First Chapter FREE – The Ned Kelly Game

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Melbourne morning had been drab and overcast, matching the sorrow that weighed around her.  As Felicity Simons looked up toward the stained glass windows in the small stone church, a ray of sunlight broke its way through the clouds.  It shone through the coloured glass making rainbow patterns across the walls.  She pushed a strand of dark hair out of her wet eyes and smiled sadly, hoping that her parents were at peace.  Lifting her head toward the high arched ceiling, she prayed for the strength they had instilled in her.  She wanted today to be a celebration of their lives.  There would be time for mourning later. 

Time seemed to have stopped and rushed by all at once since the moment when her teacher’s aide, Lucy, had knocked urgently on the door of her classroom.  She had been conducting a history tutorial to a group of mostly bored third-year students and was having trouble holding their attention.  The interruption had been almost a relief, until a solemn-looking police officer informed her that her parents had been involved in a collision on the highway with a large semi-trailer.  It had crushed their car and they had both died instantly.  

The previous three days were a blur, the days blending seamlessly into night then back into day.  She had not slept but merely dozed, afraid of the nightmares that might come.  She had no other immediate family in Melbourne and lived alone, so she was grateful that Lucy had offered her support and friendship.  She recalled sitting on the couch in the soft light of dusk, staring out the window.  Lucy had switched on the television to keep her company when she left.  It had been white noise against the background of her thoughts.  As she had glanced back across the room, the picture on the set had caught her eye.  She stared in horror.  Her parents’ car.  Crushed beneath the huge menace of the semi-trailer.  As the camera panned across the highway, the sight of two bodies beneath white sheets tore through her heart like a knife blade.    

She choked back sobs at the memory.  Staring out the church window, she wondered how her parents had felt in that final moment when living became dying.    

She became aware of other family members who had joined her in the front pew.  They had traveled from various parts of the country and could well have been strangers.  Her mother’s sister Judy sat beside her.  She took Felicity’s hand and squeezed it in support as the minister raised an arm to indicate it was time for her to offer the eulogy.       

“You’ll be OK dear.”

Thanking her, Felicity extracted her hand from her grip.  Although she had not seen her aunt in nearly twenty years, she knew that she and her mother had been in frequent telephone contact.  Felicity attempted a brave smile as she looked around the room.  Taking comfort from the familiar faces of friends, she recounted the story of her parents’ long and happy lives together.  The minister intoned a final prayer, ending the formal proceedings.  His words echoed through Felicity’s mind, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  As the curtain closed on her parents’ coffins, a wave of great loss washed over her.  In her forties, she had been looking out for herself for a long time now, but she had never felt so alone in the world.  She stifled tears as the minister took her arm and led her down the aisle to the heavy timber doors of the church.   

The congregation stopped one by one to offer their condolences.  Felicity caught sight of a red-haired man down the line.  He looked vaguely familiar.  As she kissed the passing mourners, her mind subconsciously searched to identify the face.  It was not until he was almost upon her that she recognized him.

“Sam!”  She was both surprised and shocked to see him after so many years.  She’d had a two-year relationship with Sam Vaughn during university.  Not having a son of his own, her father had developed a close bond with him in that time.  She recalled that her father had been very upset when she announced the relationship was over.  He had never really warmed to another man in Felicity’s life.  It was probably a smart move on his part, as there had been men since but none of them had lasted long.  She always found reasons why things could not work on a long-term basis.  She had a notion she was partly to blame, finding it hard to make the emotional connection needed, but her life had been satisfying in other ways.  She had pursued her other love – history – and immersed herself in the subject she now lectured in at the University of Melbourne.

“Hello Felicity.”  He reached down to kiss her on the cheek.  “I’m so sorry about your parents.”

The years had been kind to him.  His hair, though much shorter and no longer falling across his eyes as it had back then, had maintained its fierce redness and his pale skin appeared soft and unlined.  His smile was just as she remembered it.  Still the charmer.  An unfamiliar numbness took over her body and she became aware of her heart thumping in her chest.

