From Mary Duncan’s secret journal:
I seem to have a knack of showing up in places where I’m not wanted. Fortunately, I don’t give a good goddamn.
Tilly Montgomery’s fingers hovered over her laptop’s keyboard. Eyes shut, head tilted slightly to the side, she listened with bated breath for the commander’s next words to play out in her head. Would she ask Lieutenant Spencer—who, dream cast, would be played by the smoldering Aidan Turner—what death looked like? Or would Commander Green leap to her feet, knocking over her chair, the camera panning back to show the reaction of the crew members around her.
The joys of playing God on a screenplay.
Tilly’s face scrunched up and she wriggled her fingers experimentally. C’mon, Commander, what’re you gonna do?
The only reply was the hum of midafternoon traffic on the way to the Auckland Harbor Bridge, plus the everyday chatter of coffee shop customers, and the hiss of the espresso machine. Music to Tilly’s ears.
Tilly blinked up at Mia, her usual gum-chewing server, who tried to find a spare spot on the table to place the cup between her laptop, writing pad, and a number of scattered pens.
“Oops, sorry.” Tilly dropped the laptop lid and gathered up some precious scraps of paper. “I was in the zone.”
“You sure were.” Mia set the cup and biscotti down, scooping up Tilly’s lined writing pad with her spare hand. “What’s Kane Dawson and K-Road up to this week? It must be something juice-a-licious since you haven’t looked up once in the past hour.” She blew a giant purple bubble, her eyes sparkling over it. “Is he finally going to pop the question to Nicole?”
Mia snorted. “So you won’t be writing the next Notebook, then? Stick with Kane banging Nicole’s brains out until his wandering eye gets him kicked to the curb.”
Tilly grinned, lowering the laptop lid even further so Mia couldn’t see she wasn’t working on a script for the popular soap opera K-Road but instead another spec script for a space-opera-fantasy-romance mashup full-length feature film. This one, Tilly was convinced, would leverage her from a television screenwriter into the big time.
Maybe even Peter Jackson big time.
Hey, the renowned Lord of the Rings director was a New Zealander born and bred, just like her, and to get a screenplay under his nose she’d be prepared to throw a few Hobbits into orbit with her cast of characters.
“Maybe we should cowrite an episode,” Tilly said. “You mainline ideas while I mainline cappuccinos.”
“Oh to have a job where I sit drinking five-buck coffees in my local coffee shop all day, making stuff up,” Mia said, then froze as her gaze landed on something behind Tilly. “Heads-up. The BBG just walked in, and he looks like he wants to ask a certain cute brunette with hazel eyes out on a hot date. Not.”
Crappity crap. Trust Christophe Moreau to arrive fifteen minutes early.
Tilly quickly closed down Commander Green and opened the K-Road script she was meant to be working on. She half rose out of her seat as Christophe arrived at her table, barely glancing at Mia as he snapped out his coffee order. Mia sent him a glance cold enough to turn his double shot skinny latte into iced coffee, and disappeared behind the counter.
“Sit, sit.” Christophe waved an imperious hand at her and took the chair opposite. “We’re not in my office now, oui, ma chérie?”
“Oui.” Mon jackass.
A one-on-one meeting with the Big Boss Guy or BBG—K-Road’s producer who had a constant bug up his ass—whether in his office or a more casual setting, meant trouble. Especially if you were only a lowly story monkey, or staff writer as was the more politically correct term.
What BBG really meant was: have you got yourself together yet? Tilly made her lips curve up in an I’m fine smile, even though six months after her father’s massive stroke and the subsequent decision to end life-support she still hadn’t plateaued at anywhere close to fine.
He dipped his head. “Robert’s passing was a tragedy to the whole writing community. His contribution to New Zealand literature was held in the highest esteem by his peers.”
Unlike his only daughter’s contribution to a lowly New Zealand soap opera about Auckland’s infamous red-light district. Something her family—including her father—sometimes lamented. She took a sip of her coffee, but the rich milky taste didn’t have the same blissful buzz as usual. Not when you were staring down the barrel of impending doom. Dramatic, yeah. But Tilly was almost certain of what was coming.
“It was my great-aunt, and, yes, it’s been difficult.” Tilly sealed her lips shut. She still could only speak in euphemisms. Blunt facts were too painful.
“And settling your aunt’s estate is the reason you’re requesting unpaid leave?”
“That’s right.” Tilly set her cup back into the saucer. The china rattled together and she straightened her spine. “I had to postpone dealing with it earlier because of my father.” Guilt plummeted into the bottom of her stomach. “My aunt’s lawyer called to say the six-month deadline was approaching and did I intend to claim my inheritance?” She did. Though it was hard to justify years of phone calls and occasional visits as a reason for her quirky Aunt Mary to leave Tilly her beloved B&B. “I hope that won’t be a problem?”
Mia reappeared with Christophe’s to-go coffee. He didn’t glance at her but instead leaned forward and steepled his elbows on the small table. “A month away is a long time in this business. To be frank, ma chérie, Jonas is also concerned about the quality of the work you’re producing. Uninspiring and dull were his exact words.”
