The lights of the Clyde Tunnel sped by as the car radio lost service. Ali frowned at her phone as Liam focused on the road. A dull ache warned him he was clenching his jaw again, as a weird sense of deja vu prickled over him. He and Emma had driven like this a hundred times, the car prickling with tense silence.
What was he doing?
It had been the day after Fiona gave him a talking-to about dating again. So two days after Morvan turned him down flat. He’d stopped at the Marks and Spencers by the hospital’s front door to pick up a meal deal for one, trying to decide whether he was treating himself or leaning into the melancholy of living alone. At the last moment he’d grabbed a garlic bread that definitely wasn’t for one, figuring in for a penny in for a pound.
It had been one of those days. Exhaustion draped over him as he waited to pay. Two overdoses — one a regular who’d clutched his hand and earnestly spoken of all her plans when she got clean after the last time — and a nineteen-year-old losing a leg after a dirt bike accident. Liam had long ago learned the art of separating himself from the emotion of his job. He focused his attention entirely on what he could do to help the physical body to heal, then he moved on to the next one. But for some reason, that day, the walls shattered and a mad part of him felt like crying when they lost the girl who overdosed.
He’d trudged out the front door and stopped. Torrential rain bounced off the pavement, the early summer’s evening as dark as midwinter. Several people were huddled under the overhang, staring glumly at the end-of-the-world storm. In the seconds it would take him to dash for the multi-storey car park, Liam would be drenched to the skin, and for just an instant, the thought was more than he could bear.
He turned, and wondered if he’d fallen asleep standing up. The woman was stunning. Preternaturally sophisticated, her tailored trouser suit skimming a figure that didn’t seem possible in real life; her full lips the most sensual thing Liam had ever seen. He cleared his throat, feeling like a gangly teenager in his fleece that had seen better days and scrubs that probably hadn’t.
‘I’ve been standing here waiting for a cab for like five minutes, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every season,’ she drawled in an American accent. ‘Just waiting for the snowstorm.’
‘Give it another five,’ he grinned, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
‘It’s June,’ she added, glaring at the rain as though she could reason with it. ‘This isn’t even like a summer storm. It’s cold.’
‘Welcome to Scotland.’
She sighed, and Liam wondered what on earth this glamorous creature was doing at a hospital in Scotland. He still wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t dreaming. ‘I thought I would be more of a fan,’ the woman said ruefully. ‘I was expecting, more, like, castles and kilts and shit.’
A skinny wee guy in a hospital gown and cowboy boots chose that moment to come tearing out the door. He ran into the rain and started dancing, singing a football song at the top of his voice while a beleaguered nurse shouted at him to behave himself. A couple of patients smoking by the door cheered him on.
‘Welcome to Glasgow,’ Liam amended with a grin.
‘Can I buy you a drink?’ The woman said suddenly. Liam felt his face go hot. Did she mean —? ‘I discovered a beautiful wine bar by my place the other day, but I don’t like to drink alone.’
‘I — umm —‘ There were a million reasons to say no. All work and no play, Fiona’s voice echoed in his head. ‘Why not?’ he said finally.
It was supposed to be a hot fling, a bit of distraction and fun for both of them, Liam thought as he took the Thornwood roundabout and turned towards Crow Road. Ali was sexy and dazzling and cool. Even after a couple of weeks, a part of him still couldn’t believe it was really happening.
Liam had no idea he’d met Ali before until the following morning, when he overheard her talking about Poppy on the phone to someone. He never paid much attention to the relatives and friends, but he remembered Poppy. He’d never have gone home with Ali if he’d known how they first met, but he supposed Poppy was long gone from his care, and Ali made it clear she barely knew her.
The problem was that he had no idea how to do a hot fling, he thought as they sat at the red light on Clarence Drive. Ali was typing on her phone, an urgent flurry of texts, though at least the radio was back on, playing some tinny pop hit he vaguely recognised from school discos. Within days of that first night, he’d fallen back into acting like a partner because it was all he knew how to do. Emma didn’t like making her own way home late at night, so Liam automatically started picking Ali up.
And now here they were, driving home in sullen silence. Together but apart. His jaw tense and a little voice perpetually nagging that he’d done something wrong and was about to get in trouble. Ali could not be more different to Emma in almost every conceivable way, and yet claustrophobia clawed at Liam’s throat. It was like the past year had never happened. Except it had. Because he’d met Morvan.
‘Listen,’ he blurted as he pulled up outside the one-time mansion now broken into flats. The wide, leafy street was quiet. A part of Liam wanted to keep the engine running, but he forced himself to cut it, like a gentleman.
