Page 9 of Starlit Skies

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Nash shook it and replied, “Senior Constable King. Nice to meet you. Call me Nash.”

“Dale told me all about you. It’s a pleasure to be escorting one of Queensland’s finest.”

Paul turned to greet Skylar—they were obviously acquainted—and then he was showing them to their seats. It was a small, Bell 505, five-seater helicopter, with two seats up front and three in the back. The pilot offered one of them to sit up next to him, but Skyler shook her head, agitation clear on her face. Was she a nervous flyer? Nash chose to sit with her in the back row. Perhaps she might need moral support. Paul began to run through the safety protocols of flying in the small chopper, and Dale waved goodbye, tugging his reluctant mother by the sleeve to get her to follow him. Paul handed him a set of headphonesand showed him how to put them on. Then he did the same with Skylar.

Before Nash knew it, they were in the air, hovering over the lodge and its surrounding cabins. Nash had never travelled by helicopter before. What an amazing view. He craned his neck to get a better look at the countryside spread out below them, looking dry and sparse from this vantage point. September was near the end of the dry season, and he could see how thirsty the country looked. The Jimbu River ran like a ribbon of green away on the horizon. And the billabong and its surrounding lush vegetation was an oasis in the low foothills of Mount Mulligan. Soon, the small township of Dimbulah appeared, rows of small, white boxes and straight roads, the only true sign of human habitation for hundreds of miles. It really put it all into perspective, how tiny and remote they were. He tried to locate his own small cottage on the outskirts of town, but they were flying too fast, and he missed it.

It took him a few moments to notice that Skylar didn’t seem to be enjoying the view as much as he was. Her gaze was fixed forward, her hands clenched tightly in her lap.

He spoke a little hesitantly into the microphone by his chin. “Are you an anxious flyer?” he asked, not unkindly, ready to offer her a comforting pat on the shoulder, or a sick bag, whatever she needed.

“No, I’ve done this plenty of times before.” Her disembodied voice came back through the headphones, her tone so low and tense, he struggled to hear it over the noise of the rotor blades.

“Okay,” he acknowledged. So, if that wasn’t her problem, what was it?

Just when he thought she wasn’t going to give him more of an answer, she blurted, “I don’t like to leave the station. I’m not good with crowds. And I’m not looking forward to this whole court case thing.”

“Right.” That was a lot of surprising information. It was a side of Skylar he’d never imagined, she’d always seemed so together, so independent, and undaunted. Just look at how she handled that wife beater the other night. He wasn’t sure he could help her with the nervousness around crowds, or the fact that she saw the station as some kind of safe haven. But he could definitely help make the courtroom seem a little less scary. “That’s completely understandable. I can talk to you through it, if it’d help. What’ll be expected of you, who’ll be there, all that kind of thing. Your lawyer will also do that, but I’ve got first-hand experience of what it feels like to stand in a witness box.”

“Thank you,” she replied simply. But her eyes seemed to clear a little.

The rest of the twenty-minute flight was spent with Nash interrogating Paul on the finer points of being a helicopter pilot. This chopper was relatively new to the fleet. The company Paul worked for owned six helicopters, and he was one of nine pilots they used in rotation. Nash was fascinated with how simple the controls seemed to be. Paul told him these newer choppers were becoming easier and easier to fly; almost as easy as driving a car. Nash doubted that. Stormcloud used Paul’s company to ferry guests to and from the station, as well as take family or staff in and out when needed. Not for the first time, Nash wondered why Stormcloud didn’t have its own helicopter; a lot of the large, outback stations had more than one. But then he guessed that would then require someone to pilot the craft. Perhaps it was easier this way.

Paul pointed out a few things of interest on the way, and Nash saw the vegetation below slowly turn greener as they neared the coast. In some places, the tangle of foliage was so thick it covered everything in an impenetrable blanket of jade, and it went on and on for miles. It looked cool and inviting down there under the canopy, but Nash wasn’t fooled. He knew fromexperience that it’d be hot, humid, and sticky, and he was glad he was sailing through the air well above it all. The dichotomy of the landscape in far North Queensland was made more obvious from his vantage point up in the sky. The dry, flat floodplains, verging on desolate, were now replaced with soaring mountains, covered in waterfalls and lush foliage. Australia certainly was a place of contrasts as well as wonder, and he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Sooner than he expected, they were flying over the outskirts of Cairns. With a population of around one-hundred-and-seventy-thousand people, it was a popular tourist destination, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, as well as Daintree National Park, and many other tropical delights. Nash had been to the town many times, but never lived here, and he’d never seen it from the air.