Sam was speaking.  “I saw the funeral notice in the paper so I just wanted to drop by and pay my respects.  I hope you don’t mind.” 

“Of course not,” she said slightly breathless.  People in the line behind him shuffled restlessly so there was no time for lengthy conversation.  “I’ve organised a wake at my parents’ club.  You’re welcome to come.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t stay.  Tell you what, I’ll give you my number and maybe we can catch up.” 

As he took a business card from his wallet, she noticed the wedding ring on his finger.  She forced a smile.  “Thanks Sam.  And thank you for coming.  It means a lot to me.”  She threw the card into her handbag for lack of a bin, determined not to give him another thought after he left.

 

Sam sat in his office reflecting on how together Felicity had seemed that morning.  She had always been the strong one.  He could not help letting his mind wander back to the event that led to their breakup.  The plan had seemed simple enough.  It had all begun with the tour of the museum.

 December, 1978

At midday sharp, Sam stood outside the high bluestone walls of Old Melbourne Gaol in the middle of the city.  Felicity had taken on a summer job at the gaol’s museum to further her history major, and she did not like to be kept waiting.

Sam spotted two teenage girls heading toward him, whispering behind hands as they looked coyly in his direction.  Though not traditionally good looking, with a curly mop of red hair that hung obstinately over his eyes, Sam knew he had a certain charisma about him that attracted people. 

As they passed, he dipped an imaginary hat.  “Hi ladies.”  They blushed and rushed down the street giggling behind their hands.  Sam looked at his watch.  It was not like Felicity to be late.  Was he at the right gate?         

“There you are!” Felicity bounced around the corner of the wall, grabbing him by the hand.  “Come on.  I’ve got to show you this!”

Her blue eyes twinkled with enthusiasm as she pulled him through the gate into a grassed square that was once the exercise yard for the prisoners.  Sam hesitated inside the gate, taken aback by how small the prison building was.  Small barred windows dotted the solid stone wall and he felt sudden pity for the prisoners whose only glimpse of freedom had been these tiny holes. 

Felicity had stopped at the door to the building and was motioning for him to hurry up, her black hair flowing freely down her back.  While Sam found the whole subject of history boring, he found Felicity intoxicating.  He lingered a moment more to admire how her hair shone against her white skin before following her through the door.

She led him to a glass display case that seemed to be popular with the visitors.  He peered through the small group of people at what appeared to be a plaster cast of a man’s head. 

“It’s Ned Kelly’s death mask,” Felicity informed him proudly.

He looked at her quizzically.

“You do know who Ned Kelly is, don’t you?”

“Of course I know who Ned Kelly is!  He’s only Australia’s most famous bushranger.”

“But did you know that he was executed here?  In this very gaol!  And they cut off his head.  Phrenology they called it.  They thought they could find out what made criminals tick by studying their brains.”

Sam was now intrigued.  He stared at the perfect cast of the man who looked barely older than he did.  “Didn’t Ned Kelly have a beard?”

“They shaved it off then took a cast of his head.  That’s how they made these death masks.  There are others.”  She pointed around the room and he noticed more of the white moulds glaring out from their glass prisons.    

“What’s over there?” he asked spying a glass case with an even larger group gathered around it.

“It’s his skull.  Come on!”  Dragging him toward the group, she pushed their way through.  She pressed him up against the glass, and Sam found himself confronted by the toothy grin and gaping eye sockets of the chalky white skull.

“You’re kidding me!  That’s really Ned Kelly’s skull?”

“The ridgy didge thing.”  An indignant look came over her face.  “Can you believe some public servant in Canberra used it as a paperweight for years, until someone had the sense to turn it over to the National Trust!” 

“You seem pretty into this guy,” Sam said to mask his own fascination. 

“When I was a little girl my grandfather used to tell me stories about him.  He was actually here, at Ned Kelly’s hanging.  He died when I was four so I don’t remember him very well, but I remember his stories.  I guess I’ve had a soft spot for Ned every since.”

