Glasgow 1928

A bluebottle thuds against the pane. Reeling on the rebound, it staggers through the air searching for another exit. It exhausts the dull corners of the room, senses the light and tries the window again. Over and over, I watch it flying here and there and back again.

The buzz suddenly stops. It lands on the table inches from my hand, standing on the arc of an old tea stain. Its tiny body pulses and flexes, and black spiked legs turn it left and momentarily right.  I sit frozen, watching it, imagining its thoughts. I do that with people too, like that first one.

In a blur, I jerk my hand and swat it, clipping its side.  The mess of the insect glistens.  I lean in. One broken leg is still reaching, trying to get some purchase.  I breathe smoke over it and nudge the lit fag-end towards its one good eye, so I can listen to the sear.  It can’t escape. It’s stuck to the table with its own guts. Done, I flick it. It hits the wall and falls into the shadows. No one’s ever cleaned back there.

In fact, the whole room is dirty.  It’s deliberate — squalor helps un-nerve anyone who’s used to better. Not me, though. I quite like it.

Used to be white, but lots of fags have been smoked in here since.  Now it looks like old men’s teeth.  Smells too. Quiet though. Thick walls and there’s only that high window to let the street in.  That’s the clattering of trams, rolling along Saltmarket.  I like trams. Know them all. That’s the thirteen.  Stops right outside the station.  And there’s its bell. Goes over the Clyde and down towards Gorbals Cross.

No clock in here.  They don’t want you knowing how long it’s been. They like to leave folk stewing.  The longer the better. The not-knowing gets to them. But not me. I know their game. You just need to settle in.  It’s a seat. Got my fags. And there was that fly.


At the far end of the duty room, D.S. Fyfe was fixing a large photograph to the pinboard. He knew he was being watched and probably pitied.  However, he had no choice but to go along with what Chapman wanted.

It was only his fourth week working with the new senior officer. It was a recent promotion and before his time, some said. Chapman was certainly young. But worse than that, he was English.

On their first day, the new D.C.I. had made it clear how he worked. Now, as Fyfe stood at the board that Chapman had put up, he finished assembling all the evidence.  Only the D.C.I. used this approach. It was an attempt to consolidate everything, and red strings were used to join apparently disparate pieces of the story.

Most of Chapman’s colleagues thought it was an affectation. It had certainly been new to Fyfe. However, he was already seeing its value because it helped see the bigger picture.

Fyfe secured the latest crime scene photograph — the third murder in a month.  Three victims, all women, had each been attacked upstairs on a tram late at night. This photograph, like the others, showed a woman slumped and bloodied, her throat cut.

Unannounced, Chapman appeared at Fyfe’s side.

“Good, Sarge. Let’s go over this again.”

Chapman sat but expected Fyfe to stand, using the board to present the case clearly and logically.  All the while, Chapman’s eyes would be darting from photograph to note, following the connections and formulating new ones.

“Sir, the first was Elsie O’Grady, twenty-five, waitress going home after work.  Recently separated from her husband, she lived with relatives.  Conductor found her on the upper deck just after midnight.  The body position and blood splatter suggest she was attacked from behind while seated.  Her throat cut in a single slash. No witnesses and, although there was plenty of blood, no footprints.”

Chapman nodded, urging Fyfe on.

“With the others, it’s the same story.  Betty Devine, twenty-two, housemaid returning after a day off.  And the most recent one, Millie Pollok, twenty.  All killed upstairs on a late-night tram, throat cut from behind. The only difference with Pollok is there’s evidence of a struggle — skin under her fingernails. So, she must have managed a swipe at him.”


I’ll tell you one thing, this table’s seen better days. I don’t mind though.  Gives you time to think.

The thing that surprised me when I got started was how many young women travel alone at night. Wouldn’t do that if I was a woman.

But it was quick. Wasn’t trying to make them suffer. And it was easy — just had to wait.  I’d sit upstairs and when they came up, I’d crouch down.  Most women are too busy fussing with their purses to notice.  At night, the conductor usually takes their fares downstairs.  That helped.

After they settled, I just had to pull their heads back with one hand and take the razor hard across their throats with the other.  Their blood would splash the electric bulbs above them. They would be in a pool of pink light while they died. Lovely.  Couldn’t stay, though. I had to climb over seats to get out.

The first one felt nothing.  The next was harder. She scratched like a cat.   I won’t lie — I was nervous but excited. Like at the carnival when you want to go on the big ride.

Been in the papers too.  Well, not me, my work.  My night work, that is.  Nobody’s interested in what I do during the day. No pictures, though. Pity. But whatever way you look at it, it was their own fault for travelling alone at night.


Fyfe continued, while pointing at the board.

“In each case, the killer used a razor, slicing from right to left, so he was likely left-handed.”

“And the conductors saw nothing?”

“No, sir, no help there — can’t recall who went upstairs or down.”

