'Morvan, I've just been watching some of the rushes from the past few days.' Ali paused as she passed Morvan's desk with fresh coffee in hand. She seemed to be addressing the wall somewhere just above Morvan's head. 'They're looking great. I sent a few to Walter to keep him hyped about the show, and he's happy.'
'Glad to hear it.' Morvan forced a smile as she fiddled with her pen. She wore jeans and a flowy blouse today, a formal outfit by her standards, though she looked like a rag doll in the face of Ali's tailored suit. Ali's eyes were tired, she noticed, and her coffee strong. She must be working into the night on LA time with the writer team. 'Conall deserves a lot of the credit. He makes it all look pretty.'
'I just wondered why you didn't shoot the most up-to-date version of the Viking fight scene?'
Shit. Carrie from Continuity mentioned there had been a change from Ali, Morvan remembered guiltily. 'I shot the most recent script I had,' Morvan said firmly. 'I wasn't informed of any changes.'
Panic flittered across Ali's face. 'I'm sure I sent —'She trailed off. 'Well, it was a minor tweak, so it doesn't matter.'
'Do you think it went to spam or something? Let me check —'
'It might have been my fault. Let's sit down for a catch-up tomorrow, okay?'
'Actually, tomorrow is pretty —'
But Ali had already swept back into her office. Morvan sighed, leaned back in her chair and massaged her temples. A dull headache had taken root behind her eyes, and she was more than ready to call it a night.
She wasn't sure of the etiquette for working alongside someone after hiring a private detective to investigate them for murder. Hiring a private detective to figure out what was happening, she corrected herself as she gathered her laptop and papers. She could see Ali through the glass door, pacing her office, evidently already on a call. She thought of the bruises on Poppy's throat, where somebody had pressed their thumbs viciously into her windpipe in the hopes of ending her life. Did she really think Ali was capable of that?
She didn't know. She wasn't qualified to know. She stuffed a fresh copy of the script into her bag and trudged down the stairs towards the car park. The whole point of hiring Cara and Ruari had been so that she didn't have to torture herself with these thoughts any more. She didn't know Ali. She didn't know what she was capable of.
Years earlier, Morvan was an assistant on a Scottish feature shooting in Inverness. The weather had been nightmarish, and the cast and crew bonded closely while huddling in shelters from brutal storms and more or less growing mildew together over six awful weeks. Morvan had become pally with the male lead, David, one of those good-looking, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland types, destined to play Irish sidekicks and occasional Highland lairds in Hollywood films. He had a girlfriend and Morvan was seeing someone, so they fell into a lovely, brother/sister, bestest buds kind of relationship, during which David solemnly promised Morvan would be his best man when he proposed to his girlfriend at Christmas.
But by that summer, Morvan was giving evidence against him in court. The tail end of the wrap party had ended up with a few of them sprawled along the motel corridor. Someone was playing music on their phone, and beers and joints were being passed back and forth — motel staff having long decided to turn a blind eye for a quiet life. Morvan spotted David stumbling after a production manager, Jackie, into a room and close the door. She was about to shout something about his girlfriend when someone distracted her, and she didn't.
The following day, Jackie told a friend what happened. News spread like wildfire, and to this day, Morvan wanted to turn herself inside out with shame because she hesitated when she heard. Just for a moment.
Because it was David. Her buddy, her pal. One of the good guys, who regularly tweeted his outrage at the #metoo stories coming out of the US at the time.
Then she heard him flat-out deny he'd ever been alone with Jackie. And it wasn't just that Morvan had seen him follow her into the room with her own eyes. She heard the lie in his voice. The indignant entitlement that anyone would question him. Morvan had never taken anyone at face value since.
A cold, heavy feeling like lead formed in her stomach as she stepped into the chilly night air. She couldn't read people. She didn't know whether Ali was capable of violence or not. She would leave it up to the police, and failing them, Cara and Ruari, to figure out.
Morvan's heart skipped when she spotted the sleek, black car she'd seen Ali getting into outside the pub the other night. Liam. The married bastard who wasn't married. What was that about her instincts for people?
So it was an ongoing thing, she thought as she quickly crossed the car park. He'd picked Ali up from the pub, now he was picking her up from work. Must be serious.
Good for them.
The driver's door opened. Morvan's heart thundered so much she wondered if she was just about to experience the first instance of a doctor causing a heart attack. Take a deep breath. Say hello to him like an adult.
'Hey.' His eyes crinkled when he smiled. Morvan hoped she wouldn't puke. He wore a grey hoodie over dark blue scrubs. 'We're not really supposed to wear them home,' he said, gesturing to his scrubs.
