Far from being able to concentrate on his novel, though, Baxter is drawn into an investigation into a local drug dealing ring that puts his life in danger. He's also the subject of attention of numerous single women in Moondilla, including the local doctor he once had a crush on, Julie Rankin.
After an attempt on his life, Baxter is hugely relieved when the drug ring is broken open. Finally able to finish his novel, he's elated by its success and also finds himself in love.
With Return to Moondilla, popular Australian author, Tony Parsons, has written another action-packed novel combining a rural setting with a crime subplot and some romance.
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Return to Moondilla
By Tony Parsons
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2015 Tony Parsons
All rights reserved.
The town of Moondilla was tucked neatly between two promontories that reached out into the vast Pacific Ocean like fat fingers. Within this horseshoe-shaped reach of coastal heath and ivory-hued beaches, there was a river that emptied into and was sustained by the ocean. Protected by the harbour, the river's mouth didn't have the usual bar and wasn't as open to the sea as some other coastal rivers.
On the southern side of the delta, and forming part of the southern promontory, was a tiny beach. A bit farther up from the ocean, a bridge spanned the river, connecting Moondilla to the main highway that wound south towards Victoria.
On the northern or town side of the delta was a broad stretch of sand, usually referred to as Main Beach, and skirting this beach was a wide road that swung in a half-circle to join up with the highway north of Moondilla.
The town's boundary was around two kilometres from its centre and, except for a few farmhouses, the countryside was quite scantily populated. Most people in the area, quite naturally, had clustered around the river and the ocean.
Close by the town was a long wharf or jetty that reached out into the harbour, and at which the fishing trawlers moored to unload their catches. A bitumen road led right up to the jetty so that vehicles could load up with seafood for various markets. There were a couple of smaller jetties southwards of this main one, and here many private launches and yachts were moored.
The road to Sydney provided the greatest number of visitors to Moondilla, but tourists came from everywhere, even from overseas, almost exclusively for the fishing. Even the famous western writer and big-game fisherman Zane Grey had fished this area of the coast, helping to give it an enduring popularity.
Moondilla was also widely regarded as a nice little town for a holiday, being relatively unspoiled by the kind of developments that had changed the character of other coastal towns. For most of its existence, it had had a very low crime rate — but startling new happenings were, to use a marine expression, rocking the boat, and giving the police, both state and federal, cause to put the town under closer scrutiny.
* * *
It was the most startling of these happenings that occupied Greg Baxter's attention as he drove in to Moondilla. The body of a young woman had been found weighted with concrete blocks not far off the mouth of the river. This horrific discovery had been a boon for the South Coast media, but especially for the Moondilla Champion, which ran front-page feature stories for several days. Nothing like this had ever happened in the town and it was, needless to say, the main topic of conversation wherever people met.
It was clearly a case of murder, although the police hadn't revealed any details of the post-mortem. This suggested to Baxter that there were sinister findings which they were reluctant to release to the public, even though they were being pressed to do so.
Baxter's usual sharpness might have been slightly dulled by his preoccupation with the murdered woman, but his reflexes — finely honed by decades of gymnastics and martial arts training — took over when he saw the overturned four-wheel drive. He braked, pulled his car to the side of the road, jumped out and rushed over.
This was well known to be a bad section of road — although the surface was up to standard, the combination of its camber and curve were car killers. The four-wheel drive had hit a tree and flipped onto its side. Baxter peered in the driver's window. Its passengers, a man and a woman, were both alive and semiconscious. Neither was capable of getting out, and both were covered in blood.
Baxter had to lean through the window to turn the ignition off — strong as he was, he couldn't budge the door, which had been partly crushed. By now, a couple of other cars had pulled up, and a driver poked his head out, shouting, 'Need any help?'
'Ambulance,' Baxter called back, 'and have you got any tools on you?'
But none of them had — they were city people out for a jaunt, and they all looked frightened. Heart thumping, Baxter hurried back to his car and riffled through his toolbox for a 'jemmy'. He doubted it was strong enough, but it was the only thing he had that might work.
After a ferocious effort that left his arm strangely numb, he'd just managed to get the driver's door open when the local ambulance arrived with siren blaring, and two paramedics rushed over.
'You've gashed your arm pretty bad there,' said the older ambo. 'Sit down and take it easy, and we'll see about getting this pair out.'
Baxter glanced at his arm, surprised to see the blood dripping down. But, he reasoned, it could wait until they'd rescued the passengers.CHAPTER 2
Baxter, his arm wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, was waiting on a chair in the emergency section of Moondilla's medical clinic. The wound didn't trouble him too much — he'd had worse. He was thinking about Moondilla. He'd left the town as a small boy, and one of his strongest memories was of the lovely river that made Moondilla what it was. He'd spent hours watching his father fish off a jetty or from his small runabout.
Baxter hadn't wanted to leave; he'd felt sure there would never be another place as good as Moondilla. But he was only a child and had no say in the matter. Moondilla was the place where his mother, Frances, had begun her culinary career, but she had outgrown it. They'd moved to Sydney, where she'd developed and sold one restaurant after the other, making a heap of money and becoming known to all and sundry as the Great Woman.
