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ESCAPE FROM THE PAST

escape from the past cover

On the way to the ruins at St Helena, once an island prison for men off the Queensland coast, Sally Cooper browses through a booklet on the island’s dark history. A story on one of the prison’s most famous inmates, William O’Meally, sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter, captures Sally’s interest. As she reads of William’s several escape attempts and of his suicide by hanging, Sally finds herself strangely affected by his photograph; the young man’s hypnotic eyes are filled with intense desperation.  

For Sally Cooper, past and present are about to fuse. Haunted by William’s plea of innocence, she begins to delve into a mystery that has been buried for a hundred years. Through her freakish connection to the past, where William is living out his last days, Sally is drawn into a race against time. While piecing together the facts regarding William’s sad plight of heartbreak and betrayal, Sally begins to explore her own past lives, to discover the sad truth about her own relationship.  

Can she make one final link with the past to disclose the truth about William and clear his name before he is driven to take his own life?

In Store Price: $28.95 
Online Price:   $27.95

ISBN: 978-1-921731-11-2    
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 299
Genre: Fiction


Buy as a pdf  Ebook version - $AUD9.00
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© Cover Design and author photograph – Mary Brettell 2010

© Cover images courtesy Jeff Simpkins 2010

Special thanks to James Atkinson for the use of the photograph of his eyes

 

 

Author: Anne Infante
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2010
Language: English

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About the author 

Anne Infante was born in Sydney, Australia, and raised in Papua New Guinea. She has been writing for her own amusement as long as she can remember. She has had five crime novels published by Collins Crime Club, UK and her first mainstream novel Escape from the Past was published in Australia in 1997 by Saga Publishing, Sydney.

Anne’s short stories have appeared in CrimeWriters Queensland anthologies as well as Australian Women’s Weekly and Australian Woman’s Day. She has presented numerous talks and workshops on the elements of crime and general fiction writing to writing groups, libraries and book clubs. In 2009, she published her first online novel China Wind which can be read on her website under Online Books.

Anne is also a folk singer/songwriter, has performed on national television and radio and has recorded several CDs of her own songs. She sings regularly at folk clubs and festivals.

Anne lives in Brisbane, Australia, and shares a house with her mother and TP, a dark brindle tortoiseshell cat.  

www.anneinfante.com

PART ONE

Brisbane Valley

1880

ONE

 

 A bright half moon slid up from behind the mountain ridge, striping the forest with silver-grey bands and deepening the shadows in hollows and gullies and thickets.

One slim silver moonbeam penetrated a tangle of spindly acacias and picked out the profile of a rider, waiting motionless in the shelter of a huge blackbutt. The light ran down the taut line of his young jaw but the rest of his face remained hidden under the broad brim of his hat.

Directly above, a mopoke, startled by the sudden brightness, gave its distinctive warning cry and, with a flurry of wings, flapped further into the trees. The rider’s horse snorted with alarm and threw up its head.

Its master tightened the reins with one strong hand and quieted the fretting animal with the other. Soothed, the horse dropped its head to lip at a clump of rough grass. The rider let the reins go slack on the animal’s neck and continued his vigil.

Behind him and to his left was a tall outcrop of weathered rock known as The Citadel. If necessary, he could withdraw into its fissured depths and remain concealed from anyone passing along the track which ran through the narrow valley below. Not that there’d be much risk of travellers at this hour of the night; that was why Buck had chosen the time and place.

The moon broke free of the tall mountain pines and the rider moved, backing his mount into the shadows. There were other men here, standing or squatting on their heels, as silent as the bush itself. Among the trees were horses, watched over by a small jockey-like figure.

‘Well?’ The oldest of the group, a man with long, light brown hair and a fine handlebar moustache, asked quietly. His voice had a soft American drawl.

The rider slipped from the saddle. ‘No sign.’

‘Damnation! We can’t wait.’

The youth glanced at the sky. ‘Past ten,’ he said and pulled a silver watch from his pocket although he could tell by the position of the moon that he was right. His coat fell open, revealing a dandy’s waistcoat, floral print, with a fancy silk lining.