'Oh, I thought you were looking at — it doesn't matter. Policy advises to get changed, but — well, I just didn't today. It's been a long day, but I suppose it always is. I just couldn't be arsed.'
Morvan couldn't help but smile at his earnest ramblings. 'I think if anyone is allowed to not be arsed occasionally, it's emergency doctors.'
'I like that,' he nodded. 'Think I can use it when I forget to pay bills?'
'You forget to pay bills?'
He shook his head with a laugh. 'All the time, I'm a nightmare. It's like I use up every iota of responsible grownup-ness at work, and then I come home —' He waved both hands vaguely. 'And it's just chaos. I'm like a — bear trying to make a sandwich.'
Morvan burst out laughing. 'Or a lion trying to knit?'
'A puppy running a boardroom meeting.'
'A cat on a date.'
He paused, thinking that one over.
'A cat would just stroll away if it was bored,' Morvan explained, and Liam laughed. 'Which is probably how more folk should approach dates. The excruciating evenings I've endured over the years wondering when it was polite to do the whole, well, it was nice to meet you…
'I should have just stuck my tail in the air and wandered away the instant they got boring.'
'And head-butted them if you liked them,' Liam added, and they both sniggered. 'Hey, I had no idea, when we met —' He hesitated, a blush creeping up his neck.
A flash pierced Morvan's brain, the kiss they shared in the taxi, her body thrumming for him as his fingers slipped —
'Uhh, sorry, umm —' He shook his head as though trying to pull himself back to the present. 'I had no idea you were so fancy.'
'I'm not fancy.'
'A director of a whole TV series? That's amazing. Must have taken a lot of work to get to where you are.'
'Ach, I don't know about that,' Morvan scoffed. 'I've had a couple of lucky breaks. Thank you, though.'
Their eyes met, and a bolt of lightning shot through Morvan. Why had she run away from him that night? She could have stayed and confronted him about the wedding ring. He would have explained, maybe they would have exchanged numbers —
'Hey guys.' Ali's voice shattered Morvan's thoughts.
She jumped guiltily as Ali marched across the car park, her heels clicking against the tarmac. For a strange moment, it almost looked like Liam did the same. 'I didn't know you guys knew each other — oh, of course, the same night we met. With, uhh, Poppy.'
'I'd better get going,' Morvan blurted hurriedly. 'Night, guys.'
She only just made it to her car before she burst into tears.
‘It was such a whirlwind,’ Elise said.
Axel took a sip of the eye-wateringly expensive, full-bodied red Elise had ordered to share with him and Ingrid, and tried to wrap his head around the face he was having dinner with Elise Shearer. Jack dipped rosemary focaccia in balsamic vinegar and grinned at Axel. Axel wondered if Jack was amused by how starstruck Axel was by his girlfriend, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was dazzled.
‘I must have met ten journalists a day, every day, from all over Scandinavia,’ Elise continued. Axel remembered the press tour for The Exchange, Elise’s Swedish nanny comedy, well. It had been a huge deal for a major American star to show up to their little, dark country, and her every movement was breathlessly reported by the press for days. ‘I think it was near Christmastime —‘
‘November,’ Ingrid supplied. Even from Norway, she clearly remembered it as well as he. ‘You were there in Scandinavia during Father’s Day, which is November.’
‘Yes!’ Elise clapped her hands together in delight.
Several people at nearby tables were trying not to stare. Axel would have been deeply self-conscious and lowered his voice, but Elise didn’t seem to notice. He supposed she was used to it.
‘I did a Father’s Day event at some museum, judging a lookalike contest to the father from my show. None of them looked at all like Bill, so I just picked randomly.‘
Axel and Ingrid burst out laughing. Elise’s eyes widened as she smiled curiously from one to the other. Jack slung his arm over the back of her seat. They were one of those couples who touched constantly, Axel noticed, always a hand on a knee or arm or fingers threaded casually together. A little whisper of sadness settled over him. He would not think about Morvan tonight.
‘That was Björne Stensson,’ Ingrid said. ‘He became a small celebrity after winning the contest and has worked as a Bill impersonator ever since.’
‘No,’ Elise threw back her head and laughed. ‘I love it. He didn’t look a tiny bit like Bill.’
‘I think some people wondered about that, but nobody would question you.’
‘They taught me something to say on that morning show, I’ve just remembered.’ Elise toyed with Jack’s fingers as she thought. ‘Yag, err — oh wait, don’t tell me — yag err glad! That’s right, I remember glad because it made sense, happy, glad. Yag err glad —‘
‘…för att jag är här i sverige,’ Ingrid smiled in Norwegian-accented Swedish. Ingrid had spent several years in the theatre company of Dramaten in Stockholm, so spoke fluent Swedish.
