Chapter OneThe keys felt reassuringly expensive. Jingling them in her palm, Isla clipped down the stairs, pausing for a moment, as had become habit, to look out at the streets of Edinburgh stretching out below her, the golden sandstone buildings glowing gently in the pale early sunlight. This was what she worked for. This was what made the hours of slogging, day after day, ﬁghting her way to the top of her game, worth it. She peered down to the road below where her pride and joy stood, its scarlet paint glossy as a pillar box. Isla Brown allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction.
Slinging her Mulberry bag over her shoulder, she circled down the stone staircase, the sound of her heels echoing in the silence of the morning. With a plip, the driver’s-side door unlocked and she slid into the seat, inhaling the delicious scent of new car.
This was Isla’s favourite time of day in the city. Nobody around but delivery men and end-of-shift security guards; streets empty but for seagulls and pigeons swooping down on the remnants of a night’s revelling in the capital, helping themselves to discarded chips and half-eaten burgers. They’d be gone soon, the slate wiped clean every morning by council workers who swept up the detritus and restored the city to her stately glory.
Isla stopped at a trafﬁc light, ﬁngernails tapping impatiently on the steering wheel, feeling the smug purr of the engine. Flipping down her sun visor as she waited, she checked her make-up. Her face was an immaculate mask of primer and foundation, with a slash of red lipstick that matched her gorgeous new convertible perfectly. Isla brushed a speck of mascara from her cheek, pushed the visor back up and roared away from the stop light, sending a group of nearby pigeons ﬂapping into the air in surprise.
Later on, the street outside would be nose-to-tail with trafﬁc, on-street parking impossible, the pavement choked with ofﬁce workers heading up to spend their lunch hour in the sunshine of Princes Street Gardens – but arriving at this time of day meant Isla was able to pull up right outside work and park. That way, she could spend all day looking out the window at the manifestation of her years of hard work. She locked the car, casually clicking the keys as she stepped through the gleaming glass doors of Kat Black Hair.
With a few taps she’d deactivated the alarm system and – as she’d done every day for two years, since taking over as head stylist – headed through to the little staff room. She liked her mornings to be routine. Breakfast was always alone in the ﬂat; never a problem, as Hattie, her housemate, rarely surfaced before eleven. A quiet journey to work (until she’d bought the Mazda it had been on foot, with Isla changing out of trainers and into work shoes before anyone caught her looking anything other than immaculate) and then this – her daily ritual. Switching the kettle on, Isla set to work making sure that everything she needed was in place. Her trolley was neatly stacked, each little compartment ﬁlled with precise piles of everything she might need, from rollers to kirby grips, combs to clippers. ‘The secret to a good cut is an organized stylist,’ she would intone to the juniors, ﬁrmly.
‘The secret to a good cut,’ the parrot-haired Chantelle, who was second in command and snapping at her heels, would respond, archly, ‘is a stylist who isn’t afraid to take risks.’
Isla frowned, imagining Chantelle’s cocky tone. Unfortunately Kat, who owned the chain of salons, had a soft spot for Chantelle, and for some reason didn’t seem to recognize the merits of Isla’s precise, methodical ways. It wasn’t fair. She gave an experimental snip with her favourite scissors, imagining as she did so how it would feel to chop the irritating Chantelle’s rainbow-tipped mohawk off ‘by accident’. She wouldn’t be so pleased with herself then, would she?
Taking one china and one paper cup of coffee through to the reception desk, Isla sipped as she waited for the computer booking system to kick into life.
There was a clatter as the salon door was shoved open. A tangled head of hair, which hadn’t seen shampoo in some time, topped a weather-beaten face.
‘All right, Isla, hen?’
Isla looked up from the screen of the Mac. ‘You’re late today, Tam. Busy night?’
‘Aye.’ Tam gave her a wink. ‘Had to see a man about a dog.’
He hitched up the shoulder of his oversized greatcoat. Isla pushed back her chair, picking up the coffee she’d made him.
‘Thanks, darlin’. See you the morn’.’
Isla smiled at the routine of it. ‘Not if I see you ﬁrst.’
Tam raised his coffee cup in acknowledgement and headed back down the steps, where a brindled bull terrier sat waiting patiently. Isla turned back to the computer screen.
