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By My Side - Four

The next night, Isla had been determined to make a nourishing lentil soup for dinner, yet somehow found herself standing in the queue at the chip shop at the bottom of Grantley Street. The laundrette had been unusually quiet for a Friday, and Isla felt so exhausted from doing nothing for eight hours that the thought of chopping onions and carrots made her want to lie down in a darkened room. A fish supper it was. Fish was good for you, anyway.

The rain had come on and the windows were steamed up. The air was filled with the spit and sizzle of fish frying, the smell of vinegar, the chat of a couple of builders in the queue in front of her. One of the builders was telling a story about his uncle, who was so scared of hospitals that he refused to have his toe amputated after getting frostbite paddling in Arbroath in June.

‘He’d get an infection or something,’the pal said incredulously.

The builder shook his head. ‘Doctors said he was a medical marvel. Lived the rest of his life with this big mad deid toe.’

‘It must’ve killed him eventually.’

‘Naw, he got hit by a bus.’

Isla got to the front of the queue and ordered one bit of fish, chips, salt and vinegar, and a separate sachet of tomato sauce for the chips. It got darker while she was waiting. She hesitated by the door, pretending she was too hungry to wait before tearing into her supper. Sometimes, the thought of being in a cramped wee shop like this with strangers was terrifying. Other times, it was a million times better than being out there in the dark by herself.

DC McArdle had seen her into the flat last night. He’d had a nose around, checked all her windows. Then he’d gone downstairs to the yard behind the tenement where the rubbish bins were kept. From her kitchen window, Isla watched the reassuring glow of his torch scanning the yard, then jumped a mile when he knocked on her door to let her know all was well.

‘I don’t think he’ll come looking for you, for what it’s worth,’ he said, standing in her doorway.

Isla peered into the shadowy close behind him. The bulb was gone on her landing. Despite numerous emails to the factor, it was yet to be replaced so the stairwell was shrouded in gloom.

‘See criminals,’ DC McArdle went on, ‘they fall in to one of two categories. Ones that get caught in about five minutes flat because they’re just wee halfwit chancers, and ones that stay at large for years. If this guy is who you think he is —‘

‘He is.’

‘Then he’s clever enough not to have been caught for a year or two at the very least. He won’t risk coming near you again knowing you can identify him.’

‘Or he’ll kill me quickly to get me out the way.’

DC McArdle shook his head. ‘He’ll know that if anything happens to you, he’ll be first on our list. It won’t be worth it to him. Believe you me, hen, you’ll never see him again.’

Isla stepped into the night and tucked her fish supper into her jacket to protect it from the autumnal chill as she hurried up the hill home. At her front door she hesitated, unease prickling over her. An almost palpable memory hit, of walking down these steps with James the night before. She’d been nervous and excited about the first date she’d been on in years, and he’d been —

Planning to kill her.

No point in beating around the bush. At some point on the drive home, if she’d not recognised him in time and leapt from the car, she would have noticed that he’d taken a wrong turning. She would have asked him where he was going. Maybe he’d have made an excuse about a road closure.

Or maybe he’d have just kept driving in silence, his mask already starting to slip as he gripped the steering wheel. She would have been powerless. The car would have been going too fast for her to jump out. He’d have roared straight through red lights as she fumbled frantically, trying desperately unfasten her seatbelt because face planting concrete at speed was better than whatever he had in mind. He’d have laughed as he locked the doors. She’d have started to scream, knowing it was pointless.

A dog walker would have found her the next morning floating face-down in a pond.

But none of that happened. She had escaped. Again.

He’d tried twice to kill her and he had failed, twice. As a serial killer, he was shite. Zero out of ten, would not recommend.

Her fish supper was barely lukewarm by the time she got home. She shoved it in the oven while she triple locked the door and changed out of the clothes that stank of dry clean chemicals. In the living room, she picked at the chips she suddenly had no appetite for and put on the news.

It wasn’t overly likely there would be a headline story about the Duck Pond Killer finally being apprehended, perhaps accompanied by satisfying footage of James being wrestled into a police car, kicking and screaming and crying a bit. But she could hope.

Isla had felt uneasy the first time he came into the laundrette. He hadn’t said much, but he had this sense of surety about himself, an unnerving way of staring at her as though he could everything about her that she tried to keep hidden. Najat had been bantering about the fanciness of him having spilled champagne on his good suit and he had laughed along, but his smile hadn’t reached his eyes.

Had he been testing her? Had he been keeping an eye on her all those months, knowing that at any moment, her brain might decide to unlock memories that could identify him? He could be right. She’d been doing well lately with therapy lately. Fragments from that night were starting to float out of the fog at her.

At her last session, her therapist had read aloud her notes about Isla describing walking home from a night out with pals, when the man — James — approached her with the wallet she’d left behind at the bar. Apparently she’d joked that he had probably lifted it out her bag so as to have a reason to talk to her alone.

At first she’d been baffled. What night out? What pals? But as her therapist read, Isla realised that the words were familiar. She could recall quite distinctly walking along Pollokshaws Road — that’s right, they’d been at the Rum Shack. She was pleasantly pissed. She was nearly at the 24 hour McDonalds before she noticed she was going the wrong bloody way. She decided this was the universe’s way of telling her she needed a Big Mac before trying to sleep.