“But wasn’t Ned Kelly a murdering thief?”

“More like a modern-day Robin Hood, I like to think.”

“Rob from the rich and give to the poor?”

“Something like that.  The Victorian Police were the enemy of the common people in those days, and he fought against all the corruption.  He had a lot of sympathisers on his side.”

“Looks like he’s still got a lot of sympathy,” Sam said glancing around at the onlookers.  He saw a touch of sadness mingled with the morbid curiosity on their faces.

Felicity tugged at his arm.  “Let me take you on the tour!” 

Sam glanced up at the sign advertising the different guided tours available.  “The next tour doesn’t start for half an hour.” 

She reached up and whispered in his ear.  “I’m going to give you the private tour.”  She pulled him past the tour desk and he followed with an unexpected sense of adventure.  She pushed him through the door in front of her before closing it quietly behind them. 

“Are you sure you won’t get in trouble?” Sam asked.

“Nobody’s going to know.”  Her high-strung laugh echoed down the long corridor as she tugged him further into the bowels of the prison.

Sam trod quietly along the stone floor, stopping every now and then to peer into the cramped cells.  Grey light filtered through the skylights above and the light globes were sparse, providing him with a dim vision of the past.  Looking up, he could see two railed balconies giving access to the next two levels of cells.  He imagined the harsh conditions the prisoners had faced through the cruel Melbourne winters and shuddered.

“Do you want to see where they hanged him?” Felicity suddenly asked.  Without waiting for an answer, she led him up a set of stairs to the first landing.  He followed her across a narrow gangway that traversed the two sides of the second floor, walking with trepidation as it creaked under each step. 

Pointing up, Felicity said, “That’s the gallows.  They hung the noose from there.  And the trapdoor at your feet is called the hangman’s box.  They sprung it open and whoosh.  Down you went.”  She mimicked being hanged, her tongue protruding from her mouth. 

Sam clamped his hand around his throat.  “Such is life,” he spluttered.      

Felicity laughed at his antics.  “I think he said that just before they hanged him.”

Sam made the mistake of looking down and felt a slight unease at the height.  He made his way back across the gangway to the more solid balcony.  A heavy timber door sat slightly ajar, overlooking the gangway.

“That’s the condemned cell,” Felicity called out from where she still stood below the gallows.  “That’s where Ned Kelly spent his last hours.”

Sam opened the door and peered into the gloomy cell, lit only by one high window.  The roughly mortared walls gave it a torturous vibe as he stepped inside its closed confines. Looking up he marvelled at the perfectly concave ceiling, which in contrast had a church-like feel to it.  How many final prayers had prisoners aimed toward this ceiling? 

Without warning, the door slammed shut behind him.  He tried to push it open but it would not budge.  “Felicity,” he yelled through the door.  “This isn’t funny!  Let me out!”

 “It wasn’t me!”  The heavy timber door muffled her voice.  He could hear her scraping on the other side as she tried frantically to pull it open.  Fear pulsed just below the surface of his mind but he willed it away, closing his mind to any other possibility.  Suddenly the door opened with a rush of wind.  Felicity stood on the other side immobilised.  Neither of them spoke for a moment.      

“I wonder if he’s here?” she finally said.

“Who?”

“Ned Kelly?”

“Come on Liss.  You’re a smart girl.  You don’t really believe in that stuff, do you?”

“Well, how do you explain it?”

“OK, the joke’s over now.  How about we just get out of here before we get caught and you lose your job!”

Felicity raised her eyes toward the ceiling.  It was her standard signal that she thought he was wrong but knew there was no point arguing with him.  Things were either black or white to Sam.  He followed her back down the stairs, trying to ignore the sharp sensation that someone was watching him. 

As they slipped silently back through the door into the museum, they heard someone calling Felicity’s name. 

“Uh oh.  We’re sprung,” warned Sam.

“No, it’s OK.  It’s just the Professor.”  Felicity smiled as she waved him over.  “Professor, this is my boyfriend Sam.  He’s studying marketing.”

