Their decisions made, each gave the other a long and loving embrace. They moved cautiously to the rear door of the house and when all three were outside, Deidre locked the door with her key. With the front door bolted from the inside and the backdoor deadlocked the only way into the house without a key would be to break in. If Colin wanted to reenter uninvited, this would be his only option.
They made their way, silently and carefully to Jenni's car parked at the side of the house. The street was dark and quiet, the only sounds coming from the stirring of leaves by a gentle pre-dawn breeze; and in the distance a dog barking occasionally way off in the distance. Three car doors closed gently. Jenni turned the engine over and eased the car in reverse out into the street.
First stop was the camping and disposal store. They'd agreed it was safer for Deidre to stay at Jenni and Mr Henry's flat at the back of the store. Mr Henry was expected back later that day and Deidre would bring him up to speed on current events. Together they could decide whether or not to involve the police. Before this happened Deidre wanted the opportunity to speak to Colin. She would try to contact him later that day. She'd made a deal and promised Andrew they'd meet in a public place. If she sensed she was in any danger she'd call detective Earnshaw immediately. The other part of the deal they'd made was that Jenni would go with Andrew and stay with him while they searched for any evidence that Malcolm had made it to the Mt Warner airstrip.
When they arrived at the flat, Jenni showed Deidre where everything was that she would need. Jenni gathered some extra gear and then the three said their goodbyes.
Deidre looked into them both. Remember, she said. Stay together and stay safe.
We will mom, Andrew said. I'll call you as soon as we're back in range.
They hugged once more and then Jenni and Andrew drove out of the laneway. Deidre watched them go until the taillights disappeared around the corner. In the immediate solitude she was gripped by emptiness and uncertainty yet at the same time she had absolute clarity around what needed to be done. Her purpose was her strength. With warlike intent she would stop at nothing if it led to her husband's return.
Jenni and Andrew drove for some time in silence. As Jenni concentrated on the road, looking for the turnoff to Mt Warner National Park, Andrew worked through a range of possible scenarios. Every scenario began with a 'what if' and while the uncertainty that came from having to continually speculate could be tedious and frustrating, he knew the value of considering all possibilities and to plan for the unexpected. However until they reached the airstrip which, if everything went as anticipated would be sometime before midday, everything was an unknown. Andrew could be sure that if they found absolutely no evidence of any activity it would be a short and disappointing trip. Something told him however that his supposition would lead them to finding evidence of his father's whereabouts.
If his father had put down at the airstrip and got into difficulty and been incapacitated, Andrew and Jenni's trip would become a rescue mission. If on the other hand his father had put down and left the plane and gone into the bush it would be a search and discovery mission, which may also by necessity lead to rescue. He had to consider all options.
When making ready for this trip Andrew had gone through a well rehearsed survival checklist. Malcolm had routinely encouraged Andrew to apply what he called, the essential survival questions. Malcolm had learned these in his training days and considered them to be the basics for bush survival.
Question 1: How many days will I be in country? What food do I need and will I need to carry water?
Question 2: Do I have the right clothing and the right footwear and what spares if any do I need to carry?
Question 3: Do I need any special equipment?
Question 4: What medical kit do I need to take?
He'd packed basic rations for a week's survival as had Jenni. There were a number of natural water sources that Andrew knew of, which meant they did not have to carry more than a days supply. At this time of year temperatures ranged between a cool 10 degrees Celsius in the evening and a temperate 26 degrees in the day. The wet season had not yet begun however thunderstorms were not uncommon at this time of year. It could be wet underfoot in the sub tropical rainforest. It was not necessary to take a second pair of boots however a dry change of clothes was always a good idea and an anorak with a sown in hood. Andrew had packed a light two-person tent and they both carried lightweight hollow core sleeping bags. He hadn't considered it necessary to take any special equipment other than a portable GPS and a 50 metres length of 8.5 millimetre climbing rope. He always carried a standard survival medical kit when he went into the bush. For this trip he added an amount of webbing in case it might be necessary to bind any broken limbs. Additionally he included his survival knife. It was an imported knife that his father had purchased for him as a gift for his fifteenth birthday. The blade length was approximately 7 inches and the handle 5 inches in length. It had different edges that could be used for cutting, sawing and chopping. The knife was extremely strong and sharp and very useful for any number of survival needs. He kept it sheathed and strapped to his right thigh.
They had been driving for approximately two hours. Jenni spotted a roadhouse and as they would be turning off the highway within the next ten kilometres, suggested they get a coffee.
Andrew agreed, good idea, he said. But lets make it quick. Jenni smiled to herself. She knew what this meant to Andrew and how much responsibility he'd taken on. He could be so earnest sometimes.
They entered the roadhouse. The waitress glanced at them offering a halfhearted smile. She looked as if she hadn't slept the party off from the night before and was only just tolerating a couple of caravanning tourists noisily tucking into a full fry-up breakfast of bacon, sausage and eggs. Jenni realised how hungry she was once she smelt food and wondered if Andrew was the same.