The phrase was a twist on Elise’s catchphrase from The Exchange. I am happy because I am from Sweden. It became a national in-joke after a politician, caught out by an awkward question about his extramarital affairs, blurted it at a press conference. Even today, it cropped up once in a while in a headline or viral post.
‘That’s it! Yag err — tell me one more time?’
‘Jag är glad för att jag är här i sverige.’
‘Oh my goodness, I remember having heart palpitations in makeup at like 5am as I tried to memorise it. Once more?’
Their entrées arrived as Ingrid slowly annunciated the phrase, and Elise giggled as she did her best to copy it.
‘Yous talking another language?’ The waiter, a young blond guy with an open, smiley face, stared from Elise to Ingrid. ‘Did you make it up? Is it like a made-up language?’
‘It is Swedish,’ Ingrid said.
‘What, like, hurdy-gurdy?’
‘I suspect I do sound more like the Swedish chef than any Swedish person.’
‘I met a Swedish person once, and they called me Yordan. Are you wantin’ tomato sauce for your chips? I’m no’ supposed tae offer it, but who doesnae want tomato sauce for their chips?’
‘What is your name?’ asked Ingrid.
‘Ahh, yes. We pronounce Js like Ys in Scandinavia.’
‘That’s pure mad, man.’ Jordan shook his head in wonder. ‘Just saying letters differently. How do yous know how to say any words?’
Axel spotted the maitre’d giving Jordan a sharp look, and Jordan hurriedly retreated. Elise asked Ingrid to repeat the phrase as they all tucked in. Axel was vaguely aware he hadn’t said a word beyond hello when they first arrived, and hoped nobody had noticed. Jack was unusually quiet too. Normally the one holding court at any table, Jack was eating his Shetland mussels, smiling as Elise and Ingrid laughed together.
The year Axel turned fifteen, he spent Midsummer drinking in Vitabergsparken on the South Island of Stockholm with a bunch of other guys from school. A potent combination of cheap beer and snaps made him feel both queasy and dopey, when he was dragged to the privacy of some bushes by the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her white-blond hair reached her waist; to this day, he could remember the constellation of freckles on her nose.
Some frantic making out against a tree later, his hands were holding the soft skin of her firm ass under her skirt, while his cock throbbed with such urgency he was genuinely afraid he was risking injury. He nudged himself against her, practically seeing stars as she returned the pressure with her hips and slowly undid the top button of his jeans.
Was this really happening? Was there a smooth way to move a hand to touch the front of her? Just, like, slide it around the side of her leg? Would that be weird, or was that what he was supposed to do? Please, please let him last more than seconds —
‘Oh, Axel,’ she murmured. ‘You are so tragic.’
Ice-cold water doused him. ‘What?’
‘Every time I think about you, I just want to cry.’ She stroked his hair in a gentle, affectionate way that made him want to push her hand away. His cock softened. He felt a lump in his throat. ‘The way you trudge around school with this air of sadness around you, like mosquitoes in the archipelago. It just makes me want to take care of you, you know?’
‘No,’ he snapped, pulling back. ‘Fucking mosquitoes, what are you talking about?’
‘You know —‘ The girl slurred a bit, and he realised she was drunker than he’d thought. He refastened his jeans. ‘The way they’re, like, a cloud —‘
‘That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard.’
Weeks later, The Exchange started airing. Elise bounded on screen, forever happy-go-lucky, her braids bouncing when she walked. I am happy because I am from Sweden. Axel didn’t remember consciously deciding to adopt her personality. However, one of his friends pulled him aside on the day his class was driven around Stockholm in a cattle truck, jumping and screaming and spraying beer on each other to celebrate graduating from high school. ‘You know why I love you, man?’
Beer fumes sprayed in Axel’s face. ‘You’re like a Labrador puppy, but a person. You just make everybody happy. It’s so beautiful, man. I love you so much.’
He owed Elise a lot, Axel thought as he tucked in to his excellent steak. Elise tried to follow Ingrid’s pronunciation again, and she and Jack burst out laughing. He wished there were a way he could repay her.
Morvan shoved the door of the pub open and was greeted by the usual blast of chatter. A lively game of darts featuring much swearing and abuse went on in one corner. A group of lassies, dressed to the nines, were gazed at with a sort of terrified awe from afar as they shrieked with laughter around a table. Morvan fought her way through the crowd at the bar and ordered a pint. She'd take a taxi home and pick up her car in the morning.
At first, she thought there was no one from the Shadow City in the pub, which suited her just fine. As the bartender pulled her pint, she stared into space, letting the chat and laughter wash over her. She didn't know what was the matter with her, sitting greetin' in her car over nothing; she was getting on her own nerves. She wasn't even PMSing, she thought — then frowned, double-checking. Nope. She'd come over all grouchy and weepy and weird all on her own.
