Cara could see a run far enough that day, but she made herself go anyway. The weather had turned this week, leaving it more like November than July, and even a loop around Mugdock Park didn’t do much to lift her mood. She had been back in Glasgow for nearly six months and still wasn’t sure whether or not she had done the right thing.
Not long after she had helped expose the police chief in the small Highland town last winter, an old uni pal reached out. Ali Lawson had just taken over a new criminology course at one of the Glasgow colleges and wanted Cara as a full-time lecturer.
‘Me?’ Cara had laughed, adding a fresh log to her wee woodburner as the fire crackled and spat. It was snowing thickly outside, but the cottage was toasty. ‘I’m not an academic.’
‘I know,’ Ali said. ‘That’s why I want you.’
The last time Cara had seen Ali, he’d been sliding down a wall at the pub the night after their final exams. He was famous for that. He was a quiet, thoughtful guy who rarely said boo to a goose during the week, then Friday night would come. He’d silently chug approximately seven pints, slide down the wall and contentedly snooze the rest of the evening as they all tripped over his long legs. Like her, he must be in his mid-forties by now. Cara wondered if he still slid down walls.
‘I want someone who can talk to them about what it is like in the field. I’ve got plenty of academics who can teach the theories and the laws, but we both know that half of that goes out the window when you hit the real world. That’s what you can teach them.’
‘You know I had to resign from the force?’ That horrible knot of nerves formed whenever she forced herself to say the words.
‘I do,’ Ali replied shortly. Cara picked up the note of understanding in his voice and was grateful. ‘If anything, it qualifies you more for what I have in mind.’
Cara had started packing that evening. Now, two semesters later, she thoroughly enjoyed teaching. Trying to distil her hard-worn experience of twenty years as a front-line detective was a challenge but one she relished. The couple of years she spent in the wee village in the middle of nowhere had helped her to heal, but it was time to move on. Pick up her life. Or at least start figuring out what her life was going to be.
As Cara turned into her sleepy cul-de-sac, somebody was sitting outside her front gates. The younger woman was perched on the step, hugging her knees. Cara paused on the other side of the road, taking in the woman’s unruly, mousy-brown hair, shapeless jumper, and battered Doc Marten boots. Something about her put Cara in mind of Amy. The Amy Cara had first met years ago, that is, still reeling from her world being blown apart when her husband was arrested.
‘Can I help you?’ asked Cara gently.
The woman looked up, startled, her pale blue eyes filled with fear. She quickly got to her feet, brushing dust from her jeans.
‘Are you DCI Cara Boyle?’
‘I am Cara Boyle.’
‘Do you recognise me? Have we ever met before?’
During her career in the police force, Cara had encountered thousands upon thousands of suspects, witnesses, frustrating legal briefs, nosy members of the public. She couldn’t put a name to half of them and often wouldn’t have the first clue where, how, or why she had met them. But she never, but never, forgot a face.
‘No, we have never met before.’
‘Then I really need your help.’
Cara Boyle’s kitchen may have been the nicest room Isla had ever been in. It was enormous, practically the size of Isla’s entire flat. Even so, it was warm and lived in, with wooden cabinets painted a periwinkle blue and a dazzling array of spices and oils cluttered on the counter. The large, scrubbed pine table where they sat was in a porch that jutted out into the garden, its walls and ceiling entirely glass.
It was pitch dark outside, but the porch was covered with trailing flowers and fruit vines, making it feel like a secret indoor garden. A couple of long-stemmed candles flickered on the table, next to a squat wee vase stuffed with bright blue cornflowers.
‘My husband is the cook,’ Cara said with a sad smile when she caught Isla staring at the massive spice rack. ‘I live on cereal when I’m here alone. Which is — I mean, we’re separated, so —’ She cut herself off with a rueful laugh. ‘I live on cereal.’
‘ I live on cereal, occasionally punctuated by fish and chips.’ Isla shrugged. ‘I’m always telling myself that I’ll get around to getting into cooking properly one of these days. I imagine becoming one of those folk who posts photos of bubbling soup and freshly baked bread on Instagram, but —‘ She chuckled. ‘I don’t think I am one of those people.’
‘Sounds as though you’ve had a lot on your plate.’
‘Do you think it happened?’
Isla had poured out the whole story in a single, garbled breath as Cara made them hot chocolates. Cara hesitated, looked away, and Isla’s heart dropped.
‘When you picked up my business card the other night,’ Cara said slowly. ‘You must have already known you had it?’
Isla frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You looked for it, specifically. You didn’t just come across it?’
‘Yes. I looked for it to ring you, to tell you about James.’
‘Can you remember the time before? The last time you had the card or thought of it?’
Isla closed her eyes. There was a heavy dollop of real whipped cream in her hot chocolate, and between the sugar slump and the warmth of the kitchen, she was feeling pleasantly sleepy.
‘A couple of months ago,’ she said, opening her eyes again with a start. ‘The beginning of summer. I watched a documentary about Ted Bundy. It mentioned how one of his first victims escaped because he thought she was already dead, but she was faking. They interviewed some FBI person who said that showed his inexperience. He never left a victim again without being a hundred per cent sure that she was dead.’ Isla clutched her mug, feeling chilly all of a sudden. The hot chocolate was long gone, but the mug was still warm to touch. ‘I thought it was strange, that my attacker had killed two women before, but mucked up on the third one. I thought I should tell you.’
‘Did you get as far as getting the card out then, or did the thought just come and go?’
Isla thought, willing the memory to come forth. ‘I got the card out. I think I was even starting to dial, but then I felt daft, so I stopped. That’s how I knew where it was. There’s a pile of old bills and things on a shelf in my hallway, and it was there.’
‘Was that where it was the time before as well?’
‘Must have been.’
Cara nodded. ‘Do you remember the time before that?’
‘Not so specifically, but I know I’ve gone to phone a few times, when something like that crossed my mind, or I wanted to ask if there was any news.’
‘The thing is,’ Cara said, sitting forwards. ‘In May of last year, when those two women were murdered, I had already left the police force.‘
‘So I had nothing to do with the case. It is impossible that I took your statement or gave you my card.’
Isla nodded again. Her heart sank, and for a horrible moment, she thought she might cry. She was nuts. She had made this whole thing up.
‘But someone gave you this card.’ Cara picked up the card that Isla had put on the table between them. ‘It’s definitely one of mine, and I gave them out as seldom as possible.’ She sighed, tapped the card on the table. ‘I don’t believe you happened upon it all that easily. More than that, the details that you do remember, the certainty you felt when you recognised James — I don’t know what it all is, but it’s not nothing.’
Isla felt tears pricking behind her eyes. She’d been so sure Cara would chuck her out for wasting her time. Instead, she believed her. Cara reached over and squeezed her hand.
‘My friend Amy is a psychologist. She studies criminal behaviour, specifically serial killers. And she always says that nobody, not even those we consider insane, just wakes up one morning and decides to cause chaos. They have a reason to do what they do, however twisted or obtuse that reason may seem at first. There’s a pattern, a logic — triggers that lead from one thing to the next.
‘I don’t know what happened to you. I don’t know if it’s as you remember or if this man who took you on a date the other night has anything to do with it. But I think that something did happen. And with your permission, I would like to help you find out what.’