The Nightmare Pills: A Penny Godwin Story – Part 4

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The flat was stifled by a thick, muffled quiet – the kind you’d find in dense forests at night, when everything seems like it’s asleep.

In her slippers and dressing gown, Penny entered the kitchen. Empty bottles stood rank and file on the table top, with pools of alcohol in every colour glistening between them. A pack of playing cards was strewn among the stains. When Penny picked one up, she found the queen of hearts imprinted on the table.

Wearily, she gathered some bin bags and began filling them with the bottles and cans. Why was it always her that had to clean up?

As she wiped down the tabletop, she thought back over the previous night.

It had been strange. There were nights where she’d been woken more than three times, and some where she’d barely slept for ten minutes altogether. Comparably, she’d had a relatively undisturbed sleep. However, the instances of the nightmare were the most intense she’d experienced recently. She shuddered as she recalled the unconscious asphyxiation – as though she was being killed in the same way the woman on the beach must have been.

That was new.

She definitely still needed her medication, and kicked herself for lending it to Karla.

The kitchen was finally clearer, excluding the overflowing bin or the stacks of dirty dishes. Penny had just sat down with a bowl of cereal when Velda came in, looking exhausted.

‘Morning,’ she smiled around a yawn.

‘Morning,’ replied Penny. ‘Good night?’

‘Yeah, great,’ said Velda. ‘Well… sort of. Chris got really drunk so we had to take him home at about—’

‘Two?’ Penny suggested. ‘I heard the whole thing.’

‘Oh.’ Velda winced. ‘Sorry if it kept you up.’

Penny shook her head. ‘It wasn’t you lot keeping me up, no,’ she thought.

‘I made him an Alka-Seltzer. That seemed to help,’ Velda went on. She had crossed to the sink and was washing up one of her bowls, when she noticed something.

‘Where’s my mortar and pestle?’

Penny turned around. Velda’s false granite mortar and pestle had been on the countertop with all the other stuff last night, but it was gone now.

‘You sure you didn’t put it away?’ Penny asked.

Velda opened her cupboard.

‘Nope. Not there.’

Frowning in confusion, she opened a few more doors around the kitchen, until finally she leant into Dalil’s cupboard and said: ‘Oh, here it is!’

She straightened up. The mortar and pestle were in her hands, spotlessly clean.

‘That’s… weird,’ said Penny.

‘Did Dalil steal it? How did it end up in there?’

‘Was it on the side when you made Chris his Alka-Seltzer?’

‘Dunno. I wasn’t looking.’

Just then, Penny snapped her fingers.

‘I heard Dylan come in and make some food last night. He must’ve been the last person in the kitchen before you guys came back.’

‘But why would he wash up my mortar and pestle?’ asked Velda.

‘No idea. But it must’ve been washed at some point during the night. I saw it on the side before everyone left,’ said Penny.

Both of them were at a total loss, so Velda made her breakfast and returned to her room. Penny finished hers, washed up the bowl and spoon, and collected her laptop from her room. The kitchen window faced west, and as the morning wore on, the sun crept over Slaidburn House, its golden light falling on Edward Roberts Court and gradually stealing into the kitchen. The effect calmed her.

Penny went back over her essay draft. There was a reason why all-nighters didn’t come naturally to her – it was full of half-finished points and poor grammar. Sighing, she set to work fixing it.

Penny was still in the kitchen when the others began to show signs of life. In dribs and drabs, they trailed out of their rooms with bleary eyes and tousled hair. Dalil limped off to an exec meeting with the Take2 Cinema. Lucien had been planning to go to a Student’s Union debate, but dragged himself back to his room after trying, and failing, to eat some toast.

At about ten o’clock, Welcome poked her head into the kitchen.

‘Hey babes,’ she smiled wanly to Penny. ‘Not sure I’m gonna be up for coffee today.’

Penny grinned at Welcome’s picture postcard of a hangover.

‘That’s fine,’ she said.

‘I feel like I’ve got cement running through my veins,’ moaned Welcome ruefully. Just then, the flat’s entry phone beeped.

‘That’ll be Theo,’ said Welcome, and shuffled to the lift. A few minutes later, she came back up with Theo, a friend from the theatre society who Penny had met a few times but never properly spoken to. He waved to Penny as he came in.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘Just picking up some makeup for tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

‘Not a problem,’ smiled Penny.

‘Heard town was pretty crazy last night,’ Theo was saying to Welcome. ‘Wish I could’ve gone, but I had a livestream.’ Then the door to the flat closed and their voices became muffled.

After Theo left with the makeup, Welcome trailed into the kitchen and made a strong tea, with two teabags.

‘So, was last night good, apart from having to bring Chris home?’ Penny asked.

Welcome sat at the table and sprawled across it, cradling the tea in her hands at arm’s length.

‘Yeah. So many people were out. There was some society social where everyone was dressed as Greek gods.’ The two of them chuckled.

The door opened slowly, and Karla came in. She looked like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – her sleeping mask was pulled lopsidedly up onto her forehead, her hair in a tangle, one of Ross’s T-shirts hanging down like a short dress.

‘Ah, here’s Miss Dances-on-the-Tables,’ Welcome smirked.

‘Not so loud,’ mumbled Karla, her eyes half-closed. She ran herself a glass of water. ‘I really can’t drink like I used to.’

‘What a shame to have run out of steam at only eighteen,’ grinned Penny.

‘I mean, I’m not as bad as Chris was last night,’ said Karla.

‘I know, I heard,’ replied Penny. ‘Never heard someone throw up like that before.’

‘I mean, he usually goes over the top,’ Karla told her, ‘but he was really putting drinks back. Whenever me and Ross bought a round, he wanted tequila. He knows it doesn’t sit right with him.’