‘Hold on —‘ Ali murmured, still typing.
Liam waited, his stomach churning. He’d never dumped anyone in his life before. He’d vaguely assumed he and his first girlfriend would just stay together long distance when she got into Cambridge. He could still remember frowning at her in confusion as they sat side-by-side on his childhood bed and she ran through the obviously rehearsed speech about how they would always be friends. Afterwards he’d walked her to the front door and smelt her hair for the last time when she gave him a chaste, awkward hug. Then he’d gone into the kitchen and terrified his mum by bursting into tears.
His second girlfriend — well, that was Emma. He’d discovered they were over when her sister came scuttling awkwardly down the aisle in her bridesmaid dress. Half the congregation had started to stand thinking the ceremony was starting, until murmurs of confusion grew as folk noticed that Katie was running and there was no music. Liam’s mum had jumped up and ordered everyone back into the reception hall with all the authority of a retired lead nurse, clearly fearing a rerun of the kitchen seventeen years earlier.
‘You planning to stay in the car all night?’ Ali put her phone back in her Balenciaga handbag and reached for the door handle.
‘Just a — sec. I’m not going to come in.’
‘Oh — sure. Whatever. See you later, I guess —‘
‘No, I’m — Ali, I’m really sorry —‘
She sighed irritably. ‘Right. Gotcha.’
‘You are an incredible —‘
‘Oh my god, spare me that, please. This was fun. You’re a pretty good human vibrator. Have a nice life.’
‘Oh. Well, I mean, maybe we could —‘
‘No. You’re in or you’re out, Liam, and you’re clearly out. Thanks for the ride.’ Her laugh was bitter. ‘No pun intended.’
With that she got out and slammed the door. Liam flinched, then sat a moment, watching her march up the front drive. That was — easier than he’d thought? Harder? He wasn’t sure.
After a moment, he started the engine and pulled away.
Isla had texted Morvan that afternoon to see if she fancied a late drink after work, but she hadn’t replied. Isla shook out her brolly and waved good night to the doorman as she headed down the steps. She thought about texting Morvan again, but then decided she’d just get a wee glass of wine somewhere herself. Allan was away on a stag do, and while Isla was quite looking forward to a weekend of pottering about the house by herself, she fancied unwinding a bit first before heading to their dark house.
Isla had lived in tenements in Dennistoun all her life, and while she adored the detached bungalow in Bishopbriggs she and Allan bought six months before the wedding, the silence was taking a bit of getting used to. She didn’t mind. It was unsettling in an exciting way, mostly. But a wee glass of red and a read of her book surrounded by folk would see her right, then she’d walk down to Queen Street for the bus.
A few minutes later, Isla was settled at a cosy basement bar on Hope Street. The merlot was perfect and she’d even gone for a cheeky bag of salt and vinegar crisps, despite vaguely meaning to get back on a diet for months. Isla didn’t like the idea of having kept trim for men all these years. Still, when Allan so obviously loved to snuggle her tummy and all, she was a bit embarrassed to find that she didn’t care either.
The week unknotted and drained away as Isla sipped her wine and lost herself in the thriller she was reading. The police hadn’t been around the hotel so much, which had been a relief. Isla felt a bit guilty about that. She obviously wanted them to do whatever they needed to find out what happened to that poor girl. But at the same time, their constant presence put a pall over the whole place, staff and guests alike were jumpy and unsettled.
Aoife, the temp cleaner who’d reported the dollars left in Poppy’s room, had told Isla she wouldn’t be doing any more shifts. Isla was disappointed — Aoife was a good worker and a right laugh, but she understood. The police had been a bit much with her, Isla privately thought. She supposed they knew what they were doing, but she’d expected them to just take Aoife’s statement in the private room Isla had organised for them in the hotel. Instead, they insisted she come down to the station. Aoife had been completely freaked out and announced she wished she’d never said anything.
Morvan still hadn’t replied. Isla sighed and turned the page, but the words swam before her eyes. She knew Morvan hated anyone worrying about her, but Isla couldn’t help it. Isla was a teenager when Morvan’s mum remarried and had the three girls in quick succession. She remembered her mum opening the Christmas card the year after the youngest was born, one of those American-style numbers with a photo of the family. Morvan’s mum, Janet, and her new husband cradled the three cherubic little ones between them while Morvan, awkward and sullen at eleven, sat on Janet’s other side, staring at the camera with a tiny, obedient smile. Isla’s mum got right on the phone to invite Morvan to stay for some of the Christmas holidays, but Janet reported that Morvan refused.