Jonas, her ex-boyfriend and AB—asshole boss—who she’d been stupid enough to mix work and personal life with. He was the show’s coproducer, and Tilly had to answer directly to him. Since she’d dumped the coldhearted jerk five weeks after her father’s funeral, their working relationship was strained to say the least.
However, she wasn’t arrogant enough to deny Jonas had a valid point. Her enthusiasm for K-Road had evaporated, and the lack of it was glaringly obvious in her scripts. But she needed this job—a job she’d fought long and hard to get. Scriptwriters weren’t in high demand in a small country like New Zealand, and she wasn’t really under the delusion that Peter Jackson would be knocking on her door anytime soon.
“I can do better,” she said. “A month on Stewart Island without distraction and surrounded by the rugged coastline will be almost as beneficial as a trip to northwestern Brittany. It’ll help refill my creative well and coax my muse out of hiding.”
Christophe pursed his lips, considering.
C’mon, Tilly telepathically ordered. She’d used both of Christophe’s triggers—the area of his ancestral French homeland and his arty-farty belief that inspiration was meted out by a benevolent fairy figure—to convince him.
“We’ve already given you a lot of leeway.” He sighed then sipped his coffee, watching her over the plastic rim with his dark, flat stare. “You’ll need to come up with some new story directions while you’re away. Maybe even a new character to introduce, oui?”
“Of course.” She coerced her mouth into the shape of a grateful smile. Like that of a student trying to please her teacher, rather than a twenty-seven-year-old woman forced to butt kiss to keep her job.
“Merveilleux. A change of scene is as good as a vacation, some say. I’ll see your leave is approved. Check in each week via teleconference and we’ll see you back for our monthly meeting after Easter. We’ve put a lot of faith in your genetic talent so don’t let us down.” He toasted her with his to-go cup and stood. One good thing about Christophe was he didn’t believe in making small talk with underlings. “Give your mother my regards.”
“I will.” Tilly’s smile felt more suited to a Barbie doll than a real person as she waved Christophe goodbye.
She didn’t miss the subtle nod to her father’s reputation in securing her a position at the bottom rung of the scriptwriting ladder three years ago. And although it burned, she’d worked her butt off to prove her writing chops in this fiercely competitive field.
Heart battering her ribs, Tilly powered down her laptop. She’d try to see living seven-hundred-plus miles from her Auckland apartment as a vacation instead of a prison sentence. Aunt Mary had given her a key to an unexpected inheritance, and all she had to do was survive a month in the back of beyond to claim it.
Then she could sell the B&B and ensure her mum could afford to move into a high-demand retirement complex.
Piece of cake.
A thundercloud, in the form of a drunk Peter Reynolds, was about to piss on Noah’s parade. Perhaps literally instead of figuratively if Noah couldn’t convince the man to visit Due South’s bathroom before escorting him home to sleep it off.
Noah’s friend Ryan ‘West’ Westlake, who managed Due South, the hotel-slash-restaurant-slash-pub, had sent Noah a text asking him to stop by and deal with Peter. Not that West or his younger brother, Del, who was one of Due South’s chefs, couldn’t handle the old guy who was making a one-way trip from morose to belligerent to a gigantic pain in the rear. But the Westlakes and the Reynoldses had history, and memories ran deep through the four hundred or so full-time Stewart Island residents. West didn’t want to antagonise the man more, especially as he—and everyone else—remembered it was close to the three-year anniversary of Peter’s youngest son’s death.
Everyone had a different way of coping with grief, or not coping, as was the case with the man currently weaving unsteadily through Due South’s packed tables on another mission to the bar. The leftover crowds of a busy summer were still there, tourists clogging up the town’s B&Bs and the hotel. They’d begin to disappear as the days got cooler, but on such a stunner of an early autumn evening there were more customers seated outside Due South under the sun umbrellas than inside the pub.
Noah adjusted his stab-proof vest, one part of the police uniform he didn’t always wear, and in a half dozen long strides caught up with Peter at the bar. Before Noah could address him, the older man slapped his palm on the wooden top.
“Hey, pretty-boy bartender. Give me a Jim on the rocks and another for my boy, Gav. He likes his Jimmy B—liked,” Peter corrected himself with another slap of his palm on the bar.
The pretty-boy bartender in question—Kip Sullivan—glanced up from where he was measuring a vodka shot and met Noah’s gaze. Noah gave a small shake of his head and Kip put down the clear glass bottle. Sensibly, well away from Peter’s reach. Like his youngest son, Peter had a temper.
“Pete,” Noah said from beside him. He was careful not to touch the man, though he would if forced, and kept his voice amicably calm. “You’ve reached your limit, mate. Kip won’t be serving you any more alcohol this evening.”