Baxter was still thinking about his mother, and how good she'd been to him, when Dr Julie Rankin came through the door.
'My God! Greg Baxter! You're the last man I expected to be treating,' she said when she saw him, and gave him a big smile.
'And it's nice to see you too, Julie,' Baxter said, grinning. She was a sight for sore eyes. They'd parted on very good terms just prior to her going to London for further study. She'd been exceptionally ambitious, with the clear-cut aim of becoming a top surgeon. He had never imagined that she'd come back to Moondilla.
Although they were both from the town, they'd first met in Sydney when Julie had signed up as one of Baxter's martial arts students. She'd set out to reach his level, but he was so far ahead of her that, try as she might, she could never have been in his league. Of course, the fact that he'd been a gymnast of near-Olympic standard gave him an enormous advantage. But he had pushed her quite hard in judo, and she was brown-belt standard when she left him.
'Sorry, Greg,' Julie said, 'I didn't expect to find you here.' She began unfolding his blood-soaked bandages. 'What on earth are you doing in Moondilla?'
'I live here, Julie,' Baxter replied with a half-smile.
'You live here? Where? And for how long?'
'I bought the Carpenter place out on the river. You probably know it.'
Julie nodded, her brow furrowed. She was preoccupied with his bandages, but still seemed to be taking in his words, so Baxter kept talking.
'How long have I been there? A few weeks. I've been pretty busy getting settled in. My mother insisted on me making a few changes to the house. To the kitchen, mainly. That and some glamming up of the main bedroom.'
'Good heavens,' Julie exclaimed.
Baxter couldn't tell whether this remark was made in response to the mention of his bedroom, or because she'd laid bare the wound on his arm.
'This is going to require quite a few stitches,' she said, her eyes wide. 'How on earth did it happen?'
'Well, I reckon I couldn't have anyone better to sew me up, could I?' Baxter said and laughed. 'The last time I saw you was just before you left for Pommyland to specialise in surgery, and knowing you I'd put my money on you doing just that.'
'Greg, how did you come by this?' she asked again, more urgently this time. 'The message just said that there was a man who'd cut his arm rather badly in some sort of accident.'
Baxter shrugged and told her the story.
'I suppose the car could've blown up?' she asked, a stern note in her voice.
'I turned the ignition off first thing, and I was just going to try and get them out when the ambos arrived — I reckon they took the passengers to Bega Hospital — and then the cops showed up. One of them gave me a lift here in my car.' He sighed, thinking of the injured couple and their ruined vehicle, which he'd noticed was filled with holiday gear. 'That's a very bad curve and it needs straightening out. Beats me why it wasn't done years ago.'
Then Baxter realised that Julie had gone very still. 'My brother Andrew was killed on that curve,' she said, her voice trembling slightly although her eyes were dry. 'Andrew and a mate. They'd been to a birthday party. Andrew wasn't driving, and his mate was high as a kite on drugs and took the curve too fast.' She appeared to steel herself before she kept working on Baxter's wound — but then she added, under her breath, 'Andrew was in second-year medicine.'
Baxter knew her better than to try physical comfort, so he just said, 'I'm so sorry to hear that, Julie.'
'It nearly killed my mother. My brother was the apple of her eye.'
'Not you?' Baxter queried, sensing an opportunity to lighten the mood.
Julie rewarded his effort with a half-hearted smile. 'No, not me. Mum and I didn't get on very well in those days. She was jealous that I was so close to Dad. But it was just that she didn't share any of his likes, whereas I did. I'd fish with him for hours at a time ... Don't move your arm while I give you some local anaesthetic. It will deaden the pain while I stitch up that cut.'
'And now?' Baxter pressed.
'Dad died. That's why I came back to Moondilla. He always wanted either Andrew or me to take over his practice. There was no Andrew, so it had to be me. And I'm getting on quite well now with Mum — she really needed me. Plus there's Jane, my sister, whose kids were in need of an aunt. Two great kids. Sherrie's supposed to be a lot like me at her age — in looks, I mean — and then there's Jason, who's got some problems because he isn't much good at sport.'
Watching Julie's calm face as she told him about her life while concentrating on his wound, Baxter recalled very clearly the first day she'd joined his martial arts class. There were four female students, and Julie was the one who stood out to him. She had a casual beauty that she took for granted and didn't flaunt, as if she was indifferent to it.
She approached him before they started warming up. 'I don't want you to go easy on me because I'm a woman,' she said.
'In my classes everyone gets treated equally,' he told her. 'The fact that you're a woman doesn't concern me one iota. Martial arts is martial arts, though I'll start you on judo at the outset. There's the technique of it and then there's your level of fitness.'
'Well, you'll soon see that I'm very fit and I'm also very tough.'
