of a stall. Due to the turn, the inboard wing had a slightly slower airflow, and after one final shudder, the wing entered a full stall, resulting in a total loss of lift on the starboard wing. The Debonair, trailing smoke and fire, rolled to starboard, her nose dropping towards the ground as she began her final dive. Seconds later, at three hundred miles an hour and with a shattering crunch, the Debonair slammed into the desert, three miles southeast of Carnarvon.
A column of thick black smoke climbed skyward, marking the Debonair’s grave.
The fire truck, sirens howling, had barely begun to roll when the order came in: “Check for a body, and report at once.”
Basingstoke’s deception had not gone quite according to plan; he had hoped that it would take at least thirty minutes before it was discovered that no one had been aboard. It would take less than ten. Still, the Debonair had accomplished what he’d intended.
In Geraldton, it was late afternoon, and people were starting to leave work for the day. This made parking easy to come by, and allowed motorists to be choosy regarding where to park.
Bridget availed herself of the ample parking choices, easing one of the cars she’d rented into a parallel parking spot on a busy street, where it would be just one car of many. She checked her hair and makeup in the mirror and, with a jaunty air, locked the car. As she walked away, heading for the entrance to the courthouse, she casually glanced to her right, seeing the two story glass facade of the police station, sixty feet from the road. The station was separated from the road by its own parking lot, though it was narrow, holding just a single row of cars.
Bridget strolled past the entrance to the courthouse, walking amongst several other pedestrians, and kept going for a block, before turning left to the beach and then strolling southwest, towards the yacht marina. It took all of her concentration not to smile.
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