By My Side - Two

‘It was, umm, a year back. No — more than that. Eighteen months, it must be. It’s July — is it July, now?’

Isla shivered. She was babbling, talking a load of nonsense. Of course it was July.

The unformed police officer was boyishly clean shaven, but when he frowned, his eyes crinkled in a way that made Isla think he was slightly older than she’d first taken him for. He cleared his throat, looked down at his notebook, evidently trying to make sense of what she was saying.

‘Do you mean, the attack happened in July?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit — all over the place. Could I have a cup of tea?’

‘Of course. Just hold on a wee minute —‘

When he was gone, Isla closed her eyes, took a deep breath. She was filled with a raging, jaggy urgency. She wanted to scream at him to hurry up, to get out there and arrest James before he could hurt somebody else. But she knew the script. They needed evidence. Statements. Cool, calm, facts. She needed to get a hold of the wild mess of thoughts rampaging through her brain.

‘There you go,’ said the officer as he handed her a steaming cup of tea in a paper cup.

He’d told her his name when they first sat down but she couldn’t remember it now. He was blond, that sort of strawberry blond that was somewhere along the road to ginger but not quite there. Friendly eyes. He’d been on the desk when she burst in the door. He’d listened, brought her into an interview room, and now he’d got her tea. Good policeman. Ten out of ten.

‘You were saying, it happened in July?’

‘No, sorry, forget that.’ Isla remembered now that it was November. July was ages ago. There was frost on the ground tonight.

Ever since it happened, time had taken on a weird, uneven quality and Isla couldn't quite keep track. Sometimes it crawled like a slug and other times galloped like an out-of-control race horse. What did it matter, anyway? All Isla ever did was get up every morning and go to Najat’s laundrette — unless it was Sunday, when she would stay in bed all day. After work she came home and watched telly and sometimes thought about painting. Auntie Mae refused to celebrate birthdays, and they hadn’t bothered with Christmas in years, so what difference did it make to Isla whether it was July or September or March?

‘The attack happened in May of last year. Mind that heatwave?’

‘Oh aye, that was a cracker.’

It had been. Three weeks after Easter and Glasgow had sizzled for two whole weeks. Folk had abandoned jobs, families and sanity to take to the pavements, slathered in olive oil. Every window in the city had at least one sunburned limb hanging out it at all times. The parks were carnage. It had taken the police a week to pacify Kelvingrove. And a serial killer had roamed the streets.

Well, almost.

The technical definition of a serial killer is three or more murders. On the first weekend of the heatwave, Maggie McGlinty, twenty-seven, a personal trainer from Scotstoun, had been found floating face down in the pond at Victoria Park. The police had initially assumed a drunken mishap. The pond is barely waist height, but they say you can drown in ten centimetres of water or something? When they waded in to retrieve her, however, they found her neck mottled with bruises. She was dead long before she ended up in the water.

The following weekend, when an early-morning dog walker found Rosie Morgan, thirty-five, a full-time mum, in the Cypress Pond by the banks of the Kelvin, nobody thought it was an accident. The press beat the police to the scene, and by the time the police spokesperson cautioned that, though she had also been found in water, Rosie Morgan had been killed by a blow to the head and it was far from confirmed that the deaths were linked, the Duck Pond Killer was trending. There was a bit of an outcry over the moniker, with several female columnists pointing out that it undermined the dignity of the women who’d lost their lives, but it stuck anyway.

Despite the warmth of the tea, Isla shuddered. PC Whatshisname looked at her in concern.

‘We can take a break if you want, there’s no hurry. Not much going on the night. I’ve plenty time.’

Isla nodded, but she just wanted to get it over and done with. Go home and get into her bed. Watch one of those comedy quiz shows and eat toast until she fell asleep.

‘Do you remember the Duck Pond Killer?’

‘Aye, did that not turn out to be a load of nonsense? Two murders in a week and some reporters tried to drum up business making out there was a serial killer on the loose?’

‘There was a serial killer on the loose.’

PC Whatshisname frowned. ‘Go on.’

‘You know how they say a serial killer is only considered a serial killer when they have killed at least three times? I read that. I looked it up. I read loads of books, about serial killers, memoirs of psychologists who study them. The guy they based Silence of the Lambs on, that Amy Kerr who was married to Stuart Henderson, and another British guy whose name I forget. I don’t know why I thought it would help me, or make any difference, but anyway. That’s one of the criteria. Three murders.’

‘And there were two victims last May.’

‘There was supposed to be three. I was the third.’

PC Whatshisname stared. His eyes flicked around, as though he were half-expecting to see a candid camera and some hyper TV presenter leap out laughing like a hyena.