Despite what Morvan thought, Isla didn’t believe that everybody needed to be neatly married off to be happy. She had pals who’d never been happier since they flung their husbands out, and others who’d never bothered with the whole rigmarole in the first place. If anything happened to Allan, Isla had no intention of going through it all again. She’d move back into town and join a book club, she thought, then felt a bit guilty for having such firm post-Allan plans. She sent him a quick text that she loved him.
But Isla wasn’t convinced that Morvan was one of those people. She remembered how devastated Morvan had been when that fanny of a director she’d gone out with at film school cheated on her. Within weeks she’d been laughing it off and insisting that he’d done her a favour, but Isla knew her better than most. Something about the way she turned her every love life disaster into a funny story reminded Isla of crunching through that tiny veneer of ice covering puddles on frosty days. From a distance it looked solid, but it crumbled to nothing under the lightest footstep.
Still, there wasn’t anything Isla could do. Morvan was a big girl. Isla finished the wine and made her way out into the night. There was a bus leaving Queen Street in fifteen minutes, ideal timing for her to stroll down the hill. It had been years since Isla had seen the inside of a chapel, but as she walked, she said a mini-prayer into the universe that one day the guy would come along for Morvan who would be the solid home she’d never had. That wine had made her a bit fanciful, she thought with a giggle, then stopped, wondering what had caught her attention —
The bustle of the city centre on a Friday night faded as Isla listened keenly. A voice — a groan? Coming from the narrow alleyway that ran between two streets. Somebody probably had a bit too much already, she thought. She hesitated. She’d worked plenty pub jobs before going in to hospitality, and could ably judge when it was best to give someone a wide berth, but for some reason, she found herself stepping forwards.
‘Hello? Are you okay there? Do you need me to phone somebody for you?’
Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw him now, crumpled on the ground between two rubbish skips. He was curled in a ball, clutching his stomach as he groaned in pain. Isla’s blood ran cold as she saw that the inky substance splattered on the cobblestones wasn’t just filth but blood. She grabbed her phone and was already dialling 999 when he rolled over and Isla bit back a scream.
Jordan was one of the newest waiters in the restaurant, a sunny wee guy who’d earnestly told Isla at his interview that he dreamed of being a house husband. Isla robotically asked for an ambulance as she crouched by him and made empty promises that he was going to be okay. She wanted to take his hand, but all his fingers had been broken.
Morvan took the winding slip road from the Clyde Tunnel so fast that she felt the tires lose traction for an instant. Forcing herself to take a deep breath, she touched the brakes as she approached the Thornwood Roundabout. Her hands carefully at ten to two, every iota of focus alert, she drove as fast as she dared up the hill towards Crowe Road, cursing the interminable red light at Clarence Drive.
Ali’s gate was locked, requiring a code or to be buzzed in. Morvan hauled herself over it, quite pleased that the three whole weeks she did of CrossFit turned out to be worth it after all. Ali lived in a converted venerable West End mansion built by a tobacco magnate in the 1700s, all grand sandstone and Grecian pillars over the front door. Morvan spotted several sleek BMWs and Mercedes filling the gravel drive as she stole up the neat pathway, horribly aware that she had kind of broken in.
The front door opened just as she approached. Morvan jumped, then quickly forced a smile as a patrician couple about her mum’s age gave her a curious glance. ‘Evening,’ she said, running for the door the man held open.
He nodded without interest as Morvan slipped inside. The door swung shut behind her and she was alone in the luxurious entryway. She caught sight of herself in the huge, brass mirror that hung over a gleaming walnut sideboard, and judged the couple for not challenging her. Her hair was wilder than usual, her makeup sweated off and her blouse somehow skewiff.
She had no idea what floor Ali lived on, and there didn’t appear to be a directory. Keenly aware that other neighbours could appear and question her at any moment, Morvan glanced at the name plate on the nearest front door. McAllister. Shit — Ali was renting. What if the name on her door was her landlord’s? Morvan could hardly start knocking on every front door to see if Ali answered. She looked at the next one, at the far end of the ground floor lobby — Grey. But above the brass nameplate was a small, neat cardboard sign that read Ali Taylor. Breathing a sigh of relief, Morvan knocked.
Ali opened so fast it seemed she’d been expecting someone else. ‘Morvan.’ A flash of hope died in Ali’s eyes as she stared at Morvan in surprise. She looked impeccable as usual, but if Morvan didn’t know better, she’d say her eyes were slightly red.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you this late. Can we talk?’