She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around —

And then nothing more. Her mind was a swirling mass of emptiness.

She shuddered. Put the rest of the fish supper in the bin. That was a waste of money. She flicked the kettle on, then remembered she didn’t have any milk and flicked the kettle back off in disgust.

Her phone blinked to life with a text. It was from her service provider offering her a discount for six months if she signed up for broadband too. No text from DI Wilson.

That was odd, wasn’t it? Surely she would follow up, even if there was nothing to report. Didn’t she say she would?

It didn’t seem right. This was a serial killer. If films were anything to go by, serial killers were high priority, guns blazing, sirens blaring. Not stuck on the to-do list to get around to one of these days.

A headache tugged at Isla’s temples, and suddenly she couldn’t remember any more what DI Wilson said. A wee zap of pins and needles shot through her. It was only last night. She couldn’t have forgotten. She wasn’t starting to forget more. She wouldn’t start to forget more.

Isla curled upon her couch and wrapped the throw around her. It was an old chunky one, ugly as sin and scratchy. She’d found it in Mae’s attic once. Mae swore she didn’t have a clue who crocheted it and didn’t care. It must have been made by someone in Isla’s family, so Isla snuck it home and kept it.

She had a card, she remembered suddenly. The detective who was in charge of the case, the one who had interviewed her after she woke up in the pond. She’d given Isla her card, told her to phone any time if she remembered anything or had any questions. She was nice, Isla remembered. She had short platinum hair and kind eyes. Isla should tell that detective what happened. Maybe that would be going over DI Wilson’s head, but if DI Wilson was bothered about that, she should have phoned Isla today.

Isla got up and rummaged through the pile of old bills and birthday cards on the shelf in her hallway. It wasn’t the most organised of filing systems, but generally, if she thought something would be in that pile, it would be. There it was.

DCI Cara Boyle.

Cara Boyle’s phone rang and rang, then beeped and rang again, as though the call is being forwarded.

‘DI Kevin MacGregor.’

The voice was tired, a bit short, as though DI Kevin MacGregor already couldn’t be arsed with whatever Isla had to say.

‘Oh yes, hello — sorry —‘

‘What can I do for you?’ The note of impatience grew.

Isla’s heart hammered. ‘I — I was looking for Cara Boyle. DCI Cara Boyle? Sorry, I thought it was her number I was phoning —‘

‘DCI Boyle doesn’t work here any more.’

‘Oh — she doesn’t?’

‘Is there something I could help you with? What’s your name?’

‘It doesn’t matter. Sorry to have bothered you.’

Isla hung up before DI Kevin MacGregor could say any more. Disappointment pooled heavily in her stomach. That was that, then.

If DCI Boyle was gone, then the whole thing had been dropped. Somebody would have been assigned her cases, but Isla bet they wouldn’t care as much because it wasn’t their case. The Duck Pond Killer hadn’t struck in over a year. They had more pressing matters to get on with.

Isla was on her own.

Isla stared at her phone a moment, half wondering if DI MacGregor would ring back any second. Hold on, Isla? Not Isla Crawford, the third victim? So sorry I didn’t know your voice right away — I’ve been in a meeting all day about what happened last night and we’re on our way to —

But the phone stayed stubbornly silent.

She would paint, Isla decided. That was the ticket. She had been waiting for a year and a half for this to be closed — when I remember, when they catch him, when he’s in jail — and she wasn’t going to wait another minute.

It was closed. There. Done.

Isla had bought a two bedroom flat despite Mae’s protestations that she’d never be able to afford the upkeep, so that she could use the spare room as an art studio. The spare room was supposed to be the master, but Isla slept in the cramped box room with the tiny window because the main bedroom had a huge south-facing window that flooded the room with light.

On the day she moved in, she had lined up her supplies on the shelves and stacked several empty canvases ready against the wall. She stood back with a satisfied smile, excitement prickling all over her. She imagined the floor splattered with paint, finished works drying all around her, dozens of half-drunk cups of tea crammed onto every available surface. She pictured herself standing in the middle of the room at the end of a long day, tired and satisfied.

Music would blare from the wee radio on the battered desk. Isla would be wearing an old shirt covered in splodges of paint and charcoal dust. She’d have a smudge across her forehead from where she blended some colours with her fingers then absentmindedly scratched her head. She would be so happy she could burst.

Almost two years later, she kept the door to that room firmly shut. It made the hallway even gloomier, but she couldn’t stand to see the room still so pristine and bleak. But now, she forced herself to open the door. It gave way with a creak and Isla felt for the light switch.

She was going to do something. Splash some colour on to paper. Or maybe sketch, with a really soft pencil, impressions of shapes that —

Isla stared.

The floor was splattered with paint. She blinked. Was she daydreaming her well-used studio? No. It was well-used. Canvases were propped against walls, just as she had pictured, but they weren’t the arresting celebrations of colour of her imagination.

They were dark. Blues and purples slithered through black. Long, creeping shadows, distorted, nightmarish visions shot with blood red.

Every single painting was of James.

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