The Handbook of the Often Inebriated stated that when challenged about limits, men like Pete would dig in their heels like Dudley the Shetland pony—a local celebrity in his own right. The older man half turned toward him, his neck arched back, tufty silver eyebrows drawing together in a sharp V. The bourbon, soaked into every taste bud on the man’s tongue, oozed out on an indignant, pungent wheeze.
“Yer tellin’ me a man can’t even get a bloody drink to toast his dead son around here?” Peter stumbled back half a step, then righted himself by white-knuckling the bar edge. “Bloody pig,” he added under his breath. His Adam’s apple worked rapidly up and down under the wrinkled and tanned-like-old-leather skin of his throat. “You and that other bitch cop never did right by my boy.”
The ‘bitch cop’ being West’s wife, Piper, a former police officer and member of the Police National Dive Squad. Apparently, Piper and the squad flying in from Wellington and spending hours diving the cold waters around Stewart Island before Piper finally located and recovered Gavin Reynolds’s body didn’t garner her any respect. Neither had the hours Noah had spent coordinating Search and Rescue, volunteers, and the mountain of paperwork he’d been left to deal with improved his relations with this particular born-and-bred islander.
Ben Harland appeared on Peter’s other side, his expression dialed to had enough of this bollocks. Ben was Noah’s friend and also Bitch Cop’s older brother. “Your boy was a grown man and a hundred-and-forty-kilo bully. He’d just assaulted my wife then went out in a dinghy while he was drunk as a skunk, preparing to vandalise my boat. Don’t let me hear you say that Piper and Noah didn’t do right by your family.”
As a tour boat operator, Ben’s career choice didn’t encompass a how-to seminar for dealing with members of the public with diplomacy and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Whether that pressure was keeping drunk old men who wore their grief like a badge of honor calm while he convinced them to leave peacefully, or whether the pressure was caused by a suspect during a police callout, Noah’s reaction was the same.
He moved, putting the solid bulk of himself between Ben and Peter—who’d stuck out his chest like a puffer fish, his face turning beet red. Conversations around them decreased in volume as attention switched from the everyday to the possibility of a dramatic show that would keep the Oban gossip machine churning for a few days.
Noah kept his back to Ben, knowing he wouldn’t get stabbed in it, and stared down Peter.
“Go back to your table, Ben. I’ve got this.” He’d spotted Ben and his wife, Kezia, when he’d first entered. Noah’s gaze, as was normal, skimmed and analyzed the crowd for other potential powder-keg situations.
Ben blew a stream of disgusted breath out of his nose and clapped a hand on Noah’s shoulder. “If you need backup, just holler.” He stepped aside, disappearing from Noah’s peripheral vision.
No such thing as official backup when you were the sole-charge officer on Stewart Island. As far as the long arm of the law went, Noah was it. One cop, four hundred or so year-round residents, crime rate negligible.
Noah held out a warning finger to Peter when the older man opened his mouth.
“Kip,” Noah said. “Bring out a couple of my usual for me and Pete. On my tab.” He met Peter’s stare and deliberately lowered his voice to a deeper pitch. “Come sit down and we’ll raise a glass to Gavin.”
“You’re buying me a beer?”
The edge of baffled surprise, along with a hint of sudden mollification, eased the tension spanning Noah’s shoulders. Yeah, he was springing for a beer—his usual, a nonalcoholic beer. But it wasn’t alcohol Peter needed. He just didn’t know it.
“We remember the dead,” Noah said. “That’s the way it’s done, isn’t it, Pete?”
“I reckon so.” The old man pinched his bulbous nose for a moment, his lower lips suddenly a little quivery. “He was a good lad, a good son that stuck by me. Not like my eldest boy, Seth. He cleared off as soon as he could. Now I’m all on m’own.”
Peter wore a rumpled shirt with a stain on the pocket that looked suspiciously like it’d been there for days, and he smelled like a shower hadn’t made the top of today’s to-do list. Noah made a mental note to have a chat with Joe Whelan, the island’s doctor, to see if the old fella qualified for some home assistance for the elderly.
“Did you have lunch today?”
Peter’s nose scrunched up. “A bit of bread and butter, I think.”
“You paying?” Peter asked slyly. “’Cause an old man like me can’t afford to eat a slap-up meal like that too often, hungry or not.”
“I’m paying.” And even if he wasn’t, West would reimburse Noah just for his assistance in avoiding possible damages. Plus the food would hopefully soak up some of the booze in Pete’s system. “Now, let’s sit.”
“You’re not so bad, y’know.” Peter lurched toward his table, leaving Noah to pick up the beers. “For a pig.”
Thirty minutes later Peter had gulped down his food like he hadn’t eaten a hot meal in a week—possibly he hadn’t—and accompanied Noah outside to his four-wheel-drive ute for a ride home. They’d had a brief but firm discussion on the choice of a lift home in a police vehicle or a blood-alcohol test back at Oban’s little police station. Peter was sober enough to make a good life choice.
Noah made sure Peter’s safety belt was engaged and started the vehicle, wrinkling his nose as the old fella cracked off a bruiser of a fart.
Just another day on the job.