The others moved closer. ‘We can’t go with two men short.’

The American gave a soft laugh. ‘We could make it. It’d be a challenge.’

Flash Johnny Francis, of the watch and fancy waistcoat, said, ‘Buck, can’t we wait another ten minutes?’

Buck Buchanan, the American and the group’s leader, nodded. ‘I allowed for some extra time; but no more’n ten minutes. We go without them if we have to.’ He jerked his head towards the horses. ‘Someone go tell Limpy.’

Flash Francis remounted and returned to his post, anxiously scanning the valley for the missing men. His heart beat faster at the thought of going without them but the timing was critical. Buck’s plans were always immaculately thought out and had to be followed exactly; and they still had a long ride ahead of them.

The horse sensed his increased adrenalin and stamped nervously. He patted its neck and murmured gently to it, then smiled to himself. Of course they could do it. They had four good men, even without the O’Meally brothers; five, if you counted Limpy Patterson, who might be a cripple but could ride and shoot as well as any of them.

His confidence returned. They were all fine bushmen, all wild colonial boys, most of them born and bred in this tough, uncompromising land. They could outride, outfight and outshoot anyone in Australia, couldn’t they? They were Buck’s Boys, Buchanan’s Raiders, as hard as the ranges they rode with such consummate skill.

The sound of a horse being swiftly ridden alerted him and he drew back a little, his eyes and ears straining in the night. The rider below left the valley road and began to pick his way up the rough track which led steeply into the foothills of the mountain range.

Flash gave a soft whistle. It was answered from down the track and within minutes the horse and rider broke free of the scrub and came up beside him. They joined the others in the protective shadow of The Citadel.

Flash said, ‘It’s Red.’

‘What kept you?’ Buck rasped out, then, ‘Where’s Billy?’

Walter O’Meally shook his head and the mop of red curls which had earned him his nickname, Red, fell across his forehead. Impatiently, he brushed them back. ‘He’s not coming.’

‘Why not?’

The others were mounted now and gathered around the newcomer. There was a growing tension.

‘He’s gone to see Rose.’

Wild Jack d’Arcy groaned aloud. ‘The fool! Tonight of all nights.’

‘He couldn’t help it, he got a message.’ Walter said defensively. ‘George Carew’s gone away to Brisbane and has forbidden Rose to see my brother again.’

‘So he runs straight there to hide behind a woman’s skirts.’

‘You will not call Billy a coward.’ Walter snapped the challenge back. ‘He’s no need to hide and is as brave as any of us here. But he was desperate to see Rose. He doesn’t know how much time he has before Carew returns.’

‘Meanwhile, we are fast running out of time ourselves.’ Buck moved forward. ‘We’ll go ahead with the plan. Limpy can take Billy’s place tonight.’

James MacLeod, a big, quiet man muttered, ‘Aye, but he canna run like Billy, if we have to quit the place in a hurry, and who’s to hold the nags for us?’

Buchanan laughed again. ‘Perhaps you’d like to stay with the horses, Scotsman?’

‘Oh, aye, and where would ye be without the Scotsman to help you transfer all those beautiful nags from Squatter McIntyre’s yard to our ain?’ He chuckled. ‘Well, lads, are we going, or no?’

Sub-Inspector Frederick Arthur Stapleton emerged from a side door onto the verandah of Bellara homestead. Louvred shutters, beautifully crafted from glowing red cedar, protected the verandah doorways at night. A full seven foot high, they were still folded back to allow access as, this evening, Squatter McIntyre was entertaining the district’s new senior police officer.

To honour his host, who was the acknowledged leader of Bell’s Creek society, Frederick had donned evening dress, rather than his uniform. The sub-inspector was aware that, as he’d so recently arrived in the colony, his elegant black trousers, tail coat, starched white shirt and fawn waistcoat were the height of fashion, being of the latest English cut; although God alone knew how long he’d be able to maintain any sense of style so far from home. From his observation, Australian fashion seemed at least two years behind England and the Continent, due to the immense distance which necessitated many slow months of travel on even the fastest clipper ships before the latest fashion journals could arrive in this farthest of countries.