Paul touched the chopper down lightly at the airfield, and they disembarked. Nash watched Skylar’s back as she walked across the tarmac to the hangar, bag in one hand, heels clicking on the blacktop. If anything, she seemed more tense now than she had been in the helicopter. As if she were bracing herself for what was to come.

They’d head straight to the courthouse. Dan Sanders’ trial was due to start at nine am. But neither he nor Skylar would be needed until after lunch. Both the charges, of domestic violence toward his wife Patty, and of causing grievous bodily harm to Skylar, would be heard together, as the judge deemed them to be related; Skylar’s testimony would be key to proving that Dan assaulted his wife. Which was a good thing for Skylar, as it meant she’d only have to endure sitting through one trial. The morning would be filled with opening statements from the lawyers. It’d give the prosecution team time to go over Skylar’s testimony with her. Hopefully, he’d have time to sit down and talk her through it, as well.

It was a matter of protocol that the arresting officer always attended the trial. At best, his testimony would help put a criminal in jail. But some cases dragged on and on, and at worst it was annoying, often a waste of his time, hours spent pacing up and down corridors, or watching from the back docks, when Nash could be doing other more important things. He’d spent every spare minute over the last few days checking his records from his little notebook from the arrest, as well as reading all witness statements, to make sure he remembered everything clearly.

Nash hurried to catch up with Skylar. “I’ll call us a taxi,” he said.

She merely inclined her head by way of answer, her back so stiff he wondered if she might shatter if he touched her. It looked as if her words about not being comfortable in a crowd might be correct.

Once they were safely ensconced in the back of the taxi, he asked her, “Which hotel are you staying at? I haven’t booked one yet. We may as well stay close together.”

Skylar was staying overnight, just in case they needed to call her in tomorrow to clarify any points. Nash was required to attend most days. So, today being Thursday, he’d spend the night, then fly home with Skylar tomorrow after the court finished for the day. He was rostered on to work on Saturday, and then would look forward to his day off on Sunday. The trial would resume on Monday—these things usually took at least a week to play out—but Nash would drive back on Monday morning. The helicopter ride was gratis because Stormcloud was bringing in guests, but there was no way police management would pay for him to do it again.

Skylar blew out a breath between pursed lips and then gave him an unreadable glance. “I’m at the Shangri La.”

“Great, I’ll see if I can get a booking.” Nash tapped away on his phone for the next few minutes and secured himself a room, wincing when he saw the price. It wasn’t his normal type of accommodation, but if Skylar was staying there, so was he. He wasn’t quite sure why, but a small thrill went through him at the thought he’d be at the same hotel. Even though Skylar had made it painfully obvious she wasn’t in the right space for dating, he couldn’t help but dream.

They arrived at the courthouse, and Nash paid the driver, then jumped out, grabbing both of their bags from the trunk. But when he came around on to the sidewalk, Skylar was still sitting in the back of the taxi, staring out the window at the impressive building.

From the look on her face, he understood exactly how hard this was for her. What’d happened to make her so wary? There must be something in her history to cause such anxiety.

Nash’s thoughts traveled back to the night Dan Sanders had attacked her. Some of the things she’d said had caused him to wonder if she hadn’t experienced something similar already. He remembered thinking that surely Skylar couldn’t possibly be the victim of domestic violence. But now, looking at the naked fear on her face as she tried to force herself out of the car, he began to wonder.

Opening the door, he bent his knees and looked in. “Take my hand, if it helps,” he said, stretching out his fingers.

She shook her head, as if trying to deny her own feelings. But then her crystal-blue eyes fixed on his face. “I should be able to do this on my own,” she said, in a small voice.

“You are doing this on your own,” he urged. “I’m just here to help you out of the car, that’s all. Come on, let me do my chivalrous deed for the day.” But he knew if she needed to use him as a crutch to get through the day, then he’d be a more than a willing volunteer.

Skylar drew in a deep breath, still glaring at his hand as if it might bite her. Hesitantly, she reached out and slipped her fingers into his.

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