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By My Side - Five

DC McArdle wasn’t at the desk this morning. Isla wondered if he only worked nights. He’d had a wedding ring on. Isla couldn’t imagine a wife being thrilled by that, unless of course she also worked nights and they were just a nocturnal couple who had romantic candlelight breakfasts before snoozing the hours of daylight away.

It was a female PC, young with a long blond plait and a smattering of freckles on her nose. She looked as though she knew how to ride a horse, Isla thought, as the young woman dialled DI Wilson’s office for her.

‘There’s an Isla Crawford wanting a word with you?’ She listened a moment, then nodded to Isla. ‘She’ll be out in a minute.’

There was a distinct air of calm about the station. No urgent buzzes of walkie talkies or thwack of incoming helicopters. No officers dashing about, shouting orders, calling for help. No sense that they were on the trail of a serial killer whatsoever.

‘Isla?’ DI Wilson swallowed a yawn as she held out a hand to Isla. ‘Sorry,’ she laughed, waving the yawn away. ‘Long day. And it’s not lunchtime yet.’

‘I thought you were going to phone me?’

‘Come into my office. Can I get you a cup of tea?’

Isla shook her head. ‘I got one at the station.’

She’d taken the bus to Queen Street then the train to Bishopbriggs. Even though she didn’t have an appointment, when she got off the train it somehow felt too early to approach the police station. She bought a cup of tea and leaned against a railing outside Quin’s Bar, watching traffic inch its way through Bishopbriggs Cross.

‘I just wanted to know what was happening. I assume you’ve not arrested him or anything. You would have told me that.’

Isla perched on the hard visitors’ chair as DI Wilson carefully closed the office door then came round to her desk.

‘But, just — anything. Have you been able to speak to him, at least?’

‘Isla, could you tell me again exactly what happened to you? Last May, I mean.’

‘Oh — yes, of course.’ Isla felt a flicker of excitement. DI Wilson must need to reconfirm the details against something they had found out. ‘Well, as I explained, I don’t remember it all.’

‘Yes. Post traumatic amnesia, you said. Do you mind if I record this? It’s not a formal interview or anything, it’s just so’s I get it all straight. Memory like a sieve these days.’

Isla nodded and DI Wilson started a tape.

‘I was out with some friends and I — I never saw him while we were at the bar, but he found my wallet, so he must have been there. There was some kind of event going on, I think, people reading poetry or something, so it was quite crowded. Anyway, when I was walking home —‘

‘You were on your own at that point?’

‘Yeah, my friends —‘ Isla hesitated. ‘I’m not sure — they must have gone to the station, or the bus stop, because I was walking by myself. And I was going the wrong way, which seems daft but — I suppose I’d had a few. I think I was going to get a McDonalds. But then he tapped me on the shoulder, and he had my wallet. He’d found it at the bar. He must have been there.’ Isla nodded. That made sense. It was crowded. She hadn’t seen him. ‘It was weird because I had no idea it was missing — you know how you normally have a sense when you don’t have your wallet or phone? Or at least, when you do find it, it comes rushing back to you that you never put it back in your bag? But I had no idea.

‘Somebody— one of your colleagues, I think. They said he might have lifted it from my bag to have an excuse to approach me.’

‘Did you see his face when he gave you his wallet?’

Isla shook her head. ‘No — well, I must have. I turned around. I hardly took my wallet with my back to him, like a relay thingmy.’ She tried to laugh, but her face wouldn’t comply. ‘I must have seen his face then, how could I not have? But I don’t remember — there’s nothing more until —‘ Chills dashed over Isla and she shifted in the chair.

‘Just take your time,’ said DI Wilson gently and Isla forced a smile.

She took a deep breath. ‘It’s fine. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground. The ground was freezing, and wet. I was half under a bush or a thick tree or something, I remember feeling a root or something pressing into my back, and I could see the moon through the branches.

‘That’s when I saw his face. It was a funny angle. He was above me, a bit to the side — that’s why I only recognised him in the car the other night. I’d sat opposite him all evening, chatting away, trying to impress him. Fancying him. What’s the matter with me?’

‘I don’t think anything is the matter with you at all,’ DI Wilson said gently. ‘What do you remember after that?’

Isla laughed, a strangled bark. ‘A swan. A big grumpy bastard of a swan, staring at me furiously for being in his pond. Or hers. I don’t know you tell. I was soaking wet, and so cold I could feel it in my bones. It was early morning. You know that time when the sky is quite light but there’s shadows everywhere? Like the night isn’t quite ready to give up?’

DI Wilson nodded. ‘All too well.’

‘I went home. I know I should probably have gone to the police right away, but I was — I just wanted to get home. I didn’t remember what had happened at that point, I just— I just wanted to go home.‘

‘When did you remember what had happened?’

‘I was in the shower. I’d just had my hair cut from halfway down my back to just above my shoulders. You know the way it feels unfamiliar when you wash it to begin with? Like you’re accidentally shampooing someone else’s head?’

DI Wilson smiled, made another note.

‘That’s when — it was just a couple of impressions, like — like if you’re in pitch darkness and there’s just the tiniest splinter of light around the doorframe or something. That’s what it was. Splinters of memory. But enough that I knew what had happened.’

‘And that’s when you called the police?’

Isla nodded slowly. ‘It was too late, by then, you know for evidence or whatever.’

‘But you made a statement? Do you remember who you spoke to?’

‘DCI Cara Boyle,’ Isla said promptly. ‘I tried to contact her but they said she’s left.’

DI Wilson nodded, her eyes kind. ‘Yes, she has, but that gives me something to follow up on.’

‘Something? What do you mean? I've given you his name.’

DI Wilson sighed. She put her notebook aside and clasped her hands together, hesitated a moment as though gathering her thoughts. Something cold slithered through Isla.

‘The thing is, Isla. I’ve been trying to gather some more information since you came in the other night, in order to figure out how to proceed. I’ve run your description of James and his car through the database and I haven’t come up with any strong matches, which isn’t too surprising given what little information it is. That isn’t your fault, of course, I’m just letting you know what I’ve been doing. I then went to pull up your previous statement to add this new development, and more importantly to see if there was any detail in that file that could help me now.’

Prickles of unease swept through Isla, and for a minute she thought she might be sick. DI Wilson’s expression was calm, thoughtful, but Isla suddenly felt as though she were about to get to trouble. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she knew she had done something very wrong.

‘Isla, there is absolutely no record in the Police Scotland’s database of you ever having reported an assault.’

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