Maybe it was guilt about Axel. He'd been so lovely that morning, giving her a big hug and being completely normal with her. It would have been so much easier if he'd just been shitty. Bloody men.
'Wee Morv!' Tommy was one of the drivers on the Shadow City and an institution on the Glasgow film scene. He half stood to wave her over. 'How're you doing, doll?’
Tommy gave her a warm hug and ushered her to sit down. A few other drivers she knew a bit were crowded around the table, a security guy — and Sandy. Morvan raised a questioning eyebrow as he raised his pint to clink with hers.
'Shona's taken the kids to a vegan, folksy festival thing on Arran,' he explained. 'I'll get to the ferry to join them in the morning, but I get ants in my pants when I'm in the hoose masel'. Too quiet. So here I am.'
'Here I am too.'
'No hot date for a Friday night?'
'I've run out of batteries.'
Sandy chuckled, and Morvan hoped her smile looked normal.
'So I'm here to put up with your rubbish chat instead.'
He raised his pint solemnly. 'My condolences It's goin' well, isn't it, the shoot?'
'Aye.' It was. The story was coming to life in front of Morvan's eyes. That day, they'd shot the scene where Sandy's character Harry, a police officer, picks Kirsty and Frej up by the side of the road. Summer had everyone in stitches when Kirsty reminded Harry that he farted the first time he got a blow job, and Sandy had somehow managed to blush on command. It was going to sparkle on screen. That was something, at least.
'Any news on Poppy?'
'I popped by the other night. They thought she might be trying to come round, but not enough for them to be able to take the breathing tube out.'
'What does that mean?'
'I don't really get it, myself. I thought you were in a coma or you weren't, but it turns out they turn down the sedation at certain points to see if the person is ready to wake up. Seems like it's a bit of a journey back to the surface.'
'But there's hope she might make it?'
Morvan sighed helplessly. 'I don't really know. They're always careful not to guarantee anything, but it feels like a good sign if they think she is ready to try.'
'It's a sin what happened tae that lassie.' Tommy shook his head. He was nursing a whisky, so the actors must all be back at the hotel. 'Tae think I was sitting ootside in the car the whole time.' He took a shaky breath. 'If only I'd gone in when she was late. I was just sat in the car reading the paper like a numpty.'
'There's no way you could have known, pal,' Sandy murmured.
'Have they said the attack happened while you were waiting?' Morvan asked.
'Aye, last time the polis spoke tae me, they mentioned it was lucky you got there when you did. She'd no' been unconscious that long.'
'But —' Morvan frowned, trying to work out why that didn't add up. 'Poppy didn't answer the phone when Ali went to see her earlier that morning. I thought she was already unconscious by then?'
Tommy shrugged. 'Mebbe she just didn't want to see the boss.'
'Did you see Ali leaving when you arrived?'
'I brought Ali there fae the studio,' he said. 'I like to be waiting early for the actors, so I was on my way tae the hotel when Ali came oot the office and said tae take her wi' me.'
'Hold on,' Morvan frowned. 'You took Ali to the hotel? That was at what, half nine or something. Then you were still waiting for Poppy when the reading was about to start after lunch?'
'Aye, sat ootside that hotel all bloody morning. Had to go around the block a couple of times when traffic wardens came by — that's how I missed Ali coming back out, I reckon.'
'You didn't bring Ali back to the studio?'
'No, she rang me. Said to wait for Poppy, she'd get a taxi.'
'But you never saw her actually leaving the hotel?'
'Nah she must have run right past me. Wisnae really looking for her, of course.'
'When did Ali ring you?'
'Half eleven, twelve o'clock?'
'Ali was at the hotel for nearly two hours?' Morvan's stomach twisted. Ali said she'd asked for Poppy at reception and had been told she wasn't answering the phone in her room. When Ali arrived at the table read after lunch, Morvan assumed she had come from her office.
Of course, Morvan had also assumed Ali flew in from LA that morning.
'I don't know, hen. She went in, and then she rang me.'
'Would she not have hung about to make calls or something?' Sandy asked, looking at Morvan warily. 'You're no' saying she —' His question hung in the air.
'I don't know,' Morvan said faintly.
'She's a producer. She wears heels that cost more than my mortgage and pays someone to dry her hair for her.'
'So what? Have you told the police all of this, Tommy?'
'Well then,' Sandy said. 'They've hardly hauled her away in handcuffs, have they?'
"Scuse me a minute, I just need to —'Morvan scrabbled from the booth, ignoring Sandy and Tommy's looks.