‘He failed. He left me for dead, in Queens Park. Apparently there’s some drowning reflex that can make you raise your head to take a breath even when you’re unconscious and the duck pond is that shallow that I managed to roll over. I came-to, curled up on the path at the side, covered in duck shite, this massive swan staring at me in the darkness. I managed to get to my feet, and I went home. Slept right through to midnight the next night. It wasn’t until I properly woke up that I —‘

Isla started to shake. Terror prickled its way over her, gnawing at her guts. For a second she was certain he was in the room with them. James. He could have followed her. She didn’t actually see him drive off. He could be outside the police station right now, just waiting until she —

‘There, there.’ The police officer’s eyes were kind. He patted her hand.

‘James,’ she gasps. ‘That’s his name. I don’t know his surname, I don’t think he ever told me. I have his number, though.’ She fumbled for her phone, searching for his text. She remembered it, word for word

7 ok? I’ll pick you up at yours. My mum’s got a thing about me being a gentleman. Looking forward to it x

‘He knows where I live,’ she whispered. ‘I forgot — I didn’t think of that. I can’t go home. I don’t know where to go.’

‘Okay, how about one thing at a time.’ PC Whatshisname said, his voice filled with concern. ‘I’m just going to get my colleague to step in here, okay? She should hear this too. Won’t be a tic.’

But Isla wasn’t listening. She was staring at her phone. She swiped to close the text app, then opened it again.

‘Hello there, I’m Detective Inspector Sandra Wilson,’ said a voice.

The woman was about her Auntie Mae’s age, salt and pepper hair tied back in a messy bun, wire-rimmed glasses that made her look a bit like a headmistress. She sat down with a kind smile. ‘My colleague PC McArdle —‘ That was his name — ‘Asked me to sit in. I’ve read his notes so I won’t ask you to go back to the beginning just yet —‘

‘His text is gone.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘His text — he texted me this afternoon, to confirm when he would pick me up tonight. But it’s gone. I didn’t delete it.’

Isla felt the look that passed between DI Wilson and PC McArdle. She forced herself to take a steadying breath.

‘It proves it, doesn’t it? He must have blocked me — he doesn’t want there to be any trail between us, doesn’t want me to be able to give you his number.’

‘You said his name was — James, was it?’

Isla nodded.

‘And what exactly made you think that he is the man who attacked you?’

Isla closed her eyes.

Saw him, again. Driving, orange streetlights flickering on his face.

Saw him, that night in the park, moonlight silhouetting his profile as he loomed over her.

‘I recognised him,’ she said quietly. ‘Not at first, obviously. I have -- it’s called Post-Traumatic Amnesia? The emotional trauma, and also, they don’t know exactly how long I was in the water. I have some brain damage. My memories are a bit patchy, and I get mixed up — it’s like my brain needs to buffer sometimes, like when you’re watching a video online?

‘The only bit I remember is half-waking up and seeing him above me.’ Isla shook her head, gave a bitter laugh. ‘I was so disoriented, I didn’t know why I was lying on the ground in the dark — I thought he was a kindly stranger trying to help me and I smiled. He smiled back. I know that sounds mad, but he did. Like we were pals doing a mad thing together. Then he put his hands around my neck again and next thing, I woke up next to the pond.’

PC McArdle let out a soft whistle, like a balloon deflating. ‘Jesus Johnny,’ he muttered.

DI Wilson shot him a sharp look.

‘So tonight, when he was driving me, I looked at him — I had been knocked against the door a bit when he went round a corner fast. I must have been looking up a bit. And I saw him. I recognised him. He smiled at me, just like he did that night.’

‘What did you do then?’

‘I jumped out the car.’ Isla shuddered, felt tears prickling behind her eyes. ‘I’m sorry, I know I should have — I don’t know, tricked him in to driving here or something, but — I just wanted to —‘

‘Keeping yourself safe is the most important thing,’ DI Wilson said gently, and a lump formed in Isla’s throat. She wanted to ask DI Wilson not to be nice to her, not yet. She needed brusque impatience so she could hold it together a few minutes longer.

When Isla told Auntie Mae about the attack, Mae rolled her eyes and said that in her day things like that happened to lassies all the time and they just got on with it.

‘Belt him if you see him again,’ she grudgingly added, doling out the mince and tatties she made for Isla’s weekly visits.

Mae was of the old school, and insisted on cutting mince with porridge oats to make it last longer, even if the resulting half-beef, half-porridge was as glutinous and disgusting as it sounded. Isla had offered, several times, to pay for pure, unadulterated mince, but Mae wouldn’t hear of it.

‘He just drove off and left me,’ Isla said again now. ‘That must mean he realised I recognised him, right? He knows where I live.’

‘Well PC McArdle will to drive you home now, and he’ll have a wee look around. We’ll have a squad car come by a few times in the night, okay? We’ll need to have another word with you in a day or two, but leave all this with me for now. I’ll be in touch.’

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