I'm starving, she said. Are you hungry?
Neither had eaten much the day before and it also occurred to Andrew that a good feed before they began their walk was a very good idea. I could eat a horse and chase the rider, he said. Jenni caught his expression and they both laughed out loud. The surprise and relief of laughter amidst the tension was welcome. For a moment they held one another's gaze as their laughter subsided.
Let's order, Jenni said, breaking their reverie.
She ordered a ham and cheese toasted croissant and he ordered scrambled eggs on rye. They both had coffee and ate without much conversation.
Andrew looked up from finishing his coffee: are you ready?
Yes lets go, she said.
No, Andrew insisted, are you ready?
Yes, she said again, fully understanding what he was asking. Lets go find your dad Andy.
An hour later they came to the point where the track had been sealed off to the Mt Warner Airstrip. Jenni parked the car off the road; they unloaded their packs and began the hike. The track hadn't been used for a number of years and was washed away in many places. Several times they had to traverse a deeply eroded gully or scale a dead tree lying across the road.
As the gradient of the track began to get steeper, Andrew checked his watch. It was just past midday, he estimated they had only a few hundred metres to go before arriving at the strip.
We're close, he said, as they quickened their pace.
Jenni let Andrew walk ahead. She knew the next few minutes would be critical. They would soon know if his guesswork had paid off. As they came around a bend in the track the tree line opened up. For the first time Mt Warner was revealed in the distance: a smooth escarpment ascending to the peak in one long undulating line. A blue eucalypt-gum haze infused the atmosphere as cloud shadows danced over and along the mountain's ridgelines. If Andrew had not been so intent on finding evidence of his father he would have appreciated the beauty of the mountain and the clouds.
Before them lay a grass field dotted with the occasional sapling. The breeze blew patterns in the grass as it shifted and swirled in different directions. But nothing of any value revealed itself. No plane. No sign of a landing and no evidence of a crash site. All his doubts began to surface. Had he hoped for too much? He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see. But first impressions offered no signs of habitation. It was clear no one had been there for a long time. The Mt Warner Airstrip may once have been a centre of activity during bushfire season, but now it was nothing more that a wind swept grassy flat.
Andrew surmised that it would be impossible for anyone to land a plane on that field. He felt glum and deeply disappointed. He'd brought Jenni all this way on a whim. He could barely look at her let alone speak. Andrew began to walk away from her towards the eastern end of the field.
Jenni watched her friend. Her heart strained for him. She wished it was different but she could see there was nothing resembling a plane or a crash site. She followed his steps, now and again stopping to sweep her gaze over the field and to the tree line that surrounded the strip. She estimated the flat area that had been graded as a landing strip, was approximately 400 metres long and about 100 metres wide at one end going out to about 150 metres at the other. She also noticed that the grass at one end of the field moved differently in the breeze to the grass at the other and that it was a different colour green.
In the distance Andrew spotted a small building. He thought to himself that it was most likely used to store fuel and other gear for the planes. Andrew beckoned to Jenni and together they made their way through the waist deep grass. The ground was moist underfoot due to recent rain and they took their time to get to the shed.
There was nothing of any consequence. However it did cross Andrew's mind that if they decided to camp the night it would as a good a site as any.
Andrew noted the time. It was after midday and they had been walking for a good three hours.
We should stop for a while and have some lunch, Andrew said.
Sure, she said. I'll make a billy fire so we can have some tea.
Andrew nodded in agreement as he threw down his backpack next to Jenni's.
So what's the plan? Jenni asked, knowing that he was at his best when making decisions.
Andrew thought for a moment then offered; we have approximately 6 hours of light left in the day. It took us just under 3 hours to get here so that leaves us about 2 hours and 30 minutes to look around. We should at least do that. If we haven't found anything we'll leave at 3.00pm.
Sounds like a plan, Jenni said. She steadied her gaze and added. Andy, if he meant to go missing you don't think he'd be advertising the fact, do you?
For a second Jenni thought Andrew was going to rebuke her for being a smart arse, when he turned on his heel and cried out.
That's it, he said. I'm looking for the wrong thing. I've been looking for tracks and traces when I should be looking for no tracks and traces.
Jenni thought Andrew had lost it. What the blazers are you on about? She asked.
Andrew began his explanation as Jenni got a small fire going. Ok here are three scenarios: first, Dad never came here and we're wasting our time.
Jenni made a face.
Second, Dad tried to land here and crashed close by. Which means we need to get up higher to look around.
Jenni nodded at the sense of this.
Third, he landed on the field, hid the plane somehow and made off, taking care to cover his tracks and traces.
Jenni finally understood her friend's logic. There was a long pause between them. Then she asked; do you still want tea?
For the first time since they arrived Andrew smiled, letting his anxiety subside.
Water won't take long to boil, he replied, recognising Jenni's efforts. Then we need to get up to higher ground so we can get a better view.
She nodded and set to boiling the billy.