Frederick found some comfort in the fact that he was an attractive figure, either in civilian dress or his navy police garb. He was tall and slim, his body finely muscled. His thick black hair was parted at the side and cut short in military style and he wore no beard, preferring only his moustache and side whiskers. At the moment his well-shaped black brows were drawn together in a frown as his grey eyes stared rather despondently across the shadowed gardens and well-tended sweeping lawns of McIntyre’s spread.

Frederick strolled along the broad verandah which was sheltered by a curved iron roof, supported by graceful pairs of white posts turned out of cedar logs, making it an ideal place to entertain in hot weather. He looked up at the blazing canopy of stars. Among the bright clusters he could pick out the great glowing Pointers and they guided his eyes to the constellation called the Southern Cross which, he’d been told, always pointed to the South Pole. It was one of the few constellations he could name in this alien southern sky and he found himself nostalgically wishing for the familiar Pole Star or a glimpse of the Plough or the Great Bear.

He shook his head, dismissing the unwelcome surge of homesickness. He’d known it wouldn’t be easy, leaving his home and family and embarking on a whole new life in the colonies on the other side of the world.

He lit a cigar and leaned against the verandah rail. Although the moon riding up the sky was still only showing half its face, its brightness was turning the garden and the wide paddocks beyond to silver and dimming the stars. The night was very still with only the occasional harsh cry of a night bird. Close by a dog barked then fell silent.

Stapleton set his jaw. He was determined to stick it out, to learn the new ways and new customs and make a success of his life here, even though the heat and isolation could be almost unbearable at times and Australia seemed to be inhabited by every biting or stinging insect and plant sent to plague mankind. As if to prove his point a mosquito whined near his cheek. He struck at it and missed, then waved his cigar in the air, hoping the pungent smoke would deter the persistent insect.

He had few bitter thoughts about the past. He preferred to see the succession of blows as opportunities to break from his ordered pattern of existence and embark on his ‘colonial adventure’ as he liked to put it. A fresh start in a new land which, as he well knew, was brimming with wealth and the possibilities of advancement.

What there was of local society had welcomed the handsome young English officer and he had been inundated with invitations to dine or to attend the sudden rush of dances, shooting parties and other entertainments which were hastily arranged for his benefit. He was openly courted by hopeful mammas with daughters of marriageable age but – Caroline still lay like a bruise across his heart. He was always polite and pleasantly attentive but it was clear he simply was not interested, which made him even more of a challenge to various frustrated young ladies.

If only Father had lived. If only Roger had not squandered the family fortune at the gaming tables. If Caroline had stood by him instead of declaring she could not marry a poor man. Her family expected her to make a suitable match – and Henry Morrisey was a prize catch. If only he hadn’t fought that senseless duel and half-killed the man: his colonel had no choice he knew; he’d disgraced the regiment. The only reason he’d been allowed to resign his commission was that Colonel Fitzgibbon had been a friend of his father and was sympathetic about Caroline – no, ‘if only’ was a fool’s game. He refused to play it. That was all behind him; he’d make his name in the new colony and go home a hero one day. Yes, that was a better way to think. Not only a hero, but a rich man.

Then Caroline would see what her selfish ambition had lost her.

The door to the verandah opened and his host, also in black evening dress, with a shiny black silk waistcoat, stepped out to join him, followed by a servant carrying a heavy silver tray which he placed on a low table.

Andrew McIntyre was a thick-set man of medium height in his early fifties. He had a strong broad face and grizzled sandy hair. He favoured mutton-chop whiskers and his beard was neatly clipped into two points. He pulled out a large white handkerchief, wiped his damp forehead and smiled at the younger man.

‘Thought we’d have coffee out here if the damned insects’ll let us alone. Yes, Jones, you can pour – and we’ll have a brandy. Bring out the decanter.’

