Melbourne Channel 5 TV journalists Kim Prescott and Jo Trescowthick are on a well-earned holiday, travelling both islands of New Zealand in a motorhome.
But other things are brewing. A motorhome breakdown near Kaikōura, a monster cyclone, a debt-ridden smuggler, a mysterious watcher with a grim past and a tourist known locally as The Witch combine to cause an unexpectedly lethal rendezvous in Kaikōura.
Kaikōura Rendezvous is the riveting third book in Stephen Johnson’s Melbourne Spotlight series – which includes Tugga’s Mob and Boxed – and it finds Kim and Jo on a carefree summer adventure with an idyllic itinerary: whale watching in Kaikōura, mud pools in Rotorua, and the stunning Marlborough Sounds. The leisurely road trip will take them from New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, to the tourist mecca of Queenstown in the deep south.
They won’t make it.
TV reporter Kim survived a bullet in the back from a killer, but can’t shake the post-trauma stress. It triggers violent reactions. For Jo, the trip is more than a holiday; it’s a chance to confront family demons.
They don’t know they’re driving into a brewing tempest. Cyclone Gita is on a serpentine path of destruction through the tropics that will see her smash into New Zealand.
Debt-ridden South Island fisherman Gordie Tulloch is offered the deal of a lifetime. It’s a chance to start again after a spell in prison. Is it legal? He doesn’t care. All he has to do is survive the storm approaching the Shaky Isles.
Gordie is unaware there’s another threat to his big payday. His every move is under scrutiny by a Heath Michel, whose own secrets are about to spill into public view.
The cyclone, the motorhome, the fisherman and the watcher all face an unexpected rendezvous – in Kaikōura. Bodies pile up.
Stephen Johnson says he has drawn on real life South Island experiences for his new thriller. Kaikōura Rendezvous is set in February 2018 when Johnson and his wife were touring New Zealand in their seven-metre motorhome, Kwozzimoto.
“We knew Cyclone Gita was approaching Kaikōura and we drove south for safer campsites. Unfortunately, Kwozzimoto broke down with a transmission problem near Goose Bay. We watched the sea all evening until darkness – then we could only listen and try not to think about the waves ‘sounding’ louder. We did have an early warning system. Hundreds of seagulls were huddling in the rocks between us and the water. We considered ourselves safe as long as they stayed. We could just see white smudges after dark.”
The seagulls were one of the many anecdotes Johnson incorporated into Kaikōura Rendezvous.
“We couldn’t get a tow truck to rescue us before Gita unleashed 200mls of rain on the ranges. That caused more than 70 landslips – trapping Kwozzimoto by the beach on SH1 for almost two weeks. We stayed with him for six days – until the food and booze ran out!,” Johnson says.
“We stopped beside the southern base for the coastal road rebuild. They had fresh water, portaloos and Wifi, which they willingly shared. That happened to us. We had to dig a channel ourselves through the berm as the road workers were still busy trying to close the road from stray tourists that kept turning up at the roadblock. I gave this experience to Kim and Jo who are threatened by rising water around their Kwozzimoto.”
Johnson stored the experiences as he worked on other novels. It was Rotorua Noir, New Zealand’s first crime fiction festival, that inspired him to delve into the memory bank.
“Acclaimed authors such as Michael Robotham urged local writers to embrace New Zealand in our work. They reminded us of an incredible landscape that should be celebrated in literature. The South Island adventure sprang to mind immediately and that initiated Kaikōura Rendezvous.”
Johnson is a late arrival to the crime fiction scene after 40 years as a journalist and TV producer in Australia and New Zealand.
“I made an early escape from the media business when our three daughters fled the nest to travel the world. My wife and I set off on our own journey in Europe with Kwozzimoto.
“The plan was to escape work. Yet, I unintentionally found a new career – crime fiction. Tugga’s Mob was written while travelling 33,000 kms through a dozen countries. It was published by Clan Destine Press in Australia and was a finalist in the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best First Novel,” he said.
More books have followed.
“Fiction writing has been a revelation, and the characters have become a part of my life. I look forward to plotting many more adventures for the TV crew with a talent for finding bodies,” he says.
Johnson says he was hesitant about making Kim Prescott and Jo Trescowthick the central characters.
“There was always a little doubt in my mind if I could present them as believable women in their mid to late 20s. Fortunately, I have three daughters who were around those ages at the time. Kim and Jo are not modelled on my daughters, but they provided valuable context for their old father,” he said.
Johnson is working on a fourth novel, For Amy, where the loathed Channel 5 news executive who was almost killed by a crossbow in Tugga’s Mob, is a target once again.
Stephen Johnson is an award-winning Australian-born television news and sports producer whose career included stints at the ABC and Channel 7 In Australia and TVNZ, TV3, Sky Sport and the New Zealand Racing Board in New Zealand. He has swapped the TV studio for a writer’s garret overlooking the Tamaki Estuary in Auckland.
His debut novel Tugga’s Mob was inspired by his job as a tour guide on double-decker buses around Europe in the ‘80s. It was written nightly in a hundred different campsites, as Stephen and his wife spent 2016 travelling Europe in a seven-metre motorhome called Kwozzimoto. The sequel, Boxed, is set mostly in Melbourne and country Victoria.
This, the third in the Spotlight Mystery series, is set mostly in New Zealand. Stephen says the freedom of fiction was a revelation after 40 years in journalism. The power to deal however he wants with evil and injustice is intoxicating; and the body count on the battered laptop in his attic is climbing.