Another packed day – just how she liked it, and some of her favourite clients. And a note from Kat to say she wanted a cut and colour done on her own hair after closing tonight at six. That was good – the perfect time to remind Kat just why she was top stylist, and hopefully drop in a few hints about the beneﬁts of moving Chantelle to the salon up in Morningside. She could suggest it as a career-enhancing move, after all . . .
‘It’s deﬁnitely blue.’
Isla looked in the mirror at Kat’s thunderous expression and frowned slightly, shaking her head. This had never happened before, and there was no way – absolutely no way – that it could have occurred.
‘It can’t be.’
She never did anything without double-checking. Closing her eyes for a moment, she visualized herself standing in the back room of the salon, mixing the toner with the correct shade – no.324. She could see the ﬁgures on the box, could remember pulling it down from the shelf. At the time, two more boxes had fallen down from a nearby stack and Mel, the shyest, most junior of all the trainees, had darted to pick them up for her, stepping back deferentially without a word.
Kathleen Black glared at Isla. As owner of a chain of exclusive salons (patronized by a select clientele, famed for their discretion, known for their glossy-maned team of award-winning stylists), she expected the very best. And Isla – prize-winning perfectionist head stylist, super-focused ice queen – was the best.
Kat lifted a damp, most deﬁnitely blue-tinged tendril from her forehead. Lips pursed and eyes narrowed, she glared at Isla’s reﬂection as she spoke, each word crystal- sharp and clearly enunciated.
‘Chantelle? Here. Now.’
Isla caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her carefully applied blusher now looked clownish against her blanched cheeks. She stood frozen to the spot. She didn’t make mistakes.
‘Kat,’ Isla began, carefully. ‘I know I didn’t get the shade wrong. The box is out the back. Let me show—’
Kat’s pale blue eyes narrowed further. Her chin lifted slightly.‘I’d rather you didn’t show me anything. If I were you –’ her voice was dangerously quiet now, and Isla could feel the long-suppressed, yet all-too-familiar sensation of panic surging like a wave – ‘I’d get out of my sight. I’ll ring you when Chantelle has ﬁxed this – mess.’ She dropped the strands of hair, which ﬂopped against her cheek. ‘Life’s too short for mistakes, Isla, you know that.’
Isla felt her hackles rising but she bit back a response, aware that if she spoke out of turn now she’d be on the receiving end of Kat’s notorious temper. She’d gritted her teeth through a thousand shitstorms, covered Kat’s back when she’d messed up at competitions, and watched countless junior stylists come and go, unable to hack the competition and the pace of being part of Kat’s team. Isla had held on like a limpet, not taking her eyes off her goal for one second. And now, on schedule, she’d made it.
‘Kat, did you call me?’
Chantelle, ears pricked at all times, appeared from the stockroom, head cocked slightly to one side, managing to direct the smirk playing at the corners of her lips towards Isla whilst still appearing assiduously sweet and helpful to her boss. Isla’s nostrils ﬂared as she held in her distaste. Chantelle was going to love this.
‘I thought you were going for Raspberry Sorbet?’ Chantelle’s voice was innocent. As if examining a lab experiment, she picked up an offending lock of hair, looking at Isla, head to one side.
‘I put the colour in myself.’ Isla was clutching at straws, and she knew it. ‘I checked the box. Followed the usual procedures.’
‘Well, you can’t have, can you?’ Chantelle looked triumphant. ‘Don’t worry, Kat, sweetie.’ Kat sat back with a satisﬁed expression. ‘I’ll have this sorted for you in no time.’
‘I could—’ Isla began, fruitlessly.
‘You’ve said it yourself many times, Isla. There’s no room for mistakes in this game.’ Kat looked down at her phone, jabbing at the screen with glossy cerise nails.
‘Right. I’ll clear up.’ Isla made to wheel her trolley back into the staff room.
‘Leave it.’ Kat’s tone was ﬁnal.
‘Mel?’ Chantelle called to the junior. Mel looked up from the pile of hair she’d been sweeping back and forth for the last ﬁve minutes whilst earwigging in to the whole conversation. ‘Get rid of this stuff. Isla’s just leaving.’
Isla opened her mouth to speak, but Kat’s warning glance was enough to stop her in her tracks. Mel wheeled her trolley, equipment lying uncleaned and disorganized, into the staff room. Kat gave Isla another look, one that said quite clearly: ‘Are you STILL here?’
Isla picked up her bag and slipped out of the door, fuming silently.
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