He motioned his guest to one of the comfortable canvas chairs that seemed to have been designed for lounging at one’s ease while surveying one’s acres. The sub-inspector had been pleasantly surprised by the grace and style of Bellara, with its spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, stained glass fanlights, polished floors, fireplaces with carved red cedar surrounds and elegant furniture. He’d not expected such a degree of luxury in the bush. The house was built on a knoll overlooking wide, rolling acres which ran down to the creek that gave the little township its name. The homestead was low-set, the verandah being only two steps up from the garden. Stapleton relaxed into the chair and accepted a cup of coffee. McIntyre lit a cigar and the two men shared a companionable silence.

The servant reappeared with the decanter, served them, and went back into the house.

Frederick sipped the brandy. It was excellent. He said so.

‘I can afford the best,’ his host told him frankly. ‘Couldn’t always, b’God. I battled for years; drought, stock losses, disease, farmers trying to take my land. It’s a tough country and a man needs to be tough to survive here. I’m a survivor. Now I own the biggest station in the district, wool prices are high, exports booming; and I can indulge my passion for breeding racehorses.’ He winked. ‘In the bottom paddock I’ve a nice lot of yearlings, waiting for branding before they go to the Brisbane market.’

Frederick stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. ‘You serve a superb meal, sir. I’ve enjoyed this evening.’

‘Thought you needed rescuing from the women. You’re a nine-day wonder; the girls don’t get much excitement so you’ve been a fine excuse for everyone to outdo her neighbour in entertaining the dashing newcomer.’ He broke into a slow chuckle.

‘To tell the truth, it’s a little embarrassing.’ Frederick ran a finger along his moustache as if seeking comfort from its luxuriant growth.

‘They’ll settle down, give ’em time. How’re you getting along at the police camp?’

‘I hope, well, sir. The native police are interesting and Sergeant Mallory is helping me acclimatise. I spent two years with the Indian army so I’ve had experience with handling natives. These are somewhat different, but they seem a dedicated bunch.’

‘The ladies are lucky there’s been little criminal activity of late or you’d not have been available for their parties. You’d be up country somewhere, miles away from the town for weeks on end, chasing law-breakers.’

‘That would suit me very well. I’m eager to see some action. I believe there was some local trouble before I arrived.’

The squatter leaned forward and topped up both brandy glasses.

‘Local lads, looking for adventure. You see, boys brought up out here on the farms, in the bush; well, it has to be said they don’t receive much education if they get any schooling at all. They’ve no respect for the law – indeed, I believe they feel themselves to be above it; they boast of being hard men, they know horses and firearms and judge a man solely on how he sits his mount or handles his weapon. They’ve a natural contempt for any who fall below their own rigid standards. Such boys are easy targets for manipulation by older men, more experienced in the ways of crime.’

Stapleton raised an eyebrow. ‘One might say you were speaking of Fagin.’

McIntyre laughed. ‘No, for these boys aren’t starving or homeless, merely tired of their humdrum lives and ripe for a spree. They delight in thumbing their noses at anyone in authority and are such superb bushmen even your black trackers have been outwitted by them.’ He looked amused. ‘You should know Stapleton, that police officers and bush larrikins are natural enemies.’

Stapleton smiled slightly. ‘You give me a keen desire for the chance to come to grips with these lads. I’m held to be a pretty fair shot myself and a not contemptible rider.’

‘In that case, I hope to show you some good sport very soon.’

Frederick thought the statement cryptic and looked a question at the squatter.

McIntyre merely smiled gently and asked, ‘More coffee?’

 

The six horsemen stopped at a noisy, fast-running creek and dismounted. They made their preparations in silence with the ease of long practice. Although the night was warm they donned dark coats and scarves, muffling the lower part of their faces and pulling their hats well down. Buck Buchanan folded his yellow-fringed buckskin coat and strapped it behind his saddle. Flash Johnny Francis buttoned his coat to the neck. The moon would not betray them by fingering some light spot or trademark clothing. All the men checked their weapons.

They remounted, a dark, anonymous group, and picked their way among the she-oaks. The creek bank was rocky; there would be few tell-tale tracks for the new sub-inspector’s police to follow.

Half an hour later they reached the boundary fence of Squatter McIntyre’s station.

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