‘Maybe it was something to do with the hearing,’ Welcome suggested. ‘Like he wanted to have a crazy time to take his mind off it.’

‘Or to rub the deanery’s nose in it,’ muttered Penny with distaste.

‘Oh, that reminds me,’ said Karla suddenly, putting a hand to her head. ‘Chris borrowed my hip flask while we were out.’

‘You are never seeing it again!’ said Welcome emphatically, managing to laugh.

‘Have you seen him this morning?’ asked Karla.

‘Nope,’ Penny answered. She checked the time on her laptop and was surprised that it was nearly 11:30.

‘Well, I’m gonna go see if he’s up.’

Karla headed for the door. Welcome stood up gingerly.

‘You sure that’s a good idea?’ she asked. ‘He was mortal last night. He probably won’t be awake.’

‘Well, I want my flask back before it’s too late,’ said Karla. Penny guessed she was hanging onto the determination of getting her property back to alleviate her hangover slightly.

‘Seems a bit harsh to wake him up over this,’ Welcome observed, sitting back down.

Penny nodded, although she wasn’t actually that opposed. Chris could sometimes do with a bit of a reality check.

They heard Karla rap on Chris’s door.

‘Chris? You up?’ she called. There was no answer. Karla knocked again, then a third time.

‘He must be out like a light,’ observed Welcome.

A door further down the hall opened.

‘What’s all the noise about?’ Ross’s voice added itself to the audio play Penny and Welcome could hear from the kitchen.

‘Chris has my hip flask,’ Karla explained.

‘Oh,’ Ross replied. ‘No answer?’

‘No,’ Karla grunted, and knocked on the door again. ‘Chris? Are you awake?’ Crossly, she rattled the handle.

Penny heard the bedroom door crack open.

She met Welcome’s eyes.

‘Didn’t he lock it before he went to sleep?’ Welcome asked. Penny remembered Chris locking himself in after they all got back.

They heard Karla push the door wide.

‘Chris?’ she asked warily.

There was a long pause.

Ross’s feet came down the corridor and they heard him brush past Karla into Chris’s room.

Another pause.

‘Oh no.’

His voice carried such a note of toneless horror that Penny and Welcome leapt to their feet. They hurried out of the kitchen, past Karla, into Chris’s room.

Everything in there could belong to no one else, from the pin-up calendar on his wall to the signed rugby ball on the windowsill. Only the glass by the bedside with unicorns engraved all over it was out of place, and probably contained Velda’s Alka-Seltzer, Penny thought.

Chris was lying face-down under his duvet, unmoving. Ross stood beside him, fingertips pressed into the soft flesh of Chris’s neck.

The room felt strangely still. Penny counted four of her own heartbeats before Ross looked up, ashen faced.

‘He’s dead.’

Detective Ian Carmichael sipped a cup of tea, across from the surviving flatmates in the kitchen. Even Dylan was out of his room, looking as if he’d been struck by lightning. Like all detectives, Carmichael looked nothing like those you see on TV. He looked more like a slightly bad-tempered teacher.

The police, along with half the University security, had been in the flat for hours. Penny and the others had been taken to wait in Costa, accompanied by one of the security team, and had only just finished being brought back inside, one at a time. Carmichael had taken a statement from each of them, before returning to Chris’s room. Now they were all sat, unable to look at each other, trembling.

Behind Carmichael stood Linda Berry, the Bowland college manager. She stepped shakily aside as a man in a white overall came in and handed Carmichael a document on a clipboard. Carmichael read it, and eyed the students with his quick, silvery eyes.

‘Obviously, it’ll take us a few weeks to get a full report together,’ he said, ‘but we think you should know the story so far. It looks as if Mister Falmouth suffocated.’

Karla let out a cracked sob.

‘From what you’ve all said, he was drinking pretty heavily last night. It seems he passed out in bed lying face-down, and his own pillow stopped him breathing.’

Ross wrapped the shivering Karla in his arms. Welcome’s grip on Penny’s hand tightened.

‘Were there any fingerprints?’ Penny heard her own voice ask.

Everyone stared at her. Carmichael reformed his surprised expression into an understanding smile.

‘This isn’t a murder investigation, Miss…’ he checked his notebook, ‘Godwin.’

‘But have you dusted?’

Carmichael couldn’t supress a sigh, as if tired of all these young people who thought every police inquiry was an episode of CSI.

‘There is no need at this time, Miss Godwin. All the evidence suggests that Mister Falmouth, tragically, died accidentally.’

He rose to his feet, tucking the clipboard under his arm.

‘Thank you all for your statements. If we need to contact to you again, we’ll do it through the college.’

At that moment, the door to Flat 6 swung slowly open. Four men came out, carrying a stretcher with a sheet over it.

Karla burst into shaking tears and buried herself in Ross’s shoulder, but no one else could pull their eyes away.

As the men carried Chris towards the lift, one of them stumbled. The sheet flipped back, and the whole of Chris’s leg below the knee was exposed until the man pulled the sheet right again.

At that glimpse of bloodless, rubbery flesh, most of the flat turned away. Their eyes were wide and dark.

Penny’s eyes, however, were narrow and restless.

That sight of Chris’s leg now made two details that stood out as odd to her.

After Carmichael and the other detectives had left, the flat was silent. Ross supported Karla back to her room. Muttering excuses about ‘needing air’ or ‘getting away’, most of the others left the building. Welcome went to hide away in bed. Penny promised to go and comfort her soon, but first, she ran back to her own room.

Buried in one of her drawers was a notebook, with some half-remembered notes from an old Edible Campus committee meeting scribbled in the first few pages. She ripped them out and wrote on the next blank sheet.

Why were Chris’ legs swollen?

Why was Velda’s glass clean?

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