Sam trained his eyes on the Professor’s hand, which lay across Felicity’s bare white shoulder.  When he looked up, he met the Professor’s eyes with an expression of resentment.

“Nice to meet you Sam,” the Professor said brushing him off.  He turned away and spoke directly to Felicity.  “I just thought I’d pop by and see how you were going.  Are you enjoying the job?”

“Oh yes, very much!  Thank you so much for recommending me.” 

Sam glowered.  The older man’s hand had now moved down Felicity’s back but she was oblivious to his moves.  Who did this bloke think he was?  Sam had a particular dislike for Felicity’s leering history professor who always seemed to find reasons to keep her after class for ‘further discussion’.  He would like to find a way to put the old prune in his place.  He suddenly had an idea.   

Sam waited until the Professor had left before he made his apologies to leave.

Felicity pouted.  “Aw, but I thought we were going to have lunch together.”

“I’m sorry baby.  I’ve just got a few things I need to do.  But I’ll see you tomorrow night, won’t I?”

“OK,” she conceded.  “I hope you enjoyed the tour.”

“More than you know,” said Sam.  Much more than you know. 

 

So immersed was Sam in his reverie that it took a few moments for him to realise that his phone was ringing beside him on the desk.  The voicemail system kicked in and answered the call for him so he let his mind wander back to the plan they had devised that evening.  

 

It was raining heavily outside.  Malcolm had arrived at Sam’s house just before the deluge let loose from the night sky.  The other boys had not been so lucky and sat preening the water from their hair and clothes, enjoying the warmth of the basement.  It was a space Sam had claimed as his own in his parents’ expansive home. He had turned it into a private den with a couple of comfortable old couches and a coffee table he had scrounged from a yard sale.  The only thing he had allowed his parents to supply was the small fridge that sat in one corner to keep the beer cold. 

Sam still felt incensed by the behavior of Felicity’s history professor that afternoon.  Perhaps if Ned Kelly’s skull turned up on his desk as a paperweight the police investigation might keep him occupied enough to stop messing with his girl.  When he mentioned his idea to the group, they rallied behind him.  It was a gift he had, the ability to make people think any idea was a good one.  Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Sam surveyed his team then assigned each a role in his plan. 

He knew Felicity had one of those security-type keys to the building that required special authorization to copy.  Joe was from a wealthy Italian family who owned a chain of hardware stores.  It would be easy for him to cut the key, no questions asked.  Joe was the most cautious of the group so he was more than happy to take on this passive role.

Sam had also observed that the museum guards all went home at closing time, but they could not be too careful.  He looked over at Paul, whose features revealed the Asian blood in his ancestry.  He held a black belt in judo and he assumed the security role given to him with the dignity of a Japanese warrior. 

Malcolm was the only one in the group with a car.  His estranged father had presented it to him for his eighteenth birthday.  He had not really known his father, and people often told him he looked more like his stepfather with his chiseled features and sandy blonde hair.  He was the obvious choice for the get-away man to transport them and their treasure to safety. 

The plan was simple.  They would let themselves in, take the skull, then leave.  It did not matter to any of them that they were breaking the law.  They had convinced themselves they were invincible.  They marked December 12 on the calendar and dubbed it as K-Day.

 

Sam looked up and smiled as his secretary walked through the door of his office, placed a cup of coffee in front of him, then slipped wordlessly from the room.  He flicked absent-mindedly through his desk calendar, stopping at December 12 as he recalled clearly the events of that long-ago night. 

 

Malcolm sat outside in the car as the three young men crept toward the door.  Joe inserted his copied key in the lock opening it with ease.  He let the other two inside the building, locking the door behind them and waiting outside as a lookout.  A few minutes later, the plastic walkie-talkie they had purchased from Toyworld crackled to life in his hand. 

It was Paul.  “Pilot here.  We’re in, but the case is locked.” 

“There must be a key.  Why don’t you check the curator’s office?” 