Chapman rose and studied the three crime scenes in turn.  All showed young women slumped against the windows, their heads back and hanging awkwardly to one side, with a dark, gaping grin across their white necks. He took three pins and pierced one in each photograph. He then wound string around the first pin, stretched it across to the second and tied it off around the third.

“That’s what we need — the connection. That’ll give us a motive.”

Fyfe had been working on just that but, thus far, had drawn a blank. And without a motive it was nearly impossible to identify a suspect.  Any man had the means — everyone had a razor — so all that was left to work with was opportunity.  Suspicion had naturally fallen on the conductors but, again, there was no link.  Three murders and three different conductors.  Their photographs were on the board too and connected to the respective scenes.  Fyfe studied them, all wearing their uniforms, and was struck by how alike they were.


My job’s boring.  Like that even from the start. Always on the move, here and there. Up and down stairs all day long.

Taken for granted. Just a nobody doing his job day in, day out.  And for what?  A single end in Govan, a gas ring and a shared toilet.  Not much to show for a life. One moment you have your dreams, and the next they’re gone. Just like those women, I suppose.


When the pattern emerged, they started looking for a lone ripper. But now the D.C.I. was questioning that assumption.

“Could there be more than one?”

“A copy-cat killing, sir?”

“Surely a possibility.  The first is topped. For argument’s sake, let’s say by the ex-husband. A week later, once it’s been in the papers, some lunatic comes along and tries his hand. Perhaps another week later he kills again, or maybe someone else takes over.  Might explain things.”

Fyfe thought carefully before answering. Whatever he said had to be sensible, especially if it was a rebuttal.

“If so, the second killer must have known exactly what happened at the first scene.  These crimes are nigh on identical. None of the details were released.  No one could have known except the killer.”

“What about the first conductor? He must have seen it all when he found O’Grady. Maybe he talked.  What if he told other conductors?  What do we know about the other two?”

Fyfe checked his notes and shook his head.

“Nothing special, sir. Duncan McColl was on the night Devine was killed, and Eric Warder found Pollok. McColl’s a family man from Shettleston, and Warder lives in Govan. Not married — bit of a loner.  Seemed like ordinary blokes.”

Chapman was studying the conductors’ photographs, and, like Fyfe, he saw the similarity — except, that is, for one thing.

“When were these taken? After the murders?”

“When I interviewed them, sir. This week.”

“Why’s this one wearing a woolly scarf?  It’s August.  Was Warder wearing it when you interviewed him?”

Fyfe strained to recall but couldn’t be certain.

“Get him in.  Let’s see if he’s hiding anything under that muffler. Like scratches.”


I light another fag. It’s not a comfortable chair.  Hard.  But when you’re on your feet all day, any seat’s a godsend.

There’s the thirteen again outside. Like clockwork.  Good to have something reliable. Expect they’ll ask me why I did it. Thought I knew, but I’ll need to get that straight.  Need a good answer because it’ll probably end up in the papers.  Maybe they’ll print my picture too.


“Right, I need you in there with me, Sarge.  I’ll take the lead, but you can offer him a fag, maybe a kind word. I want Warder thinking you’re on his side. Right, you go down, and I’ll be close behind.”


Footsteps outside. Handle turns. Door opens. Wasn’t sure who to expect. It’s Fyfe who looks in and smiles. Good that it’s the Sergeant.  Dealt with him before and he’s much easier to talk to than that English one.


“What’s this? Sitting down on the job, Charlie?  What you doing in here?”

“Just taking five minutes, Sarge.  Didn’t think you needed it.  Warder’s in the other room.”

Fyfe nodded and told the cleaner to mind Chapman didn’t catch him taking a break.


I wait before I collect my bucket.  I linger in the corridor, listening, my ear pressed to the old wood.  Chapman’s shouting.  Likes the sound of his own voice, but he’s got it wrong.  They think they’re that clever.

Upstairs there’s a floor needs doing. The stairs aren’t getting any easier.  Never thought I’d still be here, mopping floors, swilling out lavatories. But there are perks. Pick up a mop here, and you’re invisible.

In the duty room, they don’t even look up. I start by the window and work my way over to that board.  I slow so I can study the pictures.

Never got to see them like that.  She wasn’t one of mine, though, that first one. But when I saw her on the board, it looked so thrilling. And it was all there, every detail.  Almost an instruction manual. So, I thought, Charlie, why not get your own handiwork on Chapman’s famous board?

But as I’m looking, it occurs to me — there’s still space for one more. I’m working late, and the stop’s just outside. That last tram to Gorbals Cross is always quiet, except for one or two upstairs.

Then I hear it. Another heavy blue bottle flies past and lands on the board. It crawls across Elsie’s face and meets the taut red string.  Forced along, it finds its way onto Betty’s corpse where it pauses, preening its bulbous eyes with its front legs.  It turns, tasting the glossy surface, before carrying on to the end of the line where Millie is half-lying, half-sitting ripped open at the neck.

It scents her blood, but I decide to let this one go.

— Allan Gaw