‘Is there a problem?’
‘Can I come in?’
Ali hesitated for an instant, then stepped aside. The front door opened directly into an opulent kitchen with a huge American-style fridge and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack. It was like the kitchen in a fancy-lifestyle cooking show, Morvan thought, all artfully arranged spices and fresh vegetables. A mouthwatering smell emanated from the stove where a tomato and basil sauce simmered gently, while a large slab of flatbread dough sat on the island, apparently half-way through being brushed with garlic and herbs.
The kitchen led onto a glass extension that seemed to be a combined eating area and cosy nook, with a large scrubbed pine table and an old-fashioned but pretty gingham sofa. There were no curtains to draw; the kitchen reflected in the inky darkness beyond the glass. The stuffed sofa was piled high with scripts, several copies of the Shadow City book, and an Arran throw. Ali’s living space was so different to what Morvan would have expected that she was thrown for a moment.
‘Is this about you not getting the updated fight scene?’ Ali asked.
Morvan had to think for a second to remember what she was talking about.
‘It seems that you were somehow left out of the Heads of Department email list. I have no idea how that happened, of course you should be on it. But I wasn’t aware you weren’t — I wish you’d told me you hadn’t gotten so many emails.’
‘Why did you lie about when you arrived in Glasgow?’
‘Excuse me? I didn’t lie.’ Ali took a sip of red wine from the fishbowl glass on her kitchen island, dipped her pastry brush in garlic butter and began to coat the dough. ‘Would you like a glass?’
‘I’m driving.’ Morvan stood awkwardly by the door, watching Ali work. ‘You were in Glasgow for over a week before we met.’
‘So what?’ Ali said, but Morvan was sure she detected a note of defensiveness.
‘You met with Poppy.’
Ali nodded. ‘I knew Walter was considering her for Kirsty, I hoped to make her see sense before he took it any further.’
‘But you didn’t discuss this with me.’
‘Why should I? I discussed potential Kirstys with you. Poppy wasn’t one of them.’
‘We video-called during that week and you were in Glasgow the whole time.’ Morvan cringed inwardly. Now that she was saying the words out loud, they sounded pathetic, like asking someone to explain why they hadn’t invited you to their party. ‘I know Poppy. I could have helped —‘
‘I wasn’t aware of that at the time.’
‘Because you didn’t speak to —‘
‘Morvan, if you have something to say I would rather you came out and said it. We could have a conversation like adults.’ Despite Ali’s words, she wouldn’t meet Morvan’s eye. Morvan was no cook, but even she was fairly confident that brushing melted butter onto dough didn’t require quite so much concentration.
‘Did you know Axel was aware Poppy was cast for over two weeks?’
Ali nodded. ‘I found out later. Seems her agent jumped the gun a little. It can be a tactic to put pressure on negotiations. Are you suggesting this has anything to do with what happened to her?’Ali looked up abruptly and it was an effort for Morvan not to draw back at the sudden eye contact. The phone. Bring up the phone.
‘Do you know what happened to her?’
‘— Of course not.’
Morvan’s heart thudded. Ali had hesitated. It was barely a fraction of a second, but something in her eye —
‘There is a private detective who thinks there is a serial killer operating in Glasgow right now,’ Morvan blurted.
Ali raised an eyebrow, uncertain as to how to take this. ‘That’s — horrible.’
Morvan stepped forward, came to stand across the island from Ali. She watched her shift the garlic bread from a wooden block onto a baking dish. ‘Several young women have been strangled or almost strangled over the past couple of years. It’s very rare for killers to chose that method. It takes so long, and it’s so personal. Looking into someone’s eyes as life drains from them. It’s not really a first time, moment of madness kind of murder.’
Ali turned away to put the garlic bread in the oven, then stirred the sauce. Morvan sensed her relief at turning her back on Morvan for a few moments. ‘That sounds positive.’ She turned the heat down on the sauce a little, gave it a final stir. ‘Not positive exactly, I guess. But I hope they catch the bastard soon.’
‘Why were you at the hotel for so long that morning?’
Ali stared, stricken. She opened her mouth to answer then looked away. Horror rushed at Morvan, her heart juddered. Just explain, she begged silently. Have a good explanation —
Then an almighty crash made them both jump.
Morvan whirled around, blood rushing in her ears as a white face appeared in the darkness and thumped on the glass again. Let me iiinnnnn. The voice echoed though Morvan’s terror, distorted and warped, until finally, it dawned on her that she recognised it —