And she was. He soon learned that she jogged, skydived, did rock climbing and snorkelled. She'd even climbed Kilimanjaro. If there had been a parachute unit for women in the Australian Army, Julie would have had no trouble being accepted for it. She was also extremely bright, having graduated from medicine with first-class honours.
Julie didn't belong to any feminist organisation, but she was a superlative example of equality between the sexes.
'Why martial arts?' Baxter asked her after a few classes, when they'd gotten to know each other better.
'I hate men making passes at me and I hope to be going places where they'll try more than that. I want to look after myself in tough situations.'
'And why me?' he asked.
'A friend who knew your girlfriend, Elaine, said you were the best in Australia — and that you took small evening classes, which fits in well with my uni hours!'
Baxter also recalled very clearly the day Julie had said goodbye to him.
'This is my final class, Greg,' she said, beaming with gratitude. 'Thank you so much for what you've done for me.'
'No more than for anyone else,' he said, and this was true. He'd made sure not to give her special attention and make her feel uncomfortable.
'Maybe not,' she said, 'but you've helped me build a confidence and a discipline I lacked when I came to you.'
'As I recall it, I doubt you ever displayed a lack of confidence,' he said with a chuckle. 'But that's part of what martial arts is all about.'
'So I'd heard, but I didn't believe it. I was more interested in giving myself an edge if I needed to defend myself.'
'I'm off to the UK to specialise in surgery. National Health has created plenty of opportunities for surgical work,' she explained. 'You know, most top surgeons — most surgeons for that matter — are men. I've got a yen to succeed in that field.'
'Will you keep up your martial arts?' Baxter asked.
'I'll try to, but honestly I don't know. I'm going to be furiously busy.'
So Julie had departed, and he had missed her. She was the only woman, apart from his mother, for whom he felt real affection. She was also the first woman who'd stirred him since he lost Elaine.
'So how did your stint as a surgeon turn out?' Baxter asked while he watched the neat line of stitches flowering on his arm. 'I had visions of you becoming a national figure and ending up in Macquarie Street.'
'Well, I had a good bash at it. And it comes in handy here. I operate at Bega and other places when I have the time.'
'Sounds to me as if you've mellowed quite a lot. You don't appear to be the fire-eater you were when you came to me. You had a lot of aggro in those days.'
'Ha.' She grinned. 'I haven't changed that much, Greg. I'm still regarded as a tough cookie by most people in this district. I disarmed a fellow with a knife and put a hammer lock on him. Those belts I won are in a glass case in my surgery, so everyone's aware that I'm not a pussycat!'
Laughing, Baxter shook his head. 'I'm impressed.' He allowed himself a peek at her body, making sure not to let his eyes linger. She was wearing loose jeans and a comfortable shirt, but he could tell she was still in shape. 'How do you keep fit now?'
She shrugged. 'I jog religiously and I swim when I can.' In the next moment, her professional mask slid back into place. 'You'll probably have a faint scar down your arm, but it will diminish in time. You're lucky we got on to it so early, because these jagged tears become harder to work on the longer they're left.'
She gave Baxter a tetanus shot and some penicillin tablets.
'Take the box,' she said. 'If you have any problems before I remove the stitches, be sure to contact me. And watch out for any red streaks up your arm. Stitches out in, say, twelve days.' She was writing it all down for him. 'It's a long nasty wound and it will be sore when that local wears off. You should get some aspirin so you can sleep tonight. Do you have any questions?'
'Just one. I'll grab the aspirin now, and when your shift is over, meet me for a chat at the coffee place across the street? I'd love to catch up properly.'
Julie's mask slipped and she smiled. 'See you in an hour and a half.'CHAPTER 3
After buying aspirin at the chemist next to the clinic, Baxter took a walk up and down the town's main street. Many of the shops and buildings from his childhood were still there, and brought up all kinds of fond memories.
But he also recalled, with painful clarity, the day his mother told him with a smile that they'd soon be leaving Moondilla to live in Sydney.
'But why?' he asked, shocked.
Frances sighed and tried to explain. 'We were offered a very good price for our business, and we took it. Sydney's a bigger market, with so many more people who want to dine out. We've already been offered a place to begin.' She looked thrilled to be leaving their home, and Greg felt even worse.
His face fell. 'But I love it here, Mummy. The beach and the river are my favourite places.'
'Sydney has one of the best harbours in the world, and there's lots of beaches.'
'They'll all be crowded and ugly. It won't be like here.' Greg's throat felt tight and tears stung his eyes. 'The schools will be different too.'
'Greg, you must allow your father and I to be the judges of what's best for our family.' She put her hands on his shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze, gazing into his eyes. 'I know it's hard for you to understand, but I hope you can trust me. We've gone as far as we can go in Moondilla, and now it's time to move on.'
Greg went away dragging his feet. His mother's announcement was the biggest item of news he'd ever had to digest, and there was only one person he felt disposed to talk to about it. This was the elderly World War One soldier who fished at the southern end of Main Beach, Albert Garland.
Excerpted from Return to Moondilla by Tony Parsons. Copyright © 2015 Tony Parsons. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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