“It’s OK.  Silo’s one step ahead of you.  Looks like he has the key.  Ten-four, over and out.”

Joe laughed.  They had all got into the spirit, even giving themselves code names.  He became silent as he heard the sound of footsteps.  He ducked behind some bushes as a man in a dark suit walked toward the door then entered the building.  He pressed the button on the toy walkie-talkie to send the warning signal. 

“SOS.  Come in Pilot.”

“Pilot here.”

“Someone’s just gone in the door.  Get the hell outta there!”

It was too late.  Sam and Paul heard the footsteps echoing across the room.  They scurried behind the display stands, trying to hold in their breaths while the sound of their racing hearts pounded in their ears.

The man walked into the office then a few minutes later walked past them carrying an armful of papers. 

“Close call,” Paul mouthed to Sam as the man exited through the door.

Joe watched from his hiding spot as the man locked the door behind him then hurried off down the street.  He heard knocking from the other side of the door and crept cautiously from the bushes to unlock it.  The seriousness of the situation was lost on Sam and Paul as they fell laughingly out the door. 

“Damn!  I thought you two were goners,” said Joe.

“Oh?  You weren’t a little spooked, were you?” Sam joked holding the skull up to Joe’s face.  “Woo-hoo-oooo.”

“Ha bloody ha!  Let’s get the hell out of here before anyone else sees us.”

Sam and Paul continued laughing about the near miss on the drive home.  By the time they reached their destination, Joe had relaxed and now saw the funny side of it too.  They whooped from the car into Sam’s basement with their ghoulish treasure in hand.

Sam placed the skull in the centre of the coffee table where they could all admire it as he handed each of the team a can of beer.  “Here’s to a job well done men,” he toasted.  “I’d say that we are all as game as Ned Kelly!”

As they raised their cans in a toast to their manliness, the lights began to flicker and the room turned eerily still. 

“Did you feel that?” Joe asked suddenly shivering.

“Feel what?” Sam mocked.

“He’s right,” Malcolm agreed.  “Can’t you feel how bloody cold it just got?”

“Don’t you start too!” Sam retorted.

As he spoke, his beer can started to tremble in his hand then suddenly the liquid spurted from the small opening showering him in froth.

“Crikey!”  Sam scrambled away from the mess, as the other cans started frothing in the boy’s hands.  Searching for a rational explanation, he tried to make light of it.  “Well I’ll be!” he laughed.  “Musta been a bad batch.”

Joe’s glance fell to the coffee table in fear as the skull dipped sideways then started to rock back and forth.   It was staring up at him through the gaping sockets that had once been its eyes.  Pointing he said, “I think something weird is going on here!” 

“Don’t be an idiot!  We just knocked it over, that’s all.”  Sam said as he watched the artefact rock back and forth.  He clapped a hand on it and the rocking stopped.  “See?”

The lights dimmed briefly, before a brisk wind swept around the room sending old newspapers and empty beer cans flying.

“Don’t tell me that was normal?” Malcolm argued.  “There are no windows down here.”

The other boys all looked at each other in terror. 

“What have we done?” Joe whispered.

Sam shook his head.  “Calm down, men.  Are we as brave as Ned Kelly, or what?” 

Nobody answered. 

He picked up the skull then placed it in a box on the shelf.  “OK, tell you what.  I’ll ask Felicity and see what she thinks.  Now, how about we forget about all this baloney and try another one of those beers?”

They opened the new cans without incident and swallowed the beers down quickly.  It took several more before the boys’ nerves began to calm.  There were no more strange occurrences that night, but the room had maintained its eerie stillness.  They could not help glancing over at the box on the shelf from time to time and feeling the tiny hairs on the backs of their necks tingle.

Excerpt from The Ned Kelly Game, © Lea Scott 2009

 

If you enjoyed this, share it with your friends:

  • Do you have the secret code? Click here:

    Do you have the secret code?
  • Buy Now!

    Learn more about The Ned Kelley Game Buy your copy here

.

.

.

Lea Scott